Writing Foreign Characters and Non-Native Speakers


Finally taking a time-out from life to post. Yay!

I love writing culturally and linguistically diverse characters. As a linguist, I can’t help but consider how such characters would interact. For example, an English-speaker gets pulled into another world; what are the chances of people there also speaking English? Uh, zilch, unless they originally come from an English-speaking country in our world. So then I have to come up with a logical explanation for why my character can communicate with them, because my linguist brain kind of draws the line there for suspension of disbelief.

Seriously. Portals to another world? Sure, taken for granted. Language discontinuity? Stop right there.

One thing I see a lot with bilingual characters is a tendency to defect to their native language for words they don’t know. TV and literature alike are rampant with lines like “Look at that humongous gato!” This in and of itself is fine, but the way I most often see it handled makes me think the writer has never encountered an actual English Language Learner (ELL).

Take the above example. There are a few things that strike me as highly unlikely:

1. The speaker knows the word “humongous,” but not “cat.”

2. The word he/she defaulted on was a noun. Statistically speaking (from experience as an EFL teacher), nouns are easier to remember than most other word types. I’d say the hierarchy of difficulty actually looks something like conjugated verbs -> adverbs and adjectives -> nouns -> interjections.

3. Using gato is fine if the speaker knows the other person will understand, but if not, they would probably try to find another English word to explain. Think about it: If I don’t know the word in your language, why should you know it in mine?

So in a realistic scenario, the person is more likely to say “Look! Big gato!” or “Mira — the big cat!” or even “Look at the big — uh, there!” (with gestures).

If you don’t functionally speak your character’s native language, be sure to do your research. Check Youtube for actual clips of people with that native language trying to speak English. And don’t assume that all ELLs are going to make the same kinds of mistakes. My former Korean and Japanese ELL students, for example, always had the hardest time using “almost.” They would all give me sentences like:

“Almost Japanese people love karaoke.”

“Almost my coworkers go home after eight.”

Literally EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. It didn’t matter what their age, what level their English, or what kind of school they had gone to. Even my co-teachers in Korea, otherwise fluent, did this. They were told that “almost” was the same as “most” and it took hours of conditioning to make them drop the habit. My Saudi Arabian students, on the other hand, didn’t really have this problem.

They also have trouble choosing between “a” and “the” because Japanese and Korean don’t have articles. But you can bet Spanish and Italian speakers have got that down.

These few minor considerations can really give your characters an extra dimension of realism, even if your readers/viewers don’t consciously register why.

On the flipside, here’s an example of how badly things can go wrong if you take the easy way out.

Can you think of any instances, literary or otherwise, where a character had an awkward or unlikely line as a non-native speaker?

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Inspiration, Slice-of-Life Style


I have not posted in three months.

I began several posts, but the motivation for them just petered out each time. And I know why: life honestly sucked for a while. The odd thing is, people who knew my situation had preconceived notions of the suckiness, and of what sucked the most. They were full of feelings for me. And I, for a while, just felt nothing, or felt sad about other things. The way I was supposed to feel about my sucky life was nowhere near the reality.

And that’s something that’s still the case. Because of this fact, other people have taken me to be a strong person. I’m not entirely sure I agree, but it’s nice to entertain the thought.

***

I’ve always wanted to be strong. Not beautiful, not a genius, not even kind. Strength was always the most valuable thing to me, maybe because I felt that the people around me lacked it. I grew up with super heroes and not-super heroes and war stories and history books and movies and literature and manga and always there was one simple message: be strong, fight back, succeed.

Some people think I’m pretty. Test scores and a Master’s degree say that I’m smart. And apparently I’ve been kind enough to make an impact on others. But those things all seem so easy to assess. Strength? Who even knows what strength is, really? Who has a right to define it? Is it even something you can have and keep, or does it ebb and flow with the situation?

Can someone tell me that I’m strong, and actually be right? Or is that something I determine for myself?

***

You can spend your entire life hearing the words “be strong.” People say it like a magic spell. You make it your incantation, hoping the words themselves will make you unshakable. And you never really realize what you’re saying.

“Be strong.” Sometimes it’s actually quite a simple thing to do. It means don’t run away; just plant your feet and let the world come at you. Sometimes you don’t even have to move forward, you just have to not be pushed down.

Sometimes you have to fight gravity itself.

***

A few weeks ago I got fed up with having no motivation to write. I had a novel on submission, it’s sequel with a couple of chapters done, and an older project that I’d put on hold upon conceiving the former. I tried working on all three of these for months with no success. It wasn’t even that I hated the words I put down — it was that the words would not come out for anything. Like they didn’t even exist inside of me anymore.

And then I had a dream. I woke up with characters and a situation and a setting all right there on a silver platter, and wrote it all down as fast as I could.

But it wasn’t until later, when I started consciously developing the main character, that I realized the story was more than just a story. There was an idea behind it. One central, humanizing theme, what John Scalzi would call the Big Idea: strength. Strength lost, battered, bullied, trapped behind dark memories and fear. Strength and the girl who needs it. Strength and the boy who doubts it.

***

Through everything, I am a writer. And through being a writer, I become more of a human being. I live other lives, I see other perspectives. I learn by doing, even if I only ever act in a fictional world. It’s not an escape; it’s a translation.

Writing is a translation of life.

Stories are the lives in them.

Every main character in a story has a sucky life, or they’d have nothing to tell you; nothing to change their perspective and make them grow. And how else do they grow, except by being strong?

Don’t Forget the Wheels


Yeah, maybe I should have leapt on the bandwagon to write a New Year’s post, but it’s all about world-building for me right now. Since the second novel in the Scod series focuses on Zalú, I need to flesh out every detail that I overlooked while writing the first book. That means adding to the map, adding new cultures, expanding the history, — and finally biting the bullet on the technology.

In Zalú, much of the land is a special kind of “wasteland” thanks to volcanic activity and frigid winters. Nothing grows there, so no animal life can be supported either. Which means travelers have to get across and into a more functional biozone before they run out of supplies. And with a war going on, speed is even more important.

I couldn’t have them floundering in ash and sand. They needed vehicles to bear the weight of the supplies and products to be sold. And those vehicles needed terrain-appropriate wheels.

I think there are two trains of thought that my readers just leapt on: 1) Well, that’s a somewhat gratuitous detail, or 2) Of course you need special wheels! Did it really take you until the second book to work that out?

In response to those on line 1 bound for Skeleton Prose, it might seem that way if you, say, designed every aspect of every vehicle and described them in mind numbing  Tolkien-esque prose. I’ll be the first to admit that too much world building is possible and detracts from the plot and characters if overdone. But.

Details are the very life spark of your invented world. Not only do they make it more believable, they’re what your readers are looking for in the first place. Readers of fantasy and science fiction all love a good story and good characters, but if that were enough for us we’d be content with realistic fiction. What we crave is the imagination, the impossible, the wondrous. We are greedy. We don’t just want to see the stars — we want to feel their glow on our faces, smell the stardust in our hair, bite down on them like hard diamond candies.

(Sorry, I’m in the middle of a sugar craving.)

In response to those on line 2 bound for Over-saturated Description, yes it did.

Details can also be really, really tiring. There’s so much to think about, SO MUCH. I’ve been filling out a questionnaire that I found online for the past few months. So far, I’ve finished about eight pages.

There are seventy-four all together.

This questionnaire asks me to contemplate such things as population density, imports, exports, the legality of magic, political alignments, common jobs, hierarchies… and that’s just in one section. It is highly thorough, and extremely boring.

That’s not to say this isn’t a useful tool for me. On the contrary, I’d be lost without it. And the details that you need not being fun doesn’t mean that you can’t add fun ones in as well. I mean, that’s why we all started writing, isn’t it? ; )

But again, there comes a point where you just stop needing so many details, and can even bog down your writing by adding them.

The key is to find the balance. Seventy-four pages is a lot, but I’m trudging through it so I can err on the side of caution. Even with three books worth of world-craft, 80% of what I add will probably never see publication. But, if I ever do need those details, they will exist. And… here’s where I cheesily come full circle with an analogy… the vehicle of my prose will ride smoothly on its wheels of detail.

Warned you. ; )

Why I Started Hyperventilating in the School Staff Room


I’ll just cut to the chase here: I got my first manuscript request yesterday.

I was used to waiting two weeks or more, only to open my email and see a preview for a reply with words like “unfortunately” and “while we understand…” Polite words. Words that, however gently, began to scrape at my rejection-proof shell of determination.

So imagine my surprise when a response came only seven hours after I’d sent my query. But the usual words didn’t leap out of the preview panel. Instead, there were words my brain literally couldn’t register. It was like reading a language I’m not fluent in, or reading a dull passage in a book: you don’t see what you’re expecting/dreading and so you effectively see nothing at all. It wasn’t until I actually opened the email that synapses started firing again:

“I’d love to take a look at your manuscript. Please email it to me when possible.”

I sat at my desk for a good five minutes, unable to do anything but stare and hyperventilate.

To date, I’ve sent out exactly twenty query letters for my novel, Ciphers. Eleven of those received form rejections, while another five or so are assumed rejections (no replies for three weeks or more). I’ve written, I think, at least four completely different drafts of my query letter throughout the process.

But finally I have some proof that my hard work paid off.

No matter what happens from here on out — whether the agent offers representation or passes on my novel — I at least know that I have an eye-catching query. It’s enough to get at least a handful of partial and full manuscript requests. And at that stage, even a rejection is beneficial. If there’s a technical reason for the rejection, the agent will explain it. If they can’t explain it well, that just means it wasn’t their particular cup of tea — and someone else will surely like it.

Rejection Dejection?


This was my horoscope this morning:

The power of your positive thoughts can save you from a difficult situation today, yet it still might be hard to hold on to your dream.”

I knew right away, without a doubt, what it was referring to. Sure enough, I opened my email to find two new rejection letters, including one from the agent I’ve been dying to win over for the past two years.

To be honest, though, this wasn’t as painful as I was expecting it to be. Maybe it’s because this is the second book I’m querying for (the first one had no success) and I’m just getting used to rejection. Maybe it’s because I have faith still that Ciphers is good enough to catch someone’s interest. Or maybe it’s all those articles I’ve been reading online that insist that a dozen rejections are better than a dozen luke-warm agents expressing interest — because the only agent that should matter is the one who loves my novel as much as I do. Anyone else is a waste of time and, essentially, not right for me.

So what does that mean if no agent winds up expressing interest in my novel?

Two years ago, after one too many rejections for my first novel, Lavender, I gave up the ghost. Even to me, the plot of that first completed work was wishy-washy, almost every detail cliché, and the only reason I hadn’t shelved it yet was that I’d spent eight years on the cursed thing and couldn’t bear to let all that hard work go to waste. There was no way this wouldn’t be seen through in the query letter, but I had to at least try, right?

But because I already had those doubts, I stopped after only a handful of queries.

This time, I know my novel is publishable. I have a strong plot, good characters, and a fresh concept. My betas, all honest, constructive readers, tell me they enjoyed reading it. And okay, the manuscript can still use a little work. But there’s always something that can be better, and honestly if an editor said “let’s publish this just as it is” then I’d only be mildly embarrassed rather than mortified. (And considering one of my best friends once referred to my editing process as “sterilization,” this is no small detail.)

That’s why this time I’m not going to quit. If I query every single agent who represents YA fantasy and get nothing but rejections, I’ll move on to editors. If all the editors reject me, I’ll find another route. Self-publishing, in my opinion, should only ever be a last resort; but I don’t think it’s completely off the table, either.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, writers should believe in their writing. If you can’t, then scrap it; but if you can, then don’t give up. As long as there’s someone out there who can enjoy it, it’s your duty as an author to share it with them one way or another. Yes, I realize this is defending stories like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray in a roundabout way — and for the record I still think both series are crap and would never want my name associated with them in any way — but guess what? People enjoy them. This is a sad but undeniable truth. And both series are published, and both authors are now making more money than I’ve ever seen in my life.

Some bittersweet food for thought.

Moral of the story: Never give up!

Query Time!


(alternatively titled “Synopses Suck”)

With the second draft of Ciphers complete and safe (probably) in the hands of my five wonderful beta readers, I decided to pass the week with a focus on agents, query letters, and finally writing that dreaded synopsis.

You know how there are some tasks you forget to do in a kind-of-accidentally-on-purpose way?

Not all agents require a synopsis. For the initial contact, some want only a one-page query letter. Some ask for the first few pages of the novel along with that. But that doesn’t mean synopses can just be slapped together for those agents who do want one. In fact, if novelists had their own version of Dante’s Hell, one of the rings would surely have synopsis-writing as the punishment.

Okay, May. This won’t be so hard. At least, not as hard as with Lavender. Ciphers is only half the length, and of much higher quality…

Some synopsis-wanting agents will be specific about how many pages it should be, usually one or two. But if not you’ll just have to go by the general rule of thumb, as told to you by… Google?

Synopsis-writing Rule #1: There is no rule about length.

So what Google tells us is that you are squashing an elephant into a sardine can in the most artful way possible. Some authorities say one or two pages for the whole novel; some say one or two pages for every hundred novel pages. The other option is to trust that what holds true for some agents will hold true for others. From my agency webpage searches, synopses of “no more than two pages” seem to be preferred, when there is a preference stated. The danger in this is that every agent is different.

So, in the end, you might as well close your eyes and throw a dart. Personally, I wanted to stick with the two page limit and just hope it didn’t drive me mad. That will work fine for most agents, including several who specified two pages… Not so much for that one agent demanding a single page. Which means that regardless, I’m writing at least two variations of a synopsis.

As we say in Korea… 헐.

Once you’ve set your limit, it’s time to decide what to include. With a 200-page novel, there’ll only be room for the really important stuff — the plot skeleton, picked clean of any literary flourishes, details, and character depth. A cold outline serving no other purpose than to tell the agent/editor what happens, whether it’s interesting, and whether your plot carries through. Right?

“Maybe reading it this way will make it less boring.”

Synopsis-writing Rule #2: Your synopsis must convey plot, voice, and character development.

When I finished my first novel and learned of the wretched existence of the synopsis, I found a lot of advice on the web that told me to forget about everything except for the hard facts. “Explain what happens, caps lock each character’s name the first time you use it, and for god’s sake don’t finish with a teaser.”

Yes, explain what happens. Yes, spoil the ending. Erm, I don’t think anyone wants to see characters’ names in caps lock anymore. But make sure you have this perspective: agents and editors only have so much time to allot each submission. Therefore they have to limit what they see, and make a snap decision based on that little sample. You can have an engaging query letter and a sample of pages that scream with potential, but if the essence of your writing doesn’t carry through in your synopsis, whoever’s reading can and will forget about everything else that makes your submission great.

Imagine Terry Pratchett writing a synopsis that reads like a Tolstoy. The agent would probably think, “okay, this is the usual epic fantasy; but what’s with all these inappropriate place and character names?”

Ciphers is written from two main 3rd-person points of view: Siph’s and Bridget’s. Our hero is cynical, short-tempered, and articulate, while Brid is uncertain, stubborn, and loves lingo. Oh holy Hell how am I supposed to convey that in only a page or two? It would be nice if I could just state it; but then the synopsis would remain dry and lacking any real voice.

What the Internet would have me write: “Siph is a short-tempered cynic. Bridget is a tomboy. Siph resents having to observe Bridget.”

What will actually impress agents: “Siph is glad to finally be allowed outside headquarters; not so glad to be stuck with the idiotic Gard for his partner, or to be baby-sitting a tomboy with a skateboard.”

Much better… but look at how long it is!

This is where you fall into the Pit of Synopsis Despair only to land on the Giant Hamster Wheel of Cyclical Editing. Take your dry, voiceless words and pretty them up. Then it’s time to hack them down again to meet your page limit. By the time you’ve removed all the “unnecessary” words, it’s a skeleton again.

And you keep on dressing up and cutting down, over and over, for that little sliver of a chance that before you go mad you might look up from your work and find yourself with something presentable…

And that is why synopses suck.

A small offering


20121030-151850.jpg

When Korean high schoolers get asked to design jack-o-lanterns and witches and to draw a classmate in a princess costume.

In writing-related news, the revisions to Ciphers are 20 pages away from finished. I am currently looking for five qualified betas who can read the manuscript in one week or less. I’m sending out my query letter to the first agent on November 7.

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