Thursday, January 13, 2011

Misunderestimating, by Jess Lourey

I was recently reminiscing with a friend about a gentleman we both worked for. He has since risen very high in the world and is now the commanding general of the ROTC for the state he lives in. At the time we worked for him, he was just our boss who had a bad habit of assuming everyone saw the world the same way he did. My favorite illustration of that was relayed to image me by Catherine, who speaks Spanish and went on a church trip to Mexico with him as his translator. On their third day, the two of them presented to 60 teenaged girls who wanted to learn about volunteer opportunities in the U.S. My boss, thinking to set them at ease, told them he was happy to be there. They received this well. He told a couple jokes,which Catherine translated, and the whole audience erupted in laughter and applause. Encouraged and possibly suffering from jet lag, he next told them that they were foxes. My friend Catherine slid him a look, but he was too caught up in the positive energy, so she shrugged and translated, "he thinks you are small furry rodents.” The 17 year-olds are all WTF? as he is leering appreciatively at them, and he moves on from there, having completely lost his audience.

Language barriers (and lack of personal filters) can cause a lot of misunderstandings. For example, there is the “Ladies are requested not to have imagechildren in the drinking lounge” in a Norwegian bar, or “Drop your trousers here” at a Bangkok dry cleaner. In writing fiction, though, misunderstandings are more subtle, as I’m reminded every time I get my manuscript back from my fabulous friends and family who edit for me. Sections I thought were funny are…not. I was also advised to remove “BFF” and “WTF” from my most recent manuscript by my mother, who said many people will not know what they mean. I had a horrible character say a horrible thing, and I was told by several people that the horrible thing was so offensive that it took their breath away, in a bad way. They said it was too jarring for a humorous mystery.

I listen to everything they say and play it against my internal rubric. I know, most of the time, what good writing looks like and what bad writing looks like. It’s just that when it’s my own, it’s hard to see the difference. Until someone points it out to me, that is. I end up making most of the changes recommended to me by editors because most of the time they’re right.

My question to you is, how do writers tell the difference between what must stay and what should go?

12 comments:

Vicki Doudera said...

Jess, very funny story! I once told a whole table of Parisians that American food contained "preservatifs" not knowing I was saying condoms. Boy did that get some laughter...

As to knowing when things are "off," I think you are on track by having people you trust read and comment. Unlike editors, they are reading for that elusive quality of what feels right.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I also have my barometers, those few people who read the manuscript while in progress. If they cry "foul", I reconsider it. They are always correct.

Jess Lourey said...

That is hilarious, Vicki! I want to know the origin of that word, how it came to mean preservatives in one language and condoms in another. I suppose, if we directly translate, condoms are preservatives of sanity, among more tangible things.

Reminds me of a sign that I saw in Mexico last week--"Devolutions not accepted." I suppose that's a direct translation of "returns." :)

Jess Lourey said...

Sue Ann, what do you do in exchange for your barometers? I feel eternally indebted to my first readers, and I feel like I can never return the favor because most of them are not authors.

Lois Winston said...

Jess, I'm going to be the voice of dissent here. Back when I was unpublished and receiving lots of rejection letters, I noticed something very odd. What one editor loved about a book, another rejected for that same reason. Taste is very subjective. I would never change anything in a book that a beta reader pointed out unless several other readers and my editor agreed it needed to be changed.

I use foul language in my books where it's appropriate to the character and the scene. I know the F word bothers some people, but a mob-connected loan shark isn't going to to say, "Oh fudge!"

Same with WTF and BFF. I don't believe in dumbing down my books. Nine year olds know what those terms mean. Anastasia's teenage sons are going to know and use those expressions. Parents of kids know them. If someone is reading something he or she doesn't know, I'd hope that person would Google the term to learn something.

Case in point, several of my husband's coworkers have bought my book. The other day my husband told me that one of the engineers said he had to look up some of the words I use in my book, that he'd never heard them before. This is a man with an advanced degree. My feeling? Hey, I was responsible for expanding his vocabulary!

Darrell James said...

I always read my manuscripts aloud to my wife (she sweetly tolerates this). I catch a lot of things through the ears that sounded so right inside my head.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great story, Jess! How do I tell the difference between what must stay and what should go? My critique group lets me know! And in response to Lois, usually when they point out something that should be changed, in my gut I know they're right. If my gut doesn't agree, I think on it, and may still make a change, though maybe not the one they suggest.

Cricket McRae said...

Great post, Jess. I have a couple readers who are also authors but in different genres. Most of the time they are right on the money and I benefit greatly from listening to them. On occasion a suggestion just doesn't feel right, though. I usually give it a day or so to percolate, and then go with my gut. More important is when I know something is off and no one else seems to see it. I've learned to pay close attention to that feeling.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Having those in-tune readers is wonderful! Sometimes when I get feedback I see the person's point instantly, and wonder how I could have missed something so obvious.

If I get feedback that doesn't feel right, I've learned to let it sit in the back of my mind for a while before making a decision. Sometimes I end up making a change; other times I don't.

Interesting post, Jess!

Jess Lourey said...

"Listen, then go with your gut." Is this the consensus? It makes sense and has been my experience, as well.

Alice Loweecey said...

Beta readers. Mine consistently save my butt. Also, reading out loud helps.

Jess Lourey said...

That's two of you who read out loud. It's funny because I always advise my students to do it (it's the best way to edit! I say), but like journaling, I just never do it. Maybe I'm missing out.