Language, culture and religion

I’m currently learning French, German and Spanish on Duolingo (French and German to regain what I learned – then forgot – at school, and Spanish just because), and an interesting discussion came up on their forum.

One of the courses that made it into beta last month was Arabic>English, which means that once it’s stable Team Arabic will start on the ‘reverse’ course, English>Arabic. This is one I’m looking forward to, as I’ve been wanting to learn Arabic for years – and I’m looking at a new job in which Arabic will be useful.

However, Arabic as a language, and Arabic culture, are both very much intertwined with Islam as a religion. Someone asked, how was Duolingo going to manage to teach Arabic without also teaching religious stuff? Cue an interesting discussion of the fact that most languages seem to have religious bits and pieces in them – even when used in a completely secular sense.

Terry Pratchett said it best:

“Dwarfs were not a naturally religious species, but in a world where pit props could crack without warning and pockets of fire damp could suddenly explode they’d seen the need for gods as the sort of supernatural equivalent of a hard hat. Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it’s nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, “Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!” or “Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!”

But in English, as well as ‘bloody hell’, ‘damn’, ‘Oh God’ etc, we have ‘goodbye’, which is a contraction of ‘God go with you’. Granted, the religious quotient of English is substantially less than that of Arabic, but it’s hardly absent.

So it’s quite interesting to think that religious imagery and terminology are not entirely the preserve of the religious. When they enter the common vocabulary, the ‘religious’ element fades and they gain a new, secular meaning and a place in secular culture and communication. From a writing perspective, it’s something to bear in mind: speaking Arabic colloquially involves a lot of “Insha’Allah”, even if you’re not Muslim, and as Terry Pratchett points out, what, as a committed atheist, should I be saying when I stub my toe?

Authors I admire: Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is one of my favourite authors. Nobody is going to accuse him of writing great literature, but his books are damn good fun. However, what I admire most about his books is not the characters, or the world-building (though they’re both pretty good) – it’s the plotting.

With Butcher’s books, I can tell that he has plotted not only each book, but the whole series, in advance. Little incidents in earlier books turn out to be important in later books. Major characters don’t just show up; they’re hinted at earlier.

Take Butcher’s latest book, Skin Game (Harry Dresden book 15). One of the new characters in it, who turns out to be quite important, and whom there are signs that we will see more of – was foreshadowed in an earlier book. Not in any obvious way, but the groundwork for believing in him as a character had already been laid. So we, as readers, already have a conceptual slot to put him in, and we also have some background knowledge that fleshes out the character without Butcher having to do any tedious explaining.

In another incident, a character does something appallingly stupid, meaning that a whole bunch of assumptions that readers have made over previous books suddenly have to be junked. Now, when some authors do that, it’s really disappointing. You feel cheated. The author has suddenly changed direction on you with no warning, and that’s just wrong. But when Butcher does it, once you’ve got over the shock, you sit back and you think “Yeah…. he’s absolutely right.” Because this particular incident made me re-evaluate that character, and made me realise that I’d been wrong (and so had everyone else) all along. That what I’d expected would happen wouldn’t have been the right thing at all. That the stupid thing that the character does was not the result of Butcher needing a sudden plot change and sacrificing readers’ expectations for the quick fix, but entirely due to the fact that Butcher knows those characters and his world a lot better than his readers do. The incident to which I refer did not end up making me feel betrayed, but instead made me realise that I’d been wrong about that character all along – and that the ‘stupid thing’ was actually inevitable. The character would have done it, or something like it, sooner or later. In some ways, that moment of revelation was one of the best parts of the book.

This beautiful plotting means that you never have one of those “WTF???” moments, as a major baddie suddenly appears out of nowhere, or the series as a whole gradually veers off course (and possibly over a narrative cliff). Instead, you not only have a great story, but – as you read the series – you get to sit back and admire the sheer artistry of what Butcher is doing with the series as a whole. Everything interlocks, like a puzzle. There are no flabby bits flopping around looking significant at first but turning out to be irrelevant. It’s tight; it’s efficient. It works. Things move on, move forward.

He’s also subtle. You don’t get big flashing lights that say “Hey! Small but significant point here!” It’s only after he gets to the denouement that you figure out where all the little signposts were. Not only does this preserve the excitement of the books because you can’t always predict what’s going to happen next, but you also get to re-enjoy previous books as you realise the true significance of bits to which you hadn’t really paid much attention.

Butcher’s Dresden Files is the best demonstration I can think of that careful plotting means that a series of books is greater than simply the sum of its parts. And you know what? Spotting the hooks in Skin Game makes me want to read the next book just to find out what they mean…

Who’s your audience?

I subscribe to the Writer’s Digest free emails (I don’t actually pay for stuff – how much money do you think I have?). Sometimes, I read it and think “What, really, give your heroes some believable faults and your villains some good points so they’ll seem a bit more human? I never would have thought of that…”

But yesterday, there was an email that really made me think, and I told my husband about it, and made him think too. It was this one – about whether you should write for yourself, or for the reader. To some extent, it’s a no-brainer: you should always write for the person who is going to be reading it. If that’s only going to be you, then write for yourself. If, someday, you hope someone else will read your stuff, then you’d better factor them in too.

But what really made me think was how specific the author of that post got – his strategy was to make a sort of ‘ideal reader’ character in his mind, and write the book for her. And I think that’s a really good idea, because it forces you to focus.

Commenters on the article objected, and suggested that if that’s what you were going to do, then why not just write for yourself – or for someone you knew? It comes down to the same thing in the end – you’re writing for one person, who standards for the population of readers you hope to attract.

But, thinking about it, it’s not the same thing at all. It’s all about how specific you are. If you write for yourself, then you’re being very specific indeed – there’s no-one who knows more about what you like than you do. And you know all your little quirks and idiosyncrasies (even if you don’t recognise them). So by writing for yourself, you’re effectively writing for the only person in the world who fits that description. If you write for someone you know, you still know quite a bit about them, and real people have all sorts of little quirks, so you’re still narrowing your focus.

But if you make up a character, you can make him or her into a sort of everyman. Lawyers know about this: law is full of these people – the ‘Reasonable Man’, the ‘Moron in a Hurry’, the ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’, ‘Equity’s Darling’. They are cardboard cutout sort of people who each stand in for a population. We know some of their characteristics, but they don’t have individual quirks because their function is not to be individuals. Your made up character isn’t a real person: he or she is the shadowy Reasonable Reader, with just enough of a personality to perform one single function: that of keeping your book focused and on track.

So my project for this week is to work out who, and what, my Reasonable Reader is. And thank goodness that article was published now rather than in six months’ time. Lucky, lucky, lucky…

Back at the keyboard

How long is it since I wrote a post on this blog? I don’t even like to think about it. But here I am, back again.

Things are going to be different from now on. (And how many times have we all said that?)

But these are the things that are different:
1. I am not going to try and post every day, because that just ain’t going to happen. Life has too many other things going on. But I’m going to try to post at least every week. That should be achievable. (Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound, at that!)
2. I’ve finished the degree I was doing last year, and as far as I know I passed (the university screwed up, so I’m graduating six months late, imagine how happy that makes me).
3. I’ve started (and am nearly all the way through) a graduate diploma in law, with the intention of qualifying as a solicitor – eventually.
4. I’m going to write a novel. It may not be a good one (although I hope it will, obviously). Nobody may ever want to read it (although I hope they do). But I’m going to write it, and I’m going to publish it – self-publish if I have to. Because it’s something I want to do at least once, and if I don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.

We only get one chance at life, and as excuses for not doing something go, “I never got round to it” is pretty poor. Like Miss Piggy says, “Make time!”

So here I am again. Let’s see how it goes. :-)


Luther Burbank said: “Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul.”

Tiff says: Except people who have hayfever.


Ben Affleck said: “If I ever woke up with a dead hooker in my hotel room, Matt would be the first person I’d call.”

Tiff says: Does anyone else find it worrying that he has thought about this and formulated a prioritised list?


Aristotle Onassis said: “I have no friends and no enemies – only competitors.”

Tiff says: And this is supposed to be a good thing?