Saturday, June 21

Real Life Diagnostics: English is My Third Language. Is That a Deal Breaker?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 12. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some if my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s question:

English is my third language. Based on this scene, will it be a deal breaker, in your opinion?


Market/Genre: Young Adult

NOTE: There's a revised snippet at the bottom

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I knew right away that something wasn’t quite right. After all, there were always signs that something went wrong. Unfortunately, most of the time these signs weren’t as obvious as the yellow ‘do not cross’ police line. They were harder to catch, easier to miss, to dismiss, to ignore. I did a double take, searching high and low for that pesky little thing that had to go amiss. Then it hit me: Austin’s car wasn’t in the parking lot. The training session was supposed to start in ten minutes and my coach was nowhere in sight!

A tidal wave of emotions washed over me as I waited, pacing back and forth. It was pouring buckets… Maybe the practice got cancelled, and I simply missed a memo or something like that. Not biggie... except Austin was a firm believer that there was no bad weather, only soft people. Occurrence of rain—even deluge like that—wasn’t a good enough reason for a rain check. Not now, not ever. Especially, not five days before the USA Junior Outdoor Track and Field Championships. And my coach was never late. So yeah, his absence did feel like an existential crisis in the making… But then again, maybe he was just cutting it close. There was only one way to find out. I punched in his number.

“The person you’ve called is unavailable right now. Please, try again later.”

I called him again—and again and again—all for naught. He didn’t pick up.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I knew right away that something wasn’t quite right. After all, there were always signs [that something went wrong.] A little off here. Either "when something went wrong" or "that something had gone wrong". Unfortunately, most of the time these signs weren’t as obvious as [the yellow ‘do not cross’ police line.] "the" makes me think she's looking at yellow tape right now. Use "a" if she's speaking generally They were harder to catch, easier to miss, to dismiss, to ignore. [I did a double take, searching high and low for that pesky little thing that had to go amiss.] Multiple clichés in this line. Also, the tense feels off with "that had to go." "that gone" if she's looking for the sign itself Then it hit me: Austin’s car wasn’t in the parking lot. The training session was supposed to start in ten minutes and my coach was nowhere in sight!

[A tidal wave of emotions washed over me] Perhaps edit out the cliché as I waited, pacing [back and forth] pacing means back and forth so this is redundant. [It was pouring buckets] careful of clichés … Maybe the practice got cancelled, and I simply missed a memo or something like that. [Not ] No biggie... except Austin was a firm believer that there was no bad weather, only soft people. [Occurrence] The occurrence of rain—even [deluge] a deluge like that—wasn’t a good enough reason for a rain check. Not now, not ever. Especially, not five days before the USA Junior Outdoor Track and Field Championships. And my coach was never late. So yeah, his absence did feel like an existential crisis in the making… But then again, maybe he was just cutting it close. There was only one way to find out. I punched in his number.

“The person [you’ve] automatic recordings usually don't use contractions called is unavailable right now. Please, try again later.”

I called him again—and again and again—all for naught. He didn’t pick up.

The question:

English is my third language. Based on this scene, will it be a deal breaker, in your opinion?

First, I'm impressed by anyone who writes in a language not their own, let alone a third language. That said, it's hard to answer this question because it's very subjective. I'm also not an agent or an editor so this is just my opinion based on my own knowledge of the industry.

In general, I don't think English being someone's second or third language is a deal breaker. I have non-native-English-speaking writer friends who have published in English and been successful. Good beta readers can help catch the awkward phrases and point out anything that sounds off to American readers.

If an agent or editor is interested in the novel, and they know English is not your first language, they might be willing to do the extra proofing and editing to fix the language issues. They might also decide it's too much work and reject it. This will depend heavily on the agent, editor, and the book. There's no one answer here.

(Here's more on grammar and what you need to know to write)

For this snippet specifically, there are some awkward phrasing, wrong tenses, and dropped articles that could indeed hurt you. It doesn't read like it's ready for publication yet.

However, not all of that is due to the language issues. The idea for the scene is good--a girl is supposed to meet her coach for practice and he doesn't show up. Something is probably wrong and I can imagine the story is going to be about her trying to find her coach (or find whoever hurt her coach of that's the case). But the snippet itself it a little confusing, and it's hard to know where I am as a reader and exactly what is going on. It's also focusing on the wrong things and not letting the good stuff shine through.

(Here's more on what every story needs to do)

For example, let's look at the first paragraph:
I knew right away that something wasn’t quite right. 
This is a good line, as it creates both conflict and poses a question readers will want to know the answer to: what's wrong?
After all, there were always signs that something went wrong. 
This feels repetitive since we already know something is wrong.
Unfortunately, most of the time these signs weren’t as obvious as the yellow ‘do not cross’ police line. 
This makes me think she's actually seeing a crime scene with yellow tape. But when I read the whole snippet, I get the sense that she's actually saying there are signs when things aren't right and they're not always as obvious as yellow tape. So right away the text is confusing me about what I'm seeing and leading me in the wrong direction.
They were harder to catch, easier to miss, to dismiss, to ignore. 
This reinforces the signs concept. But the focus has now shifted to a discussion on signs and how hard they are to catch, and the fact that something is wrong is fading away. It's bogging down the good hook and slowing the pacing.
I did a double take, searching high and low for that pesky little thing that had to go amiss. 
This is another way to say she knew right away something was wrong. Most of this paragraph has been repeating that general idea in several different ways.
Then it hit me: Austin’s car wasn’t in the parking lot. 
This is the important detail but it's getting lost in all the repetition. You might try: "I knew right away that something wasn’t quite right. Austin’s car wasn’t in the parking lot" and cut out the rest.
The training session was supposed to start in ten minutes and my coach was nowhere in sight! 
This gives more information about the problem and moves the story forward.

This lack of focus could be due to the language issue, but the second paragraph is more focused, so I suspect it's a storytelling issue. Which is good, because that's easier to fix, and a great story won't hold you back even if there are a few language snags.

I'd suggest tweaking this with a tighter narrative focus and develop the wonderful conflict you have going. Let readers see how worried the narrator is, how unusually it is for her coach to miss a practice. What might have gone wrong. There's a lot of good stuff here to work with.

(Here's more on narrative focus)

I'd also suggest finding one or two good English-speaking beta readers to catch any language issues you might have in the text. That way, you can focus on telling the best story you can and not worry so much about the text itself.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

Revised Snippet:


Question: did I focus on the right things this time?

[I knew right away that something wasn’t quite right. His car wasn’t in the parking lot. The training session was about to start and my freaking coach was nowhere in sight! Weird. He was never late.] There's a bit of a disconnect here. The first line says she knew something wasn't right and then gives a reason why, but the next two lines sound more like her trying to figure out where he is, not someone who already knows something is wrong. I'd suggest cutting the first line and just letting her see the details and slowly figure out that something is indeed wrong, as that is working well [Relentless drops of water came into sharp contact with my skin, slapping it and at the same time soothing the tingling pain from the impact.] Feels a little overwritten for "it was raining." [I paced, waiting. Maybe the practice got cancelled, and I simply missed a memo or something like that. No biggie... Except Austin was a firm believer that there was no bad weather, only soft people. The occurrence of rain—even a deluge like [that] this—wasn’t a good enough reason for a rain check. Not now, not ever. Especially, not five freaking days before the most important meet of the season!] I like her thought process here, as it shows her trying to figure out what might have happened and how unusual this is

I punched in his number.

“The person you have called is unavailable right now. Please, try again later.”


I called him again—and again and again—all for naught. He didn’t pick up.

[By the time my teammates graced me with their presence] this lessens the tension some because she's getting more and more worried, then it just jumps ahead like her worrying was all for nothing, [the pelting rain had turned into a patting drizzle] nice. The time was up. [Neither] just two of them? "None" if there are more than two of us knew what to do. We stood there staring at the locked door of the stadium, like a bunch of idiots, when [a lightning] just "lightning" zigzagged through the clouds.

FLASH.

Some piece of paper was fastened to the door.

Dark again.

Our shoulders bumped as we [leant] "leaned" in American English closer in a collective attempt to get a better look. Someone’s elbow poked me hard in the ribs. I didn’t budge.

Overall it's much better, and I get more of a sense that she's there trying to figure this all out as it happens. Aside from one or two off words, this reads like a native speaker. I'd suggest trimming away some of the telling moments, such as " I knew right away that something wasn’t quite right." and " By the time my teammates graced me with their presence" to stay more in her head and keep the action moving. Perhaps just have her getting more and more worried and then someone shows up and she asks if they heard anything, had they spoken to the coach, etc. Put the action front and center. That way, by the time they find the paper on the door the tension should be nice and high and readers will want to know what happened to the coach.

Nice job.

6 comments:

  1. Well my English as third friend you have done the "write" thing submitting your WIP to Janice for a critique.
    I would say just keep up on this site and whatever problems you have will get worked out. I think its a very solid first draft and if you follow through on every suggestion you will come out a much better writer.
    I use AutoCrit an online software tool to help rake over my MS and get out a lot of the repeats and cliche's. It really tightens up your work.
    I liked this opening, it has everything you need so just keep on it :)

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  2. I enjoyed reading the passage, and the critique was interesting and helpful. Kudos, you brave, English-as-a-third language writer, you have a way with words! I am glad to find this site and will be back to learn more. Thanks Harry Maxwell, too, for the mention of AutoCrit. I've been disappointed in the software tools available to catch my misbehavior--will check this one out. Cheers! Anna Celeste Burke

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  3. If I hadn't been told English was the writer's third language, I would never have guessed. I've seen the problems in this excerpt crop up in many an English-only speaker's writing. Repetition and cliches are common in anyone's writing--even experienced writers'. That's what revision is for.

    I agree with the above advice. Pare down the writing. Keep the story moving. And everyone should have good beta readers regardless of the writer's native language. This looks like it could be a really interesting story.

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  4. I want to add--if I were the writer, I wouldn't even mention English wasn't my first language. I'd polish my writing (with the help of native speakers) until it wasn't even an issue. Language only becomes relevant if an agent offers representation--and possibly not even then.

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  5. First of all, your English is great. It looks like you put a lot of effort into making it look good. I think it would be best to wow us by commenting about your English in your bio. Period. We native English speakers notice the difference without even hearing it. So mentioning it only causes us to scrutinize that more closely, instead of the story you're trying to tell. Gale

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  6. Forgot to say: There is a difference in being a great story teller, for a non-English speaker, & being a great story teller, period.

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