Writers Should Learn Languages


Pepper has been teaching me French. Clearly she decided I wasn’t using my time productively enough: I’ve been memorising vocab all week and there are grammatical constructions coming out of my ears.

But I’m glad of it because it’s made me realise that the one piece of advice I’d give to writers is this:

Learn a language

Learn a language you were forced to sit through in high school without taking in a single word. Learn a language you’ve never even heard before in your life. Learn a language that uses an entirely different alphabet. Learn a language that’s an older form of your own language.

Learn a language.

In French, ‘moth’ is ‘papillon de nuit’: the butterfly of night. It’s not defined as a different creature. It’s the inverse form of the butterfly, its dark sibling that rules the darkness with its shadowed wings. It’s infinitely more threatening and possibly also doubles as an assassin’s nickname.

And you don’t learn to run before you can walk, either. You ‘want to fly before you have wings’. It’s a feeling I can sympathise with it, but it’s an infinitely more magical image. It’s couple with the idea of ‘flying with your own wings’, in place of our own idiom of standing on one’s one two feet.

Something that’s not overly difficult is ‘not the ocean to drink’. An idea that I imagine Thor can understand, given the story I’ve read of him trying to do just that, but I like it because it suggests French people think everything is easy compared to drinking the ocean, therefore suggesting they’ve tried it.

When you learn a language, you have to step outside your own head. See, I can say, “This is Hulk’s apartment.” The French say, “This is the apartment of Hulk.” Subtle difference, right? But it’s a reinterpretation of ownership. It’s a different way of looking at the world.

Language shapes how we view everything. We perceive gender, in our society, as a binary – and we struggle when people try and dismantle that idea. Because we’ve built up a linguistic basis for that idea, and dude, it’s even worse in French because they give genders to objects.

When we’re describing historical societies who might’ve worked on a one-sex gender system (a fascinating concept, by the way: go and look it up), we start saying, “Well, this was a masculine role, and this was a feminine role, but they weren’t defined by biology…”

What we mean is, “Well, we would perceive this as masculine, but…” It’s only masculine because that’s the word we assigned to it. Those people wouldn’t have had those words. Their language would have enabled them to understand that concept.

Learning a different language forces you to re-examine how you understand the world, especially when you come face to face with their idioms and proverbs.

Even the process of it will help: all the words you associate with characters and things they do, all the ideas that get triggered by the unexpected juxtaposition of vocabulary, all the brainwaves you get because you’re so reluctant to learn grammar that your brain is running on an entirely different track. It will help.

Learn something like Esperanto and see how people create linguistic structures. Learn Anglo-Saxon to see where English came from. Learn Hebrew, Chinese, Russian, Icelandic. Learn languages that push you so far out of your comfort zone you forget that you ever only spoke English.

Learn a language and see the world anew.

Trust me, it sucks at first. Conjugations and tenses and all that. But it’s so worth it.

arrive with crowds

-- Iron Man

Hulk and George Orwell Chat About 4 Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves

Writing advice is everywhere. 

Just google "writing tips for characterisation" or "how to smash writers block" or "is Hulk hiding in India?" and you'll have a million articles to wade through. (I'm sure Google is how S.H.I.E.L.D finds me.)

How do you know what advice to take?

mine The Avengers hulk bruce banner mark ruffalo The Hulk bRUUUUCE MY BABY MY LOVE ;; sorry the video quality is shit xoxoxoxo mine The Avengers hulk bruce banner mark ruffalo The Hulk bRUUUUCE MY BABY MY LOVE ;; sorry the video quality is shit xoxoxoxo

BUT. I do have a smashing suggestion: pay attention to the old writers' advice. Sometimes it's outdated (like Captain America's sense of humour), but there are gems in there you'd be bonkers to ignore.

I found this quote by George Orwell (interesting dude, that's for sure, who wrote lots of books the world liked to ban), and I think it makes some valid and writerly scientific points we should analyse:

1. What am I trying to say?

Writers have a lot to say! Take me for instance: big, overgrown, green man, who's shy and awkward. Has about 4 quotable scenes in the Avengers movie. (It's okay. I'm not offended.) Of course I'd take up writing to get my side of the story out.

But what do I want to say?

Books shouldn't be sermons. They shouldn't be platforms for you to lecture either. No one likes to be lectured! (It makes them angry.) In my humble and strangely emerald opinion, books should entertain and make you think about topics from a different angel.

So what do you want to say in your book?

Have you thought about it?

2. What words will express it?

There are over a million words in the English language to pick from. You have to nab the right ones. No pressure!

But in writing? Only the best will do.

3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?

I like to think this refers to "voice" and "style". By all that's green, there are a LOT of styles to pick from.

For instance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is written in a letter style. These Broken Stars is dual narrated but still in 1st person. The Gallagher Girls series is written very informally (like a conversation) with lists and articles. Shatter Me is full of pages of crossed out words.

And how many voices are there?! The character can be spunky or pessimistic or sarcastic or sweet or factual or scatter-brained or informal or uneducated or --

There are a lot of voices and styles.

4. Is the image fresh enough to have an effect?

This is the GOLDEN question. Whenever I get a new story idea, I have to decide if the setting and theme have been over-done. This is difficult! I Hulk out occasionally over stewing about this topic.

I believe any story, no matter how much the premise has been written, CAN be worthwhile -- so long as you make it fresh.

For instance, there are a lot of zombie books out there. Is it possible to write a fresh zombie book? Heck yeah.

Reboot portrays zombies as super soldiers (maybe Captain America is actually a zombie?? Just throwing thoughts around, peoples, don't get offended). Something Strange and Deadly goes back to the root of zombies and uses a necromancer to control them. Contaminated rehabilitates zombies into society.

They've picked an over used premise (zombies) and made it fresh and unique.

As writers, it's an excellent exercise to ask ourselves these questions.

They're particularly important when you're rewriting and editing. First drafts? I always advise first-drafters to abandon the internet and JUST WRITE. Once you're done and ready to whip your manuscript into shape, that's when you start eating all the advice.

Now if you'll pardon me, I'm off to my anger management classes. 

-- Hulk / Bruce Banner

Back to the Basics

Good day, fellow writers. This last week I have seen an influx of fledgling authors contacting me in the hopes of receiving advice. The most common questions seem to be about publishers, and how one goes about getting published. I am here today to share what I told them.

My hope is this: that if you are a new writer, you will find a bit of a map to help you get started. If you have been writing for years, hopefully this might serve as a reminder of the basic strengths we need to continually be successful in this art. Either way,


Step one: write the novel. You cannot do anything else until it is done. If you already have a few chapters written, you have accomplished something few ever do! Now, finish the book. Try not to edit as you go, there will be time for that later. Just finish the story.

While you are writing, read as much as you possibly can in your genre. (There are different schools of thought on this, but I am giving you the advice that has helped me the most. Take it how you will.) Read RECENT releases. This will not only give you brain food, but it will also help you see what agents and editors are buying these days.

When you finish your first draft, celebrate! Most people will not make it that far.

Read through it once or twice to make sure you have it everything the way you want it, and all your facts match up. You will probably miss some, but do not worry. It is still early in the process.

When you feel comfortable with your novel, have other writers read and give you feedback. Then make changes according to what feels right for your story. You will repeat this step multiple times, but keep in mind one thing: this is YOUR story. Do not make a change simply because someone tells you to. Take the feedback, think it through, then decide whether you use it or not.

To find writer friends you could join a local writers groups, such as the local NaNoWriMo region or get involved on sites like CPSeek or the writing community on Twitter or Facebook to find critique partners (CPs) that fit you and your genre. Keep in mind that you should always offer to read and critique for them in return, and always ALWAYS thank your readers for their feedback. Whether you use it or not, they took the time to read, and that is no small thing.

After a few rounds of reader and revisions you should be feeling much more confident about your book. It is at this point that you have a few decisions to make. 1. Do you want to pursue Traditional Publishing, or Self Publishing? 2. Do you want an agent? 3. If Traditional, do you prefer small press, or would you like to go for the big New York houses?

New writers often ask about publishing houses, and I must beg you to be patient. While I know writing and publishing sounds so exciting, please believe me it is a rough road. There are many small press publishers, plus the Big Five, and all of them are very choosy. It takes the average author ten years or more to break in to the business.

All of this information can be found online with some digging. Some websites to look at are:

Writing Excuses Podcast
Creative Writing Lectures (Emphasis on SF/F)
Dan Wells on Story Structure
Absolute Write
Writer's Digest

There are also books on writing craft like ON WRITING by Stephen King, or CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINT by Orson Scott Card.

I hope this has helped in some small way. The biggest piece of advice I hope you take to heart is this: there is no one right way to do this. We all must press on in trial and error to discover what works best for us individually.

Go forth, my friends, and find what works best for you.


How To Fail Better

wake up daddy's home

I know. Three weeks is a long time to go without a post from me. I miss my voice sometimes too. Never fear; I’m back.

So, recently Pepper’s been going to a Pilates class.

Now because I have absolute faith in Pepper’s abilities, and because I’ve never known her to be bad at anything except remembering not to turn my music down when she interrupts me, I expected her to be good at it. Not to mention the fact that she’s one of the youngest people in the class, and she’s athletic (especially after Natasha taught her a few things).

And apparently she expected to be good at it too. But she’s not. She can’t balance, and her upper body strength is actually far less than she expected.

It can be a pretty overwhelming feeling, suddenly realising you’re not as good at something as you thought you were. Not that I’ve ever experienced it, because I’m brilliant at everything, but I have a good imagination. I’m brilliant at that, too.

Let’s take a purely hypothetical example so that nobody decides to try and take down Avengers Tower by challenging Pepper to a Pilates match or something.

Imagine you’ve been blogging for five years. You’ve always got straight As in English at school; maybe you even went on to study it at university. Hey, you might even have done some creative writing modules, and you’ve loved reading since you were a kid. So when you sit down to write your first novel, everybody expects you to be good at it. You expect yourself to be good at it.

And then you’re not.

The hardest bit isn’t getting better: anybody can do that. You know the secret to getting better? Keep trying, keep failing, but fail better. No, the hard bit is realising you’re bad at something. Otherwise every time you fail, you’ll fail the exact same way.

You might actually be pretty great at novels, although everybody’s first MS is usually a total disaster, and even the greats need to redraft. But you’re terrible at blogging. Or you’re terrible at non-fiction, so when you’re asked to write an article or an essay, you’re stumped. Just because you’re good at one act of wordsmithery, doesn’t mean you’re great at all of them.

Pepper’s awesome at knocking people out with a briefcase while tottering down stairs on high heels in a pencil skirt, but she’s not so good at press-ups.

Five steps to failing better:

1) Know that you have failed.

Accept your failure. Embrace it. Know that failing means you tried. Look at the complete pile of poop that is your first novel / your early attempts at blogging / the essay that’s due at midnight tonight, and say, “Look, I made a thing. It sucked. But it’s a thing.” After all, when toddlers poop in a potty, we congratulate them, because they did a thing. So. You’ve done the thing.

2) Examine the manner in which you have failed.

What’s the worst part of this piece of work? Is it your writing style; do you need a grammar refresher, or a magical creature to follow you around and obliterate your superfluous adverbs? Maybe it’s just that every reader is going to hate your characters and want them to die, or that your plot has more holes in it than Hulk’s trousers after he’s transformed. Analyse the problem.

3) Ask for help

Okay, I lied. This is the hardest bit. Ask somebody to check your grammar; ask them to point out the problems with your characters; ask them what would make the tension higher, the novel more interesting, the concept less contrived. If it’s non-fiction, ask them to pick holes in your argument, so that you know where to reinforce it.

4) Rewrite it, and then ask for help again.

And probably they’ll tell you it’s still crap. So try again. And again.

5) Fail again, but fail better.

It’s still a pile of poop, but hey, it’s a slightly better pile, isn’t it? And it’s actually in the potty this time. You’re halfway to leaving your writing diapers behind. Keep trying. Write another one and another and another, until you’re no longer failing, and you’re beginning to feel like you’re good at it. Pepper’s got to strengthen her upper arm muscles slowly – she can’t bench-press her own weight immediately. In the same way, you have to flex that writing muscle over and over again until it’s strong enough of win the fight against your novel / essay / whatever.

Now go forth and fail, friends.


Pepper just interrupted me to say I could’ve used a personal example instead of picking on her. Yeah, I could. I didn’t. And in the meantime I really need to stop JARVIS alerting her every time I type the word ‘Pepper’ in a blog post. That’s going to get annoying.

-- Iron Man