Dear SheWriters,

Now that I’m working for myself, it’s wonderful not to have to drag myself to a corporate office every morning. But without a set routine, sometimes I lose track of what day it is—I almost forgot to post this column (and, um, write it)! I’ve been in and out of New York for the past few weeks, and most recently I was in Denver, the Mile High City. I got to visit my mother’s 98-year-old nanny—one of the most positive people I know, a woman whose eyes sparkle more with every passing year—and my 93-year-old grandfather who is the picture of health and vitality. We also had the pleasure of watching powerful and svelte Sumatran tigers swim at the Denver Aquarium. It was so cool to see their huge floppy paws (perhaps their only inelegant part) treading water. But one of the best elements of the visit was snow. Golf ball-sized flakes fell for hours, and the wintry weather made me so excited to lose myself in books. Winter is my favorite season for reading!

Turning a new page,

Lea Beresford

The Girl with the Red Pencil

Q: The novel series I'm currently working on is set in the Bahamas for the most part, with scenes in Italy and America. As the Bahamas was once under the British system, we spell words the British way. I'm having difficulty deciding which way to go, as I would like my novels to be published in America. Should I use color or colour? Flavor or flavour? Neighbor or neighbour? The town in my stories, Governor’s Harbour, is an actual one, but of course in America, harbor is spelled differently. My computer notes British spellings as incorrect and I sometimes change it just to get the annoying red line off my page, but I feel it is an insult to my country to spell words differently than the way we do here. Any advice?

A: I couldn’t help myself! I had to change “advise” to “advice” in your question because it looked awkward to my American eyes. Books published in America are published with Americanized spellings because it provides a smoother read for American readers. Books published in Britain, the Bahamas, or any other country within the Commonwealth have Anglicized spelling for the same reason. I don’t believe adjusting the spelling for readers to be an insult—it’s not much different from translating a French book into English for British or American readers.

I don’t know any words that are special to the Bahamas, but consider British words like nappy, jumper, and boot. American readers are relatively familiar with British terms—most of us know that the above mean diaper, sweater, and trunk, respectively—and these words add flavor and sense of place to a story that occurs in England. But a British spelling doesn’t add anything to the story and can trip up readers. We know that “neighbour” isn’t wrong, but it feels a bit wrong.

Of course, illustrating a dialect can also add richness to a story. Check out The True History of Paradise, Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s debut novel (and one of my favorite books) about a Jamaican woman fleeing her unsettled but beloved homeland in the 1980s. Jamaicans of countless backgrounds (Chinese Jamaicans, Dutch Jamaicans, etc.) and eras lend their voices to this story, and Cezair-Thompson does a tremendous job of bringing the sounds of their words and speech patterns to life, as though her characters speak directly into her readers’ ears. But beware—an entire novel written in vernacular can be a challenge to read. Imagine a novel set in the American South. I would find it incredibly difficult to wade through an entire book in which the Southern accent was spelled out phonetically. Or any accent, really. Even if I loved the book, I would never be able to lose myself in it. One way to bring the local twang/burr/lilt/brogue to life would be to draw attention to the speech of just a few characters with particularly strong accents or to certain words whose pronunciation is particularly unique to the area.

Do you need to Americanize the spelling in your novels before sending it to American agents and publishers? No. If an editor falls in love with your book and wants to publish it, paying a copyeditor for a few extra hours of work to Americanize the text won’t be a big deal. But if you have the time and inclination to change the spelling yourself, changing the spelling certainly won’t hurt—everyone appreciates a smoother read.

PS. As for Governor’s Harbour, because it is a real place, I think you should spell it the way it appears on maps. But different publishers may have different house styles, and therefore different preferences.

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Tags: #process/craft, Ask an Editor, Lea Beresford, Margaret Cezair-Thompson, The Girl with the Red Pencil


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Comment by Sherelle Wallace on October 31, 2009 at 4:37pm
Dear Lea;

Thanks for the detailed advice- :-), always helpful. I do know better than to write dialogue in "Bahamian accent" as I know reading it, even as a Bahamian, will not be smooth at all. Also, I don't speak with an accent or deep dialect, so don't use them much in my stories, which tend to lead people to question wither I give an accurate portrayal of my Bahamian characters. I explain the same thing; if the famous "I have a dream" speech was written exactly how it sounds, it would be more difficult to get through. We're an English speaking country, so I tend to speak the way I would write, and not the other way around. Yes, when I'm speaking to my mother, I may use words or phrases she can relate to, but when she reads my stories, she wants to understand what the people are saying. And she couldn't read 'dialect' at all even though she speaks it!

I have a reading program with children from my neighbourhood, and today we read from a book written in Bahamian dialect, and they were having a very difficult time reading it, despite the speech being exactly the way they speak compared to Charlotte's Web.

Sometimes however, a little authentic flavour is what makes a story different, interseting, relatable. My work really reflect the country they are set in. And I think that makes it unique.

Incidently, while responding to one of your other posts, concerning book jackets; where I stated D.S having books with very few attractive covers, I listed SAFE HARBOR as one I liked, then saw it spelt SAFE HARBOUR! My sister suggested that it may have been published by the London Division. I went back and checked the publisher; Bantam Dell, a division of Random House Inc, New York. I found this so exciting as you worked for Random House until recently!!!

Now I'm intrigued out of my socks!!! I find one publishers/agents requirements varies from another, and it's a matter of who you are working with. It's similar to when I ask a teacher to write a review for one of my stories, they give me advise as a teacher, which I know as a writer is not the case, as I would read books where the things the teacher tells me to NOT do, is correctly done by the book editor.

It's all so interesting. I love being a writer!

Again, thanks so much for the help and your posts. I LOVE winters as well!
Comment by Ryshia Kennie on October 29, 2009 at 6:58pm
It almost becomes second nature for me to flip spelling back and forth - whether it's meant for publication in America or just me writing something. I always change the spelling for the audience and every once in a while I get caught and write color when I really meant colour.

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