Monthly Archives: June 2012

Divided by a common language

They say that English is one of the most difficult languages in the word to learn, just ask the Americans! My linguistic skills have never been much good and I am in awe of anyone who can pick up new languages with ease, because for me it’s an uphill struggle and one I’ve never truly mastered. If the theory is true, thank heavens I was born English!

One of the hardest things about English is not the language itself, but the idiom. We’ve got so many metaphors inherent in our speech, so many curious ways of saying simple things and so many rules-with-exceptions to trip up an EFL learner. And although that first line is an old joke, it’s one based in reality. Just ask me when I’m trying to translate my writing into North American English*. Same language, but the details, and the idiom are very very different.

It’s quite easy to go through my stories changing s’s to z’s (recognise, standardise…) and deleting u’s (colour, flavour…). I can also use the find/replace function on things like “I’ve got” to make it “I have” and to turn “different from” into “different than” (although even my US spellchecker doesn’t like that). These are the sorts of things that I’ve learned (never learnt) to ignore in the writing I critique over here, along with the fact that practise/practice is always spelt with a c. (An Aside: Facebook followers will be aware that the Canadians don’t always afford me the same courtesy, much to my annoyance.)

On top of spelling differences, I’m developing a lexicon of synonyms. It includes the obvious ones like trunk for boot, fries for chips and chips for crisps, but also the less well-known, like game for match (one wonders how they handle tennis, maybe I should ask) and cart for trolley.

But it’s a slow process learning all the idiom, and much of it is still beyond me. There’s a “feel” to the language which is hard to pinpoint but makes my writing often seem staid or old-fashioned to a North American reader. If I want to submit to a North American publication with a North American character / narrative, I still have to run the piece past a North American friend or editor with a request to winkle out all the Britishisms (winkle out almost certainly would be the first to go!). And the same is true in reverse – how many times has the British press or public torn apart an American film trying to depict British life and characters?

This is before we even consider writing further afield. I’ve recently been working on a piece featuring Tibetan monks. I have based their English on that of the ones I spent a few weeks with, but if one of them read the story, he would probably pick up something he would never say, or do.

In my more challenging moods, I think I should just throw in the towel; the rest of the time I wonder if we really are better to “write what we know” when it comes to language.

* Footnote: I’ve lumped together North American English here, but the truth, of course, is that it isn’t one beast. Canadians mix US and UK English at will in a way I have given up trying to follow, and that’s without getting into the question of regional differences. Mind you, on that front, I’ve lumped together British English too, and the regional, generational and class differences there are equally powerful. Maybe throwing in the towel would be the best option after all…




Filed under British Expat in Canada, Writing

Friday Fiction – Blimps and Balloons

It’s Friday! And that means another picture from Madison Woods and another story from me.

Blimps and Balloons

Lying on the grass at the airfield, Billy looked up at the barrage balloon above his head. Of course, it wasn’t a barrage balloon any more. This one was advertising – he squinted through thick glasses – tyres, and carried none of the threat of a barrage balloon. Although raised to keep the city safe, they’d always served as a reminder for him of the dangers inherent in staying in London. But Dad hadn’t let him go to the country with his sisters, so he’d stayed behind and watched the explosive flying beasts above guarding him from explosive falling bombs from France.


Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing

Tales of Submission #1

No, this isn’t some sort of kinky sideline to my otherwise PG rated blog! I am simply struggling to come up with a sensible title for my (intended to be) fortnightly piece on where to submit stories and enter contests.

This week, The Writer magazine, and their Travel Writing Contest.

I haven’t quite worked out whether I’m going to submit to this one myself yet, because it’s some way outside my normal scope. But in a way that’s what makes it tempting.


What? An essay on the writer’s travel experience, whether that is far afield, or close to home.

How many words? Up to 1,200

When? Deadline is 15 June 2012

Fees? Sadly, yes. $10 US.

Prizes / Rewards? Yes indeed. On top of publication in the magazine, monetary prizes for 1st ($1000), 2nd and 3rd place, together with subscription and enrolment in a writing course.


For a piece of this length and a prize of this magnitude, that’s not a bad entry fee and even if you haven’t got anything started, it’s short enough to draft in a week. The Writer is pretty popular, so I imagine there will be lots of entries, but you don’t know if you don’t try, and for someone like me who mostly sticks to fiction, it might be a good exercise to try something completely different.


I’d love to hear from anyone who goes ahead and enters, and certainly let us know if you win. The support network starts right here.

In addition, if you have any suggestions of things I could include on these posts to make them more helpful to you, please do let me know. It’s a new feature and you should know by now that I love feedback!


Filed under Writing

Inspiration Monday #1: Falling Softly

Apologies for the double post today. My writing friend, Craig Towsley ( has recently put me on to Inspiration Monday, a scheme similar to the Friday Fictioneers, with a main difference of being based on – guess? – Mondays not Fridays. It’s my first time, but don’t feel you need to be too kind – I love feedback and constructive criticism is the best type!

You can see the site (and the inspiration) at Be Kind Rewrite and my story below.

Falling Softly

There is no sound as I descend. The clouds caress my face, but the wind is stronger and gravity is stronger still, so that the result is far from pretty. I’ve seen photographs, I know how it looks: shaped into a hideous visage of g-forces and momentum.

It’s a little like falling in love, I think. Soundless, yet catastrophic. Infinitely safe, yet perilous in the end.

Nobody truly fears falling. They fear hitting the ground. Nobody is really afraid to fall in love, but they are afraid of all the things which come immediately afterwards: the sudden removal of one’s armour and opening one’s breast to the blows only a lover can lay – deliberately or otherwise.

She was beautiful. She was kind. And it was inevitable, perhaps, that I would fall in love with her. But as she caressed my face, she was shaping it too, making it an ugly visage of jealousy and fear, which would eventually show through. And then I had to choose: a parachute to stop me falling, or final surrender to my love.

My hand is on the pilot ‘chute. I could release it any time. But I hesitate, mesmerised by the ground below, and her face behind my eyes.


Filed under Inspiration Monday

Share and Share Alike

Writing is notoriously a solitary pursuit, but the last couple of years have taught me that it can also be a social one, with a great community spirit. Many of my friends in Canada have some from one or other writing group, and I value the associations I’ve made further afield through the Friday Fictioneers even though we’ve never met.

When it comes to writing competitions, the best way to hear about them is through other writers. Occasionally, I’ll get an email from a writing friend saying “Have you seen this link? Might be tempting for you” and as someone trying to submit to at least one contest or magazine per month, the diversity of these suggestions is incredibly valuable to me.

Of course, there’s a temptation as an entrant to keep these things a secret, reducing the number of entries and therefore the competition for your own piece. But let’s face it, there are going to be hundreds or thousands or even hundreds of thousands of other entries, so hiding the event from one’s friends isn’t noticeably improving one’s own prospects in *this* contest, and it’s sure as hell going to reduce the number of contests they introduce you to in the future. It’s a false economy, not to mention selfish.


I thought we could spread the community worldwide right here on elmowrites. I’m hoping to make this a regular feature, probably on Thursdays, so check back then, or subscribe using to link on the right, to catch a series of links to magazines, publishers and contests which give writers a chance to see their work in print. If you come across a place where writers can submit their work, feel free to post a comment and share the luck, and if you succeed, do let us know so we can celebrate with you.

May the best writing win!

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Filed under Writing

Friday Fiction – Guilt Trip

Thanks to Madison Woods ( and Doug McIlroy ( for today’s prompt. I hope you enjoy the story it invoked for me. As ever, let me know what you think.

And if you happen to be in Toronto this evening, come see me at the Moosemeat Chapbook launch party:

Guilt Trip

There was a mountain, nestled between the bigger ones, that was flat on top: even slightly dipped, as if God had taken the peak with a great ice cream scoop to make Himself a sundae.

My parents were busy arguing about whether we were going to make it to the airport in time, but I just kept staring at the mountain and wondering. If God would do that to the landscape, what would He do to the little girl who peed in His beautiful sea yesterday?

I stared until the mountain disappeared from sight, silently promising never to be bad again.


Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing