In writing, profanity is a tool, but not the only tool

In this week’s Writing Excuses comments, a poster named Sam asked:

How do you, as writers, get past your own inhibitions concerning the use of profanity in order to write a character who does use it?

Why get past them?

Any given audience has values (as do you as a writer). Stomp on the values too much and you will make the readers so uncomfortable or angry that their discomfort will outweigh the draw of the story. They will put you down and never read you again. For one audience it’s gore. Another it’s explicit sex or vulgarity. For another it’s the bashing of a political stance or a particular demographic.

If you or your audience is uncomfortable with profanity then say “he swore” OR find another way to convey the information the profanity does.

Writing works by evoking types in the reader’s mind (as well as type resistors for surprise, curiosity, humor, etc.). Trigger a type and all the data associated with that type comes with it. Profanity is one way to trigger a type (or work against type) in the reader’s mind. But there are many other ways to evoke that same type, many ways to produce the same effect. Language, especially profanity, is a powerful and efficient method, but it’s not the only one.

You want a mean cruel man? You can have him call his wife a “cu**” all the time. OR you can just show him doing something cruel to her or slapping her, e.g. he grabs her by the neck and makes her look at the food on his plate up close like some pet owners do to dogs when they crap where they shouldn’t–”Does that look like beef stroganoff to you? Stupid whore.”

Look at Prison Break. Teddy needed to be scary. Profanity could have helped trigger his character. After all, cons use a lot of profanity. But Prison Break was prime time so the writers used other things to evoke the types they needed. Teddy worked for the purposes of that story. All of the cons did. They were believable. And all that without a deluge of profanity.

Stay away from replacement profanity that evokes a different type. For example, if you had Teddy using “darn it” all the time, unless it was part of some particular character attribute, it would have not been believable because it evokes the wrong type, e.g. Ned Flanders.

So if you don’t want to use profanity, don’t. Think about your objective and find another type trigger.

Final Cover for Servant of a Dark God

Shiny.

They moved the David Drake blurb to the side, lightened the lettering and moved things so the title wasn’t covering the top of Hunger’s head. At first I thought they moved the lettering, but they didn’t. It appears the shrunk Hunger a bit so we could see more of him. Small changes, but I think they make a significant effect. I think the overall effect is better. I like how Hunger looks more menacing in this one. Sugar is different. Don’t know which version of her I like better. I’m leaning to the original. Your thoughts? Either way, we luvs Tor’s art and production department. Here’s the before and after.

ServantDarkGod_compSODG_hb_final_cover

Epigenetics

Our genes aren’t in charge.

Yes, you say, of course. There’s environment and choice; both of these affect what we become. 

But I’m not talking about being in charge at that level. I’m saying that our genes aren’t even in charge of themselves.

What?

We all know that computer hardware (processor, RAM, motherboard, etc.) is important, but that the software that runs the show. Well it appears that our genes are like the hardware. Something else runs the show.

That something else is our epigenome, our epigentic tags (“epi” meaning just above as in “epidermis” or “epicenter”). The tags are chemicals that turn particular genes on and off, telling cells what they’re supposed to be–liver, skin, brain.

Furthermore, researchers think they the tags can change through a number of means, including what we eat. For example, you can take two identical set of genes for hair and, with tags, change hair color.

Research has also shown the epigenome can be passed down to posterity. So what you eat and its effect on you can be passed down to your posterity. Likewise, what you are is what your parents and maybe grandparents ate.

Genes are only a part of the story.

Holy heck, this is so cool. Watch the 12 minute video now.

How to tell an author you don’t like their book

Mette Harrison wrote a blog about how various authors respond when they read a book, don’t like it, and then the book’s author asks them directly what they thought of the book. 

Here’s my response.

As an author when I ask someone, especially another author, about their experience with my story, I’m looking for a data point to see how the book’s working or to get some insight. I realize others might be looking for validation. And, of course, I hope that everyone who reads my stuff finds nirvana even if I know that is not going to be the case. But I don’t ask unless I want data. And so I would hope they would report their experience accurately. I also hope they do it in friendly and helpful manner.

So because that’s what I want, that’s what I try to do for others.  And the sandwich+ method has been one good way for me to do that.

1. State something specific that works for me, e.g. “I love your character Bill because he’s so outrageous.”
 
2. State the key thing that’s giving me trouble. For example, I might say, “I am having a hard time with the pacing.” But then I ALWAYS want to give the context of me as reader when it applies to my reaction, e.g. I’m a terribly impatient reader, I like to feel hope in what I read and know I don’t like as much despair as many other readers do, I can’t stand clowns (this is true: clowns are some of the scariest creatures out there, second only to crocodiles). The author should know these readerly things when they apply so the author can understand where the comments are coming from.

If the book’s in pro shape and I think the issue is mostly my tastes, then it’s also useful to compare their work to another successful piece or author that had the same issue for me, e.g. “This reminds me of Twilight; I know people love it, but I just couldn’t get into that book either for the same reason.”

I don’t think this is fluff. I think it’s part of being accurate. Our reality is what we focus on. And if I make a statement that leaves an author thinking I think the work is bad, then that’s not accurate because the truth is I think I’m not in the audience.

If I think it’s a craft issue, then I highlight the main thing I think is causing the problem. A laundry list is usually useless. But thoughtful focus on the key issue can be very helpful. If I can’t tell whether it’s a taste issue or a craft issue, I admit it.

3. State something else that’s working for me, e.g. “While I just couldn’t get past all those clowns freaking me out, I did think your chapter openers were compelling. I always wanted to read more, but then, alas, clowns.”

4. The + is not just leaving statements hanging. Asking some sincere questions after demonstrates my genuine interest. And I am interested. If the book is unpublished, I might ask about their plans for the book, are they going to be doing another draft or shopping it, or if my reaction is common. If it’s published I might ask how it’s being received, what others are liking about it, and what’s next.  Maybe they tell me about another project they’re working on that sounds fascinating.

This is what I’d want an author to do for me–be accurate, interested, and friendly. In such a context, someone having issues with a story is not such a big deal. It really isn’t.

New Reviews for Servant of a Dark God

Here’s what a few reviewers have to say about Servant of a Dark God.

“Engrossing debut. . . .  Readers will be rewarded with a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy adventure.”

~Publishers Weekly

“There are moments of cliffhanger suspense and scenes of tender compassion. Terrible things happen, but powerful good rises to meet the challenge, though this is no “and they all lived happily ever after” kind of story. Face it, a fantasy novel that pulled me in so thoroughly, has to be good.” Full Review 

~ Jennie Hansen, Meridian Magazine columnist

“Compelling…will grip readers from the onset.” Full Review 

~ Harriet Klausner (probably the most prolific book reviewer in the world: Time, WSJ)