Freaking Crap

For those of you who don’t know, I recently finished my first novel, which I’m revising and editing right now. I just got through an edit and I had struggles with an interesting issue, one which I’m not sure how to tackle.

First, some background. My story is an urban/contemporary fantasy, told from a first-person POV, and the main character is a young cop from Philadelphia. Although it’s not necessarily a young adult novel, I want it to be accessible to younger readers. Therefore, I didn’t use any swear words or language that I feel is really objectionable. So here’s the issue: as I went through the manuscript, I realized I tend to use a few words and phrases fairly often:  Freaked out. Crap. That sucks/sucked/really sucked. I have to admit, my mom gets mad if I use these words around her, but honestly, they’re quite common for my generation. Would my story work without these words? I’m sure it would. But to me it’s a bit of a stretch in the first place to not have any of my characters, some of them pretty bad people, use foul language.

Often I’ll be watching some crime drama on network TV and a hardened thug or gangster will be yelling at the cops, and the language is decidedly PG, or PG-13 at worst. While I understand this and definitely appreciate the fact that swearing is still not allowed on TV, it strikes me as inauthentic. How can it be fixed? I have no idea.  In reality it’s a pretty minor quibble, and if the rest of the show is well-written and acted, I don’t notice it as much.

Honestly, I don’t know if I would have changed much in my story as it relates to these words. But then it was pointed out to me that using these words dates the story. It makes it contemporary but not timeless. Great. Here I am, striving for a certain verisimilitude, while not resorting to obscene language, and now the language I’ve used isn’t timeless. Not only may it alienate older – and perhaps younger – readers, but in fifty years if anybody reads it, it’ll feel stale and old and so 2010.

Crap.

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15 responses to “Freaking Crap

  1. Well, what are timeless replacements for: Freaked out, Crap, and That sucks? I don’t have a good answer…just trying to help.

  2. Have/had the same issue in my current WIP… Ultimately decided that the people in my universe wouldn’t say “freaked out” or that something “sucks” unless they meant it ironically or similar context. While I use these (and many worse) words on a regular basis, my characters (even the bad ones) have supposedly evolved beyond today’s common parlance. It took/is taking a lot more effort to write their dialog in an organic and authentic way, though.

  3. Kori, that’s the problem. Crap and suck are a little bit easier to deal with. I could always use darn or crud or stink. Those seem to be less offensive. The hardest one for me is freaked out. Weirded out, anxious, and others don’t seem to have quite the same meaning. I dunno.

    Thanks for stopping by, Mo! It sounds like you’re in a worse predicament than I am 🙂 Are you inventing new euphemisms and/or words, or are you just trying to avoid them altogether?

  4. Trying to avoid them altogether… don’t know if it’s “worse” really, just different, but in a similar vein to yours. I initially had them talking the way I talk, but it sounded forced, amateurish and (ultimately) wrong for the characters.

  5. I think it all depends on the characters. Truthfully I’d much rather read a story where the swearing’s been toned down…not so big on the swears. I would like to read this story!

  6. I agree with the commenter who said it sounds forced and amateurish. If you read books like The Hunger Games or Ender’s Game, you can see how they can convey the same feel without the need for referencing “coarse” adjectives.

  7. have you read Chris Golden’s and Tim Lebbon’s “Mind the Gap”? it’s a YA set in london and there’s some coarse language in it. but it’s very well handled.

  8. I definitely agree that the words can be forced, unnecessary and amateurish. I don’t like swearing at all, but I feel like mildly coarse language can be effective at times. It depends on the characters and the story. I need to maybe read some high fantasy stories, or re-watch Lord of the Rings. Get some ideas of what I can use instead.

    I haven’t read Mind the Gap or Hunger Games yet. I love Ender’s Game though. But it’s actually been banned in places because of profanity, among other things. I just did a quick search, and Ender’s Game contains “smartass” “bloody bastard” and “go to hell”. “Crap”, while crude, seems a bit tame in comparison. And speaking of “bloody”, the Harry Potter books use it, along with “damn” and “hell” and some British slang that’s probably mildly offensive. That being said, it’s not an excuse for me to not try to find a better way. I’m still not sure how to solve the problem, but I can at least reduce the frequency of the words.

  9. I’ve been thinking a lot about this post. Yes, that’s right Dan, I am stroking your ego a bit. I was actually talking about this exact topic with a friend last week. I had just finished The Hunger Games, a book where profanity would have been perfectly at home and maybe even expected. But not a profane word was used, as has been mentioned before. So, I’ve been thinking about your issue specifically and I have a few ideas for you to think about.
    1. As cliche as it is you have to know your audience. You have to make up your mind what group of people you are writing for. Right now you’re fence sitting as I see it. You either have to write Young Adult which is accessible for anybody over a certain age (shall we say 12?). Or you have to write an Adult book, with adult writing and topics. What you’re saying you want to write is basically a watered down Adult book. Don’t dumb it down or censor yourself for a possible audience. If a teenager is interested in your book they’ll read it. Any language you may or may not decide to use is nothing worse than they have heard or even used before. And that branches out into the additional are you writing for the general populace or people who are trying to seek virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy things? This leads me to my next thought . . .
    2. I believe this is a completely personal moral issue. One that nobody can advise you on. What it comes down to is are you the kind of person who uses profanity (even sparingly) when it seems appropriate or are you not? Decide which type of person you are and don’t look back. Neither choice is better than the other, they’re just different.
    3. You want to protect your readers (or your moral conscience) from profanity. Fine, that’s definitely a good thing. But, what does it say about your story if the only plausible response of any of your characters is profane? Is it really necessary to have this moral struggle when your story and characters already dictate that swearing is appropriate? Just a thought.
    4. Good against evil. That’s what we write about. But evil doesn’t waste it’s time on “bad words”. Bad guys don’t have to swear because if they truly are bad, they’re not trying to hurt your sensitivities by saying something mean – they’re trying to DESTROY good. People who use profanity gratuitously don’t do it because they are evil they do it for shock value or out of habit. They think it’s bad so they start saying those words. But thinking you’re awesome because your bad and actually being evil are two very different things. I’ll say it again – true evil doesn’t waste time using bad words. Evil is too busy being intelligent and plotting out real punishment.
    5. Profanity is nothing more than filler in life. You can’t think of something intelligent to say? Fine, swear. You want to talk, but have nothing of importance to say? Swear. Great writing consists of using the fewest possible words to convey your meaning (obviously I am not a great writer). Do you really want to fill your book with meaningless filler? (Naturally there are exceptions to this rule, although I can’t think of any right now.)
    6. Writing certain characters and situations without using profanity is not impossible but takes great skill. Actions speak louder than words, even when you’re describing those actions in writing. Let violence speak for itself. A heavy hand always makes a greater impression than foul language, even on paper. When your hero wants to swear in the face of his greatest enemy – let the silence and a hard stare do the talking. When something unexpected and frustrating happens, let the hero growl with irritation. If you want it to be gritty and raw – use your descriptions (although this is pretty limited in first person POV).
    Anyway, those are my thoughts. Hopefully they helped. But the only answer to your dilemma lies in point #2. Are you that kind of person/writer or aren’t you. It really is as simple as that.

  10. And in addition. Crap and Freak are lame. Do you want to be a good writer or a LAME writer? Pull out the big guns or don’t use filler words.

  11. You could replace all of the swear words with the word, “Cuss”. Oh wait, I guess that has been done. I think there are some good comments in here. I know I’m a little conservative on the issue, but I’ve read a big portion of Enders game, but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, because of alot of the “crap” har har, that is in the way it was written. It’s just been a bit hard to get though.

    That’s awesome you are writing though. Challenging stuff man.

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