Aiding Readers of Fiction...

If you're new to these arts, this is the place to ask "stupid" questions and get directions!
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-K2-
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Aiding Readers of Fiction...

Post by -K2- »

Hello Everyone; First post. I have a basic question, after a brief personal introduction.

I'm a novice writer of sci-fi, dystopian, and high fantasy fiction. For some of my works, I've created fictional languages and cultures as part of world-building (E.g. a high-fantasy barbarian language and culture and a few near-future dystopian pidgins). I'll also incorporate languages other than English where appropriate to add realism to the scene.

My question/problem is, how to urge readers to not quit reading at the first instance of a word or phrase they don't recognize?

In some works, I'll explain the word/phrase through the viewpoint character's conveyed understanding/translation via their response, others through associated action, and some I'll leave unexplained if the VP-character doesn't understand it themselves. What I'd like to do is generate a simple *notice* for the front matter to urge readers to NOT dwell on the unfamiliar words and just keep reading.

Here is a response I wrote to a friend upon their review:
The trick to reading any unfamiliar language (written in the Latin/English alphabet) is to just read it. Sound out the words--if so inclined--and keep reading. Don't try to learn, decipher, or translate it. If the story is well-written, sooner than expected, you'll intuitively recognize various words and will understand their meaning. If you don't, it won't matter (in a well-written story). The associated responses, phrases, and actions convey what was said.

How might I improve upon that statement to aid subsequent readers?

Thanks for any input you might offer!

K2
Salmoneus
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Re: Aiding Readers of Fiction...

Post by Salmoneus »

-K2- wrote: 24 Feb 2022 19:15 Hello Everyone; First post.
Welcome! Please enjoy your time here, and post again in future.

It's good to see people wanting to be writers - I hope you stick with it. A lot of us try, but few of us (sadly not including myself) succeed. Please feel free to ask advice on the subject, or show off samples!

I'm sure some people will be along in a moment to say "just do whatever your heart says", but since you're asking for concrete advice, I hope you don't mind my being a little brusque and matter-of-fact as to my opinions. This absolutely not to discourage or criticise you, but to offer sincere advice that I think you'd benefit from at least considering, even if not necessarily following. [an important part of learning to write, as of learning to live, is to learn the art of considering advice seriously, without either dismissing it or following it blindly. That sounds obvious, but it's harder than one might think].
My question/problem is, how to urge readers to not quit reading at the first instance of a word or phrase they don't recognize?
My answer: don't bother. Your urging will have little effect either way.

50% of readers will have their eyes gloss over immediately when they see non-English; 40% will have a cursory glance at a non-English phrase of, let's say, four words or fewer, that MIGHT allow them to recognise the words if they see them again repeatedly; 8% will pay some attention in theory but bizarrely, almost randomly, mangle the pronunciation no matter how obvious it should be, largely because they just see a few letters and guess without actually reading what you wrote; only perhaps 2% will ACTUALLY pay attention to the text. [a small percentage of those will in turn actively engage with the text and try to decipher it and learn the language]

And that's understandable. Why pay attention to something you don't and can't understand?

Few readers will immediately put a book down because they don't understand something - though some may do so if they encounter the problem repeatedly. But on the other hand: most people will hate your book. They won't want to pick it up, if they pick it up they won't get beyond a page or two, if they get beyond a page or two they'll quit halfway though, and if they don't quit and make it to the end they'll badmouth your book to anyone who will listen. That's not because your book is bad, it's because it's a miracle any time anyone DOES read a book, and a miracle twice over if they actually like it. The odds of a book getting published are thousands to one, and the odds of a published book being popular are thousands to one, and even a popular book won't usually turn a meaningful profit for the writer. [professional fiction authors basically exist only in SF&F, romance and maybe one or two other niche genres - 'mainstream' authors almost all have day jobs - and even in genre there are famous, popular, award-winner authors who can't make a living at it]

Which is sort of liberating: yes, some people will open your book, say "ugh, that word isn't english, this is trash!" and immediately close your book again; but odds are those people were never going to finish and like you book anyway, so don't worry about them. If it wasn't that objection, it would have been another.

Put another way: every book has difficulties for the reader; the writer's job is to make sure the reader feels engaged enough to persevere despite the difficulties. Don't make it harder for them than it needs to be... but at the same time, if someone refuses to read your book because it contains some conlang, that just means your book wasn't good enough anyway. If your book was good enough, they wouldn't quit over such a minor complaint. [of course, some readers are so hard to please that no book could be good enough].

However, from the point of view of the writer, most of the time including a conlang in your writing is just bad writing anyway. It's bad writing for both what we might call 'internal' or 'logical' reasons, and for what we might call 'external' or 'communicative' reasons. Since you weren't actually asking my opinion on this I'll block my reasoning there into a spoiler, so that you can easily skip to the bits you're interested in:
Spoiler:

Externally, it's bad writing because you're incorporating information that your reader can't understand - you're slapping them in the face and telling them to stop paying attention for a bit, and the problem with that is that you risk them stopping paying attention to you altogether and putting the book down. The objective of the writer is almost always to keep the reader engaged (if the reader isn't engaged, you can't do anything else with, to or for them), and dropping a concrete block of unintelligible gibberish into your writing does not help with engagement. It's usually not going to be enough to make them quit, but it is going to chip away at their enjoyment of the book and their engagement in the process of reading it.

Internally, it's bad writing because scenes are written from the perspective of the protagonist of that scene (even if not literally from their POV, then in a way that is in close harmony with their POV - that's what makes readers identify with them as the protagonist). If the character understands the language, the reader should too. If the character does not understand the language, then they're very unlikely to be able to decipher it even enough to be able to spell it. If somebody spoke Mongolian to me, and I were asked what they had said, I would not write down perfectly-punctuated Mongolian, point at it, and say "there, I don't know what it means but that's what they said!", because I wouldn't even be able (unless it were recorded and played back to me very slowly and repeatedly) to make out what the phonemes were - but that's essentially what you're doing when a block of conlang shows up in a protagonist's thought processes. [it does make a little bit more sense in the case of written documents the character sees, admittedly, but that rarely comes up that often]

Now, I'm not saying it's always bad writing to use a conlang. It can often be good writing to use individual, recognisable conlang words when there's a legitimate cultural reason to do so (though the old "never call a rabbit a smeep" rule of sci-fi applies) - that is, when an English word wouldn't do every bit as well. [If you do this well, the reader just learns the word and its meaning without thinking about it - the best example may be Watership Down, which introduced the conlang word silflay so well that Wiktionary now considers it an English word, with multiple citations]. And arguably very short, recognisable phases in a conlang can work, where it's important (and believable) that a phrase may recognised by the characters though not directly understood - A Song of Ice and Fire does this a couple of times (with valar morghulis and dracarys). These can often work in the same function as Latin proverbs in English - but of course, note that Latin proverbs in English are rare and often don't work well (and convey a very specific tone). These proverbs, in conlangs as in Latin, should generally only be two or three or four words long - a quod erat demonstrandum, not a victrix causa divis placuit, sed victa Catoni.

And of course there are always outright exceptions, where the author WANTS to alienate the reader from a situation. I once wrote a story in which someone was waking up on a beach after a shipwreck and people were prodding him and talking in strange languages - and I thought (perhaps wrongly) that actually incorporating incomprehensible words was a better way to convey their confusion than having a more rational "he could hear people speaking but could not understand them" would have been. Or maybe your characters are weird little professional scholars who love to talk to one another in an in-joke argot of quotations from dead languages, and the reader is meant to feel excluded by them. There are always counterexamples you can raise.

But in general, if a writer includes a block of conlang in their story, this is at best a risky move, and more often than not is just a plain bad idea. And yes, I'm speaking from experience there as both a conlanger/attempted writer and a reader...

I'll mention in this regard: Tolkien was a somewhat unusual case as a writer, as he wrote The Lord of the Rings to show off his languages, rather than writing the languages to spice up the novel - so he has his own reasons for using more conlang than he probably should have done. But even Tolkien, in aound 450,000 words of novel, other than one poem of 20-ish lines, theres' only about 25 sentences of Elvish (~10 Quenya, ~15 Sindarin) in the entire novel, few if any of them more than seven or eight words long, and few if any of them more than two sentences in the same utterance. It's also striking that very few of them are actually translated for the reader - I think only one utterance in each language? And yet most readers already feel that that's too much Elvish...
In some works, I'll explain the word/phrase through the viewpoint character's conveyed understanding/translation via their response, others through associated action, and some I'll leave unexplained if the VP-character doesn't understand it themselves.
A small addition to my earlier 'are you sure you want to do this?' discursion, I'll just say: if the character understands what is said, and you want the reader to understand, and hence you're going to include an explanation anyway, why do you need to include the conlang text at all?
What I'd like to do is generate a simple *notice* for the front matter to urge readers to NOT dwell on the unfamiliar words and just keep reading.

Here is a response I wrote to a friend upon their review:
The trick to reading any unfamiliar language (written in the Latin/English alphabet) is to just read it. Sound out the words--if so inclined--and keep reading. Don't try to learn, decipher, or translate it. If the story is well-written, sooner than expected, you'll intuitively recognize various words and will understand their meaning. If you don't, it won't matter (in a well-written story). The associated responses, phrases, and actions convey what was said.

How might I improve upon that statement to aid subsequent readers?
Firstly, I'd delete it all. Sorry, not trying to be cruel, and that's not a comment on the content - it's just that, however well you write the notice, nobody will pay attention to what it says anyway. I mean, Tolkien included extensive pronunciation notes, as did his son for the Silmarillion, and yet most people automatically still say 'seleborn'. Most readers probably won't read anything they see as outside the story; most who read a notice won't feel obliged to obey it; and most who want to obey it won't remember what it said when it finally becomes relevant.

Secondly, I'm not sure why you need a notice anyway. You're basically just saying "oh, just don't worry about it", which is what readers will do anyway. If a reader wants to worry about it, they'll worry about it even if you tell them not to; if they don't want to worry about it, they won't need your cue. In general, unless your reader really isn't enjoying it anyway, they'll work out what to do with text they don't understand, so lecturing about them comes across as patronising. Which brings me to...

Thirdly, if I were your reader, your notice would just piss me off, and I don't think I'd be alone, because I think your tone is unhelpful.

In general, the reader is doing the writer a favour: the reader is investing time and energy into the writer's book when they could be doing so elsewhere; and so, while the writer quietly hopes that the reader will come out the END of the book feeling in the writer's debt, nonetheless at the beginning of the book it is the writer who is indebted to the reader. The reader, as it were, is in charge: the reader is the customer, who decides where to spend their money. So the writer is inherently in a subordinate position (unless they're a billionaire sociopath, of course, who doesn't care about money or reputation or anyone even making to the end of their book). The way you write in your notice gives the strong impression that you think you are in charge, and this is likely to alienate many would-be readers.

To be concrete:
Spoiler:
The trick to reading any unfamiliar language (written in the Latin/English alphabet) is to just read it.

Reader: who are you to tell me how to read unfamiliar languages!? And in bold!? Why are you speaking loudly and slowly to me, do you think I'm stupid?
(you present yourself as imparting knowledge to those less knowledgeable than you, which is patronising, and you do it by using bold text, which is doubly patronising.
Sound out the words--if so inclined--and keep reading. Don't try to learn, decipher, or translate it.
Reader: who are you to tell me what to do!? If you didn't want me to decipher your puzzle, you shouldn't have included it! I paid for this book, I'll use it however I damn want and I'll decipher the codes if i feel like it!
(you present yourself as being in a position to make demands of the reader - demands that are inherently paradoxical in this case, presenting something and then forbidding them from trying to understand it)
If the story is well-written, sooner than expected, you'll intuitively recognize various words and will understand their meaning. If you don't, it won't matter (in a well-written story). The associated responses, phrases, and actions convey what was said.
Reader: oh, so you're implying your story is well-written? I'll be the judge of that, mister! And now you're patronising me by 'explaining' how meaning works? I know how meaning works, I'll have you know I understand things on a daily basis!
If you really want to include something like this, I'd recommend putting yourself in the subordinate position - make suggestions rather than commands, share opinions rather than truths, don't be caught speaking down the reader.

In general, I'd say: remember that you're a writer, and this is writing. I know, that's fatuous. But my point is: your book doesn't start when you say 'chapter one' - it starts when the reader reads your title, and it continues from there. Many, probably most, readers will skip any prefatory material, but you must still remember that that material is part of the book. Just as your writing in the story is trying to create a certain impression on the reader, so too should your prefatory note. It's tempting for the writer to think they can 'step out' of the role of author, and offer the reader some advice human-to-human, 'OOC' as it were - but they can't. Writing is a performance, and the bit where you say "the performance hasn't started yet, so before we begin I just want to say..." is still part of the performance...

So I know that in 'tone-policing' I probably seem as though I'm being pedantic about the possible impressions that could be drawn from the words - but to a large extent that's what writing is. Choosing words pedantically is the job...

And the other thing I'd say is: it's normal for authors to want to control how their babies are received... but they can't. Once it's published, it's on its own, and readers will do what they want to it. Notes like this that try to tell the reader how to read are unlikely to have any great impact - particularly because you're basically just saying "don't worry, you know, just read it", which everyone's going to do anyway...
Thanks for any input you might offer!

K2
And my apologies again if my input appears blunt or pessimistic...
-K2-
rupestrian
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Re: Aiding Readers of Fiction...

Post by -K2- »

Thank you for the response Salmoneus;

Please give me a couple days to digest your extensive response to consider your suggestions.

K2
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Re: Aiding Readers of Fiction...

Post by LinguistCat »

On a more positive side, I think people who read scifi or high fantasy are going to, if not expect, then at least be open to things that are written in non-English (or not in their native language). I'd also look into "Watership Down". While I haven't read it myself, I've had non-linguist friends who said that the author includes words and phrases throughout the story of a fictional rabbit language. By the time you get to the end of the book, there is a full untranslated sentence that most readers will understand and has impact on their understanding of the story, and the character saying it. So it certainly can be done, and done well.

If you want to write a book in which a conlang or con-dialect plays a major role, you have to assume that the intended audience will enjoy that aspect and relate to it. If you want to have a more broad appeal, then only add the conlang as a spice, for names and the like, instead of making it an important part of the plot.

Other media to look into if you haven't already to get an idea of how to incorporate conlanging into fiction might be "A Clockwork Orange" (although content warning for violence and general disturbing themes), "Tailchaser's Song" on the naming language end of things, and if you're inclined toward video games "Heaven's Vault" on Steam is one to look into.
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Re: Aiding Readers of Fiction...

Post by -K2- »

In brief, all good points Salmoneus. I've read what you wrote a couple times now, and can't disagree with any of it.

LinguisticCat; I'll look into those publications, and I agree with your sentiments as well.

Thanks both of you for your input!

After a recent read by a few folks--wrong audience, first off--of a short, high fantasy piece, I was frustrated by the fact folks were flustered by merely seeing an unfamiliar English alphabet word(s), even though I added definitions/explanations directly adjacent to them (which I would typically never do, although I will freely demonstrate the word/phrase with a dialogue response or action).

E.g. It was a shem'mour, a girl.

In other cases, there were associated short parables where I wrote it out in barbarian 'Hamr,' and then directly below it had the English translation. In all cases, the folks flailed trying to decipher the Hamr words, and because of that, totally missed the adjacent direct translations in each of those example types.

My question was spurred since I'm finishing edits on a series of three dystopian novels which contain a couple dialects of slang/pidgin (with English as the common lexifier). The language aspect is important to the theme, though not immediately apparent. So I was considering ways to avoid the--I suppose--unavoidable.

Thanks again for your input. Points noted, and well taken!

K2
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Re: Aiding Readers of Fiction...

Post by Salmoneus »

LinguistCat wrote: 25 Feb 2022 18:37 Other media to look into if you haven't already to get an idea of how to incorporate conlanging into fiction might be "A Clockwork Orange"
Another example of this is the post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker:

He said, "Tryl narrer is what it takes you dursnt miss out nothing youve got to try every thing. Try the clevver try the simpl." His face begun to go sharp. He said, "You never know what levvils it myt be moving on you never know what common nations you myt be missing. May be Eusas 2 littl Sons 1 ben clevver 1 ben simpl. 'Off thay gon 1 with Folleree & 1 with Folleroo. 1 hedin tords the rivvr 1 a way frum it & each with uv the Littl Shynin Man.' He wer looking at me diffrent from how he ben looking at me befor. He said, "2 littl sons. 1 of them not qwite clevver may be. 1 of them not qwite simpl. 1 heading tords the rivver which the Rivver Sour runs thru Cambry dunnit. 1 heading a way from it. Tords Widders Dump may be. Each littl son with a pack of dogs. Folleree and Folleroo. Each littl son with the Littl Shyning Man." He pickt up a bag of yellerboy stoan and shook it. "the Littl Shyning Man," he said agen. "Whats that Littl Shyning Man say in Eusa 26? 'Yu ar lukin at the idear uv me and I am it. Eusa sed, Wut is the idear uv yu? The Littl Man sed, It is wut it is.' You see what I mean Riddley? 'It is wut it is.' Diffrent things at diffrent times may be. Its what ever it wants to be."

As you can tell, Riddley Walker is a book that does not make things as easy as possible for its readers - quite the contrary. Between the language and the concepts (which synthesise animistic beliefs with Christian mysticism, nuclear physics, and Punch and Judy shows), it's had work, and when it gets really stream-of-consciousness-revelations it's barely comprehensible. Hoban is able to arguably get away with it because it's all just so interesting and strange and well-crafted... but even then, even among book-reading-folk (rather than the general public) I think most readers just bounce off it.

[my view: it's not actually quite good enough to be worth the time and effort of writing or reading it. But it's an interesting read if you're up for it, and looking for something different...]
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Re: Aiding Readers of Fiction...

Post by -K2- »

Thanks again fellas!

I'm very comfortable with my dystopian pidgin dialects (P-say, V-tahk, Jeabe', Chop, & Sowfee-say...G-tahk = government language/English), and their delivery.

Since they're more watered down slang code-switched with English or pidgin English (amount by character), simplified so most other than English, real world language speakers could pronounce them, then refined to common pronunciation and spelling rules, and finally (for the novel versions) adjusted for English speakers as eye-dialects, I think most folks will catch on quickly. They may feel like they're losing I.Q. points each line, but they're not as difficult as a true conlang.

Also, though it's just appendix information, the grammar and spelling rules really pull it all together. I'm also very satisfied with (and proud of) the alphabet's characters, and all of the 'whys' it came about and developed as it did (in the story).

Thanks again for your help.

K2
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