Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Tag Archives: English language

Readers Educated About Reading Translations

Many of my friends read and speak more than one language.

Alas, I have but English

So, I became interested in an article by Alane Salierno Mason called, The Attraction-Repulsion of International Literature.

From the article:

“It remains true that American publishing houses tend to translate far fewer titles than European houses. Still, says Mason, America is becoming both more diverse and better educated. As the trend continues, the hint of the foreign should, she believes, become less challenging for readers.”

Apparently, Americans (and, here, I assume they mean folks from the United States and not all the Americans in South America) have some prejudices about “foreign” authors.

The article sums up a potential resolution through education with:

“It’s pretty simple in the end, says Mason. In fact, it is almost unbearably obvious. ‘We are all related’, she says. ‘Our lives and fates are interdependent’.”

Mason founded Words Without Borders, which says about itself:

“Words without Borders translates, publishes, and promotes the finest contemporary international literature. Our publications and programs open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages.”

And, to peak your interest a bit more, here’s a short video about it all :-)

Our Comment Link Is At The Top of The Post :-)
For Private Comments, Email: amzolt {at} gmail {dot} com

Writing Challenge ~ Use The 1200 Most Common Words To Write A Story…

EDIT: [ This is the most-read post on this blog ]

“For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.”

It’s said Ernest Hemingway wrote that six word story. I checked my list of the 1200 most common English words and “sale” wasn’t there but “sell” was. “Worn” wasn’t there but “wear” was. All the other words were there except “shoes”. Not even “shoe” was there

Of course, that particular list may not be definitive but there is another list of 1000 most common words that has “shoes”.

Even though I’m not the kind of person who actually takes writing challenges, I’ve noticed that many of my blogging buddies do :-)

So, the challenge is on!

I got my first list of most common words quite awhile ago and saved it till I could figure out how to use it in a blog post.

This quote from Mark Twain gave me the idea for my challenge: “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

And, even though the first list I’m going to give you may not be definitive, from the description given about its sources, it certainly sounds useful: “This list is from Rebecca Sitton’s “Spelling Sourcebook” {<— that link is a download…} It’s a ‘cross-referenced compilation’ of several massive word studies, including the American Heritage Word Frequency Study (Carroll, Davies, Richman), and several other studies, including the work of Gates, Horn, Rinsland, Greene and Loomer, Harris and Jacobsen.”

So, even though I doubt any of my readers will take the challenge, I’ll still spell it out:

You need to use the 1200 words in the list at that last link:

“The first 25 [words] make up about one-third of all printed material in English. The first 100 make up about one-half of all written material, and the first 300 make up about sixty-five percent of all written material in English.”

You can write a story of any length but I hope you’ll make it fit into the comments section of this post (or, send it to me at amzolt (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put it in a follow-up post). And, finally, if you don’t see the exact form of a word (like there’s no “worn” but “wear” is on the list), you can change tense or plurality

The Challenge Is Over :-(
Find out who the winner was and read her story :-)

Our Comment Link Is At The Top of The Post :-)
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Writers’ Responsibilities ~ Revisited…

In the two posts, World Crises And The Fiction Writer ~ Can They Help Humanity? and Two Post Mashup + A Video ~ Writers’ Responsibilities, various ideas of the writer’s responsibilities to society were explored.

One of the comments, from a man who has taught English for over 40 years, was challenging enough that I felt compelled to feature it in this post. I encourage you to also visit his blog for some equally challenging sonnets.

I’m hoping that those who read the following comment will let all their heart-felt thoughts pour into comments of their own


“It is odd that while we know that in the greatest periods of any particular art, its purpose was religious in scope, not at all subjective but objective in its presentation of the ideas and beliefs; the persecution of so many of the artists of any given period of greatness before their ultimate acceptance implies that whatever the message or content of a work, it “hit home” in such a way as to enrage the secular and religious leadership who openly opposed such artists of stature who are today revered as the “greats” of the past.

“Ultimately the works of such artists outlived their opponents. In the struggle to make the transition between zeitgeists comes the problem of what to say and what not to say; what to portray and what not to portray, with the confusion being that in the transition, there is no precedent for the artist’s work while at the same time, it has become patently obvious that what passed for art in the past was no longer capable of either sustaining or maintaining the old world order.

“The result, then, is that literature and the other arts are reduced to what amounts to mere entertainment with no true purpose but to while away the hours of some very bored audiences and/or readers. I think we are there at present. For the most part, artists seem to me to be ‘closet entrepreneurs’ no matter how seemingly positive their apparent productions or the causes they appear to be furthering.

“The past is finished; the future is not yet here. This leads both producers and consumers of the arts with no choice but to demand the ‘quick fix’ that is the very definition of entertainment rather than the didactic purpose of the arts in their generic state. Socrates was sentenced to death for his assertions; Galileo was merely told to shut his mouth about the now obvious position of the earth vis-à-vis the solar system.

“How long the present state of affairs will continue is at best a guestimate but I suspect it will continue right up to the moment of the physical results of mental and spiritual deprivation; in short, nothing short of an atomic bomb or a Third World War or repeated warnings in the form of earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear accidents as were seen recently in Japan and Haiti will jumpstart the present state of the arts to begin to move forward into anything other than hortatory goals.

“It does not mean that writers should cease writing, but it does preclude expectations in kudos or even remuneration for writing except in rare cases of accidental acclaim.

“Writing for the joy of it achieves a great end in and of itself because it is free of the active prostitution of the arts and connects with the few in this world who hold to integrity above the advantages of fascist circles of  ‘quick fixes’ that leave the ‘mainstream’ at the top and everything else so far off the chart that there is no register in the chart at all.”

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Author Interview ~ Shalon Sims

Very pleased to have Shalon with us today :-) Let’s get this interview moving…

Shalon, where are you from and how old are you?

I am from Canada and I am 33–the magic age where you begin to question “WHAT am I doing with my life?” and more importantly, “is it meaningful?”  It’s an exciting and challenging limbo land, where I’m no longer young enough to feel like I have tons of time to fulfill my dreams, but not confident enough to feel like I have all of the skills that I will need in order to fulfill them!  On my 33rd birthday last year, it really hit me hard that I’m not a young person anymore.  Growing up is weird, isn’t it?

Being very near my 65th birthday, I can, indeed, affirm that growing up is weird :-)

When did you begin writing and can you remember how it felt inside, back then?

I began writing before I can actually remember.  I remember feeling as a very young child that it was my ‘special skill’ and that it was the one thing that I could do well.  I had troubles with math and reading clocks and making friends, and I think my teachers noticed that and really encouraged my writing and artistic abilities. I remember being very proud of my writing skills and the first story I remember putting effort into was about a young dolphin that had to swim under an oil spill with its entire pod.  It was full of tension from start to finish–like one big climax!  I hadn’t (of course) learned about plot-lines at that age.  I must have been about 7 or 8 and I was watching too much national geographic at the time–secretly, might I add, because my mother knew it gave me nightmares and forbid me to watch it.

You remind me of my absolute horror at seeing whales breach on TV when I was a kid

Was there any certain date or time you remember when you began to either think of yourself as or call yourself a “writer”?

That was definitely not very long ago–maybe 5 years ago, at the most.  My friend Rebecca Chaperon (, a painter, was a real inspiration to me in that regard; she said, “a painter is someone who paints, even when they don’t feel like it.  And a writer is someone who writes, even when they don’t feel like it.”  She was admonishing me, telling me that if I ever wanted to be a ‘writer’ then I should get off my butt and write.  I did heed her advice and today I can seriously call myself a writer.  I think what she meant is that calling yourself a writer, or an artist, means that you have dedicated yourself, to the extent that you have become disciplined.

Just a few echoes reverberating now from my post on the 18th :-)

Have you had any “formal” training in the art of writing?

Yes, classes at university, and have a minor in English, which should actually be titled a minor in creative writing & rhetoric, because I abhor literature classes and avoided them at all costs.

I must insert, from your blog, the schools you’ve attended:
Simon Fraser University, BC
The University of the Fraser Valley, BC
The Universiteit van Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Kwantlen University College, BC

What do you feel has taught you the most about “how to write”?

The answer is simply: writing and reading.  I think that in all my years in university, the classes that I took were really only valuable insomuch as they forced me to read and write more than I might have naturally.  I found critique groups and teachers, books on how to write, etc. all a waste of time, except where they led me to reading or writing more.  Everyone has a different style, different ideas of what is ‘good’, so I often found classes and books about ‘how to write’ depressing and demotivating.


What authors inspire you as a writer?

Well, one of my favourites is Ursula Le Guin. Her book, The Dispossessed, was the first Sci-fi written by a woman that I ever read, and it just blew my mind–so much so that it made me decide to follow my childhood dream to write sci-fi.  I watched Star Trek as a child and was inspired by those ‘What If’ scenarios, but as I grew and became a more discerning reader, I found that most sci-fi disappointed me, in terms of *quality* of writing.  Le Guin’s writing is absolutely flawless–she has a mastery of the language that even the worst English teacher would admire, but more than that, her stories are truly meaningful and entertaining.  She deals with taboo topics in such subtle and ingenious ways and her prose is so clean and clear, which is definitely something I aspire to: to say what I mean, and know what I mean to say.

Another author that I have recently come to truly admire is C. S. Lewis.  I never really enjoyed his fantasy, and I’m a bit of a religion sceptic, so I had kind of grouped Lewis into the category “one of those Christian writers.”  But recently I read Out of the Silent Planet and I have to say that I have still not recovered.  The sequel, Perelandria, is also breathtakingly beautiful.  Now, I don’t want to make you think they are perfect novels, but they inspire me mainly because he captures the inner struggle of his main character so well.  The struggle I’m talking about is the struggle that all of us cognizant humans have, between the parts of ourselves that believes we can, and the part that tells us we’re incapable.  He is a master at capturing the little monster (inside of all of us) that whispers, “Are you kidding, you would be a fool to believe/do/say/think that.”  I believe that this is the main theme of Lewis’ work in general, because he deals with this concept in his novel Til We Have Faces, which is probably on my list of top 3 all-time favourite books, and is, in my opinion, a perfect novel.  In terms of writing quality, I am inspired by Lewis’ imagery, especially in the Cosmic Trilogy series: the worlds he creates are so vivid that you really feel like you’re on another planet–you could reach out and touch one of his fantastic creatures or plants.  And he does this with barely any exposition or description; the world comes to life mainly through the character’s actions–and THAT is good writing.

Another writer that inspires me in terms of challenging my writing skills is William Gibson, especially his novel, Neuromancer.  I won’t get into it here–if readers want to know, they can go to my blog post about this–but suffice it to say that Bill has helped me to learn that conventions and rules of writing are negotiable.

Gibson, I feel, has something to teach all writers

How do you incorporate your writing into your daily life?

My fiction writing has always been a private thing for me, which is something I am in the process of changing. That’s the little monster in me that tells me that I would be a fool to think that someone would pay money for my writing.  In support of sharing my writing, I recently joined an online critique group called Critters, which has been amazing!  I highly recommend joining something like that, if you are at the phase in your writing where you are ready to take the heat (!).

My non-fiction writing is very public and an active part of my daily life: I work as a technical writer and project assistant, and I also work freelance as a writer, editor and even English teacher, and I have a blog and other online projects, so writing is what I live and breathe these days.  The technical writing job and the blog are new elements in my life and are part of my 33-year-old commitment to living my dreams and being ‘a writer’.  I wish I had started my blog years ago, when all my friends were telling me to!  I guess I had this erroneous belief that I should only start a blog if I was willing to compete with other bloggers (you know, be a ‘professional blogger’), but since starting my blog, I realize that, for me, it’s a place to store my ideas (the gems) and share them publicly.  Simple.  It’s also a great online public presence or portfolio that gives people a sense of who I am.  As a freelancer, I’ve found it invaluable (that’s how I got my job as a technical writer!), so that’s why I focus on quality, rather than quantity, in my blogging.

And, here, folks, is the link to Shalon’s blog.

What are the other online projects you’re working on?

I have a real fascination for social media, and its potential to help transform society in positive ways (democratizing and educating people).  I’ve had my @shalonsims account since October (there’s that 33-year-old popping up again), but I soon felt limited by it, so I started a new one, as a kind of experiment, called @EmFems, which is for Empowered Female Artists (writers, painters, musicians, poets, etc.).  I tweet about female artists and their projects and I love it–it’s so much more gratifying than my @shalonsims account–I get thank-yous all day long!  We’ve already got almost 400 followers in 6 weeks!   I think this account has so much potential to transform women’s lives, and society, so I am also working right now on the website and a blog, to get that up and running soon.

Wow! Very much looking forward to those!!

Is there anything else you’d like to add, perhaps some advice for aspiring writers?

I guess I’d just like to say that learning to write is a skill, and it takes time and dedication.  But the power is not in the skill, it’s in you. Just like a guitar player’s magic is not in his skill in playing a guitar, it’s in the inspiration that flows out from him, through his skill.  That’s the same for writing.  The inspiration is in you, as a writer.  I meet many writers who say that they are demoralized by rejections, or by English teachers who give them poor grades, or critiques that point out all the flaws, and I would say that it’s essential as a writer to develop the sense that a rejection is a positive thing–a challenge to hone your skill in order to direct that inspiration that’s inside you.

Shalon, thank you, ever so much, for taking the time for this interview. Extremely fascinating and you elucidated so many aspects of the writer’s life!
So, dear readers, it’s time to ask Shalon questions or give her a bit of feedback :-)
Our Comment Link Is At The Top of The Post :-)
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Revisiting, “Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?” ~ My Tribute To One of My Commenters

One of the comments in our last post was so unique and so valuable that I’m taking the liberty of freeing it from its public presence in the comments to give it prominence in a more public presence in this post. {alliteration, anyone?}

The writer of the comment was, for many years, a teacher of English. He now is a blogger who reveals a rich and powerful command of the language through his poetry on Once written; a kind of testament in sonnets…

The only editing I’ve done is to separate the full comment into what I feel are thought-segments, add a couple commas, and change the ending of one word [may the gods of English teachers, past and present, forgive me…]. And, just as I speak in a radically different voice in this blog than I do in my books, this gentleman has a different way of writing comments than the way he composes poems ( though, I must say, there a bit of slight resemblance in the way he can put words together and have them take a mind on a stream-of-consciousness journey :-).


“There are so many levels to any given question that it seems to me to be somewhat simplistic to goad a writer into revealing where he got the material for his work, especially some particular work he has written. When it comes down to it, it certainly is evident that with many great writers, in fact some of the greatest writers of all time who were so great at what they did that the language underwent a massive change, revolution, evolution, even a transformation such that they are recognized as the “Father” of this or that stage of development of the language in which they wrote were not, at the same time, innovators when it came to content.

“Generally speaking, often it is acknowledged that with Chaucer came the swift acknowledgement from about the end of the 14th Century of the transition between the Anglo-Saxon, or “Old English” versions of the Germanic language we call English, to what became Middle English; we associate the same sort of transformation with the effects of the works of William Shakespeare.

“Chaucer is at times called the “Father of Middle English” while Shakespeare is credited more often than not with being the “Father of Modern English.” Neither were original in the content of their work as both “borrowed” their plots and characters from earlier works and historians. What made their particular works of monumental importance was the evident ability that both of them had to recreate formerly known classical narrations from earlier times but in a manner that called attention to the crafting of the dialogue and narration that was in and of itself superior to the originals from which they “stole” their material.

“How’re you going to keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?

“Once exposed to Chaucer (apparently, considering the almost instant positive reaction of the English to Canterbury Tales) there was no going back; once exposed to Shakespeare’s peculiar expression using his own dialect of English, not to mention his minting of some 1,800 words that are still in use today, Shakespeare’s dialect and vocabulary rapidly became the standard or model for what we refer to as “Modern English” beginning around 1550, especially as it coincided with the end of civil wars in England with the reigns of all the Tudors and most especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588, that secured ascendency of the English Kingdom among the super powers of the entire period of the Renaissance in Europe.

“At any rate, the idea of originality so far as content is concerned is beside the point with the greatest writers of all time, the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, et cetera.

“These writers could get away with this because, clearly, they understood and comprehended their language in a manner that engaged their peoples in an unforgettable manner and in such a way that a kind of avalanche of change came to pass because they were in fact artists, not artisans; their respective experience in the observation of life and captured within the “tale” that each of them told, through sheer magnitude of intimate intercourse with their respective peoples and periods, matched by the advent of similar fortunes in the history of their homelands at the time of their writing, married the effect of greatness in their art, spent and given bent almost by accident because they did what they did at a time of change whose time had come.

“There is more to this, of course, than what I have cited here, but having said this, still your comments on the possibilities of original content as having everything and little to do with plagiarism are well grounded; originality in content rarely has to do with any work of art’s success.”



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