Monthly Archives: April 2014

Dialogue in fiction: Part I – How to write authentic dialects and foreign accents

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

This is the first in a series of blog posts on techniques for writing realistic dialogue in fiction.

People speaking in different dialectsOf the many things to master when writing dialogue in fiction, creating authentic dialects and natural-sounding foreign accents for your characters is possibly the most challenging. If you don’t get the accent just right, you risk having your characters come off looking like caricatures. Worse, you alienate readers, who don’t like being slowed and confused by a lot of nonstandard spellings. And worst of all, you may appear to be discriminatory or even ignorant by inadvertently stereotyping your characters through how you portray their accents. In this post, I’ll take a look at ways to make your characters’ English dialects and foreign accents as realistic as possible without reducing them to goofy stereotypes.

The English language is the lingua franca of our modern world. All over the world, people in foreign countries are learning English to help them with communications in business, finance, medicine, science, technology, and many other fields. The number of people in the world speaking English with a foreign accent has never been greater. Add to that the fact that in virtually every part of the English-speaking world, different regions and ethnicities speak English differently, and chances are you have at least one character in your novel who speaks with an accent.

Accents are caused by the influence of a speaker’s native language or native dialect on the English words they speak. The differences can be found in pronunciation, diction (word choice), syntax (word order), grammar (how parts of speech are structured), and idiom (peculiarities of certain phrases). Accent and dialect can convey differences in ethnicity, geography, demographics, class, education, and culture. Even standard English is a dialect.

Nonstandard spellings and contractions
When you’re reading a novel with characters who speak with foreign accents or in dialect, how much misspelling can you tolerate in their dialogue? Probably not much—today’s readers don’t have much patience for puzzling out phonetic spellings and odd contractions. (A contraction is any word or set of words that uses an apostrophe to replace any dropped letter or letters: ’Tis th’ night b’fo’ Christmas, an’ I’s fixin’ t’go carolin’ wi’ y’all.)

This is quite a change from 150 years or so ago. Back in the 19th century, it was in vogue to capture every scrap of phonetic pronunciation to render a character realistic. Twain, Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe are a few authors who took pains to achieve this. Look at this example from Huckleberry Finn (1884), and see if you don’t find it just slightly annoying:

Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po’ little thing! De Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long’s he live!’ Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb—en I’d ben atreat’n her so!

Most readers today become annoyed quickly by this kind of writing, where almost every word needs to be examined to decipher its pronunciation and meaning. It’s distracting; it slows readers down, pulls them out of the story, out of the “fictional dream” you worked so hard to create. They may end up paying less attention to what’s being said than to how it’s being said.

Nobody speaks English the way it’s spelled
Everybody who speaks English has an accent to others not in their region or ethnic group. And almost nobody truly pronounces English the way it’s spelled. Even someone with little trace of an English accent might say, “I wan-ned t’ go to th’ movie, bud I godda do th’ shoppin’ first.” Not even the Queen’s English comes out the way it’s spelled (far from it—think about all those dropped Rs). Among some of the most overdone written accents and dialects are “Southernese” from the American South, African American English, British cockney, and Scottish or Irish brogue.

As writers, we wouldn’t think of spelling all of our characters’ dialogue phonetically, so why do we do it only with characters who speak in a dialect or with an accent that we don’t consider “standard”? It can imply that those characters are inferior, ignorant, less educated (or not at all), less intelligent—in other words, it makes a parody of them, which is the very opposite of the original goal of making them realistic and believable. (In Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell gave only her black characters phonetic spellings, wrongly implying they were inferior, even though the blacks and whites spoke a phonetically similar dialect.)

So what can you do to avoid falling into this trap with your foreign-accented characters or those who speak in a pronounced dialect? Let’s take a look.

pronunciationModeration is essential
Be conservative. You don’t need to spell out every diphthong and dropped “g.” Less is more. Whatever combination of techniques you use to render an accent or dialect in dialogue, use them with a light hand. It’s tempting, because it’s easiest, to write a dialect or accent phonetically, but if you overdo this, you’ll confuse, bore, insult, or possibly even lose your readers.

Here’s another example of an overdone accent—this one a Southern black accent from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tom’s Aunt Chloe says to him:

S’pose we must be resigned; but oh Lord! how ken I? If I know’d anything whar you’s goin’, or how they’d sarve you! Missis says she’ll try and ’deem ye, in a year or two; but Lor! nobody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills ’em! I’ve hearn ’em tell how dey works ’em up on dem ar plantations.

Most readers today simply don’t have the tolerance for all those misspellings and contractions.

To achieve moderation when writing accents, first, do some careful research on your character’s particular accent or dialect. Check out other books with similar characters. Then choose just half a dozen or so nonstandard spellings and contractions, and use them consistently. Diana Gabaldon does this well with believable Scottish brogue in her novel Outlander. Just a few well-chosen words bring her character to life realistically: aye (yes), nae (no), ye (you), dinnae (didn’t), canna (cannot), ’twas (it was), laird (lord). Here is an excerpt:

There was nae doubt, ye see, of Colum’s courage, nor yet of his mind, but only of his body. ’Twas clear he’d never be able to lead his men into battle again. . . . So a suggestion was made that Colum be allowed to become laird, as he should in the ordinary way, and Dougal be made war chieftain, to lead the clan in time of battle.

Rely more on diction, syntax, and idiom
Diction is word choice; syntax is word order. An idiom is a native expression, one that usually doesn’t make sense when non-native speakers try to analyze the individual words. Rather than overusing nonstandard spellings and contractions, it’s much more effective, in most cases, to use diction, syntax, and idiom to convey the accent of a non-native speaker of English.

Often, in other languages, words have different meanings and go in a different order from what we’re used to in English. This doesn’t make them wrong or inferior. In fact, it shows our own ignorance as native users of English if we don’t recognize this in our fictional characters’ accented speech. (One interesting tidbit I learned in my research is that Appalachian speech patterns, which many people tend to equate with a lack of education and backwoods isolation, may derive from the formal Elizabethan English of early settlers from the British Isles.)

Diction (word choice)
Different dialects use different words to convey the same meaning, or the same word to convey a different meaning. This can be as simple as Brits ordering chips while North Americans order French fries. And North American chips are crisps to Brits. Another less common example: Jamaicans don’t have a past tense for the word come. So if they say, “She come to my house yesterday,” it’s perfectly grammatically correct for them, not an indicator of class or education.

In some dialects and cultures, including a few African-American dialects, you might hear the word be used before a verb: “He be going to work.” In fact, this is not an erroneous auxiliary verb that should be is; it’s the way that dialect expresses an ongoing or continual action. Be used in this way means “He goes to work every day.” Removing the be construction means the action is happening only right now, not habitually. Linguists refer to this as the “habitual be.”

Syntax (word order)
Several Indian dialects end their sentences with verbs, so instead of saying “She doesn’t know that,” it’s natural for a Hindi character to express it in English as “That is not for her to be knowing.” In Spanish and French, adjectives typically follow the noun instead of preceding it, so you’d be more likely to hear a native Spanish or French speaker say, for la casa blanca or la maison blanche, “the house is white” rather than “the white house.” And in German, Spanish, and French, adverbs sometimes follow verbs rather than precede them.

how to say home in various languagesExamples of how syntax and diction work in different dialects:
→ North American English: He comes home a lot.
→ British: He comes home quite often. (Or, he quite often comes home.)
→ Certain types of African American dialects: He be coming home.
→ East Indian: Often it is home that he comes.
→ German: He comes often home.
→ French: He comes often home.
→ Jamaican: He come home for some time now.
→ Creole: He returns home often.

An idiom is an expression, a combination of regular words, that is unique to a particular dialect or language and may not make sense to any other. For example, do you think you would hear a native Spanish speaker say, “It’s raining cats and dogs”? Instead, in Spanish, the idiom is llueve a cántaros, which means, “It’s raining pitchers.” Learn the idioms of your foreign character’s native dialect or language and apply them judiciously. Perhaps have your character accidentally mix up an English idiom for a little fun (“It’s raining cats and puppies”), but be careful not to make him or her seem silly. (Here’s a great resource for Spanish idioms, by the way:

As most of us who’ve ever attempted to learn another language know, verb conjugation can be one of the most difficult things to master. Most non-native English speakers will learn the present tense but will take much longer to pick up the various more complex verb forms and tenses. So when writing realistic dialogue for your foreign characters, use the present tense more often than not, even when it’s incorrect (though use moderation with this, too). Instead of writing, “If I go swimming five times this week, I will have had a great workout,” write “I swim five times this week, so I have great workout.”

Some final tips
1. Try writing all your characters’ dialogue in standard English first. Get down what they’re saying, then worry about how they’re saying it. Study their accents and dialects for regional and foreign differences in syntax and diction, then go back and make small changes based on what you’ve learned.

2. It’s especially effective to include occasional foreign words, words that readers will recognize immediately as the character’s native language. Greetings like bonjour and adios, and terms of endearment like mon chéri, mi carina, and mein lieber are good choices because their meaning can be gleaned from the context. Again, don’t overdo this (which I may be guilty of here, just for the purpose of demonstrating):
→ “Tomorrow—it will be magnifique,” Cécile said as Bob got in the car. “Au revoir, mon chéri.”
→ “Adios, mi amiga,” Bonita said, waving. “I see you mañana.”

3. Occasionally, you can leave the dialogue in standard English and simply describe the accent to readers.
→ “Let’s go grab a pizza. Maybe we’ll get the Caesar’s salad too,” Giovanni said in a thick Italian accent.

4. Drop the indefinite or definite articles (a and the), or mix them up.
→ “We go eat pizza, maybe we get Caesar salad too?” Giovanni said.
→ “Why you not have the beer with a spaghetti, you not thirsty?” he asked.

5. Break some English grammar rules. For example, use comma splices or nonstandard grammar, just as I did in the two examples just above. At the same time, learn the rules of your characters’ native language or dialect so you know how to apply them when translated into English.

6. Be consistent. A character who says “I ain’t gonna let them mofos git me” shouldn’t show up in a later chapter saying “I simply won’t allow those nasty people to bother me.”

7. Read out loud. Make sure the dialogue has rhythm and consistency, even in its oddities. Then enlist the help of friends and others who are both familiar and unfamiliar with the foreign languages and dialects you’re using. Do the characters’ voices sound realistic to them?

8. Use a combination of all the techniques described here. The most effective dialogue combines appropriate idioms, jargon, and foreign words, a few misspellings, a few contractions, and careful attention to word choice, word order, tone, and rhythm.

9. Be aware of subtleties in speech patterns as well as word choice. For example, a British person would likely say “I’ve not seen the postman come round in days,” rather than the more North American “I haven’t seen the mail lady come by in days.”

Give your characters respect, dignity, authenticity
Respect your characters. Don’t turn them into a parody of themselves by overdoing any of these techniques. Conservative use of all these techniques will give them dignity and authenticity. If you set the tone with just a few well-chosen applications of these techniques, it won’t even be necessary to repeat them very often. Handling dialogue accents with care and moderation means you won’t look as if you’re disrespecting your characters’ ethnicity, regionalisms, culture, or education level—and, in turn, your readers will respect you, the author. Your ultimate goal is to give your readers authentic, realistic characters while still giving them a smooth and pleasant reading experience.

Have you wrestled with challenges with dialect and accents in your characters’ speech? Please share them in the comments here and contribute to the discussion!

♠ ♠ ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
March 27, 2014



I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a short while before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!


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The advantages of traditional publishing over self-publishing

fame and fortune through traditional publishing

Will traditional publishing bring you
fame and fortune?

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Last month, I posted a lengthy article on the advantages of self-publishing (also called indie publishing). It was easy to write; the ideas came almost faster than I could get them down. That post garnered some controversy—not surprising—and a request for a follow-up article. So, in the interest of fairness and objectivity, I promised to provide some balance with a look at the advantages of publishing through the traditional route—that of finding a publishing house to publish your book. But as I suspected, that task hasn’t been nearly as easy as the post on self-publishing advantages.

Why? Because there simply are not as many advan- tages with traditional publishing. However, although the quantity of benefits of self-publishing is greater (I numbered sixteen advantages on my blog post last month), the quality of the benefits of traditional publishing is often far greater than with self-publishing. But the issue is more complex than just the black-and-white, good versus bad, polarized, stereotyped ideas that many authors and others in the publishing world have adopted. Furthermore, the issue poses a great dichotomy that isn’t often addressed when lists like these are compiled.

So here, let’s take as objective a look as possible at traditional publishing. (It’s sometimes abbreviated to “trad publishing”; often you’ll also hear of “trade publishing,” which essentially means books sold in the commercial publishing trade, as opposed to textbooks or other noncommercial methods of publishing.)

First, let’s look at this dichotomy. It’s the reality of the great indie-versus-traditional-publishing debate, and it’s the fundamental, sometimes secret thinking of almost every aspiring author on the planet:

Given the choice between self-publishing and traditional publishing,
I would far prefer to be published by a big, brand-name publishing house.
Self-publishing is my second choice.

Yes, that’s the secret thinking—something that’s often overlooked in these discussions. The fact is, few authors would self-publish if given the right opportunity to publish with a traditional publisher. Most authors who decide to self-publish do so because they’ve considered their situation carefully, thoroughly, and realistically, and they’ve determined that they don’t stand even a remote chance of finding a traditional publisher. They’ve determined that their odds of success with their publishing experience are much greater than if they were to attempt to go the traditional route of agent and publishing house. And once they’ve made the decision to jump on the indie bandwagon, you’ll usually hear them touting the benefits of that choice to the exclusion of any advantages of the traditional route. They have to do this; it’s in their best interests to make their indie-publishing decision a success, and not to dwell on the negatives.

But therein lies the dichotomy and the secret that many authors are reluctant to discuss (or perhaps even admit to themselves)—that self-publishing is almost always a second-best choice. It’s a tough situation: resigning yourself to the fact that your second-best choice is actually going to give you the best chance of success.

Let’s face it—none of us wants to be second best. That idea that self-publishing is a second-best choice is why so many authors hold out for the narrow possibility that an agent will be enchanted enough with their manuscript to make the effort of finding them a publisher. It’s just about every author’s dream.

And there’s nothing wrong with having that dream and holding onto it, as long as you’ve done your due diligence and you’re aware of your odds. And you’re prepared to be tenacious, perseverant, and resilient for perhaps years and through any number of rejections and setbacks.

So do you and your manuscript have what it takes to make it to the big leagues of publishing? Are you determined to pursue your #1 choice, that dream of most authors—to find an agent who will find you a mid-sized or big traditional publisher and help pave your way to achieving fame, fortune, and a place on best-seller lists? If so, here’s what you can expect that you won’t necessarily get through the self-publishing route.

Advantages of publishing with a traditional publisher
1. Finances and cash flow. As some of you who are reading this article probably already know, it’s not cheap to self-publish, especially if you want to do it right. Several rounds of editing are needed, then cover and interior page design, then proofreading, printing (or uploading to e-book), marketing, and publicity. Each of these tasks requires knowledge and education on your part, if only enough to know you’re hiring the right experts and services. It can be daunting, and it is expensive.

On the other hand, if a publisher from a mid-sized or big house takes you on, you won’t have to absorb nearly as many of those costs as you otherwise would with self-publishing. However, be prepared to pay a freelance editor for at least one round of professional editing before you begin submitting your manuscript to agents. In addition, after your book is in print, you’ll be expected to do more of your own publicity and marketing than at any time in recent publishing history: publishing houses no longer have the huge budgets they used to for mega-promotion, book tours, and coddling and pampering of their authors through the promotions stage.

2. Advances. In general, trade publishers pay authors an advance against royalties. Although it’s no longer typically in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as it may have been in the past (unless you’re a really big name), this advance is yours to keep, even if your book doesn’t sell enough copies to cover the amount. Your advance can be used to cover your expenses while continuing to research, edit, and polish your manuscript and to begin writing your next book.

Bookstore bestsellers

Hope to see your book on a bookstore’s
bestseller table?

3. Prestige and cachet for the author. Oh my—the respect! The admiration! The endless bragging rights! The chance of a movie deal! Translations in ten languages! Future book deals! Knowing you’re in the big leagues with other big-name authors you find in bookstores! Let’s be honest: if you’re asked who published your book, would you rather answer “me” or “Penguin Random House”? And do you think most people who ask you that question will be more likely to buy your book if it’s published by you or Penguin Random House? Intangible, and often tangible, benefits like these can make an author swoon with dizziness at the possibilities. The sky can seem the limit if only a traditional publisher might see the potential in your book and be willing to sign off on your first book deal.

4. Perception, credibility, and legitimacy among readers. Even in a publishing world that’s exploding with self-published books, the reading public’s perception is still largely skewed to name-brand-published books. Readers feel that books that have been approved by literary agencies, acquisitions editors, and big publishers are more likely to be a great read than indie books. This perception may even skew a reader’s thinking so much that she thinks she’s reading a great trade-published book when it actually may just be mediocre and not all that well written or, alas, well edited. Traditionally published books come with more legitimacy, and they give you, the author, more credibility. This perception exists, unfortunately, because there are still so many self-published books out there that have not had proper editing. It will take time for this perception to change, and meanwhile, that’s why freelance editors like me are always encouraging self-publishers to have your manuscript edited, no matter where else you may cut corners on your way to publication.

5. Quality control at each step of the publication process.

  • Experienced editors at every level. Your book will likely be scrutinized by an acquisitions editor, developmental editor, managing editor, substantive editor, copy editor, and proofreader. This team will usually include some of the editors best in the business.
  • Cover design, layout, and typesetting. High-quality cover and interior page design can be expensive, but your publisher will cover all design costs. Again, some of the best designers in the business work at this level.
  • Proofreading. The last stage in the publication process before printing, proofreading is an essential step that is still often skipped by self-publishers on a budget.
  • Printing and distribution costs and logistics are always handled by your publishing house.
  • Marketing, publicity, promotion, public relations (see #6, below).
  • Better management of subsidiary and international rights.

6. Marketing and mainstream exposure. If you sign on with a big or mid-sized publisher, while you  shouldn’t expect the high degree of marketing, publicity, and promotions commonly associated with the big publishers of the 20th century, you may expect to get far more exposure than you could ever get on your own without a Herculean effort. Publishers are well connected—and sometimes owned by—the big media conglomerates (Simon & Schuster is part of the CBS empire, for example). They can position you well to garner respected book reviews, media interviews, book signings, occasional tours, award nominations and wins, and other promotional opportunities. A big publisher can make sure your book is part of the library, bookstore, and general publishing infrastructure to place you in the most optimal position for public exposure. You will often be encouraged to have your own promotional website, to blog, and to do some of your own promotion using social media, but this may be restricted.

Having read lists of the benefits and disadvantages of both indie publishing and traditional publishing, many authors these days may be left wondering, are those my only two choices? Can’t some of the best features of both these avenues be pursued simultaneously? Of course they can be, and it’s happening with increasing frequency in today’s increasingly diverse book-publishing landscape.

More alternatives to the traditional route
Thanks to a recent comment from my astute colleague Adrienne Montgomerie, I was reminded that I’ve always advocated trying to both self-publish and traditional publish—her comment only reinforced my strong opinion. Indeed, why not do both? There is no argument I’m aware of that says you can’t both self-publish and at the same time be querying agents with the hope and intention of finding a traditional publisher. And if you’re successful at both, then the sky’s the proverbial limit in terms of how far your book can travel into the realm of publishing success.

And there are many other innovative ways to get published without resorting to the dreaded subsidy publishers like AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford, Hay House, and others, many of which fall under the gigantic, scammy Author Solutions Inc. umbrella. (See more about this issue on my pages here and here. These are also called publishing services companies or fee-based publishers. Neither is true self-publishing.)

Aside from these scams, thousands of legitimate small publishers and small presses exist that come in all sorts of models and formats; with some financial assistance from you, sometimes along with creative ideas for crowd-funding, they have the editorial experience to help you on the road to publication. Many of these today call themselves hybrid publishers. While they can’t offer the prestige or advances of one of The Big Five publishing companies*, they try to combine some of the other best features of both indie and traditional publishing. For example, my colleague Greg Ioannou runs Iguana Books, a hybrid publisher that asks the author to pitch in with publishing costs—usually through crowd-funding—and in return pays royalties of up to 85%. Don’t discount these small presses and publishers, but as I’ve said in my other articles on this subject, always do your homework before spending money on anything related to your book’s publication.

And while you’re investigating all your possibilities, there’s no reason you can’t be writing some query letters and having your manuscript edited in preparation for submission to literary agents. There’s no reason you can’t cling also to the loftiest goal of almost every author who has ever written a book in recent history—to sign a book deal with a big or mid-sized publishing house.

* Note: The major trade publishing houses in the world are often called The Big Five. These were reduced from The Big Six in 2013 when Random House and Penguin merged. The Big Five are now 1) Penguin Random House, 2) Simon & Schuster, 3) Hachette Book Group, 4) MacMillan Publishers, and 5) HarperCollins. Though you may not be familiar with all these names, you’ll likely know some of their hundreds of divisions and imprints such as Little, Brown and Company, William Morrow, Henry Holt, St. Martin’s Press, Knopf, Doubleday, Ballantine, Scribner, Touchstone, Putnam, Viking, Signet, Thomas Nelson, and countless others. Separate from The Big Five is a host of mid-sized trade publishers including Hyperion (Disney), Perseus, John Wiley, Kensington, Harlequin, W.W. Norton, and many others, each of which has dozens of its own imprints.

Do you know of other advantages and benefits to publishing the traditional way that I’ve missed here? Please join discussion and add them in the comments below!

♠ ♠ ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
April 10, 2014



I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a short while before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!


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