Saturday, September 25, 2010

Don't Like It? Too (Redacted) Bad

My upcoming novel, The Summer Son, includes approximately 71,900 words. Of those, an even 50 are the F-word, or one of its colorful variations. I know. I just counted.

In light of my buddy Jim Thomsen's recent Insta-Poll on this topic, it occurs to me that some readers might find this number a bit distasteful. And with all due respect to individual sensibilities, delicate or otherwise, let me say this:

I don't f-ing care.

For much of the book, my protagonist, Mitch Quillen, searches his past and present for a way to get close to his father, Jim, an itinerant well digger who put a decades-long breach between father and son in one violence-drenched summer in the late '70s. Most instances of the word in question fall from Jim's mouth, either in present day or in Mitch's memories. As those exercises in expletivity migrated from my fingertips to the page, I had to satisfy just one standard: Did they ring true?

The answer, in every case, is yes.

For proof, I suppose I could direct a skeptic to my own father, a retired itinerant well digger and the occupational model for Jim. In these days of his mellow dotage, Dad can still string together a cringe-inducing string of F- and S-words when he's agitated or, conversely, when he's feeling particularly good. I spent many, many days of my boyhood in the presence of men who talked to each other this way, and my intention in the book is to take readers into that world. I have no interest in artfully alluding to such language; in this case, if you buy the ticket, you take the ride.

Now, lest anyone think that I just randomly flung objectionable words at the wall, let me assure you that I did take a critical eye to each use, and in some cases I was challenged to justify it.

One of my beta readers, author Kristen Tsetsi, said, "The arguments between Mitch and his Dad seemed a little 'F-word you!' 'No, F-word YOU!' I understand that's their relationship, but there was something about reading the exchanges between them that left me wanting more from their arguments, and the kind of more that would make someone's 'F-word you' have impact." (Kristen, by the way, did not actually write "F-word.")

On her fine advice, I did some amending to give the exchanges greater emotional heft, including this little bit at a particularly contentious juncture:

I could match him "(really nasty word) you" for "(really nasty word) you," by that didn't matter much when they were the only words we knew. I'd said it behind his back for years, and now I'd proved I could say it to his face. A useless skill. Here we were, poles apart.

I hope we can agree that there is some literary and emotional value there beyond the harsh words. I remain indebted to Kristen. A little f-ing perspective is always helpful.


Craig Lancaster's first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and is a finalist for a 2010 High Plains Book Award. His second, The Summer Son, will be released in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. He's also the owner and editor of Missouri Breaks Press, a boutique literary press in Billings, Mont., and offers editing, typesetting and design assistance. Learn more about him and his services at

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  1. I think you should write as many F-words as you feel your manuscript needs. Readers who don't tolerate it can probably find plenty of other books to read >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  2. Lots of good points there, Craig! And very well-written!
    A lot of the comments this week have also made the very valid point that anything overdone gets boring and loses its power.

  3. Thanks for such an honest post! I think you make good points and I agree with you! I am going to pick up your book now because - this post, as honest and frank as it was, has made me a lifelong fan now.

  4. Ammy, you won't be disappointed if you pick up Craig's book. Have not read this new one yet, but his first one, 600 Hours of Edward, was wonderful.

    Craig, I think you summed up this week on colorful language so well with this post.

  5. I was interested in your observation that some of the f-you, no f-YOU arguments left you feeling like there should have been something more. What a wonderful piece of character development.

    My dad was an itinerant well-digger for a while, too, and reading that observation about how arguments carried on at that level leave you wishing for more struck a chord.

    While I understand your decision to expand on that to carry narrative forward, I find myself wondering if your first instinct wasn't your truer one.

  6. Thanks for the comments, Bodie.

    Understand: The exchange above takes place years after the fact. It's an adult Mitch, who's gone off to college and now raising a family, having these thoughts in the wake of a fight with his old man.

    They're entirely in character, I assure you. The whole book is about trying to make sense of a seemingly impossible relationship.

  7. It's not like it's a children's book! It's important to write what's authentic. Where I work, you can't speak to someone for a five minute stretch without hearing an f-bomb, and that's not exaggerating! It's part of our language where I'm at.

    Now, if the setting was inappropriate or it didn't feel natural to the character, it's probably unnecessary. If there's so many it distracts from the story or dialogue, it's unnecessary. Yours doesn't sound like that's the case at all. People can be too sensitive sometimes.

  8. First, I think that out of 71,900 words, having only 50 instances of the F-word is commendable, and I fully admit that there are times when it (and other vulgarities) is necessary to convey the proper flavor or a particular character or exchange, so a few here and there are not offensive.

    I do find it offensive when it's a significant percentage of the total word count, and/or used simply for shock value, or as in some books I read, simply because the author believes that this is how everyone speaks these days, which I find to be untrue. And yes, I do know that often guys speak that way to each other, but rarely ever do I hear women do the same.

    So if a couple of male characters use the F-word in conversation (or as in your case, an argument) I have no trouble at all with that. But when a female character in a book uses it simply to be vulgar, that I find offensive.

    I really liked your solution to the observation of your test reader. It shows that you put more thought into Mitch's ability too assess his relationship with his father, rather than just reacting to it. Nicely done!

  9. To "Cold As Heaven": Inasmuch as the "F-word" didn't appear until about 500
    years ago, yet books and writings have been around for many thousands of years,
    I guess your mentation that a writer 'should write as many F-words as he feels
    his manuscript needs' is really just you admitting that you are relatively
    without word skills.... Yes? Why are today's writers so lazy and lacking an
    evolved sense of authorship that leads them to better writing? When the "F" bomb
    is eventually migrated out of the English language (like it made its way into
    the language) then what will writers do? Put down their pens? How indolent! I
    truly believe that very few of you who are willing to resort to depraved speech
    are talented story tellers or are capable and captivating your readers. Mostly,
    this site is comprised of a band of articulate sloths who don't really have
    anything new to share with others. No brisk vigor or vitality in your books if
    you need to convey your story with abusive language! If authors such as you and
    those who contribute to this blog continue writing in this depraved style, then
    the last 'good book' has already been written. How sad.....

    -Disgusted Anonymity

  10. (cont'd from above)

    We've all heard the "f" word...and we've heard it much too often. Can you (all of you, not just Craig) reach just a little deeper? Can you manage to, in a sense, stretch your brain cells? You know that junction between two neurons in the brain? If you think harder and longer about how to formulate the strained moments between characters in opposition, I really think that you will find that they can insult or berate one another with intense disrespect without resorting to foul smut. In other words, smarten up, people!

    By the way, I am a construction worker and have been all of my life, so The "F" word is an expletive that I am all too familiar hearing. But there was a day...or a year (apparently around 1503 or so) when the "F" word did not even exist. That means that we existed for many centuries without it being part of our vocabulary. Are you getting this, Craig? Why don't you use your so-called writing skills to invent NEW and creative ways for your characters to be ugly and insulting. I think it's just too bad that you and writers who agree with you stoop to using crude language in the the place of good writing.

  11. Sorry it's taken me a few days to answer this.

    Why don't you use your so-called writing skills to invent NEW and creative ways for your characters to be ugly and insulting.

    A couple of reasons: Because I wrote about a time and a place with which I'm well familiar, and nobody I knew used "NEW and creative" speech to be disagreeable. They told each other to go fuck themselves.

    But beyond that, who really cares (I mean, besides anonymous construction workers) what the words are if being ugly and insulting is the point of the exchange? Does some magical "NEW and creative" approach make the quote less ugly and less insulting? If so, I'm not interested. If not, then, again, what difference does it make? If "eat shit, asshole" and "consume feces, you rectum" are equivalent insults, then I'm going to use the one that suits my character's sensibilities.

    That's how I roll.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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