Friday, March 30, 2007

Ask the Authors: Friday

The real world is full of foul-mouthed people. Especially if you are writing a story with an urban setting, how do you depict this without treading on the sensibilities of your readers?

I've never seen the problem in this. It's no more difficult to say something as simple as "he swore" or "he uttered an oath" instead of turning the air blue with trash-talk as it is to say "he lost his lunch" or "he threw up" instead of describing in detail the regurgitated contents. One of the laziest forms of writing I've seen has to do with the unprofessional and immature practice of peppering the text with profanity or clinical sexual descriptions. That's not creative--it's simply childish and an insult to the reader. It's no great challenge to find a workaround for profanity and graphic sex. And our readers aren't stupid--they get the picture. --BJ Hoff

Is it possible to write a story about war and sailors on a ship without them swearing? Herman Wouk did, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his effort. Here’s what he says about the subject in the front matter of The Caine Mutiny

“The general obscenity and blasphemy of shipboard talk have gone almost wholly unrecorded. This good-humored billingsgate is largely monotonous and not significant, mere verbal punctuation of a sort, and its appearance in print annoys some readers. The traces that remain are necessary where occurring.”

My comment: It has been my observation that the use of profanity is a cheap way for an author to portray evil, a shortcut in characterization. Evil and villains are best portrayed by actions, not because characters cuss. The same can be said for portraying a cultural setting (say, Jr. High). To reduce a coming of age story to the fact that young people cuss in an attempt to appear grown up is a lazy approach to storytelling. — Jack Cavanaugh

This is easy. I write, "He cursed" or "He uttered a foul curse." If your reader is someone with delicate sensibilities, she might read "cursed" and hear something in her head as mild as "darn." But if that person has lived in a tough urban setting or watches movies with lots of foul language, that person will read "cursed" and hear something far darker, grittier, more foul. As writers, we aren't required to spell everything out. It can be good to leave some things to reader's imagination. This is one area where I think less is more.

I wrote thirty books in the secular market before I answered God's call on my heart to write for Him. I was free to use curse words in my books, and I did, although they would be considered mild by most. But looking back, I can tell you that not a one of those words strengthened my writing or improved the books or made them more realistic. Not a one. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I can only speak for myself. I don't write stories with urban settings, for the most part. I live in a rural setting, so that's what I write. My books don't contain obscenities because I choose to filter my novels through the realities of my world. I don't hear a lot of swearing around me--in our area of the country, people tend to watch their language more carefully. My characters say what I want them to say, and if a reader doesn't like that, then the reader has the freedom to choose not to read any more of my books. I've never had a lot of trouble with this situation. --Hannah Alexander

Fiction is representative of reality, not reality itself. Law & Order,
the 1990's version, is a great example of a show that was able to
represent street crime without using foul words. To me, that's a
greater accomplishment of writing technique than unbridled use of
language. It can be done. -- James Scott Bell

The real world is also full of people who use the bathroom daily, but most writers don’t feel the need to put that on stage, even though it would be natural and realistic. I think there are many more creative ways to get the point across without risking offending even a few readers. It can often be far more effective to simply say “He cursed under his breath” or whatever. Those who desire more realism can let their imagination fill in the blank with what they know to be reality, and those who would be offended needn’t fill in the blank at all. –Deborah Raney

I just finished a novel about undercover cops. Knowing several, and having researched it extensively, I knew this was no place for "aw-shucks". Here's the key: Write around the place that would be natural to have a cuss word. What I mean by that is to start the scene late, after the cussing has occurred, or get out early, before it starts. Or, if you can't do that, focus the reader away from the dialogue on to something else. You can give the appearance of it being there without it being there. It's when you try to replace it or substitute something else for it that you get in trouble. If you creatively write around it, though, your readers will get the idea and if you're really good at it, will be so focused on the story that they won't even realize there isn't a cuss word there. It takes some finesse and some thinking, but it can be done. -- Rene Gutteridge

Again, I can return to Flannery O’Connor who warned about the temptation of gratuitous writing yet herself took risks writing in a Southern grotesque genre. I will be honest. There are times when my character should swear. So I’ll sort of plug in what the character actually would say. (My editor probably sees that but she never says anything.) Then on revision, I concentrate on artful characterization but try not to “sanitize’ that character. If she is foul, she acts foul and her language is still prickly but not so much that I’ve ever gotten a complaint. But if I do, I’ll accept it graciously because it isn’t my aim to offend, but to be true. Emotions are potent tools that if used artfully can convey the things we need to convey. --Patty Hickman

The beauty of writing historicals is such language concerns are largely a non-issue. If I need to have a character say something disparaging or utter a mild oath, I simply do it in Scots! When Rose in a fit of anger calls her sister a howre, we can easily figure out in context what she's saying without having the English word on the page. --Liz Curtis Higgs

This is one I sort of allude to in my posts this month, having to do with authenticity and historical accuracy versus honoring sensibilities. I think a writer has to find a way to create the emotional level of foul-mouthed people without using the foul language. Sometimes it might be talking "about" the person's foul language without ever using it. It might be creating a word that is made up but that the character uses as though it was foul but the reader can read it without being offended. It takes more work for the author but just as it takes more work to create really romantic scenes or very touching scenes without using graphic images I think we can do that without being explicit. Language is our friend here. Word choice will get us through. --Jane Kirkpatrick


At 11:28 AM, Blogger Sharon Goemaere said...

Good Morning,
I just had to comment on this as my husband and I have discussed this often.It has been my experience that the books,movies and articles I have most enjoyed over the years had little or no profanity at all.For me it somehow cheapens what I am reading or viewing.I have even told my husband that I thought it showed verbal laziness and a lack of creativity on the part of the writer!Horrors...LOL...I am not a published author but I do know what I like.God bless you all.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

I think we've all faced this in our writing at some point. In my case, my protagonist has a history as a professional ballplayer, and it's definitely my experience that most (but not all) of those guys spit expletives the same way they spit sunflower seeds.
Excellent answers from experienced authors--thanks.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

BJ said it exactly as I have - it's LAZY writing! Like don't these people know any other words than the "f" one? And these are the same people who try to brush on Christian world view authors as inferior writers. HA!

At 1:45 PM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

There is at least one person here who does cuss on occasion, and its not just damn. One who does have those words in a story or two.

What you've said today bothers me only in the sense that it carries the message you think you're better than me, that you're more creative, more whatever...

You're paying more attention to "how not to curse" and in the process told me (in fewer words) what an evil lazy person I am.

And no, you probably didn't mean to say those insulting things about me --I didn't really take any of it personally because my self esteem is in Jesus' opinion of me, not yours--but it is kind of tacky to have this discussion and treat people who cuss like they're social outcasts, misfits as the case may be.

So what I'm reading here is that the only hardworking, mature, professional authors working today are being published at CBA houses.

Reminds me of some of the churches I used to go to.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Michelle, because the authors of Charis Connection ARE writing for the CBA, we face some restrictions in our writing - restrictions many of us have decided are not necessarily bad. Speaking for myself, and I'd guess the others too, we were simply trying to answer the question that was posed: how do you depict [cursing, etc.] without treading on the sensibilities of your readers?

Because we do write to an audience that is largely made up of people with certain sensibilities, it's something we've had to consider. I know many of the Charis authors personally and I think I can say with confidence that none of us think writing for the CBA makes us any better - or any worse - than the next guy. We simply have certain parameters within which we must write. And we've tried to handle it creatively.

At 7:34 PM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

I understand the parameters. What I don't understand is the thought of handling this issue "creatively" while peppering the text here on the blog with nasty, judgmental opinions.

I realize not all of the authors answered in a demeaning fashion, but some did.

Truly, it reminds me of a church I went to and the pastor preached from his bully pulpit every Sunday, trying to get the congregation to do what he thought was best by insulting them.

A lot of people were guilted into changing because of his tactics, as I'm sure many here are left to feel that they should follow in the footsteps of the authors on this blog who are belittling others.

So what put me off was not so much the fact that people do have to write within the CBA rules, but that in speaking of how they do that, they also feel the need to make such biting remarks.

At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so glad that Michelle had the guts to write. And I admire Deborah Rainey's gentle response.
But if the authors are just trying to answer the question, how does calling people lazy do that?
Are not CBA writers writing for Christians exclusively? What about the writers who want to reach those who are currently reading "secular"? I'm sorry, but "he uttered a curse word" ain't cutting it. I'm not saying you HAVE to have swearing, but I think that you can have great writing and a great message in a book with a few swear words.
I am a first generation Christian who came to Christ only because a pastor had the guts to break the rules and witness IN A BAR (to my drug-using, hippy uncles. That is where it all started.) So I have my guard up against country club christianity- a religion that thrives on rules of appearance and what is proper. My point: A few swear words may cause you not to read further, but it does not deserve an automatic tag of "laziness" -there is a time and place (and a people) for it.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger Elaina M. Avalos said...

I'm lazy. And apparently not very creative either. Or so it sounds. Thankfully, I'm still called to write.

The fact of the matter is that as a Christian (not an unbeliever) about ready to end my life just a few years ago, reading a blog post like this one would've made me sick with guilt & condemnation. I already felt like a failure as a believer. The joy NOW is this: I am a daughter of the King. He's made me to be me. I can't be anyone else. And my identity is in Christ and His finished work. I am complete in Christ.

But I write for the folks like who I was then when everything I had was taken from me and I was devastated and alone (and no one in the church gave a crap about me). And I write for the folks who've yet to meet our precious Jesus. So the thing is, you can write for who you're called to write for. But let me write for who I'm called to write for without calling me lazy. I know women who would read a Karen Kingsbury book and be touched deeply. But I know more, because of who I live in and amongst, that would not. That's who I write for. And that's my calling.

So I'm going to go do that now. Write, that is. And I probably will use curse words. And nothing could convince me that I'm not exactly where He's put me.

At 10:52 PM, Blogger Angie Poole said...

When my daughter and I moved next door to my parents eight years ago, she asked me why PawPaw said so many bad words. And it occured to me that she hadn't been around people with bad language. Didn't phase me because it was what I grew up with. So we had a long talk.

The thing that gets me in this whole conversation is the number of authors/editors/agents who cite Flannery O'Connor, Stephen King, and Anne Lamott (all good writers) as examples but then condemn cursing.

For goodness sake, don't recommend something you wouldn't write.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Charis Connection said...

I just googled "profanity" and "lazy writing" and found over 800 links, the vast majority of which are not from Christian writers and who do agree with the premise.

There's no need to be offended and no offense was intended. Using profanity is lazy writing in the same way that using passive verbs is lazy writing. As you grow in skill, you learn to depend upon other words. You learn to stretch your skills.

The authors of Charis answer these questions (which come in over the transom, so to speak), out of their wealth of experienced opinion. They are gracious people, every one of them, and they are trying to help those who want to be published. The idea that they are trying to offend is off base.

Angie Hunt

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's be clear. There's a difference between cursing/slang and profanity/blasphemy.

Gratuitous ANYTHING in a novel is lazy and meaningless. I'd rather read a well-written book that contains a few curse words than a formulaic boring novel that has a character saying, "He swore." IMO, that's author intrusion and it takes the reader right out of the deep pov.

As a follower of Jesus, I personally wouldn't use profanity/blasphemy in my writing, but I really don't have a problem with a few strategically placed curse words. I don't think any "group" whether it be CBA, ABA, Christian authors or non-Christian authors should judge me by their standards.

Agents and publishers can advise me on what will or will not sell.

Please don't generalize and tell me I'm lazy if I use a mild, common curse word instead of "he swore," because I will continue to tell you that "he swore," is author intrusion and not good pov.

We choose to agree to disagree, I suppose.

The only One I answer to is the God who called me to follow Him. He sets the standard and He is Lord of my life.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger Elaina M. Avalos said...

So since Flannery O'Connor was used on this blog yesterday I would suggest those of you who haven't, pick up "The Complete Stories of Flannery O' Connor"

Patty, you're right, O'Connor took risks. And she certainly wouldn't have said he uttered a foul curse. She didn't in "The Turkey" when Ruller took God's name in vain at least 16 times in two pages. I may have missed a few.

You know what I always say about Flannery O'Connor, don't you? She was so lazy and uncreative. I'm not interested in taking God's name in vain. Just making a point.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger BJ said...

Just to put this in perspective, the original question for Friday's post was this (in part): " ... how do you depict this without treading on the sensibilities of your readers?"

That was the question. Some seem to have read a number of things into the replies that have little if anything to do with the original question.

Please understand that no one is judging you, and no one is trying to tell you what you can or can not do in your writing efforts, nor is anyone calling you "lazy."

Many of the writers who participate at Charis Connection have been in the publishing business--in the CBA industry--longer than some of you are old, and we're publishing entries here that we honestly believe will help you.

The site was established with the idea of helping aspiring writers and also published writers desirous of improving their craft to benefit from that experience as well as to offer mutual encouragement and support. None of us here have the time to dance on eggshells, and it would be of absolutely no value to you if we did. We try to answer the questions we receive as honestly and directly as we can, and if our replies occasionally border on bluntness, that's because it's not an easy business, and there are no easy, cotton-candy answers. To hedge or tiptoe through our replies would be a complete waste of our time and yours.

The blog exists for *you.* Unfortunately, because we're dealing with a medium that doesn't allow eye contact or voice inflection, it's very easy to misunderstand what folks mean to convey. With that in mind, try to understand that the idea of avoiding profanity and gratuitous sex or violence isn't exclusive to CBA. The original premise that this sort of writing is a shortcut or "lazy" way of doing things, rather than *showing* through behavior and actions, didn't originate in CBA. Many general market authors, some highly successful in various genres, share the same philosophy--and their writing is evidence of it.

The criticism here was that using this sort of device is a "lazy way of writing." And it is. But no one was leveling an accusation that a *person* is lazy, only that the *method* is lazy--a shortcut to which writers don't need to resort.

Clearly, each of us--and all of you--are free to write what we please, how we please, and where we please. If you want to use profanity, graphic sex, gratuitous violence, that's a freedom you can employ. But at least try to accept that it won't necessarily make you a better writer than anyone else, and *in CBA,* it won't fly. Because many of you tailor your own blogs and sites--and your writing projects--to the CBA market, that's something to consider.

No one participating here is going to argue that you *can't* write what you please. Our intention is to help you avoid the often long and arduous road to becoming published or to improving your present professional situation. If some of the words used in our posts and responses offend anyone, I think I can speak for all of us in saying the offense is always unintentional.

Charis Connection is intended to be a site for sharing ideas and questions--a site for mentoring and encouraging. One of the primary goals that factored in to the establishment of the blog itself was to provide a place for *positive* support, both for published and unpublished writers. It was never intended to be a place for any other purpose, and a raft of negative comments like the ones we've been receiving recently do nothing but take time away from what the authors who contribute here hope to provide.

With that in mind, let me suggest that if you have a genuine concern about something you read here or are offended by it, you contact *privately* the person whose comments you find troubling and express--hopefully in a spirit of Christian civility--your concerns and ask for an explanation. Honest discussion will always benefit both parties more than negativism or antagonism.

Or, if you feel that you *must* publicly air a perceived offense, consider whether your own blog or web site might not be the best place for that kind of post, rather than a community blog where others read more for support, encouragement, and instruction than for reactionary comments.

There's not an author contributing here who would be presumptuous enough to believe that he/she has all the answers or couldn't be wrong--and trust me, dealing with criticism isn't a foreign issue to us either (the publishing industry is a place where your skin tends to thicken rather quickly).

What we try to do with the "Ask the Authors" week is to simply answer the questions you send us, as honestly as we can. To fire back with comments to the effect that we've called you lazy or we're suggesting "author intrusion" (which "he swore" isn't, by the way--any more than "he said" or "he thought"), or that we consider ourselves "better" or "more creative" than you, is just way off the map.

Believe it or not, at one time or another, every one of us has likely been where you are and experienced the same frustrations, questions, discouragements, and disappointments. We're not doing what we do to make things more difficult for you: we're trying to help you get past all that. We mean to cheer you on, not hold you back.

BJ Hoff

At 7:24 PM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Back in November, Athol Dickson wrote a thoughtful piece for Charis Connection that touched on some of these issues. If anyone's interested, here's a link: "Bobos in Christian Fictionland."

At 11:19 PM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

To be as clear as I can, the issue I have is not with cussing or not cussing, the problem I'm finding is that, BJ, your voice comes across as rude and condescending in the original post as well as here in the comments.

As an example, I'll pull one instance from your comments, "Or, if you feel that you *must* publicly air a perceived offense..."

As I read those words wrapped in the context of your post, I get the distinct feeling that you wish me to handle this in private, but if I *must* (I hear this in a snarky, eye-rolling, exasperated sigh) publically air a "perceived" (eyebrow raised and eye-rolling again because of course I'm imagining things) offense then I should do it someplace other than here, where you wouldn't have to see it. Like my blog.

If I'm wrong, I welcome correction. I can say with certainty that I'm not the only one who feels this is how you come across.

At 10:02 PM, Blogger Karen B. said...

I've debated responding to this thread for a couple of weeks now. Have, in fact, written a couple of responses only to delete them simply because I didn't want to add fuel to the fire. But I confess it disturbs me to leave Michelle's clearly inaccurate interpretation as the final word here. So let me just say this: Michelle, you're wrong. Anyone who knows BJ, who understands her heart, knows there's not a condescending, rude, or "snarky" bone in her body. What she posted was simply the truth as she--and, quite frankly, as most editors I know--see it. A truth based on years of experience.

Clearly, blogging has inherent problems, particularly the lack of personal contact to go with our posts. But friends, please, don't come to the table with the assumption that we're sitting here thinking we're better than anyone else. We all know our worth is in Christ, not in being published. If we truly thought we were better than others, we wouldn't take the time to offer help and guidance, not on this blog or anyplace else. Whether or not our writing is published doesn't really matter in the light of eternity, but what does matter is that we treat each other with kindness, grace, and humility. BJ did that. If you disagree with her--or any of us--that's fine. But please do so with grace. Not with sarcasm or personal attacks. Neither honors the intent of this blog, or the One who calls us all to this task of writing.

Karen Ball


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