Thursday, March 15, 2018

Gusto kong mosulat sa Iningles

Is it a terrible idea to write a novel in English when it's not your first language?

If your answer is just black and white "yes", then I don't want to know because my novel is finished (not necessarily including the final draft) and I am not a native English speaker.

In case you're wondering now why I haven't written in my first language:
1) my boyfriend is British and I couldn't imagine him not having a clue what I've been doing the last three and a half years.
2) The market for books in English is so much bigger.

I'm not just worried about me not matching the required level of language skills, but actually also about my story not being attractive to the American market because it's nothing to do with the US. The story happens in four European countries (Germany, Switzerland, England, France), but these places don't really matter for the plot.

So in fact, as I am writing this, my second question is about whether it's reasonable to try and find a literary agent in the US when my story takes place in Europe?

My query letter says in the fourth line "An unnamed Girl at primary school in northern Germany struggles..."

Is "northern Germany" an immediate prompt for a rejection?

I have changed my manuscript from British to American English. All "realise"s have become "realize"s, all "mum"s have become "mom"s and all "mumbling"s annoyingly turned into "mombling"s.

Should I just reverse it all to British English and try to find a literary agent in the UK only?

I live neither in the US nor in Europe.
Do you live on Carkoon?
Sending royalty payments via interplanetary mail is a pain, and that's the only reason I would care if someone lived somewhere other than here.  Well, actually, I also care if you have access to the internet, cause so much of publishing is now conducted electronically I can't sign someone who lives off the grid.

So don't worry about where you live.

If you think books set outside the United States are an immediate rejection, let me introduce you to:

Gary Corby
Alan Furst
David Dowing
Kerry Greenwood

And that's just the first four I thought of in the six seconds it took me to type their names. You might say "well, those are all genre books" but there are lots of other books set in far off lands that do quite well.

So, don't worry about your setting.

The writing in English part is a little more problematic.  I can usually tell when someone is a non-native speaker because they use interesting words, and often are just a little off-key.  That's not always a bad thing. I love the novels of Aleksander Hemon for example, and he writes in his non-native English. If you haven't discovered his work, hie thee to a book store at once.

But your concern is well-founded. English is a weird language and it likes to trip up natives and non-natives alike.

You'd do well to find a beta reader to make sure you haven't misused idioms, or confused liar with lyre, or worse, lair!

There are a number of people writing in English who weren't born to it. I'd say judging from the writing in this question you're going to do just fine.

So don't worry about that either.

(For things to worry about, consult yesterday's blog post!)


Peggy Larkin said...

OP, you may also want to change your "mombling"s back to mumblings... I'm a native speaker who teaches English and while I've heard lots of mumbling (often as I assign homework) I've never heard of mombling.

But another non-native-English writer to consider is Joseph Conrad, whose novels are considered classics in the canon of English lit. I know classics aren't comps but perhaps it will give you hope. :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

As far as I know, (do I really know far?), the only universal language understood by the multitude is numbers. Numbers don't lie, numbers connect the international mind, numbers will link the interstellar heart to revolutionary discovery. How exciting and depressing at the same time. I flunked algebra, twice.
Novels by math, how novel.

AJ Blythe said...

And thank goodness for Gary and Kerry paving the way, because I'm going to be a third Aussie to add to that list one day ;-)

OP, in the same way Janet listed authors who live overseas and are published in America, there are American authors who set their novels in places other than America. Jenn McKinlay's Hat Shop Mystery (set in London) springs to mind immediately.

The world has "shrunk" with the internet and I don't think location is as significant as it used to be. Your English is great so I say get a beta reader for the grammar/spelling side of things and submit it to agents in the location of your choice.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

OP: Please, please write about other settings. I will never be able to physically travel the world over as much as I want to visit other cities and villages and countries that intrigue me. So the only way I can do that is through reading books.

And just as we speak of diverse books in the sense of having characters who are people of color or disabled or at least 2 named women who talk about something other than a man (Bechdel test), so too, I want to experience diverse cultures from other countries.

Amy Johnson said...

Hi, OP! Well, it took longer than expected to finish and send my comment about how I don't think your story's European setting will make it less attractive to the American market, and how I suppose the setting might even be a plus. (I had a pleasant interruption.) While I was writing, Lisa covered the point. :)

I'll third that your English seems fine.

Amy Schaefer said...

Peggy, I think the mumbling/mombling comment was a Replace All issue via trying to change mum=>mom.

Opie, getting an agent while living outside the US isn't an issue. I signed with my agent while I was living on a sailboat out the Pacific. I had occasional access to the internet, and that was good enough for her.

I agree with Janet's advice to get a few native speakers to read through your work to flag for any strange phrasing/word usage. And, if possible, I'd choose people who read a lot and care about words. A critical eye will be your friend.

Good luck!

Lennon Faris said...

OP, all your readers will be human. There may be some cultural differences but we all have the same basic emotions no matter what language we speak.

If your writing carries relatable emotions and characters, and it's a good story (and sure, you get the mechanics edited by a native beta), it should work just fine.

And personally, I love reading stories set in weird places! THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir is hilarious. I can guarantee his agent and majority of readers aren't from Mars (although wouldn't that be cool).

Good luck! Your English is fantastic.

Mister Furkles said...

Hey Twin Inns, numbers do lie. We call them statistics so as not to sully analysis. But if you really want pathological lying numbers, try computer models.

Amy Johnson said...

The things I learn here. The rabbit holes I dive down. The title of today's post.

When I woke up this morning, I had no idea I would be studying the Cebuano language just a few hours later. The closest I can get is "I very much enjoy writing in English." That would make sense, given the rest of the post, but that's just my attempt at piecing together various things from various places. Any help here? Anyone? Anyone? Yes, I did recently write here that I love a good puzzle.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Regarding numbers as a universal language and a bit OT, maybe.

Mister Furkles, I love statistics because they are so radically random at times. Funny, but I don't consider statistics as math but more as quirky numerical findings.

Weirdest I ever heard of was from a friend of mine.
If you are a third brother you are more likely to be gay unless one of your older brothers is left handed.
My friend is a third brother.
Both older brothers are right handed.
Yup, he's gay.

What does this have to do with todays post? Not a damn thing but it is statistically interesting.

The Noise In Space said...

Heehee, "mombuling." What a great word. That said, OP, if you heard that from an editor, it's time to switch your team--they've given you bad advice.

And if it's any consolation, more than half of the books I've read in the last 6 months were set in Europe. I think most Americans are more than happy to read across national borders.

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

Ayn Rand

Julie Weathers said...

We have several non-native English speakers on the Litforum who post their work for critique and exercises. It's good practice for them to see what needs polishing not only for the story, but also their English skills.

One doesn't want comments about the language glitches as she plans to publish in Portuguese, but most want to know if there are problems and we point them out. One German writer has some fascinating stories going. I can't wait to see her in print.

As Janet said, you can find a native English speaker, but be sure they know what they're doing also, and have them beta read. Most important is the story, as always.

Claire Bobrow said...

Among the best novels I've ever read: Anna Karenina. Also, The Orphan Master's Son (set in North Korea). My book club just read and loved Homegoing (half of it was set in Ghana).

One was a translation, one was written by a native English speaker, and the last by someone born in Ghana and raised in Birmingham, AL, probably bilingual or multi-lingual.

So bring it on, OP! And keep us posted.

Jeannette Leopold said...

OP, I want to read your book just based on this post (mumblings to momblings!) I love reading books set in different places; it makes me feel like I know more about places I've never been.

Janet Reid said...

momblings what I muttered under my breath after Mom gave me a brisk piece of her mind about something (usually really REALLY stupid) I'd done; most often under cover of running water as I washed the dinner dishes.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

First of all, I'm not the OP:)

Of course, it's the one morning that I didn't open my laptop at 5am and when I checked in from the office computer, behold! Words from the old country! Two points for South East Asia:)

Kababayan, I feel your pain. I've been laboring under this exact insecurity myself and have been open to the Reiders about this. My WIP has white characters (with 2 Filipino MCs) who travel to Europe. I also worried that agents (and readers) might not be kosher with this and see it as a cultural appropriation in reverse.

All the examples given by previous commenters were white people writing as and about other white people. The ESL issue is just one of our concerns. For us Filipinos and most Asians, our experience is that the white world see us not only as this "other" but this "strange other". Thus,the OP's concern of being rejected on the ground of writing about people and places that are in Asian.

Aaargh, its so difficult writing from my phone.I still have things to say. Will log in from home later and vomment some more.

CynthiaMc said...

I was just about to say "Whatever 'mombling' is, it needs to stop.

Thank you, Janet for the explanation.

John Davis Frain said...

mombling that crazy colorful bracelet mom wears to try and fit in with her teen daughter and friends.

But I'm a non-native fashion writer, so what do I know?

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Apologies to the OP if I may have projected my own issues onto hers.:)

See, I had a good mind to delete my earlier comment for fear that I turned the conversation uncomfortable.

Colin Smith said...

John LOL!

Yes to the above comments about non-native-English-speaking writers publishing in English. The tricky part with getting a native speaker to smooth over the spelling, grammar, and idioms, is not to sacrifice your voice. It's easy for the native speaker to change language because that's how they would say it, and end up stomping their footprints all over your work. You need to hear your characters' voices clearly in your head, and write them the way they sound.

If your characters are non-native-English-speakers, then an imperfect English may work to your advantage. The fact they sound a bit foreign to the English ear could actually lend credibility to the idea that they are, in fact, speaking a non-English language.

For a good example of this, check out THE LAKE by Lotte and Søren Hammer (or any other books in this series, I suppose--I've just read this one). The book was originally written in Danish and translated into English by a former Dane who has been living in England for a number of years. At times, the translation is a little stilted, but it works because it lends credibility to the fact that the characters are actually speaking Danish.

Joseph Snoe said...


The hero in the novel I'm currently reading, Damnation, so far has been in Switzerland, Egypt, and Norway.

The hero and heroine in my WIP travel through Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and USA.

I would be happy to be a beta reader for your WIP when you get it in "final" form.

Stacy said...

I've edited non-native English writers that were darn good, simply because of the effort they put into learning the language. That said, OP, I totally agree with Janet that you should get native-English-writer eyes on your manuscript before sending it out.

BJ Muntain said...

I think OPs question about whether to try to get published in the American market or the British market first is interesting. Really, that depends on you. I don't know if it's more difficult to get a book published in the US after it's been published in the UK. It probably depends on how successful it's been.

You also don't have to limit yourself to US OR British agents. If you're open to being published in Britain first, you can query both. Especially since you have both an American English version and a British English version. One thing to look for when querying is whether the agency has the necessary connections in the other market.

I agree that having knowledgeable eyes on your work will help. Just understand that there is more difference between British and American English than a few spellings. You may want to get different eyes for the British and the American English versions.

Karen McCoy said...

I like Julie Weathers' suggestion about the Litforum.

I work with both native and non-native speakers in a university setting, and here are some resources I've used:

The Longman Dictionary--this is extremely helpful to determine in what ways English words go together--especially verb and preposition pairings (e.g. "think about" instead of "think in")

Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference and A Pocket Style Manual are also good.

Good luck, Opie!

LynnRodz said...

OP, as Janet has emphasized to us, it's the story that matters. Readers don't care if the setting is here on Earth or another galaxy across the Universe as long as the story is good.

And kudos to you for writing in English so your bf can read your ms! My hubby is French and it never entered my mind to write my novel in French so he can know what I'm doing all those hours in front of my laptop. I've written poems in French, but a novel — non, merci! I've thought of writing my next story in Carkoonese, but decided there wasn't enough demand for it.

Cecilia, I did think for a moment OP was you. :)

Anonymous said...

This isn't really pertinent to what the OP is asking, but I just LOVE reading books that use British English and Australian English, and their colloquialisms. It's so delightful to find a story that some numbskull US publisher hasn't "clarified" for us, as if we're insufferably dense and can't figure it out. It gives an added depth and insight into another culture/country that I treasure -- honestly, I wish I were fluent enough in a dozen languages to read fiction in all of them -- and I really hope OP changes it all back.

Re the mumbling to mombling-- I read that as very dry humour, an acknowledgment of the perils of "replace all," not a serious change to the text.

Kathy Joyce said...

Dammit, I just wrote a big long perfect post on my phone (with wordplay on British and American English and everything) and a telemarketer called and I deleted the post trying to hang up the call. Damn telemarketers!

Bottom line: don't worry, if you have a good story, the rest is just words.

Adib Khorram said...

OP, I feel like if you can make a good joke about Find/Replace in English, you have nothing to worry about in being understood.

I realize the Kidlit market is only one small segment, but there are a number of authors with agents (and, indeed, book deals!) who live in and write about places in Asia, South America, Africa, and more.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


I thought I was the OP until she mentioned the British boyfriend. I don't have that. Yet.

If that happens, that'll be English as a Second Husband:)

Anonymous said...

"English as a Second Husband" --- and I just did a spit take and laughed so hard I scared the cat. Good one, Cecilia, brava.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Well, I am the OP, and I'm utterly touched by all the lovely Reiders' comments and Janet's reply to my question, which will keep me going!

I hadn't planned on coming out about being the OP, but now I am and it's Joseph Snoe's fault :). Thank you so much for offering to beta-read my manuscript. Now that you know it's me, I hope you're still okay with this?

Colin is currently beta-reading my stuff chapter by chapter, and he suggested some while ago that I find another person to read, too. I'd love you to do that, Joseph.
Colin is doing a fantastic job and I trust him a lot. So now I'm not looking for the English language problem thingie but for a general opinion (since Colin refuses to say "Come on, I can't wait, send me the next chapter", ha ha, but surely he wouldn't carry on if I was writing a crap story, would he??).

I have a huge problem and obsession with coming out with my real name because I am scared of being 'found' by some 'former' family members ('former' because I don't regard them as my family anymore, and I don't want to lose control over whether they can 'do' to me what they decide) and so I even struggle with revealing my email address here in public. But I want to be brave.
So I'll post it in another comment below this one but will then delete it again after some time, hoping that Joseph has seen it.

It's going to be one that I set up to not be identified. Its username will appear as K OCD only (I tried to change it but couldn't find the right buttons...), so please don't take it as a spam.

Oh, and the momblings.. yes, it was just like trying to take it with humor when I changed mum to mom and, dammit, discovered later that 'replace all' had been mean to me ;). Same with mombled and so on.

I, too, had to check out the headline ;), I only speak German/English/French, no Filipino.

My boyfriend is able to read my book. Yay. Him being British doesn't mean he knows how to write a book, though. Sorry boyfriend!
When I wrote "I used my rubber to remove the noted down homework I hadn't done..." he had no complaints!!!

One Of Us Has To Go said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dena Pawling said...

One trick you can use to avoid most [but not all] instances of search & replace messing up with momblings etc, is to search for the word with a space after it, and replace with the new word with a space after it. That way if the word is part of a longer word, most of the time it won't be replaced.

LynnRodz said...

Good one, Cecilia! That'll keep Hubby One on his toes.

Alyssa Carlier said...

Hey OP, this post reminded me of an interview with Clarissa Goenawan, author of Rainbirds, that I recently read. Here's a quote:

"When I started writing, I was insecure about my English. I saw my non-native status as a major weakness. Chris’ [Goenawan's mentor Chris Wakling), once told me, 'Your writing somehow reads like a translation.' My reaction to him was, 'Oh, is it that bad?' But he said, 'I didn’t mean it in a negative way. It’s actually refreshing and suits the kind of story you’re telling.'"

[Wakling's] words made me realize that perhaps, [not being a native speaker] is actually one of my strengths. My simple and sparse writing lends a unique color to my narrative."

The original article is here:

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Thank you Dena! Thank you Alyssa!

BJ Muntain said...

One of Us - If you're in Canada, let me know. bjmuntain @ sasktel dot net. I have experience querying US agents, going to Canadian and US conferences where one can learn more about the differences in markets and such, and maybe I can help you out a bit. I know some Canadian agents that have contacts in both the US and Britain, and a bit about the differences between querying British agents and querying US agents. Let me know if you're interested.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Thank you so much, BJ Muntain. Yes, I am in Canada. I'll email you :). 💗

Alina Sergachov said...

Cecilia, I'm pretty sure that agents and readers like diversity. So, it shouldn't be a problem nowadays. Am I wrong? For example, Gao Xinjian was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. And he's a native Chinese speaker who writes in French.

PS. Can I've the audacity to point out that it's AleksandAr Hemon. Not AleksandEr? Sorry, I'm new here. If it's against the rules, I won't do it again. Pinky promise.