Wednesday, October 04, 2006

BOM: The Writing

Writing THE PROPOSAL was more difficult than I'd anticipated. I encountered the problem of profanity--or, shall I say, the lack of it. I don't think I'd find it as challenging today as I did back then, but I was less experienced in 1995.

I had two characters, you see, who were thuggy low lifes. (Low lives?) And I wanted to write them realistically, but I wanted to eschew profanity in my book. When they were chopping off a man's finger, I couldn't have them say, "Oh, darn it."

Why do I want to avoid profanity in my work? Bottom line: Because it bothers a lot of readers. I was once at a secular conference where someone asked Diana Gabaldon (whose books I like) why she used so much profanity in her novels. Diana replied that SHE doesn't use it, but her characters do. But I walked away from that talk realizing that to readers, it's all the same. It doesn't matter who uses it, it's being used, and it offends a lot of people. (My book club once read a book of Carl Haissen's, and we would have loved the story, but his language put us off--and we are not a "Christian" book club. We're readers, period.)

I have since come up with ways to work around this problem, but it was a challenge in the beginning. (The ways around? Lots of options: Change the character to someone more urbane. Change the camera focus while the profanity is being spewed. Focus on a detail, zoom in tightly, work the violence with mood rather than explicit language. Like I said, it takes MORE creativity and skill to write without settling for the most obvious profanity or obscenity.)

Sorry to digress. Back to the writing.

Two years ago I taught the fiction track at the Florida Christian Writer's Conference. It was a class of about forty, and we spent a lot of time together, so I attempted something different. I brought forty copies of THE PROPOSAL to class, taught a lesson on self-editing, and gave the class homework: to take a copy and self-edit the first chapter of THE PROPOSAL using what I'd taught them in class.

The next day they came in, and I walked them through the first few pages, showing how we could easily tighten dialogue, get rid of words that didn't work, heighten the mood. One of my students raised her hand and said, "How did this get published?" I laughed. "It's a good story," I told her, "and I've improved a lot since I wrote this. You'll improve, too, the more you write."
(Aside: actually, I could pick up ANY novel and edit it. Almost anything can be tightened.)

It is a good story--the issue is important, the risks were real, and, after all, it's about a writer at a writers' conference, something I can easily relate to. But if I had it to rewrite, I'm sure there'd be a lot of words left on the cutting room floor . . . and some thug scenes written from an entirely different perspective.

Tomorrow: the editing



Dianne said...

Wow, you are a brave woman to invite others to edit your work like that! And I'm with you on the profanity. I might let an expletive slip if I slam my finger in the door or something dumb like that,but in general I don't talk like that, and neither do most of the people I associate with. When I hear someone with a foul mouth I think "What a limited vocabulary." It's not necessary, not even for effect, in writing. THANK YOU!

Anonymous said...

Interesting observation about the profaniy issue, Angie--a long-lived issue, at least around the blogosphere. Dianne made a good point about a "limited vocabulary." Most of our friends--and, no, they're not all Christians...some, in fact, are pretty "earthy"--seem to know enough words that they don't need to fall back on lazy-speak or lazy-write.

Where are all these "real people" who can't communicate without swearing? (Well--okay...a lot of them live in Movieland, agreed.) But the question was about real people...


Doni Brinkman said...

I appreciate your creative work arounds on the profanity issue. I have a TV Guardian installed because I HATE to hear it and I don't want my children to be subject to it. Reading it is WORSE for me than hearing it though. A book is much more real and vivid than a movie. You take every scene in and make it your own. When I, absorbed in a scene in a book, read something profane, it ruins the scene. I get stuck on the offense of the word. I don't care if the auther uses profane language personally or not. The word on the page distracted from the story and I, as the reader, have now been thrown off (and have also decided to be cautious about investing in any more of that authors works where I will be tempted to red line the book myself).