Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Back in the saddle-- Non-American spelling

Hi, it's only been a month! Who knows where the time goes. Nowhere productive, I'd say.

Anyway, back again. I'll try and post more. I really want to post about what I call the Tyrannosauruses, the powerful industry professionals who are still powerful as the industry changes. But that will come later. Now I'm thinking about something much more trivial-- non-American spelling and formatting.

An Australian author who has been "dinged" in writing contests for her Australian word choice and formatting asked if she should try to standardize everything for American readers, or trust that they really can read English that isn't American. Good question!

 I think there are realities at issue here. First, of course Americans are perfectly capable of reading other forms of English, and publishers' worries about that are generally unfounded. Harry Potter, after all, managed to sell fairly well despite the terrible handicap of a British author using British terms. :)

American Publishers
However, those publishers will say, "We have a house style. We're not going to change that style (including spelling, punctuation, formatting) just for one author." And they're right too. Their editors and copyeditors and proofreaders and software are all geared to their own country's style. So if you sell a story to an American publisher and use "colour" instead of "color", expect it to be changed. No big deal. House style almost always rules. Even Harry Potter, after all, showed up in the US edition with double apostrophes for quotations! The publisher might be wrong about the ability of American readers to figure things out, but
there you have it. Those of us who have spent decades battling with "house style" tend to counsel choosing your battles when it comes to the copy edit. You know, "Okay, so they made Grandma into a friendly cocker spaniel. And they Americanized my spelling. Which should I go to the mat for?" :)

A couple thoughts-- will writing the story in your own style cause a publisher to reject you? Probably not, especially if the story is set in Australia. But don't be surprised if after buying the book, an American publisher sets the copy editor on all the URs. Probably they'll be gentle with your wordchoice (torch instead of flashlight), but monstrous on your punctuation. Just keep reminding yourself that JK Rowling had to put up with this too. (AS Byatt once wrote a funny article about having her British book Possession Americanized, with the pallid hero kind of Rambo-ized because the publisher assumed that American readers couldn't
abide a "slight" hero.)

Independent Publishing
And what if you're not going through a publisher but publishing it yourself? Well, then I'd say, go with what makes for a better experience for the reader, who is the only other person to consider then. Most readers who look for indie-pubbed books are very experienced readers who appreciate an author's voice, so don't worry that they'll be upset-- they're probably the least likely people to object to this. I would probably in the subtitle of the book or description make sure "Australian" is in there, like (title): An Australian Love Story, or in the description, this story, set in Australia.... the author, a native Aussie.... That is, give them a signal that this isn't Amy American's book. Then they have fair warning that if they are offended by non-American spelling, they should steer clear.

As far as contests, really-- ignore any comments that don't make sense to you. And I say this as a chronic judge. Sometimes judges comment on things just to have something to comment on, and they don't mean for it to be taken as holy writ. And sometimes they DO mean for it to be taken as holy writ, but they're wrong or this is some individual issue they care about and no one else does (I have a lot of those ). If what they say sounds wrong to you, just ignore it.
And if you're being scored down for this, I'd complain to the coordinator of the contest.

I'm one of those who loves the slightly different "taste" of British books and those single quote marks, so go for it.


Anonymous said...

And there are the crazy Canadians who use double quotes with British spellings. Thanks for the tip on giving flavour to my books set in Canada. :)

Alicia said...

Joan, that is pretty funny. I find myself wanting to write "theatre" because it really looks classier. :)

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

Even J. K. Rowling had her early books somewhat Americanized. The first Harry Potter book is the worst of them where her US publisher went so far to change the title from Philosopher's Stone to Sorcerer's Stone. And then mum to mom, trainers to sneakers, jumper to sweater--because apparently American kids couldn't figure that out. As the series became really big, there were fewer of those kinds of changes in the later books.

Alicia said...

Ashlyn, I guess American kids can't deal with "philosophy"?

I remember as a kid loving to figure out the differences in British English. It was so exotic. It's still fun to learn what bangers and mash are, or what a parking lot is called. Oh, and I came across this term "naff" and had to ask-- is that positive or negative? I love the odd adjectives.
In an effort to make things easier, I think some American publishers might be taking away some fun aspects of reading.

Wes said...

Amen to what you wrote about contests. I had a judge refuse to read my submission because the characters drank the blood of their mules to survive. Not only was this a documented event, but some cultures still practice this today. Another time I was marked down for having my protag drape his arms over the back of his horse while conversing. She wrote that it would irritate the horse. I've had a dozen horses, and none of them have minded. In fact, it is a form of bonding. What concerns me is why does a judge deduct points for something he/she knows nothing about or for a world view the judge disagrees with? Shouldn't the judge focus on character, plot, language, etc.? I won a national contest for historical fiction, but several times I got knocked out of contests for going against someone's biases or writing about something the judge is ignorant of. I think I've had it with contests.

Marie said...

I have to agree with Alicia here.

I'm Canadian but wrote with the intent of submitting to American publishers. So even tough my stories were set in Europe, yes, colour became color and neighbour became neighbor. Metric became Emperical. LOL I remember having to Google the distance between two cities in England, getting the results in kilometers then converting it to miles :)

The only place I'd allow myself to use "foreign" words was within dialogue tags if my character was not American. Even my Canadian characters would tack on an "eh" at the end of their sentences now and then ;)

Anonymous said...

One thing I found being British and writing for a US publisher is that if a word or phrase works for one side of the Atlantic but not for the other, and vice versa for the alternative, it may be worth looking at a third way of expressing the concept.