To Curse or Not To Curse…

…that is the question. A question that comes up a lot in writing forums. So, here’s one writer’s take on it.

And so we are clear, I’m talking about language banned on network TV, not any of the lesser versions like “damn” and “crap”. Cut that stuff out and your writing sounds like an episode of Leave It to Beaver and will probably be just as believable.

I am in a benefit time travel collection, Out of Time, and have another horror collection, Tales from Beyond. Both are on Amazon, which means getting reader feedback is pretty common. Reviews for both of these collections have included praise, which borders on wonder, about not using any profanity. Now that’s not to say I haven’t. My novel Sacrifice probably can’t get through a chapter without an F-bomb. But these collections did.

An author should treat cursing like a stylistic tool, right up there with metaphors, foreshadowing, and alliteration. Or the Oxford comma I just used. Like using the Oxford comma, the decision to include profanity has to be conscious, not just an assumed part of your writing.

A writer has to decide because, no matter his or her personal feelings on profanity, using it will limit the potential market. There are people who don’t want to read something with language they find embarrassing. Maybe you don’t care about them. Well, if you are writing in some genres, like horror, you have already written off the pre-K through middle grade market when you wrote that scene where the zombie ate that guy’s face off. You made the main characters Marines, and wrote off people who dislike military stories, even though that’s not really what you wrote. The list goes on and on, and every decision you make potentially narrows your target audience. Cutting out another segment for a vulgar reference to female anatomy had better be worth it.

Hollywood has already figured this out. A few choice words guarantee an R rating. No choice words gets you a G rating. An R limits you to adults and teens lying about their age. A G rating gets you little kids and reluctant parents. The G audience is limited because a teenager would rather be home scrubbing floors than have his friends see him leaving a G-rated movie. Hollywood likes the PG-13 sweet spot, rough around the edges, but nothing sharp enough to cut the skin. I think I heard that one comedic F-bomb is the PG-13 limit, and most movies don’t hit that. Rude scatological references appear to be unrestricted.

So why use language on the far left of the scale? Not because “That’s the way I talk,” unless you plan on limiting sales to the few people who can stand to listen to you. If it is in dialogue, it has to say something about the character. The TV show Dexter had Deb Morgan add an F-bomb to every sentence. That language said her character was seriously unfiltered and didn’t care if she offended anyone, or everyone. And then she acted just that way. So the language reinforced what you saw on the screen, the way a symphonic melody enhances a pastoral scene, except that the symphony doesn’t make you wince on occasion.

Or cursing could highlight a character’s state of mind. The loving, upstanding Scout Leader whispers “Shit, no…” as the cliff falls away beneath his troop. It is the one event so tragic he drops his guard and says something he’d never say in front of his Scouts. Now the profanity has impact.

Should you create your own curses? I’ll point you to the use of “fracking” in the Battlestar Galactica cable series as an F-bomb replacement. Personally, nothing took me out a scene faster than this laugh-inducer.

When you have finished your manuscript, hit the magic Search icon for each word that would earn an FCC fine. Realizing that that usage will cost you readers, however few, decide if it is worth it. Is it necessary for the story, or is it a shortcut that a better writer, your better writer, could replace and improve. Then make the call.

After all, I got through a discussion of cursing and only used “shit” once. Damn it. Make that twice.

One Job, Two Brains

I haven’t been writing, and I’m still exhausted. That’s because I’ve been editing.

A note for the up-and-coming writer (because no true writer can ever be said to be “aspiring”), you will be doing both of these. I’ve never heard of anyone who can put words on a page with perfection on the first pass.

When I was a pilot, I remember that there was some ridiculous ratio between flight time and maintenance time for an aircraft. For every fun hour in the air, there were eight or ten dull maintenance hours on the ground, some number like that. Same thing for writing. For every hour you spend scribbling down the first draft, expect to spend several hours massaging the prose into something the rest of the world wants to read.

The two tasks are totally different, one free-flowing and rushed, the other structured by rules of grammar and lengthy. One right brain, one left brain, if that sort of thing is true. People ask me which I like to do better. I like to do them both, as long as I’m not always doing just one forever. After a few weeks of editing, I’m dying to start putting something new on a white piece of paper.

So what’s coming down the pike to you all edited? STILL OUT OF TIME, a collection of time travel stories to benefit Doctors Without Borders, releases in December, DREAMWALKER, a paranormal thriller novel from Samhain Horror arrives in January, and another benefit collection, this one of space sci-fi called CENTAURI STATION should be out in January as well.

Still Out of Time Cover Dreamwalker300  Centauri Station Cover V2

Wow, no wonder I’m exhausted.

 

In Over Your Head

house constructionThere comes a point in every home improvement project where I look at the half-assembled collection of raw materials from Home Depot and say “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I seriously question if I’ve exceeded my skill set. The project always takes longer than my initial estimate.

Novel writing is no different. Stringing together one hundred thousand words with coherence is a daunting task. Then there’s character development, plot twists, pacing, setting, and through it all the nagging fear that on a shelf somewhere what you’re doing has been done before. After the initial, exuberant ten to twenty thousand words, that familiar self-doubt sneaks into the writing room. “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

A lot of authors I talk to get this feeling, especially those who’ve done a lot of short stories. One beauty of a short story is its brevity. You can plot the three or four scenes the story needs in your head, lay them down on paper, and tweak to perfection. Like building a shed, you know that you’ve raised four solid walls and a roof and all you’re doing is arranging things within.

Not so with the novel. Now you’re building a house. Even with four finished walls, you’re sizing rooms, laying pipe, and running wiring until you type the last chapter. It’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed.

Your best bet is to just keep plowing ahead. Don’t let the immensity of the project and the endless details, swamp you. Get that first draft finished. If you think of something that doesn’t quite fit with what you’ve written before, just leave a note in the margins to go back and fix it later. Completion gives you a sense of accomplishment and the assurance that you probably do have four walls and a roof. The story now has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Now you can go back and work out the kinks. Some ways to do that:

  1. Look at the overall flow of the story, with two sentences that describe each chapter. See where plot lines intersect. If one story thread goes missing too long, rearrange chapters to keep the thread fresh in the reader’s mind. In a novel like BLACK MAGIC that covers about a week in time, I shifted Thursday events to Monday and they worked better.
  2. Follow one character at a time through the story. Only review the chapters where that character appears. Are that character’s dialogue and actions consistent? Does that character’s story arc progress plausibly? My novel Q ISLAND has multiple POVs. This method let me refine language for each person, give them consistent usage and common idioms.
  3. Near the end, scrub that prose. Read the story aloud to yourself, preferably alone so people don’t think you are insane. This method really unearths repetitive words and structures. It also highlights clunky sentences. If a sentence is hard to read aloud, it’s probably hard to read at all. My novella BLOOD RED ROSES frequently uses archaic sentence structures since it is set in 1864. Reading it aloud really helped tune the meter of those sentences within paragraphs to better evoke the time period.

A novel has multiple facets that make it a success. Fine tune your work from one perspective at a time. Like any DIY project, it will probably take more time than you originally estimated.

I’m With the Witch. Kill Dorothy.

oz cover

I read THE WIZARD OF OZ last week. I’ve seen the movie a dozen-plus times growing up, watched James Franco’s prequel, even saw THE WIZ on Broadway as a kid, but the time had come to travel to the literary headwaters and experience the source. I bought the complete Frank L. Baum collection of Oz tales for 99 cents on my Kindle.

This book isn’t the MGM musical. All the familiar characters are there: Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion, Wicked Witch, etc. They embark on the same quest to Oz. But the path is quite different, through many different lands, with far more challenges. Interestingly enough, in this version, the Great and Powerful tells all four individually that he will give each their wish if they kill Witchy Poo. It’s assigned as a solo task. They decide to collaborate on their own.

This is a children’s story, written at the turn of the 20th Century, and it reads that way. No casting stones on that account. In my head, I imagined reading it aloud to the right age group of kids, and I’m certain that it would still work.

It’s Dorothy who doesn’t. A more passive and undeserving character would be hard to come by. Her killing of the Wicked Witch of the East is accidental. She pulls the Scarecrow from his post, oils the Tin Woodsman to life, and, well, humiliates the poor Lion with a swat on the nose. But past these self-serving actions, she adds no value to the group, takes almost no action at all until she waters the Wicked Witch to death. The Woodsman makes quick work of some attacking trees, the Scarecrow defends Dorothy and Toto from a murder of crows, the Lion kills an enormous spider. Dorothy? Nada. She demands food and shelter from any convenient house they pass, makes sure to wash her face every day, and spends so much time in the background during action scenes that you wonder why the Lion was the one deemed cowardly. When the Wizard of Oz tells her that she has to kill the Wicked Witch to earn a ride home, she pouts and cries, as if the ruler of the Emerald City owes her transportation just for the asking. And how does she return home in the end? Just wish for it. No wonder Auntie Em shut the storm cellar door with little Dot on the outside.

My critique group took me to task for this same error in my manuscript for Q ISLAND. I let a main character be the consistent recipient of rescue. My painfully honest Beta readers hated her, just as I was ready for the attacking trees to rip off Dorothy’s arms, because neither character had earned our sympathy. They need to try, and especially try and fail, for the reader to root for them to win. If a character doesn’t make some kind of effort, the reader sure isn’t going to.

Baum does reward the three real heroes. The Scarecrow replaces the balloon-hijacked Wizard. The Lion gets to succeed a dead lion as King of the Beasts in a section of the forest. The Woodsman is acclaimed leader of the Winkies once their enslavement under the Wicked Witch ends.

Now that I write that, all the folks in Oz look like they prefer some sort of totalitarian state to self-rule. I wonder if these three transitions will work about as well as Vladimir Putin taking the wheel from Boris Yeltsin?

Time to hit the rest of those Oz books.

How You Know When To Save It

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This is my 1968 Camaro convertible. I rescued her from outside Wichita. Her name is Dorothy because she isn’t in Kansas anymore. And yes, this post will eventually be about writing.

Now you may look at Dorothy as a candidate for the junkyard. And yes, she needs some work. Well, she needs almost everything. But she has nice options like a power top and a manual transmission. And most important, she has a good frame, the rails that support the car. I can put new fenders, a new top, and new floorboards on a good frame. Without a strong frame, the car would collapse on itself, no matter how many new parts I added.

Along with resurrecting a car, I’m resurrecting a manuscript. It’s not as old as Dorothy, but it’s from a while ago. I re-read the synopsis, remembered how enthusiastic I was writing it, and thought it had promise.

It became slow going. Apparently, I thought adverbs were wonderful back them. When writing monologues, seems I confused “internal” with “Interminable.” I’ve cut so many redundant passages that the 90,000 word novel is verging on novella. After four tedious hours where the story bored even me, I considered giving up and working on one of the new ideas always sitting in queue.

The time had come for the seat-of-the pants writer to turn outliner. This always happens to me, usually about two-thirds into the manuscript. I need to make sure the threads are all weaving into some coherent pattern. I went through each chapter and summarized the main action and what characters were involved. I like to put it in a table like the example below:

story table 2

This way I can follow multiple, overlapping plotlines, like Chapter 5 where Scott and Oates meet.

After looking over the chart, I decided to stick with it. Like Dorothy, the story has a good frame, but here it’s called plot.

So why am I bored by it? Characters without fire, without connection, are killing it. I can fix that. In this action-driven paranormal thriller, that will be the equivalent of swapping out Dorothy’s fenders and recovering her seats. Plot problems, like a rust-weakened frame, requires so much re-writing, I’d rather just start something else that stirred new passion.

If a story isn’t feeling right, take the time to ensure the plot clicks. It is a lot easier for those of you who outline compared to pantsers like myself. By the way, this is an example of why my advice is don’t be a pantser. Way too time consuming, with lots of writing dead ends. I read an interview with a prolific author who said he used to be a pantser and had to switch methods to keep his volume up.

Back to work. Two projects to finish. Of the two, Dorothy might take a little longer.