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I am a non-native speaker, learning the English language, and I am already fairly good in reading and writing technical texts. I also enjoy reading fiction books much, but there's one thing that hits me - the language in fiction is of course different than in technical papers, and I can't seem to find an easy way to rearrange myself into writing this kind of quality texts.

I understand that composition and style are important characteristics of worthy authors and their creations, but now I want to concentrate on the most noticeable thing that I have realized for myself:

  • fiction texts can use lots of words that you don't ever come across in scientific literature, internet forums, newspapers, English language courses, movies and other sources. However, these words are there, and the authors seem to use them effortlessly, like if they use them every day, but as I said, you don't actually see them much anywhere else, except, probably, for a couple of times per life. And looks like an average English reader is also implied to pass on these without a question.

    If I open a dictionary and look them up, they're there, but this still leaves me with no clue as to where from did the authors gather and remember all this vocabulary in the first place?

Hence my questions:

  • What is the typical path of an English-writing author who aims for an acceptable level of artistic description so that his texts won't be considered as "too dry" as a technical paper might be? Is school/college education enough for a native English speaker to venture into full-blown writing?

  • Are there any good sources on how can I enrich my vocabulary for writing fiction?

  • What approach could be recommended for a non-native speaker like me to expand my thinking in a way to make my texts to be less rigid, more descriptive and "alive"? What vocabular characteristics should my text possess (say, a short story), to be accepted by a publisher of fiction for native English readers?

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    I would comment that a college education is not necessary for writing. I've never been near a college, and I've been writing for five years. What is necessary is experience writing, and lots of reading. I grew up on books, which took the place of any formal writing class or course. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 11 '15 at 18:27
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    This is not the whole answer to your question, but you could try audio books to hear the sound of English. Librivox is a site the offers free out of copyright texts such as Charles Dickens and other great authors. – S. Mitchell Dec 11 '15 at 19:04
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    I've read fiction by non-native speakers, and the best of it relies on creating suspense and engaging the reader, rather than exotic language. The art of storytelling is very different from technical writing in many, many ways more significant than vocabulary, I say as a technical writer who has recently tried fiction writing. Can you write quality fiction in your native language? – Karen Dec 14 '15 at 14:06
  • @Karen: yeah, I agree, but I still had that question on the vocabulary hanging around for long, so I asked. I can write some kinds of fiction in my native language, so far I only managed to do short stories, I know the drama scheme, the heros journey and some more theory on all this, although I surely have enough room for improvement even in my native language :) – noncom Dec 17 '15 at 9:29
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I'm a native English speaker, am university educated, have been reading fiction for as long as I can remember, and would consider myself to have a reasonably extensive vocabulary, yet I suffer from the same issue: encountering words in fiction that I have never previously been exposed to. You're always going to come up against it no matter how well prepared you are.

I'll offer my tips for both reading and writing new words within the English language, as they generally help me a lot.

Reading

I'm not sure if this is an obvious thing that everyone does or if it's more uncommon, so I apologize if it seems patronizing.

If I come across an unfamiliar word in a book, I will simply read the rest of the sentence or paragraph without knowing what the word means. 9 times out of 10 I find that simply trying to understand the word in context is enough to give me a fairly good idea of what the word means.

For example:

He made to answer the door, but found the task rather arduous. He was forced to sidle around his colleague's desk of Brobdingnagian proportions in order to reach the far side of the room.

Let's say I didn't know the meaning of the words arduous or Brobdingnagian, and had read this passage. The first thing that I would assume is that Brobdingnagian had something to do with size, due to it being an adjective of the word proportions.

Based on the passage, however, it's unlikely to mean small, because if he had to make his way around a small desk it would not be worthy of it's own sentence, and it would be a pointless description, therefore I can infer that Brobdingnagian means large.

Now the word arduous makes more sense, and is likely to mean something along the lines of slow, difficult or painful. There's no way I can possibly know which from this extract, but they all give a similar idea as to what the task was like and how it was completed, so it doesn't really matter.

However the next time I encounter the word in my reading I will know that it means something along these lines, and further readings of the word in different situations will build my understanding of it over time.

Writing

You will develop your own writing style, and as others here have suggested it is best to read things that are similar to the way you want to write. However, the best bit of advice that I can give when trying to write without being "too dry" is to try to write accurately.

When reading books, I've found that the best things I read aren't the passages that are the most colorful, or that use the most creative descriptions, but those are the most accurate.

An author could describe someone as being as warm and affectionate as a box of kittens, yet with the disposition that they wouldn't harm a butterfly, but sometimes the word gentle would suffice. There are good things that are infinitely wonderful, ever so subtly satisfying, or so epic and grandiose as to bring grown adults to tears as they marvel in the shadow of its beauty, but sometimes they're just good.

There are some good points here about using the strength of words to color your descriptions. It's not directly related, but looks at how different words are more emotive than others.

So it all comes back to choosing the most accurate words for the best descriptions. Sometimes they will involve delving into the dictionary for the correct descriptive language, but often the simple things are better.

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I believe it is true of all languages that fiction, technical writing, songs, drama, informal speech, and formal speech all have their different registers and specialised vocabularies.

How are these specialised vocabularies typically learned? I hesitated to answer this question because my answer seems so simplistic, but since no one else has offered anything better here it is: by reading or hearing a lot of that genre, whatever it is.

The typical path of a native speaker of English might be to pick up a "fiction vocabulary" in childhood without conscious effort, but for a discipline like technical writing they would have learned the appropriate vocabulary by formal education, as would a non-native speaker. And children in English-speaking countries vary widely as to how much they are exposed to fiction in the home. For many children they will only meet a fiction vocabulary in school.

The best way to pick up a good writing style in any genre is both to read a lot of works in that genre and to go ahead and write in that genre, accepting that your early efforts are likely to miss the mark in many ways (as is true for pretty much 100% of beginning writers, whether or not they write in their native language). You could join an online writer's circle where aspiring authors critique each other's work, and specifically ask for tips on how to get a more natural and informal style.

Another possibility to consider is that your English style not being that of a native speaker may be not a problem but a benefit. After all, the English language is not the sole "property" of people who learned it at their mother's knee. Many readers seek out books that take them in imagination out of the culture familiar to them and allow them to experience another perspective.

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I agree with the above in regards to fiction exposure. However, your vocabulary and grammar seem just fine to me. You don't want to try to impress your readers with fancy vocabulary; it will look forced. Either this site or English Language Learners can help with phraseology on the occasion you need it.

Commercial success requires ingenuity. You need a style of your own, so don't be too concerned over what others are doing specifically. It's more like, "So that's how they accomplished character development!"

In order to make a novel interesting, you will need to work on varying sentence structure and having a good mix of dialogue versus narration. This takes practice, but a huge vocabulary isn't necessary.

There are frequent references made on this site to the Hero's Journey. A review of the basics of the makeup of your protagonist seems a good place to start.

And write! The more you write, the better you'll get. I'll just throw out a number which will of course differ from person to person, but 250,000 words of fiction should get you past the "I wouldn't let my mother read it" stage.

  • Wow, that's a lot of words to not share. To give an easier-to-reach example, it took me about 2,000 words of fiction to get to the friends and family point: a short story and a few character studies. I'm still working on writing something I think is publishable in a quality venue. – Karen Dec 14 '15 at 14:30
  • Do you have a history of writing fiction or blog posts? Confidence is a good thing, but I imagine you'll look back and go, "Oh, ..." However, every form of human activity has gifted and savant members. Good luck! – Stu W Dec 14 '15 at 14:43
  • I have a history of having read several thousand fiction books, and a moderate amount of non-fiction writing. And I can already go back and say "Wow, that was bad." But if I wasn't willing to share my crap with people I'm close to, I'd lose motivation to keep working at it. I wanted to mention it because if someone gave me the 250,000 word number, I'd be incredibly discouraged. Like you said, it differs person to person. – Karen Dec 14 '15 at 15:07
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I know how you feel because I am a foreigner myself. As a translator I know many people who can write in English but need someone to review their texts. The problem we foreigners have is not only the insufficient vocabulary, although this is common too, but a problem of choosing the right words and expressions. In technical writing, if the technical words are the right ones, the style does not matter much, but in literary writing the text must convey the right feelings and should have nothing that disturbs the reader's attention to the story. What I suggest is that, after you write your story, you find a native English speaker to review it. It must be someone who is a fan of the kind of story you have written, and who can write well. Instruct the reviewer to find any passages that do not sound natural. He should rewrite all those passages, replace many words with better synonyms, break some long sentences, and often ask you what you mean, instead of risking a wrong interpretation. Usually you would have to spend money to get a good reviewer. Maybe 30 dollars per thousand words. Think of this as an investment in an English writing course for yourself: if you analyze the corrections you will learn a lot. To select a reviewer (you will get many applicants if you are paying well) prepare a test. Let me talk about a similar experience I had. In this case I spent no money, the native speaker analyzed my originals and I (as a science fiction fan) read her book and commented on her science fiction novel, finding the need for (and recommending) some futuristic elements (her text itself seemed very well written). When she was going to start reviewing my book, she was afraid I might resist too much criticism, and offered to do only the minimum changes, but I insisted that I wanted everything she could contribute. As a result, I realized that my original (suggestions of games for children and adults) had been written in a too formal style (an influence from my past technical writing and translating work in Portuguese!) and then I realized I had to rewrite everything to write informal, fun to read game instructions, and submit to the reviewer again for fine tuning!!! Maybe you can be lucky enough to find an arrangement like that! Don't think that to be a good writer you have to work unassisted!

  • $3,000 ("typical" 100,000 word manuscript) for a one-time commercial fiction editor seems like a lot to me. Writer's blog sites seems more economical until you get to the point where you are ready to seriously commit to a commercial fiction publication. For a first-time author, this may include hundreds of query letters. At that point, a $1,500-$2,000 investment seems reasonable. Basically, your looking for about a one-week commitment. – Stu W Dec 19 '15 at 15:59
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I used to speak Spanish quite well, as a second language. The language I learned was conversational Spanish rather than literary Spanish.

It was more difficult to read a novel than a newspaper for example, because the vocabulary used in a novel is quite different to the language that people generally use day to day, much more descriptive.

I was still able to write reasonably effectively in Spanish though. Short stories, songs and poetry (mostly stream of consciousness mostly, no sonnets thankfully).

The key is to use the vocabulary you already have. You already know when you have a combination of words that work, that make you feel great when you put them on the page. Maybe the grammar is incorrect, maybe a word doesn't have quite the meaning that you intend it to.

But this can also be part of your personality as a writer. It can be part of your 'voice'.

Any big mistakes can be pointed out by a friend, editor or proof reader. And it is all part of the learning experience.

Practise makes perfect... Except that it doesn't.

I have been speaking, reading and writing in English most of my life (I've taken a year or two off), and I'm still learning. I'll continue to mess it up, but hopefully learn by my mistakes until I'm in the ground.

As others have said: Read, read, read.

And Write, write, write.

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