Thursday, October 6, 2011

Keep It Clean-er

Perhaps I'm just an old fuddy-duddy, but the gutter language used in too many modern books turns me off. It's not that I don't understand the words, I do. My background as an Army officer and a wannabe jock have introduced me to about every nasty word any person can dream up—in several languages.
My new book, THORNS ON ROSES, features an avenging PI stalking a gang. I use multiple POVs, including the gang leader's, to tell the story. But what I don't use is gutter language. If anyone reads THORNS and not understand the ruthlessness of the situations because there are no F-bombs dropped, please let me know, and I'll send you a package of them to sprinkle in wherever you think they're needed.
We hear at every level of the writing education process that we MUST not use clichés. Yet, all too often, I open a book and am assaulted by the most common clichés in our language—the F-bomb in all its alterations—noun, verb, adjective, and I'm sure someday soon, adverb. Why? I ask myself. Isn't the author taking the lazy way out by peppering the pages with the most overused of the gutter words?
One of the justifications I hear is we must be realistic in our writing and the use of the F-bomb is part of that realism. It's not a bad argument. I'm not much on fairy-tale writing, so I can accept that argument—up to a point. However when I read, I have an extra eye and an extra ear in my head that translate the words on the page. If, for example, I expect a character to speak in dialect, he/she will—no matter the words the author uses. There is a very popular character who has been around for between ten and fifteen years. When I read one of those books, that character speaks in dialect, no doubt about it. Yet, when I examine the words, they are properly spelled and used with proper grammar. That's my mind's eye and my mind's ear at work.
A couple of years ago, I decided to put my theory to the test. Did I really see and hear words that were not written on the page? I went back and read a few of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series. I don't think anyone will argue with me when I say Mike Hammer is one of the nastiest PIs ever written, if not the nastiest. He cuts no one any slack—good guy, bad guy, or beautiful woman. His language is basic, driving straight to the point as he explains what he will do, then does it. When I finished I, THE JURY, I sat back and thought I might be wrong about my beliefs. But when I went back through the book studying the language Spillane used, I discovered I was right. Not one foul word in the whole book. Yet, the writing was so strong, my mind's eye and mind's ear put them into the mouths of the characters.
What I'm saying is when you have the urge to insert an F-bomb, stop and find a stronger way to write it. Don't become a slave to cliché-ridden gutter language to paint your characters.
Again, I invite you read my THORNS ON ROSES. Let your mind's eye see the Thorns on Roses gang. Let your mind's ear listen to them talk. Then look at the words I use. I think you'll see what I'm talking about.

Randy Rawls
THORNS ON ROSES, a South Florida thriller


Morgan Mandel said...

I admit to injecting some gutter language for the bad guys in my books, but overdoing it loses its effect. Best to use it sparingly and only in character.

If a book is riddled with F-bombs, I pass on reading it.

Morgan Mandel

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I think it depends on the market and what is expected. Certain authors and publishers believe that if the work is to be noir, it has to be graphic in terms of language.

I don't necessarily agree with them. But, the same word in a book that is considered noir is not going to provoke the reaction in me that it would if I ran across it in a cozy.

I don't read books because they do or do not contain certain language. I read books to get lost in the story.


Earl Staggs said...

Hear, hear, Randster. You said what I've felt for a long time and you said it well. I'll toss a book if there's an overuse of foul language just for effect. I'll also walk away from people who do it in real life conversation. Yes, I used the F bomb in my first novel. I wouldn't have been true to the character not to let him talk as he naturally would. He said it six times in the book. That was enough to serve the purpose.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Randy. I don't use the F word and find it offensive in other people's books, although I've used a few damns and hells when I thought it was in character. :)

Susan Oleksiw said...

Your post talks about something I have been struggling with because of a new character I'm writing about. What is most impressive to me is your rereading of Spillane and close analysis of his language. I think you're right about writing the sentences so that the threat and tension are inherent in the language rather than telegraphed by certain loaded words. This is challenging, but I like it.

Mike Dennis said...

Good post, Randy. Spillane avoided profanity, not because his mind was pure, but because it was generally forbidden to publish novels with profanity back in those days. You may be sure that if he were coming up today, Mike Hammer novels would contain profanity and plenty of it.

I see nothing wrong with it. I have my limits, of course, as do most people, but I don't think an author should be swayed not to use profanity for fear of offending readers. The author should be free to write whatever he or she chooses and let the READERS decide. Let's face it: what is too much profanity for you may well be not enough for someone else.

Profanity is not "gutter language". Many people who live far from the gutter use it, some quite frequently and to great effect. Like it or not, it has its place, and frankly, I would dare say more people use it today than not.

The marketplace is where this issue should be decided, not in the fevered moral outrage of the PC Police. Fortunately, we live in a society where material containing profanity CAN be sold.

Mark Troy said...

This is an intersection of market and art. Nobody buys a book for the profanity and some readers will refuse to buy it for the same reason, so you need to keep your readers in mind when you write. Is there a successful writer who doesn't? Spillane probably had to work with his editor's guidelines about what his market would accept. The other side of the issue is the art. Artists have to be true to their characters and their story. To paraphrase Ben Bova, being an artist means you can't avert your gaze. You have to tell life as you see it. I tend to gravitate to authors who take me somewhere I've never been with people I don't know, outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes the language they use can be shocking.