I feel it behooves me to remind you, as if the news all week hasn't been sadly insistent, to give what you can toward earthquake relief in Haiti. I know times are tough all over, but the enormity of the disaster there is simply unfathomable, so the Haitian people need all the help they can get. For secure ways to donate, please click here. Thank you kindly.
And with that, we move on to more frivolous stuff.
So...my sci-fi-lite short story "A Boy and His God" received Honorable Mention (roughly, quarter-finalist) in the 2009 Writers of the Future contest, which is kind of a big deal. Yes, the contest is named for L. Ron Hubbard; still, it's a reliable wellspring of fantasy and science fiction talent, a debutant ball for genre writers and illustrators. It's a sweet vindication, I confess happily, allowing minor hubris, for a story that didn't pass muster at any of the top five sci-fi literary magazines. So take that, vengeful spirit of Isaac Asimov!
The bulk of today's entry stems from a conversation over how much "potty mouth" language does and/or should appear in my writing. I keep it to a minimum here, as I do in most professional conversations. I can't say my language is always G-rated among friends, though, for several reasons. One, I don't consider the use of swear words a moral failing. I do find people who drop the F-bomb around strangers who don't want to hear it boorish, but to me, most words are just that: words. Our "F dash dash dash word" is the verb for "to strike" in Dutch, from which it probably derives. Is a Dutchman swearing when he uses that word? To me, it's just a collection of phonemes, useful in numerous contexts, including my upcoming book about sex. Another good reason to swear among friends? Sometimes it's funny. There are others.
Of course, that's not to say I swear indiscriminately in my writing. I do notice every potty-mouth word I put in, and some I include with tremendous hesitation (the five-letter, bisyllabic whopper on page 131 of Lightfall, for example). I know some of my readers would sincerely prefer if I never used coarse language, even in character dialogue; but I do so rather often because, in my professional opinion, I must. The character in question would talk that way. I know because he or she used that word in the dialogue I heard him or her speak in my head and transcribed, and that artistic fugue state--in which an author "hears" and transcribes a conversation rather than consciously devising it--is the ultimate goal of any fiction writer. It's how we know the prose is cooking. I have to let my characters be and say exactly what's right for them, even if it's not what's right for me or you. Of course, not all of my characters cuss. I'm pretty sure Shay never does, and I know her daughter Lacey speaks exactly as a little Christian girl would and should. Verle says "gol-damn" because it's how some Oklahoma Christians sidle around the sin of profanity. "The Megatron" is willfully profane because he's, well, a demon, or at least a malicious voice who claims to be one. So who do you want a demon to talk like, Sarah Palin? (Actually, that might be amusing, but never mind.)
What I told an offended reader, and I stand by this publicly, is that I "owe" it to my characters to depict them exactly as they would be if they really existed. Now, of course on some level that's utter bullsh--well, you know what I mean. Those characters don't exist, so it's pretentious to claim I owe them a thing. All the same, I feel that to purify their moral decisions or to write every character in a completely inoffensive way would be a disservice to most readers, in that it would be phony. People don't all watch their language. My students and friends certainly don't, even when they should. They don't behave heroically or puritanically at all times or even most of the time. To claim otherwise would be lying and, worse yet for my purposes, an example of lousy writing.
Look, maybe someday I'll write a story that only includes G-rated characters. I haven't done that in decades, but I suppose it's possible. I also suppose it's barely possible that I'll feel the urge someday to write a children's book, for which the innocence of the reader would necessarily trump authorial license. But until I write such a story, and I must say I'm not inclined to do so any time soon, I feel a huge obligation to write characters honestly. They'll do and say exactly what they'd "really" do and say. And y'know what? I also have to admit I find people who do exactly the right thing all the time, well, maybe just the teensiest bit boring. Good stories arise from conflict, and where's the conflict in a room full of upstanding citizens?
Boy, talk about a sense of obligation: You may not know this, but I'm a failed movie director. I directed a video short called The Storm and the Fisherman back in 2003, and despite my best efforts, I failed spectacularly. In the aftermath, I knew I'd let dozens of people down to whom I felt profoundly obligated: the actors, the director of photography, my friend Marilyn who created and applied temp tattoos, my friend Colin who wrote a beautiful score, and so on. I'd let myself down, too, but that was the least of my worries. It's the same for me now when I write. Lightfall is out there already, and soon, perhaps, it'll be joined by artistic siblings. I have two families of relatives plus a family of friends, and all of them come to my writing with stratospherical hopes. They want me to be successful, but they also hope I'll come across as a good person. They fear my characters will somehow reflect on me and the loved ones who back me. My girlfriend's family would love it if my books earned a squillion dollars, of course, but not if it meant embarrassing their litle girl. And I get that. I do. I understand; and yes, I owe us all a conscientious effort in that direction. But most of all, I owe it to myself to be the best, most insightful, most interesting, most credible writer I can. That doesn't mean I have to tell you every sordid detail of my own life, Gentle Reader, and believe me, I usually don't. But it does mean I'm obliged to speak the truth (or at least, as Stephen Colbert would have it, the truthiness) to the best of my ability to see and recreate it.
Imagine if your thoughts and feelings were out there for the world to judge. Every word I say about religion or sex or politics, the subjects of my trilogy in progress, gets quoted back to me, and almost always as the intentional start of a debate. I ask you, would you take it personally if you deliberately wrote villains and scoundrels for the sake of dramatic conflict, then some readers assumed those characters speak directly to the kind of person you are? And if you ever found yourself telling thematic stories for a living, would you be crazy or brave enough to say what you honestly feel?