To Cuss or Not to Cuss
Cussing. Swearing. Cursing. Blaspheming. Call it what you want. Many people do it, some don’t. Writers know how important word choice is. Dialogue is more authentic when it sounds like how ordinary people talk. So what is a writer to do about “The Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television” made famous by George Carlin when arguably all but one of those words are heard frequently in the conversations of ordinary people. My father had a master’s degree in English from Boston University, uncommon in his generation. He worked in promotion and advertising throughout his career, beginning with a stint in the Navy under Admiral Halsey working on the Victor at Sea series. Believe me, this man knew his words. An excerpt from a little parent bickering: “Kay, don’t be so banal.”Would this man ever start a sentence with “Gosh”? Hell, no. Kay, on the other hand, replaced words she considered “vulgar” with ones acceptable to her. Sh*t became “burp.” “When are you going to pick up all that burp in your bedroom, Michele?” I’ll save how she renamed body parts for another day. How we use our words is a reflection of who we are and what we have experienced in life. This should also be true of the words our characters speak in a novel. Would Sabrina Salter, my protagonist in No Virgin Island and Permanent Sunset, ever drop an F-bomb? After being abandoned as a toddler by her mother, raised by an inebriated father, betrayed by a husband she managed to shoot, and then exiled to an island, you bet she would. All the time. But does she on the pages of the books containing her story? No. Here’s why. Editors and agents advise that readers may be offended or distracted by cussing, affecting sales. No sane author wants to contribute one more obstacle to selling books. Unless you are a New York Times best selling author with an established faithful audience, the conventional wisdom is that it is best to exercise restraint. My father might still buy your book with its salty language, but my mother probably wouldn’t. I find it frustrating to eliminate the words that my characters seem to spill naturally onto the page. Sabrina’s pal, former lawyer, now bar keeper, Neil Perry doesn’t want to say, “What’s going on here?” He wants to say,”WTF?” and spell it out. And I want to let him speak his own words, not stymie them, so I do. On the first draft. The one just for me and my beta readers, who know I will take out the scalpel and excise them during the next edit. It’s the only way I know how to write the dialogue a character is whispering in my ear without losing who she is. So until I hit the NY Times Best Sellers list, gosh it’s been nice talking to you. Golly, how do you handle cussing with your characters?