An article by Amélia Cognet
Writing a book is hard. Why complicate matters by writing it in a second language? There are plenty of reasons for that. I am French. I was born and raised in France. The few things I wrote back when I was a teenager to amuse and creep out my friends were written in French. But later, I met my husband and moved to the U.S. with him. I have been living here for almost ten years. I read in English, I watch movies and TV shows in English, and I interact with Americans all the time.
One day, I decided I wanted to write again like I used to. And I wanted to write in English. Why? Because after bathing in the English language for so long, all these characters I had in my head naturally spoke in English. French is my native language. English is my love language (oh la la!). There’s just something cooler and more dynamic about the English language. But here’s the thing. You know the imposter syndrome? The one that makes you feel like you’re unworthy and fills you with soul-crushing doubts? Imagine what it feels like when you’re trying to write in a language that isn’t your own. It’s daunting. That’s the true horror right there.
But I’m stubborn by nature, so even after a few people advised me against it, I started writing my novel in English. I found myself stumbling over every sentence. Being fluent in the language wasn’t enough for me to convey what I wanted. I had no idea how to describe the sensations fear or pain gave my characters. The chills crawling down their spine. The dead weight in the pit of their stomach. The sharp pain blasting through their body. I didn’t know how to describe the shape-shifter shedding its skin and losing its nails and teeth. I couldn’t find a good way to depict a character bleeding suddenly without saying she was bleeding.
I was lacking vocabulary, which resulted in a first draft far worse than any first draft you’ve ever written. I worked on this novel over and over and over again (while doing the things that helped me get better, which I’ll talk about in a minute). Then, I sent it to beta readers. A lot of them were very encouraging. There was one, however, who destroyed me. She wasn’t mean or anything. She was encouraging and told me that I was a great story-teller, but that my English sucked. She put red corrections and notes everywhere, pointing out all the times my word choices, grammar, and sentences were clunky and entirely wrong to her. Even though I had previously told her that the book wasn’t finished and would also go through the expert hands of a professional editor, she still felt the need to tell me that if she had read this novel as a normal reader, she wouldn’t have made it past chapter one. Ouch.
I didn’t despair. I mean, yes, I did. Several times. But like the stubborn human being that I am, I pushed through. After telling myself many times that I was simply doomed as long as I was writing in my second language, I decided to do something about it. Not one thing, but several things. And honestly, I think these things can help you too even if your target language is your native language. So what did I do? It’s very simple.
Read as much as possible. You could stop reading this article now if you wanted to because this is the single most important thing you can do to improve your writing. Read as much as you can. I used to be an avid horror reader, reading only in French. After I moved to the U.S. and started learning English, I still didn’t have the level to read in this language. When I started writing and realized how hard it was, I knew that reading was an absolute must. It’s even better to read in the genre you’re writing in. How could I learn how to write about a psychopath cutting his mother’s fingers off, or describe the shadow man standing at the foot of the bed and crawling over his victim to possess her, or the dead body coming back to life and clawing its way out of its grave if I read romance or epic fantasy? Reading is important. But reading in your genre is the best thing to do. At the same time, I could finally catch up on all the Stephen King novels I had been wanting to read and I even discovered a gothic horror novelist I didn’t know about who became my favorite author (Darcy Coates. Check her out, she’s amazing). In the year 2020, I read 42 books. I think it’s pretty good considering I have a toddler to take care of at home, and I can assure you that my writing was a lot better in December than it was at the beginning of that year. I now aim to read at least 30 books a year. If I can read more, then it’s even better.
Interact with native speakers. Talking to native speakers will make a big difference. How can you write about people and create natural dialogues if you don’t interact with real people in the first place? Texting is cool, sure, but there is nothing better than interacting face to face. I am surrounded by Americans, so it’s easy, but what if you don’t live in the country of your target language? Just two words: The Internet. Anything is possible nowadays. You can easily find groups of like-minded people you can chat with on Discord, Skype, Zoom, or whatever platform suits you. Native people will be more than happy to teach you the funniest expressions and answer your questions about words you don’t know.
Watch TV in English. Talking to ‘real’ people is best, but I remember learning so many words and expressions by watching TV back when I didn’t speak English well. I would binge-watch TV shows on Netflix and put the subtitles on so I could read as well as listen. This is also helpful to create natural dialogues between your characters.
Have native speakers beta read for you. It can be nerve-wracking, but they will point out your mistakes and will tell you if your sentences are clunky. Sometimes, I still write in a ‘French’ way, resulting in sentences that look more ‘Frenglish’ than English. Native people will correct you and tell you if the word you used doesn’t mean what you think it means. I genuinely thought ‘livid’ meant groggy or ghastly, because we have the same word in French, and that is what it means. Thanks to my native beta readers, I found out that I was completely wrong. Surrounding yourself with the right people will make a huge difference. I used to stay isolated because I thought I wasn’t worthy enough to ‘blend’ with other writers. Now I am in several writing groups and I often ask for help and feedback. It is necessary to grow and improve.
Read. I know I’ve already said it, but I can’t stress this enough. I have heard the tales of the mysterious people who don’t like to read but want to write. To each their own. I am not here to judge, but if you go down this road, you’d better be sure that you master the target language. You know those people who think you can either be an excellent story-teller or a great writer, but you can’t be both? If you don’t master the language and refuse to read a lot, you’ll definitely belong to the former group, or worse, to none of them.
For a long time, I was certain that would be me. Good story-teller (if that), but crappy writer. Now I know that I can achieve both if I work hard enough. There is always room for improvement. I will release my debut novel this year, ‘Perception.’ I’ve worked so hard on it because it was so bad to begin with. Seriously, it was a massive puddle of word vomit. But I pushed through. I kept going. I’ve never considered giving up. And my editor told me my writing was great, which is something I never thought I’d hear from a professional.
Maybe in a few years I’ll read it again and gasp at how badly written it is, but it will only prove that I kept getting better and better.
Despite doubting myself and going through an existential crisis twice a month, I have learned to believe in myself. I can do it. I can be better no matter which language I am writing in.
And so can you.
Amélia Cognet is an emerging suspense and horror writer who loves books, tattoos, rainy days, and fluffly sweaters. She lives in sunny California with her husband Christophe and her two-year-old daughter Kara. Her debut novel “Perception” will come out in 2021.