Saturday, June 14, 2014

What the %#$@?

Tomorrow is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s perhaps the greatest short-story collection ever written, and yet Joyce had to struggle for eight years to get it published.
Why did it take so long? For one thing, publishers objected to disparaging comments about the English royal family in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” They were also worried about the sexual references in “Counterparts” and “Two Gallants.” But one of the strongest objections was to Joyce’s frequent use of the swear word “bloody.” Joyce eventually agreed to remove the offending word from some of the stories, but not all of them; it remained, for example, in “Two Gallants” (“two bloody fine cigars”) and “The Boarding House” (“if any fellow tried that sort of a game on with his sister he'd bloody well put his teeth down his throat, so he would”). Joyce insisted that in those instances no other word would do.
But Joyce was a genius, so he could take certain liberties. What about the rest of us, the merely mortal writers? How do we walk the fine line between underuse and overuse of vulgarities and swear words? Many characters in thrillers are unsavory types, and in the real world such people often use words that are a lot more offensive than “bloody.” If we’re going to show their dialogue and thoughts in a realistic way, we can’t avoid typing “shit,” “fuck,” “piss,” and all the other dirty words on George Carlin’s famous list. And yet many readers strongly object to the foul language.

I confronted this issue a few years ago when I got an e-mail from a reader who enjoyed my first novel Final Theory. She wanted to share the novel with her 13-year-old son and asked me if there was a kid-friendly version of the book with none of the swear words. I had to tell her there was no such animal, but I made a solemn vow: if I ever wrote a Young Adult book intended for the twelve-and-up crowd, it would contain no swears whatsoever.

I started writing a YA novel a couple of years ago, and in the beginning I had a hard time complying with my no-swears rule. For instance, I’d developed the bad habit of having my characters either think or say the word “Shit!” whenever something shocking happened. I realized that I was using the word as a crutch, an easy way to signal strong fear or surprise. When I forced myself to avoid the word, I came up with more imaginative ways to convey these emotions.

In the end I wrote nearly 100,000 words with nary a vulgarity among them. The most offensive word in the whole novel is “freaking.” The book is scheduled to be published a year from now. (We haven’t officially announced it yet because we’re still trying to choose the title.)

I’m still using swear words in my thrillers for adults, but now I’m trying to exercise some restraint. I’ve learned that less can be more. As Joyce might say, you better bloody well believe it.  


  1. To me in depends on the POV character. I don't want the narrator to use vulgarities unless they are the POV character. I also don't mind the use of vulgarities if the story is written in 1st person POV and the protagonist is prone to using them.

    I'm currently reading Stephen King's Joyland and the protagonist is a 90 year old reminiscing and telling the story of his summer months as a 21 year old carnival worker. Yes, it's expected you'd find cussing among this group!

    It's appropriate in some situations which actually feel more genuine and real. In others, it's not.

  2. Law & Order managed to be gritty without ever using a forbidden George Carlin word. The greatest crime fiction of the 40s and 50s did, too. It can be done.

    1. JSB--right as usual, thank you. Profanity obviously has its place, but as often as not it serves as a crutch.

  3. There is a style to cussing. And If you're not familiar with that style, you can come up with things like: Oh shit, I've stepped into some doggie poo-poo. Dialogue in a military unit, for instance, wouldn't ring true without a lot of cussing.

  4. I think you made an important point when you realized that the use of a particular profanity, in your YA novel, was a crutch for signaling strong emotion.

    "Real" dialogue (in real life) is often similar. The speaker uses the profanity rather than develop a broader vocabulary. Movies or books with the same use of "reality" are boring.

    We write dialogue, not as it actually is, but to simulate reality and to be interesting. If we used a non-profanity repeatedly to express a particular emotion, our readers (and editors) would toss our work into the discard pile.

  5. All too often, writers will resort to bad boy talk to compensate for otherwise flabby writing. If words from the Carlin list are organic to a character's personality, fine. I've consulted that list myself. But it's all too easy to use it as a crutch.

  6. I wrestle with this one constantly, as do most writers who toil in the hardboiled tradition. I used to sprinkle cuss words in frequently (it is how cops tend to talk). But a couple nice fan letters made me take a hard look at it and I realized I was using it as a crutch, almost like bad writers who overuse an exclamation mark. So I dialed it way back. Now I think twice before using it because though I am firmly in the court of verisimilitude in dialogue, I now think obscenities should be like certain spices -- used with care and only for strong effect.

  7. Jeffery Deaver came up with an elegant solution. The audio versions of his books have zero profanity.

    I personally like dialogue well-peppered with the same creative profanity I hear in real life.

    The best 1-star review I ever got on a short story referenced the line said by the ex-military character when asked what he would do if someone threatened his superior court judge wife.

    He said, "I'd rip off his head and shit down his neck."

    The comment said, "No professional woman would EVER marry a man who talked like that."

    Funny, my then-husband, who gave me that line, did. I wonder how she would have responded to his other suggestion:


    "I'd tear out his eyes and fuck the holes."

    That is language from the stone quarries and the factories and when used properly, adds the reality needed.


  8. Good for you! I think not-so-great writers use profanity as a crutch and throw it around like confetti. In my opinion, great writers use it as seasoning--where absolutely needed and with restraint.

  9. I usually lurk, but couldn't help but come out of the shadows to agree with JSB. I have yet to see a book that the George Carlin words made better. I don't normally use the words in question and seeing them on the page jars me out of the story.

  10. Sometimes the problem is what is OK for YA. I sometimes have my characters saying crap but I coach 9 - 10 years olds and they use that word a lot.

  11. People who believe professionals don't engage in vulgarities are being a bit naive. My husband and I are both very professional, but amongst our own kind and in our comfort zone, yes, we do things others would be shocked by. To us, it's being human.

    If you are to connect with your reader, shouldn't your characters be just as raw and uninhibited? Readers are not stupid. I'm a reader and I know when emotions are contrived. I also know when vulgarities are out of place.

    If you use them where it's naturally appropriate, no reader is going to condemn you. The days of the publisher telling you not to engage in "inappropriate" communications with the reader are over I think.

  12. This may not be the place for such a question, but what are the opinions on "made-up" curse words for Sci/Fi & Fantasy tropes?

    I refer to inventions like "Frak" which was used so well in the reboot Battlestar Galactica TV series.

  13. I am still trying to figure out why people who have no problem reading about rape and grisly murder become upset when foul language appears.

  14. Mark--thanks for bringing up this issue. I like to think that when it comes to reading, I have a pretty good (sorry) shit detector. By this, I mean I think I have a good eye/ear for instances where expletives and profanity figure for no other purpose than to shock. But it doesn't work these days: profanity has become so commonplace that when you hear it or read it, you know you're in the presence of a weak imagination. But when characters themselves have been given limited language skills by the author, that's different, and my handy-dandy detector knows the difference.

  15. I'll echo what many others have said: use expletives as a spice, not routine salt. The dialogue we write isn't real speech - we cut a lot out to keep it flowing and well written. If you included all the "ums," "uhs," and "likes" of a teenager's (or anyone's) speech, you'd have the most boring dialogue imaginable. So why not edit the cuss words and come up with something more creative but still appropriate to the character?

    What no one has addressed as yet is the fact that art doesn't just imitate life, art influences life. The more something is acceptable on TV and in movies, and hopefully in books, the more acceptable it is in real life - for teens in particular. So let's dig a little deeper and give our readers something more interesting than the usual s--- and f---- expletives.