Sunday, January 13, 2013

I Can Read... I Just Don't Understand Your Language

My One-Sided View

By JccKeith

Recently, I had gone on a quest to find five to ten independent authors to recommend to our readers here at BiteMyBook.  The majority of people I follow on Twitter and who in turn follow me are independent authors.

Unable to coerce anyone into singling out a few of the authors, I had to look through hundreds of them myself.  I had hoped to make the process easier by having recommendations by others.  I found most people were unwilling to recommend only a few as there are many, many authors out there and it would be unfair to ignore the rest.

With no recommendations, I began randomly clicking on authors and viewing their works.  I was expecting to be awed by their novels.  The fact that many of them had trilogies and series’ and seemed to be popular excited me.  Unfortunately, what I found was a little discouraging.

I am certain there are people out there who will disagree with me or in general not like my opinion.  As I began reading some of these works, I found I could not understand or follow along with the story.  At the worst, some of these stories consisted mainly of colloquial phrases, local slang and language that only people from their country or region of origin would understand.  I found myself spending more time looking up the meaning of these phrases and language usages than I did reading.

I had not realized how little I knew of other usages of the English language.  It amazed me that the very same words I use could be turned around or combined with other everyday words to form phrases that mean nothing to me.  It wasn’t so much the uses of words I simply do not use such as loo for restroom or lift for elevator.  Those words, when used appropriately in a sentence are easy enough to decipher based on how they are used in a sentence.

If I read, “Accidentally spilling the coffee onto his shirt, Joe went to the loo to rinse the stain with water and wash his hands,” or “Immediately after eating the spicy Indian food Sam had brought, Joe needed to use the loo,” I understand the meaning of the word loo.  If a character happens to be in a hotel or apartment building and gets into the lift to go up to their floor, I understand lift means elevator and flat means apartment.  Even some adjectives are fairly understandable.  While I like to hear British characters in movies and television say things like “Bloody Hell!”  When I read bloody this or that in a book it is not as fun. 

At the least, some of these books were very interesting and captivating but I was thrown off by the frequent use of adjectives like bloody.  There was one book in particular, I loved the writing. The story was imaginative and took place on another planet.  The author used vivid details and described the scenery from the point of view of a character.  Although different words were used for mountains and valleys, rivers, trees, etc. I understood that these words referred to mountains, rivers or whatever.  As I said, even though the words were unfamiliar, they were used effectively in a sentence so as to define their meaning.

This particular story had me intrigued and I felt I could see this world, feel the surroundings and see through the character’s eyes.  Then I came to the part where the character speaks with other characters.  And it happened.   I was thrown out of the scene because the characters spoke to each other using distinctively British terms and adjectives.  It was distracting enough to where I felt distanced from the story. 

The distraction was not from the fact that the characters were speaking in a way unfamiliar to me.  I would have still been intrigued and interested in this fantastical new world if they had spoken in an unknown language or used words in ways not used by any people I know of on Earth.  The distraction came from the fact that this was supposed to be a different world and a different culture entirely and yet they were using words in a way which was identifiably British.  At that point I could only see them as British and no longer as a separate people on a separate planet.  To me, they were now just a collection of British people on another planet. 

To be fair, it could have been any recognizable language.  Had they started speaking with a New Jersey accent and called each other Guido’s, I would have been just as distracted.  The characters speaking to each other with an already existing language or accent were the problem.  Upon recognizing the accent they were using, whether southern, western, New Jersey, Canadian, British, Australian, whatever, I could only see them as members of that particular group of people.  They were supposed to, according to the story, be from this other planet and have no connection to Earth.

This whole language issue was the major problem I found among the stories I read.  At times I encountered incorrect grammar but not often.  The biggest problem I found, and one to which I attributed their not having been picked up by a publisher, was poor writing and over usage of local terminology and phrases. 

There were a few cases where the story itself was boring and dull. I try to be fair when it comes to subject matter.  I am not a big fan of crime novels, mysteries, revenge novels, or war time or war novels.  I will read them but the subject is not one that interests me.  When I read these stories, I am less likely to overlook bad writing or poor transitioning or dull plot lines or lackluster characters. 

The key for me, when I read stories about subjects I don’t necessarily like, is that it is possible for me to like the book despite its subject.  A great writer can write a story about a subject I dislike but due to their exceptional writing ability, I keep turning the pages.  These writers either have a flair for vivid descriptions of the environment in which the story takes place or they are capable of creating characters I can care about regardless of what the character is doing.

To illustrate my point in this, let me offer an example.  I love Stargate SG-1.  I love it because I love the characters.  It isn’t necessarily what they are doing in the show as much as it is the characters themselves and how they react to things, how they cope with difficulties, how they relate to each other.  The writers of the show could do an episode where the characters of SG-1 open a landscaping business and watch grass grow and I would be interested.  Seinfeld is another example, I liked the show for the characters not what they were doing that week.  Seinfeld was usually about ‘nothing’ but I watched anyway because of the characters.

When characters do not interest me, it could be the world itself, the environment or story as a whole. Lord of the Rings is a great example of this.  The characters for the most part bore the crap out of me.  I read the books because JRR Tolkien does such an amazing job of drawing the reader into the world of Middle Earth.  You feel like you’re there, like you can see what he describes and it is phenomenal. 

Terry Brooks and his Shanara series accomplished this same feat through brilliant writing.  Brooks writes in such a way that you get a great feel for the world they are in.  You can feel the hopelessness and desolation of some places, the serenity of others, and the filth in the cities.  The characters themselves were alright but the world and its problems kept me returning book after book.

Overall, I have realized through my many years of reading countless books, magazines, short stories, poems and pretty much anything I can get my hands on, that it doesn’t matter how great your idea is.  You can have the most interesting idea ever thought of or the most fascinating characters envisioned or spectacular world imagined and it means absolutely nothing if you lack the skill to convey your thoughts effectively through writing. 

George Orwell
Writing, the act of putting your thoughts into words in a manner which will produce your thoughts in your reader’s mind, is difficult.  Writing is more than just putting words down on paper or computer screen.  It is your choice of words that matters and how you choose to use them.

George Orwell said this about writing well: A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

I would add to that the question of “Will everyone in my audience understand the words and/or phrases I have chosen?”  I think this is a question too commonly overlooked by many independent authors.  I say independent because I have yet to read a book published by a publishing company that overlooked this simple aspect of writing.

To say it again, for anyone who misunderstands me, I am not saying one should not use certain accents or local language when characters speak or even in descriptions.  However, if you choose to use them in your descriptions, you must be certain that the way they are used is one in which those not from the group or local area can understand their meaning.  Otherwise, you might as well write the book in a foreign language. 

Also, if your characters are supposed to be from some other world, realm, whatever and they use identifiable language characteristic of a group of people on Earth – you had better explain why people from another world are using an Earth based accent.  By accent I do not mean speaking English, I mean speaking a sub-type of English, as in an accent, associated with a smaller group of people local to a specific area.

Language can be a tough one for many people.  If you are used to always speaking using a certain accent or always writing locally with a certain accent, it is even more so.  It is often hard to even recognize.  One must review their work from the viewpoint of someone not local.  You might be surprised just how many phrases you take for granted here in the U.S. that are never used in other countries like Canada or England.  Even simple phrases like “Give me a call,” or “I’ll call you” are not as widespread as you might think. 

You are of course welcome to disagree with my personal views on this.  If you think what I’m on about is rubbish, feel free to say so in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I find the subject rather pressing and timely, although of course reading tastes differ. That said, I've been amazed myself what passes for a kindle bestseller these days. Sometimes it's a bit scary really. We can only hope that eventually the market sorts all this out.