Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Would you explain that, please?

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Let me say first that in California it's soda. Not pop. Not coke (generically speaking). And never, ever soda pop. Just soda.

I thought it was interesting that Debbie's post came immediately after Bonnie finished reading/editing on of my manuscripts. Bonnie. From Canada. I was amazed to discover the differences that exist in language between my small place in the world, and hers, even though our countries are next-door neighbors on this planet. At times I laughed at the references she didn't understand or wasn't familiar with; other times I was just plain surprised. For example: I laughed when she questioned my use of the phrase "crazy bone" instead of "funny bone." She'd never heard "crazy bone" before. So I wondered, is this just a family thing for me, that I use crazy bone instead of funny bone because that's what I grew up hearing? But I checked the dictionary and sure enough they're interchangeable. And when I made reference to AARP, Bonnie said, "I don't know what this is, but I'm Canadian ..." That really made me laugh.

I also had to laugh at Henrietta's "knock me up" comment. She'd have gotten a double-take from me, for sure. It reminded me that in America when we say, "I'm stuffed," we mean that we're full from a hearty meal. But in South Africa, it's a crude sexual term. Who knew?

Bonnie's comments to my manuscript combined with Debbie's post were reminders that how we present our message matters. It's important that we not lose our readers with our jargon. Sure, there are times when jargon adds to the characterization of a cast member of your novel. And usually the reader can discern the meaning of unfamiliar words/terms by the context in which it's used. But since the purpose of writing is to communicate, it behooves the writer to keep jargon to a minimum. This is one area where an editor can help point out language that might be too narrow in its scope.

Another way to lose or frustrate readers is to pepper your prose with words most people don't know the meaning of. I enjoy coming across a new word every now and then as I read fiction, but who wants to read for pleasure with a novel in one hand and a dictionary in the other? I realize most e-readers will define any word the cursor stops on. But having to use that feature repeatedly would certainly take the pleasure out of reading. And if, like me, you prefer to hold a real book in your hands when you read, you either look up the words you don't know or skip over them.

Which leads me to my main point. As Christian authors we continually run the risk of speaking a language not everyone understands. Even within Christian circles terms can mean different things to different denominations. To those unfamiliar with Christianese we might as well be speaking Greek. It's a sure way of alienating a reader. We who write faith-based fiction should strive to write it as though we're speaking to people who don't understand the language of the church.

I love the quote by by author Elmore Leonard, who said of his writing: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." I'm one of those readers who never skips a word. Not one. I don't skim over description, and if I come to a word I don't know the definition of I look it up. I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority in that regard. What about you? What kind of reader are you?


Susie Finkbeiner said...

I don't mind looking up a word or Googling a concept occasionally. We really do live in a pretty remarkable time for education ourselves.

What bothers me is when someone, writing out of their own context (ie, a Northerner writing as a Southerner) tries TOO hard to write in jargon and/or cultural things. That's not to say I don't appreciate voice. But it needs to be done tastefully and with dignity for the culture. We don't need to make caricatures. Does that make sense?

Marti Pieper said...

As writers, we walk a narrow path. And sometimes our love of language leads us to use words and phrases that, wonderful as they may sound in our heads, don't communicate--or (as in some of the examples you cite) communicate things we don't intend.

I serve as director of prayer/publication for a student missions-sending organization. Their founder teaches the young missionaries, "Don't let the messenger get in the way of the message."

In other words, don't let something about yourself--speech, actions, habits, personal preferences--get in the way of the gospel. Don't let what people notice about you as an individual become more prominent than the truth you share.

In the same way,we must ensure that our words and phrases don't get in the way of our stories. In the same way I must lay down my right to comfort or convenience in order to "by all means save some," I must be willing to lay aside my personal preferences so my writing will reach the people for whom I intend it.

I hope this makes sense. Late-night writing combined with early-morning commenting may inadvertently prove my point.

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon and Marti, that's why I always pray Psalm 143:1 before I get up to speak to a group (and other times too): Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.

Latayne C Scott said...

Um, that's Psalm 141:3. Obviously I need to pray that He set a guard of accuracy over my fingertips too.

Andrea Mack said...

Great post, Sharon. I'm Canadian and lived in NYC for a couple of years, and my co-workers and I were often surprised by the differences.

Marilyn Yocum said...

Excellent advice and a FUN read! I learned a lot, mostly to be v-e-r-y careful and have critiquing friends from other parts of the country...and world, if possible!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'm really thinking I'm going to start calling it crazy bone in honor of you.

My husband and I have the pop/soda debate all the time. We try to teach our kids opposite terms and it can get pretty lively. Bet they're confused!

Great point with our writing.

~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

I struggle with this too, but a little less than I used to...I learned from the Harry Potter books that readers, children even, will accept new, big, hard-to-pronounce words if the story transports them, carries them away breathless and agog (grin)...

And I simply adore 'crazy bone' and any other examples of voice and specificity to place/time/memory...that's incarnational writing at its best...a jarring exercise is to look at how many times Jesus spoke and the folks didn't 'get it'...the master communicator and the fella spoke in riddles most of the time...of course Jesus just wrote one book and its been a perennial bestseller, so he may not be the best example...

Melissa Hambrick said...

My "teeth and bones" chapter that Bonnie so graciously edited (the bite marks are beginning to wear off) mentioned a character listening to NPR, and Bonnie said the same thing..."Is this an American thing?" We forget that we live in an American bubble; for me, in a Southern bubble; definitely here in Nashville, a "Christian" bubble, where one of the first questions asked when you meet someone is, "So, where do you go to church?" Those experiences naturally translate to our writing, and I think in Christian fiction especially, it is worth looking at the broader picture. Salt & light are powerful things; Exclusivity is not.

Nicole said...

I will look up the word IF I can't get it from the context and IF I don't mind stopping at that point in the story.

These references remind me of Ziva on NCIS when she attempts an American phrase and blows it, or Dr. Brennan on Bones when she attempts a colloquialism with the same results as Ziva. Usually hilarious.

Nikole Hahn said...

I'm reading a book called, "Invitations from God" by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. She uses words that are definitely regional. One word "liming" she defined and I had never heard that in the west. As long as they define the word for you, I think it's okay.

Megan Sayer said...

I grew up reading Judy Blume books, and had to wrestle with such strange terms as Drug Stores, A&Ps, the New Jersey Turnpike, Root beer, Brownstones and Connecticut. This was long before the internet, and I knew zero Americans. Rather than detracting though, they held a special fascination: mysteries to be held and revered and, as I said, wrestled with. It took me YEARS to realise that these were things and places as familiar to some people as my home town was to me, and that disappointed me. I like the idea of a special language that exists between author and reader, and secrets that only "we" know about. On thinking this through this morning I've realised that this early-reading experience has influenced my writing too - I love to explore and present words in different contexts, to unsettle them and use them for their onamatopeic value more than for their true meaning, and to take people on those journeys with me. And also, I think that those years of beholding such mysteries as the A&P and Connecticut has made me more comfortable in holding and accepting the mysteries of the Divine, and things I can't understand.
Wow. Thanks Judy Blume, look what you've done : )

Anonymous said...

Susie, you're so right about Southern jargon. I've seen writers spell pronounciations phonetically. That never works. Subtle nuances and dialogue action tags work much better. Marti, good comments. Thank you for the excellent reminder. Latayne, that's a wonderful Scripture to use. I'm going to mark it in my Bible. Andrea, I'd never given it much thought, but it only makes sense. If we have those kinds of differences between regions of the US, we'll certainly have them between countries. Until now, I only thought of word spelling (color v. colour, etc.) and word pronounciations as the main differences in our language. Marilyn, it's nice to have you here! Wendy, I'm honored : )

Beautifuldue, "incarnational writing." What a great term. LOVE your Jesus comment.

Wait, Melissa, isn't the question where do y'all go to church? My sister lives in Knoxville : ) Love your last statement about salt and light and exclusivity. Wonderful words.

Nicole, I agree about not interrupting the flow of reading, but that makes it all the more frustrating for me if I don't look up the unfamiliar word. Are the flub-ups on NCIS and Bones intentional or for real?

Nikole, I'm thinking Invitations from God is non-fiction? That makes it much easier to define an uncommon word.

Megan, what interesting insight. It never occured to me that a person from another "English-speaking" country would not understand so much of American coloquialisms. But now that I think about it, it's no different from the British terms that are so different from the American equivalent. It's just that I never thought about it. Shame on me. And that some of these unknown things have helped you "accept the mysteries of the Divine" ... what a wonderful thing.

Bonnie Grove said...

*Bonnie is huddled in study, brushing up on her Americanese*


Kick who in the what now?

Nicole said...

Yes, the flubs are supposed to demonstrate the difficulty of American colliquialisms/expressions for Ziva and to show how "out of touch" the beautiful brainac Bones is with the culture being an isolated genius forensic anthropologist/lab rat.

Stephanie Reed said...

Day late and a dollar short, but another reason I love my Kindle is that it came with a free Oxford English Dictionary pre-loaded. All I have to do is move the cursor to the beginning of the word and there's the definition on the page. Of course, slang or regional speech may not be up-to-date, which is your point, no? :-)