“What Pantsers and Language Learners Have in Common” (by Edith Maxwell)

Linguist, novelist, short-story writer, and current Agatha Award nominee Edith Maxwell describes herself as a better-than-average language learner.  “One Too Many,” her first story for EQMM, featured in our current issue (March/April 2020), centers around a hyperpolyglot—someone with extraordinary language-learning ability. In this post, the author makes an interesting connection between the challenges of language learning and seat-of-the-pants fiction writing—that is, writing without an outline or guide. Earlier this week, EQMM posted a podcast episode of “One Too Many,” in which Edith reads her own story. We think you won’t want to miss it, especially after reading this post.—Janet Hutchings

When it comes to learning a new language, I’m better than the average bear. I managed to gain a reasonable facility with middle-school Spanish and high-school French and German even with the ridiculously ineffective book and translation-based methods in use in the 1960s.

At a young seventeen, I graduated from high school a semester early, and off I went to spend a year in southern Brazil as an exchange student. I spoke no Portuguese when I went and learned it as a much younger child would—by immersion. When I returned to the States, my English was rusty.

A few years later I hied off to Japan to live with an American boyfriend and teach English conversation. After two years, I came back relatively fluent in spoken Japanese (reading and writing are a different game entirely, but I did my best).

So I know what it’s like to live in a fog of words. In Brazil, only the father in the family spoke some English, but he didn’t use it with me. Based on the Spanish and French I knew, I figured ‘‘tudu bẽ’’ and ‘‘tudu bõ’’ meant “very well” and “very good.” I pretty quickly learned that what sounded like “komehkivai” meant “how are you?” But it took a couple of months before more words began to emerge from the fog. I’d arrived in January during their summer vacation and starting school (in essence repeating my senior year but not needing the credits) helped a lot.

After a while, I learned that the functional unit of “komehkivai” was four words—como é que vai?—but I’d had the meaning correct all along. And I realized “tudu bõ” was spelled tudo bom. By the time I’d been in the country for six months, I could say and understand what I needed to. After a year I’d gained enough native-speaker fluency that when I met Brazilians back in the States, they didn’t think I was an American. Score!

Still, I’m not a hyperpolyglot like the character I wrote about in my EQMM short story, “One Too Many.” I don’t go around picking up a new language in a couple of weeks for fun. But I used to live with such a person. My ex-husband leaves my language-learning skills in the dust. Many years ago, while we were still married and living in France, we visited my friend Amalia in Lisbon. She’s half British, but her husband, Zé Julio, didn’t speak any English. I was interpreting back and forth for John for the first couple of days. Then he said, “I know what he’s saying,” and proceeded to speak passable Portuguese to Zé. It’s kind of disgusting, but it’s John’s superpower. He speaks nearly twenty tongues, many of them African languages not related to European languages—or each other.

Two years ago, I read a New Yorker article about hyperpolyglots and realized that was what John was. As often happens, I played the “Suppose . . .” and “What if . . .” game. My mystery-author brain mused, “Huh. Suppose two people who speak an obscure language attend a big festival in the US. What if someone with hyperpolyglottism overhears a secret spoken in that language? What could happen then?” And I had a story.

But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with pantsing your way through a novel? Let me explain. Because I don’t plot, the only thing I know at the start of writing a book are small bits. My protagonist’s name and where she lives (I write three series, so after the first book certain parts of the book’s skeleton are already in place). The time of year. Maybe the murder weapon I want to use.

Sometimes that’s all I have. It’s the ‘‘komehkivai’’ of the book. As I sit, as I type, more becomes clear. I conjure up a victim. I invent three or four plausible suspects. I follow around my amateur sleuth—whether she’s the bike shop owner, the chef, or the 1889 midwife—and write down what she does as she tries to investigate. The plot emerges from the fog. Occasionally I get to laugh out loud when she or another character surprises me. As I remember I did when I learned ‘‘komehkivai’’ was four words.

After a while, my fluency in the book lets me plan out the next few scenes. I’ve now completed twenty-four novels (my twentieth releases at the end of this month). I know if I keep typing, I’ll learn what the book is really about. I’ll pick one of the suspects to be the villain, or the suspect will reveal themself. I’ll carry my sleuth through her crisis of the soul and keep her going toward her goal. Finally, I’ll reach full-blown book fluency and be able to type The End, usually in under two months (deadline panic is a great motivator . . .). The subsequent revisions, the edits, the polishing are like a language refresher course I might take, or a lesson on advanced verb tenses I never quite mastered in French.

I wouldn’t presume to say I’m better than the average bear at writing books, and each author does things differently. For me, finding my way through the fog to The End keeps it interesting—and so far, it’s working.

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3 Responses to “What Pantsers and Language Learners Have in Common” (by Edith Maxwell)

  1. Fun surprises in store for writer and reader! I found it hard to learn a new language, Spanish, but maybe it was the methods, as you say. I know my colleagues in the world languages department were starting to use stories for teaching, and it seemed better. Still, that power, like all powers, should be used for good. ❤

  2. Fascinating. I can’t profess any skills with languages like yours, but I know I have a proficiency at learning on the job, and I certainly consider myself a pantser. It’s also always encouraging to hear about someone writing more plot-centric work with that method. I sometimes find the idea of mixing the pantser princess and with that style daunting.

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