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Tuesday, June 11, 2013


THOSE OF YOU WHO REGULARLY CHECK IN to our I Read On Spec Facebook page might have noted the recent question posed to us as to whether we accept work with ‘swears’ in it. The writer wanted to know if he’d have a better chance of being published if he removed them from his story. I put the question to my fellow-editors. Here’s what they had to say: 

Ann Marston: My feelings on the F-word, and just about all obscenities, vulgarities, and other assorted ‘swears’, is that I have no objection to a few sprinkled here and there for effect, or to delineate a character's speech patterns. However, bad language is much like dialect. You need only a little here and there to instill into the reader's head that this character uses a lot of foul language. A suggestion is usually more effective than the proverbial load of bricks. It's been my experience that if the writer uses the F-word too often, it quickly loses its shock value and begins to sound trite, silly, and downright annoying. As both a reader and an editor, I really don't feel obligated to read anything trite, silly, and/or annoying.
Robin Carson: In real-estate, it is said that the three main rules are 'location, location, location.' For a writer, the rules are similar: 'motivation, motivation, motivation.' Remembering that words can either be motivating or motivated, those words can be whatever a given character would either say, or react to. In other words, there must be appropriateness in the use of the words—any words, taboo or not. Words for the sake of words have no place in tight, effective writing.

In addition, as my dear old Dad used to say, "Leave them wanting more." Some writers seem to think that if you shock someone once with words or violence, doing it twice makes it twice as good. There is no subtlety in that; no elegance in the crafting. Besides, with repetition, lack of variety soon makes readers yawn. Repetition is just one small effect in what should be a full complement of effects.

Bottom line? If taboo words motivate a situation, or are motivated by the nature of a character, then you don't need permission to use them: at On Spec, we seldom ask, “But what about the children?” If, though, these words are intended as some kind of replacement for good writing, expect rejection.

Barb Galler-Smith: Verisimilitude in writing is deeply important, but just because a character REALLY would place a ‘fuck’ in between every word they utter, and a few ‘mother’s’ to go along with it, is bad in writing. I hear writers claim that’s the way the character would really talk. Possibly, but in the written word it’s nonsense. Excessive expletives, vulgarities, or profanities are no more useful in writing speech than a hundred ‘uhms’.  One or two to make it clear a character swears is fine, but too many are intrusive.  After that, it gets in the way of the real story. 

Diane Walton: Choice of language spoken by a character all depends on that character, and all the influences (education, socio-economic status, peer group) that brought them to where they are at the moment the story takes place. If a character is the kind of person who resorts to strong language in a stressful situation, or even if the character is a street-wise braggart who says ‘fuck’ every fourth word to impress his peers, I’m okay with that as long as the characterization is honest, and it isn’t simply being done for cheap shock value.

Even then, there’s a difference between the speaker using language to shock or impress his audience within the story, and the author using language to shock the reader because they are too lazy to come up with more interesting words. (I am reminded of Cyrano de Bergerac lecturing the louts on all the creative ways they could be insulting his nose.) You don’t want to have the choice of language dominate the narrative or alienate the reader from the story. A good writer could simply drop a bomb or two and then imply that the character’s speech is peppered with similar words, and we’ll get the message.

Bottom line is know your audience. On Spec is not a YA magazine. We expect adult content, but that speaks more to the sophistication of the telling than it does to the number of four letter words or sex scenes the author can squeeze in.

One thing that turns me off would be a first person narrator who fills the page with profanities. Even Holden Caulfield knew the value of a carefully placed ‘goddam’.

(So, there you have it. There isn’t much I can add. I think Ann, Robin, Barb, and Diane have said it very well. Thanks, guys.)

Next Post: Publicists, Part Two: Can You Work With Two Publicists at a Time? by Rachel Sentes.

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