On Swearing

Last Friday evening I met my learned friend and actual proper author, Jay Stringer, for ale and Indian cuisine. We spoke of many things: of politics and anarchy, of football and rugby, of fiction and non-fiction, of his books and the manuscript of mine that he’s reading.

With that in mind, we spoke very briefly of swearing. This particular novel has a lot of swearing in it, and its sequel too. Jay, being an experienced man of the world and a three-novel veteran of the crazy world of publishing warned me that, while I shouldn’t compromise my art for a market, I should be prepared to get some scathing reviews because of profanity.

I thought it was an interesting point and one I can understand, but cannot quite empathise with. It’s a quasi-taboo, is swearing, that has no real rules, and whether one revels or takes offence is a deeply personal thing and one I find fascinating.

Here’s my take on swearing: I fucking love swearing. I think, rather than illustrate a lack of vocabulary or an anti-poetic bent, as is the most common aversion, it’s just another colour in the paintbox. A colour that cannot be substituted by others. A primary colour. Let’s say blue.

Swearing is blue. Without the colour blue, one can paint many wondrous scenes. one can deliberately limit one’s pallette to convey an emotion. A sunset landscape painted of yellows and reds conveys a certain warmth and coziness. It evokes that parochial feeling of a day well spent and your reward, a beautiful sunset. You didn’t need blue there, you got your message across without it.

But let’s say you wanted to paint a landscape at mid-day, without a cloud in the sky. Could you avoid blue? Yes, you certainly could, but the sky is blue, and that’s that. You can substitute it, but it’s not going to convey the emotion you want it to.

It’s the same with swearing.

Let’s say I am sitting, on a fine summer’s day, in an orchard of pear trees. I muse and chew on a piece of grass, its sweet, green goodness touches my tongue and in that moment, there is nothing but me and nature. A lark sits opposite in the tree and sings a merry tune, a warmth spreads through me like a log fire on a winter’s day, or your first sip of whisky. Blossom falls in slow motion, as if in a dream. Contentment.

“Fuck!” I exclaim, dispelling the scene. The lark takes flight in terror and I the coppery taste of blood replaces the sweet grass. I rub the back of my head and my hand comes away wet and sticky. A windfall pear has just scene fit to cosh me in its last dying action.

I could have substituted any word as an exclamation: damn, blast, bugger, curses, etc. But you know what? That’s not what I would have said. I’d have said ‘fuck’, and I’d have said it loud. It evokes a different emotion from ‘darn it!’, it’s degrees removed. I’d have been that angry because my idyllic scene was shattered. It was a jarring, shattering exclamation that immediately destroyed the happiness and contentment, and it did it fast. I could instead have described what I felt, but it wouldn’t have done the same thing.

Oh, and don’t get me started on swear-word substitutes like ‘shoot’ and ‘freaking’. If you’re going to say something, say it, don’t dance around it. You may as well have not bothered exclaiming.

Swearing isn’t a failure, or a shortcoming (often) or a lack of vocabulary (although it very much can be), on the contrary, it denotes a richness of language, it shows a skill and a mastery of the tongue we speak in, when used appropriately. Although, it can be used as a short cut, when something more descriptive would have been better, and often is. Whether you like it or not however, it’s there, it has history as long as the language and beyond and it’s not going away. Denying it is proper or that it is a weakness only serves to illustrate that a person is not as au fait with a language, its life, and evolution as they think.

Swearing is a pinnacle of emotion. Not the pinnacle, for there are many, but a pinnacle nonetheless. In some respects, it is a dead-end, an alley in which one can go no further. There are some words such as ‘cunt’, that are thought of as always distasteful and, once invoked, one cannot really go much further to continue to outraging a reader further. However, when it is used as an expletive, rather than just a vulgar noun, there is no other way of conveying that emotion in a succint way. It is no doubt possible, to describe a fellow in such terms as one might invoke with the word ‘cunt’, but there is no way, other than the utterance of a short, percussive, four-letter-word, to get the immediacy and power of that notion. None. When you read that particular word in a book, it more often than not stops you dead, and that is a useful tool when used sparingly.

Swearing also has degrees of power, dropping in ‘bloody’, ‘bugger’, ‘bollocks’, or ‘shit’, is unlikely to cause outrage by anyone but the most modest and conservative of readers, but there is no arguing that all of these are intended to be expletives. ‘Fuck’ and its derivatives are arguably a degree or two up in power from the others, but in recent times, even this once mighty taboo word, has lost some of its potency. It’s also worth noting that, the more often swearing is used in a given time frame, say a novel, or even a conversation, it begins to lose its potency, and almost becomes embellishment rather than poignant.

Now, the other thing to think about, which is really where the contention lies, is context.

In the pub, surrounded by my friends, there is no word I could say in the English language that would be considered to be personally offensive in its own right. We swear, and that escalates the more emotion is required. Granted, directing that kind of language at individuals may draw some offence, but in general, it doesn’t.

However, I rarely swear when I’m talking to my boss. Sometimes it’s appropriate, depending on the severity of a situation, but mostly it isn’t. Likewise, I rarely swear in front of my mother, but do openly in front of my father, and I have never knowingly expleted in front of my grandparents.

There’s no rule to any of this, it’s just sometimes it isn’t appropriate and sometimes it is. In fiction, that’s a very useful property to draw on, but that’s another topic entirely.

Swearing is an utterly abstract concept. Humans, in all languages, at all times in history, have always had some portion of their language arbitrarily zoned off as ‘swearing’. What makes a particular word a swear-word or not is entirely down to how puritanical a society’s view is on a particular concept or emotion. Swearing in English is mostly based on sexual innuendo and description: fuck, bollocks, cock, wank, arse, tit, cunt, etc.; or concepts we think of as vulgar or unclean: shit, piss, etc. I’m no linguist or lexicographer, but I imagine the same trends across all languages that find sexual acts and bodily functions something that is best left for private.

The other thing that is universally considered swearing is blasphemy. Obviously for different societies, cultures, nations and religions, blasphemy has different meanings, stresses, subtleties and emphases, but most subdivisions of humanity have a concept of blasphemy.  In the UK, as we become increasingly secular, exclamations like ‘Christ!’, or ‘Jesus!’ are run-of-the-mill and mostly acceptable in polite company, even by those who consider themselves to be ostensibly of one religion or another. To some people however, who take their faith seriously, there can be no greater insult than taking their deity’s name in vain. In some societies, the punishment for blasphemy can still be very serious, or indeed final.

To look at it objectively though, all words are collections of sounds, represented by marks on paper. The meaning we attach to them is our own interpretation of an accepted definition. To take personal offence at someone else’s use of a language is as alien to me as touchscreen phones to a goat. Essentially, to become offended by something not directed at oneself is purely to measure a person by one’s own yardstick.

So, context is important. I wouldn’t blaspheme to a priest, because, despite what I’ve said, I know a priest would likely take offence. Should I care? Not really. I do though, because I don’t like to offend people. Sometimes that’s impossible, and it happens, and I’m sorry about that. But sometimes, it can be avoided by having knowledge of context.

And that is why my book uses a lot of swearing. Context. Most of the characters in my book are of a certain bent, they are thieves, and smugglers, and pirates, and soldiers. Many of them are uneducated, and most of them are very angry and selfish. And they swear. They swear in normal conversation, openly and regularly, because when I’m out and about in my normal life, and when I communicate with my peers and people I am comfortable with, that’s the form of language that is used.

Some of them don’t. There are priests, and lords, and nobles, and monks, and in these contexts, foul language would be incongruous, and thus it isn’t used. I wouldn’t swear at a priest because deep down, I’m a nice enough bloke, who doesn’t like to cause upset in people. My protagonist does though, and worse, because he’s a massive arsehole.

So in short, swearing is part of all language whether you like it or not. If it gets missed out, that’s fine, the story is still there, but it’s missing a flavour. It’s missing a colour, a primary colour, an important colour.

Without swearing, you can still see the sunset, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Back to the Drawing Board

Just spent the last week furiously scrawling down notes for what I thought was an amazing idea for a sequel to a novel I have written. I threw together a rough plot and gathered a handful of likely supporting characters. Turns out, I just wrote a wonderful syopsis for someone else’s already written and famous novel. Bugger.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. I plotted out a really fun urban fantasy. Turns out I’d written Ghostbusters…

Time to do some surgery on this and start again.

Keeping Busy

Earlier this week I recruited some vict- er volunteers to beta read my draft novel A WINTER SONG. I was actually quite surprised with how many people seemed enthusiastic to do so. It was really lovely, I hope it doesn’t disappoint them.

I also mentioned that I was instantly really anxious about it. I still am. I’ve already thought of a billion things wrong with it, but I’m being strong and leaving it be until I’ve gathered me feedback. I think that’s sensible.

I’ve had one bit of feedback so far, just to say that they were really enjoying it, which has heartened me and allayed the tiniest fraction of my anxiety. ONly an iota though, you understand.

I’ve already started on my next project. I have a sequel in mind for A WINTER SONG, but I’m giving myself a rest from Eorva for a little while. I may have to revisit events in A WINTER SONG, so the vague plot will suffice. My next project has me kind of excited actually. It’s a bit of an urban fantasy thriller style of thing, set in the Midlands. I shan’t talk too much about it specifically but suffice it to say it’s full of abandoned urban exploration, mysterious Yoda-like crazy dudes, battles between light and dark, and commentary on bigotry and acceptance. It’s great fun!

My next task is to head into the arse end of Birmingham and take some photos, but I don’t know when I’m going to manage that. Need some more daylight first…

Ance in my Pance

I am temporarily freed of the self-imposed burden of A WINTER SONG. I have stopped fiddling with it and I have let it out into the pasture for real humans to read and dissect.

I’m terrified.

Well, that’s not true, I’m not terrified, but I am considerably more anxious than I thought I would be. Stupid little things like the fact that two of the people offering to beta read it are of Scandinavian origins, and I have bastardised huge amounts of Old Norse language for example. Will they be offended? Will they think I am a massive prick? Then my sensible gland (very small) says, don’t be ridiculous, all the English folk won’t get offended with the amount of bastardy I’ve performed on English… Will they? OH MY GOD THEY WILL!

Anyway, it’s gone. I have invited the criticism. I must now await its arrival and adjust my world view appropriately.

My next problem is one of choice. I can’t stop. I need to write. I have several nascent ideas, including a sequel or two to the novel that’s currently being eaten. But which do I choose?

My brain is broken you see. I can’t concentrate on one thing at a time, I never have been able to. I even deviated and wrote short stories whjile writing this novel. Hell, this novel was actually a spin-off of an epic fantasy novel I haven’t even written yet.

So, I must meditate on this. *jibber*

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WANTED: Beta Readers – Please Help

ACHIEVENT UNLOCKED! COHERENT MANUSCRIPT COMPLETE!

I’ve finished my first draft, and refined it into what I’m calling the Second Draft. Catchy, I know. I am going blind from fiddling with it, as it were, and now I need YOU!

I’m after a few willing victi- er… volunteers to beta read this for me, while I take a break from this particular story. As my mother always said, if you keep picking at it, it’ll never get better.

So I hand it over to you, the reader, to dissect it and find all the crap I missed.It’s ostensibly a fantasy novel, though very light, not Tolkien-esque high fantasy. It follows the story of Rorick of Iverley, the second best con artist in Eorva and his quest to defraud as many people as possible. At its roots it is a light-hearted heist story with lots of swashbuckling, swindling and swearing. (I need to work on my synopsis, I know).

I’m especially interested in the thoughts of those of you who perhaps aren’t fantasy nerds. My mission is to kind of create a fun and engaging story, with relatable themes that just happens to be set in a fantasy universe.

All I need you to do, is read it and give me your thoughts. If you find something you consider crap, a massive plot hole, a character that is just so two-dimensional you can’t see her from the side, write it down. When you’re done, if you can bear to make it through to the end, send me your brutal honesty and I will weep into my Old Fashioneds, and then revise it accordingly.

If you’re interested, reply in the comments, hit me up on Twatter (@crazygibbon), Farcebook (If you know, you know me), or email me (andy [dot] m [dot] cowley [at] gmail [dot] com)Thanks kids

Introducing Characters

If there’s one thing that I often find more cringeworthy than Dan Brown writing a Twilight sequel, it’s the introduction of characters at the start of a story. Look anywhere and you’ll find a slew of rhetoric and advice on writing decrying adverbs, demanding we show not tell, admonishing infodumps, avoiding clichés and so on. One thing that seems to slip the net is that of character introductions.
This is only a thing for me at the start of a story. Once the valves of the plot machine have warmed up and the cathode rays of dialogue are clear on the tube, introducing characters is easy. You can slip them in casual conversation, wedge them into short pieces of prose. It feels natural.
At the start of a tale though, there can often be a stutter. Take this made up section of prose for example:

Doctor Ken Harwood leaned nonchalantly against the marble-topped bar. He winked at the Laura Cowan the barmaid, easily twenty years his junior. She grimaced as she threw bile up into her mouth but continued to clean the glass she was holding. Ken reached for his martini, his eyes locked onto her arse. His hand brushed the edge of the glass and knocked the strong gin and vermouth mixture across the bar.

Now, ignore the fact that it sounded like a Mills and Boon parody, I introduced two characters there. Clumsily, but not uniquely.

I see this sort of thing a lot, and I’m probably being pernickety, but then the writing business is all about pernicketing, or so I’m told. Yes, yes, this is the only time this will happen and I’ll never need to introduce them again, it’s over in less than a minute, like those pointless ‘Intro’ tracks on albums, but I find it a really jarring start to a story.

This introducing characters by their full name thing is a bit weird if you think about real life. The only real way I think it makes sense is if you’re narrating from a second-person perspective or a third-person omnipotent perspective.

If we look at this as from the third-person restricted point of view, with Ken as our subject, it immediately sounds weird. Why the hell would Ken be referring to himself by his full name and title? It makes no sense. Equally, unless he’s some kind of weirdo, he wouldn’t be thinking about the barmaid by her full name either, even if he knew it. It’s all just a little odd.

Take this example:

My name is Ken Harwood. I’m a Doctor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Blahblahshuddup. I have a problem. Women cannot resist me.

I leaned nonchalantly against the marble-topped bar, watching the pert backside of the barmaid, Laura Cowan. I winked at her as she caught me staring. She grinned at me while she polished a glass with those perfect little hands. I knew what she was thinking.

Even from the first person perspective, we have a problem. It doesn’t sound entirely unnatural to introduce Ken like that. Imagine he’s telling you the tale in a pub somewhere. It almost make sense for him to introduce himself like that. To me though, and this may well be a preference thing, it’s a massive cliché.

I probably should obsess over something a little more important, but this really grinds my gears. From any perspective, this to me sounds like a forced and staid infodump.

I like it better when authors introduce characters in a natural, almost relaxed way. This is especially obvious in third-person restricted and first-person PoV. If I’m writing in the first-person, the way I look at it is, I already know the person I’m narrating to well enough recount my story to them, so I can assume they don’t need me to introduce myself formally again. I never refer to myself by my name in my own head, so why would I unless I explicitly needed to?

You may think this is all bollocks and disagree, but I think being a little more creative around this makes the story feel more natural from the off, rather than a sputtering start.

Here’s an excerpt from my novel highlighting what I have done. Bear in mind, this is probably on the second or third page:

A man entered the tavern, opening the door barely enough for him to pass through, and closing it quietly behind him. He was taller than most in these parts, his face obscured by a dark green hunter’s hood. An expensive looking blade hung from his hip that gave him a swagger as he approached my table. He lifted his boot and kicked my feet from the stool upon which they were resting, and sat down.

“Adelan,” I said cheerily. Only a friend would survive such an act of disrespect against me without a mark to remind him of his folly. “You’re late, as usual.”

“I see you are none the worse for it though,” Adelan replied gesturing to the three empty steins on the table. “How have you been Rorick?”

It’s not literary fiction but it feels considerably more natural than just detailing the names outright. I suppose, if you think about it, it’s just another example of show don’t tell.

What happens when you sit an infinite number of gibbons behind an infinite number of typewriters? Who knows, but one is bad enough. My toil with writing fiction from scratch…

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