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SWEARING IN YOUR STORY

October 19, 2011

            There’s always the time and place for a well-placed colorful metaphor, as Spock calls those words in the best of the original Star Trek movies (in my opinion). It’s entirely up to the author and the genre whether to use them or not.

            When I first started writing, I just went for it. No holds barred. I wrote like I talked at work and at home. As it turned out, didn’t work, no cigar. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that writing the way people talk doesn’t come off well on paper. When it comes to swearing, that’s tenfold.

            I’ve mentioned this before regarding accents and it also applies to every day speech which is full of mannerisms, quirks and swearing. It reads terrible! I’m bringing this up because it you’re going to use swearing in your work, you have to use it discreetly or not only does it become annoying, it loses its’ impact.

            I started out writing present-day earth-based science fiction. The characters were military and civilians working together and they talked based on the environment I worked in, which was not exactly PG rated. As I’ve stated many times before, that first effort will never see light of day. I became more serious with effort number two when I went for icky bug and wrote The Greenhouse. I decided that since it was icky bug and already full of death, gore and mayhem, the liberal use of colorful metaphors wouldn’t make any difference. However, over time I noticed I was a bit heavy-handed with the profuse use of those words, but was still too dumb to know how to throttle it down, editorially speaking. I didn’t have a writer’s group in those days.

            My third novel, Lusitania Gold went for Action/Adventure (which today I have to call Adventure/Thriller to be more politically correct in the publishing world). I was going for a Clive Cussler vein (who didn’t use those words) but a bit rougher and more adult. I still used colorful metaphors but not quite as many as in The Greenhouse. As time passed and I wrote more of the Gold series stories, I ended up in Las Vegas and found the Henderson Writer’s Group. Over a span of about two years or so, I had a chance to read Lusitania Gold to the group and discovered how I was overusing the colorful metaphors. Though the speech was realistic, it didn’t come off well on paper. When I read it back to the group, it became glaringly obvious. I learned to throttle the words back to the bare minimum to get the most impact with the fewest uses of them.

            I also came to a marketing decision that I think some of you might want to consider. My Adventure/Thriller series is six books, so far. I would like it to appeal to the widest audience possible. I also started a fantasy series with Meleena’s Adventures. In one the Gold series, I could use colorful metaphors, but chose not to for the widest audience. In the other, those words would not be used at all in a fantasy setting. Nowadays, I keep my colorful metaphors to just the icky bug stories. Icky bug is a rather narrow genre so I have no expectations of reaching a huge audience. In a way, it’s a much freer environment, but restricted in where I can realistically take it.

            When you decide whether to use them or not, if you don’t already have religious or moral mores against their usage, consider your market, genre, and potential audience before you plunge forward.

            Okay, a lot of philosophy and not much instruction. The reason for that is there doesn’t need to be much instruction for this one. There is one simple rule that I’ve already used for writing in accents. Drop the f-bomb (or whatever word you choose) occasionally for emphasis to let the reader know the character is using it, but revert to regular language for the majority of the dialogue. Don’t overdo it or you’ll jerk the reader right out of the story and into the grammar instead.

            How much is too much is still a fine line, and there is no specific rule. If you read your work to an audience, you’ll be able to tell pretty quick whether you’ve crossed the line. Just watch how often your audience cringes!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2011 5:11 am

    Well, Fred, you know how I feel about this!

  2. Ann Marquez permalink
    October 19, 2011 3:45 pm

    Well I swear, Fred… no, really, lately I’ve been swearing a lot, believe it or not. Not the ‘f’ word. (But coincidentally ‘The ‘F’ Word’ is the title of a post I’ve scheduled next week. Go figure 😉

    But for the most part, I’m PG. I can handle a little, especially when it’s true to character like in James’s book, but too much is definitely too much.

    Good post:)

    • October 20, 2011 1:41 am

      Annie,

      As you say, it has to be true to the character but must be minimal or the reader just pays attention to the grammar and not the story. Great comments. Thanks!

      Fred

  3. Donald Riggio permalink
    October 19, 2011 5:30 pm

    In my work, “Seven-Inch Viny: A Rock and Roll Novel,” which is deeply rooted in the New York street culture of the 50’s & 60’s I have several characters whose vocabulary often leans toward the “blue” side. I felt it necessary given the situations they find themselves in. To use the f-bombs sparingly is indeed a goal. I’m more likely to blush a bit when references to sexual acts are bandied about for no othere reason than shock value.

    Donald Riggio

    • October 20, 2011 1:43 am

      Donald,

      Well said. Using words or saying things sexual just for shock value should not be done. They have to be true to the character or situation or they come off phony and the reader will pick up on it.

      Thanks, Don!

      Fred

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