Saturday, August 29

Real Life Diagnostics: Are These Native Words Confusing?

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 site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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This week’s questions:

1. Does this introduction of my third viewpoint character make it sound like the story is starting over again or like a new story is starting? [Something that I'm obviously trying to avoid as I first introduce each of the three POV characters. Note: Imani, the second POV character introduced, is mentioned in this first sentence. But the first POV character introduced, Longo, lives in a different locale and their stories don't cross over until much later.]

2. Are the words from the character's native language and the names of minor characters confusing or clunky in this passage?


Market/Genre: YA Historical Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is the introductory scene of the third viewpoint character for my YA historical fantasy novel [in progress].

Only two more days of walking separated Moïshe from Imani. Two days stretched out like gazelles, resting on their sides in the heat of the day, and beyond them, the distant grey-blue ribs of sand in which Ketema lie.

The pole—from which a fine, fat gazelle was hanging—dug into Moïshe’s shoulder. He lifted it over his head with both hands, shifting the weight to his other shoulder, which was no less sore from the carrying. The thin strips of hide that lashed the animal’s legs to its spit, strained and groaned with this interruption to its rhythm. But after a few steps, the body sagged and swayed in step with Moïshe and his abo once more, the bindings squeaking as they rubbed back and forth against the pole. The scent of hot, blood-matted fur wafted into Moïshe’s nostrils as the winds shifted front.

Of the youngest three on this hunt, Moïshe was closest in height to his abo, and since Abo had made this kill, naturally the gazelle was in their charge. The second kill sagged on its pole between Neighbor and Ahmadou, Kofi’s abo. Moïshe had watched the two men all day carrying their pole right beside him. Neither ever shifted the weight. They seemed to have shoulders of flint.

Each step across the hot, grassy mounds crinkled under Moïshe’s feet, reminding him of why they’d had to go so far on the hunt to begin with. It still hadn’t rained. Despite his sore shoulders, he thanked the amlaks for blessing his abo and the other hunters with success. There would be a feast to celebrate his betrothal to Imani.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Only two more days of walking separated Moïshe from Imani. Two days stretched out like gazelles, resting on their sides in the heat of the day, [and beyond them, the distant grey-blue ribs of sand in which Ketema lie.] This is a little confusing. Two days stretched out like gazelles fits the simile, but this section doesn’t fit with the “two days” the sentence starts with. I suspect this is referring to something other than the two days. (more on this below). Also, I’m not sure what Ketema is, though it could be a city/village. Or maybe another type of animal?

[The pole] I stumbled here because I had no context for this—from which a fine, fat gazelle was hanging—dug into Moïshe’s shoulder. You might consider flipping these so we see the gazelle first to understand this is a hunting party, then show his discomfort He lifted it over his head with both hands, shifting the weight to his other shoulder, which was no less sore from the carrying. The thin strips of hide that lashed the animal’s legs to its spit, strained and groaned with this interruption to its rhythm. But after a few steps, the body sagged and swayed in step with Moïshe and [his abo] I have little context for this word, so I don’t know what it means once more, the bindings squeaking as they rubbed back and forth against the pole. The scent of hot, blood-matted fur wafted into Moïshe’s nostrils as the winds shifted front.

Of the youngest three on this hunt, Moïshe was closest in height to [his abo, and since Abo] why is one capitalized and one not? I suspect abo means some type of mentor, but that’s just a guess had made this kill, naturally the gazelle was in [their] so Abo is a group since this is plural? charge. The second kill sagged on its pole between [Neighbor and Ahmadou, Kofi’s abo.] I assume these are all people, but I’m a little lost. Moïshe had watched the two men all day carrying their pole right beside him. Neither ever shifted the weight. They seemed to have shoulders of flint.

Each step across the hot, grassy mounds crinkled under Moïshe’s feet, reminding him of why they’d had to go so far on the hunt to begin with. It still hadn’t rained. Despite his sore shoulders, he thanked [the amlaks] feels like some kind of holy person for blessing [his abo] Now I’m thinking this means hunting party and the other hunters with success. There would be a feast to celebrate his betrothal to Imani.

The questions:

1. Does this introduction of my third viewpoint character make it sound like the story is starting over again or like a new story is starting? [Something that I'm obviously trying to avoid as I first introduce each of the three POV characters. Note: Imani, the second POV character introduced, is mentioned in this first sentence. But the first POV character introduced, Longo, lives in a different locale and their stories don't cross over until much later.]


Very hard to say without seeing anything else of the book. If Imani has already been introduced and readers know her, and Moïshe was mentioned enough in her POV chapter that readers remember who he is and how he’s important, then they should be grounded enough to know this is another person in the story and move right into it. If he’s only mentioned a little, they might not remember him, and could be a little confused.

This does feel like an introduction, but that’s normal since it is indeed introducing a new character. If it refers to a character readers have already met, odds are it won’t feel like the story is starting over. There’s a connection to a previous story line with the betrothal (I’m guessing). I can’t tell if any of the problems mentioned here also connect to the core conflict, but if they do, that will also help show this is part of the main storyline.

You might look back to Imani’s POV and ask:
  • What will readers know about Moïshe before they reach his POV?
  • What plot threads (if any) are suggested or setup in Imani’s POV that continue here?
  • Is there a way to start laying any groundwork (or develop more groundwork if it’s weak) for Moïshe’s POV in Imani’s POV?

Use your best judgment and try to read Imani’s chapter objectively. If a reader didn’t know who Moïshe was or anything about the story other than what has been read so far, would they understand who Moïshe is and how he fits into the tale? Flesh out accordingly where you feel it might be weak. Often, all it takes is a word or two to clarify something.

(Here’s more on introducing characters in s story)

2. Are the words from the character's native language and the names of minor characters confusing or clunky in this passage?

For me, yes (readers chime in here). Mostly because there was little context for me to figure out what and who they were. The clues also kept changing, so what I thought it meant shifted as I learned new information. Let’s look closer at those sentences:
Two days stretched out like gazelles, resting on their sides in the heat of the day, and beyond them, the distant grey-blue ribs of sand in which Ketema lie.
This sentence refers to how Moïshe feels about the two-day trek, so the gazelle simile works well and helps establish his world. But then it references distant ribs of sand and something that might be a village or an animal, and that doesn’t work with the simile. Since it’s lie and not lies, I’m leaning more toward Ketema being an animal than a place. “In which alligators lie” vs “in which New York lies.” But then it's capitalized, which means it's a proper noun, so I'm not sure.

Perhaps make this two sentences so the split between concepts in clear. I’d suggest adding a word or two to help show what Ketema is. “The village of” or “sharp teeth of” or the like. You might also consider just cutting it if Ketema have no bearing on the story at this point in time. Save it for when readers can see what this is and have more context to understand it.
But after a few steps, the body sagged and swayed in step with Moïshe and his abo once more, the bindings squeaking as they rubbed back and forth against the pole.
In this sentence, I don’t really know what an abo is. I get a sense it’s a person, but since he mentioned “the bindings” right after using the word abo, it could be referring to the bindings or harness used to transport the gazelles. Often the explanation for a word comes after it in this fashion.
Of the youngest three on this hunt, Moïshe was closest in height to his abo, and since Abo had made this kill, naturally the gazelle was in their charge.
The capitalization switch here confused me further. In this instance, abo does feel more like a person, perhaps a mentor or senior “officer” type. But the capital Abo feels more like a name or title, and I don’t understand what the difference between “his abo” and “Abo” is. It’s also “their kill” which leads me to believe Abo is plural, referring to a group of some type.
The second kill sagged on its pole between Neighbor and Ahmadou, Kofi’s abo.
I assume these are others in the hunting party, and abo once again feels like a mentor type word, but Neighbor has a strange usage. It’s an actual word with specific context, and doesn’t fit the naming rules already established in this world. I also have no other context for who these people are aside from members of the hunting party, and I don’t get a sense that they’re important, so I wonder why they’re mentioned. Kofi feels like someone who might be important, since Moïshe referred to Ahmadou as Kofi’s abo. So does that mean Neighbor is Moïshe’s abo? Or are Neighbor, Ahmadou, and Kofi all part of the same abo?
It still hadn’t rained. Despite his sore shoulders, he thanked the amlaks for blessing his abo and the other hunters with success.
Amalks feels like a holy group of some type, maybe spirits or priests. Again, abo comes across as a group. But it uses abo and other hunters in the same sentence, so are all abos hunters or is abo something a little different?

All of these terms can work just fine if enough context is provided to make it clear what they are. I get a general sense of them, but the usage doesn’t feel consistent, so I’m a little confused overall. You mentioned them being in Moïshe’s native language, but is that a real language or one created for the novel? And would readers know they’re real words and be able to understand them?

It might be worth taking a minute and asking if you need the native words. Using the old, “if it’s a rabbit, don’t call it a smeerp,” advice, what’s gained by the native words versus using words that are instantly recognizable to readers? If they’re different just so they sound “fantasy and exotic” then maybe rethink a few so readers can better understand the story. If the terms have solid grounding in the fantasy world, then they’d help flesh out that world.

For example, I can see a group of hunters with a specific purpose being named something to has meaning to these people. “Abo” could easily refer to a group with a task that is different from a regular hunting party. “Amlaks” feels a little superfluous, because why not just call them gods or spirits or priests or whatever they are? It’s a name referring to something that already has a name, but it doesn’t change the understanding of that name at all. In fact, the name actually makes it harder to understand what it is because it has no basis in our world.

(Here’s more on using foreign languages in fiction)

Overall, I think a little tweaking to clarify what things are would solve the confusion I had. I’d suggest looking at the terms you’re concerned about and trusting your instincts on what is working and what isn’t. If you have concerns about a term, cut the term and see how it reads with a real word. If it doesn’t change the story any and makes it easier to understand, don’t use the term. If a sense of worldbuilding is lost, keep the term and add a little more context to it so readers will know what it means. You might also try getting a beta reader who doesn’t know the story or the terms to read it and mark anything they didn’t understand. In general, less is usually more in these cases.

The italics also might not be necessary, as you typically only italicize foreign words, and these words are normal to these characters. “I’m going hunting with my abo” is like saying “I’m going dancing with my peeps.” You wouldn't write peeps. That could help make the terms less obvious.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Hmm. Always enjoy these that the brave volunteers put up… and Janice’s take on them, which is often but not always the one I had. For instance, and I have no idea why I made this connection, nor any idea if it’s correct, but I took abo to be his spear or weapon, with which he killed his gazelle.

    While I generally agree with Janice’s comment about the native words, in this instance, would the reader be familiar with them from earlier portions of the story? That would make them a lot more palatable, I think.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  2. (Part 1 due to post character limit)
    I enjoyed this section of story. I do agree with most of Janice's comments, particularly in relation to your first question. This does feel like it could be an introduction to a story, but it could just as easily be switching to another character who has aleady have been identified.

    I've noted my thoughts below. :-)

    "Only two more days of walking separated Moïshe from Imani. Two days stretched out like gazelles, resting on their sides in the heat of the day, and beyond them, the distant grey-blue ribs of sand in which Ketema lie."

    -I really like the imagery of two days being stretched out like gazelles. It adds both flavor and wordbuilding. My only confusion was whether Ketema was a place or a person. "the distant grey-blue ribs" section threw me off since I wasn't initially sure what it referred to.

    "The pole—from which a fine, fat gazelle was hanging—dug into Moïshe’s shoulder. "
    -It took me a second look to figure out what the pole was referring to. Maybe reword the sentence to make this clear. Perhaps "A fine, fat gazelle hung from the pole that dug into Moishe's shoulder. He lifted... (and if the pole has a particular name for it, you might be able to use that here in conjunction with calling it a pole).

    "He lifted it over his head with both hands, shifting the weight to his other shoulder, which was no less sore from the carrying."
    - "the carrying" feels a bit oddly written. Maybe cut "from the carrying?"

    "The thin strips of hide that lashed the animal’s legs to its spit, strained and groaned with this interruption to its rhythm. But after a few steps, the body sagged and swayed in step with Moïshe and his abo once more, the bindings squeaking as they rubbed back and forth against the pole. The scent of hot, blood-matted fur wafted into Moïshe’s nostrils as the winds shifted front. "
    -I love the description in this. I'm not sure what an abo is, but if it's been clarified earlier, or will be clarified shortly, I'm good with this.

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    Replies
    1. (Part 2 due to post character limit)
      "Of the youngest three on this hunt, Moïshe was closest in height to his abo, and since Abo had made this kill, naturally the gazelle was in their charge. "
      -I'm not really sure what abo is, especially since it's capitalized here but not before. Initially I wondered if it is some kind of creature walking alongside Moishe, and Moishe is really young, therefore shorter, and closer in height? Or perhaps some kind of specialized cart?

      "The second kill sagged on its pole between Neighbor and Ahmadou, Kofi’s abo. Moïshe had watched the two men all day carrying their pole right beside him. Neither ever shifted the weight. They seemed to have shoulders of flint."
      -The name 'Neighbor' feels odd, because I don't know the context. Also, I now realized abo is not a creature, but another person. However, I'm not sure what their relation is in regards to Moishe or Kofi. (Side note: I think it was where it said -his- abo that made me think this was a creature of some sort, helping to shoulder the burden. A reference earlier could help clarify this immeadietly. If a mentor, like Janice suggested, you might have the abo adjusting beside him to compensate for the shifting pole. Then we get a visual on what this person looks like, and how he/she acts toward Moishe.

      "Each step across the hot, grassy mounds crinkled under Moïshe’s feet, reminding him of why they’d had to go so far on the hunt to begin with. It still hadn’t rained. Despite his sore shoulders, he thanked the amlaks for blessing his abo and the other hunters with success. There would be a feast to celebrate his betrothal to Imani."
      -While I don't know what an amlak is, I'm okay with that for now. There are context clues that make me think that the amlaks are gods or spirits of some kind.

      By itself, I don't know what an abo is. If the term has been mentioned before, I don't think this will be a problem. To me, most of the references felt natural and created a nice sense of the world and a feeling for the type of culture Moishe might live in. If there aren't any other mentions of abo before this, however, I'd see if I could slip in a sentence of explanation to clarify. While the names and words might have been a bit confusing, they didn't feel clunky to me. Instead, I think they did a nice job enhancing the world, or would with a couple lines of clarification.

      Good luck with your writings. I hope this helps. :-)

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  3. My thoughts on the bits of language are that they add to the sense of "other" world, or "other" society. I agree that the word "Abo" or "abo" could stand a sentence or phrase of explanation, precisely because of the capitalization of one and not the other. But I had no problem with figuring out that this was a mentor, or assistant, or hunter/companion. I'm okay with finding that out as we go along.
    Moishe's discomfort definitely helps set the tone, and I had no problem with figuring out the purpose of the pole.
    My own WIP has four POV characters, so I understand the problem of introducing each one. This feels quite well done, and yes, it could be the beginning of the book, but it works very well as a continuation with a new character.
    Well done, I say!

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  4. I assumed abo was the word for grandfather, and the capitalization followed the rule set out in English, as in "sometimes my dad helps me" but "sometimes Dad helps me." I assumed grandfather rather than father probably because the Spanish word for grandfather is abuelo. But abo could also be uncle or some other relative.

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  5. I'm pretty sure the words in the story are just words from a different language (or multiple languages) as opposed to a made up language. I didn't understand them but I do see the need for them to be there. As historical fiction the words ground the story in a real place albeit with fantastical elements.

    English italics next to the first instance of each word could be a good technique. Alternatively you could add context as many have suggested. On the other hand sometimes the context is revealed in repetition. If Abo or Ketema are later used in a way that's easier for the reader I'd be okay with that. It adds to the sense of discovery.

    You could look at Nnedi Okarofor, NK Jemisin or even Chimamanda for examples of seamless integration of African languages into fantasy or non fantasy, respectively

    Hope this helps

    ReplyDelete