Basic Truths for Learning Languages and Creative Writing

Tracking progress ...
My Evernote tracking of my progress … and mistakes … which I usually notice after-the-fact. (sigh) It’s difficult to find intermediate level Japanese practice pages and lessons because “intermediate” means different things depending on what people previously studied vs. how much they retained. But these two bold, simple truths of learning how to master the skills I want are really all I needed to remember.

Today after finishing my Japanese reviews, I recorded my progress in my Evernote mini-journal, then attempted to track down some practice possibilities for working with subordinate clauses. Most of my review so far is basic review, which is very necessary after being away from language learning just long enough to forget most of what I previously knew. It is slowly, but surely, coming back to me — some more slowly than others. But subordinate clauses were one of the last things I remember trying to master before leaving Japan. As a result, it’s the one item I’ve reviewed so far that isn’t coming back so easily. I remember studying it and understanding it, but now my brain is answering my efforts with mush: “Nope! Not gonna happen.”

During my quest for good practice lessons with subordinate clauses, I came across a website that had this to say about it: “Good Japanese starts with mindlessly imitating good Japanese.” And “Input always comes before output.” (And my apologies for not grabbing the URL of the website. If it’s yours, or someone recognizes it, I will be happy to update and post the address link here.)

I paused, gave it some thought, and transferred those quotes to my journal, then took a screenshot so I could share what I’d learned. I didn’t get the practice exercises I was after, but I think I found something more valuable. Why are these principles such basic truths of learning, and why is it essential that they be understood for both learners of languages and creative writing (… and many other disciplines)?

Creative writing first …

How do people learn how to write? They usually come to writing because of an interest in reading and other media forms of storytelling (film, TV, graphic novels, video games, etc.). But no one learns how to write before they learn to read. To even learn how to shape an alphabet letter, one must first learn to recognize it somewhere else for what it is … and with its sound. Then the new reader must learn how to string those sounds and symbols together to decipher codes that represents familiar objects. It helps to learn reading and writing simultaneously, of course. But you don’t know what a “B” looks like until someone first shows you a “B” and says “Trace it … copy it … now write it on your own.”

You have to be familiar with the basic parts of a story from reading other people’s stories before you can write your own stories. And the more that you learn about literary analysis, the more command you will have of your creative writing process. This is not a chicken and egg scenario. Input must always come before output. Good creative writing starts with mindlessly imitating good creative writing. You cannot write without inspiration, so if you are suffering writer’s block, step away from your output long enough to look for input. This is a repetitive process in creative writing. Breathe in. Breathe out. Inspire. Aspire. If you want output, focus on input.

Read a book you’ve been wanting to read. Watch a move you’ve been wanting to watch. Look up historical, folklore, whatever that offers some real data or mysterious legends to give details and texture to your work. Take a walk, play a game, play music, do art … there are dozens of ways you can coax inspiration back into the process when it slips away. It doesn’t have to be relative to your story. You can always make it relative. But you cannot force a good story to come together if nothing is feeding your imagination.

Languages …

Language is vital to creative writing. You can see the connections in the example above. You have to know a language in order to use the code to convey a message. There is no way to convey an understandable message using a code you don’t know. Input before output. Good language learning starts with mindlessly imitating good language examples. The answer to my problem regarding lack of practice pages for subordinate clauses was staring me in the face. Instead of looking for pre-printed, special practice pages to translate, all I need is some good sentences to copy.

Tomorrow when I sit down to do Japanese grammar subordinate clauses, I will look for reading material, instead. I will look for subordinate clauses written by masters who knows how to use the language well. And then I will mindlessly copy what they wrote. And I will copy, copy, copy until I have disciplined my mind to default to their good examples. Only then can I own the skill and use it on my own.

Two additional notes …

  1. “Mindlessly” … This does not mean, “Turn off your mind.” You do need to pay attention to what you’re doing in order to learn from it. But a student learning a new craft or skill needs to be empty enough to receive new knowledge before he can do anything with it. I’m reminded of the Buddhist koan about a teacup needing to be emptied before more tea can be poured into it. The mind needs to be humble and open, rather than resisting and complaining and being impatient with the methods required to learn the skill if there is to be any new inspiration.
  2. Copying is not the same thing as stealing, although it can be. Copying someone else’s novel and slapping new names on the characters, then calling them your own borders on copyright infringement. But copying in order to learn is a necessary step in the writing process. How can you tell the difference? The serious learner will put major effort into branching away from copying “learning material” to create his own works as soon as possible. “Start copying what you love. Copy, copy, copy, copy. At the end of the copy, you will find yourself.” (Yohji Yamamoto, fashion designer) What, then, do you think Pablo Picasso meant when he said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal”? It means you must copy to learn good skills, but you will never be able to do more than duplicate a work until you can take what you learned away with you and transform it into something unique.

Writing in Non-Native Languages

I just finished reading an article on tips for writing in non-native languages, and … can I just take a moment to say how much I admire those of you who are bilingual or multi-lingual enough to take on such a challenge? It’s hard enough to write well in a primary language, but to do so in a secondary or tertiary one must qualify as some kind of super power. 🙂

I have always loved linguistics and always wanted to be fluent in another language. I remember being interested in Spanish first when I was a small child because I lived in Florida and watched several bilingual kid shows. That’s where I first became aware that there were different ways to say things. But then I moved out of that multi-cultural setting and latched onto French in high school — minored in it in college to go with my English major. Over summers I would try out other languages: Russian, German, Swedish, Old English, Drow … 🙂 (Yes, even archaic and fictional languages intrigued me enough to learn some basics.) I used to work as a librarian, and I can remember sitting at the desk counting microfiche, 5 per envelope for boxes of hundreds of slides. And that would get terribly boring, so I tested myself on how many languages in which I could count to 5. Drew some very strange looks from passers-by, but it kept me alert and awake because language is music to my ears.

But I never got to truly develop my French skills in spite of my six years of education in it because I never had a reason to use it. Then I unexpectedly move to Japan. (Cue “Hallelujah” chorus.)

So OF COURSE I was excited to have a reason to study Japanese!  I dove in head first and fell in love. I loved the language. I loved the culture. I loved being immersed in the language I was studying, so that I could actually use it, rather than being limited to repeating what I heard in lab recordings.

(This was before the Internet allowed us ordinary people access to the world at large, so you could be stuck in a lab two hours twice a week saying, “Des saucisses, sans doute,” into a microphone for the teacher to grade your pronunciation and listening comprehension skills … you know, in case a French person ever asks what’s for lunch and you happen to be having sausages. And that was it. That was your entire foreign language exposure in the American classroom experience.)

But then I had to return to the States and suddenly my Japanese immersion morphed into isolation. To say that I miss Japan terribly is an understatement. It was one of the few places I’ve lived, out of 22 addresses so far, that actually felt like “home” to me. I’ve never really fit in anywhere because of my constant moving, but Japan felt like a perfect fit for me — like I could have been happy to spend the rest of my life there. And I’d never felt any kind of “sense of place” or “connection to place” like that before. So, memories of Japan are bittersweet for me because I don’t know when or if I will ever be able to go back.

But I am desperate to hang onto my Nihongo skills, since my French is all but lost to me after so many years of disuse. A couple of years ago, I decided to restart Japanese lessons. At the same time, I wanted to restart French and add German and Spanish to my lessons, as well. Ballsy to take on that many languages at once, I know, but it was a bucket-list thing. I had graduated from counting to 5 in five different ways. Now I could say, “That is a red car,” in five different ways during my neighborhood walks. But those plans eventually fell through because of unexpected life events that shook me to my foundation. Yet here I am missing Japanese again. The desire to learn it just won’t go away.

So, I’m restarting lessons again. I pulled out an old notebook the other night to look at old study pages, and looking through it made me even more determined to regain my old level of fluency and surpass it. I want to be able to add “translator” to my freelance jobs. And if I get a chance to move back to Japan, I would like to be able to seriously consider it.

私の日本語のノートです。My Japanese language notebook.

At the same time, I’ve also become interested in Korean, so I’m now learning the Korean alphabet. (You know you’re a language geek when you get giddy over adding a new keyboard to your language bar and can type “ㅏ” for the first time.)

Someone dear to me once made a comment that made me feel like loving and studying languages was stupid because it’s not as employable or practical as other kinds of degrees.  Au contraire. 🙂 I think it’s one of the smartest things a person can do, even if you’re not employed as a translator or interpreter. The world is a global village now, so you open more doors for yourself — and for others — by learning more than one way to give and receive information. You are less limited in the business opportunities and friendships you share. Polyglots are usually more open to understanding the cultures of the languages they study, because languages inherently teach us about culture. Plus, recent studies have shown that knowing more than one language just makes you smarter. Doh! … Did we really need a study to prove that? Apparently so because just a generation ago experts thought learning more than one language would confuse children. So, in America, immigrant parents were discouraged from teaching their own non-English languages to their kids. (American culture still has issues with non-English languages, but that’s a rant for another time when I feel like discussing how crippling it is to be limited to only one language … how it fosters prejudices.)

I have many friends whose native languages are something other than English, and I cannot express my admiration of them enough. I’m truly envious of their ability to communicate so effectively in English. (Especially since, in my opinion, English is one of the most screwed up languages around!) 😉 They are my inspiration to keep trying to overcome obstacles to fluency. And recently I’ve been reading several articles from other non-native-English speakers that have also been inspiring.

So, in my fiction, I have my own elven languages. And I had fun researching Old Norse, Gaelic, Welsh, and Faroese to create them. Maybe I will share a little more about my language creation process in the future.

But for now, as I trace my Hangul vowels and crack open my 日本語のノート once more, I just want to take a moment to express my admiration for all writers out there who brave writing blogs, songs, stories, whatever in a language that isn’t their primary one. The whole point of language is human communication. Spelling might not be perfect. Grammar or idioms might be tough to navigate. But you do it anyway because of the desire to express yourself and be understood beyond the language barriers. You learn from your mistakes gracefully. You get better by doing — by being courageous enough to try to speak your mind with unfamiliar tools. And many of you have gone beyond basic communication to truly touch base with the beauty and melody in other languages. Hopefully, I will be able to join your fluency ranks eventually. 🙂 Wish me luck on finding the time and energy to add these studies to my daily responsibilities, so that I can eventually add them to my job descriptions. がんばりますよ。^_^

A New Bad Cat in the Family

Tsuki and bowl
月森・つきもり・Tsukimori, my new bitty kitty. So itty bitty he could drown in the dog’s water bowl.

So, last month I realized what a bad idea it is to go into a pet shop when you’re in a depression episode. All my life I’ve had black cats. My last one passed away in November of last year. But early in August I went to the pet store to buy timothy hay for my two guinea pigs, and a little “mew” caught my attention from the cage behind me. Had it been any other animal, or any other colour, I would have been able to resist. But this little guy was reaching for me, and how could I say no to that?

I had trouble picking out a name for him, though. I had too many that I liked! After about a month of calling him “Kitty” and “Bitty Kitty” and being embarrassed to tell the vet that I still didn’t have a name for him yet at his first follow-up exam for his shots, I finally settled on Tsukimori (or if you can read Japanese: 月森). It translates literally as “Moon Forest”. I chose it because it reminds me of the pre-dawn mornings moon-gazing while shoveling my car out of knee-deep snow, and the dark, beautiful forests of northern Tohoku where I used to live. I chose it because it reminds me of places I loved without being specific enough to make those memories sad for missing them. I chose it because it puts no expectations on him to be joyful, brave, or my friend. But I admit I also chose it because Tsukimori from the band Wyse has always been one of my favourite singers. 😉 And they had a bitty kitty in one of their music videos, too.

“Take Your Child to Work Day” … Didn’t get a lot of work done after he discovered the cursor and started chasing it over my keyboard.

So, while my publishing business is named for my previous spoiled fur-balls, and then for the first time in over 20 years I suddenly had no cats, now I have someone new to carry on the tradition. He’s already tripled his size and still growing like a weed. I will be adding his picture to the “about” page as the new mascot for this website. He’s already earned the “kitty-goyle” award for some of his stunts … like leaping onto the toilet before checking to see if the lid is down, smacking the dog’s tail and ears while he’s trying to sleep, attacking my hands while I attempt to text anyone, and losing his toy mouse not five seconds after I just found it for him … again! But he’s a sweetie when he’s not channeling his demons and getting into trouble.

Tsuki beddo
It’s not easy being this cute.

Book Review: Ouroboros Cycle

Next month I will be shutting down my old blog and its various branches, so I’ve decided to start transferring some of my previously written articles here. I reviewed this book some time ago, but here it is again for the sake of making it available on this current blog. As I move reviews, most of them will also be shared on various publishing sites (Amazon, Smashwords, and Goodreads … if the books are available there).

I’m a huge fan of vampires in literature. …Notice I said “vampires IN literature” and not “vampire literature” or “vampire genre”. There’s a reason. There is a difference. I’ll transfer my vampire lore pages later, though. For now, enjoy this little recommendation. 🙂

Ouroboros Cover
The Ouroboros Cycle by G.D. Falksen
Book: The Ouroboros Cycle
Author: G.D. Falksen
Genres: Gothic horror, steampunk
This is an engaging novel I heard about in a steampunk community, but I’m going to classify it as primarily Gothic horror with a steampunk flavor. It doesn’t have iron robots, fantastic flying machines, or clockwork anything other than clocks. But it does have a rich sense of 19th century culture and politics that often gives steampunk settings and plots a certain “texture” that even Gothic horror often lacks. It does, however, have ghosts, vampires, and werewolves.
The story begins in 1861, Normandy, France, and follows the life of the main protagonist, Babette Veranus. An up-and-coming socialite, Babette lives with her father and grandfather, but is more inclined toward books than debutante balls. Unknown to Babette and her father, the grandfather of the family, William, is a werewolf. The gene skipped Babette’s father, who is a rather meek individual, but shows promise of showing up in her. Therefore, arrangements are in the planning to wed her off to the most prominent werewolf clan in the community.
Babette, however, loathes the boorish young man to whom she is being assigned. Furthermore, she eventually meets someone she likes better. Family feud, social indignation, and murder follow. Scandalized, William secrets his precious granddaughter away from France for a time … where she meets a vampire. And it is the vampire who enlightens her to the existence of werewolves and, unintentionally, enables her to exact her revenge.
The setting in this book is vivid and rich, easily transporting the reader into a sense of time and place. There are sword fights and gun battles. There are philosophical discussions and clan intrigue. I appreciated the variety of the pace between the family squabbles, the romance, the intellectual debates, and adventure. It keeps the story moving forward so there is never a dull moment.
The characters in this book are probably what truly sold it to me, particularly Babette. Congratulations to Falksen for writing such a well-developed female lead! Just today I was grousing elsewhere about the sorry state of female characters in literature, and this is a shining example of how to write female characters right. Babette has dimension. She is intelligent, driven, uncompromising, and knows what she wants out of life. She’s romantic, but not ditzy. She’s cunning, but not scheming. She’s a fighter, but not a male character in a female body. She is relatably human, even after she becomes a “monster”.
The other characters were distinct and memorable. I have to admit my second favourite character in the bunch was Iosef … her vampire mentor. He and his clan are modeled on the classic European style vampire, but with a more noble air than the likes of Dracula. The Shashavani vampires are aristocrats of the old world who value knowledge above all else. They don’t accept new members lightly, and their standards to remain in the family are high.
In this book, it is the werewolves that struck me as unusual. They’re never actually called “werewolves”. Instead, they’re referred to as “scion”. (If you’re not familiar with that term it means “notable lineage”.) But they are definitely strong, clawed, hairy beasts that stick together and hunt in packs. They can run on all fours or on two legs, and they when they reach a certain age, they begin to lose their human appearance. Stuck in lycanthropic form, they must live underground in deep, ancient chambers.
Falksen’s style is clear and entertaining. I think I noticed one grammatical error, but I don’t even remember what it is now. The distraction was minor enough that I went right back into the story.
Overall, there is little room for improvement, in my opinion. Will I be getting the other books in the series? They’re definitely going on my TBR list. There were a lot of unanswered questions that are obviously stories to be told within themselves. There is a second book in the series, and I believe a third one is on the way. I consider it a wonderful addition to my vampire library.

Book Review: Of Fur and Ice

Of Fur and Ice cover
Of Fur and Ice by Andrea Brokaw

My old blog had branches out to a few other blogs for book reviews, games,  and vampire lore. I’ve debated doing the same for this blog, but for now I think I will keep everything central. Therefore … here’s a book review to get things started! 🙂

Book: Of Fur and Ice

Author: Andrea Brokaw

Genres: YA, romance, urban fantasy

Attacked by a were-creature of no known identification, high school student Michaela is transferred to a school for were-students in Alaska. She must wait until the next full moon’s change before anyone can find out what kind of creature turned her. But signs indicate that whatever turned her seems to have followed her there and has become a threat to the were and human communities. The were-community needs to catch it before it draws too much attention to their packs or causes serious harm to anyone. But how can they catch it if they don’t know what they’re after?

Michaela is befriended by a family of were-foxes, some were-leopards, and a were-bear to aid her transition. But then there’s Warren — the wolf. She’s not sure what to think of him because one minute he’s all wolf; the next he’s … actually kind of nice … for a wolf, that is. My personal favourite character was Seth, the were-leopard, but I’m not sure whether it’s because of a preference for cats or that his hair was long and two-toned. Or maybe it’s just the fact that he was willing to buck tradition and listen to his heart to do his own thing.

I found this story to be entertaining. It’s got a bit of a “Beauty and the Beast” theme to it, along with themes of friendship and love, betrayed and lost, and the insecurities that are naturally part of a coming-of-age or life-change story. (Will your friends and loved ones still accept you if they see the real you?)

Told from first person perspective, its humor is light where Michaela and her friends are concerned. Each character’s personality is distinct. And I don’t remember reading any other stories where a were-beast was as uniquely designed the way Michaela and her “sire” are.

Brokaw’s style is well-organized, informal, and has an easy flow to it, quite suitable for the intended audiences. It’s suitable for younger teens, as well, in my opinion, though it does have some mild language in it. Her words are clear, and her ideas are well-developed.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in the above genres, particularly if you favor high school settings, romantic dramas, lycanthropic stories of various kinds, or winter sports.

One final note: I used to give star reviews — points for whether certain elements were included or not. I’ve decided against continuing to do that in my text, though I may still click “star-bait” on sites where I share my reviews.

After participating in many discussions on why people rate books the way they do, I’ve come to realize how inconsistent readers are in how they reward (or punish) “good” and “bad” books.

Some readers rarely give five stars because they say a book must be absolutely perfect to deserve that, and that never happens; so five-star ratings must be reserved only for the best of the best. Other readers give a book five stars if they liked it … for no specific reasons other than that they liked it. While other readers, like me, had “grading” systems that acted like points: one star for grammar, one star for character development, one star for plot, etc.

In reverse, I’ve seen a one-star review for a book because a reader didn’t like that it was YA … when the book was clearly labeled and marketed as YA. Why would a reader buy a book knowing it’s a genre he dislikes, then give it such an awful review for being what it is? That makes no sense. The reader obviously has very strong opinions about YA, but the fact that he purchased a book from a genre he doesn’t like is his fault, not the book’s. People who like YA enjoyed the story.

So, it’s important to remember not everyone has the same taste in what they prefer to consume, but everyone can make their own decisions about what they consume if the ingredients in the recipe are not ambiguous or entirely grounded in opinion. Since the purpose of the book review is to communicate with other readers — to help them decide whether a book has elements they might like or dislike — words do a better job at offering literary analysis than stars. Stars may grab the initial attention, but words are what reveal the literary elements readers look for.

I worked on this book as editor and illustrator. It would be very easy for someone to accuse me of favouritism in star reviews for it. So it’s more helpful toward matching other readers with books they may (or may not) enjoy if I offer specific information about the elements within any books I review. 🙂