Second Language Probs

As I’ve mentioned before, learning a language is really tough. You have to learn the grammar and vocabulary, memorize sentence structure, and get a grip on the different tenses (ugh)…that’s a lot. Even when you get to be pretty comfortable with the language, you still make a thousand mistakes that a five year old, native to that language, wouldn’t. That’s just the way it goes…so, why is making those mistakes such a big deal?

If someone’s talking to someone else whose first language isn’t the same and they make a few flubs, why do people get exasperated and complain about it to their friends and family or – worse – Facebook?  I mean, if someone works in a store and someone else comes up to them asking for directions to the “sinkroom” instead of the “bathroom”, why do they roll their eyes and give them some kind of flip answer? Why is there so much anger and disdain in those kinds of situations?

Just think about it as if the roles are reversed (as I’m sure many know from firsthand experience when speaking a second language); You work up the courage to ask someone a question in a language that you’re still learning, only to be cast aside or maybe even laughed at if you make a mistake. It can make you angry, embarrassed, and deter you from practicing the language outside of the classroom again. Laughing at someone who is trying hard to communicate with you can be scarring for that other person.

There are many people out there that are understanding of the situation, of course, and they will be patient with someone struggling to get a question or comment out, but there are just as many people who are nasty and condescending.

So what if someone makes a mistake that creates a funny sentence? Once the speaker realizes the mistake, they’ll probably have a laugh too, and correct themselves. There’s no need to make them feel stupid or annoying for their mistake. It helps nobody to act that way.

Learning – and successfully using – a second language is a huge accomplishment, and the work that you put into creating a sentence should be applauded, not made into a nasty status on Facebook that highlights your failed attempt.

My personal feeling is that everyone should learn a second language at some point in their life. Even if you aren’t fluent in it, or you only use it a few times a year, it teaches you a lot about how language works and gives you an appreciation for the language skills that you do have.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Share them below!

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Three Books that Helped Me as a Writer

Anyone who does anything has a mentor or some sort, whether it’s a person, a group, or even a motto. This mentor encourages you to improve your skills and helps you find your way in a moment of weakness or anger. Personally, I have three special books that serve as my mentors for different reasons, all of which revolve around the central theme of helping me as a writer:

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Inkspell by Cornelia Funke

This book is very special to me because it is the one that got me writing in the first place. Upon finishing it and strongly disliking the ending, I decided to re-write the last few chapters so that it better matched what I thought it should have been.

As with all of our first pieces, it was terrible, but it lit the spark that got me to where I am today. This book in particular (the second in a trilogy) is what transformed me from a reader to a writer.

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Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

This is a very basic novel plot that uses its simplicity to share a very important message. The main storyline focuses on a girl who is forced to relive her last day alive over and over again until she finally figures out out what she has to do. It sweeps you along in a mesmerizing fashion that keeps you hooked until the last word.

This book was very helpful when I hit a rough patch in my writing, caused by massive plot holes and uncontrollable characters. The simplicity of the plot and the elegant writing style helped me recognize the fact that I was just taking my writing too seriously and that I didn’t have to make everything quite so complicated. I learned to trust my gut and go with the flow. After all, the characters know best.

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Hourglass by Myra McEntire

Before reading this book, I didn’t really have much of an idea of how to have fun with the narrator of the story. I kept thinking that s/he had to essentially be invisible and simply tell the story. It made for some boring scenes.

The narrator of this story, however, is anything but quiet. She doesn’t hesitate to make observations or insert little quips that make the serious scenes lighter and easier to read. It helped me understand that the narrator is intended to be a character, too. So, using this book as my point of reference, I got used to creating a 3D narrator that helped me move a scene along. I really was able to understand that narrators are people, too.

There are so many books out there that have made a great impression on me, both as a reader and as a writer, but these three are definitely the best of the best. Feel free to share some of your own below!


Writer Quirks

You hear a lot about gamers or comic book enthusiasts being characterized and stereotyped based on some “strange” characteristics that they have. As far as I’m concerned, we all have quirks that make us individual. When you read those “relatable” posts, however, it’s scary how accurate some of them are – no matter the label. Here are a few writer quirks that I think fit the bill:

Strange conversations

No matter what genre you’re writing, getting together with other writers always leads to strange conversations. Some writers will argue that there is no such thing as a strange conversation in the writer community; no topic is abnormal, and overhearing a snippet at random can be equal parts entertaining and terrifying. For example:

If I kill off the crush too fast, she won’t be crushed enough, so he has to stick around for a few more chapters. Maybe I could, like, cut off his leg or something in the mean time…she’d have to fall in love with him then, right?

That’s one of the mild examples of ordinary conversations. Anyone else would be confused or perhaps freaked out, but us writers get it.

Scolding your characters out loud

When a chapter, intense scene, or plot twist just isn’t going well, it’s usually because a character isn’t behaving correctly. When we’ve re-written the same sentence five times and it still isn’t right, our characters tend to get yelled at or scolded, and sometimes just doing it in our heads isn’t good enough:

Just cooperate, will you?!”

“Stop complaining, I’m working on it!”

“Okay, that’s enough. Go to your room!

It doesn’t always work, but it makes us feel better most of the time.

Grief at saying goodbye to our characters when we finish the novel

These characters are our creations, children that we watch over as they grow up and get their fairy tale endings (or not). When the time comes to type “The End” on the last page, a real grief leaves us in a funk for a while. These characters are real people to us, so living without them can be really sad and hard, even when the time comes to move on to new characters and plots. Saying goodbye to our characters is the same as saying goodbye to family or close friends. It hurts!

These are some of the quirks I find to be universal amongst short story and novel writers, If you’ve got some of your own, feel free to share them in the “comments” section!

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Past and Present

When we start to write a novel, there are lots of things to think about: appropriate plot twists, rounded characters, and a snarky antagonist or two. Something many of us don’t tend to give much thought to is what tense to write in. Some writers believe it’s a personal choice, while others believe it should be decided based on what genre we’re writing it.

For the most part, writing in the past tense tends to be the preferred method. It’s familiar and comfortable, not to mention that it’s the most popular tense of all the big-shot writers out there. Writing in the past tense allows the reader to feel more connected to the narrator, listening to him/her tell the story as everyone sits around a campfire or a kitchen table. It helps you invest in the characters and plot in a gentle way so that you’re hooked before you know it.

As far as genre goes, writing in the past tense is best for those books that are plot driven (ex: action, mystery) rather than character-based (ex: romance, coming-of-age). As mentioned, the reader is able to connect with the narrator as s/he tells the story. So, the writer can slip comments and prejudices to the reader (overtly or otherwise) and make the mystery a little trickier, or give the action story an extra plot twist.

Writing in the present tense can be jarring and distracting for the writer as much as the reader and cause all sorts of problems. Its intention is pure enough, it works to help you get in the head of the character as the action is happening, but the truth of it is that it isn’t always effective. It can allows you to get in the mindset of the character and go on the journey with them as it happens, giving the reader the feeling of making the decisions along with the character. The reader will put stock in the character and form a strong, emotional connection that way. Present tense writing can do a lot in the slower, more emotional plots that require you to invest in the characters. You may be thinking “but, I know all sorts of romance novels that are written in the paste tense,” and you’d be right. Choosing the tense doesn’t have to involve anything but personal preference for many writers out there, despite what I’ve been saying.

Personally, I much prefer writing and reading in past tense. When I’m reading, I can focus on the story without getting distracted by the writing itself. When writing, I feel much more confident in the past tense. The several times I’ve written in present tense, everything was choppy and awkward, not to mention that I randomly switched from third person point of view to first person. The bottom line for me is that writing in the present tense is just plain distracting, no matter what genre I’m in or what story I’m trying to tell.

Does anyone else feel partial to the past tense? Or, maybe feel that writing in the present tense is more comfortable? Feel free to say it all below!


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Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part III

Now for my final thoughts on language and the power it has. I’ve talked about how the power works and what it means, but I haven’t really explained how it applies to writers.

Our job is to tell the stories that we care about, be it through short stories or novels. No matter what language we’re writing in, words are critical to doing that job. We can have the best characters and the most exciting plot ever seen, but if we use the wrong words to tell the story, no one is going to read it. As you can imagine, that puts a lot of pressure on us.

We spend years writing books, rejecting draft after draft because something just doesn’t “feel right”. There is a craft to writing, sure, a necessity in learning what makes a good story, strong characters, etc. But, a lot of the “real skills” of writing come from trusting your gut. You’ll get this niggling somewhere inside that something in that chapter isn’t working. Or, maybe you’ll get the sense that the last sentence you just wrote isn’t quite right.

These are frustrating moments because we are the only ones that can get that chapter/sentence just right. Other writers may be able to offer a word or two of advice, but they have their own nigglings to take care of. The entire perfection of the novel is sitting on our shoulders alone, and it is no fun what-so-ever. In fact, not being able to perfect that one sentence is a huge contributor to the terrifying writers block. Sometimes that niggling even gets so bad that we scrap the novel entirely. So, you see, using the right word could save a character’s life, maybe even a whole world.

There is a silver lining, though. It’s that instant when we finish a perfectly executed cliffhanger, or create the best scathing line of dialogue. Those little shivers that zap down our spines and leave us with the thought, “Yes, that’s it. Perfect!” These moments may be rare, but they’re powerful and leave us on a high for hours after. These are the moments where we feel like real writers, the moments where we feel as though we’ve conquered language and its power, even if it’s just for a little bit.

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Each writer uses words differently; each spins a different tale, telling stories of their own characters in their own worlds. The power of language – of the written word – unites us all, though, in a quest to construct the perfect sentence and novel. Having an appreciation and understanding of the language and the power it wields makes us better writers.

Learning another language, as I mentioned way back in Part I, has helped me understand and respect the power of language a lot more, making me a much better and more confident writer.

While writing gives me as much trouble as the next person, I trust that the words will lead me to the right place when the time is right and all will be right with the world.

Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part II

Last week I talked about how words have deeper meanings that can’t be translated to another language or explained fully. The words have lives of their own and, when used correctly, can gift you with a really beautiful expression or sentence. Now, I want to look at how words can mean multiple things at the same time, especially to a writer. This isn’t in the context of definitions, but rather, how words can be used to make a sentence mean thousand different things by understanding their different levels. Confused? No worries, it’ll all make sense. Keep reading!

The whole “different levels” idea makes a lot of sense when I put it into the perspective with a quote from the book The Golden Compass, the first book of the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This is a personal favorite series of mine and is known to be stuffed full of subtle (and not-so-much) hints and images over a variety of sensitive subjects.

The trilogy focuses on 12-year-old Lyra, a rough-around-the-edges tomboy who is destined to save the world. To help with her journey she is given a truth telling device called an alethiometer. It’s a large compass-like object and has a series of images on its face. In order to use it Lyra has to move the three hands to different symbols that form a question and the fourth hand will swing from symbol to symbol on the compass to give its answer.

As you may have already guessed, each symbol has multiple meanings so that any question can be asked and answer given. There are thousands of meanings, and the user of the alethiometer must go through various encyclopedias to get the right meaning. Lyra differs in that she can look at the alethiometer and hold all of the meetings in her head, knowing where to move the hands to ask the question and how to interpret the answer:

“And how to do you know what these meanings are?”

“I kind of see ’em. Or feel ’em, rather, like climbing down a ladder at night, you put your foot down and there’s another rung. Well, I put my mind down and there’s another meaning, and I kind of sense what it is. Then I put ’em all together. There’s a trick in it like focusing your eyes.”

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Image Credit: (via Google)

In the same way that Lyra talks about the symbols having different “levels” for different meanings, words have that same power. When we, as writers, construct a sentence, we have to make sure that we are using to correct words on the right “levels”. Using the wrong word and/or level would lead to a different meaning entirely.

To me, words have the same magical power as the alethiometer has to Lyra. Sometimes I’ll go back and forth between three synonyms for hours in the back of my mind because using the wrong one really does change everything. A lot of the time to read or may not be able to notice the “small difference” of a sentence that has the wrong word, from that with the right one, but they will feel it, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s my job to make sure they don’t misinterpret the sentence by ensuring and using the perfect words.

If you’re still following, keep an eye out for Part III, the final section, of this idea net week. Also, feel free to comment with alternative comparisons to complex/deep levels of words, I’d love to hear them!

Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part I

The most challenging thing I’ve learned in my time as a writer is that words are not just dead pieces that make up a sentence, they have life to them that make each one unique. No, seriously stay with me. Each word that we use carries a specific meaning and, shall we say, power, that none of its synonyms have. You can see this when using the word “shrieked” instead of “yelled,” sure, but my point becomes much clearer when looking at different languages and word translations. This is where I truly understand how each word is so individual.

When you’re in the beginning stages of learning another language you learn how valuable a translation dictionary is. You’ll be looking up words as you move between languages in reading and writing, gaining a bigger vocabulary as you go. Then, there comes that magical point where you can write a complex paragraph or read a chapter with little to no help from the dictionary and recognize the words in the language you’re reading/writing in. This is exciting for two reasons:

  1. You’re remembering the vocabulary, yay! You’re one step closer to fluently speaking a foreign language.

  2. The words in the foreign language for taking on the meaning of their own instead of simply being a translated word.

This is the nugget right here. A word in one language doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in another. Okay, literally speaking, yes it does, but work with me! Once you’re accustomed to the foreign language, you start to see its words differently. They take on a deeper, more complete meaning that you’ll notice when you finish a well written paragraph and think “Wow…that was powerful.”

The expression “lost in translation” is another way to understand it. Say you love that well-written paragraph so much that you want to share it with your best friend who doesn’t speak the language. You translate it using the best word you can think of, but it still loses something no matter how hard you work. This is how we can understand the power of each word.

For this reason I’ve really come to be in awe of words and language in general. As a writer, it’s my job to pick the best word for each sentence, and knowing what I do about words, I’ve discovered that sometimes even the best words still fall flat. Sometimes you need to throw in those foreign expressions, like “je ne sais quoi,” or “bon appetit,” to name a few of the most popular ones. They are so much more powerful than their English equivalents and can’t really be translated to carry the same weight and significance.

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So, words have a lot to them, much more than you would think at first glance. Learning another language has really helped me understand words and the deep, profound impact they can have. As a result, my appreciation of great writers has really grown. I’ve got more to say about this, so keep an eye out for next week’s post where we will explore part II of this topic!


The “Text” in “Text Message”

Sometimes writers tend to go a little overboard in their obsession with writing the perfect sentence. For me, this obsession becomes clear when I send text messages to my friends. Not only are they free from abbreviations (for the most part), but they also have proper grammar and punctuation. There are some people who send text messages entirely in abbreviations and other shorthand, while majority of us use a combination of proper language and the occasional shorthand and abbreviation. With the rise of the text message, there are some who are adamant that language is being destroyed the more widespread it gets.

As mentioned, I use traditional language when writing a text message, though I must admit that I like to use the occasional “btw” or “atm”. I could say that I use traditional language because typing out the shorthand takes too long, but the whole truth is that I find the shorthand very frustrating. It’s hard to decipher unless you already know what the abbreviation means, and a lot of the time, autocorrect will change it to a similar word anyway. So, by the time you fix the abbreviation, you could have written it out normally and sent it already. What’s more important, though, is that it really does destroy language bit by bit.

You lose the emotion – or worse, get confused – without proper punctuation like exclamation points, question marks, or periods. Sentences run together in one giant text message bubble and you can’t tell where one thought ends and another begins, not to mention how the other person is feeling. You may unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings because you responded incorrectly to their text message filled with anger, which you had understood as excitement. Or, you didn’t respond to their question because you hadn’t realized they were asking one. These kinds of misunderstandings can lead to fights both on and off the phone, and could be prevented by correctly using a question mark or comma.

If you are texting on the run or trying to get a reply quickly, it’s understandable that punctuation and traditional spelling aren’t your biggest concerns. But, if you send texts entirely composed of abbreviations and no grammar what-so-ever for no reason other than not wanting to type the full word out, you’re missing out on the gifts that language can give you.

The most important one is that you won’t accidentally put shorthand into an essay or a grant proposal. You’d be surprised how easily they slip past your editing radar when you’re used to using them all the time. Secondly, you’ll remember how to spell more words and remember more grammar than the person who regularly uses shorthand. Lastly, you’ll have a higher chance of being understand and/or replied to by everyone on your contacts list because they won’t need Google to hep understand what you’re saying.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for shorthand, but generally speaking, traditional language and grammar will take you much further.

Image Credit: (via Google) A little dramatic, perhaps, but you get the idea.

All in a Day’s Work

Since I was about 13 I’ve had a strong attachment to my agenda. In the beginning of the school year I’d be more excited about getting a new agenda in homeroom than seeing my friends. When I got to University I’d pick an evening after the first couple of classes and put all of the essay deadlines and quiz dates in the agenda. It’s one of the most important things that I own and bring it everywhere. “Alright,” you may be thinking, “she likes to be organized…so what?” There’s more to it than that, though.

For me, my agenda is a journal. The color coding system and specific highlighters and pens that I use are all about preserving the memories that happen. For example, one professor changed the deadline of the paper, so the line of white-out that covers the “essay due” reminder has emotions attached to it: relief, because I already had two other essays and a midterm on that day; excitement, because I had already finished the research and half the rough draft, so I now could take my time with the essay; anger, because I wished I had known this would happen when I dedicated precious time to work on it, neglecting my other classes, etc. Never thought a streak of whiteout could say so much did you?

The same kind of thing happens with the highlighters. I’ll look at the note highlighted in pink or blue and remember where I was when I wrote it, both physically and emotionally speaking. Why? How? I have no idea, but everything in my agenda holds a memory for me.

My point in all this is that there’s no definition and how a journal or diary has to look or work. For some, it’s a traditional “dear diary” record. For others, it could be a daily food and/or weight log. Or, it could be a log of your personal and/or professional expenses. Maybe it’s a letter/photo journal, or a social media account. A journal takes on many different forms and means something different to each of us.

Keeping some kind of journal is an important way to remember all of the little moments, those quick bring – a – smile – to – your – face memories that didn’t require a camera. They’re still really important, precious times that you get to keep to yourself. For example, there’s an entire page of an old agenda that is covered and doodles and coffee stains, because a good friend and I had to kill an hour between classes so we got hyper on coffee and took turns making art all over my homework list. Seeing those sketches and coffee splotches still makes me smile even if I had a hard time figuring out what my homework was through the battlefield a stickmen and smiley faces.

So what if my friends tease me for panicking when I momentarily lose my agenda? Who cares if no one else understands why highlighters and color coding are so important to me? The point is that I understand the deeper meaning to the agenda pages that lingers within the facts that I write down.

If you recognize some of what I’m saying, then you understand the significance of a journal at its purest form: a place for you to save the important times with the emotion intact, and still be able to smile as you flip through it years later. Be proud of your journal– whatever form it takes – and cherish the memories that are tangled within it.

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Lost and Found

I don’t know about you guys, but there are some days where I see a mitten lying abandoned in the snow, or a dropped bit of change in a classroom and I get really sad. Yes, it sounds mushy, but it’s as if I get sad for the objects! I keep thinking that they are personified and just sitting there waiting for their owner to come back for them so they can go home. In that light, I wrote a little cheesy poem to express my anguish over the abandoned hat and mitts:

Owner Mine

I didn’t mean to fall out,

but there was too much stuff in your pockets.

I got squished and crumpled,

now I am totally unrecognizable.

It has been a long time since I’ve been part of the world outside.

The world that you brought me to disappeared,

it left with a hand picking me up, a

“Ooops, where’d you come from?”

and then I came here to this box.

It isn’t a pretty box,

battered and broken just like I am.

There are other things here,

mittens and scarves,

but none of them is my partner.

No one likes to talk to me here,

they are all wrapped up in misery that I don’t understand.

They tell me I am stupid to expect you to come for me,

that all things come here to die.

I still hope that you are coming,

and sometimes I think I hear your voice.

But the box never opens,

and I don’t remember the sunshine anymore.

Have you forgotten about me, Owner?

Have you thrown out my pair and gotten new mittens?

I wish you’d come back and find me,

I am not far form where I fell down.

Please come say hello,

even if you don’t feel like taking me home.

I miss my pair,

will you bring her here too?

More and more mitts come to join me,

but it’s not the same.

Maybe today you will come for me,

maybe today.

Sure, I get that mitts and hats don’t actually feel anything, but I keep feeling that the box they are thrown in must get dark, full and depressing from time to time. When I lose a mitten, I search for it all over the place because it’s important to me to find it. A couple of times I did end up finding it in the Lost and Found box at school and when I see all those forgotten pieces in there, I just want to take them all home so I can knit new pairs for them (assuming I knew how to knit, of course).

Then again, I’m probably one of the only ones that think like this, as I’ve never seen a poster anywhere stating “LOST MITTEN”.

Image Credit: (Google)
Image Credit: (Google)