2.26.2014

Foul Language in Writing. And Cracking the Twitter

There are two separate topics I want to address that are only marginally related, but I thought they should share the same blog space.

First, a little missive about that other ubiquitous social network, Twitter.


Since I've been taking a hiatus from Facebook, I've been tweeting a lot more to fill the gaping gab-hole left in my life. Previously, my average use would equate to maybe 7-10 tweets a week. Now I'm doing at least that much a day. Because if I can't shout things at myself in a crowded room on the off-chance someone might hear me, I can't be happy. Clearly.

Self-deprecating sarcasm aside, I've long felt the service has been a great way to stay in touch with fellow writers and industry types as well as participating in current events in real time. While I've been on the service since 2007, this is maybe the first time I've devoted any significant daily effort to it. Normally, I would pop on a few times a week, see what people were chatting about or if anything major was happening in the media, share a blog or alert the "world" to any sales I might be having on Kindle, and then head back to the Cheers bar of Facebook, where everybody knows my name. As a result, I have not gained much of a Twitter following. Up until the beginning of February, I was sitting right around 640 followers, give or take. Not really great. As of this writing, I have 715. Still not really great, but I'm edging ever closer to 1000, and I think with more concerted daily interactions with other users, I can get there soon enough.

The thing about social networks, and it doesn't matter which one it is in this instance, is that in order to receive its fullest benefits, you really have to engage with  it. You have to indicate an active presence so that others feel compelled to pay attention to what you have to say. In other words, you have to be SOCIAL. Go figure. I have found that by updating Twitter almost as much as I updated Facebook, things have improved exponentially. Though I intend to return to Facebook soon, I am pretty sure Twitter will remain my primary social network from now on. It's less addictive--I can't seem to spend more than a few minutes at a time there--and I've noticed fewer opportunities for personal drama. There are other ways to improve your exposure there, like the strategic use of hashtags and maybe using more visual media to catch eyeballs, but it still boils down to just one simple rule: use the damn thing.


Anyway, this leads me to my next topic: bad writing advice. It's always been a perennial thing on Twitter. Writers love writing blogs about writing. I've written a lot of them, mostly as a salve for my chapped ass after being exposed to writers who are dumb. It's not like the idiots who most need to read said blogs are actually reading them. In fact, due to the cognitive dissonance that's as prevalent in the author community as chlamydia in a low end fraternity, the idiots generally think you're not talking about them. But preach to the choir we must. Recently, someone posted a blog entitled something along the lines of "Bad Habits Writers Should Break."

Being of the mind that I might still have a few bad writer habits, and because I was curious whether someone had come up with something different from the standard fare, I took the clickbait. And initially, I noticed nothing new. Stop using so many adverbs, turn off your internet, don't leave projects unfinished, show don't tell, don't edit while you write. Blah blah blah. Anyone who's a writer has heard these things a million times, promptly convinced themselves that none of these things apply to them (even if they do) and moved on.

But there was one item on the list that stuck out like a bucket of farts at a perfume convention: the use of foul language. As in, using swear words in a story is a bad writer habit.

Cue the squealing tires or the needle being ripped across a record sound.

Huh?

I had to read it a couple times to make sure I was even understanding it right. Did the person mean writers themselves shouldn't cuss so much, or did he mean writers shouldn't write so many cuss words? Either way, I was pretty taken aback by the whole thing, so I left a comment asking for clarification. I said I hope he didn't mean writers shouldn't use foul language in their work, because it isn't supposed to be about what we the writers believe is right or wrong language. It's about what the characters would say given their backgrounds and peccadilloes.

The author responded that he was "old school" and didn't believe swearing was acceptable in any arena.

Again, I had to take a step back in order to keep my bulging eyeballs from hitting the screen. Was he really serious? Swearing is unacceptable in ANY arena? I wonder what Martin Scorsese would have to say about that? Most of his movies would be rendered silent if we removed all instances of the world "fuck." I wonder how a New York cabbie would respond. Would he tell this person to go fuck himself or to kindly engage in auto-relations with his hand? Would a high school delinquent tell him to eat shit or poo-poo? Does this author's own work read like a network television broadcast of The Big Lebowski where all the cuss words have been censored, leaving an angry Walter to tell young Larry what happens when he finds a stranger in the Alps?

The thing is, writers, you NEVER WANT TO DO THIS. I don't give a lot of emphatic writing advice these days. I've generally recused myself from the Great Adverb Kerfuffle, and as for other mechanical things, I think those can be addressed only after someone becomes a better storyteller first. Writers need an opportunity to find their art, and it's only after they've done that and feel comfortable with habitually creating things that I feel it's a good time to give some more technical direction. Do it too soon, and you can snuff out the spark. Too late, and you'd have better luck shaping rock with water from a dripping faucet.


But the best way to make sure you get comfortable with your voice is to actually USE IT, regardless of what it might sound like. And most importantly, do not EVER under any circumstance let your own personal views intrude on your story or your characters' actions if the story dictates they must do something that runs counter to them. You personally might not like swearing, but that doesn't mean some of your characters would agree. I personally don't like killing people, but some of my characters do that too. Your moral or linguistic predilections have NO ROOM on your manuscript page. None. If you're impeding your ability to tell the truth--the whole, real, unfettered, ugly truth--about the people in your stories, you should stop writing fiction right now, because no one wants to read a bunch of dishonest, self-censored, sterile tripe.

You will have characters who swear.

You will have characters who lie.

You will have characters who steal.

You will have characters who kill.

You will have characters who are annoying little assholes that no one likes.

As long as you have characters who do all these things, and they're fleshed out enough to make the reader latch onto them and go along for the ride whether they're likable or not, you're doing well for yourself. That's the hard truth of writing. Buck up, buttercup, because there is no room for weak stomachs in this business. And if a few readers complain that your language is foul (like has happened to me a few times)? Fuck em. The ones who will appreciate you told the truth, even if it was difficult to see or hear, will always outnumber the prudes.