ESL Writers – How Our 1st Language Affects Our 2nd

This article starts with a re-tweet that I came across the other day.

This one, below here:

This tweet hit home for me.

I saw myself reflected in it.

It spurred me to consider whether there might be a link between my own underwriter nature in English and the fact that my mother tongue is Danish (ergo Germanic). Maybe my English writing is concise and abrupt because Danish as a language is more concise than English? Because it has a smaller vocabulary than English, and thus it’s hard to make it flowery/lengthy?

I know my conciseness in my English stories often is my weakness in that I say too little and leave reader confused, even though I personally think I say enough and that the rest can be inferred (spoiler: it often can’t, shucks). This past year, I’ve worked a lot on my prose, trying to explicitly be more lengthy. Both to improve my craft—to expand what I can do with my craft—but also because I want to get better at hitting the proper (read: market-friendly) word count in my first drafts.

All this rumination about myself made me want to see whether my ESL friends felt the same. Whether my friends, for whom English is a second language, can see threads of their own native language weaved into their English storytelling, and how these threads show themselves.

So, of course, I went and asked them on twitter.

I had an Italian and Spanish friend both say they’re overwriters in English, which would fit the theory that native romance languages foster descriptions and complex sentence structures for ESL writers.

I also had a Brazilian friend who said the same, namely that they’re an overwriter in English as a second language and that Portuguese as a native language has lush prose.

Then I had a Hungarian friend who also saw themselves reflected in this theory, saying that Hungarian can be quite rambling, and that this fits their own tendency to overwrite in English. 

Lastly, I had a Dutch friend who finds themselves an underwriter in English, fitting the idea that Germanic languages are very matter-of-fact compared to English. Just like Danish.

I think we can infer a lot from all of this, and I suppose this is where my fondness for cultural studies makes me go full nerd—because I think we’re looking at something that goes beyond language here.

First off, I think it’s fascinating that there is this difference between storytelling and writing when it comes to your second language, even if you’re perfectly fluent in that language. There’s something to be said for your formative years, here. I’ve read more English than Danish in my life at this point, yet it’s obvious that my rudimentary understanding of “How To Tell A Story” remains rooted in Danish, not English. This also shows that storytelling is more than written text. Even more than oral storytelling. We’re going beyond stories, grasping for culture itself as a concept.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?

Language is inevitably linked to culture, after all.

It reminds me of another tweet I saw recently, namely that the stories-within-stories concept is told best by non-western ESL writers. Based on my current knowledge of this, I agree. EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE, by the Viet-American Nghi Vo, comes to mind. The plot of that novella focuses on a cleric who listens to stories about the recently deceased empress. The cleric isn’t the actual story; the story that the cleric is being told is the actual story. CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN also comes to mind, by the Filipino-Canadian K. S. Villoso, in which the narrative oscillates between past and present with the main character chronicling their own story to us, the readers.

The tweeter argued that non-western ESL writers are good at this type of narrative because their culture looks at storytelling differently in that they generally revere and preserve the past more, while being less focused on the future such as western culture traditionally is. I can see this being true, and I can see this making non-western ESL writers into masters of the story-within-story narrative.

To sum up, I find it so fascinating how writing and storytelling aren’t only two separate crafts, but also that you can essentially write in your second language, yet at the same time be storytelling in your native one.

I mean, not to toot my own horn and the horns of my ESL friends, but that’s massively cool, isn’t it?

Can you have fantasy without magic?

In my 20 years of reading and writing fantasy, I’ve never thought much about the part that magic plays in fantasy—until recent years. It started with one book for me. A book that, paradoxically, isn’t new in the slightest, but was written in 1926.

That book is LUD-IN-THE-MIST, by Hope Mirrlees.

I picked it up in a bookstore at random. Or, I say at random, but I really picked it up because the cover was pretty and it had a Neil Gaiman blurb calling it “the single most beautiful and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century.”

Like, how do you resist that?

Anyway, I read the book, loved it—and somehow, for some reason, realized that the magic within the book is solely contained to the land. The dirt. The soil. Meanwhile, the characters are all regular people, affected by this magical land, but they never contain any magic themselves. Neither are there any magical creatures (that are shown, not purely told).

Reading that book had a monumental impact on my own worldbuilding.

It affected every book that I wrote after it, honestly, with me moving all magic from my characters into the soil upon which they walk. Before this, worldbuilding was my weakness. But now? Once I realized I didn’t have to make magical people, but I could have magical soil instead? It changed everything for me. Magical people had always felt overdone to me, meaning I struggled finding a fresh spin on it that could keep me invested enough to write a whole book. But a magical land? Now, that was something different. For me, obviously. I can only speak for me.

This, in turn, made me think about the “classifications” or “locales” of magic in the fantasy genre.

As I see it, we can roughly bulk the magical presence into three categories:

  1. Magical people
  2. Magical creatures
  3. Magical land

I view these categories as a powerplay between outlets of magic (not to be confused with the fantastical/otherworldly, which can also exist in sci-fi etc.), and I’ll try to explain it below.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

To give examples, recent fantasies that includes magical people as its primary outlet (aka, people controlling magic that is either their own or magic that is the land) could be DOWN COMES THE NIGHT by Saft, LAKESEDGE by Clipstone, JASMINE THRONE by Suri, WITHIN THESE WICKED WALLS by Blackwood, the ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES by Harrow, WITCHMARK by C.L. Polk, THE UNBROKEN by Clark, and THE BONE-SHARD DAUGHTER by Stewart.

This seemingly remains the most popular way of including magic. The important point here is that while the land and the creatures might also be magical in this narrative, they are often somehow controlled by the magical people around them. Tamed, you might say. And that’s different from my other two categories of magic that lists creatures and land as having independent magic that people cannot contain and control.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

Then there’s the magical creatures. Sentient, independent magical beings. Recent fantasies that feature magical creatures as a primary outlet could be BLACK SUN by Roanhorse and WOLF OF OREN-YARO/THE IKESSAR FALCON/DRAGON OF JIN-SAYENG by Villoso. I’d also include Chakraborty’s DAEVABAD trilogy here as well, and maybe even Moreno-Garcia’s GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW. And Stiefwater’s THE SCORPIO RACES, of course.

You could also bring in Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE here, although that’s not a recent release. Likewise, you could bring in Novik’s TEMERAIRE series, but it’s also not recent. It does seem to me that magical creatures aren’t as favored in traditional publishing as they used to be.

Drowned Country (The Greenhollow Duology, #2) by Emily Tesh

Then there’s the magical land. As with LUD-IN-THE MIST, the book that founded the entire basis for this article and my general view on magic in fantasy. Now, when there’s a magical land, there’s also often magical people. Novik’s UPROOTED comes to mind. And Solomon’s SORROWLAND. And Meyer’s INTO THE HEARTLESS WOOD. But there are also books where the magical land is the primary outlet. Tesh’s SILVER IN THE WOOD/DROWNED COUNTRY both fit that mark. As does THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING by Henderson, Sutherland’s HOUSE OF HOLLOW, Huang’s BURNING ROSES, and Ernshaw’s WINTERWOOD. You might say that in these books the magic of the land controls the magic of the people. And the land is often somehow hostile (in recent times). The antagonist to the protagonist. The reverse of the first category were the people controlled the magic of the land.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Then there are fantasies with very little magic in them, whether it be people or creatures or land.  SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Chan fits that mark for me. For books like SWBTS, it’s the secondary world that makes it fantasy while the magic is mostly absent. For other books, where magic is entirely absent, we’re talking non-magical fantasy which is a subgenre of its own.

A lot of this also depends on the POV of a book. 1st person POV lends itself well to (the inner struggles/goals of) magical people, I daresay, whereas 3rd person POV might lend itself better to magical creatures or magical land.

And then there’s also the age categories to keep in mind. Perhaps MG lends itself better to magical people because that’s what a younger audience needs most? A smaller-scale focus on family, friendship, etc.? And perhaps Adult fits magical land better because politics and military can play a bigger part (as in the case of SWBTS)?

And this is what I want to end with, I think.

The fact that, yes, we absolutely can have fantasy without magic, and these books often take the shape in secondary worlds that are fantastical rather than magical—but it’s perhaps more pertinent to look at the shape of the magic presented rather than the absence/presence of it.

Because, really, isn’t that what fantasy is about? Our attempt to define what magic can/can’t be? Our attempt to define the fantastical? With the caveat that the fantastical doesn’t have to be magical, but then this bodes the question, when is something fantasy (as a genre) and when is it science-fiction, for example? And when is it science fantasy? Or simply speculative?

Again, in my view, it’s all about the powerplay of the magical/fantastical.

And, more importantly, it’s also a matter of individual versus collective definitions of “magic” as a concept, which also necessitates that we consider reader expectation on top of that, meaning we’ll have to look into majority versus minority definitions of “magic” as a concept, and then also see where those definitions percolateit’s a lot, amirite?

I asked if you can have fantasy without magic, and yes, you absolutely can, but I also think it hinges a lot on personal/reader/industry definition and expectation of “magic” as a concept.

And that, folks, will be my ending note.

Thanks for listening!

Prodigy ≠ Perseverance

“The One About Age…”

“How it feels to be an old fart among shooting stars.”

“Still or Sparkling, ma’am?”

I wasn’t sure what to call this post, to be honest. I’m not even sure how to start it without sounding like a pathetic, whiny bitch. So maybe I’ll just start out like that, like a pathetic and whiny bitch. It’s my birthday today, and I’m a Scorpio, and I know I’m not the only one who’s a whiny bitch, so let’s just go for it, yeah?

First off, you can’t measure hurt.

Hurt is hurt.

Everyone gets their say in what hurts them, and one hurt isn’t “worth more” than another.

This is my hurt; allow me to walk you through it…

This year, I’ve seen a lot of people write their first book, label it the book of their heart, after which they sign with their agent, believing 100% that their love for their book was what got them the agent. I’m not discrediting that—not discrediting them and their experience—but I’ve written eight heart books so far, none of which have resulted in an agent offer for me. Either I’m incapable of putting my heart in a book (which, fair, maybe I am), or perhaps writing a heart book isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get an agent.

This year, I’ve also seen young writers lamenting that their traditionally published books aren’t taken seriously by their peers and critics because they themselves are young. Once again, I’m not discrediting these experiences, and I shouldn’t, but I also can’t help but think that I’ve been attempting to get an agent for ten years by now, which amounts to half the life of these young people. Maybe they’re not taken seriously—I’m not at liberty to judge that—but they do have an agent.

Bottom line: my experience is the direct opposite of the examples above.

I actually suspect that my side is the more common one, yet it’s the side that’s talked about the least—because who wants to be a horse when they can be a unicorn? So, please, allow me to talk about my life as a horse, here, at length, in the safe space I’ve created for myself and for you. Hopefully, I can do it justice. I’ll certainly try to do so, as best as I am able.

When I was 18, I swore to be agented by the time I was 21.

This was also around the time that I queried my first book.

We don’t talk about that 2012 book. Not even here. Sorry.

We’ll talk about the next book, though, 5 years later.

It was a SASE query, sent from Denmark to the US, and that was back in 2016. When I was 26. I’m not sure what I was thinking back then, both in terms of querying one of the first “real” books I’d written (fanfiction and half-finished original books notwithstanding), and in terms of sending a damned SASE from Denmark to the US, querying only one agent. Neil Gaiman’s agent, no less. Shoot for the stars, eh? More to the point, I probably wasn’t thinking. Probably didn’t know what to think, to be honest. I was young. I was Danish. I didn’t know how the American publishing industry worked. I barely knew how anything Danish truly worked.

I only had something I wanted, and I was trying to get it.

I’m still trying.


10 years later, after I first swore to be agented by the age of 21.

I’ve done life-altering things in between, to be sure, but my chosen career as a professional writer is the one that eludes me. It’s the slippery one. The one I can’t get.

When I want to feel hard on myself, I imagine that agent (Neil Gaiman’s agent, my god, what was I thinking?) opening that envelope back in 2016 and… well, I don’t know what her reaction would be. I don’t know her, after all. Sometimes I picture laughter. Sometimes pity. Sometimes confusion. At my worst, I imagine ridicule. It really depends on my own mood at the time—but it’s an image I return to often when I need to not be positive. When I need to feel pain, only so I can cleanse myself of it afterwards. Just for five minutes. Or an hour. Or a whole day.

It’s a good image, in a way, and not one I’d want to live without.

Right, so, obviously, I didn’t get agented by 21.

And, so, I set a new goal: 25.

I wrote a new book. I queried that. It must’ve been in 2018 or thereabouts. I didn’t use SASEs this time, but I still didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to attach files to query emails, so I bet a lot of queries never even reached agents for this particular book. Which, in hindsight, was a good thing since it was a book that definitely wasn’t for me to write. It was a cultural appropriation book. I know that now. And I’ll freely admit it, as I should. I’ll never write a book like that again because I know better now.

I did get one full request for that book, though, which was nice—because it gave me faith.

Faith that this could actually happen.

That I could get a foot in the door, you know?

Moving on, I obviously wasn’t agented with this book either.

And, so, I set a new goal: 30.

This was when I started to realize that storytelling and writing are two separate crafts—and that I was woefully ignorant when it came to storytelling. Maybe because I never had any formal education in creative writing. Maybe because I’m Danish, so my storytelling is different. Maybe because I had no IRL network to teach me about writing because I wrote in English, not Danish. There are many maybes. Either way, I decided to self-study. To read tons of English craft books. And I did. I read many craft books. And, more importantly, I built solid and trustworthy relationships with English-speaking critique partners and beta readers, found via twitter, who helped me improve my craft as I helped them improve theirs. This might be a slight tangent here, but let me just quickly stress that we put so much pressure on mentorships these days that I feel like we often forget our peers are also our mentors. We learn from them, and they learn from us. At least in terms of craft, if not in terms of network.

And so I wrote a new book—and that one got requests.

Not many, but a few.

They all ended up as rejections.

So, I wrote another book. Again. And, just to clarify, I’ve written books that I’ve never queried, but these are not the books we’re talking about here. This book, however, was a better book. I was fully sure of that, and I still am. It’s stronger in craft, both in storytelling and in writing. Around that same time, I also landed a job teaching creative writing. But then the pandemic happened, and the publishing industry all but (reasonably!) collapsed, just like the rest of us. Which ultimately meant that most of my queries for this “better” book went unanswered (still are? I’m not even sure at this point?). I got zero full requests for that book. Basically, I regressed in the query trenches despite having a “better” book.

It’s my birthday today.

I’m turning 31.

By now, I would ordinarily set a new goal.

Maybe something like “get agented by 35.”

But, you know what… fuck it. I’m done doing that. I’m not gonna be a prodigy story. I’m gonna be a perseverance story. And it’s been hard to accept that, in this day and age, in this world. But, finally, I’m gonna damn well lean into it and be proud. I’ll write my next book, and my next book, and my next book, and if it takes me ten more years, then it takes me ten more years.

I’m a better person now. I’m older. My books will reflect that. They will be better books than anything I could’ve written 10 years ago, and when I do get an agent, I’ll be hitting the ground running, with a backlist to be proud of and one that can help me become a full-time writer faster than otherwise.

Others have it harder than me, for sure, but I can only speak for myself. And, in doing so, I hope some of the things I’ve said here can perhaps resonate with you.

Lastly, just for shits and giggles, here are my query stats.


2012 book: 0 requests

2016 book: 0 requests

2018 book: 1 full request

2019 book: 3 full requests, all rejected

2020 book: never queried

2020 book: 0 requests

2021 book: not queried (but will be)!

2022 book: who the fuck knows, but I’ll write it anyway