How to write a novel in your second language


05 March 2021
Repentance author Eloísa Díaz provides top tips on writing a novel in your second language
How to write a novel in your second language Images

It’s common knowledge that writing a novel is easy; hence, who wouldn’t want to take on the additional challenge of writing one in your second language? Here are some useful tips:

1. Look around you

You now find yourself in the company of Wilde and Lahiri and Nabokov and Conrad and Hemon. This should automatically administer a boost to your delusions of grandeur, something no writer will confess to but keeps latent in their heart. Do not play shy and miss out on the uncountable bragging opportunities that will present themselves. Speak only in self-aggrandizing terms about the endeavour you’re about to undertake. Call your high school English teacher and inform her that you have decided you now write in English.

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2. Nurture your impostor syndrome

Don’t forget to do the same with all your other insecurities, too. See them mature and multiply. This is hardly the moment to grow self-confidence. Doubt yourself in the small things, and the big ones. Worry about how foreign your sentences sound, compare yourself to native writers profusely and, under no circumstance, dare to channel the panic that ensues. Instead, prevent it from turning into anything productive, and let it roam freely among your thoughts until you’re paralyzed. Fear the literary version of 'go back to your country'.

3. Become a maniac with detail

English not being your native language, follow the categorical imperative of ascertaining whether every single word you type is correct, orthographically, grammatically, syntactically. 'Every single word' is not a hyperbole I use because I’m Spanish. Obsess as much as possible, obsess also in your free time. Feed the compulsion to doublecheck it all in the dictionary. If possible, augment the odds of certitude in this matter by acquiring several of them, and crosscheck. In case of emergency, when you can’t find the word you’re looking for in English, leave the Spanish one in the text. Your editor won’t admit it, but it will make them scream with delight.

4. Dwell in the inability to communicate properly and completely

Samuel Beckett called it 'being ill-equipped'. Relish in the anxiety that bubbles up when you can’t make your ideas and feelings come across fully, enjoy the awkwardness of missing out on the nuances of language, dive into the mortification of accidentally offending your readers.

5. No more 'You can’t write about this'!

All those topics that have always sparked your interest, but you were previously reticent to approach, are now fair game. Benefit from the fact that in English the words don’t carry the same weight as in your native tongue. Write about the things that make for the adage 'An unhappy childhood is a writer’s gold mine' and do so with the peace of mind that no one mentioned will be able to read it: write about your early years, write about your exes, write about those profound wounds. Curse all you want. Finally, finally, the moment you (and your therapist) have been patiently writing for: write about your mother.

6. Cash in on that big audience

Don’t worry about alienating readers at home who might perceive you as snooty for having abandoned your literary tradition, one that spans centuries (literally, since the first novel: Don Quixote). Forget about the 450 million hispanophones. 1.5 billion people speak English: that’s roughly 20% of all humans roaming Planet Earth at this moment, waiting to buy your book.

7. Be impatient for all the odd praise you will receive

Let your readers shower you with compliments like 'your prose is so idiosyncratic' and 'I love how creative your metaphors are' and 'your syntax is refreshingly playful'. Google 'idiosyncratic'. Capitalize on it: you’re exotic now, baby.


Repentance by Eloísa Díaz is published by W&N.


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