First Page Critique: Vaulting
Foreign Language Barriers

By PJ Parrish

We’re off to faraway places with strange sounding names today with our First Page Critique submission. So we have a great chance here to talk about how to handle weird words, foreign languages, things the average reader might not know and how you, the writer, have to work hard to make them get it.  I call this, when I talk about this inn workshops, writing for Ms. Peabody in Peoria. Here’s our submission. Thank you, writer!

To Catch a Thief

Air horn blasting, two young men on a Bullet bike tore through lunchtime Mumbai traffic.  The one riding pillion turned to his left and hollered, “Hoy, hoy. Katak maal[1].”

Seema squeaked, barely avoiding having her foot run over. She dropped to the tarred road next to the driver’s side door of the taxi halted in front of the high-rise. “Aey, rund—[2]” Gritting her teeth, she swallowed the gaali[3].  If she could, she would’ve chased after them and shoved her elbow into his puny chest. Unfortunately, she was forced to stay put.

Head kept low, she squinted through the tinted windows of the vehicle at the group by the entrance to the building. Her bulky, black purse was on the ground, an inch from her sandal, but she maintained her firm grip on the straps.

“Arrey[4], madam, get up,” exclaimed the cabbie. “Are you crazy or what? You can’t sit on the street. Some poor fool will hit you and have his license taken away.”

And the last memory she took with her to afterlife would be that of the biker Romeos. Not to mention the heat radiating up from the asphalt and the exhaust fumes headed straight for her nostrils. Her eyes teared.

“Gimme my fifty bucks,” the cabbie continued.

“In a minute,” Seema muttered. If she paid now, the taxi would take off, leaving her exposed.

“You said that five minutes bac— That’s it. You now owe me two hundred.”

“What?”

“Waiting charge.”

Baring her teeth, Seema hissed. “Son of a—”

“Madam,” said the cabbie, shaking a finger. “Watch your language.”

Heaving in an angry breath, Seema said, “Fine. But if you’re charging me extra to wait, I’m waiting inside.”

Without delay, she tugged open the back door and scrambled in. Keeping the purse aside, she peered at the entrance to the office building. Damn. The old fellow was still there, with his entourage.

And so was the tall, leanly muscled man in the light blue shirt and red, power tie. Adhith Verma, the assistant manager at the office where she was currently assigned. Clean-cut good looks, a degree from one of the nation’s elite engineering colleges, family money. The silver-haired gentleman with him was his father, the nation’s finance minister.

When Seema returned from lunch, she hadn’t been expecting to run into the minister. She didn’t want to meet him. If Adhith introduced her as anything other than a colleague, the old man would have her investigated. The whole plan could fall apart.


[1] “Hey, hey. Hot piece of ***.”

[2] “You, son of a whore” is what she’s about to say (incomplete here)

[3] Cuss word

[4] “Hey…”

________________________________________

Okay, I’m back. First, let’s tackle the obvious here.  We know from the first paragraph where we are — smack in the middle of simmering Mumbai, India.  Kudos, writer, for slipping that in nicely. But we are also smack in the middle of a problem — how to convey foreign language without confusing or annoying our readers.

All writers have problems with this. I polled my fellow contributors here at TKZ and they have some solid ideas on how to handle this. More on that in a sec, but first let’s look at the sample:

In the first graph we get this phrase: Hoy, hoy. Katak maal! Then a response from the woman Seema: “Aey, rund—”  The problem, of course, is that most readers won’t have a clue what this means. There is no translation, no context. I wanted to like this submission because it does start out fast and furious and I’ve been to India and the Mumbai setting has great potential to lure me in.  But I couldn’t get past the foreign phrases, especially in the crucial opening moments. It stopped me cold.

The writer compounds this problem by using footnotes. If this were in book form, the reader could, it appears, look down to the bottom of each page to find out what the characters are saying. But do you really want to make them do this?

Your first job as a novelist is to parachute your reader into a conjured world. Whether this world is Mumbai or Montana is irrelevant. You want them to be swept into your story and setting. Forcing them to pause and essentially go “look up” a word jerks them right out of that imagination stream you are trying so hard to immerse them in. This is just my opinion here, but I found this off-putting. A novel isn’t a thesis. It is a seduction. Why would you want to interrupt the mood and the motion?

But, but…

Yeah, yeah, I know. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And David Foster Wallace’s, Infinite Jest!. Hundreds of footnotes in Jest, in very small type, that go on for almost a hundred pages at the end of the book. One of the footnotes, which contains the complete filmography of a fictional filmmaker, goes on for more than eight pages and itself has six footnotes. Someday, I going to try to read this book…again.

Here’s the thing: These authors are juggling with chainsaws, masters of the grand experiment. Now, I’m not suggesting a “mere” mystery or thriller writer can’t push the envelope. But I think it’s good to keep in mind that novelists who use footnotes are sometimes seen as show boaters. I can’t remember who said it in reviewing Wallace, but he compared him to a writer suddenly leaping into your room through a window and dancing around waving his arms, shouting “look at me! LOOK AT ME!”

I don’t think that is what is going on with our submitting writer here. I think he or she just wasn’t quite sure how to organically fold the foreign words into the narrative. Maybe we can help.

But before I go into that in depth, I’d like to do a quick line edit for the writer. As always, these are only my suggestions for edits. I hope others will weigh in. And thank you, writer, for letting us learn.

To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock got there first. Given your colorful locale, you can find a more evocative title)

Air horn blasting, two young men on a Bullet bike tore through lunchtime Mumbai traffic. Good job telling us where we are. The one riding pillion turned to his left and hollered, “Hoy, hoy. Katak maal.”Vivid image here, but these kids aren’t important. Why give them the opening moment?

Seema You’ve shifted point of view here. Open with her, not the boys squeaked, barely avoiding having her foot run over. She dropped to the tarred road next to the driver’s side door of the taxi halted in front of the high-rise. Simplify your phrasing: She dropped to the asphalt behind the taxi door. (we safely assume it’s parked). “Aey, rund—” Gritting her teeth, she swallowed the gaaliThis word is confusing, needlessly so. If she could, she would’ve chased after them and shoved her elbow into his them and his don’t agree. puny chest. Unfortunately, she was forced to stay put. Why “unfortunately?” I assume it’s because she is doing some kind of surveillance? If so, why even start out with the motor bike incident? Get right to the point — the surveillance.  I know you’re trying to convey the flavor of your interesting location but there are other ways. She could be hiding behind a bazaar-like stall that line Mumbai’s streets, which are, by the way, head-ache-inducing, teeming with motor bikes, auto-rickshaws, old buses, and yes…cows. And the miasma of smells and noise is amazing. A quick vivid description of this would underline Seem’a tension.

Head kept low, she squinted through the tinted windows of the vehicle at the group by the entrance to the building. Her bulky, black purse was on the ground, an inch from her sandal, but she maintained her firm grip on the straps. You need to be clearer on your choreography here. Was she hiding behind the parked taxi? Had she been in it and got out? Why even have the exchange with the taxi driver? What does it add?  Again, you can handle this in fewer words:  She peered through the taxi’s windows, watching the group of men at the entrance of the office building. (we don’t care about her purse or shoes.)

Arrey, madam, get up,” exclaimed the cabbie. “Are you crazy or what? You can’t sit on the street. Some poor fool will hit you and have his license taken away.”  I would lose this guy. He’s in the way of your story getting going. And you need to begin setting your plot up — who is this woman and what is she doing?

And the last memory she took with her to afterlife would be that of the biker Romeos. From what I can gather, they were verbally assaulting her, no? Mistreatment (public rape) of women in India is really a hot topic right now in news. Not to mention the heat radiating up from the asphalt and the exhaust fumes headed straight for her nostrils. Her eyes teared. This implies girly-girly reaction. Not sure this is what you want here. Or is she reacting to the smell? Unclear.

“Gimme my fifty bucks,” here, you can safely use “rupees.” He wouldn’t ask for dollars. the cabbie continued. Why is he asking for money? Was she a fare and jumped out? 

“In a minute,” Seema muttered. If she paid now, the taxi would take off, leaving her exposed. It would be pretty easy to hide somewhere else on a crowded Mumbai street. 

“You said that five minutes bac— That’s it. You now owe me two hundred.”

“What?”

“Waiting charge.”

Baring her teeth, Seema hissed. “Son of a—”

“Madam,” said the cabbie, shaking a finger. “Watch your language.”  I would lose all of this and get into your story. It is wasted dialogue.  Dialogue is precious. Use it only to advance plot or illuminate character.  And unless the cabbie is important, don’t let him hog the scene.

Heaving in an angry breath, Seema said, “Fine. But if you’re charging me extra to wait, I’m waiting inside.”

Without delay, she tugged open the back door and scrambled in. Keeping the purse aside, she peered at the entrance to the office building. Damn. The old fellow was still there, with his entourage. Why didn’t she just wait in the cab to begin with? 

And so was the tall, leanly muscled man in the light blue shirt and red, power tie. Adhith Verma, the assistant manager at the office where she was currently assigned. Lost opportunity here to tell me what she does. And why she is watching these men. Clean-cut good looks, a degree from one of the nation’s elite engineering colleges, Be specific when you can. It took me one Google to find out Indian Institute of Technology is Mumbai’s top school. family money. The silver-haired gentleman with him was his father, the nation’s finance minister. This belongs up where you first mentioned him.

When Seema returned from lunch, she hadn’t been expecting to run into the minister. She didn’t want to meet him. If Adhith introduced her as anything other than a colleague, the old man would have her investigated. The whole plan could fall apart. This really needs context. Without telling us what Seema does for a living, why would we care that she’s sneaking around watching this old guy? We need more meat. So my final suggestion, dear writer, is to jettison the cabbie, the biker, and use your first 400 words to get your plot moving forward, more firmly establishing Seema and setting up her conflict

So, to sum up quickly, writer: Love your location! I like Seema, what little I know of her. Yes, it is hard in only 400 words to give us a sense of your setting, protag and the conflict!  Which is why I questioned spending so many words on the cabbie. Find a quicker way into your story and I think you’ll be on your way.

Now, let’s take a deep dive into the problem of incorporating foreign language…

With fiction, you almost can’t avoid the occasional use of non-English. It’s a must with world-scale thrillers. Even if you’re working domestically, our increasingly diverse populace puts our characters in constant contact with all sorts of languages and cultures.  Indeed, our heroes and heroines might well be héroes or heroínas. You want to be authentic, but you don’t want to confuse your readers. So what’s the poor writer to do?

  • Put the language in as it would naturally appear in dialogue and hope the reader can figure it out via context? Creo que eso solo confundiría a los lectores. ¿No estás de acuerdo? (I’m purposely trying to annoy you here).
  • Put it the foreign words and then immediately translate them? Mais cela peut sembler si prétentieux et ça fait monter le nombre de mots. But that can seem pretentious and it makes your word count go up.
  • Or do you just tell the reader the characters aren’t speaking English, write it in English, and move on?

Every writer handles it in his or her own way. I polled our TKZ contributors and here’s their takes:

John Gilstrap just plain avoid foreign words. “Those words stop the story for the reader, I think,” he says. “In Final Target, for example, virtually all of the dialog is in Spanish, because that’s the nationality of the kids being rescued. So, I handle it like this:

“Who are all these people?” Jonathan asked in Spanish. He was fluent in the language, though aware that he had a distinctly Colombian accent, tied to the days when he was the point of Uncle Sam’s spear.

“After that, I write as I normally would. And once I’ve established the model of English-as-Spanish, it would be jarring to throw in a Spanish word.”

Makes sense, n’est-ce pas? Because, as John says, his entire plot hinges on Spanish-speaking kids, so if he toggled back and forth between two languages, it would get old fast.

But sometimes, you have to include foreign phrases to convey verisimilitude. I love this word because it really means something more than mere realism. In fiction it means creating an entire atmosphere that imitates life. Even if the story is far-fetched (fantasy), readers must be willing to suspend disbelief and think that the story could actually occur. In sci-fi, readers will tolerate the “foreign language” of complex science terminology if the writer is skillful at contextualizing it.

I think the same rule applies for foreign languages. I like to insert it in my books because, used judiciously, it helps place the readers into the conjured world. But man, you really have to careful.

Unless you’re a native speaker, get help!  Jordan Dane often uses Hispanic characters because, as she says, she’s “part Hispanic, and I get friends and my father to help with get the language and the slang right, depending on the perceived education of the Spanish speaker.”  She always italicizes the Spanish and tries to explain the meaning directly after the language change. But at times, she leaves it to the reader to figure things out by body language or by the flow of conversation. Here’s one of Jordan’s scenes with her series character, Ryker Townsend, an FBI profiler with psychic abilities who speaks fluent Spanish. In this scene, he is questioning a girl who was smuggled over the Mexican border and left in a sweltering truck to die of heatstroke.

“Amelia? Can you open your eyes, Miss Tejeda?” She raised her voice and leaned over the bed rail.

The Hispanic girl’s eyes fluttered as she struggled to wake up. When her dark eyes opened, she gripped the metal bed rail and pushed back from Lucinda, terrified as if she were still in the hands of her abductors. When her eyes noticed the nurse and the hospital setting, she spoke in Spanish in a fragile voice.

“Yo ne hice nada. No me aresten.”

When Amelia said she had done nothing wrong and pleaded not to be arrested, Lucinda shifted her gaze to me. She didn’t speak the language, but I did.

“¿Por qué te arrestaríamos?” I asked. “Tu no has hecho nada mal.”

Miss Tejeda fixed her pained eyes on me as if I could save her. With shaky fingers, she reached for my hand. I barely sensed her grip. She had no strength left.

“Please help me…find my friend…Fiona.” She strained for every word. “People say…she lived. Her country sent brave men to save her. Is this true? Did she live?”

“Yes. We are leaving soon to find her. How do you know Fiona Storm?”

“She saved my life. I owe her…everything.”

It made no sense that this kidnapped woman had been saved, only to find herself in a worse situation and near death. I wondered if this was the delirium the doctor warned us about.

Dime. ¿Cómo salvó Fiona tu vida?” I had to know. How could Fiona have saved her life?

This is pretty much how I handle foreign languages with my series character Louis Kincaid. I might put in the foreign phrase, but I provide some method of translation. In the Florida books, I often had him interacting with Spanish-speaking characters. Like Jordan, I would use the actual Spanish but there would always be a secondary character there to translate for him and the reader.  In Island of Bones, Louis goes to a migrant camp in search of a missing Mexican girl. Her mother speaks no English and is hostile. But the father speaks enough to translate and tells him that his daughter met a boy shortly before she disappeared.

“She called him a boy, not a man?” Louis asked.

“Yes, a boy. That’s what she said.”

“Did she tell you his name?”

“I do not remember, but I know it was a good Hispanic name.”

“Did she describe him to you?” Louis asked. “Tell you anything about him?”

The man shook his head. “I think she call him…”

He looked to his wife and asked her something in Spanish.

The woman hesitated then whispered two words.

The man turned back to Louis. “She called him Papi chulo.”

“What does that mean?”

“It is something young people say. It means he was handsome, a hunk you would say.”

In my upcoming October release The Damage Done, Louis is hired onto an elite cold case squad and one of the job requirements is to become fluent in a foreign language. Louis, like me, speaks bad college French. Here’s a passage with his new boss, Capt. Steele:

“Louis has been studying to become our in-house expert on unsolved Michigan homicides,” Steele said. He paused with the barest of smiles and added, “Louis has exceptional instincts and a special feel for unsolved cases that you will all come to appreciate.”

Louis held Steele’s hard brown eyes, not happy with the description of his resume. It made his past sound sensational and his investigative skills almost paranormal. That’s the last thing he needed with this group—to be tagged as some sort of celebrity mystic who dug through dusty folders.

 “Louis,” Steele said, “Bienvenue chez toi.

Welcome home? Louis was so surprised it took him a moment to answer. “It’s good to be back,” he said.

So another way to handle foreign words is to have the person who hears it translate it in his head (via italics).

This is how James Scott Bell handles it, agreeing with John’s approach for extended passages. Says Jim: “You can monkey with the diction, too, to give it a ‘formal’ sound in English, as Hemingway does in For Whom the Bell Tolls. For shorter clips, you can have the POV character “hear” the language, like this example from Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre:

Now Teo was speaking to Fuentes in Spanish, Tyler getting some of it. It sounded like Teo wanted to ride one of the horses.

Leonard throws in the occasional Spanish word, always putting it in italics:

“You pronounce it pretty good,” Tavalera said, “but the Guardia are not police during time of war. We’re like those people, the caballería, except we don’t stay in Havana and go sightseeing, we hunt insurrectos.

See the simple beauty of that? The word “guardia” is immediately grasped, as is “caballeria.”. Very graceful!

Or, as Jim points out, you can simply translate, if it’s a one-time exchange:

“Dónde están las armas?” Where are the weapons?

But a more artful way to do this is question and response:

“Dónde están las armas?”

“I have no idea where the weapons are.”

Sometimes, a foreign tongue is, as John Gilstrap pointed out, essential to your plot. For my stand alone The Killing Song, which is set in Paris, I had an amateur sleuth English-only protag and I wanted to stress the fish-out-of-water feeling of anxiety he felt. I had to incorporate French throughout and it had the effect of making him feel confused and frustrated. But you can’t let this go on too long. So I teamed him up with a French detective, so she was always there to help him — and the reader.  Plus, the give-and-take of the language barrier became part of their friendship arc. And even though I can speak French, I ran every sentence by a Paris-born French friend, who also helped me with some spicy slang used by les flics (cops).

A couple more thoughts on odd language. I didn’t even get into American dialects with this, especially “Southern speak,” which I have become more attuned to since moving to Tallahassee, where “y’alls” and “ma’ams” rain down harder than afternoon toadstranglers. Maybe the only thing we need to say about regional American dialects is to avoid trying to duplicate them on the page. It gets old really fast. I’d advise writers to say, “he spoke with a Texan twang” or something and trust the reader to get it. For my new book, I have to acknowledge the peculiar accent of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as spoken by the “Yoopers.”  Here is how Louis hears it:

“Reuben Nurmi. Good to meet ya,” he said in a voice that sounded like it belonged on some late-night jazz station. Except for the distinctive Yooper twang. Louis had always liked the accent , which fell somewhere between the hard nasal vowels of Detroit and the odd lilt of Canada.

Verisimilitude.  Which is Latin in origin, by the way. Quae surrexit?

3+
This entry was posted in Writing by PJ Parrish. Bookmark the permalink.

About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

25 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Vaulting
Foreign Language Barriers

  1. I try to limit myself to cognates and familiar phrases. (Which can be a problem since I lived in Europe 7 years and may mistake what is actually “familiar” to Americans.) In my WIP set in Berlin, characters respond to questions with Ja or Nein, address others as Herr Schmidt or Fraulein… When leaving a place in the evening, they’ll say Guten Abend. With the Turkish speakers, I limit myself to food; kebab, hummus, shawarma. For the rest, I indicate that they are speaking in Turkish but text is written in English. Try to avoid all bumps.

    • That’s another good point, Nancy. Some foreign phrases you can assume the reader can digest because they are fairly common in English usage — bon jour, guten abend. A judicious sprinkling of such words can convey the flavor of the language without confounding readers.

  2. I love the world of this story and really really like the heroine and got a good hint of what her struggle will be about. For me, I liked how the foreign phrases were handled. I got it from context. Seeing foreign phrases is one of the things that makes readers smarter than other people :-), IMHO. Since everyone has a smart phone handy these days, anyone who is curious can google what the words mean. I like the italics. The issues that need attention – the way I read it – had to do with Seema’s physical movements. Such as when she was protecting her pocketbook with her heel (having lived in Manhattan most of my adult life and been mugged a few times, I was rooting for her ;-)). That description could be tighter, along with her assessment of her proximity to the would-be mugger and his scooter. I really appreciated the way you described just how male chauvinistic her world is, and how she fights back (this is gonna be a fun ride) – – that cabdriver doesn’t give a hoot what happens to her purse and she is pretty fast on the uptake as far as how best to protect herself and her purse. And that sets it up nicely for creepo boyfriend and his dad. I’m rooting for her already. This is a book I would buy. Good luck.

    • I think Seema will be fun to follow. But what is her conflict? What is she doing? I can’t figure it out and I really think you have to at least hint at this in the early going.

  3. The writer totally lost me with the foreign words and odd names. Superb critique, though. Excellent information for us all. Thanks to all who contributed! I used Italian in my latest release, and struggled for the best way to go about it. I ended up having the hero translate in her head and put the foreign words in italics, as many of you suggested. Worked beautifully.

  4. Thank you for being courageous and submitting your first page, brave author. I liked the setting very much from the first line, Mumbai traffic at lunch, talk about tension, and wanted to keep reading.

    I enjoyed PJ Parrish’s critique, so useful. She pointed out the main hiccup I had about this first page: I don’t see the conflict . . . or Seema’s goal or the purpose of Seema waiting at the taxi. Some internal dialogue from Seema might help.

    Since Seema’s purse is mentioned twice on the first page, and it even has its own description, (black and bulky), I assumed the purse is important. Maybe Seema’s gun is hidden in her purse. But if the purse is not important, then PJ Parrish is right, and the reader doesn’t care about it, and it shouldn’t take up valuable space on the first page.

    The TKZ contributors who chimed in about using foreign languages gave helpful tips. I tried to incorporate one, applying it to your first page. For example, if a young man on a motorcycle yells, ““Hoy, hoy. Katak maal,” Seema could yell back in English, “I’m not your piece of *&^*!” (Or she could mutter it under her breath if she can’t break her attention from her surveillance.)

    I liked the way you used body movements to show emotion: shaking a finger, heaving, baring teeth.

    Good luck with your continued writing journey, brave author.

    • That’s interesting idea about the purse. Maybe if we got a hint about what’s in it — a gun? a valuable microchip? a burner cell phone? — then we might care about it. I only mentioned it because words are so precious in the first couple pages that the time spent on the purse could be used for better purpose here. It would be akin to stopping to describe Jason Bourne’s clothes as he raced on a motorcycle through Paris.

  5. Great post, Kris. Very thorough with good feedback. On using foreign language, unless a writer speaks the language or works through someone who does, it’s probably best not to dabble. Go with John & Jim’s solid advice.

    Often writers use Babbelfish or Google Translate, but no software I’ve seen captures language correctly. There are nuances to language, slang & educational levels that would influence a speaker (as it is with English). The longer the phrase needing translation, the worse Google & Babbelfish perform. My dad speaks more formal elevated Spanish, but when I need slang or more guttural street talk, I call my friend Raymundo. He’s hilarious & is opiniated when it comes to character motivation & authenticity for the average street guy. He makes sure I understand what he’s translated.

    My readers may not care one way or the other, but I do. It’s my choice & up to me to keep pace & not bog down my story.

    My 2 cents.

    • That’s another good point — don’t depend on Google translator. It is often wrong. My example of using papi chulo is a case in point. In some Spanish-speaking cultures, it can mean pimp instead of just a handsome hunk.

  6. Good post, PJ, and appreciate the deep dive into foreign phrases. Like you, I thought this was a good setting for a novel, but I stumbled over the occasional English phrase, particularly “leanly muscled man.”

  7. Thanks for this post, very helpful. I really like the submission especially the setting and Seema. The suggested changes will polish it. When the words melt away and the images from the story take over, you’ve really got something. In spots, your story does that for me.
    I’m currently reading Jo Nesbo’s Cockroaches. This is a story originally written in Norwegian, translated into English, and set in Thailand. Talk about potential language problems. Yet, Nesbo and his translator, Don Bartlett, handle it deftly. Nesbo handles it by giving the main character, Harry Hole, a Thai cop with a Norwegian background to translate for him and uses that relationship to to create tension. That might not work for Anon’s story, but it is one more way to handle the problem.
    Anon, you have a great story idea. Please keep working. I’ll buy your story. Oh, title. When I’m thinking of a title, I always go to Amazon and look it up. If used before, especially by a master I move on Something special to India might be good.

    • Another writer who handles foreign locales and language deftly with Tim Hallinan. His Bangkok books are redolent with local color. He is good at peppering in just enough foreign words to make it feel real.

  8. I used Spanish dialogue quite frequently in my Key West Nocturnes series. I wanted to convey the sense of authenticity of the situation, where often Cuban Americans would be talking with Spanish-fluent gringos. Each time, I tried to clarify the Spanish in the following sentences. I really believe that’s crucial, so the reader can immediately know what’s being said without being lifted out of the story. Here’s a typical example (in the book, the Spanish is italicized, which I was unable to duplicate here):

    His smile slipped away. “So, did they treat you okay out there? ¿Tuviste problemas?”

    “I had a few problems. Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

    • And as you know, Cuban Spanish is different than Castilian Spanish. My best friend is fluent in the latter but can barely follow a Cuban soap opera.

      • Oh…and my Haitian friend just laughs at me when I try to speak French to her. 🙂

        • Lol. Haitian Creole is a distant cousin to French, and I’m sure Parisians would faint dead away if they ever had to communicate with a Haitian
          .

  9. I found the locale intriguing. The unfamiliar names didn’t bother me because I work in the computer industry and work with team members from around the globe. Other readers’ mileage may vary.

    What did bother me was the dialogue. It didn’t sound at all Indian. Yes, India is the second-largest English speaking country in the world, but their English is neither British nor American English. If the author intends to continue in an Indian setting with Indian characters, then an Indian collaborator will be necessary to get an authentic sound.

    Good luck with your story! You appear to have an interesting start.

    • Interesting point, KS. My sister’s daughter-in-law is Indian, and I hadn’t noticed until you mentioned this that yes, her English is slightly different. It’s not an accent. I can’t put my finger on it. The phrasing and word choices are distinct from American or British English.

  10. Personally I like the authentic names. I also enjoy the phrases, but I need to know immediately what the mean.

    My interpretation- there is no doubt she works there,but get boss has no idea what she is really doing there. I think the boys on the bike are good but should be presented differently. From her point of view, she is focused on what is happening at the building. She should have no knowledge of the bike till the last second when the driver blows the horn and swerves to avoid running her over

    I agree. – if the purse is important give it more focus, you don’t have to say what’s in it. If it is not important don’t waste wordage on it.

    • I agree the boys are intriguing but as you said, if it is filtered through Seema’s POV, it would be more effective. If I can add something…I don’t think, by any means, this is a bad submission. Far from it. It has real potential. But what we try to do here at TKZ is act as a good critique group, to give the writer input with an eye to polishing, not tearing down confidence. I hope I didn’t sound too harsh.

  11. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Wonderful critique by Kris. Loved her illustration at the top. Here are a few more comments to throw into the mix:

    Title

    I concur with Kris. Don’t recycle a title from such a well-known work.

    POV

    Tell the story from Seema’s POV. So, for example, when you get to this part:

    “When Seema returned from lunch, she hadn’t been expecting to run into the minister.”

    Get rid of the first part of the sentence. Just say she didn’t expect to run into the minister. It will sound more immediate. Look for ways to eliminate words and phrases that add narrative distance to your writing.

    Too Many Character Introductions on First Page

    Let’s see, we have:

    Seema
    cab driver
    two young men on a Bullet bike
    “the old fellow”
    lean, power tie guy
    Adhith Verma, the assistant manager
    silver-haired finance minister

    Instead of giving the protagonist a proper introduction, you introduce an “entourage” (I’ll borrow your word) of characters and their attire and hair colors and such. Focus on stuff that matters.

    Footnotes on the First Page

    Footnotes about language pull the reader out of the story world. You’ve got less than a minute to get the reader from the bookshelf to the cash register. For this reason, take John’s advice. Let the reader know what language the characters are speaking. Then stick to English for the dialogue. Moreover, I tried clicking on the footnotes, and they didn’t work properly.

    Mumbai Language

    “The official language of Mumbai is Marathi and it is the most used language of the State of Maharashtra as well. However, Mumbai being a cosmopolitan city also accepts several other languages such as Gujarati, Kannada, English, Telugu, Konkani, Dangii, Varhadii and Hindi.”

    https://www.mumbai.org.uk/travel-tips/language.html

    Also, with all the languages spoken in Mumbai, trying to throw in language references seems like a recipe for disaster.

    How to Describe Story World

    So, if not with language, how do you make a reader feel like he is in Mumbai? Read Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph. It’s not a thriller, but you might get some ideas about how to paint the setting. You can read the first chapter or so free online.

    Do not use words like dollars or bucks. Use words that indicate Mumbai currency.

    Dialogue Tags

    Language like “exclaimed the cabbie” stands out (and not in a good way). You don’t want to draw attention to unusual dialogue tags. It’s fine to deviate from “said” occasionally, but be careful not to use tags that stand out too much.

    Dialogue

    In How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, James Frey writes: “Dialogue is conversation in conflict. So to understand the difference, a writer needs to know what conflict is: Conflict is a dramatic presentation of an opposition of wills. Conversation without conflict is boring; dialogue with conflict is gripping. Well, hopefully it’s gripping.”

    While Seema’s altercation with the cabbie may seem like conflict, it’s what my screenwriter friends would call “hack-and-forth” dialogue. The dialogue isn’t gripping. Moreover, it’s bloated.

    Example of a section that could be trimmed:

    “Arrey[4], madam, get up,” exclaimed the cabbie. “Are you crazy or what? You can’t sit on the street. Some poor fool will hit you and have his license taken away.”

    This cabbie is getting way too big of a starring role on your first page.

    By the way, if you haven’t read Frey’s book, put it on your to-read list.

    Grammar Issues

    Here’s one example:

    “Adhith Verma, the assistant manager at the office where she was currently assigned.”

    In the sentence above, you have a faulty pronoun reference. To whom does she refer? A good editor will catch these kinds of things.

    Style

    “Seema squeaked, barely avoiding having her foot run over.”

    I don’t care for the “avoiding having” phrase here.

    Overwriting

    Look to trim some of the bloated sentences.

    Example:

    “Head kept low, she squinted through the tinted windows of the vehicle at the group by the entrance to the building.”

    I’d clean up this sentence. You can probably get rid of “to the building” without losing any meaning. The “at the group” phrase seems a little odd.

    Also, get rid of phrases like “without delay” and such that don’t add anything to the story.

    Where to Begin Your Story

    I agree completely with Kris. You’ve got to dive a little deeper into the story and get to the meatier stuff on the first page. I wouldn’t put so much emphasis on looks and clothes. This is not a romance novel.

    JSB’s RUE Rule

    There were a few places in the opening where I wanted to write RUE. If you’ve read JSB’s books, you’ll know that “RUE” stands for “Resist the urge to explain.” Good advice.

    Final Thoughts

    You survived your first page critique at TKZ, brave writer! (I should design a little badge.) That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now get busy with revisions, and carry on. Best of luck, and keep writing. I look forward to reading the next draft.

    • Joanne,
      A couple of posts back, you recommended Brian MacDonald’s books, The Golden Theme and Invisible ink. I bought them, gobbled them up, and now I understand how theme works.
      I’d be a little reluctant to suggest them to someone who doesn’t understand story structure.
      If you realize your writing needs to be richer, deeper these books and Brian’s easy style is perfect. Thank you for your recommendation.
      “We are all the same.”

      • I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed the books. You made my night! I love Brian McDonald’s unpretentious style. I hope you’ll also have a chance to view his short film White Face. “We are all the same.” So true. And the key to making stories resonate with readers.

Comments are closed.