The problem with being a clean writer

While writing How I Met Your Brother, I wrote a scene where the main character and her ex-best friend have a confrontation. In it, the ex-best friend is furious and she calls the main character a name. Due to her rage, it’s a bad name.

I wrote this post on facebook:

Moral dilemma. I’m writing an adult book instead of my usual YA–although I’m sure a lot of teen readers will read the book. I have one character angrily call someone a backstabbing whore. Is whore too strong of a word? I have so many mothers tell me that they hand my books to their twelve year old daughters without reading them first because they trust me. I’m honored, but at the same time, sometimes that sort of trust is hard to live up to. Bad characters say bad things. On the other hand, authors don’t have to put those words in their readers minds. I’m wondering if whore should be on that list. Thoughts?

I got a lot of comments ranging from, “I think it’s fine. Kids hear much worse at school.” to “You’re going to burn in someplace hot.”

Okay, I made up that last comment.  Here’s a real one: Why are you having a character call another character such names? I don’t know your work, but this is a major turnoff for me. Too vitriolic.

I understand  people who want clean books. I don’t swear myself, so really, I get it. I’m always telling would-be authors to avoid swearing if at all possible. Swearing limits your audience. Some people won’t read books with swearing, but no one has ever written me to say that my books could have used more cursing.

I guess I was just wondering if people considered the word ‘whore’ in the same category as swearing. Apparently many people do.

But this whole thing highlights one of the major difficulties for clean writers. Many people in the world don’t have our values. Villains especially don’t have our values. In some books, I write about characters who kill other people. I don’t condone that behavior. I’m not encouraging it. Just like I’m not encouraging anyone to call someone a backstabbing whore. If we wrote stories and pretended that everyone had our values, our stories would ring false. Plus they’d be very boring. Everyone would try to get along.

But then again, where does one draw the line of acceptability? As authors, we bend reality by the very nature of writing. We don’t write scenes where people go to the bathroom, pick their nose or flatulent. Those details aren’t needed and no one wants to read them. Do we need to put in swearing to be authentic?

Also, I can write about killing someone, and I haven’t really become a murderer. But if I swear in a book, I’ve really done it. Which is why I don’t swear in books. Well, that, and my children would never let me live it down. But is name calling the same? Where does one draw that line? Is skank acceptable but  whore isn’t? Why do we have stronger reactions to some words than we do to other words that mean the same thing?

At this point you may be wondering if I decided to use the word in question or not. So here’s the truth.

Today while writing, I realized the plot needed some changes, and I cut the scene.Yep. Turns out I didn’t need to open that can of worms on Facebook at all.

So, carry on internet folks, carry on. All is well.

 


Comments

The problem with being a clean writer — 29 Comments

  1. What about the B word in a scene that an even stronger word would more likely be said? Oh, and what about hell? I do try to stay away from them, but sometimes the character (policeman or villain) would look weak if a milder word was used (like heck or bimbo). These words have been strategically placed, and changed if possible. They are Christian books, so I do try to watch it. More PG13 rating.

    • That is the conundrum. Hardened characters would swear in certain situations. I generally get around it by saying that a character cursed and then put in the dialog. But that only works if a character doesn’t swear during the dialog. And some characters absolutely would. I had a character say “dang” once in one of my YA novels and my editor pointed out that the character wouldn’t say dang. He would use a stronger word. So I had to write around it. It was a little awkward. This is the reason that I will probably not ever write a book with a lot of hardened characters. Personally, a little mild swearing in books doesn’t bother me a lot as a reader (probably because I hear so much worse other places)But some people don’t want any swearing and I respect that too. That would be the ideal world, wouldn’t it?

  2. I’m glad things worked out to your satisfaction. I’m happy about your decision, too. I used to read a very well known national author whose books I adored because the characters were so well developed and some were hilarious. They were murder mysteries, my favorites, but not graphic. But the series had a flaw. Some of her characters swore horribly. I justified reading her books for quite a long time. I’d skip over the offensive words and would say the dialogue is just true to that character. I can ignore it. But the reality was I was planting those words in my brain. I never verbally used them but when things upset me, those words came to my mind. That’s when I knew I had to give up reading those books. Consequently, my reading options are quite limited. So I am grateful to so many wonderful LDS authors and others who produce compelling and delightful books but don’t use offensive swear words. It truly doesn’t detract from your wonderful novels. Thank you for your efforts to keep your work clean. It is greatly appreciated.

    • Yes–that is exactly the problem I have with swearing in books. When I read swearing, those words pop up into my mind. And although the words haven’t popped out of my mouth, I’m worried that they will. I have a couple of books that I’ve taken a marker to and blacked out the swearwords because I want to reread them, but don’t want to worry about the swearwords.

  3. I personally like vixen… and I completely agree with Jana. My question is: is the girl a whore and is therefore justified to be called that or is it a word that is thrown around to mean other adjectives/nouns/adverbs like all of the other curse words people use. What I’ve always hated about curse words is that they limit what people mean. I’ve heard the f-word used to discuss a hamburger someone was eating.
    A hamburger.

    Sometimes I use the characters’ actions and tone of voice to reflect that the character is cursing because that’s what people would do in that situation. I think that cursing is supposed to emit a feeling so I try to make that feeling known through other methods than just saying curse words.

    Thank you for your hard work in writing clean books for the few of us who still care about what we read.

    • And thanks for reading them! You’re right to point out that if people want to read clean books, we as readers have to support those authors by buying clean books. That’s the only way publishers will keep publishing them.

  4. Hey, Janette!
    When people are exposed to new vocabulary words, those words stick in their minds somewhere, and don’t leave. The more they’re exposed to such words, the more embedded they become, and the more likely they are to think them, and then to use them. I first heard the word Pedagogy in college. At first, I didn’t know what it meant. But over time, through context, I learned what it meant. (It means a personal method or way of teaching a particular concept.) That word is now in my brain, and will never ever go away. I’m fine with pedagogy, because it’s not a bad word, and it’s helpful to have. But there are other words in my brain that I wish weren’t there.
    As a writer, am I okay with exposing my readers to certain words, even if they’ve already heard these words at school or elsewhere? They may hear these words at school from their friends, but it may not have the same impact that hearing it from a trusted adult would have.
    But like you said, whether to use certain words in our writing can be a real dilemma. I’ve got a book I’m slowly working on where one character (a bad one) calls another character a bastard, meaning the literal meaning of the word, because he actually does think the guy is illegitimate. I could change the scene, which I may do, but if it stays, I can’t just say “The guy swore” which is what I’ve done before when bad people cuss. Because that particular word is a necessary and meaning-carrying part of what he’s saying. But do I, as a writer, really want my readers reading that?
    Like you said, writers can write about murder without being murderers, or horse stealing, or bank robbing, for that matter, without being guilty of those actual crimes. But if there’s swearing in books, it’s there because WE chose to put it there.
    Incidentally, it says a lot about your character, Janette, that you are concerned about such things. You’re a great example to me.

  5. I don’t know, you’re giving a lot of power to these words by tiptoeing around them.

    I used not to swear at all, because I didn’t want to talk differently to my grandmother than I did to my friends. Then I wanted to set a good example to my daughter (who still started swearing like a trooper during her teens). Then I wrote a book with a couple of characters who used bad language, and having resisted all my life, I picked it up from them.

  6. While I wouldn’t have a problem with the phrase “backstabbing whore”, I also completely get what you’re after. The difficulty between what bad guys, or angry good guys would actually say, and what you’re willing to let teens read is a wide one. Even though your book is aimed at grown-ups doesn’t mean only grown-ups are going to get their hands on it. I like the option of writing that he cursed, without being specific. I’ve been re-reading Harry Potter lately, and it often says that Ron “said a word” or “made a gesture” that his mother would take exception to in some way. I am also reading Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where Alan Dean Foster wrote to the effect that the character let loose a stream of profanity that would be unprintable on any civilized planet – and left the choice of words to the readers’ imaginations. Sometimes, like you did, the scene can be cut. Sometimes, you can sub in a milder form of the word. Sometimes there is no other word that will do. And sometimes, you can work around it. At any rate, the choice is always the author’s (or sometimes the character’s), and the situation is different for every scene of every book.

  7. What I teach in my communication classes: Words are arbitrary symbols used to represent objects and concepts. Word meaning is found in PEOPLE — in their life experiences and interactions with objects and concepts. Your Facebook post is a wonderful example of this concept, as well as the different levels of meaning people have (denotative, connotative). I loved going through all the comments to discover the varied levels of meaning people had. It’s a shame some take personal offense at deep levels of meaning they have not experienced personally.

    • Excellent point. To me, the F-bomb is heavy stuff. I always feel taken aback when I hear it. But some people use the word in practically every sentence. It seems to be the only adjective they know. Obviously, it doesn’t have the same strength to them. When I hear someone who constantly swears in casual conversation, I wonder what they say when they’re really mad. I mean, there’s no other words for them to pull out and use. Must be frustrating.

      • I didn’t realize how that word affected me until one day when I was riding the train with a group of people who used it every two or three words and I felt myself jerk every time. It was a relief when we came to my stop and I could get off.

  8. I’ve had this problem and I’m not even published, so, I think it must be universal to clean writers everywhere 🙂 For what it’s worth, I’m glad you try to keep things as clean as you can. While a little bit doesn’t bother me (usually) I’d definitely rather read something without any at all, which does make it more difficult for the authors.

  9. You’re also dealing with a self selecting audience who brings their own experience and opinion to the party. Why is a word a ‘swear’ word? It’s because of the power it is given within a particular group or culture. My husband served his mission in South Africa where hell and damn were not swear words, not culturally, not taught as such in LDS meetings. It was just common usage. I visited Glasgow several times and again, total difference because there is no weight behind those words. Think of how many made up fantasy curses there are which are used in books all the time and no one blinks because it’s ‘made up’, even though the characters may be using that curse to say something awful to or about another person. So it’s a judgement call for the author. I have a hard and fast list of words that for ME are uncomfortable to use, so I don’t use them. Other than that I write what’s true to the character and the scene and let it go. If people are looking to be offended over one term or another they can almost always find SOMETHING to object to. My job as an author is to be true to myself first. I also find it amusing that people will accept a LOT as far as violence, or difficult content, but will get all up in arms over the word damn.

    • I taught Sunday school to eight-year-olds once. Any time I used the word hell–describing the place, mind you, not swearing–they were all quite aghast. They didn’t seem to get the concept that it wasn’t a swearword if you were describing the actual place. I think I had to settle on: the place where the devil lives.

      • This spring while substitute-teaching in a third grade class, one of the assignments involved looking up words in the dictionary, and some of the students were shocked to find the word hell listed. I tried to explain that it’s not always a bad word but doubt I convinced them.

  10. I love this post! It is so true. I am willing to read books that sometimes push my envelope. I have never sworn, and while I may not be offended by a few of the softer words, or can skim over a scene I dont love, I would not be as quick to hand the book to my kid. I love your books! I love that they are clean but I still feel all of the same reactions I would get from another non-clean book. That is what makes your writing so great. I can get all of those emotions without the negative excess. The word however I dont feel is too much 😉 Write on, oh wise one!

  11. You just need to default to my most-used insult: Meanie-headed jerk-face. It would fly perfectly naturally out of the most hardened of characters, and would most definitely not break the mood of the argument at all.

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