June 27, 2014

"make it strong."

pinterest
rising up, straight to the top 
had the guts, got the glory 
went the distance, now I'm not gonna stop 
just a man and his will to survive

- survivor, eye of the tiger

Maybe it's just me, but when I look back over the five novels I've written, I can trace a mental progression without a whole lot of effort.  Every writer takes a certain amount of time to get his literary feet under him, to grasp his style, to begin to understand the huge responsibility inherent in creating something with the intention of sharing it with the world.  This is particularly true of Christians who write, and who struggle with incorporating - or not incorporating - the gritty realities of life into their books without compromising their own beliefs.  No matter what you write, at some point in time questions - I suppose you could call them questions of ethics - will arise.  Do you write that sexually tense scene?  Do you show that that guy is in love, not just with the girl's "wonderful soul," but with her looks as well?  Do you write the word that comes into your mind in the middle of your characters' heated argument?  Are you (here's the clincher) making people stumble if you do any of the above?  And if you don't...are you just lame?

If you have been around Scribbles & Ink Stains for any length of time you already know how I feel about Christian fiction and the baggage that goes along with the label - but that is not at all to dismiss the struggles faced by individual Christians who also happen to be writers as they attempt to create a story that accurately addresses the world in all its fallen mayhem.  I see the above-mentioned questions frequently around Facebook and the blogosphere and I generally feel less than competent to respond to them, but I'm going to take a stab at a huge issue.

First off, I'll be honest: I am not an adventurous person.  There are certain things that I do not like reading; there are certain things that did not and still do not come easily to me in my writing.  But as I continue to write, and as my stories expand from the relative simplicity of The Soldier's Cross to the time-traveling tangle that is Tempus Regina, I grow more comfortable with incorporating elements that, frankly, some people may find offensive.  I've wrestled with it extensively, especially with the question of swearing.  When a word comes to mind as admirably suited to a piece of dialogue, do you go ahead and write it, or do you hurriedly shoo it out and substitute something that, let's be honest, is always rather stale by comparison?  I used to do that.  I have since come to the conclusion that that is not the best tack to take, that it in fact weakens the impact and believability of both character and story.

it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.

We all know four-letter words.  Really.  We do.  When you write, "Go to...!" no one is going to wonder what the person was about to say before they were so fortunately interrupted.  We all insert the missing word, and we're not sinning by so doing.  God is not going to condemn us because we know a word, nor even, I do not believe, because we (or our characters) use a word.  Attitude is far more important, and when it comes to it, slamming a door can be far more sinful than saying "damn."  We can - should! - incorporate into our stories things of which we do not approve; we should not pretend that the world and its language do not exist.

your story will thank you.

There is a constant debate about whether characters control the author or the author controls the characters.  I don't think "control" is the right word.  We know our characters, and as we continue to write them we get to know them better.  We write them as they are, and the story flows from that.  So it seems to me that when you think a character would say this or do that, he should probably say this and do that.  Hastily diverting the stream of his or her personality will only create awkwardness.  The story works better when you allow them to be true to their characters.  Seriously.  It does.

honey, sometimes "fiddlesticks" just doesn't cut it.

There is a very ludicrous idea that a sanctified man is cut of monkish cloth: celibate, with a halo, speaking in King James English.  I challenge you to find a godly man in the Bible who fits that description.  David?  Imprecatory psalms, people!  Paul?  He was not very fond of the Judaizers.  Jesus?  He washed the feet of the disciples and called the Pharisees a lot of whitewashed tombs. 

Bad words are for bad things.  When your wife is murdered, when you come up against a blackmailer, when your rival's about to win the man you love, when you've just been played for a fool, "oh bother" is not the first thing that springs to your mind.  Maybe we as the authors don't condone it, but we don't have to sermonize about it (that's even worse than not using the word in the first place).  We ought to write with understanding and compassion for the nature of man in all his God-made glory - fallen glory, yes, but glory all the same.  That includes the imperfections and the red-blooded passion of the real world.  It includes those cutting words, that total love, the acts they regret when all's said and done.  If we don't write like this, who will?

14 comments:

  1. A hearty "amen" right here! It's less of an "amen-oh-exactly-because-I-have-always-thought-the-same" and more of an "amen-wow-this-makes-so-much-more-sense-thank-you." Because I think I have always been shy of using harsher words, too. This, however, sheds a whole new light on the matter and for that I commend you.

    P.s. I'm so happy you're posting more frequently now. ^.^

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    1. I think this is one of those things that everyone has to struggle with at some point (or just remain blind to it, which I guess is blissful, but little else). I don't at all want everyone to run off and have their characters start swearing because I said it was all right. But I did want to present my two bits in opposition to the guilt-tripping that says we can't use harsh language. As Elisabeth Grace Foley said, judiciousness is key.

      Also, judiciousness should not be a word.

      P.S. I'm glad to be posting a little more frequently, too: I hope it keeps up! Also, I have your email in my box waiting for a response. ^.^

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  2. I've been wanting to write this post, but I haven't been able to pull my thoughts together.

    "Who talks about blockheads?" said Merrylegs, who just came up from the old apple tree, where he had been rubbing himself against a low branch; "Who talks about blockheads? I believe that is a bad word."
    "Bad words were made for bad things," said Ginger.


    This has been my view on swearing in a nutshell. Things are often only inappropriate when they are out of place. Telling someone to go to hell when it is truly the kindest thing they could do for you and is probably the only recourse left to them, is not out of place.

    '...when it comes to it, slamming a door can be far more sinful than saying "damn." '
    This is an excellent point, and I think it sets the discussion on the right footing. In large measure this discussion hinges upon appropriateness and attitude. My main character in Talldogs is of a taciturn, melancholy nature, and he doesn't swear that much - in point of fact his friend tends to cheerily swear more often, with good intent - but on at least one occasion his imagination has skirted, if not crossed, the line of murder. That's kind of a big deal - bigger than cussing.

    I think under your heading "The Story Will Thank You," you could probably insert at least one chapter from Dorothy Sayers' The Mind of the Maker. How many times does one have to say it? A solid moral foundation, an honest appreciation for the way the world operates, and a faithfulness to one's craft will create both a better story and a better author. Christians have too often buried their heads in the sand, opting out of growing backbones with which to face the ugliness of the world, and as a result our white-livered, shrivelled little souls have been marginalized on the world scene and literally no one gives a damn about what Christianity brings to bear.

    "I don't trust a man who doesn't drink." I remember saying this once, I don't remember about whom, but I still stick to my guns. A man who hasn't the guts to take a drink of something stronger than orange juice doesn't win my trust. I don't trust that he has backbone - simply, I don't trust that he is "man enough." I feel the same way about people who are confronted with a legitimately bad situation, and the best they can level at it is "fiddlesticks." Say "damn!" and a prayer if you have to, but don't cut the gin so thin you can't tell the difference between it and water.

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    1. The Mind of the Maker. Basically, everyone should read it.

      I tend to look at things in a literal fashion, so to have a character tell another to go to hell is pretty big. I mean, Hell, people! In a similar way, somehow it seems less huge to say "damn it" than it does to say "damn you." You're saying a lot right there. But I think those who have a better understanding of that are then better able to use the words in proper context and make them count. Make everything count.

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    2. I don't understand. How can it be lily-livered to flee temptation? I'm not saying I think drinking should be illegal or even that nobody should ever drink but my dad made a conscious choice not to ever drink and he's the bravest man I know. Is drinking the measure of a man? isn't it stronger to say no? Yes it's strong to be able to drink and not succumb to drunkenness or addiction but what is wrong with not drinking in the first place?

      I'm in no way trying to insult you or be mean I'm just interested in why you think that.

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    3. The point of this post is not really to dictate what you ought or ought not do on a personal level: while I have my opinions on drinking and swearing, I do not mean to force people round to my way of viewing things. Rather, I wanted to challenge the guilt-tripping that goes on in some spheres of Christianity, where writers are made to believe that you should not present things like drinking or swearing in your books in anything but a negative light - if you include them at all.

      Drinking is not really on topic for the post, but to not leave you feeling offended, I will attempt to clarify. Drink has throughout the ages been part of the concept of "masculinity" (we find this in the Bible as well in literature and history), but, again, in some spheres of modern Christianity there are those who teach that it is evil: you shouldn't have a drink, and you shouldn't write about drink either. This is a form of legalism, and it's really legalism that I'm addressing in my post - a legalism that says you cannot write about this and you must write about that. I am not saying that there is no room for personal conviction on the matter; as Paul says, every man must be convinced in his own mind. You may certainly choose not to drink. I know people who have chosen not to do so owing to a family history of addiction. The matter becomes problematic, however, when someone hitches their concept of holiness to that one horse (or to the horse of never saying certain words, or wearing skirts of a certain length, or anything else you can think of) and begins to tell others they must do the same.

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    4. Thanks Abigail. I was more wondering about Jenny's statement that she wouldn't think a guy had backbone unless he was willing to drink. I didn't think you were making a list of rules =).

      Great post by the way. I heartily conquer, sorry if I didn't phrase my comment right. I was just curious about what Jenny said, I wasn't trying to be argumentative.

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    5. I meant concur not conquer. Oops!

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  3. I like the way you take on difficult topics, Abigail. Your posts are so articulate and reasoned that I feel a little more intelligent just reading them.

    I tackled the subject of profanity in writing on my own blog several years ago—from a different angle. I still stand by what I said then, but looking at it now I think the argument is somewhat incomplete, because I didn't go so far as to explain what words I objected to. I'm not offended by a judicious use of "hell" or "damn" if it benefits the story—those words don't cause me to put a book down, and I think I'd be willing to use them the same way if I reach a story situation that needs it. Where I draw the line is what's commonly called four-letter words, i.e. the kind of language that earns a movie an R rating. I can't go there even for art's sake (and incidentally, the prevalence of that kind of language is the main reason I read very little contemporary fiction).

    No, my argument was against the school of thought that says profanity is not just permissible but necessary for realism in writing. Some within the Christian community hold that we're somehow denying the reality of sin and evil if we don't describe it in detail and quote every instance of profanity in full. I disagree with that. I don't think we should shy away from strong subjects, but I believe that there is a way to present them tastefully so that our work retains a measure of decency and is appropriate for most readers. The masters of literature did it for a few centuries, before publishing standards relaxed to allow anything.

    And you know, we probably agree on most of this anyway. Just my two cents. :)

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    1. I tend to think we do agree. It did not end up working its way into the post (too many caveats tend to dull the point, I find), but I continue to be uncomfortable with those R-rated words. I cannot say absolutely that they're never to be used, but I can't see myself ever coming to a situation where they were necessary. There is, I think, a difference between an oath and sheer vulgarity. There may be times when an author feels obliged to make a point of that vulgarity, but I don't think that's why most authors use them. They use them for the same reason that college students use them: they've gotten used to it. I'm not at all impressed by the modern propensity for vulgarity in books ostensibly for young adults. Okay, so it's not alright for young people to hear the word in a movie, but it is for them to read it in a book? Really? I'm not of the opinion that Christians should be encouraging that particular trend.

      I also disagree with the idea that all sin must be explored in detail. As you say, you can deal tastefully with difficult subjects; you can leave things to the imagination (where some things should be left). I don't even disagree with blanking out part of a word, if it fits the context. I've done that with "God," not because I don't recognize that people will know what is being said, but as a gesture of respect fitting to the historical period. Don't know that I'll keep it in the final drafts, but that was at least the idea.

      The bottom line, of course, is that we need to think carefully about all of the words we choose and why we're choosing them. You used "judicious," and I think that is key to the whole discussion - whether we're talking about language or some other issue. Fear and guilt, however, are not good reasons for not using any particular word.

      Thank you for commenting, by the way. Your comments are always thoughtful, and I appreciate you offering your slightly-different perspective and thus rounding out the post.

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  4. Thank you so much for this post. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who advocates for 'judicious' use of language. (well, I already know I'm not the only one, but I so rarely see it put into practice...)

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  5. Gah I just lost my long comment. Hmm never mind, I don't have time to type it all out again, but will just say that this blog post was a breath of fresh air. I often find characters in Christian novels very hard to relate to, as they are so unrealistic. They are too good, too perfect. I always say, if you saw someone have their leg blown off, would you really exclaim 'oh my word!'? People say you can cause people to stumble if you use swearing in your writing, but then couldn't you do that with a disobedient child, the description of a murder, or someone lying? Why do we fixate on certain 'sins' and ignore others? Is one really worse than the other? Can one really cause someone to stumble, and yet another will not?

    Thank you so much for sharing this! :)

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    1. "Why do we fixate on certain 'sins' and ignore others?"

      Thank you, Stephanie, for commenting (especially after Blogger ate your first post. After that I usually give up in a fit of petty rage). Your rhetorical questions are right on the dot, and precisely what I think Christians - writers and non-writers - ought to consider: why do we fixate on certain sins?

      I am of the opinion that many of us, if not all of us, have a "predisposition to some particular evil." When you recognize that to be the case, it is perhaps wisest to avoid such things as we find tempting. However, I do not believe we should go out fearfully into the world, as though we might read something and be forced by the Devil to sin. The Devil roves about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; that's why we go armed and armoured into the world, but it does not give us an excuse to cower at home. In the world of literature, this means reading - and writing! - boldly.

      "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."

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  6. Hello! *waves* I'm new here, and I enjoyed reading your post, but I absolutely must leap in and say...

    ...King James English wears a halo? Come now! :D Haven't you read, say, 1 Kings 16:11 in the KJV?

    Obscenities don't bother me as much--so many of the Unspeakable Words are just fruity bits of Anglo-Saxon which King Alfred probably used without a blush--though they are so culturally unacceptable that I don't use them, of course. Then there are hells and damns, which also don't bother me, though I prefer to use when I can attach strict theological significance to them (eg "Go back to Hell").

    However, the thing that bothers me most in the language debate is casual blasphemy. I don't feel comfortable having my characters break the IVth Commandment, even if they are bad characters or sympathetic unsaved characters.

    I heard someone, Doug Wilson maybe, explain once that you need to draw a distinction between acting a sin and actually committing a sin. For example, an actor might pretend to murder someone, but he hasn't actually done it, and it's no sin to him. But for the same actor to strip nude onscreen, or to spout profanities--now he's not just pretending, but actually committing a sin. I think that's a helpful distinction. When I'm writing a book, I'm not actually blaspheming if I have a character blaspheme, especially if the ethos of the book otherwise condemns it...

    But I'd still be leery of that, simply because it's so easy with bad language for your audience to start thinking that way themselves, and then it tends to drop out of the mouth without thinking. It might not be sin for me to use whatever evil language in my books, but I think it's unwise to normalise it in people's minds. At least, that's my concern. :) I love following my characters' lead sometimes, letting them be themselves and seeing what comes of it--but there are times when it's appropriate to step in and fence off an area. Where that fence goes will be different for all of us, God bless us. :)

    (super long comment is unexpectedly super long)

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings






Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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