There is basically one main reason why today I write preeminently in English: even though my native Portuguese is one of the most spoken languages in the world it is only spoken by 260 million people – many of them in poor illiterate countries, and, as writers find out the hard way, most of these speaking a kind of Portuguese that is farther away from my native tongue than British English is from most of other kinds of English. On the other hand, English is spoken and read by about 1.5 billion people, most of whom are in developed countries. So, as the Portuguese literary market is small, the English-speaking one is huge. The real question is, then, why haven’t I started writing in English before. There are several reasons for that, hurdles I had to overcome before I made the jump as I was pushing 40.
I started speaking English very young. My parents put me and my siblings in classes when I was four – as my father worked for a British Corporation. Still, for many years I didn’t think I had good enough fluency, especially in the written form, to be able to write fiction in this second language. Fiction is much more demanding on your language skills than non-fiction, where a mistake or weird sentence might be forgiven. Something wrong in a fictional text will break the famous ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ that is the bedrock of a good story – that feeling that you are actually not reading but submerging in events.
Translation was an idea. My first Scifi saga was published in Portugal a few years back. A 600-page trilogy called THE ALEX 9 SAGA, written in Portuguese. At that point I researched a bit the cost of translating it to English but what I found blew me off the water. I had to invest several thousands of dollars to translate that kind of work. It was out of the question. If I wanted to go into the English-speaking market I had to write in English myself.
I had an advantage, actually: in Portugal they don’t dub movies and TV series, they subtitle them. That means we grow up listening to how English-speakers actually talk. I had also been reading in English for a long time. So when a friend of mine asked me to co-write a feature film in English I jumped to the chance. I ended up writing about 5 feature-length movie scripts, one of which was produced. Still, dialogues are easier to write in a different language than descriptions – because you can simply repeat the expressions you know, or use common language. But the acceptance I got from my scripts made me believe that maybe I could make it after all.
That’s when I started writing short-stories and novels in English. And it went better than I expected – I made a few mistakes and I wasn’t perfect, but they mostly worked. Also, thank God for Spellcheck, Grammarly, Google Translate, and Google Search as a whole. I also learnt that I could easily find proofreaders and editors online whose work significantly improved my texts. With today’s online tools you can jump to writing in a different language with a higher degree of confidence. Sometimes they cost you some money, but it is possible and it is affordable.
Next step: discover self-publishing. And what a major step! In the English-speaking world it’s almost impossible to reach a traditional serious publisher without the help of an agent. And agents are difficult to get also. Especially for someone without a perfect-English skill. You can always find a publisher you can pay: they call themselves hybrid publishers and we call them vanity presses. They are mostly scams and any self-respecting author should stay away from them like the plague. You should never publish with a company that doesn’t need to sell a single book to make money: you’ll learn they’re just taking it from you.
So being basically handicapped in my search for a literary agent, I started researching the self-publishing possibility. And I started to become really interested. So after a couple of years of going into it, my first works were finally available on Amazon. First, a couple of short-stories, to understand the medium, and then my Scifi trilogy THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES. It was a very positive experience with exciting results. Self-publishing is not easy and it has a difficult learning curve. But it works. I believe the next generations of writers will have to be self-publishers as well.
It’s not an easy decision to start writing in a second language. Someone who knows how difficult and time consuming it is to write fiction in the first place may naturally shy away from this path. But it can also be a rewarding and fulfilling path, opening a whole world of possibilities. So go for it.