Stonecoal English

The Dutch call it Stonecoal English. In English, this form of broken English is sometimes referred to as Dunglish. When two languages seem quite alike, like Dutch and English in this case, it can be difficult to learn both of them. This is something many Dutch people “walk against” (which is a monstrosity and should be read as “have trouble with”).
I have come across this problem many times, especially since Dutch and English words often sound alike without sharing their meaning. “False friends” is what these words are called. For instance, the Dutch word “eventueel” does not mean “in the end”, like the English “eventually”. Instead, it is used to indicate a possibility. This is one of the words I struggled with for ages, until I finally realised that maybe I should look it up in a dictionary. After all, all those English sentences sounded very strange to me…
As a writer, this is something I’ve had – and probably still have – to overcome. I cannot just drop my native language like it’s nothing and start over with a blank slate. It is easy to make the same mistakes over and over. It is easy to slip up and ignore all rules of the English language. I am not going to do that, but at the moment I’m not even sure anymore if what I am saying is actual English or yet another instance of “Stonecoal English”.
However, this is not to say that Dunglish is all that horrible. It has its positive sides. For example, back in the early 1900s, it allowed the Dutch harbour workers to communicate with the English merchants who came to their harbours. Although they did not speak English, both parties were able to understand this cross-breed, no matter how strange it sounded. Nowdays, most younger people are able to speak English relatively fine, but the problem can still be seen, especially in the older generation. It may be a stupid, crude example, but almost everyone knows the tale of the two politicians. “What are your hobbies?” president Kennedy supposedly asked the Dutch minister Luns, to which Luns replied: “I fok horses!” (“Fok” means “to breed” in Dutch). “Pardon?” Kennedy said. Luns enthusiastically said: “Yes, paarden!” (“Paarden” are horses.) I am not sure how much of this is true, but it is one of the most quoted examples of Dunglish, albeit very humiliating.
As a student of the English language, this shouldn’t happen to me. I know what English sounds like and I usually know what not to say or write in order to avoid confusion. It is still stresful, though, as writing a novel in a language that’s not your own feels slightly unnatural. I have to “let on” (“opletten”, “to keep an eye on”) both the language diffences and the cultural ones. For instance, I’ve learned that cursing in English is almost unforgivable, whereas in Dutch words like “shit” are hardly offensive at all. Having a kid in my story use the word “crap” felt like a sin. I’ll probably have to remove it, although it seems a little overbearing to me. Don’t even try to use “funny” curse words in front of Dutch kids – they will mock you. Knowing the difference is an important aspect in avoiding to speak Dunglish. While this is not a case of broken English but a cultural difference, it still is one of the mistakes often made by the Dutch.
All in all, learning a second language is quite difficult, especially when the two languages are as alike as Dutch and English. It can be dealt with, though. Some people like to make fun of their Dunglish. Others just have to work hard in order not to embarass themselves.

An Essay on Essays

Essay-writing is one of the most important skills taught at college-level education. However, while writing an academic essay generally is not that difficult for those who know the rules, the rules are still the basis for the entire skill. In order to write an academic essay, one should pay attention to thesis statement, topic sentences, layered structures and an academic tone.

Firstly, the thesis statement is the core of the entire essay and should therefore be clear and complete. For an academic essay, the thesis statement should always be the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. It is supposed to contain every point to be made in the essay, although it is used as a summary and should be clear per se. A great thesis statement cannot be too long, though; it can best be kept under a maximum of twenty-five to thirty words.

Secondly, the topic sentences are supposed to be elaborations on the points made in the thesis statement, meaning that every topic should be granted its own paragraph. The rules for a topic sentence are almost identical to those for the thesis statement: it has to be clear, concise and should not surpass the maximum word count. By and large, a topic sentence starts with a linking word. ‘On one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’, ‘on the contrary’ and the numerals ‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, ‘lastly’ et cetera are appropriate as paragraph starters. Also, every topic sentence should be explained in its own paragraph.

Thirdly, layered structures in the body paragraphs cause the argument of every paragraph to be comprehensible and clear. There can be said to be three layers, which should be used in order. The first layer is generally the topic sentence itself, which introduces the subject or the argument. The second layer is the explanation of the first, but it can contain more than one sentence, as opposed to the first layer. Lastly, the third layer consists of examples to clarify the explanations.

Fourthly, an academic tone has to be kept over the course of the entire essay, which can be accomplished by using several rules (this is an example of a bad topic sentence). It is important not to use the first person in an academic essay, as the tone of such a paper is supposed to be objective. Personal interferences would cause the essay to come across as subjective, no matter the research that was done. However, this seemingly unpreventable subjectivity can be prevented by writing in the passive. Also, the informality of the diction should be kept to a minimum. Learning the words of the academic word lists by heart allows one to avoid those informalities.

All in all, writing a great essay is not too difficult as long as one to hold on to the right structure and tone. On the condition that the voice of the author is confident, the essay will come across as of higher quality. While content definitely matters, essays for college-leveled education should foremost stick to a set thesis statement, topic sentences and an academic attitude.

 

(I apologize if this seems rather pretentious; I wanted to do something special for my 25th blog so I decided to go with one of the subjects taught at my university: essay-writing proficiency. I hope it is alright, considering I am still a first-year student with not that much experience.)

The Publishers’ Nightmare

I am the publishers’ nightmare. As a shy non-native speaker of the English language who lives overseas, I probably couldn’t be a worse candidate for the English publishing houses. However, that does not mean I would forsake my dream without a fight.

Firstly, yes, I may be shy, but that is not everything I am. It does not shape me as a person, especially because I am shy when it comes down to talking about the weather and other seemingly unimportant subjects. As long as I am not interested, I am shy. Still, once I actively get involved with anything that lies close to my heart, I basically cannot stop talking about it. That’s still a quite annoying quality, but a lot easier than not knowing what to say. To the publishing house that claimed on its site that it refused to accept work from socially awkward writers: too bad, but I am not going to show you my work. I have enough self-esteem not to give it up for your socially inacceptable standards. Do not put guidelines like that up on your site.

Secondly, yes, I may be a non-native speaker of the English language, but that does not mean I am not allowed to try. To me, writing English children’s books is much more interesting than doing so in Dutch. The former is much more lively, in contrary to the stiff Dutch vocabulary. Besides, I am officially a student of the English language. I should be able to master it at a near-native level of speech and writing, and writing is not a problem for me. I consistently get great grades on my essays, so I doubt that would be a problem. However, mastering the literary language is a self-contained skill. I may have to practice some – or a lot – more, but in the end, I will reach my goals.

Thirdly, yes, I live overseas, which may be a huge problem for English publishing houses. Most of them prefer manuscripts from actual British writers, which I am not. However, the British Islands are not that far away from where I live. Nothing but a canal – and a sea, but that would make it sound like a bigger problem – divides Great Britain and the Netherlands. I know it is a presumptious idea to ever have to cross that sea, but I can still dream, right? Plane tickets are not that expensive. I could make it.

All in all, while I may be a true nightmare for British publishers, at least I would like to disprove the reasons why I could never reach my goal. It may still be far off, but publishers, beware. I will cross that ocean, one way or the other.

My Sources of Inspiration, Part V: Boredom

This might be a terrible idea, but one of my main sources of inspiration is boredom. To be honest, I do not have that much going on in my life. Yes, I will be moving out in two weeks, but for now, I am stuck in my home town where I am supposed to study for my exams. I definitely study for them, but that does not take that much time. In fact, I have way too much freedom at the moment. While it is amazing not to have to show up at university for days, it also can get quite tedious when you are all on your own. Coupled with depression, it makes for long-winded days. No parties, no hanging out – everyone is studying back in our university city (well, it is only 15 minutes away, but they are too busy). Still, this boredom works as an amazing source of inspiration for me. Looking at pictures at the Internet is not all that interesting anymore after a week. By then, I want to actually do something. Being bored is what gets my mind racing. It makes me dream of the most horrifying tales I could ever come up with. While my life seems a little empty right now, my mind itself is full of life. Maybe it’s because of my studies, but I am starting to doubt that; translation philosophers are not the most interesting people when you try to write stories on aliens, vampires and urban legends. I love urban legends, let that be clear. Today, I spent most of my time looking up shadow people and black eyed kids, just because I could. My boredom is forcing me to spend my time doing things, whether it is external or internal research. The gears are turning. I am ready for anything.

The Science of Translation

My upcoming exam will be on translation sciences, as translations make up a great part of today’s literary world. Don’t get me wrong, but when I chose a course called Translation Sciences, I was under the impression that we would be taught how to translate. Sadly, that’s apparently not the way universitary courses work. Instead, they are all theory and no practice.

Ever since I was able to read English, I have dreamt of becoming a translator. More precisely, my dream was to translate my own manuscripts into English, hoping that they would be able to spread out over the world that way. That is probably idle hope, though. If I wanted to become a translator, I should have attended a school of applied sciences instead of a regular university.

Personally, I’ve given up on the idea of translating my Dutch manuscripts into English. To me, it is absolutely impossible. The Dutch and English grammar look alike at first sight, but there are so many differences between them that even looking at Dutch texts confuses me. In English, the Dutch “ik woon hier al mijn hele leven” is translated as “I’ve been living here my entire life” (“woon”, in this case, is “have been living”). It is terribly confusing when two languages use different grammar, yet I have to use both at the same time. That is why I have to do without. It may not be a bad thing, though; not being able to really translate has forced me into writing my stories in English. Writing definitely can happen much more quickly when you do not have to use interim measures. I will become a translator someday, but not from Dutch into English. For now, I’ll just be a student, a writer and a wage slave.

Writing and Speaking

I am a writer, not a speaker. I know how to write and typically do so effortlessly. However, a great writer is good with language in any shape or form – a great writer should be a great orator as well. I am neither of those, but the latter quality certainly is lacking in my case.

Today I had to take an oral exam in order to show off my proficiency in English, on a topic I had never heard of. That was part of the challenge: a great orator is someone who can talk about anything for hours on end without knowing the slightest detail on the subject. In the real world, it does not work like that. My oral exam may not have gone horrible, but as soon as I got out of the room, I was trembling all over and hyperventilating. In my writing, it probably is not visible, but I naturally am a shy person. I do not like speaking in front of groups, especially when it comes down to a pass or a fail. Maybe this means I can never be a writer, as writers are supposed to be able to talk about their work with ease… However, if I love the subject, I love spreading its message. I believe that hating oral exams mainly means I can never be an orator – and am a relatively normal person.

EDIT: I failed…

Why I – excuse me – suck at grammar

Today I had to take an exam on the English grammar, consisting of multiple choice and grammar improvement questions. This might seem crazy for someone aspiring to become a writer in the English language, but I have a feeling that this test did not go well. I suck at grammar – or most precisely, at its rules.

The past participle and the gerund are about the same. The epistemic and the deontic modal sound the same – but they are not, because right now I’m looking them up at Wikipedia. Thankfully I am able to distinguish the present perfect continuous and the present continuous.

While I love making posts about the rules of writing, I am not the kind of person that typically sticks to these rules. Whatever I do is based on whatever feels right. Thus, whenever I write in English, I go with whatever seems fitting. However, that is sadly not the way exams work. As a student, I am supposed to know the exact rules, and not just be able to use them. I love writing. I love studying English. I do not love studying an excessive amount of rules that nobody has ever heard of. Sadly, I should have seen this coming. It is my own fault to choose to study a subject like this. Let’s just hope I did not fail the exam.

The Moral Compass

Back in the day when children’s fiction first originated, moral lessons where what counted when it came down to writing for children. In my last blog, I talked about Hans Christian Anders, who is an excellent example in this case. His horrific fairytales were supposed to serve as lessons for children: “If you don’t behave, it won’t end well for you.” Now, I might have a slight problem. My manuscripts do not contain the slightest bit of moral lessons. It itself, that wouldn’t matter, if it weren’t for the fact that my characters steal, swear and basically appear very rude. It’s all for a cause, but here I’m left wondering if I shouldn’t get them punished one way or another.

As for the stealing, it happens twice in my first book. The first time, my main character finds a device in his friend’s shed that he believes may help him solve the mystery. She won’t give it to him because she doesn’t know how it works and is afraid he will break it. The main character steals it, uses it for his cause and then accidentally breaks a part of it. His friend ends up screaming she does not want to be him around him ever again, but ends up sticking around as she wants to help solve the problem that’s affecting everyone in town. In the second instance, the main character needs some bags of salt in order to build a trap. However, he does not realise there is more than enough left at home and breaks into a restaurant, ran by a nice, old lady. In both instances, he definitely feels bad for stealing, but it won’t have any lasting consequences: in the end, it all literally will be forgotten, thanks to the fact that the main character is fighting a magical monster with the ability to erase people’s minds.

As for the swearing, I am not sure how bad it is. My main characters do not go around cursing, but some name calling definitely happens. Most of it is taken from children’s cartoons, to make sure it is acceptable. However, I personally do not have a clue, as I am writing for an audience that I am not part of. What is offensive in The Netherlands is not necessarily offensive in Great Britain, and the other way around – at least, this is what my teachers explained to me. Not to insult anyone, but I’ve heard that the word “shit” is considered very offensive in Great Britain, while around here, people don’t even say it anymore because it is such a weak insult. I would not use the word in a children’s story, but I feel the cultural difference is important to the explanation. I’ve had my characters say “moron” and “crap”, however, mainly because television has taught me those are generally considered alright. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As for the rudeness, the story mostly entails a group of children running around, trying to catch a face-swapping monster before it is too late. They bump into people and often tell them to look in a mirror – not because they are ugly, but because they have become the monster’s victims. Other than that it angers some people, there are no repercussions for it.

My dilemma as a writer is if I should try to be a moral compass. I personally feel it is not necessary – adult intervention would ruin a story driven by children – but sometimes I wonder if the stealing should not be overlooked. I figured that the main character’s guilt would be enough… but is it? Should a writer be clear about morality?

My History of Writing, Part III: One Bridge Too Far

At one point in my life, I dreamt of being a fantasy writer like Tolkien. A tad arrogant, perhaps, seeing as he was the father of the epic fantasy. I knew I would never become as famous, eloquent or imaginative as he was, but I loved his world. That was the part I aspired to recreate.

All of my free time I spent on inventing a world: places, languages, songs, culture, animals, gods and people. I felt strongly attached to the world I had created, but there was one problem: I had gathered so many ideas that I had no idea where to start, what was important to the story and if I really needed so many characters. There were three continents, twelve gods, around fifteen villages and a countless number of characters.

My main character was a seventeen-year-old who had been taking from his home country as a young boy because his sisters decided to flee from their fate as princesses and take their brother with them. The sisters died, my main character ended up in an adoption family at the other side of the world. He also had gotten the task from one of the gods to restore the world’s religion. There was too much information. I knew everything about the character himself, but the story seemed to be lacking a thread. It was meant to be epic fantasy, so I made the boy visit every single village. A story was connected to every single one of them. Most of these had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

Soon, I was out of inspiration. I could no longer stand writing about the countless fights between my main character and his adoption family. I could not get a hold of all of the family trees. Everything in the story was meant to be connected… But it was not. In fact, it turned out to be nothing but a 110.000 word rigmarole. By that number, I mean the word count at the moment I decided I could no longer do it. It was just half of the story, though. Then I gave up. I spent at least two years of my life trying to figure out every single detail of the story, before coming to the conclusion I did not even enjoy it anymore.

Maybe it was too much for fifteen-year-old me. I did not even like writing for my target audience – teenagers like myself – so I wonder why I ever thought this was a good idea. This is how I ended up wanting to become an author of children’s fiction. Small, compact stories with a lot of fun and action seemed much more interesting than writing down page long arguments that never seemed to end. Now, when my characters fight, it is actually fun. I have learned my lesson: world building may have been amazing, but writing epic fantasy was not meant for me at all. In the end, the choices that we make in life shape the path that lies ahead.

My History of Writing, Part II: Why Twelve-year-olds Should Not Be Allowed to Get Published

You might say this seems like a horrible piece of advice. Nobody should discourage children from writing. That is not my intention. All I would like to say is that I made a horrible mistake when I “published” my first book.

I was twelve years old when I finished my first manuscript. I had not thought it through at all. All I knew was that a new publishing house had been opened that accepted manuscripts written by children. Of course I, as an aspiring young writer, wanted to be part of that. I wrote this book, which I am not going to call by name, on the fly. That shows. Never did I take the time to write an outline. I knew the beginning and I knew how I wanted it to end. That was it. I just started writing and making up elements of the story in between. However, “elements” might not be the right word when speaking about 80 out of 82 pages. The book basically entailed a chain of random occurences. It was a fantasy novel, so I thought: why not? Now, however, I see I never had the plot in mind when writing it. Also, which is another part of my frustration, this thing was intended to be a children’s novel. Twelve-year-old me apparently thought children liked long-winded sentences, infinite descriptions and strongly academic language. Well, they don’t, and I know that now. Maybe I was a smart kid, but not smart enough to understand that other kids would not like my professor-like attitude.

The publishing company that accepted this creation should have seen that. Little did I know that they were not a publishing company. It was a printing-on-demand publisher, and they accepted anything unless it encouraged violence or was entirely unreadable. My book did neither, so it was deemed alright. Normally, the story would be over by now. POD publishers do not advertise their products… unless there is something special about them. There was something special about my book. I had started writing it as soon as I heard of this company and had finished doing so within two weeks. My manuscript was the first book published by them. They had to celebrate it.

My face ended up everywhere in the newspapers and on TV. This may sound like bragging, but as a shy kid, I did not enjoy this at all. People on the streets actually recognised me and asked when I was going to publish my next book. I never did. I could not do it anymore.

Nowadays, I am definitely not famous. Nobody recognizes me and I’m glad about that. I did not want that very first manuscript to get me on TV. I was not happy about it and I did not deserve it. If I am ever going to try and publish again, it will not be under my real name.

This is why I’m giving this advice, and I’ve heard it often before. They told me it was a bad idea, since I was going to be ashamed about the book in the long run. When I read it again after a few years, I definitely was. Books cannot be erased from the planet as long as someone owns them. Before trying to get accepted by any publishing house, whether it is POD or regular, think of the consequences. I am sure this is not true for everyone, but I surely wish I had listened to the adult writers who told me not to do it.