Monday, January 20, 2020

Words Matter

Early today I opened up my phone and immediately went to Twitter, as a writer working hard at procrastinating is apt to do, and one of the first things I saw was a tweet by a fellow romance writer. It reads as follows:

“In writing and in life…the use of the F word shows laziness and ignorance. There are thousands of extravagantly brilliant words floating out there, and they’re all free. Step it up.”

Then there were a whole bunch of hashtags, but honestly, the red haze of rage had already slipped over my vision and I stopped reading.

Now. This was tweeted out a day or so ago, by someone I don’t know personally or follow. But it ended up in my timeline because someone I do follow commented, so I got to see it. I’ll not mention the original poster’s name or put up any other information about her, because, well, who she is doesn’t really matter. I didn’t go dig up her website to see if she’s published because I don’t care, but if her Twitter bio is accurate, she writes romantic suspense, and is far enough along in her career to at least have an agent. And that’s a problem, because if she’s a writer, she ought to know words fucking matter.

Warning: I have Things to Say About This.

Let’s side aside the patronizing, condescending bullshit all too apparent in this tweet and talk about words. Words mean things. Sometimes words have similar meanings, but each word has a distinct and individual meaning all its own. While it might be close to that of another word, it will not be identical. Words — all words — have a feel to them, a distinct and individual color, a flavor, a nuance, a feeling. And that means word choice has an impact on character and story.

Allow me to explain.

When I write the word “fuck” in a story, be it as an expletive (“Fuck!”), a verb (“I want to fuck you”), an adjective (“That fucking dog ate my homework!”), or an adverb (“That dog fucking ate my homework”) I am making a conscious choice. I don’t just pull words out of my ass because I think they look pretty or make me look smarter or because I need to pump up my word count. I choose words because they impart the feeling I want to convey to my reader. And that’s kind of an important fucking thing for a writer to do.

As an expletive, “fuck” has no equal. It is singular in its vulgarity and intensity, and I can think of no other word in the English language that conveys exactly what “fuck” does (if you do, throw it at me — I’m willing to learn).

Think about it. If a character says “Fuck!” you know right away that there are Big Feelings At Work. They are pissed off or excited or devastated or whatever to a degree that you simply cannot get by replacing fuck with any other word. Entire moods are contained in the word fuck, allowing you to say in four letters what would otherwise likely take a full paragraph.

And that matters when you’re trying to tell a story. It matters a lot. If I replace fuck with dammit, or shit, or any other expletive it simply does not tell me the same things about the character or the situation they are in. It changes the scene, it changes the character, it changes the whole fucking story.

As a writer, I choose the word that best fits my character, my scene, my story, and sometimes the right word is fuck. Deal with it.

Now, as a verb? Same fucking thing. What’s the difference between these sentences?

“I want to make love to you,” she breathed.
“I want to fuck you,” she breathed.

Both sentences convey a desire to have sex, but they’re not interchangeable. Why? Color, flavor, nuance, feeling. By changing one word (or phrase, in the case of make love), the entire mood of the scene and motivations of the characters are altered. To me, the phrase making love conjures images of soft sighs and soft touches and an emotional connection. There’s nothing wrong with making love, and plenty of romance novels contain lovemaking that’s extraordinarily well written and a joy to read. But it’s not fucking, and I’ll bet almost any well-read romance reader would instantly know the difference.

Fuck (again, to me) has a completely different tone. It’s grittier, dirtier, more explicit. Soft sighs become harsh moans, soft touches become a hard grip. Fucking can still have an emotional connection, but it’s raw, elemental. More intense.

Put simply? Hallmark movie characters make love, they do not fuck.

(Note: I do not expect that every romance writer or reader will have the same definitions as I for these two different things, but I would be shocked and skeptical if ANYONE had the exact same definition for both)

When I’m writing, there are a few criteria I keep in mind. I’m not always conscious of them, but they’re there nonetheless, and they’re applicable to almost every single scene, sentence, and word I write:

  1. Are the words I’m choosing telling the reader something about this character?
  2. Are the words I’m choosing telling the reader something about the situation this character is in?
  3. Are the words I’m choosing telling the reader something about how the character feels about the situation they’re in?
I choose the word that best fits the character, the scene, the emotions and tone I’m trying to convey, the story I’m trying to tell. And that MATTERS WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO TELL A STORY.

I once had a week-long fight with an editor because my publisher wanted me to use the word cock instead of dick. This publisher, who is no longer in business but who I bet you remember if you were around at the dawn of erotic romance e-books (hint: it rhymes with Dolores Grave) didn’t like it. It was too harsh, too gritty. They’d only allow its use as a pejorative, something you’d call someone being, well, a dick. But using it to describe someone’s actual penis? It made the interaction too harsh and invoked emotions they didn’t want to give to their readers.

I stuck to my guns for a full week, to the frustration of my editor who was just following the style guide she’d been given and had no authority to allow me to use those four letters in the way I wanted to use them. I was a pain in her ass, and I ended up sending her chocolates once I’d caved. And I did cave, because I wanted my book published and they held all the cards. But that was sixteen years ago (fuck, I’m old!) and I’m still pretty fucking mad about it. Dick was the right word for the emotions I wanted to evoke, the nuance of the scene, and the personality of the character. And that mattered to me.

It still matters to me. It should matter to all storytellers, because words matter. And if you’re a writer, and you don’t know that? If words don’t matter to you? I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you to be good at your craft, I don’t trust you to deliver a book that is well written, and I sure as shit don’t trust you to give advice to anyone else on how to write. If your preference is to not use profanity in your work, I have zero problem with that. Do you, honey. But you don’t get to tell me how words work — especially since you apparently don’t know the most basic and fundamental truth about them: that they matter.

You should be choosing the words that work for the story you’re telling, not what some tone policing puritan thinks is “brilliant” enough. Fuck is a brilliant fucking word in that it does exactly what it’s supposed to do. You can’t ask for more.

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