Shocking You Softly

I was once that kid on the playground telling my little friends every bleeped out word in the universe. To be fair, however, I didn’t really know what I was doing. This is elementary school we’re talking about, and my parents were naïve, or remiss at best, not thinking I was cataloging everything.

I’m sharing this because I find myself in a constant tug-of-war of what I can and cannot say in Christian publishing. To be clear, I am not an advocate of swear words. I am a reformed potty-mouth, and I intend to keep my writing free of curse words. To me, that is one of the many beauties of Christian publishing—untainted prose.

However, I can’t stop thinking that Christian publishing is in some sort of shifting paradigm, where two radically different generations are trying to see the whites of each other’s eyes.

Case in point: A beloved friend and fellow Christian author once urged me to take my work into mainstream publishing because the essence of my voice might upset some. She was speaking directly to my inclusion of certain words such as “sucks” and “stupid.”

I didn’t see the big deal at first. Now, however, I’ve been thoroughly acquainted with the big deal. It even locked me in the closet, took away my dinner, and told me to shape up if I ever wanted to see the light of day again. (Kidding. The edit wasn’t that painful.)

I’m not saying I wish to convert everyone to accept or speak my language, but the truth of the matter is I’m a born and bred Southern California girl, raised on MTV and the gag effect of adverbs. Totally.

I get that my style is too much for some, and that’s OK. One writer can’t please everyone. I’ll definitely have my niche, and I’ll walk away with the coziness of being honest to myself and with what I’m conveying to others.

As an example of the real Heather, consider this snippet of dialogue between my husband and me:

Husband: “Don’t you just love the sunset? All the colors coming together like a symphony God is orchestrating, telling us to enjoy ourselves and gaze at something beautiful.”

Me: “Eh. My back hurts. Are we done here? I feel like tacos. You feel like tacos?”

So yeah, if sunsets bore me, you can probably guess how painful it is to pretend me talk fancy.

I once tried writing an entire book the way I thought others would expect me to write. It sucked. And, it was stupid.

Even if it makes people cringe, I can only write the way I know how. That’s a good enough starting point for me. What else would you expect from a Southern California girl who gives up sunsets for tacos?

Have you had to modify your writing to make it work in Christian publishing? Do you regret it, or are you happy that you will be able to reach your audience more effectively?

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39 thoughts on “Shocking You Softly

  1. Hi, Heather, from one California gal to another. I’m from the north, though. Think misty bays, salt marshes and, oh yes, sunsets. We also had lots of tacos. 🙂

    I had to revise my current WIP on the advice of my agent, not for language but for content. I was glad to do it.because I’m not married to a particular concept but just want to tell my story in whatever form my audience can receive it. However, content is easier to revise than voice. You must be true to you, wherever it takes you in publishing.

    • I’ve had to make revisions on both. Bah! It’s fine, though. I guess it all comes from being surrounded by people who have humored me my entire life, always laughing at whatever comes out of my mouth. haha!

      • OH, and it’s a ten to fifteen year goal to trade my socal routes for some norcal loving. By the time I’m fifty, I’m pretty sure I’ll be strong enough to fight off the liberals. 🙂

  2. I grinned several times reading this. I’m a Texas girl, and I like your writing style! This issue comes up and again and again. Some publishers have a bit more lee-way than others but Greg (our beloved agent) tells me that it is the Christian bookstore owners who are the gate-keepers of “iffy words” much more so than the editors or publishers would like to be. Offending those who sell the books is not a good idea. There’s a sane balance between writing like a real, normal person and getting so edgy that you fall into sludge. Most writers/editors/agents have a few go-rounds until they find a compromise everyone can live with, if not love.

    • Ah, sweet compromise. I nod and smile and then punch a pillow when no one is looking. 🙂 Good point, though, on the bookstore owners. I always thought it was the publishers.

  3. Hi, great post. My boys go to Catholic school, and they use words and talk about things that make me gasp. And this is coming from someone who has no issues with profanity (hearing or sometimes using). I talk openly with my boys, so I know all the conversations going on at schools these days, and it would shock some parents. If anyone thinks kids, even devout Christian kids, don’t know the ‘S’ word of the ‘F’ word (or use them), they’re delusional. Granted, we wouldn’t want our kids reading books using those words, but ‘totally’ or ‘sucks’ and other things like that are okay because, while we raise them to be good Christians, we also raise them to fit in the world. People swear. Good people swear, too. Christian literature needs to appeal to our kids in order to draw them in. If even my Catholic school boys are using words they wouldn’t use in front of their mother, then for them to pick up a book that’s all “Oh, my goodness gracious me, what a hiccup” they’d put it down and never pick it up again, because it’s unrealistic. They can get a good strong message from a book that has some G rated profanity easier than they can from not reading one at all. I won’t write Christian literature because I won’t alter my books to do so. I enjoy writing about taboo subjects, but quietly insert those same messages we teach in the church. So, I guess they reach a market that Christian publishing books can’t. It still spreads word but to the people who need to hear it most–the ones who haven’t yet.

    • Great point! One of my concerns in walking the line on what I can and can’t say is that exact fear of someone PUTTING THE BOOK DOWN because it seems too unrealistic to talk a certain way.

      • Exactly! My book takes place in Boston. If you don’t know what the language is like in Boston, watch Good Will Hunting. Others in my adopted home town of Edmond, Okla., couldn’t get through it because of the language. I thought, “Oh, was there a lot of swearing?” I didn’t even hear it. But of course I’ve had to temper my characters’ true voices, because it’s actually not OK to use the F word as three different parts of speech in the CBA. 🙂

  4. Thanks for the real thing, Heather! I AM shocked that you’d choose tacos over a sunset—but that’s your voice, your life, and we need to hear from it as much as from the golly-gee-whizzers on Sunset Ridge.. My biggest complaint is not about language but more about being honest and willing to engage doubts and the less-sure areas of faith. AND, about being a little more inclusive of those who differ on a few points of theology .. . (Fish tacos are the best!)

  5. Fantastic post, and great topic, Heather. I love your writing voice!
    Not only do I agree with a lot of what Angie says above about reaching people you might not otherwise reach, I recently heard what I took to be some good advice in this area: Don’t be afraid of who your characters are or what they’re going through–push them and yourself to be as ‘real’ as possible. Your job is to be true to your voice and true to the story in whatever form it takes, then let your editor worry about what needs to be tweaked after the fact.

  6. Tch, you Americans! You’re so hung up on swearwords that there’s a total dichotomy between what you say and what you think. You have such unrealistic extremes; in the movies in both action films and ‘human drama’ every other words a motherf…er or a f…!, in your ‘family values’ type films nobody utters even a ‘Christ!’ or says boo to a goose. Neither of these alternatives is realistic. Nobody but a complete moron goes around either never swearing or machine-gun ‘motherf…ering’ every breath. (Only if you’re actually writing the part of a complete moron might this be acceptable). In all writing, even to an extent young adults, the character must be allowed his or her own natural dialogue. To do any less weakens belief in the story and cheats the reader. Christian writing should be a reflection of all society, not an adjusted view that the writer would rather it was. Use swearwords sparingly but be real. If a character is thinking something different to what they’re saying you have to give us that as well. Be honest, not abrasive but true. Then your message will be put across with renewed power.

    • I agree entirely. But alas, if a four-letter word keeps us out of the bookstores, out of the hands of readers, maybe it’s not worth the cost.

    • i must be a complete moron because i never swear, not even euphanisms, and that is how i write, too. prophanity, in real life or in creative writing, is the result of a lazy mind.

    • Nice point, rather diplomatically put. You say dichotomy, I say hypocrisy. Either way, it’s true. Our pastor made the point recently that we are the only ones rating sin. To God all sin is equal. We rate it because it allows us to feel superior/worthy/holy when we don’t do the “bad sins”. I wonder how many people who boast about not swearing regularly use little white lies to keep themselves out of uncomfortable situations or to spare others’ feelings?

      The question isn’t whether or not we’re sinners. We all sin. That’s what makes us human. The question is what we do with our sin. As Christian authors what better story to tell than the story of redemption. How is that story possible without first having something that needs redeemed?

      The beauty about using foul language – if there can be an upside to sin – is that the sin is already exposed, making it easier to identify and easier to confess and repent.

  7. I’m not a California girl (born and bred in New England) and I also used both of those “s” words in my writing. I also get antsy watching nature. It just moves so slow. Stupid, huh?

  8. Well, Heather, it’s like you’re my daughter or something! There is NOTHING about a decent sunset that some amazing snacks wouldn’t improve! I’m a Kansas City girl, but my upstate NY dreamy husband and I talk like this, too. My first novel (which shall remain unpublished, haha) got comments like this from an editor: “Your voice is FANTASTIC! But your main character isn’t likeable…..” Um, Kansas City? We have a problem….. 🙂 I don’t want to lose my voice, but it does become an issue when people don’t get me. Of course, truly, I don’t need THAT many to get me…a few million would be nice, though.

    • HA! Katy! That’s what I heard about my first book! Ah, good times. You know which character I CAN’T STAND? Bella from the Twilight series. All these years later, I still want to slap her. Yet, that didn’t stop a gazilion girls from thinking she’s some sort of (gag) role model.

  9. Heather, I’m from the Baltimore-Washington area. I’m writing a series set at a major state university, the first one largely in an all-male dorm. You can imagine what that would feel like if written using traditional CBA language–not real. I found when I first wrote the story I white-washed it so much the issues I meant to bring to light completely disappeared. Huh? I struggled with what to say, hint at and just plain ignore. I had some tell me I was writing my way out of Christian Fiction because that person couldn’t relate to the character. And at the same time, I speak with Christians on a daily basis who will NOT read Christian fiction because they don’t relate to what’s being written. I tell them to keep looking, it’s broader than they think. Just because we are Christian, does not mean we all look and act exactly the same. I think too often we acquaint things with sin that aren’t really sin, just because someone who sins (like the rest of us don’t?) does those things. “Sucked” is really only another term for “abomination” and “stupid” is another word for “foolish.” Both words are in the Bible and they have real meaning with real Godly intention.

    • That’s a valid point! Without crossing some obvious lines, I’m hoping Christian fiction does reach out to a broader audience, and I sincerely think it’s trying. If the lot of us can’t agree on what type of music the church band plays . . . hold on to your hats for books! haha! 🙂

  10. I have a scene in my novel where my heroine is in a bar, getting–well–hammered. She sees an old boyfriend and in her drunken state, throws herself into his arms and kisses him. When she sees him, she says, “Oh my gosh!” Which, frankly, not a lot of Boston college students would say, but this is the CBA. One critiquer highlighted the “Oh my gosh” and said, “You might consider changing this. The CBA is uncomfortable with slang for God.”

    Really, my protagonist getting drunk and throwing herself at a guy in a bar–perfectly fine. But saying “Oh my gosh,” that’s just too much.

    We may have gone a little too far with this issue.

    • I had the same thing happen to me. Here I had thought I was cleaning up my language by using that word and then I found out through a critiquer that I was blaspheming. That was certainly not my intent.

    • Hah! That’s a hilarious story!

      It’s okay for a fictional character to exhibit immoral behavior, so long as she uses appropriate language…

      • I agree, and since the “reality” of the situation would have a character saying something that isn’t suitable for the CBA audience, I find dialogue should be sparse. I’d rather NOT say anything, than portray an unrealistic sense of speech for the scene.

    • This is a repeat from the reply to yours, but I wanted to make sure you saw it 🙂

      I agree, and since the “reality” of the situation would have a character saying something that isn’t suitable for the CBA audience, I find dialogue should be sparse. I’d rather NOT say anything, than portray an unrealistic sense of speech for the scene.

      I have characters in my books who are hard-core criminals, thus NOT Christians. When they get elbowed in the gut, I don’t envision them saying anything other than something not allowed. Thus, I just have them grunt. 🙂

      • “I’d rather NOT say anything, than portray an unrealistic sense of speech for the scene.”
        EXCELLENT point!

  11. I feel like I am between two worlds: a mainstream audience and a Christian audience, and i don’t know where to go and wonder why I can have both. Flannery O’Conner was clearly Christian writer who made great “mainstream” success. Sometimes I hear Christians say my writing contains things too worldly, and worldly peole think at times I’m too preachy. AARGH!! Maybe I am not in two worlds, but in the void inbetween them both.

    • I think lots of us are in that place and lots of readers are as well. I believe there is an audience for that and there are more Christian fiction authors publishing to that audience. Still, I feel there is a fine line. We want to portray reality, but not immerse the reader in things that are unGodly to the point that it becomes commonplace and normal. However, I do not personally see “sucks” or “stupid” in that category. They are just strong words for bad and foolish. Lets say sin is sin, but not throw a bunch of other junk in there that God did not intend to be in there. That makes us like the Pharasees, and muddies the water when truly needing to define sin.

      • tell me if i’m wrong, but isn’t the protagonist supposed to go through some transformation? also, aren’t writers supposed to show and not tell? if these are true, and i know they are, in Christian lit, a heroes journey can very well be from worldliness to godliness, and i need to show this transformation, which means i show the worldliness as much as the godliness. nothing too bad. my characters are usually coming out of selfishness, which is bad enough, but done not require vulgarity. i just finished a novel where my mc has a bit of a violent streak, even pulling a gun on his father. he learn to be nice and the novel ends well, but i had to show that to be an affective writer. i am right, aren’t i?

      • Things sounds like what our pastor said multiple times over the past few weeks in a series entitled, “Messy Spirituality”. He talks about boundaries that God has set. Within those boundaries, God says, “Go wild. Knock yourselves out!” But humans – like the Pharisees – like to make rules to go within God’s boundaries. Those rules, as Connie says, muddy the waters of God’s boundaries.

    • I don’t think that “between two worlds” feeling subsides. And, I’ve since come to realize that even the most demure Christian writer will have a few stones cast at them. It’s human nature to put people in glass houses and then start chucking rocks at them.

  12. This is a funny post. I write the way I talk, too! I think people like that better, anyway. It’s authentic.

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