Thursday, May 8, 2008

Waste Not, Want Not

Everyone has heard the old adage ... One's man trash, is another's treasure, but it wasn't until this morning while doing a bit of slog surfing that I started pondering the depth of that cliched notion.

We all know that scavenger that goes to the city dump and come home with more than he took. Or eagerly grabs that scrap of grisly fat from you dinner plate before you can scrape it off into the trash. He creed is ... "I'd hate to see that go to waste."

But let's move out of the concrete and into the abstract. Is there any difference between rescuing a bright orange, slightly frayed couch from the curb,
and defending a painting that your friend just said was hideous. Or using two cinder blocks and a one-by-ten plank for a bookshelf down in your basement bedroom, all the while answering your dad's screaming to turn off that damn racket with a yell of your own that, "Metallica is sweet music, not racket."

Maybe you think The Simpsons is the funniest show to ever air, but your sister says anybody who watched that vulgar filth is an imbecile. One man's treasure, another's trash.

As a writer I tend to use certain words more than others. They are in my treasure trove so to speak. The more common of these I have to be careful not to overuse so that they become echos. There are other words I tend to avoid. I could list them here but then I wouldn't be avoiding them would I. Actually i don't make a concerted effort not to use any particular word. I am always looking for the best possible word to make my meaning clear. Even if that word might offend. Which leads me to today's story.

Once Upon A Time, in a land not so far away I was in a critique group. There were six talented writers in the group. I was the lone male and the youngest by a good many years. A number of these fair maidens took offense one weak at the language I used in telling a scene involving a drunk and drug-addled man's attempt to beat and rape his ex-wife. They said female readers would cringe at the words I used. I explained that I wasn't shooting for good time and joy in that particular scene. I wanted to reader to feel the sting, the anger the resentment. To me the antagonist slapping an innocent women while saying "Golly darn. you make me mad." simply didn't ring true. Soon the discussion manifested around the F word. Fuck for those who like things spelled out. Sure it is a crass vulgar word, but if you are writing a crass vulgar character it is only natural they would utter it a few times in the book. But I didn't press. I listened while they told me to take it out so I wouldn't offend readers, agents, or editors.

But the very next week a new fair maiden visited out group on a trial basis. She whipped out a six page short story and commenced to reading. If I remember right the first F-bomb landed in the second or third sentence. Soon the sky was filled with with more dirty bombs than a hidden bunker in South Korea. With each one I bit my lip a bit harder to keep from laughing out loud. I looked to my easily offended crit partners and could see their jaws tighten. I literally had tears spilling out of my eyes before the story was finished. I felt bad thinking our visitor would assume I was laughing at her or her writing when i was not. the story was actually quite good and since it was written entirely from a brazen teenage girl who went to great length to shock those around her and to be the focus of every one's attention the language seemed appropriate to me.

The rest of the group didn't see it that way. And for whatever reason i found it easier to argue on behalf of this other writer's work who at that point I didn't know than I had my own work the week before. I'm not proud of the fact but for the next forty-minutes I argued with two senior citizens about the word Fuck.

I'm not saying that particular word is something to treasure. They were right in saying it was overused, but the meat of their argument centered around that including that type of language would kill any chance of getting published. That assertion was an is absurd, unless you are writing for an audience that like those ladies is easily offended by such vocabulary. Christian, Children's, Historical romance. For those genres the inclusion of that kind of language would land you in the trash heap, but write an action story with marines fighting for their life in Afghanistan, or novel about the culture of street racers, or a modern day pirate tale about sleazy car dealers in Oklahoma and one man's dream to visit the Caribbean and a bit of seedy lingo is bound to creep in. Especially, if that story is called Plundered Booty. I can only hope someone will think it's a treasure.


All of the above came to me after reading today's post by Debbie Elliott-Upton who blogs every Thursday over at Criminal Brief. Another commenter used the words stimulus package in his reply. Now this is a term that has been thrown around a lot lately in the media and never before had it struck me so, but today it seemed vulgar in a, "Hey baby, I got your stimulus package right here!" kind of way. That got me to wondering if anyone else has ever snickered when Bill O'Reilly or Katie Couric says, "President Bush's new stimulus package is slated to be deposited starting this Friday."

33 comments:

Sizzle said...

I just snickered reading it but I often have a juvenile sense of humor. The word has its place in literate and in life and the thought of you arguing with senior citizens is totally comical to me. :)

Merry Monteleone said...

How can anyone be offended by such a useful word

I think crit partners are dead helpful, but sometimes it becomes a too many chefs spoil the broth kind of thing. If none of your crit partners would read a book like yours, then you have to take that into consideration too...

Oh, and enjoy the video, Travis.

angel, jr. said...

South Park is better than the Simpsons.

Charles Gramlich said...

You're absolutely right. I don't like using vulgar words anymore than necessary, but that key word is necessary. I have a few naughty words in "Cold in the Light" and I just told my mother not to read it because of that, because she would take acception. She asked why I felt I had to put those words in there and I said, "because sometimes that is the way people really talk."

The very idea that vulgarity will prevent you from selling your manuscript is, I'm sorry to say it, but "frakking laughable."

jjdebenedictis said...

Seinfeld. I never understood was so great about Seinfeld. Something obviously was, but I ken not.

The Simpsons, however? Best. Show. Evah.

And I agree with you about the f-word. Use when it needs using. It's often the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

~grace~ said...

I grew up with a mother who pitched a fit if we used the word "fiddlesticks." "substitution" swearing is apparently not better, it is the thought that counts.

that said, I swear a lot. not in front of my mother, and not in my YA fiction, but in real life, and in a couple of stories that all had adult male protags. if you're dying on a lifeboat, you're going to swear. if you think you're a serial killer, you're going to swear. if it fits the audience and the characters, they're going to swear. that's all I have to say on the matter.

alex keto said...

I thought a couple of months ago you went shopping for a stimulus package to give to a friend

~grace~ said...

RANDOM

Pandora radio is suddenly playing a song by Hank Jr called "The F Word" and the main refrain seems to be "in country music, you just don't use the F word."

the cosmos is eerily aligned...

theneatos said...

Merry - oh hell! That was awesome. I had never heard or seen that clip before. I giggled uproariously.

Hilarious! I think that the word can convey things in a certain situation that an alternate word cannot. And, seeing that I have a mouth like a sailor, I use the word quite often. Especially when I tell my husband stories of my day in customer service ... in which that word is pretty frequent.

deborah elliott-upton said...

You actually went there...wow. LOL. You crack me up. BTW, e-mail made it to my place, but what about the return to your place?

spyscribbler said...

Hilarious! You know, Evanovich uses the F Bomb, too.

The stimulus package. Humph. I can't even laugh about it.

Stephen Parrish said...

I don't believe in differentiating between upper class words and lower class words. Words is words.

A-Ron said...

I wish someone would find my trash. I got a bunch of old PC parts to unload.

huddlekay said...

I love the F-bomb. It's strangely comforting rolling off my tongue...

Monnik said...

Great post!!

Travis, you're so funny. I wouldn't have thought of the innuendo in the words 'stimulus package'.

I completely agree that vulgar words are necessary sometime if you want to capture a *real* scene. You don't want it to become gratuitous, but sometimes nothing other than a variation of the F-Bomb will do.

Melissa Marsh said...

Sometimes, there's just no other word that fits the situation in a story.

I really would have liked to see you arguing with the senior citizens, though. ;-)

Patti said...

having grown-up with mostly males, i laugh at all that stuff. sexual innuendo is everywhere, and i love it. fuck yeah...

polkadotwitch said...

loved this post. quick response:

#1. i make it a point to use the F word at least once a day, sometimes more as appropriate.

#2. there can be no argument that a package is a package. combining it with the word "stimulus" implies something not all packages can claim. :)

The Anti-Wife said...

I will never be able to read the words "stimulus package" again without thinking improper thoughts! You are too funny!

Rocketstar said...

Teh F bomb is one of the most versatile and strong words in the english language. I see no problme using it in writing if used appropriately.

I love the picture for the F bomb

Shauna said...

Once again you're right on. Although my particular choice in books doesn't usually include vulgar language, I see your point. For me, if the story is good enough, I'll read it and overlook the crass language. I don't let it "offend" me. After all, I chose to pick up the book and I can always choose to put it back down.

Also, I'm a week late, but I did Friday's Book Recommendation today.

Mom In Scrubs said...

The hunt for the precision words is often mind-grinding and fraught with frustration.

If the word "Fuck" is your perfect word, consider yourself lucky, I say. It'll save you a lot of time!

Plus, it's universal. Everyone knows what it means.

Unlike, say, "execrable."

the walking man said...

Travis, it's all common language these days. *shrug* what I write is up to a reader to judge. If they pan it for language then they pan it for language. I have no control over the hearts and thoughts of others.

peace

mark

Adriann said...

~grace~ said...
I grew up with a mother who pitched a fit if we used the word "fiddlesticks." "substitution" swearing is apparently not better, it is the thought that counts.

that said, I swear a lot. not in front of my mother, and not in my YA fiction, but in real life, and in a couple of stories that all had adult male protags. if you're dying on a lifeboat, you're going to swear. if you think you're a serial killer, you're going to swear. if it fits the audience and the characters, they're going to swear. that's all I have to say on the matter.

May 8, 2008 4:29 PM

I echo her entirely.

Marla said...

Lordy. I would have had a hard time not throwing in a few F bombs just to stir the group up even more. What is the big deal? If it fits and the word works then I say use it. I can just imagine you sitting there reading the F bomb and people squirming. Use the C word next and woah watch out! I bet you would be kicked out of the group!

Mr. Shife said...

Well I am just going to come out and say it: President Bush has been fucking us for years.

Barrie said...

Definitely agree; the language has to match the story. And the next time Katie Couric utters "stimulus package," I'll think of this post. ;)

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Travis,

The phrase "stimulus package" never struck me as anything until I saw it in quotation marks in your response on Debbie's post.

Every since then, it's definitely a snicker phrase.

Terrie

Josephine Damian said...

I'm in early cause it'll be a two-parter:

http://josephinedamian.blogspot.com/2008/05/my-town-monday-book-club-edition.html

lyzzydee said...

Travis, You made me laugh when you said about your arguement with the senior citizens, I canm see the other side, a story about marines in action, talking between themselves, 'Oh blast, I think we missed the target, I am frightfully cross about it'
Hee hee!!
Anyway I am going to use bloggers schedualled publishing to post My town monday just past midnight English time!!

James Lincoln Warren said...

I did not intend "stimulus package" to be vulgar in my reply to Debbie on Criminal Brief. Frankly, I'm disappointed that it was read that way.

Lana Gramlich said...

*LOL* Thanks so much for sharing this post. I enjoyed it greatly!
To me the antagonist slapping an innocent women while saying "Golly darn. you make me mad." simply didn't ring true.
Absolute truth & sheer brilliance, that!
Sorry I've been AWOL, btw. Still playing tour guide for my friend. Things will ret'n to normal soon.

Mary Witzl said...

I do agree. I grew up in a home where 'hell' and 'damn' were considered horrific swear words. We thought our father had a dirty mouth when he used either of those words, and forget anything else. I don't think I ever heard my father say 'shit.' And the F-word was a huge shocker not to be contemplated.

In the real world, though, these words are used. So are words that aren't PC, whether we like it or not. There is a huge difference between using such words gratuitously to shock and offend, and using them to make your writing sound less like writing.

And that nasty orange sofa? We've got something very similar. My husband loves picking up free furniture...