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Balanced Use of Swears   14 comments

Sept 13, 2021

How do you feel about the use of profanity, either in your stories or in what you read?

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Trending Toward Profanity

Opinion | The Case for Profanity in Print - The New York Times

In recent decades experts noticed a decided trend to use more and more obscenities, profanity and vulgarity in books written for almost every age.

First, let’s define term. Obscenity is a word or phrase that covers sexual or scatalogical references to the body or bodily functions (so f**k and s**t). The term also has legal ramifications that offend the sexual morality of a given time and place and so the Supreme Court says they aren’t protected by the First Amendment. Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart explained that he couldn’t define what kind of material was obscene, but he knew it when he saw it. In 1973 the SCOTUS ruled in the case of Miller v California that an expression must meet three criteria to be obscene:

1. The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.

2. The work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law.

3. The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

If the expression fails to meet any one of those criteria, then the literary work is not obscene. The “average person,” “community standards,” “patently offensive” and “serious value” are all fairly subjective terms, though. Even with the Miller Test, there’s no national standard for what classifies as obscene, and distinctions between protected expression and unprotected obscene expression vary among federal court districts.

Meanwhile, profanity is an expression that is specifically offensive to members of a religious group. The definition extends to expressions of a scatological, derogatory, racist, sexist or sexual nature. What is and isn’t profane mostly depends on the context and the company you keep. There are words we don’t say in church that we might use in the privacy of our garage when we hit our thumb with a hammer.

Vulgarity is generally coarse or crude language. It’s substituting a coarse word in a context where a more refined expression is expected. So that’s like substituting the word “butt” for the word “ass”.

Modern Writing

Swearing and vulgarity in creative writing is on the rise, especially from independent authors not associated with a large publisher. Some authors who use profanity in books believe they are representing the world as it is, and that using profanity makes their writing more authentic and powerful. One author says we need swearing to make our created worlds “bloom with color.” Other writers argue there are more effective ways to make fictional worlds “bloom”. For them, vulgarity is a cheap, convenient device to give the impression the book is up-to-date and realistic.

Important authors of the past wrote amazing works with vivid imagery, compelling scenes, and powerful characters without resorting to swearing or vulgarity. Examples are Homer’s The Odyssey (Homer), Cervantes Don Quijote, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Yes, other great works of literature contain profanity, but most great literature is admired for its powerful imagery, descriptions, language and storyline, and not its dependency on swearing or obscenities.

Since the middle of the 20th century, society has witnessed a marked decline in spiritual and moral values throughout the Western World, including a distinct weakening of traditional sexual mores. There’s been a commensurate radical increase in the use of vulgarity and profanity in the writings of authors. This language and the accompanying behavior is fueled by the obscenities heard every day in sitcoms, movies, and on the street, in schools and the workplace. These trends can be destructive to the quality and value of literature, and they really don’t help sell books.

Target Audience

Although we say we don’t, authors must always consider their target audience. This necessity leads to the multiple genres in writing—science fiction, romance, mystery, crime fiction, historical, etc. Writers who desire to reach as many readers as possible within their chosen genres should seek to avoid shocking their readers with excessive profanity. Many readers today will not be offended by an occasional profanity word or vulgarity, but unless a reader is a member of a very small, specific demographic, the shocking words meant to bring color often pull the reader out of the story because they don’t relate to the continual vulgarity. At the same time, these readers will not reject a compelling book simply because it doesn’t contain profanity.

As an evangelical Christian who didn’t grow up in church, I’m not shocked by an occasional profanity. I also don’t consider myself a Christian author. I’m a Christian who also is an author. I strive to portray Christianity in a truthful manner, but I’m not writing “message” books. As such, I include an occasional profanity and vulgarity because that’s normal life, but I don’t use them as much as many writers in my genres do. I’ve taken some flack from readers for including it at all — “She says she’s a Christian and she dedicates the book to Jesus, but then she dishonors the Savior with swear words.” Uh, yeah, I failed to discover any Bible verses that said Christians should totally disconnected from the society around us and that writers who are Christians should pretend real life doesn’t exist. “In the world, but not of it” doesn’t mean we aren’t aware of modern society’s warts.

I did some research on the topic. Great authors such as Anne McCaffrey, Arthur C. Clarke, Mary Higgins Clark, Amy Tan, and Brandon Sanderson, published bestselling books with little or no profanity. Most top-selling books today by large publishers contain fewer than 40 swears, including novels depicting a great deal of violence. Some traditional authors who are self-proclaimed “potty-mouths” often have fewer than 100 swears in their books. I think it’s entirely possible that these authors’ publishers have a great deal of market research that shows that the “f-bomb” in every other sentence doesn’t sell well with readers. Independent authors would do well to take note of how the big publishers conduct themselves because they have big budgets to do market research. That doesn’t mean we have to follow every jot and tittle of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association guidelines, but we should be aware of the big publishing house standards and strive for that level of professionalism.

Swearing as a Condiment

My own feeling is that authors who resort to swearing and vulgarity give the impression of lacking in class, education, sensitivity, intelligence, taste, and talent. Catcher in the Rye is a great novel, but what most people remember most about it was the overuse of a certain profanity. Punctuating your work with excessive profanity seems lazy to me. Some writing critics say when authors use profanity, they are telling the reader what is going on in the minds of the characters instead of allowing the reader to experience the emotion for themselves. An author’s job is to describe the characters’ emotions and psychological makeup. Profanity is just another “telling” example, like the overuse of adverbs.

My personal policy on profane words is similar to my view on adverbs. I’m not an absolutist. I use both as condiments. A hamburger that was mostly pickle, not even much meat or bun, wouldn’t taste right, but I personally always eat my burgers with a little bit of pickle. My characters use profanity rarely and at extremely appropriate times. When you’re falling off a cliff, it doesn’t make emotional sense to say “Gee, golly, boy-howdy.” I’m a Baptist Sunday School teacher and even I’d rip out with a “s**t” in that circumstance. I’m pretty sure my pastor might too. Thus, it makes no sense to me to limit my characters to mild curses when something stronger is appropriate. I personally don’t swear a lot in the course of my life, but I do know the words because they were an everyday occurrence in the town I grew up in — with a male to female ratio of 4 to 1 and most of the men being construction workers. And, I try to write a realistic world with real-seeming characters and so my characters swear occasionally — some more than others and some of them are offended by hearing others swear and embarrassed when they let one slip — kind of like ordinary people in America’s heartland where the Transformation Project books are set.

When I’m reading a book, I don’t care about an occasional swear, but I don’t like books that have a bunch of profanity for no legitimate reason. I read a book recently that has some scenes from the two main characters’ pasts and the guy of the two has an extremely potty mouth as a high school senior. He used the f-word as an adjective for just about every noun. But then in the current time line, he hardly swears at all — once in a conversation with a guy friend who still has a potty mouth and once when he’s upset about something and then he apologizes for it because he says it in front of a kid. I saw it as a way of showing how much he’d matured over the years. And that’s really the balance I wish to strike–not using euphemisms but not overdoing the use because readers are kind of turned off by it and I really feel that profanity is far too widespread in society and used in inappropriate settings when it doesn’t truthfully convey what it is meant to.

Posted September 13, 2021 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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My Next Book is on WattPad   Leave a comment

Club Class

(Every so often, I dream about walking in on Laren and Sam. I don’t remember what I did before that. I’m just in the hallway outside the guestroom when I heard a giggle. Thinking Alyse was teasing me, I opened the door and Sam’s head came up from a part of my mother’s anatomy that I thought belonged solely to my father. Details have washed over time, but I remember the surge of horror I felt. I knew about sex, I wasn’t shocked by seeing it. I just always imagined walking in on my parents and being embarrassed, not this stranger with my mother, which ripped my world apart. I didn’t know Sam at the time, but my memory always informs the dream of who he is to me now. Though totally in the wrong doing what he was doing in my father’s house, he had the grace to be embarrassed, to grab for a pillow to cover himself and to toss a blanket toward my mother, who has no grace at all. Beautiful Laren Dellinis Wyngate (now Braddock) sat up in all her glorious nudity, her eyes shining with a blue electricity I already knew to fear. Instead of wrapping herself in the blanket and trying to explain to her traumatized 12-year-old son that sometimes adults do incomprehensible things, she reached for me –. )

I jolt out of my doze, the lingering sensation of my mother’s fingers on my chest following me into waking as if there’s no gap of five years. The sleeping pod that seemed cozy a couple of hours ago now becomes an airless coffin that is too short for my body. I fling my long legs out into the aisle, shoving the strangling blanket away. Sweat coats my back and forehead. The plane outside the pod slants ominously. Except for a passenger reading a book across the aisle and a steward hovering in the service niche, Club Class is asleep. I taste vomit at the back of my throat, so push to standing and stumble barefoot to the head, shaking, my head pounding. My stomach clenches and turns inside out, dumping its content into the toilet. It’s been more than 24 hours since Collin and I bid a lushy farewell to one another in the hotel bar in London. I can’t still be hungover. Lacking Tylenol, I wash my face, but – yeah, I still feel like crap.

When my stomach clenches again, I pull the trigger myself because sometimes it’s just better to get the crap out at the front end instead of letting it work its nasty way through to the end.  I dry-heave a couple of times and then spew my stomach lining into the toilet. A hotflash sears through my body.

I’m washing vomit from my mouth when a polite tap sounds on the door and a clipped British voice asks if I’d like my bed turned into a seat and breakfast now or would I prefer to sleep longer. Sleep? That stroll down memory lane had no resemblance to rest. We’re still four hours out from JFK. I can’t go back into the coffin. Since it appears I’m done puking and my temperature is returning to normal, I opt for breakfast and a book.

“And a bourbon and water straight-up.”

The steward casts me a skeptical look. British Airways lets you drink at 18, which means I don’t technically qualify, but you can buy some excellent ID for a fraction of a trust-fund kid’s weekly allowance. Mine says I turned 21 in April. The first swallow settles my stomach and knocks back the headache. I want to drain the glass and order another, but I’m not stupid. Although my fake card worked just fine all across Europe, I know not to push my luck. I am an experienced rule-breaker. I nurse that drink for an hour, then eat fruit, yoghurt and a bagel for breakfast, before ordering my next one. 

“That must be some great fake ID.”

Jorga Persons, America’s latest superstar female action lead, sits down in the unoccupied seat in my seating pair and times her comment so the steward is out of earshot. She’s gorgeous, though the reality is less awesome than the cinematic version. She’s wearing an ordinary pair of black yoga pants and a lime-green tunic with russet embroidery on either side of the vertical slit that doesn’t quite invite me to look at her breasts. She can’t be more than college-aged herself, so I sip my bourbon and branch before I reply to her. Her glossy brown hair and sparkling blue eyes belie the muscles I can see in her forearms. She grins at my poker face.

“You are Governor Wyngate’s son, right?”

Now comes the calculation. My actual birthdate is accessible to anyone with Google, but I’m pretty sure the steward doesn’t care so long as I behave myself. Do I want the high-profile actress to know my secrets or do I want to engage in a few hours of flirting with an “older woman”? I could get huffy and tell her to go away, but where’s the fun in that? I could pretend she’s mistaken me and offer to buy her a drink. I could admit the truth and offer to buy her a drink. I could pretend I misunderstood the line of questioning and buy her a drink.

“Cosmopolitan, right?” I signal the steward, who indicates I can wait a moment. I smile with a slight nod.

“Not this early in the morning.”

I could point out it must be night somewhere, but it technically is about four in the morning for those of us on London Time.

“Irish coffee then?”

“You (are) a bold one.” I smile. She smiles back. Her pink lips invite kisses. I know nothing about her besides her movie, but I know she didn’t grow up rich because her left bicuspid slightly pushes over the tooth in the front. I don’t care about that. Kids who grew up in a more reality-based childhood tend to be more down-to-earth, is all. “Just coffee, no additives.” She says this to the steward as he comes up beside her.

It wasn’t like I was going to make it into the Mile-High Club if I plied her with enough adult beverages, so I wait for her to make the next verbal move.

“You noticed what I drink?”

She sure asks a lot of questions.

“Always been curious about what they taste like.”

“Order one and find out.”

“Can’t. Allergic to limes.”

“Seriously?” Her face sobers. “How did you find that out?”

“Drank a big glass of limeade after a mountain bike race. It wasn’t the first time I’d drank limeade and I’d noticed it caused a tickle, but my throat closed down that time.”

“Wow. So like what happens to people with bee stings?” I nod. “How old were you?”

“Middle school. Have not drank limes since.”

“You haven’t touched them in the last half-decade?” I smile at her because we both know she’s trying to get me to admit my age.

“It’s been longer.” Barely. “My hands get itchy when I do.” Not technically true. My hands get itchy from contact with lime juice. I have successfully cut limes for friend’s margaritas by just touching the peel and then washing my hands immediately after. I’m not going to answer her query about my age and she seems to realize that.

“I guess your curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied.”

“I guess.” I smile slyly. “Unless the taste is worth the visit to the ER.”

“It’s not.” She’s got a tiny crease between her eyes. I’ve perhaps pushed it too far. Europe may have made me bolder than is wise.

“Then I guess I’ll never know.” I sigh, then shrug. I don’t really miss limeade, so I think I can live without satisfying my curiosity about cosmos. “Were you in Europe for a movie or fun?”

She chuckles.

“Most people think being an actress and fun are the same thing.”

“It’s your job. Are jobs fun?”

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever had one.”

Ouch! It’s not my fault my dad has money.

“I’m in school.”

“That’s not the same thing.” She’s still smiling and I don’t know where she’s headed. No, I’ve never had a job. I expect I’ll never need the money, but I kind of think I don’t want to do nothing all my life either. My father, uncle and grandfather have jobs after all. The steward sets a small tray with the coffee and sugar and cream on the table and asks if there will be anything else. She says no, sips her coffee and pins me with her bright blue eyes. “I saw your video.”

Wow. Does everybody in the world have a Google alert for my name? If I rolled up to a village in the Amazon jungle, would they whip out a smart phone and show me a video of my finest hour?

“It’s not my video. I didn’t post it.”

“No, but you feature in it. It’s not like I film the movies I’m in. Did you enjoy your debut in film?”

I hated half the people in our hotel bringing it up.

“I would never put up a video like that.”

“So, you’re not a dick, just an ass.” I blink at her. She keeps smiling as she breaths deeply in and out. Oh, baby, she does that well! “I’m not trying to be mean.” She stares at me as I exercise my best poker face. I’m glad my book is in my lap. Can I feign annoyance while rising in her presence? Wow, tough one! “And you are apparently mature enough to know that. Who was the guy with you?”

My cousin Collin interfered with my attempt to bribe the chick to delete the video. He pissed her off and guaranteed it was going on the Internet. Some versions of the video play the whole interaction.

“Collin’s my cousin.”

“Was he supposed to be your chaperone?”

“Not really, why?”

“He’s just a dick …” She gives me a long side glance. “I hoped he wasn’t a friend.”

“You know what they say – you can choose your friends, but you’re stuck with family.” I’m not really enjoying this conversation now, and I want to take a long pull off my drink, but she’s watching me and that’s not the time to be stupid. “And, you’re right. He is a jerk, but my dad pushed him at me.”

“Did he – Collin — push all the ale on you?”

I smirk.

“Nah, I kind of did that to myself. British ale has a higher alcohol content than the beer I’m used to.”

“Ah, which explains peeing in the fountain.”

I can’t help it. I blush. I was a little drunk that night, but mainly, I just really had to go to the bathroom.

“It wasn’t my finest moment.”

“Good you know that. So you asked me if my job is fun.” She tilts her head like she contemplates her answer. She might have a future as an actress beyond action star. “It is and it isn’t. When I first did ‘Death Con’, I thought I was having a great time. There was a lot of drinking and nobody said no to the 16-year-old. My off-camera behavior almost cost me doing the second picture, so now I watch myself. I’ll be legal to drink in the United States in January.”

I’m not sure what to say to that. She was drinking underage just like me and she still drinks, though I think she stopped at one. She’s headed somewhere and I haven’t figured it out yet, so I let her continue.

“And I see a great-looking, otherwise intelligent guy making an ass of himself in a foreign country, clearly withdrawing from a binge on the plane, and then drinking bourbon for breakfast. I get it. Hair of the dog and all that. I just needed to say something.”

She takes her coffee tray to her own seat, leaving me with a very good reason (not) to have a third drink, which is kind of annoying. What’s the use of flying Club class if you can’t enjoy the adult beverages? I appreciate that British Airways recognizes me as an adult, since my ID says I can vote and die in a war. I just wish everyone else would quit trying to make my decisions for me. I only drink the two straight-up bourbon-and-waters in the eight-hour flight across the Atlantic. I want a third and I’m nowhere near drunk, just mellowed enough (not) to get on another plane for Florida, to go visit my mother, who couldn’t care less what I was up to in Europe. The dream reminded me she comes with her own complications. Facing the music that is my father is better for me. Just.

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