Now we reach the part of our program in which Sarah gets testy. Yeah, I know, that’s such a rare sight that you’re all going to be awe struck.
No, seriously. Stop laughing.
One of the weirdest things about writers it’s that we love language, and we study it and pet it, and take it home, and call it George. What we tend to forget is that Language is really used for ONE thing: communication. Look, I yield to no one the honor of being the stupidest apprentice writer ever. To get to my current semi-proficient point, I made every mistake. Twice. Uphill. In galoshes. With lead soles.
One of the mistakes I made was to try to make my worlds and stories “real.”
Look, guys, you want real go to … No, wait, not the newspaper. So…. you want real, open the door and go outside (trust me, there is a world out there. The images through the window are not advanced CGI. Yes, I know, freaky.)
Writing is not reality, anymore than any art is reality. In a way, it’s enhanced reality, with the boring parts cut out and the interesting parts made more exciting or emotional, depending on what you’re trying to do.
Due to the medium, the timing, the time it takes your readers to consume the art, etc, you cannot package a story realistically. Realistically, with every detail in, Lord of the rings would take years to get through. Heck, even the exciting parts would probably take a year. And you also don’t want to go through such things realistically. You want just enough, in just the right way.
Took me years to figure this out and also that characters had to be exaggerated to read “right” on the page. And events had to be more dramatic on the page, not to read boring, and…
And language had to sound real, without being real.
The first sin of that is possibly the only one I managed to avoid: I never fell into the trap of dialect.
And that’s the testy part: please remember when you put lovingly transcribed dialect in a book you’re losing readers for whom English isn’t a first language, and also readers who have any hearing defect. Okay, it’s a tiny number, but I have a double whammy, since I’m both ESL and have mid-range hearing loss. Which means I don’t get most of what anyone says if they have a strong accent. (Yes, you may laugh.)
Any book that has long paragraphs in lovingly transcribed dialect is going to lose me. Why? because I have to read it aloud, and even then I’m sometimes puzzled about what they’re saying. Which completely pops me out of the story.
To put it to you in a way you’ll get: when Heinlein used purty in a story, I stopped dead and had to pronounce it aloud to know what the word was. So, the people who praise writers who have pages and pages of photogenically transcribed dialect? I’m so glad this rocks their world. But you’re going to lose readers like me sitting there going “what? And come again?”
It’s like the minister at our current church, an Italian who learned his English in Mexico. People would sit during the sermon going “what did he just say about Cthulhu?” And “I was with him until he got to Saint Dead Pool.”
Finally the church broke down and started handing out what my husband calls “cheat cheats.” I.e. printed versions of the sermons.
While it doesn’t fix it — look, the man is Italian — because he completely goes off script and improvises (and people in the pews turn the sheet frantically over and back) it at least gives us an idea what he’s trying to do and cut down on the people falling asleep while he talks, because it beats trying to guess the words. (I once read my blog post on my phone. My own blog post. Because it all I had there. And it kept me awake.)
Don’t do this in your book. Not understanding or even — in a book — working even slightly hard to understand makes the reader give up on a book. At a subconscious level, it makes them mad at you for holding the story away from them. You diminish your chances of selling to them again.
But what if your characters really have a dialect? Listen to the dialect. Find a recording and listen to it. Find a word that is unusual or constructions that are out of the way. Then use that. Sprinkled in the middle of normal English, where the meaning can be guessed by context, you can give the flavor without making it unreadable. And be of good cheer, people add the accent in their own heads. Or at least I do.
One pet peeve, which when I’m in Regency-reading mode has caused me to wall books: servants don’t talk agrammatically or like children.
There might or might not be a dialect in England where they use weird forms of the verbs, but I doubt it. (Other than was for all persons. I was, you was, they was.) I think it’s writers trying to make up what they think regency servants sounded like.
Peasants or servants are more likely to speak an ARCHAIC version of the language. The “updated” language is often (particularly eighteenth and nineteenth century) a literate affectation, popularized in novels.
In the north of Portugal this archaic language often takes the bizarre form of what I consider ENGLISH affections/accents. Like an a suffix to indicate something happening right now. “Eu avinha-me” (I was a-going.) or similar. I don’t know if it’s a similar underlaying Celtic structure or the influence of the Napoleonic war soldiers. (This would work with upa (pronounced oopa or oupa) for up as slang, and other stuff.
But another thing that they do is revert to earlier ways. For instance one of the things peasants did when I was little was refer to sisters as “Irmao.” As in “a minha irmao” (My — feminine ending on mine — brother.) I suspect this was part of an earlier spoken dialect, that had lost the gender distinction for sister (Irma.) They also used a ton of Spanish words, because archaic Portuguese is basically Spanish.
I haven’t made a study of servant dialect in Regency times. I rarely write it, and if I start doing it (was attacked by a plot early this morning) I’ll figure it out. But I’ll do my fricking best not to make them sound like idiots or children. Because that’s painful to read.
Anyway, when I read it well done, it just takes a word or so for me to hear the whole thing in the right accent. No, I don’t have examples, though I’ll search and do a post later, if you want me to. It would take going over a bunch of books.
The technique for doing your very own made up language is about the same, but still, you’ll have to be careful on what your language says or implies. They don’t come out of nowhere fully formed. What a language has or doesn’t have words for is a good way of world building, one you shouldn’t neglect.
So, onward next week, into made up languages, and how not to get so caught up in them you write them entirely int his language and publish them with a handy dandy dictionary for the reader’s convenience.