I’ve been asked this often, both by native speakers and non-natives, which is why I decided to share my (in)finite wisdom today. I’ve spoken about it briefly on my “Getting the Call” guest post on Michelle Hauck’s blog, but here’s a longer version.
It’s not a secret I’m a huge, huge video game fan. Until I was 12, I’d only had basic English classes at school (basically, two years of learning basic verbs, numbers, how to say the English alphabet, and some questions/answers such as “What’s your name?/My name’s Diana”). Not knowing English on a fluent basis was a very big barrier to my enjoyment of video games, and when I got Ocarina of Time, the world, characters and story were all so vivid and wonderful, I found myself wanting to understand everything. So, like the stubborn little girl that I was, I armed myself with a dictionary. I noted down words I didn’t know to memorize them later.
Now, if you’ve played Ocarina of Time, you know the ending. You also know that any incurable romantic like me wanted more. Zelink is life. Zelink needs to be cannon. I also got hooked on Resident Evil, and the Chris/Jill pairing that everyone knows it’s secretly real at Capcom.
Then I discovered fanfiction.
I lurked on ff.net a lot. I eventually discovered the Resident Evil fic of this wonderful lady named Louise. We started talking. I told Louise that I’d love to write, but there was no point in doing it in Portuguese because no one would read it, and I was afraid of writing in English because mine was so broken. Louise, being the awesome kick-butt lady she is, told me to do it anyway. So, I did.
My first fics were shit. They were riddled with grammar errors (I will never forget my iconic use of “Zelda runned”). Still, people somehow liked them. Errors aside, they liked the story, and kept encouraging me. And I kept writing.
By then, I was in 7th grade and had this wonderful English teacher who nurtured my then-above-average English. I’d ask her to translated some game passages when I was stuck, and she’d do it. I remember learning verb conjugations from her, and finally, I understood that the pas of run, was ran. Similarly, my Portuguese teacher (who I hated back then, but eventually realized I was being a little stupid shit) told me to write more, because he always enjoyed my short stories. So, I did.
At 14, while on an away hockey match, my parents bought me Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. This was significant, because they hate video games, but since yours truly was a model student, and we’d just won the hockey match, they gave it to me as sort of a prize.
You have no idea what sort of doors that game opened. AoD brought on a pivotal change to my life, and it came in the shape of the KTEB. I joined their forums and met the most amazing group of people, some of whom I’m still friends with. My English still had problems, but they never mocked me for it, and they gave me support when I needed it most. I probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. My Sanistas and Manistas are my second family, and they inspired me in many, many ways. A lot of them wrote amazing Tomb Raider fanfic, and I found myself thinking “I wish I could be as good as they are.” I would never have met them had it not been for video games, and my need to learn English.
Now, school was not easy for me. I was a straight-A student, the kind who’s also good at sports. I was bullied, terribly. People gave me hell for playing video games. People gave me hell when I said I learned most of my English from video games. I got spat at in class, hounded at recess, and this obviously caused me to withdraw.
Cue to more video games, and subsequently, better English. I started drawing just because I enjoyed it (my drawing saga in itself deserves another post, but for now, just know that everyone said I’d never be good). I wrote so much fanfic, it was embarrassing. I played Planescape: Torment and it made me realize games could have amazing, complex stories, with great writing to boot.
PS:T is a work of genius and everyone should play it. Seriously.
By then, I was 15, and my English was pretty damn good. So good my parents decided to send me to summer camp for two weeks in Cambridge as a reward for my good grades. It was expensive, but my parents, in spite of all their flaws, never held back when it came to my education.
I went to summer camp twice: first in Cambridge, then in Manchester. Met incredible people there, and my teachers back then also encouraged me to write more. And that second year in Manchester, I got to meet some of my Sanistas in person. It was amazing.
When I was in 9th grade, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out after a long wait. You think I was going to wait two more months for it to be translated in Portuguese? Hell no! It was the first book I read in English, and I got much use out of my dictionary. Same thing went when I discovered Juliet Marillier’s new book was out in English while the Portuguese release was 6 months away. Wait? Hell no!
(In case you don’t know, Juliet’s my favorite writer, and her books are made of magic. READ THEM.)
Fast-forward a couple of years, and I read an amazing Knights of the Old Republic fanfic by Trillian4210 (who I discovered now writes romance under the name Emma Scott). Its scale and scope inspired me tremendously, and after playing Neverwinter Nights II, I decided to try my hand at something epic. If I could commit to it and finish it, I’d then try to write a book.
That fanfic’s still up. It’s called Full Circle, and yes, you guessed it, it’s complete.
I was in college for Computer Engineering by the time I finished it. By then, I’d realized I wanted to write, and went to Engineering to pursue game development. But Engineering is hard, especially when you’re so engrossed in your hobbies you forget to study, so it took me a while to get that damn degree. But I did it.
Halfway through my Bachelor’s, I asked my parents to pay for my Proficiency in English exam, just to have it. They thought I should have some classes first, so I went to Cambridge School in Lisbon and took their test. I started Proficiency classes next week.
I had about six months of classes. Once, our teacher, Harry, told us to write a short story. He loved mine so much he told me to quit Engineering and go to an University in England (he recommended Sussex) and get a writing degree. Unfortunately, my parents couldn’t afford it, so couldn’t, but that was when I decided to pursue writing seriously.
After that, I decided to do NaNoWriMo. At first, I thought I’d do it in Portuguese. Then I met Leonor, fellow animal-lover and Juliet Marillier fan. Friendship immediately struck. Thanks to her, I gained more knowledge of the Portuguese publishing industry – enough to not want to give it a try.
Fantasy (which is what I write) doesn’t sell very well in Portugal unless you have a TV show or a movie. And then there’s the fact that most of the books we get are imports, and not from national authors. If you write Crime novels, then you might have a shot, or Historical Romance. I’ve heard of an established Hist Romance author who sells well, but her editors refuse to even read her fantasy manuscripts, because “Fantasy doesn’t sell.”
So I gave Portuguese a big middle-finger and went on with writing in English. After years of fanfic, it came surprisingly easy. In fact, it started coming easier than Portuguese itself. But I was still afraid my knowledge of the language wasn’t good enough.
Now, I could try the Brazilian Portuguese market, but Brazilian Portuguese, while very similar, has some differences from European Portuguese, and I’ve watched enough Brazilian Soap Operas to know those differences are significant. I could’ve researched, true, and learned how to write in Brazilian PT, but I felt I had a better shot with English.
Soon, I had a book (which was crap). I learned about the submission process in the US. I queried. I got rejections. But I also got one of the most surprising responses, and it came from Russ Galen – who reps Juliet fucking Marillier. He passed on the novel, obviously, but gave me great advice that I follow to this day. He also said he didn’t believe I wasn’t a native speaker, because my English was better than most of the submissions he read.
Ego boost gained. I stuck to English. I didn’t give up.
I wrote another book. Then another. Finally, on my fourth try, I got rep (the wonderful Natalie Lakosil at Bradford Lit).
So, here’s the gist:
I started learning English at school. I got better because of video games.
I started writing in English so people would read my fanfics.
I kept writing fanfic in English. I got better.
I met the most amazing group of people. Interacting with them made me better, both as a person, and as an English speaker.
I started writing in Portuguese, but gave up when I found out how hard it was to get an unknown author’s fantasy book read by publishers.
I wrote in English because, believe it or not, getting an agent abroad is easier than an unknown getting published here. Especially in Fantasy.
All my support was mostly from English speakers, and it was easier getting feedback if I wrote in that language.
So, there’s why. As for the how:
Ultimately, I practiced. And ultimately, I got better to the point no one knows I’m not a native speaker – unless they actually hear me speak. Accent: I have it.