Writing a Novel, English as a Second Language

In Art of Storytelling’s ongoing series of essays by guest bloggers, Russian novelist Nadia Clifford explores writing a novel in English when English is your second language. Nadia, who is working on her first novel, grew up in Moscow and now lives in the Boston area.

Art of Storytelling is offering an E-Course entitled International Novel/Memoir: Writing in English when English is not your first language. Explore the challenges specific to writing in English. Join a private group of other international writers in a forum to ask questions and share stories. Build an international writing community that could go beyond this one course. In video and downloadable lessons over five weeks, you’ll learn writing basics such as idea generation, characterization, setting, plot and theme. Many who have taken this course end up with a rough draft of the first pages of a novel or memoir. This class is also aimed at expats, people who have lived in other countries and have a unique perspective. Go to http://www.artofstorytellingonline.com/#!international-novelmemoir-writing/c20e to register. Email info.artofstorytelling@gmail.com with questions.

I nursed the idea of writing fiction for many years.  Just like for most budding writers the idea seemed both fascinating and daunting. One of the most intimidating factors for me was writing in English. English is my second language. I grew up in Russia and did not move to the US until after I graduated from college, about 12 years ago. Fear of writing in English overshadowed any insecurities I had about not having taken a single writing class beyond high school (I studied engineering in college).

You may ask why not write in Russian then. I never even gave much consideration to writing in Russian, since I now have a much larger audience of relatives, friends, and co-workers that can read English, rather than Russian only. And honestly getting published in America is more realistic and potentially lucrative.

The desire to write was strong. Almost subconsciously I kept looking for anything that would prove my English was good enough. It took several years and many confidence boosting “signs” before I managed to pull my courage together.

Working in an office, I started noticing that many of my American born coworkers did not always use grammar correctly or made common spelling mistakes, even with all the software available now.  And they were college educated people, some even with advanced degrees.  I realized that my English grammar was not bad at all if I was noticing mistakes native speakers were making.

The longer I lived in the US the more often people mentioned to me they did not realize English was not my first language. (Of course if you try talking to me when I am tired or excited, or on a subject I don’t know much about, it would take you less than a minute to realize I have an accent).

And then I thought of other writers that successfully wrote in languages other than their native Russian. What about Nabokov and his Lolita? It may be quite presumptuous of me to compare myself to Nabokov in any way. But nonetheless, it helped me find my confidence.

My final breakthrough was a blog I kept for three months while I went to Russia to adopt my daughter. The blog was in English. My primary audience included my family in Canada who all spoke English, and my American friends and family.  I stopped counting how many people told me I had to write a book.  Almost three years later, I am finally writing a novel partially based on my blog, thanks to Art of Storytelling!

When Caroline Allen, the founder and coach at Art of Storytelling, read my first writing sample she immediately assured me that I did not have to worry about writing in English. With her encouragement and guidance, I dove into writing a novel and have not regretted it for a second.

I have to admit that my Russian does complicate my writing process sometimes.  Occasionally a Russian word would pop into my head while I am writing and I cannot come up with an English alternative for the life of me.  It’s almost like I only have one brain cell to hold this information and it gets taken up by a Russian word.   Google Translate is almost always good enough to deal with this.

Sometimes my sentences may take on a Russian shape. For example, my native language is very flexible with the word order. Caroline helps me catch these mistakes. I am sure I will make an extensive use of editors and reviewers before my novel sees any light of day.

I have developed my own approach to writing in English over many years. Even though I just started writing fiction in English, I had to write in English before.  My blog was one of the examples. I have also had to write a lot of business documentation in the last 15 years. I have always been known for poignant complaint letters.

My approach makes an extensive use of technology. I constantly use online dictionaries (Google Translate, Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com).  I also use Merriam –Webster online thesaurus. Whenever I am writing in Microsoft Word, I use the built in thesaurus there.

It is fairly often that I want to use an English word that I am almost a hundred percent sure means what I think it means. I double check with a dictionary.  Or vice versa, I know there is an English word that conveys the exact subtlety that I want. But it’s not part of my “active vocabulary”, as my English teachers liked to say.   Sometimes it’s just a simple trip to a dictionary. But oftentimes I may spend quite a few minutes with a thesaurus, a Russian-English dictionary, and an English-Russian dictionary.  I play mind games of translating various words with close meaning back and forth between the two languages. And finally I see the word I was looking for. It’s like a small epiphany and is very satisfying.

I also use Wikipedia and just Internet in general to help me write in English. For example, I had to cover a medical subject.  I had all the medical terms in Russian. Russian-English dictionary would not translate these terms for me, as they were too specialized. In this case, I found online articles on the related medical subject and scanned them for the terms I needed. I even had to look up Russian articles on Wikipedia to find Latin translations for the terms. Then I plugged those Latin terms in Wikipedia or Google and found their English alternatives.

The same happens with Russian cultural peculiarities.   There are concepts that are specific to Russian culture and do not have a direct translation into English. We may all know at least some of them – babushka (little old lady) or matryoshka (nestling doll).  And again I find on-line articles and websites on the subject in both Russian and in English.  I see how other people may have done it and look for what makes the most sense.

I do end up using Russian words in my texts. I think they add some cultural flavor. I use Russian words sparingly and italicize them.  I do not offer translations to these words. It has to be clear from the context what the meaning of the Russian word is. Just like when you are immersed into a different culture you often guess what things mean.  I want the reader to have the same feeling. It’s somewhat a mystery, it’s a little ambiguous. The reader may just have a feeling of what the word means but not the exact understanding. This is the sentiment I am striving for. But if I overuse it, it may turn from interesting and mysterious to annoying.

Writing dialogue is another interesting issue.  My Russian characters speak Russian in my head.  And I have to translate what they say into English before I write it down.  Most of the time direct translation may sound too formal and unnatural. This is where I started using American colloquialisms. I did not even make a conscious decision on this. It just happened naturally. The only reason I noticed was because Caroline pointed this out to me and we agreed that was the way to go.

For example, a Russian character may say: “This is easy. Just go to a clinic and bring your passport with you. Although, the next step may complicate things.” 

Alternatively, the same character may say: “Piece of cake. Just go to a clinic and bring your passport with you. Done deal. Shoot, the next step may be the trickiest.” 

You see how using the Americanisms adds characterization to the dialogue. The character immediately sounds confident and informal.

I do find strength in being bi-lingual. When I write I use both languages very actively. There are so many subtleties in the way we use words. And the subtleties can be vastly different in the two languages.  I believe my Russian background adds color and sometimes quirkiness to the way I use English language. And hey, since my protagonist is Russian and many events happen in Russia, my English with a tinge of Russian is very appropriate for my novel!

The Art of Storytelling is a coaching service for writers. Contact us for a free initial consultation, www.artofstorytellingonline.com.


7 thoughts on “Writing a Novel, English as a Second Language

  1. Hi,

    I also emagrated from a different country (Germany) to the US and desperately desire to write fiction. I wrote a YA novel and queried 7 literary agencies, all of which resulted in rejections. Now I’m starting to think that maybe I should sell my work on kindle. The problem is I’m terrified that my English is not good enough. I speak English 24/7, watch only English TV, and only browse English websites etc., but still, I’m insecure about it. At least as far as for publishing a book. I’m scared that people will say something like, “why don’t you learn proper English before you offer your book for sale?” Do you think my fear is justified, or am overreacting?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post is 6 years old, but I can’t resist to make a comment. I’ve enjoyed reading your post and it’s encouraging. I am – for the very first time in my life – going to accomplish this one goal I have – writing a novella/novel. Thank you so much for sharing as I found it very helpful. I hope you’ve accomplished your goal too! Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

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