Hey, I'm back? Every week my work affords me one day to myself, and that day is supposed to be used for writing. It hasn't worked out that way as much as I would like, but today looks promising.
Naturally I'm procrastinating by blogging instead.
Last month was an amazing month for selling my first book, full of highs and lows. Since I was starting my new job, I could afford much more Amazon advertising and that gave my book a ton of visibility. Of course, with that came a few reviews. Some liked my book, some didn't, and though I know authors are supposed to have a thick skin I naturally let the bad ones get to me, if only for a moment.
But one review caught my attention because it touched on something I had gone back and forth on before I published my book. The reviewer took issue with how frequently my female characters swore.
Characters in my first novel use dialogue which was, as I explained in an early post, based around the way my friends speak. Some use bad language; I don't. I find it hard to imagine anyone with a diverse group of social contacts not knowing someone who does. What strikes me most about how frequently people I know use foul language is that some are much more prolific than others.
Before I published my novel, I considered editing out every swear word and replacing it with something more innocuous. According to people who "know the genre," readers of cozy mystery books (the genre mine comes closest to), don't like their books to be too confrontational. If there has to be a murder, it should be described in a way that de-emphasizes the violence of it, and of course no characters should use foul language. I considered editing it, but it felt like it lost too much in terms of character.
(Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers for The Tide Washed Her Away follow)
My character Ashley swears frequently. I won't discuss the various people she's based on, but let's talk about her.
Ashley is a schoolteacher. She claims that the children she teaches swear often, which is probably true but is something she notices more because she's aware of her own language. She readily acknowledges that she has a problem with foul language, admitting it on several occasions. Only once is she confronted directly about it, and even though she's on the offensive in that scene, it sends her into a defensive posture for a moment. It's an issue for her, and she knows it.
What else do we know about Ashley? She has a temper. That's the very first thing we learn about her. She has a chip on her shoulder because she thinks Jessica had a more fortunate upbringing, both because her parents were wealthy and because their marriage didn't fail like her parents' did. She has to actively suppress her language and behavior as a schoolteacher. And she participated heavily in Corinne's rebellious activities despite feeling ashamed, something which contrasts with Corinne's seeming lack of social consciousness when confronted with the same situations.
The theme of The Tide Washed Her Away is judgment. Ashley is constantly judging herself. Swearing is, in a way, something she does because she knows it's wrong and does it anyway because she looks down on herself. Her swearing comes out more when she's emotional, but not in controlled ways. It's almost random in its appearance, like a nervous twitch, a subconscious reminder that she's beneath those she's around.
Swearing is also part of Kristina as a character. She swears less frequently, but often enough that it becomes noticeable. On the surface, Kristina seems to represent judgment of others. She is status and image obsessed; superficial. And while that comes across as judging others, when you really think about it you realize it's actually another form of self-judgment. She wants to seem perfect in the eyes of others, so she judges her imperfections and tries to correct them. Unlike Ashley, who swears in the company of strangers (but not authority figures), Kristina only swears at those who know her imperfections. And she doesn't just swear around them, but at them. Her foul language only comes out when she's angry, and it's a weapon she uses to point out others' behavior. "Look how bad you are that you caused me to swear."
None of the swearing in my novel is randomly placed. Kristina doesn't swear around strangers, but even Ashley has situations where her language stays clean. She doesn't swear around Jessica's father, Benjamin, which might have to do with the fact that she has a lingering schoolgirl crush on him, or simply because she has always seen him as a parental figure. She doesn't swear around the police, who are authority figures, though she does later swear at David when he becomes a non-authority figure, more of a contemporary.
None of my characters swear at authority figures, even when they're angry and most likely to want to. This reflects the people I know and how they speak. Ironically, those same people who never accidentally swear around authority figures seem to be unable to avoid the occasional slip of the tongue around babies, though they apologize profusely. This stops when they are aware that the child is listening and comprehending.
People wonder why I'm quiet in social situations... It takes a tremendous amount of thinking power to be listening and evaluating what people say, how they say it, and how their language (not just curse words) is affected by the social/situational context. I pride myself on reading peoples' words carefully. I've also been able to point out changes in peoples' language which come across as odd. In three cases, those people were in the very early stages of dementia before they even knew it, and another was moments away from having a seizure from a bad medicine interaction. Nobody else noticed the subtle language changes, even when I pointed them out.
The reviewer who complained about my characters' language said this: "Young women simply do not speak or
behave as this author has them do, most likely because being a middle
age man he cannot possibly relate. I do not know any professional women who regularly drop the F-bomb in casual conversation!"
Point of clarification: young adult = 20-40; middle age = 40-60. I get this straight from Wikipedia so it must be true, right? I wrote The Tide Washed Her Away between the ages of 28 and 30.
All the women I know would be considered "professional" young adults. My first instinct was to think the reviewer only interacts with young, professional women as an authority figure. I wanted to dispute the reviewer by saying, "Look, this is all based on people I know and care about. How can you be so sheltered to think young women don't ever swear? Who swears then? Children, middle aged adults... men only?" I did say those things out loud, but nobody heard me. I still didn't use curse words.
I'm glad someone posted that review, though. Why? Because there are potential readers who won't like my novel purely because of the language I chose to have my characters use. If they see that review, then hopefully they won't purchase my novel and waste their money on something they don't like. People who aren't bothered by it will, hopefully, enjoy and relate to the characters I created.
But call me "middle aged" one more time... (curse words)!