You write funny – Part One

So, a while back I promised two blog entries — one having to do with a…reader complaint of the Crystal books, in which science and technology inconsistent with the “future,” bad grammar, and an inadequate understanding of principles of advanced math and physics are cited as reasons why the books are “bad” — and another question buried in a blog thread I can’t put my hands on at the moment, asking, in essence, “How did we learn to write like that?” (In which “like that” was not necessarily a bad thing.)

For this blog post, I’m going to focus on the questions “bad grammar” and “how did you learn to write like that?” — along with a dollop of genre history.

This may get long, so bear with me.

* * *

History first:  Steve and I started writing together in 1979.  Our first collaborative short story was “The Naming of Kinzel:  The Innocent,” written, it says here on the card, in June 1980.  Our first collaborative novel was Kinzel the Wanderer, sold to Donning in 1981.  It looks like it was planned as an illustrated novel — there are prelim sketches from Colleen Doran in the recently unearthed file.  At this point, I no longer remember what exactly happened, that the project never went forth.  I’m assuming an editor-scramble at Donning, or maybe a lack of money to follow through, either or both being possible, given the dates.

I’ve been saying for years that Agent of Change was our first completed novel (there having also been the first…20 grand of a romance novel also written in the early ’80s, which convinced us that we weren’t romance novelists) — but apparently I’ve been saying wrong.  It looks like the Kinzel novel was complete at least in first draft.

The things we forget.

Anyhow, we’ve been writing together for a long time.  The first Kinzel stories, having some passing kinship with High Fantasy, were written in the language of fantasy.

You of course know that writers use. . .techniques. . .in order to signal readers, gently letting them know what sort of experience they should expect.   A prominent technique is the use of genre-appropriate language — High Fantasy reads differently than Hard SF, which reads differently than Urban Fantasy, all of which reads differently than Mystery.

Back a few years ago, some writers decided to step over the lines, and started doing genre mash-ups.  Part of the fun of that, besides the obvious fun of, say, making your hard-boiled private eye a magic-user on the outs with the White Council, is that writers of mash-ups get to mash-up the genre language(s), too.

I’ve mentioned before in this journal that writers are weird, right?

Related to this, and pertinent to this particular writer, is the fact that spoken English is my second language.  I really didn’t get the whole talking out loud thing until very late in life, and when I did start speaking, in more-or-less complete, but almost utterly randomized sentences, people couldn’t easily understand me.

Because I had this. . .difficulty, I studied, and one of the things my study revealed to me is that even mono-lingual folk routinely speak different languages, depending on the situation in which they find themselves.

So it was that, by the time I graduated high school and took my first job as a secretary, I spoke three distinct languages:  Business English, Street, and House/Familiar.

I read many more:  High Fantasy, Folk Tale, Romance, Mystery, Regency, Scientific, Business Report, Business Courtesy, Literary, Technical, Fairy Tale. . .

. . .you get the idea.

Fast-forwarding to the present — for the last — what? quarter-century? — Steve and I have mostly been writing space opera.  Our particular flavor of space opera is cross-cultural, multilingual, and character-driven.

One of the challenges — and I mean one of the biggest challenges — in writing a story in which some characters speak Language A — let’s call it “Liaden” — and some characters speak Language B — let’s call this one “Terran” — and still other characters speak Language C — let’s call that one “Clutch” — is portraying the different languages.

Think about this:  We have to write in English!  This is the only option we have, because our (primary) audience are English-speakers and English-readers.  How on earth are we going to cue the reader which language the character is speaking?

You might — as some have done — ask, Why does it matter?

That’s a good question, and the answer is — it matters because language reflects culture.  It also illuminates, to some degree, the sophistication of thought that may be available to a particular character.  Language does present some interesting boundaries to thought.  The Liaden language(s), for instance, encourages its native speakers in subtlety, and offers a framework for very complex ideas, such as melant’i.  Terran — at least, port Terran — is a lot more straightforward; an action language in which subtle thought is possible, but not top-level.

So, in order to cue the reader, and place them correctly within language and culture, the languages need to read differently.

Yes, Miri speaks “ungrammatically,” when she speaks Terran.  Yes, Cantra’s sentences have an. . .odd cadence.  Yes, Liaden is quite formal, and prone to rolling periods.

Yes, yes, yes!  When Miri is speaking Liaden, her sentences are quite formal, and prone to rolling periods!  Yes!  You noticed!  We meant to do that!  It’s a feature, not a bug.

The other thing we do, deliberately, is that we play with the narrative voice.  Since we’re head-hoppers — yet another of our bad habits — we need to let the reader know which character is describing the action/scenery/bold plan of attack.

This means that scenes told from Val Con’s viewpoint (for instance), and scenes told from Miri’s viewpoint (for instance), will read differently.  More! They notice different things, and, because of that, they may draw different conclusions.

This approach does mean that yes, you will get “bad” grammar, not just in dialogue, where the conventions of genre fiction allow it, but in the narrative.  I’m not an English teacher; I’m a storyteller; grammar is just going to have to take a back seat to the story’s proper telling.

So, to recap:  “Bad” grammar — yes, fair cop.  “Where did we learn to write like that?” — by reading, and by listening.  “Why do we write like that?” — for you, our readers, so you’ll know whose head you’re in, and what language they’re thinking in.

* * *

So ends Part One.  Part Two will address the notion that science fiction is the fiction of “the” future.  That will be, I suspect, some days down the road.

One thought on “You write funny – Part One”

  1. I can see why you are accused of writing funny — you spell _dialogue_ correctly. 😉 So few people do these do these days. ;-(


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.