Come play inside a writer's brain, scary!

Twice on Facebook this week I wanted to “share” clever posts that I thought my friends would appreciate. I could have borrowed the posts without attributing the source but as a writer, I’m used to giving other people’s words due  credit. But…and this is a big but….both posts were under Facebook names I felt could offend some of my friends. One poster’s name included the F-word. The other posted under a name I didn’t want linked with my books.

A trap to avoid in the media is attaching someone else’s negative words to yourself.

When doing media interviews, I’ve trained myself to avoid repeating a question in such a way that the content attaches itself to me. For instance, a TV journalist once asked me if romance novels glorify rape. If I’d said, “No, I don’t think they glorify rape and here’s why…” the ugly words would have become mine. Far better to say, “I don’t agree, and here’s why…” We saw a master at work when Prime Minister Julia Gillard appeared on the ABC’s Q & A program this week. When host, Tony Jones, put what I’d call loaded questions to the PM, she answered as I’ve suggested, not repeating his words but giving the answer she wanted attached to her.

The same applies to Facebook. Had I shared the posts under the problem names, the names would have linked to me wherever they went from there on. From the responses to my post on the question, I wasn’t alone. The authors using the names have limited the number of shares they’ll receive, and their potential influence on social media.

Some people simply won’t care.

Just as many people take swearing in their stride, but as a writer, you need to consider your audience. As much as half the sales of my novels come from the United States of America. Many romance readers live in an area of the country informally called the Bible Belt. Wikipedia says this area  consists of much of the southern states extending west into Texas and Oklahoma. It’s a conservative  region where Christian church attendance and beliefs are notably high. It also comprises almost a third of the continental United States.

Do you really want to offend a third of your potential readers

Many books ago I challenged myself to let characters express their feelings without using words some readers may have a problem with. Naturally, you can’t have a big hunky hero hit his thumb with a hammer and say, “Oh bother, that hurt.” But I can show his pain and annoyance in other ways, through his reactions and body language. Showing is always better than telling IMO. In my Carramer books, set in a fictitious south-sea island kingdom, I invented my own language. In every case, I achieved the same result as if my characters had sworn, without alienating a good chunk of my readership.

Writing is about use of language. Challenge yourself to be inventive.

As writers we may never fully master our use of the English language. But as the saying goes, shoot for the moon. You may not reach your goal but you’ll still land among the stars.

Do you find swearing a challenge? How do you handle it in your writing?


2012 Established Writer in Residence Katharine Susannah Prichard Centre Perth

Friend of the National Year of Reading 2012

On Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook (without swearing)


Comments on: "Home is swear the words are…or is it?" (17)

  1. another excellent post. (Love the cat!)

  2. Hi V.
    I’ve been broadening my reading lately in the interests of (presumably) broadening my mind and knowledge of different sub-genres of romance, and one of the things I’ve found is that some styles of romantica are quite heavy on the use of language I personally am not comfortable with. It’s one of the things that irritated me when I flipped through 50 Shades at the store. I can read a book with offensive language. Some of it can be appropriate to character or story. I can read almost anything once. But an author who consistently makes me uncomfortable is not going to be an author I come back to by choice. There is also my long standing complaint that some writers, and this applies to script writers too, seem to use expletives as descriptors rather than make the effort to find a few adjectives that would make the dialogue more interesting and less repetitive.

    • Good for you making the effort, Fiona. I’m also OK with occasional bad language when used appropriately. Characters under duress, for example. What I’m tiring off is the perceived shock value which wore off a long time ago. And often the story or movie works just as well without the expletives.

  3. I have to admit I’m partial to the use of swear words… where they work, of course. It seems like the main problem you had stemmed from these people NAMING themselves with potentially offensive words. For myself I wouldn’t have the first representation of me people could find on the net linked with those words, but I suspect those people are saying something critical about themselves by doing so (even if it’s not entirely conscious).

    But that’s a completely different thing to using language in writing. There’s a fine line between being aware of your audience and censoring yourself. I want to reach as many readers as I can, of course – but I also want to write the book I want to write. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ve had to face the fact that I’m going to have a more niche audience than, say, Nora Roberts 🙂 given that my hero wears a dress. But that comes with the book I want to write.

    Writing to the extreme is always going to alienate some readers – but it will also make YOUR readers cheer! (I always do when a writer is particularly brave in a direction I also like.) I don’t agree with the maxim that using swear words is lazy. If a writer’s lazy, all their writing will be lazy, not only the swear words.

    • You’ve nailed it, Anna. I assume some people on Facebook adopt such names to attract attention, but I feel it’s limiting their reach if others pull back from sharing their posts to avoid exposing friends to their posting name. I agree that bad language has a place when appropriate to the character or the readership. You’d expect more extreme language in erotica than in sweet romances, of course. Comedian, Billy Connolly, not known for restrained use of language, said in an interview this week that he enjoyed having his daughters swear – when they used it in the right context and conditions. It says something for your writing that I didn’t notice any language problems while working with you during your VPA year, so you must be getting it right.

  4. I was taught the major swear words by an uncle who thought it was funny to teach them to a two year old so swearing is my first vocabulary. However on social media when I am posting I use the old asterisk trick: S**t. Everyone knows what the word is but that’s the least offensive way I can think of right now, LOL!

  5. Robyn Van Matre said:

    I agree with you Valerie. It takes much more skill to not use swear words and still get the feeling across, and many times it does make the writing all the better for not using them. There is a time and place for everything and using a nasty word to convey exactly what the character is feeling in the moment can be just the right thing, as per your example, ‘Oh bother, that hurt’ doesn’t convey the same emotion as ‘G*d dam**t that hurt’ . In addition what is said gives you a sense of the kind of person your character is. The same thing happens with comedians. The ones who are truly funny, don’t need to drop a swear word every other sentence just to get a reaction. A real writer uses swears words sparingly and at just the right time, as they do with every other word they carefully choose to convey exactly what is in their head to the rest of us out here.

    Climbing off soapbox now. Thanks for the moment V!

    • You can bring your soap box in here any time Robyn, very well said. I mention Billy Connolly in reply to a comment here. I love his TV work because he simply can’t swear at every turn, as he does in his stage shows. He acknowledged this on A Current Affair this week when he said yelling “Go Away” at the top of your lungs simply isn’t as effective as the “alternative”. I found that funnier than if he’d actually used the words.

  6. Malvina said:

    Someone once told me that using swear words shows a distinct lack of the imagination. Hmm… could be?! Thanks for the blog, Valerie. Good advice.

  7. I think it’s very important for each writer to find their own balance in the language department. Good blog Valerie 🙂

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