Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Literary Dialect

In my last post before I took a break, I wrote about Literary Dialect and gave some examples of how a writer can capture in print the way a character sounds.  I stopped before I got into the issue of "respelling." 

You know,  gonna instead of "going to," hafta instead of "have to." This technique has stirred some controversy among linguists as well as writers, so I thought it would be interesting to present the opposing views here, and then ask for your opinions.

Dr. Dennis Preston, distinguished professor of linguistics at MSU has presented strong objections to respelling. He's even given it a special name--Eye Dialect--referring to how the prose looks on the page Here's why he objects to using it.

All speakers of English reduce vowels and cluster words in normal conversation. How many people, including yourself, say, "I have to go now."? If I wrote what I'd hear it would look like this. "I hafta go now." So if you single out one group to misspell or mark as different, Dr. Preston believes you are devaluing that dialect.

He also says that writing dialect phonetically may distract readers, so they pay more attention to how something's being said than what's being said. He gives an excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin as an example: 

"But, Aunt Chloe, I'm getting mighty hungry," said George. "Isn't that cake in the skillet almost done?" "Mose done, Mas'r George," said Aunt Chloe, lifting the lid and peeping in, -- "browning beautiful -- a real lovely brown. Ah! let me alone for dat. Missis let Sally try to make some cake, t' other day, jes to larn her, she said. 'O, go way, Missis,' said I; 'it really hurts my feelin's, now, to see good vittles spilt dat ar way! Cake ris all to one side -- no shape at all; no more than my shoe; go way!"

Harriet Beecher Stow didn’t set out to devalue the black dialect, but Dr. Preston believes that even though this devaluing is unintentional it is inappropriate. In her blog  Anne Sibley O’Brien writes,

“Being a dominant group member is like having a free pass that members of out-groups don’t have, but with no awareness of having it. Given such conditioning, developing White Mind is pretty much inescapable.”

So she and Dr. Preston say that respelling one group’s language may reveal more about authors and their assumptions/biases than about the characters they’re creating.

In contrast the Folklorist, Dr. Elizabeth Fine says this is an expression of appreciation for the characters and their dialects. The author is using an effective way of letting the reader “hear” the voice. Eye dialect translates performance (how a character sounds) into print.

When you read Eye Dialect, what is your reaction? Is it distracting or does it help you "hear" the characters' voices? If you're a writer, do you use Eye Dialect? How much? I'd love to hear from you and find out what you think about this technique.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

NCTE and Me

I'll be taking a break from the Write Game from Nov. 13th to Dec. 2nd.  This will give me time to do a presentation at NCTE in Orlando on Nov. 19th, and then stuff a turkey for the following Thursday. Why does everything happen at the same time?

I thought that since most of my readers are writers I'd give you a bit of preview of the presentation.

The title is Why Ain't and Gotta Gotta be in Today's Books for Kids and Teens and I'll be chairing the session which will include: 

Cheryl Herbsman (Breathing)

Erin Dionne (Models Don't Eat Chocolate & The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet)

Cynthea Liu ( Paris Pan Takes the Dare & The Great Call of China) 

Kurtis Scaletta (Mudville & Mamba Point)

Carrie Ryan (Forest of Hands and Teeth & Dead Tossed Waves). 

Am I in good company or what?

I took on the job of chair because of my background in linguistics, so I'll be establishing the framework for this session about Literary Dialect.

So what is literary dialect anyway? It's a way of speaking that marks regional, cultural, ethnic and social differences among characters in your books. In other words: accent, word choice, and grammatical usage. And there are many ways to approach capturing performance and putting it on paper.

In my latest WIP I wanted to characterize a character from Texas, but I didn't want to clutter the page with the typical y'alls, so I used standard spelling, but in the attribute I described the character's speech. Since this book will be in first person pov, it will be the protagonist who comments on the Texas accent. Here's one example:

Texas character."So what do you say?"
POV character. Dad's question comes out in slow Texan.

I like this technique because readers can hear whatever Texas accent they want.

In Sliding on the Edge I had a non-native speaking Vietnamese character and to capture his voice I omitted unstressed words that a native speaker of English would never omit. "The" is often barely noticed, but since it's a morpheme (a unit in our language that carries meaning) if it's missing we know. I chose to omit the for another reason as well. "th" is a rare sound in the languages of the world and often difficult for second language learners to articulate. Here's how Tuan sounds in my story.

"Las Vegas!" He spits into the gutter. "Hoodlums do this. All time."

In The Princess of Las Pulgas I have a feisty character, named K.T., with attitude as her middle name. Here she is giving my poor MC a dose of that attitude.

"There you go again, thinking I'm stupid. I heard all that scratchin' your pencil did and I seen those pages full of writing."

K.T. isn't stupid, but she likes to break as many rules as possible, including grammar. Here she mangles standard English by using the past participle, seen, instead of the simple past, saw. It doesn't make the meaning unclear, but characterizes her perfectly.

 If you noticed, the word, scratchin', is respelled and that will be the technique I'll go into more at the conference. When I start blogging again in December I'll go into it here as well. It's an interesting technique that's often used, but it's controversial among linguists as well as writers.  So come back in Dec. and I'll share what I know about respelling.

Well, that's enough. Happy Thanksgiving. Come back to visit when you're full of good food and holiday memories. I look forward to your visit.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I'm a member and moderator at YaLitChat. If you haven't heard of us take a look because within one year (as of last Tuesday) we have over 1800 members. Many are published, many are seeking publication, but all are there to support and learn and produce the best writing for YA and MG readers as they can.

For the month of November we're hosting a great contest for writers who have taken on the NaNoWriMo challenge. If you're a YaLitChat member you can enter to win:

*A 20 page critique by a leading industry Agent or Editor (We have wonderful agents/editors who have joined our YAlitchat family)
*A bookpack of Rampant by Diana Peterfreund plus 2 books from Harper


"The winner meets their 50K goal or has the highest count of all contestants. As well as posting a snippet of writing daily (25 words of your writing for the day) and the word count for the day that you post. The winner would have posted at least 10 times during the month of November their word count and snippet for that day. Please provide your nanowrimo.org screen name and buddy all of the contestants." YaLitChat Forum

To enter:
-  JoinYalitchat
-  Join Contest Forum
-  Post Introduction to include (nanowrimo login name, title of nanowork, current words completed, 5 sentence synopsis of book you are writing)
-   Post Daily or weekly (word count, 25 word snippet of what your wrote during the recent session)
-   Win if yours is the highest recorded word count of all contestants. You may need to present a draft to prove your word count.)

Is there any reason you wouldn't want to enter?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Job Opening-Description Follows

The holidays are officially launched. Halloween is the harbinger of Thanksgiving which means, unless you're Macy's, Christmas will come in another month. This is the time of year I'm most likely to panic. It's also the time I grow nostalgic. Anyone with me here? 

What I need most is a touch of humor to get me though November and December. So here's my humble attempt at making myself laugh. It's "groundling"humor, but I love it. And I hope you'll laugh a bit along with me.

Job Description: Long-term worker needed for challenging, permanent work in chaotic environment. Applicants must possess excellent communication and organizational skills and be willing to work evenings and weekends and frequent 24-hour shifts. There is some overnight travel required, including trips to primitive camping sites on rainy weekends and endless sports tournaments in faraway cities. Travel expenses are not reimbursed.


Must keep this job for the rest of your life. Must be willing to be hated, at least temporarily. Must be willing to bite tongue repeatedly. Must possess the physical stamina of a pack mule. Must be willing to tackle stimulating technical challenges such as small gadget repair, sluggish toilets, and stuck zippers. Must handle assembly and product safety testing, as well as floor maintenance and other janitorial work. Must screen phone calls, maintain calendars and coordinate production of multiple homework projects. Must have ability to plan and organize social gatherings for clients of all ages and levels of mentality. Must be willing to be indispensable one minute and an embarrassment the next. Must assume final, complete accountability for the quality of the end product.

Advancement and Promotion: 

There is no possibility of either. Your job is to remain in the same position for years, without complaining constantly retraining and updating your skills so that those in your charge can ultimately surpass you.

Previous Experience: 

None required, but on-the-job training is offered on a continually exhausting basis.


Are you kidding?  In fact, you must pay those in your charge, offering frequent raises and bonuses. A balloon payment is due when they turn 18 and attend college. When you die you give them whatever income you have left.


*Laughing here.* There is no health or dental insurance, no pension, no tuition reimbursement, no paid holidays and no stock options. However the job offers limitless opportunities for personal growth and free hugs for life.

So if you haven't already taken on this challenging occupation, are you interested? Consult your nearest parent before applying.