Thursday, March 25, 2010

Constant Cussing

*Warning* Rant ahead. Watch out for hyperbole and melodrama.

Before I get started, I want to make sure it's clear that I don't have a problem with most swearing in YA books. Even though I would never personally drop the big F, etc., I don't mind books that have it or other kinds of language I don't use. I get the arguments for authenticity to character and "how teens speak." I am not calling for a blanket censorship of all YA literature.

I just have a few pet peeves, and I'm in the mood to rant about them.

In some of my reading, I've come across a few seriously cuss-laden books. I mean, like, the f-bomb on every page kind of thing. And while that word kind of makes my blood curdle, that's not the major gripe I have with constant swearing. No, my problem is much, much more nerdy.

The REPETITION! For the love of copyediting—the word repetition KILLS me.

We as writers spend ridiculous amounts of time removing excessive that, was, just, even, like, has, and other verbal ticks like adverbs and favorite adjectives and quantifiers from our writing. We know that when people read, those kind of repetitious words and phrases stick out and mess with the flow of a reading experience.

Why does cussing sometimes get such an obvious free pass?

To me, swearing is like caviar or a really good bleu cheese—a little goes a long way. You don't need it on every page to establish your book's tone. It just gets old, honestly. And then when a writer uses it when it should have had weight, it doesn't. It's just filler. "Edgy" filler.

Which brings me to another annoying aspect of constant cussing. It feels like the writer was like "Oh, I need to make my book edgier, because it's fairly clean and fun and I want to be cool and dark and edgy. I got it! I'll just throw the f-word in there."

Bam. Insta-edgy. Or really transparent and unnecessary, depending on how you look at it.

People talk all the time about how we as YA writers shouldn't exactly mimic "teen speak," right? You'd get reamed for littering your manuscript with a never-ending string of "like, totally epic, omg." Yes, there should be a flavor of accessible, youthful speech, but it just can't be 100% accurate. It would be painful to read. Shouldn't the same thing apply to cussing?

Again, I'm not saying there should be no cussing in YA, I just hope those who do use it with thought and not just because "that's how teens speak" or "I want to make my book edgy." A good example to me? Lisa McMann's WAKE series. While there is definitely strong language, it feels as if she put thought into placement, and it's not constantly smacking you across the face every page. It works. It feels right for the characters. And yet it's not overdone. Bravo, Lisa.

I'm just saying, like with all writing, moderation is important. Really thinking about your words and why you're using them is key.

52 comments:

  1. Yep, yep, yep! This is what I wrote in my blog last year about this:

    I think that profanity on the page is much like the use of language like "um, ah, well..." It reads very differently from how it sounds in real life, and authors ignore this dichotomy at their own peril. For example, I can say "um" five times in a single sentence in casual conversation and not necessarily sound like an inarticulate, hesitant moron (depending on speed and context) but you better believe that it will look that way if transcribed directly to the page. (Note again how this can result in a difference in the use of profanity among fiction writers and screen writers.)

    As a general rule, in my own day-to-day life I don't give a $^!# about profanity, and I've been known to use profanity like it's &*@%-ing punctuation. But there's only one f-bomb in my novel. Because that's the number it NEEDS.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I totally agree, and not just for YA but for all books everywhere.

    Just because your book is for mainstream adults doesn’t mean I want to sit there and read your character drop the F bomb every other word. It’s like the author is thinking, “Okay, my book is for adults, so I am allowed to use swear language. Awesome. Now every single one of my characters—even the nun, no *especially* the nun—will curse like sailors.”

    Blarg. It gets old, quick. I laughed out loud at your compliant at the repetition but you’re right. Nothing in your book should get repeated over and over, not character description, not swearing, nothing.

    Also, I wanted to recommend “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott to you if you haven’t already read it. She talks about writing, and publishing, and small assignments, and I thought about you while I read it over the weekend. It made me feel better about the whole publication rat race, and it might help you too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree. We aren't supposed to mimic exactly how ANYONE speaks, but write a shortened, more focused version of people's speech patterns. That's why all the drawn-out social niceties aren't included in a novel unless for effect.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I totally agree and I use swear words daily when I speak but in my manuscript I have maybe 3 or 4. And that was because the situation definitely called for it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I completely agree, and I actually cuss - mind you it's something I'm working on quitting, but still. Even I think using cuss words over and over again is repetitive and distracts from the writing.

    If I have to plow through half a dozen f-bombs every other page, I'm going to give up and decide that the book isn't worth it because the author was just trying to make his/her stuff look flashy and cool to make up for quality writing.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Well, I don't think cussing is ever a necessity, but I get that people think it's authentic or whatever. However, do we really need to read it over and over again ad nauseum? I don't think so. PLEASE editors, edit those books!!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I agree that cussing can get distracting. My current WiP has one swear word in it at the moment. To me, it serves to emphasize the frustration my character is feeling at the moment. There's not another swear word to be found anywhere in what's been written so far.

    The same goes for any word, too. (I'm agreeing here but in a roundabout and wordy fashion.) It's definitely one of the hardest parts of revising for me.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Too much of anything is a bad thing. I live with a mouthy sailor so I know what you mean. Not enough soap in the world to clean it up.
    Having said that, there are circumstances when it feels true to character.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Whew, I'm so glad I'm not the only one. Thanks, guys:)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I love the way you cut straight to the essentials.

    Repetition is clearly not a good idea, and when strong language is repeated it loses all its punch. (And I've seen good writers suggest strong language without ever using the words that offend them.)

    ReplyDelete
  11. I find the same in plays and films (and movie channel series)... in fact, some cussing takes the show over, and when characters really have something to cuss about, the audience has become so desensitized to the words that we have no way to see the change.

    If I'm in doubt about a word, I just FIND it... and if I have 50 of them in ten chapters, I've gone way overboard. I suggest the same exercise with my students, even on constructions like "There are," for such repetitions get boring no matter what words are used.

    Great post! Love the rant!

    ReplyDelete
  12. good points on how it seems like editing rules change for curse words. I for one believe less is more in this case.

    ReplyDelete
  13. HA! Love it. I just read Kirsten's post on the same topic and this was my exact feeling on it. REPETITION! No one wants to read the same word over and over again, swear word or not. There are books and authors I love that repeat the same, often lesser-known or adverb-tastic words CHAPTERS apart from each other and every time it pops up it still erks me. It's like its *their* word. Sometimes author feel that fondness to the swear. I don't know why. Swearing should be thought of just like any other descriptor. It is a punctuation, after all. Any sentence is fine without an F-bomb. It's there for emphasis. If I used "great" every moment I wanted to illustrate how great something was, I'd be dragged into the street by an editor and shot!

    Of course, without over-excessive F-bombing, there would be no Pulp Fiction. And this would be a sad, sad world.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I love that last line Natalie. It is thinking about the words and why you are using them. Thanks for the reminder. =)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Great post.

    A lot of YA books remind me of the movies that came out right after nudity and cursing became "okay" in film. There's a period of 10 years or so where both were absolutely gratuitous, like the writers were handed a new toy they didn't know what to do with. Coarse language replaced "like" and "you know" (colorful adjectives, as Mr. Spock called them ;-) )and clothes flew off of their own free will for no real reason.

    Current YA is a lot like that at the moment.

    Somehow coarse language/explicit material has become synonymous with "edgy" and edgy sells. So, now you've got otherwise decent authors trying to outdo each other with how they can debase their characters. (And in most cases, it does come off as debasing.)

    Colin Farrell can pull off an F-bomb every 4th word without it sounding offensive; it's just the way he talks. But, your average YA protag isn't Colin Farrell.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Very true, Natalie! It's a double standard, and an abrasive one at that.

    ReplyDelete
  17. 100% AGREE! It is a double standard. And if there's gonna be repetition, I'd much rather it be something not as vulgar.

    And you are definitely NOT the only one who feels this way. I think a lot of people do--maybe even the majority.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hee. I'm right there with you, as well, and I am by no means conservative in my choice of swears in daily life. I've been known to grumble quite a few explicatives when frustrated.

    Even so, I dislike the constant use of swear words, both in real life and in writing. The repetition definitely gets to me, but also... just the flat-out lack of creativity. These are supposed to be words that pack an impact, but that impact is totally lost when they're overused.

    I also *might* have a teensy bit of a complex from my parents from when I was a kid. They instilled the idea that swearing is always low-brow and even trashy. I've moved beyond that now (obviously trashy people are not the only people that swear), but man, that still gets me sometimes.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I just left a comment rather like your post over at Kiersten's cussing post. I think cussing is often used in writing for the shock factor-- and I like to think I'm a good enough writer that I don't need to use shock to get people to read my books. At least not the cussing kind of shock. I personally prefer plot shock. :)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Well said, Natalie. I like your point about cussing getting a free pass. Great point-it can be ridiculously repetitive.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Great post. Definitely something some authors need as a reminder.

    Of course, I'm sure we all know people who talk that way. Every time I hear someone dropping excessive f-bombs, I want to beat them about the head with a dictionary.

    Even when I'm the one doing it. ^_^

    ReplyDelete
  22. I find it interesting in online communities when some late-teens, twentyish, or even older people feel the need to use gutter language in order to prove to themselves/the world that they are now "adults" and start labeling themselves "mature" or "adult". Conversely, I think people who actually are mature adults wouldn't be out to prove to themselves/others that they are, and just be responsible members of society. But anyway, I guess how this pertains to writing is that overuse of swearing is a cop-out and "telling" is that someone is a bad-boy instead of showing us through the character's actions.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I don't have a problem with cussing, and I certainly do plenty of it in my daily life. Of course, as with anything, there's a different when it's done well. As a previous commenter stated, what would Pulp Fiction be with the F-bomb?

    I noticed you mostly just mentioned the F-bomb in particular--just a pet peeve? I guess when people think edgy, they think F*. Personally, I find all uses of f* a bit stilted, even when I say it in real life. A couple of my characters swear plenty, but they're more colorful. And it also puts them in stark contrast to the ones who don't even say darn.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I agree! It seems like censorship should go both ways. I can't stop someone from saying a curse word, but I have to listen to it. Seems like the courteous thing to do would be to not make me listen.

    I guess this is the part where someone says, "You don't have to read it if you don't want to." I'm not so bad that I black out the words, but my mom does.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Yup, I agree with you all the way.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I agree whole heartedly. The use of profanity to show how dramatic a situation is can give the "word" a home. But when words fly like gnats at a Sunday picnic I think caution should be used. I personally find it to be a very uneducated way of writing. It makes a character look bad and I think it closes your audience into a smaller group of people. If those are things you want... then hey, go for it!

    ReplyDelete
  27. I'm glad you said it. It bothers me, but I always thought it was just because cussing bothers me. But you're right - it's more about the repetition. It disrupts the story.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Courtney Summers is the queen of accurate portrayal of modern teen speak without having it grate on your nerves.

    Check out Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Great points, Natalie! I agree with you, even with adult fiction. Just because something's adult doesn't mean it has to have the f-bomb in it on every page.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Thank you! It's EXACTLY what needed to be said because of all those things we do. Just like you said:

    "We as writers spend ridiculous amounts of time removing excessive that, was, just, even, like, has, and other verbal ticks."

    AMEN, Natalie.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Good post. Repetition bugs me in genreal, not even just with swearing or even books. I don't mind the occasional repeat like some people on twitter do with wipfire. But I don't like an overdose. This is particular with poems. Repeated lines, and especially the title a few times in the poem bugs me.

    I mean, there are so many words out there. Come one people, use some of them!
    (I need to work on this too. I see that I used "just" again in this post. Must learn and grow.)

    ReplyDelete
  32. I'm not perfect in my daily language, though in general, I keep it pretty clean, but excessive cussing on the page really bugs me. A little here and there won't make me put down a good book or even think less of the writing, but too much just seems lazy--like a cheap way of creating characterization when you can't think of anything else for your character to say. If I had a valley girl character I think my readers would tire of my writing very quickly if I used "like" in every other sentence she uttered. I don't think there's much difference with swearing. 0% accurate speech.

    Plus it's kind of inconsiderate in my opinion. Again, I'm not the perfect person to make this argument, but it really does offend some people, so I think if you want your book to be widely accessible, it's a good idea to be mindful of your audience. I think you can respect your readers while still keeping authenticity in your books. I know there are those who disagree with me and I have no problem with that, but that's my two cents.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I'm with you. I don't mind cussing in YA, as long as it's there for a good reason and the pages aren't saturated with it. Otherwise it reads like an Eddie Murphy movie in the 80's. Pointless.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I agree.

    Also, I must say, throwing in the f word every page doesn't seem like authentic teen speak to me. I know a bunch of teens who use the word sometimes and several who make liberal use of it, but almost every teen recognizes that there's a time and a place for such language, and often YA books aren't set in those times and places. In the presence of a teacher, for example, most would have the sense to keep that word in their heads.

    Throwing that word around willy-nilly is hardly an accurate representation of teen-human vocabulary.

    ReplyDelete
  35. oh, couldn't agree more. It's hardly ever necessary, in my opinion. Less is more. A great book can be written w/ only a little.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Cussing all the time shows limited vocab to me, as a person and as a writer.

    And overuse of cuss words can turn an otherwise enjoyable story into "is it over yet?"

    One of my favourite movies of all time is "A Bronx Tale". The first time I watched it was on TNT. They showed it every other month or so and I never missed it.

    Then when I was in the US, I bought the DVD. Cussing every 10 seconds! TNT had cut all of it out. The PG version I love, but I can't get through the DVD. :(

    ReplyDelete
  37. Oh man. This post sent me into a joint-abusing round of repetitive word-weeding. I blogged about it in a post that should probably be called "Thank You Natalie Whipple for the Wrist Whipping."

    Seriously, thanks for the editing hints. Now I have RSI. But a much less wordy WIP.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Hi Natalie! I'm a new follower and wanted to introduce myself. Congrats on your successes and most awesome representation!

    I don't write YA, but I think your post applies across the board in all genres of literature. Excessive cussing simply stands off the page so much that I believe it distracts a reader in the same way that using too many similes will, or overusing exclamation points. Authenticity is key to engaging your readers, but characters that drop the f-bomb in every sentence come across gimmicky and unbelievable -- in any genre.

    Great post, and I look forward to reading more from you!

    ReplyDelete
  39. My 15 year old daughter has a cleaner tongue than I do and we laugh about it. She doesn't dislike books with cuss words in them, but she is a very moral girl--my Alex Keaton-- and before I'd put any book out there to the world, I'd run it by her as a YA. She is currently reading a CP's YA draft and my CP values her insights tremendously. She even caught a characterization shift that didn't make sense and then an editor agreed with my daughter later on during a conference.

    Teens are smart. Throwing in cuss words or unwanted pregnancies just to up the ante isn't going to cut it.

    ReplyDelete
  40. I did a little research about this for a project for my MFA and I was feeling so outnumbered, but I keep teaching it in my own creative writing class anyway--including, yep, just this past Tuesday before I saw this. I actually don't like any profanity, but as far as teaching other people about good writing, this is what I tell them. It's not creative! Hello! Thanks for your post.

    ReplyDelete
  41. I'm not a fan of cussing at all... I think it's very cliche-- I try not to say things the same way other people do (ever!) and cussing is SO bandwagon. But even if you don't mind a little (or your're trying to illustrate that your character is a follower)... you are so right about the repetitiveness. I didn't give Stephanie Meyer a free pass for "grimace" and I'm not handing them out for any other word either!

    ReplyDelete
  42. Though my Mormon brother's a bit too prudent for some of the things I write, he's still a nice litmus test. I just don't send any of the horror his way :)

    ReplyDelete
  43. Heh, I agree... and I JUST blogged about this two weeks ago :)

    ReplyDelete
  44. Thanks for this post because I have literally stayed awake at night wondering about this. My book involves a certain brand of characters that definitely swear like sailors in real life (although NOT sailors) and I've been wondering how to capture the flavor without having the f-bomb in every line of dialogue.

    ReplyDelete
  45. I have a problem with those who say they have no problem with cussing. What's their problem? In most cases they would not cuss themselves, preferring instead to cash in on the substrata of milder shock value that comes with not being shocked by cussing.
    I do not have a problem with those who think I have a problem with those who have this problem.
    And I do agree that repetition can be a real problem.
    What the F*** is THEIR problem?!
    :-) Rich

    ReplyDelete
  46. Great post! I'd also like to nominate Nancy Werlin's The Killer's Cousin for best use of the F-word for maximum literary impact.

    ReplyDelete
  47. I definitely agree. I read a book recently where cursing was used so pervasively that, the few times it was actually used for effect, it completely lost any use.

    ReplyDelete
  48. This posting is exactly right. A little goes a long way. And you don't even have to use the actual word - make one up if you're writing a SciFi or Fantasy on another world. They wouldn't use our cuss words, anyway. That's how Battlestar Galactica handled it. Of course, they used it WAY too much.

    ReplyDelete