Bad words in good books? How to write a novel–part 33

No swearing sign.I don’t always use the most genteel words in my writing. But that doesn’t apply to all the writing I do. If, for instance, I’m working on something destined for a family publication, or for the rare (for me) kid-targeted piece, I’ll avoid “bad” words entirely.

Problem is, we don’t all think of the same words as being “bad.” It obviously depends on one’s judgment. I’d like to think I have a pretty normal outlook on what’s acceptable in mixed company and what isn’t. That said, I’ve still used a few 4-letter gems that I later learned were not universally well received. That’s too bad, because chances are, whoever felt distress hearing words like “hell” and “damn” almost certainly missed some of the important parts of what I was saying.

And then there’s the whole issue of what is or isn’t “politically correct.” I’m not up for that topic as it’s only going to trigger a sincerely un-PC rant from me. Somewhere in between the extremes of prissiness and political correctness lies the verbal domain I aim to occupy. That’s enough elbow room for me. For others, maybe not.

F bombTake blogger/writer Chuck Wendig for example (at terribleminds). He’s not only a gifted writer of both fiction and non-fiction, but his blogs consistently offer terrific advice and counsel on the writing craft and the publishing industry. There’s no question he knows what he’s talking about. HOWEVER {drum roll} he constantly carpet bombs his blogs with profanity. I suspect he’s doing it for shock value, but when the bomb bay doors are open that wide, the result is more like schlock value. That’s a shame, because he’s got so much great stuff buried in there. Alas, my readership tends to be a tad older and predominantly middle-class, so I don’t often recommend his blog posts because I know the F-bombs, in particular, will prevent many of them from seeing the really valuable information he has to share.

Geez. So now *I’m* part of the PC police? Say it ain’t so!

More important than how I regard naughty words is how you deal with them. Do you know your target audience well enough to determine what sorts of words you can get away with? We’ve all been to enough movies lately where the F-word seems to be the primary adjective and verb. And in some, I swear (pardon the pun), it’s the only adjective. That doesn’t strike me as terribly imaginative. After you’ve heard the word eight hundred times, the autonomic filters go up, and it becomes nothing more than background noise.

FullSizeRenderI’ve used the F-word in several of my books, but I don’t make a habit of it. I save it for shock value. That may sound odd in this day and age, but if my characters don’t talk that way day-to-day, readers will definitely know something’s up when they do start using that sort of language.

What you do with so-called “bad” language is up to you. If you’re going to use it, I suggest you use it for a reason, not because it’s handy. Figure out how to get some mileage from it. If it comes from the mouth of a child, for instance, provide readers with an explanation of how that happened. Little people, big ears. We’ve all seen it happen. In your book, you’ll need to make it real. And hopefully, funny.

I recall reading Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a monster bestseller about the battle of Thermopylae. In it he provides page after page of dialog from the mouths of Spartan heroes. Yet, the dialog seemed to have come straight from a modern US army barracks, complete with drill sergeants whose vocabularies consisted entirely of four-letter words. Profanity Stich, Abbildung, gravure, engraving : 1880isn’t new, by any means, and I’m sure Pressfield’s intent was to capture the “feel” of men preparing for combat. But from an historical perspective, I’m quite sure there’s no way in hell those guys talked like that.

When Barbara Galler-Smith and I were working on the Druids trilogy, which is set in the 1st century BC–considerably *later* than the Pressfield story–we went out of our way to find out just how warriors of that era swore. What was considered profane? The answer surprised us, but upon reflection, it made sense. Expressions such as “God’s blood” or “Scathach’s abode” might not carry the weight of contemporary curses, but even Anglicized as these are, they were more faithful to the period. We were fine with that, as were our readers.

The upshot? Use good judgment, even if it hurts.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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