Thursday, August 16, 2012

Curses! Foiled again.

By Gayle Carline

(A brief caveat: In order to keep this blog from becoming a "You Must Be 18 or Older" site, I'm not spelling out certain words. I'm depending on you to figure them out.)

Well, dammit-to-hell, it's time for another post. I've been thinking about cursing a lot lately. That is to say, I've been thinking about it a lot, not that I've been cursing a lot, although I probably have. A couple of events crashed into each other recently to give me a chance to think a Deep, Philosophical Hmm, of the practical business sort.

The first was, last month or so, my hubby and my bestie, Tameri, and I went to see Kathy Griffin at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach. Kathy is one of my guilty pleasures. I watch all her specials on Bravo, and I know from my bleeping TV how profane she is on stage.

I am no prude when it comes to profanity, but I do wince when I'm in a crowd and someone is wandering around talking about this or that f*ing thing that happened to them. I mean, Dude, maybe the woman with the 3-year old in the stroller behind you would like to introduce that word to her child at some special time.

It's even worse when the f*ing talker is pushing the stroller.

Still, I wondered if she would shock me. I was surprised at how unruffled I was when Kathy took the stage. She held nothing back, but the profanity and crude language seemed less offensive than when it was bleeped on my TV. It was supposed to be there, so it was funny.

The second thing to happen was my re-release of Freezer Burn. Like any good little author, I re-read it and edited a few things. I hadn't really used a lot of profanity in the book, but I had a couple of lowlife guys who, at separate times, used the F-word. It seemed to be natural to their characters.

Having two occurrences of that word cost me a few sales. People, mostly women, would ask if there's profanity in the book and I would tell them the truth. They thanked me for my honesty, and passed on the story, and I was okay with that.

By contrast, my cast of characters in Hit or Missus turned out to be on the wealthier side of the tracks. I know rich folks can curse like sailors, but in my book they just didn't. I don't know why. It didn't feel right.

In editing Freezer Burn, I suddenly had to consider how my books played out as a series. Yes, I wanted my characters to be as real as possible on the page. No, I didn't want to confuse readers who might have expectations of the amount of profanity, or sex, in my books. And yes, it made me sad to think of readers who would enjoy my stories, but truly couldn't handle rough language.

If I was writing a series of thrillers, or darker mysteries, or if I wrote more graphic, gritty scenes, it would be different. But I write fun romps, with a side of let's-skip-the-details sex. Even if it might be realistic, f*ing has no place in my books.

People expect cursing in a Kathy Griffin routine. In my books? Maybe not so much.

So I took those two instances out. I found other words or gestures to mean the same thing. My books are now PG-rated. The new one will be, as well.

What about you, as readers? Do you pick up a thriller expecting salty language and raw, unbridled sex to alleviate the tension? Are you ever surprised by the level of cursing, or lack of it? Do you f*ing care if my f*ing characters curse?

P.S. One of the interesting side effects of taking that word out of my book is that I've been using it more when I talk. Usually around the house, often behind the wheel of my car, and always because I'm feeling pissy about something. But never in a crowd – out loud. I don't know if I'm feeling freer in my everyday conversations, or just crankier in my everyday life.


  1. Thanks, Gayle for taking a realistic view of this: Authors have choices in how they write. Elizabeth Span Craig has written that she has stopped putting even mild profanity in at least one of her series due to feedback similar to what you received. We’re the authors; we are free to make choices; we need to be aware that the choices we make have the potential to contract our audiences.

    I still remember the day I got to the first damn in Unthinkable. I took a breath and asked myself where my limits were for language, sexuality, gore, violence, grit. (I live in the South, so while I may limit grit, I believe in unlimited grits. Especially cheese grits. With bacon.) Both Unthinkable and Seen Sean? are written to PG/TV-PG level. If you watch any primetime TV you won’t mind it; heck, if you watch the 10 o’clock slot on USA this summer, you might not notice it.

  2. For your books, Gayle, it makes sense. No one will notice that the swear words aren't there, but they may stand out for some readers.

    On the other hand, I write gritty mystery/thrillers so some cursing is expected for the dialog to be realistic. But I still keep it to a minimum.

    And I've been trying to curse less in my personal life...for about as long as I've been trying to lose that last seven pounds...and with about the same success. :)

  3. A fun post, Gayle. You raise some good points, and I enjoy your writing style - it's entertaining. I recently did a sample edit for someone whose two main characters were in the military and he had them use f*ing in every paragraph, so at least 5 instances on each page. He said that's how guys in the military talk. I tried to convince him that swear words jump out more on the page than in real like, and to cut instances down to one-sixth or less of what you'd hear in real life - even 10% would still give the flavor of it. But he was adamant that that would be unrealistic. Fortunately there were some other issues we disagreed about so we mutually agreed we weren't the best fit for a writer-editor relationship, and I never edited the rest of his novel.

  4. Good questions, with no right answer. In my first romantic suspense manuscript, I included a sex scene, because I know some romance lines demand a certain level of "heat," and I wanted to make sure I could write it. It wound up feeling like an important part of the heroine's emotional journey, as well as a step in the relationship.

    Then I decided to self publish, which gives me more freedom. My next two books don't include explicit sex. Since they're suspense, the timeframe is less than a week, and it didn't seem natural or healthy to have the characters jumping into bed that quickly. Those two books could be appropriate even for teenagers. But I don't want to go back and change the first book, because the sex scene now seems important there!

    I think it's nice to offer readers some consistency so they know what they're getting, especially with a series, but lots of authors write in multiple styles.

    It sound like you made the right choice for your style and audience – at least for this series.

  5. Damn good post, Gayle.

    One of the comments that comes up on reviews of Red Tide from time to time is the sparseness of profanity… in an appreciative way. My new one has a lot more profane language in it, but the worst abuser gets his in the end.

    A beta reader told me when she read the first 'f*' in Rough Waters that although she said that word herself, she hated reading it.

    The first book by a certain best-selling author that I read had the f-word liberally spread on the pages. I never bought another book by that author.

  6. Thank you for this perspective. I believe my contemporary novella doesn't sell because the cursing is a turn-off to would-be readers. The contradictions regarding what audiences want / like still surprise me; in my primary genre of historical fiction, violence and warfare - absolutely, sex scenes - not so much.

  7. It's good to see such a lively discussion here! I'm still on the road, so you won't see many responses from me, but please keep chatting.

  8. Romantic or humorous mysteries might not need profanity (loved Hit or Missus). I write and read the darker, grittier thrillers and have no problem with the F word. Although I don't spread it throughout my novels like sprinkles on ice-cream, I use it wherever it fits. I read a legal thriller not that long ago with a badass villain and not one single f-bomb throughout the book. I never picked up another by this author because it just didn't ring true.

  9. Ain't that funny, Jenny? You not reading another because of the complete lack of realistic profanity and me not reading another by an author because of his over-indulgence.

    Btw, the major profanity in his book occurred among police officers. So I asked a couple of police officers I knew to read the book without telling them why. Neither one of them wanted to finish it because of the extreme vulgarity. They both said that they never heard anything that extreme in their workplace. One was in Long Beach, California and the other in Denver.

  10. Interesting you mention this topic, Gayle. Working on my current WIP, I decided to be more mindful about dropping the F-bomb. The reason was, a reader asked if my books have a lot of profanity. She said she hates the F-word in books. I'd never really thought much about it before. What I found in trying to hold back was that the dialogue felt unrealistic and kind of stilted. The fact is we depict real life and in real life, most people cuss. Plain and simple. .

  11. Less is more, in my opinion.
    A) People have been writing quite quality without bleepable words for centuries.
    B) If you write how people REALLY talk, it will um, like, be, um, y'know, unreadable.
    C) If you write a smashingly good story, won't that count more than any other factor?

  12. I like to use profanity to define the character as well as the feelings. And, as a matter of principle, I challenged myself a long time ago to not use the F-bomb. There have been numerous times I've been tempted, but always, when I dug deeper, was able to accomplish my same purpose with the use of the word.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.