Get Set
Colleen Phillips

Colleen Shine Phillips lives with her family in Quilpué, Chile. The last thirty-one years of her life have been wrapped up in teaching, leading, and discipling. Although she continues these activities, her primary professional role today is writing. She has authored many plays, Bible studies and lessons, and short stories, and now has completed her first, as yet unpublished, multicultural adventure novel for tweens, Scarecrow and the Ghost Ship. Colleen will be in the States visiting the West Coast this summer and would love to hook up with any ACFWers in the area. She can be reached at colleenshine [at]


Living a larger portion of my life in Chile than in my birth country, the United States, I can’t imagine residing anywhere else, but writing for an American audience poses unique challenges—interestingly enough, not just geographical.

To produce a quality manuscript, we authors strive for perfect spelling and syntax. I do the same. Although English is my native language and that of my market, Chile is a non-English speaking and thinking country. Having been immersed in this culture for thirty years, I am confronted with exponential issues, including not always thinking in English; therefore, I must mentally translate or “Americanize” my descriptions or dialogue. Allow me to illustrate: Writing fiction in English can be difficult when you aren’t right where the potatoes burn.

Unless you live in a Latin American country, you probably didn’t understand that idiom. What I intended to say is it can be difficult to write fiction in English when you aren’t where it’s “happenin’.” And that doesn’t articulate it well, either. When I can’t recall in English the word I am looking for, I resort to the language translation feature in my software. It is insufficient to say the least.

I am writing a multicultural adventure story for tweens. I continually find myself using archaic sayings, innuendos, jargon, and even clichés. Truth lies in the statement that kids are the same all around the world, but not necessarily at the same moment in time. Although Chile is catching up at lightening speed, we are still behind in certain trends, so I struggle to discover what those are. Even using “where it’s happenin’” is antiquated, right? So my writing can sound dated or jerky and even confusing. Just ask the poor editor who had the brain-craning job of revising this article.

I was a “virtual” member of a U.S. critique group for about three years. One of the recurring questions put to me in those pesky red Comment balloons was, “Colleen, what does this mean?” I wasn’t asked what I was trying to say or the significance of the phrase, but literally, what in the world did that particular combination of words mean? Uh, I wasn’t clear? They usually didn’t tag the same phrase twice, but it could have been they just gave up on me.

Syntax is not the only obstacle. Another thing my editor has pointed out to me is her time loss and/or inefficiency due to software incompatibility. Not a result of incompatibility of Office or Windows, but simply because the language configuration is dissimilar. Often she has to stop, erase, and retype. Case at hand: she typed as part of a comment in Word “written,” and the program automatically switched it to griten—“they shout.” I believe her exact word was, “Grrrrrr.”

Let’s talk about protagonists. My potential character pool teems with people of a different mindset, mental process, background, and social stratum from their Anglo counterparts, which can contribute to highly interesting personae. But still I have to make

them understandable to the English-speaking audience, so I find I must manipulate them more than usual. That includes the “voice” of the character who, in reality, would be speaking Spanish, not English. I have to confront this when deciding whether to use contractions, for instance, or length of sentences in dialogue. Perhaps this is a factor common to all writers using protagonists from different parts of the country or world, but I mention it because of the challenge. In addition, a well-known author who critiqued my work was unsure if my story was set in modern day. I had to sit up, take notice, and figure out what it my Chilean setting was causing the confusion.

Settings and descriptions are somewhat simpler to work with, but some elements are hard to grasp, such as the value of commodities, lack of central heating, stifling temperatures on Christmas Eve, or merchandise availability. Everyday items are not common between the two cultures: car models (does anybody know what a Toyota Yaris is? I think Americans call it an Echo), product brands, flower types, fauna, and you name it.

I can’t exclude customs. Just the other day a fellow writer (American) critiqued my work. A scene had two guys hugging each other and then one of them, specifically the older one, kissing a sixteen-year-old girl on the cheek—both common greetings in my Chilean culture. I offered no explanations or descriptions in the manuscript. My critic told me I had to do something or it would be seem just plain weird and come across like the old dude was flirting with the young girl. Definitely not my intention.

Now, let’s talk geographic challenges: marketing. Chile is a l-o-n-g way from anything (except other South American countries, of course). The Antarctic is part of the Chilean territory. That’s far from the United States. So I can’t jump into a plane to speak at a high school assembly in Denver, go to a book signing in L.A., or do a radio interview in Seattle. This kind of marketing requires planning far in advance and grouping my activities into workable time frames.

Planning ahead—way ahead—applies to attending writing conferences, meeting editors and agents, or acquiring teaching CDs and books. The opportunities to pop into a Barnes & Noble or a Christian bookstore are also precious and few. I do, however, have some dear friends and family members who look out for me and let me know when something I need to help me with my writing is available and are even willing to send it to me. But shipping’s a bear.

Even while these above mentioned hurdles can make my work more difficult, they also enrich my writing. They stretch me and force me not to take anything for granted where my reader is concerned. For instance, since you might not know what a copihue looks like or how mate tastes, I’d have to describe it for you. A smooth, waxy bell-shaped . . . Wait. I guess you’ll just have to read my book to find out!