Category Archives: Words

Oh, Fudge!

Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).

If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.

One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.

This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.

Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”

Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.

My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).

While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.

Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).

Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.

For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.

Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.

And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.

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WORD WATCH: Distraction Explosives

Commuting in to work this morning, I heard an interesting term.

The announcer said that a hostage situation had been resolved when a SWAT team used “distraction explosives”.

I smiled and “flashbang” spilled out of my lips.

In other words, they used an M84 grenade on the hostage holder. Also known as a Flashbang.

Relax. It’s permanently set to stun (and is also called a “stun grenade), and is considered a nonlethal weapon.

Distraction explosive. Heh.

May Miscellania

There are so many things going on that warranted updates that I simply didn’t write about – as opposed to the salad days of this blog when each one would have warranted its own separate and lengthy essay.

Anyway, here’s what’s been happening in the land of the Faust.

Charlton Heston, R.I.P

I’m supposing that my brother and I will both miss having Chuck around, albeit for two different reasons. My brother, being 13 years older, grew up on Mr. Heston in his epic roles – The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, El Cid, Will Penny, Major Dundee. The parts well served by his larger than life leading-man presence.

Being born later, I remember a different Charlton Heston – the rugged, heroic everyman forced into impossible circumstances. I’m talking of course about the great Charlton Heston Sci-Fi Trilogy of the Early 70’s – Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man.

Now I know you’d be hard-pressed to call any of them Sci-Fi, or even Early 70’s since one came out in ’68 or ’69 – but for a kid struggling to survive the horrors of Junior High and early High School, this was pretty heady stuff. Remember that the endings to Apes and Soylent were brand new back then, instead of being the target of parody that all twist endings fall victim to (“I see dead people!”). When stuff like that happens, it’s hard to remember the magic impact that the original had when first seen in the flickering light of a theater.

Rather than wax eloquent on Heston and his roles and the importance they had to me at the time, I’ll instead say this. I recently had a chance to revisit Soylent Green and I thought it held up remarkably well. It was a well crafted thriller for its time and deserves a look past what is considered to be an overwrought ending.

In the meantime, I’m going to take another look at The Omega Man soon, inspired by seeing I Am Legend with my son over the Christmas holiday. I was surprised at how much the Will Smith remake owed to what I remember of the Heston version – so it’ll be an interesting look, especially if my son is around to see it.

Well what do you know…

I’d grown up hearing the expression flea circus. I always assumed the expression originated from an attraction that was basically an illusion, a miniature circus that was run by hidden magnets and gears to give the illusion that it was being run by real fleas.

Well, insipired by today’s installment of Lio, I checked out “flea circus” in Wikipedia and guess what?

Apparently, at one time, real fleas were used in flea circuses. They were even trained and everything. Seriously.

Now I Know How Scientologists Feel When Tom Cruise Starts to Open His Mouth in Public…

Why, oh why, oh why do other believers do this sort of thing? Don’t they realize that Jesus has his hands full trying to save our wretched souls and doesn’t have time to appear in municipal court?

Pastor sees noise citation as precedent-setting, says Jesus Christ is his attorney
.

And… well, that’s it. There were a couple more, but I’ve spun them off into their own stories. One you’ve already seen, about my crashing attending a Global Warming Symposium. The other will be up in a day or so, likely.

Places We’ve All Been

Place #1: Hearing somebody use a word that you just knew was for the purpose of impressing others.

Take heart! Via Brian at BBSpot comes The Pompous *ss Words Homepage, wherein editor Dan is striving to collect 100 words that people should never, ever, ever use. And yes, I sent him one of my pet peeves to see if it makes his list. And yes, this one is making my Resource link section on the sidebar.

Place #2: That envelope in your box is familiar. You had sent it out some time earlier with high, high hopes.

Via my work colleague and multimedia wizard Dan K., here’s something that every writer who has ever put postage on a manuscript can relate to:

Listening: Dire Straits, Private Investigations (Love Over Gold)

Word Watch: Weasel Words

W is for Weasel Words. This is a term used in advertising that describes a bit of copy that circumnavigates the facts in general by telling a little bit too much truth.

Here’s a dandy example of Weasel Words taken from my home freezer, on a package that was opened and sampled once and deemed inedible:

BUFFALO STYLE
BONELESS CHICKEN
WINGZ

Glazed, Wing Shaped
Chicken Breast Pattie Nugget Fritters
with Rib Meat

Notice the quaint misspelling. It’s as if they were told by the FDA that if they called these products “wings,” they could be sued. Or perhaps that really was the case.

This reminds me of how I used to tease my wife that Velveeta wasn’t real food. First, I reasoned, is that it wasn’t kept with the other cheeses. Second was that I once saw a description on the box that defined it as “cheese food product.”

And this is the profession in which I make my living.

Another note of note: Added a couple more entries to my post of Great Quotes You Won’t Find In Bartlett’s.

Listening: Love and Money, “Shape of Things to Come” (via iTunes shuffle play)

Another Toothbrush Postmortem

This morning I had to run down to the iBook before leaving for work to type in an addition to something I wrote last night. Just a little something to make it better.

While scraping the molars it also occurred to me that, while I referred to And/News as screwball noir, I’m not sure if that entirely fits.

I got the notion to try my hand at something like that after reading Tick Tock by Dean Koontz and being sorely disappointed. In his notes on the book, he mentioned that he was shooting for a cross between his usual gripping suspense and a screwball romantic comedy. I liked the notion of trying to put those two elements together, and told myself that I was going to try doing that sometime. Now I guess I am.

Thing is, when I started And/News, I decided to throw out some of the conventions of the screwball comedy. For those unfamiliar with the genre, here’s a short list:

1) The man is usually a stiff or formal type with his life in a certain pattern. Lost that one. Richard was at loose ends when he met K, being on the run from a failing love affair. That made him more vulnerable and less apt to do the obvious, right thing.

2) The woman is a free spirit. Kept that one.

3) The man usually gets dragged into the situation by the woman. Kept that, too… although Richard did want to dip his toe in the water. Or did he? One of the revelations from last night’s writing makes me wonder…

4) The woman is usually smarter than the man in the sense that her odd and zany ways seem to be the perfect action to take to help them survive. Tossed that one out, way out. I didn’t think that worked in Koontz’s book, and I thought that characteristic ran counter to what the genre of the thriller was all about. I thought it was more important that Richard and K not have the skills to survive, and by virtue of making it up as they go along, manage to stay one step ahead of the Pursuing Menace. After all, taking the proper action for survival dictates that you make sensible decisions that can be predicted. Right? But neither Richard nor K are capable of doing that.

In doing all of this, I have pretty much gutted the convention of the screwball romance/comedy/thriller. That’s okay, though, because I have another turn of phrase in mind that I’ve been using to describe the direction my novels are moving in.

I call it the Relationship Thriller.

Basically, the story is about the relationship between two or more people, and the thriller part is the MacGuffin* that causes a change in that relationship.

I’ve always been fascinated by the web of interrelationships between people. I once started work on a novel by making a large map of the characters involved and how their lives intertwined (that project is still on my “to be written someday” list).

Looking back at my body of work, I can see that this is where I wanted to go all along. A Death of Honor is about Payne relationship with Trinina and Nathan. The Company Man is about Andrew Birch’s relationship with the Astradyne company. There’s nothing like that I can see in the Angel’s Luck books – that’s just an outer space shoot-’em-up; and the Pembroke Hall books are satire; there are all sorts of relationships there, but that’s not what the book was ultimately about.

Maybe I was going the wrong way with those. Who knows?

However, I am headed back that way with …and that’s the end of the news; and Jamais Vu… and the mysterious UFO novel that is some years down the road.

I don’t think I invented this whole idea of the Relationship Thriller, but I’m certainly going out to stake out my claim.

NP – iTSP (Eels, “Jeannie’s Diary”)

*”(The MacGuffin is) the thing that the spies are after, but the audience doesn’t care.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Melisma

Here’s a new word for today: melisma. It’s when, during the act of singing, the singer turns one-note one-syllable into 37 notes on one syllable. Basically the musical equivalent of glurge. When you look the word up in a dictionary, you see a picture of Whitney Houston.

To think… all these years I’d been calling it “Diva-itis” without knowing there was an actual word for it. And what’s even better, I love the way it mirrors the word miasma