Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How clean is the language in your novel?

This is the Nebula Award. It's cool. I want one.
Every once in a while, I read a post written by an author who believes that swear words, vulgarity, and sex should not be in a novel. Usually these posts come from prudish or religious individuals who have somehow gotten it into their heads that by doing so, it somehow helps their "sales".

I have just one thing to say about that and it has to do with this short story located here.

I suggest that you go and take a look at it. The title is "Spar" and it's by Kij Johnson.

It's a 2009 Nebula winner, was nominated for a Hugo, and was a finalist for a Locus award. In my world, these are amazing credits...awards that I would like to have.

So if you are one of these writers that is afraid to use swear words in your writing, if you are one of those writers that is afraid to portray graphic sex...I think you should ask yourself why.  If the writing demands the use of it, these things are in your toolbox.  To not use them may be the reason why your novel has a flat tire or why your short story is just...meh.

That's just my opinion of course. Take it for what you will.

For the record, I use the "f-bomb" in my book quite often. And yeah, there's one scene of graphic sex. But I'm not marketing my book to kids.  I guess that taking risks in your writing can be the equivalent of sticking your neck out, right? 

"Oh my goodness...what will my family think of me if I show teenagers swearing and having sex?"

What will they think of you indeed?

Have a great Tuesday.


  1. Yep. I can't have my thug saying "oh gosh darn." I don't use much swearing but certainly where appropriate.
    Now sex...I've written a few erotic romances. :D

  2. I think swearing makes novel more original. But of course in balance. And the writer certainly has to think his/her reader. Have you seen this book before? - http://amzn.to/vLP7ZW I haven't read it yet but my friends say it's kinda religious book :)

  3. Well I say...if the word fits...swear it!

  4. As a teenager,I was not allowed to read most English Novels specially by "Harold Robbins" because of the language. We were also not allowed to see American or British or European movies for that reason. Now Bollywood movies have a lot of swears in them and young people who visit us from India know all kinds of swears.

  5. I'm certainly not against swearing. It always finds itself in my daily vocabulary dozens of times. But f I am writing for a younger group I tend to tone it down.
    Sex? Well, if it fits it gets put in depending on the target group. I'm not much for writing it though, can't quite explain it.

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  7. I think you have the write idea--know your audience and then be genuine.

    Working in law enforcement and then reading in that genre, I understand that "creative slang" is a part of it, but as a reader that does not necessarily mean that I want to read a novel where seemingly every other word is one that I don't want to say in front of my kids.

  8. It's funny, because I think pushing too far in either direction cheapens the writing. If you constantly omit swearing when it's the only thing that makes sense it waters everything down. If you use the f-bomb in every sentence it loses its power--watering everything down just like every other overused word.

    Like many have, and probably will, say: If it fits the character and story, use it. Don't worry about the toes you're going to mash or protect by swearing or not.

    WWBD (What Would Bruce Willis Do?) Write free or die hard.


  9. I want a Nebula someday...or a Hugo or a Philip K. Dick award, I don't really care which!

    I didn't have much swearing in my fantasy novel, but in my sci-fi there is a moderate amount. I haven't felt the need for any sex in the stories yet.

  10. I took all the f-bombs out of one story to make it more PG-13 and found I didn't really miss them. At the same time I don't get offended and scream "Won't someone please think of the children!" if I see swears in a book.

    Of course in the old days or on TV they get creative and use words like "fracking" or "fugging" for fucking.

    The thing is though that "fuck" is the be-all, end-all swear and yet all the religious kooks don't seem to realize that it doesn't violate any Commandments. Jesus Christ or Goddamnit should be worse swears because they take the Lord's name in vain. It just shows how in America we're still so prudish when it comes to anything sexual.

  11. The first crit group I ever went to met in a church! Yep. And I read a bit of my story and my character swore. Nothing major. She didn't drop the F-bomb right then and there. But still, I heard a little gasp. The leader of the group smiled and said something along the line of:

    See, now that swear word fit your character. It's when writers just throw them in to throw them in. If your character swears, let them swear.


  12. There's some serious ESP going on here. This is exactly the topic I planned to tackle on my Friday post. Thanks for warming me up to it.

    And a Nebula would look mighty sweet on my desk. :)

  13. When I wrote my second book in my YA series, my sister (who is NOT prudish) read the MS and said, "Did you know you have a lot of swearing in this and those kids didn't swear at all in the first book?" I had to edit and determine if the dialogue was true to each character or if it was MY dialogue.

  14. Like Ted said, I don't think most fantasy or science fiction needs swear words.
    I write what I would want to read, although language in a book doesn't deter me if it fits. I didn't put a lot in mine because I was torn between using too many 'Earth' terms or making up my own like Battlestar Galactica's 'frack.' Decided to keep it simple.
    And I don't do any sex because that's the last thing I want to describe. Besides, when it comes to sex, actions are more fun than words!

  15. My fantasy novel has its fair share of swearing, sex and violence in it but none of my characters swear just for the sake of swearing.

  16. Be true to your character and audience. I have read books where I think the graphic sex scene was thrown in for shock and awe. Or the f-bomb is used for the same reason. Just like in life, I think too many swear words dumb down the character. Balance is everything.

  17. I tend to use clean language, but if the timing or situation is appropriate for a curse word, I put it in. It all depends on my characters. Some people swear more than others. That goes for characters in my book.

  18. Well, I'm going to come out and say that I think people who swear a lot do so because they lack intelligence and critical thinking skills. They don't think about what they say, they just explode. I don't like those people. I don't want to be around them in real life and I don't want to be around them in my reading OR my writing.

    Swear words have no meaning other than destruction. They have absolutely no constructive purpose. I think it's much more creative when people take words that have inherent meaning and are not entirely destructive and find ways to give them destructive force. It carries a lot more weight for me than meaningless explosions of emotions.

    I've read plenty of books where the author didn't use swear words but still managed to convey the characters emotion and meaning perfectly well. I salute those authors and dislike authors who take the cheap way out.

  19. Well I can understand using the "foul" or "vulgar" language when it necessitates to being written, because that is the way most people do talk in real life, I mean HELLO...! But...yes there is a but, I do not appreciate it when it is used purposefully to 'manipulate' a willful response or to shock people. I just won't give it the time of day....I just don't read it or listen to it, and go on my merry way. I'm a romantic at heart and truly adore...oh let's say 'Jane Austin' and that sort of writing. That's just the way I am. What I am saying is,(takes me a while to get to the point)I agree with your opinion. People are free to 'censor' their own readings, but don't judge the writer for it. Later....

  20. Did anyone read the short story or even take a look at it?

    Right off the bat is the "f-bomb".

    And it won a Nebula!

    I've been waiting to see if anyone was going to comment on it.

  21. Yes I read it, and it's not the type of story I would be interested in. If it suits 'her' story then she must use it. I'm just not into aliens and such. Sorry......later..

  22. This is always such a hot topic. I don't mind a little swearing in a novel I'm reading, if it's not gratuitous. But overall, I'd say I lean more to the side of not swearing.

    I have to agree that you can have an extremely, and usually even more powerful character or story by not using swear words. They tend to limit (always the same ones, lazy writing, easy way out) rather than build the story.

    I had some in my novel, and my editor wanted them out. I removed them and rewrote, and realized the book was stronger and better without them.

  23. I think you are absolutely right that you need to know why you are or are not putting cussing or sex in your books.

    A wise man once said "seek out the majesty, the beauty, and the exhilarating joy of the “why”.

    I know exactly why I don't.

  24. I think some people are just uncomfortable with it. Which is fine. The problem is when they try to dictate what other people should do based on their particular preference.


  25. I'm going to read the story later, because I'm at work and I can only devote about 7.5 hours per day to non-work things, like reading your blog and commenting on it, so now I'm going to have to go home and ignore my family and read a story instead, and that will put me one step FURTHER behind The Demigod Urban Meyer, who was able to cure his health and become a perfect husband and father all in 8 months, freeing him up to take the Ohio State job.

    In short: You and your story are the reason I'm neither the Ohio State coach nor a good dad.

    But, on the subject of sex and cursing: YES! People should use sex scenes and cursing as necessary for their story. For Pete's sake, WRITE THE STORY YOU WANT TO WRITE. Don't worry about marketing. If someone's not going to read a story because you say "Fuck" in it or someone grabs a boob, then I don't want them as a reader.

    That said, I rarely have my characters swear because I rarely swear, because when I swear I (a) remember that I once heard that swearing is simply done when you can't think of a better word to say, so if you swear you're showing a limited vocabulary, and (b) when I swear, Sweetie reminds me that we have two five-year-olds who like to repeat what I say, verbatim.

    But I do write a good graphic sex scene, and there are MANY of those in my "Lesbian Zombies Are Taking Over The World!" blog, but I'm not going to plug THAT blog because I want to plug this:

    Over on my blog "Thinking The Lions," you can maybe win $20 simply by wishing some kids a Merry Christmas:


    Back to your post, Michael: As usual, your literary criticism is right on. What else should we expect from an Expert Critic? I look even more forward to your novel, now that I know it will be filled with curse words, giving me a chance to read them out loud and then, when Sweetie disapproves, I can say "What?! I'm simply quoting a renowned author/expert critic!"

  26. @Briane: The short story actually is "short" as stories go. What drew me to it was a discussion by authors that said the "Nebula award" was undeserved. I disagree. I think that the writing (albeit pornographic) was deserved. I think that the author showed a lot of courage in writing it and that the use of the f-bomb and other even more unsavory words "c-word anyone?" makes the fiction stand out from its competitors.

    My novel is not full of curse words. Nor is it full of sex. I think it has just the right amount and in the right places. And the "f-bomb" only gets dropped in dialogue in places where I feel the characters would use such language.

    I was surprised though when an editor returned my manuscript with every curse word crossed out that took the lord's name in vain. I do mean that every single one was omitted. I felt that the editor was putting forth some other issue that they had with my writing, and it made for an interesting discussion.

  27. The word "fuck" in the first line of the short story fits. It's the "c" word that drives me nuts and makes me want to hit someone, so we all have our limits.

    I always laugh at "writers" who claim that using any foul language proves the user is unintelligent and lazy and has an insufficient vocabulary. Go tell that to James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, who easily make such claims patently absurd.

    Me? I seldom use fuck or shit in what I write simply because my characters wouldn't realistically much use them. Damn and hell don't count and can be sprinkled about, though lightly. Then again, the word "like" for me is turning into a cuss word because I'm sick of hearing people (mostly young women, for whatever reason) use it ad nauseum, as in, "Like, he wouldn't call me, so I'm like, do you care? And he's like, I don't wanna call, like, twenty times a day and like talk to you cause you're like so insecure and..."

    Now that's foul language.

  28. My male MC talks about masturbation and getting boners...It's just real life, dude. And that's what contemp for me is all about.

  29. I've totally read stories where language or sex has just been thrown in... where as a reader, I feel disconnected and it's obvious it's not necessary... but yeah, you've hit it, Michael... it's taking a good hard look and knowing the why. Sometimes, it is a necessary part of the story.

  30. I'm all for it if it fits the character and the scene in the novel. If it doesn't, leave it out. It's a matter of judgement on the writer's part. Also, I can't stand prudish, self-righteous people who like to tell others how they must behave.

  31. I'm right with you, Michael. Swear words aren't artificial constructs. They are words that have histories and etymologies that legitimize them. Writers who intentionally exclude parts of their language do themselves and their readers a disservice.

    This is especially true when writing about young adults. I work with teens. They swear A LOT. We're talking filthy pirate talk here. So if you really want to be true to their voices, you have to be willing to listen to what they have to say and how they go about saying it.

    I also think that being hyper-critical about swearing may point to a narrow world view. Depending on the reader or listener, words transmit different meanings. For example, in New Zealand, Australia, and Britain, young men use the "c-word" to refer to each other with a positive connotation, much like how the word "mate" is used. I believe it may be short for "countryman."

    Basically what I'm saying is that this issue is much more about what individual readers can tolerate than what the writer should or should not put on the page. If you don't like it, don't read it. But other people out there might not think like you do.

  32. Being worried about what my family would think of what I write would mean that my family would have to be reading it. Like that will happen. I mean, my brother has never read an entire book his entire life. He did read about half of Huck Finn when he was in high school, but that's the extent of his reading experience. Likewise, my dad has never read any books either.
    However, when I was in about 4th grade, my dad did throw away a couple of brand new books I'd just gotten because they "had magic" in them.
    He knew that because one of them had a dragon on the cover and the other was based on Greek mythology.

    I think I've strayed from the point...

  33. Here, here! *pounds agreement on desk* If the swearing and sex fits, then I'm all for it.

  34. Real people swear, dammit...see. Just find yourself stuck behind peak hour traffic. I do use the occasional profanity in my writing. And sex...well yeah. How could I possibly have a hero and heroine and not expect them to get it on.

    Anyway, have a great day. :)

  35. I agree with E.J. Wesley.

    As for what my family would think...My father used to take me to the library when I was a tween. The librarian would recommend books for me to read. She always asked if it was okay for the books to have swearing in them. His response was always the same: "She hears it at home."

    Not much shocks my family. (You've read my sis-in-law's blog, so you know what I'm talking about.)

  36. Swearing in books doesn't bother me unless it excessive then it can sound rediculous. I know I haven't used much in my own stories yet, but who knows what I will do ;)

    I would like to read that story if I ever get the time.

  37. I read the story and even if the swearing fit, I didn't like it. I often hear swearing at home and still don't like it. I never will.

    Swearing isn't the only bad thing about that story. Face it, it was alien porno meant for shock value.

    A nebula isn't worth changing what I learned of more worth growing up. Could this writer have written a Nebula worthy story that didn't include the language? She'd have had to change the subject. What about the nebulas of other years? Did those authors manage a winning story without raw language and porn? I'd check that out before assuming this is the best way to get a Nebula.

    I had the bully in my MG book start to say "as-" and the 7th grade class here in Florida, not Utah, shot that down, as well as the MC saying "darn". That changes by high school for some, but not all. I have no idea of the percentages. You'll just have to decide which group you want to please.

  38. I think the story trumps everything. Period. I was watching some movie with my wife once, and the main character, a womanizing, violent, drug using, trust fund punk was really showing hit rebillious side when, in a very dramatic moment, with lots of music, he says, "screw you."

    I turned to my wife and said, "you know we're watching a religious movie?" She disagreed at first, but yeah, we were. The point? When a character should be doing something and they don't, it feels like I'm being preached at.

  39. while i agree with what you say about writing, mike, i take strong objection/offense whenever anyone refers to people as THAT... people must be referred to as WHO... and i don't give a damn how many millions make that mistake, people will ALWAYS be WHO, never THAT!

    g'luck on those awards, btw :)

  40. yes I read the story but didn't much care for it and not because of the sex and swear words. More because it didn't elicit anything more than 'hmm, ok.'

    I think everyone needs to decide for themselves what their story needs, be it the f-word, sex, violence, or none of the above.

  41. I think you write what's appropriate to the story. I'm not a big fan of profanity in general and books by authors like Joe Abercrombie wear me out fast, but I still think that there are going to be times when profanity just fits the scene.

  42. ok... i went to see what the fuss is about, and got turned off to the point i did not read more than the intro, then skimmed a few lines to see if my first reaction was correct, it was... meh...

    NOT because of the so-called 'fucking' that seemed like it went on forever, but cuz of the implausibility of the situation: aliens DO NOT FUCK, whether male or female, outside of their own species... especially if said aliens are not remotely hominid... regardless of what your hentai types project in their 'tales'... that's fantastical, mostly human male, dreaming that aliens would even know how or want to, much less fornicate for hours with one, or more, species 'alien' to themselves...

    none of the words bother me, the concept does...

    whether she's a 'good' writer or not [awards mean squat to me] i'll never know, since this killed any interest i may have had in her stuff....

  43. My YA books are clean. My adult fantasy has its own type of swearing. Not every day type words we use, more story appropriate. Sex is definitely in my upcoming adult fantasy novel. I didn't set out to write a book with sex in it, but that's what happened. It fit the plot. I think sex and swearing in books for no reason is obnoxious. I'm not a huge fan of reading books with a TON of either. Sprinkled in and appropriate to the plot is what I prefer.

  44. " If the writing demands the use of it" says it all.

    Of course the author must be comfortable writing the subject matter; that said, don't write a sexy novel if you don't feel comfortable using the appropriate terms. Culture doesn't necessarily always mean "foreign setting" either.

    My women's fiction trilogy explores the "culture" of substance abuse and domestic violence. I was actually accused of downplaying the sex, violence, and more importantly socially unacceptable language in the novel. I just smiled :)

    I don't believe an author should use the terms wantonly to promote a rating that would appeal to "adults"; but I also don't believe in scrimping on the terms if the subject matter calls for it.

    Gotta let the story flow in its own way . .


  45. To all the h8ters out there all I gotta say is...

    The woman won a NEBULA.

    Just one word.


    'nuff said.

  46. After watching "This Film is Not Yet Rated", I breathed a sigh of relief that books are not subjected to such review. Seriously. Let's all take a moment to be thankful for that.

    I've spent a lot of time thinking about sex. Oh, and also about sexy stuff in my novels. :-)

    Here's the thing about sex in YA novels: you can have it in there, so long as it doesn't FEEL sexy to the reader. I had some kissing type scenes that my beta readers felt were erotic (who knew what a hot writer I could be?!) so those were the ones I toned down. Because YA is a pretty broad age range, I chose to write my own content warning for the first page of my book. Describing the content is totally voluntary, and I felt I could do it in a way that didn't spoil the book or make me feel tawdry, so I did it.

    I've seen studies that swear words cause changes in your brainwaves in a way that regular words do not. Swear words are not regular words--it's science! Weird, huh?

  47. I'm a YA author and I've kept my books clean. I know a lot of YA authors who throw in language just for the shock value.

    So the woman won a Nebula - big deal. Prize winning books tend to fall into the same category as Oscar winning movies - obscurity. One literary snob's opinion of a book won't matter if it doesn't sell.

    And I know an author whose book won an Ippy a few years ago - it was stocked in every Barnes & Noble across America. Know how many copies it sold as an Ippy winner? SIX! Bet her would've traded that stupid Ippy award for some book sales.

  48. Oh my god! I just wrote a long response to this but I wasn't logged on and when I hit "publish" it just took me to a dumb screen offering me a blog instead of telling me I wasn't logged on! Argh! Blogger, you... *shakes fist at screen threateningly* Too late to read the story or rewrite my comment now. Maybe I can redo it this weekend. Cheers!

  49. I've noticed this trend in children and YA books in dystopian or alternate worlds to have A LOT of swearing - just not of curse words that we typically use! For example, Leviathan by Scott Westerfield basically uses barking for the f bomb and clart for sh*t. So obviously there are a ton of beats, even in children and YA books, where a curse word is necessary - so what are authors like me supposed to do when our world doesn't warrant anything other than the curse words we use everyday?

    Historically, my works have been clean. But at the moment I'm writing about a lot of teenagers who have had a *VERY* rough time. It's actually incredibly dishonest for them NOT to swear like a sailor. I recently expressed surprise to my family that my characters were swearing so much, and their response was, "Why does that surprise you? You swear ALL THE TIME." So aside from it being story-appropriate, I think it's just part of my voice?

    I think problems arise when writers choose to look down their noses at people for making a choice. It's fine to have a clean book! And to want to write clean books! It doesn't mean you're a prude. But it should also be okay for me to write curse words, and not have people assume that I'm doing it for shock value! Because I'm not.

    And I find the whole thing kind of funny and hypocritical, because tons of people are murdered in my story, too, yet I doubt people are going to say I was doing *that* for shock value? And even in Leviathan, which I'm enjoying, there's a scene where the female lead guns down a bunch of soldiers with a machine gun! And she never thinks of it again - it's immediately on to crushing over the male lead!

    And it's just bizarre to me, really bizarre, that you can have children gun down people but God forbid they say shit or fuck all every once in a while.

    Sorry for posting a thesis on your blog.

  50. there's sex and swearing in almost all my novels. One doesn't have sex, but that was because it wouldn't have made sense in relation to the plot.
    bring on the sex and swears, i say!

  51. ok, just read the short story. I've read Fox Woman by Kij Johnson as well. Anyway, loved the short story. Totally deserving of the award, imop. If people can't see the reason behind the language in the story then there's probably not much hope for them.

  52. dude. cannot stop thinking about that story. Thank you for introducing me to it.

  53. I want to talk about this idea of language (or sex or violence) being gratuitous.

    Does a decent writer ever use language that doesn't have a reason, at least to that writer? Is a swear ever going to be gratuitous to that writer? Does a writer ever go, "Gee, there's not enough gratuity in this story; I'd better beef up some swears"? Even the most "unnecessary" nudie shot in an 80's action flick (think something like Highlander) is easily explained by "They're having sex. They should be naked."

    Just because you as a reader might think the language (or the scene) should be different doesn't make it wrong. I want to change the majority of the writing in Twilight to make it better, but that doesn't mean that what's there doesn't work. It's what the writer wanted, and it's make her a bazillion dollars. 'nuff said.