Monday, July 29, 2019

The Power of the Title

When I finished reading Hermann Hesse's delightful Peter Camenzind, one thought kept coming to mind: "With all the lessons and discussion in that story, the best title was the character's name? Seriously?" In fairness, this was Hesse's style and the way of the early 20th century. His other works such as Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and Gertrud to name but a few were named after the lead character. However, he also titled an anthology, Strange Tales from Another Star, so he did have the creativity. The point is, were the titles used to their best advantage?

Never doubt the power of a good title
Let's face it - those first words need to grab the prospective reader. Whether it's a poem, a short story, a novel, or a strongly worded declaration to King George, that top line can bring in the new readers or send them looking somewhere else. A title is a selling point. It influences the reader from square one. For the beginning author, the title is the most important part they will write (in the era of social media, there's also cover art, but that's another discussion). Once the author has gained a big name and a reputation, the title isn't as important, but we're not there yet.

Even in an era of boring book titles, some authors made theirs stand out. When Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with a very new and innovative style, he gave it an innovative name, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. If he had named it Dupin, after the main character, would it have caught the eye? I doubt it. This title gives us plenty of information in six words, and we know immediately if we want to read it. This story's popularity in effect defined the detective genre, but credit needs to be offered to those six words that drew people to reading the story in the first place.

When we write our story, we should think about what we want to offer the reader at the very beginning. Do we offer a sense of humor and whimsy? Do we suggest the genre? Is the title a question that draws the potential reader in to find the answer? Or is it just odd enough to make someone browsing through Amazon stop and give it a second look? The proposed title for one of my favorite books was, An Inquiry into Values. Did that spark your interest? Didn't think so. However, the novel ended up with the more curious name, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into Values. That made a difference, as it soon hit the New York Times' Bestseller List.

Some genres sell themselves, so the title does not need to appeal to whether it is sci-fi, fiction-fantasy, contemporary. or whatever. At that point, what is the real selling point? Mood and intensity usually come to mind. In sci-fi, things can go in many directions, so if the reader gets a feel for what area they'll be walking into, they'll be more comfortable. Space opera is one thing, dystopian sci-fi is another, and of course there is the tongue-in-cheek talk of how the future will still have very human themes. Think about Douglas Adams' defining work of humor and science-fiction, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Before this was published, or was even a radio show, the proposal was called, The Ends of the Earth. Something about the title didn't match the tone, and the reworks began. The final product gave curious people everything they wanted to know - novelty, sci-fi, and an appeal to the off-beat. Millions of copies later, it looks like Mr. Adams made the right decision.

Does every story need to have the big sell right in the title? Maybe it does, maybe it's not important. The next book I will be reading is Tom Hernandez' The Acorn Wars. It's an exploration into the family dynamic, and maybe a title saying that would've scared readers away. However, a perfect name such as The Acorn Wars is intriguing enough to draw interest, and that's why I will be reading it. (And it's on Kindle soon.)

When you set down and write your next masterpiece, just give a thought to those words that appear on the cover or at the top of the page. Think about what they could do for you. Maybe something amazing pops out, maybe not. The important part is that it's an opportunity, and we should never pass them up.

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Writer's Many Caps

This was a very busy and frustrating week and I'm glad I have a little time left to get this post together. I've been wearing a lot of caps lately, doing all those things that writers do - polishing a story for a quarterly writing contest, putting together a manuscript for publication, doing some multimedia work for yet a different project, a little field research for a manuscript still in progress, and digging through the archives of my late mentor, Newton Berry, trying to find his last works. All in all a very busy week.

The busy part is obvious, but you may have already noticed the frustrating part - none of those tasks actually involve that fun part we call writing. I didn't have the chance to wear my writer's cap all week. Editing is not writing, reading is not writing, researching is not writing. Nothing is writing except for writing, and that can be disappointing. Don't be alarmed though. That's what happens.

I've never had a job where the official title described what I would do most of the time. During my twenty-year career as an analyst, the actual analyzing part was there, but I mostly did other stuff. Four to five hours a week in meetings, mostly listening. A similar amount of time with bureaucratic BS. Supporting other departments. Trying to get some resources to do my thing. Explaining to other departments what I actually do. Making all my analysis look presentable and placing it in all the appropriate files and inboxes (electronic and otherwise). And then a little time actually being an analyst. However, this was all very important in the bigger picture, and it prepared me for life as a writer.

You see, even as a writer, sometimes I don't want to write. Whatever the reason may be, sometimes that writer's cap doesn't fit. On these occasions, I am very happy to edit the last thing I wrote, outline what I might want to write, or do all the things that don't involve much creativity but still support my writer's existence. It helps carry the weight that comes with that quiet responsibility of being a good writer.

I also keep one other thing in mind: All those little things that need attending to will really get in the way when I want to sit down and write a few chapters. Nothing's worse than wanting to sit down and create some reality but then realizing that one deadline won't adjust itself, or the next five phone calls will be from the author of that manuscript you promised to proof. It happens in all careers. I used to nestle up with my databases, get out my technical books, put on my analyst cap, and prepare to do some deep data analysis only to have someone's head poke into my office and say, "Meeting with Foreign Exchange on the twelfth floor, bring your lunch!"

I would hear that and hate meetings, hate the Foreign Exchange department, and hate the twelfth floor. I wanted to analyze. And I would put away my analyst cap and go to the meeting, pouting like a child.

The point of all this is that writing of any kind will at times be frustrating. It will be that thing you want to do and can't, which is a good sign in its own way. And the more you enjoy writing and get into all that it offers, the more times something will get in the way when you just want to write.

Frustration is part of the game, but it makes writing time that much more important. I'll conclude on that note, and if this post seems a little short, it's only because I have some editing to do before I can get more writing in.

Monday, July 22, 2019

What My Happiness Looks Like

A part of the reason I got into writing was to process a lot of the things going on in my life. Thoughts about the past, present, and future all got a chance to be turned into words on the page. The more I let myself process these things, the more I was able to connect with the good and the bad in a healthy, controlled way. Writing about my joys and pains, my dreams and fears, helped me understand them and communicate them to others.

The tough part was finding an effective way to communicate emotions. Not as easy as we think.

The basic writer's toolkit gives us enough to explain our emotions. A simple simile can express our joy by comparing it to that weightless, unstoppable euphoria that makes us dizzy with happiness. Any emotion can be shown by merely describing what we feel in the moment. The mere mention a pit in my stomach, a warm rush through my body, or feeling my heart tear in half gives the reader an instant connection for that particular emotion. However, that's the basic writer's toolkit. Let's turn it up a bit.

What does love look like? What would despair sound like? How would you describe loneliness in sensory terms? To take this even further, how would you describe how those emotions change the world around the character? I am sure we have all had one of those days. You know them - they start with a bad mood, then before too long, nothing goes right. Eight red lights in a row, the other drivers are suddenly the worst ones you've seen, everything works against you. Now that bad mood comes alive.

When we write about a character's emotional experience, we need to make it resonate with the reader. The emphasis on that particular emotion should be as dramatic as its relevance to the story. If a character is struck with a wave of very loving feelings, it's always worth expanding upon; we just need to make sure that this matches the tone of the story. If the story is about a young person and their first time falling in love, well, that sensation should be painted all across the page. Every sense should be alive with wonder and excitement. Sounds should be clear and joyful, smells new and vibrant. When the character walks to work, deeply breathing in the traffic fumes and thinking about how exciting and fascinating city life is, the reader will know the character is in love. However, if the story is about a cop digging through a cold case unrelated to his life, that love thing might not need as much text.

The other important part of emotional description is personalizing it. Those previous similes about the pit in the stomach and so forth are good, but they're not very personal. They signal an emotional situation, but little else. When storytelling works well, everything brings out another facet of the character. This also counts as part of their emotional perception. When that character feels angry, what do they focus on? What changes in their perception? If they just see red, well, that's something, but it can be so much better. When the person gets angry does he remember something? That one person who betrayed him? The one time he failed to save the day? A horrible childhood memory he's never been able to resolve? As those are incorporated, they condition the reader. The character gets angry, those memories click in, and the reader takes note. Eventually, the reader is noticing when those cues show up, and they are considering how the character will be affected. Once the reader is that engaged with the character, you've done your job as a writer.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Oh Baby, It's Hot Outside

In case you haven't heard, in some places here in the USA, it's hot outside. Real hot. Throughout the media, everyone is telling us that it's hot. Small-talk with strangers now starts off with, "Wow, it's really hot." Headlines can't avoid communicating this simple fact - hot. However, not many of these people take it much further than just saying it's hot outside. They just use that word over and over again - hot, hot, hot. We writers can do better.

Describing something like heat is usually a direct appeal to a person's sense of temperature. That's the easiest route, so we want to go to the word thermometer - warm, hot, real hot, scorching, broiling, unbearable. Descriptive, but in the long-run, boring. Once everyone uses these words, they lose meaning and impact. A writer needs to go beyond the thermometer.

One area to explore is the response to heat. Description can be cause-effect, and in the reader's mind, that is a two-way relationship. We can talk about what the temperature does without even mentioning heat, and the reader will feel the result:
"Tom left his building and braced himself as the oppressive, humid air met him outside the door. Sweat instantly beaded on his brow as his glasses, cold from the air conditioning inside, fogged up with condensation. His six-block walk to the train station would feel like a few miles on the treadmill, but without a refreshing cool-down in the shower afterward."
The temperature words here are in the cool range, but their reactivity brings out the heat of the moment without actually using that term. All the discussion appeals to how the character reacts, and readers can relate to that even more than just how hot it was.

Of course, sensory appeal works as well, particularly when we go beyond the obvious sense of touch. Think of looking down a country road on a summer's day, and how the fields on the horizon ripple and waver in the distance. It's a bit of a cliche, but it represents a sensory description that shows the heat without saying it. Let's go back to Tom walking to the train:
"The flow of rush-hour pedestrians had slowed to a crawl, the draining weight of the air pressing down shoulders, turning breathing into panting. Elegant ties were loosened, pressed sleeves rolled up, collars unbuttoned, the nicest wardrobes now sweat-soaked and rearranged into survival gear. People slowly walking past the fountain outside City Hall paused to watch children playing in the water's spray. It was the wild, free-spirited joy of youth, and adults found refreshment in the sight of people just enjoying the summer's freedoms."
No use of the word heat here. The image of the mass of melting commuters is all that is necessary. The blending of exhaustion and joy offers more dimension to the scene, allowing it to be a complex palette of emotions that doesn't maintain that one note of heat. However, if that one note is preferred, that fountain part could still describe the children, just focusing not on their joy but the quiet jealousy of the staggering commuters.

When we, as writers, encounter a familiar scene, we have a choice to make. We can go to our home-run swing and say, "It was hot. Damn hot. Really damn hot," and really just drive that point home. Our other option is to play upon some angle, some theme that brings out more from the scene.

Simple exercise: The next time you go out and have an opportunity to make some small talk - the gas station, an elevator, wherever - think about how to bring up the weather without hitting on the temperature. "When it's like this, it's tough to breathe." "Days like this make a cold one so much better." "Guess who's not mowing his lawn today?" Get a feel for the variety that is possible, and turn it toward your writing.

Oh - be careful too. It's real hot outside.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Value of Wordiness

I knew there would be a little backlash after my last post. In "Writing, Construction and Legos," I talked about making description scenes important, and throwing out useless discussions of things that fill in the scene but otherwise don't carry much value. This is good advice, but the devil is in the details. As I discovered, a few people want to explore the details. Well, let's do that.

Some people told me that when they read anything, it always helps to have physical description to ground them, regardless of whether or not that image is valuable. No argument that details offer a stabilizing factor. However, the writer should consider how to use those descriptions to provide the most impact.

In the previous post, I used an example of a minivan. I demonstrated how the description of the minivan's color, shine, lines, etc., could be written very well, but the most memorable part would be the family stickers on the rear window with the father sticker scraped off with a butterknife. The latter provides more information than just looks; it helps establish story elements. However, if the writer finds it necessary to incorporate the minivan's appearance, then it can still contribute more than an image.

One route is contrast. A number of important character elements and plot pieces can be shown through contrast, as the difference becomes the focus. Look at our minivan: clean wax job, that candy-apple red paint job lighting up the road, every part reflecting the afternoon sun and showcasing the vehicle's razor-sharp lines and elegant curves of the aerodynamic body. Nice physical description because it suggests the owner's pride in the vehicle, although this may still not be important to the story. However, when we show how the father sticker is scraped off in such a crude manner;  the implication of a butterknife being used suggests a rash, angry action. Now we have the contrast - the passionately maintained minivan with the ugliness of the destroyed sticker. Something's clearly wrong, and the reader wants to know what. This is how pages turn.

Another route is characterization. Again with our minivan, the actual appearance may not make a difference. However, is the owner detail-oriented? Obsessive about appearances or upkeep? Overcompensating due to being forced to drive a minivan rather than a powerful, gas-guzzling 970 GTO? We can show a lot about our character through the presentation of their items, and in turn emphasize the visual details that showcase the character. With the overcompensating owner, draw the reader to details like mag wheels or the hand-drawn racing stripes on the sides; maybe how the paint job was customized to match what that GTO should've been. Now our descriptions show the minivan but they also explain the character.

Mood is, of course, a pretty easy one to work with. If the reader is supposed to draw a sense of freedom from the scene, then the minivan is bright, clean, and ready to go anywhere. It's aerodynamic and won't meet any resistance as it heads toward a wide-open future, with the father figure behind it just like the scratched-off sticker. Something darker or more foreboding draws attention to the tinted windows, hiding the passengers from the world, the shiny body casting a glare to make people turn away, to look at anything but the vehicle. The owner drives away as if trying to escape its past, but like the scraped-off sticker on the back window, it's never totally gone and follows them everywhere.

Whatever you choose to write about, get as much use from it as possible. Simple things such as supporting characters, descriptions, and secondary locations can contribute far more than their value if we put them to as much use as possible. The easiest route to do that is to try to include the item with a focus on contrast, characterization, and mood.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Writing, Construction and Legos

Writing a story is similar to any other kind of manufacturing, but then come the weird parts. The initial process is know the abstract parts of the story - plot, characters, mood and motif, etc. - and fill in those in with a bunch of words shaped into sentences that fill in those spots. It's an arduous process of construction, but at the end, you have your story. Then it gets a little weird, because what you have is your first draft. As we know, first drafts can be considerably different than final drafts.

Intuitively, when we think about building something, we think about constantly making progress toward the final product. Overhauling it midway doesn't seem right. Would we build a house, then as the drywall is going up, say, "Actually, let's switch the master bathroom to the other side of the hallway, take out the dividing wall in the kitchen, and move the fireplace to the back room"? If your contractor has a sense of humor, you two will share a laugh. Maybe you'll just get laughed at. Whatever the case, that fireplace is staying right where they put it.

Our story, however, can change as much as we want. It has the constructive flexibility of a box full of Legos, and we should take advantage of that. We should change things, try things, write different scenes just to see how they work, and whatever else we feel might help. We just pour those Legos on the floor and sort through them to make whatever we want.

However, the difficult part is when we remove them.

Again - it's counter-intuitive. We wouldn't tell our contractor to remove a bedroom, and we feel the same way about our words; perhaps even more so. But some authors will tell you that 10-20% of a manuscript  is removed between the first and the final drafts. And all those thousands of words are ones you will have painstakingly created and placed into what felt like just the perfect place. They made sense. They were perfect. Why did they have to go?

This blog has discussed several categories of words that are useless. Those are easy to trim out. The tough ones are the good ones that just don't contribute. We all write great descriptions and entertaining narratives that make us smile on the inside, and it's heartbreaking to see them not make the final cut. This, however, is what we have to do, and it helps to have a guideline or two to tell us when it's time for something to go.

Write a one-paragraph description of something ordinary - say, a minivan. With a little passion, we can write about the shine, smooth lines, and the showiness that makes it stand out, and have a nice paragraph. However, in the context of the story, is it important? Does it contribute to the plot? Or maybe it hits the wrong points, placing all the emphasis on the high-gloss paint job, but ignoring the back-window stickers showing Mom, her two daughters, a dog, a cat, and a husband whose sticker is scraped off with a butterknife. The image of the minivan is pleasant reading, but the sticker section tells us so much more.

The first response might be to use them both. Give the reader a nice description and leave the sticker bit to contribute to the story. That's always an option that we have as writers, but sometimes it works against us. A very strong descriptive sentence will get lost mixed in with four others that don't have the same impact. If those other lines can't help carry the point, they threaten to bury the point. That's when we look at all that passionate description of the car body and say, "Nothing personal. You're good words, just not for this page."

Taking this approach - honing and refining our descriptions and narratives to make the point stand out - makes our stories vivid and appealing, and showcases our storytelling as well as our writing. By the proper reduction, we actually end up with more story.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Just What is Smut?

I get the occasional inquiry about my Writing Workshop - is it appropriate for adults-only writers? I explain the details: We try to keep it for people 18+, allow for free expression, and a common understanding that some writers may work on themes that do not have universal appeal. However, after a little investigation. I get to the heart of the matter - after reading E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey, they started writing something similar and want to find a venue to discuss their writing. Fine by me.

But that's when another question comes up - where should a writer draw the line for that genre? What is the difference between romance, erotica, and plain old smut? Believe it or not, people think about this a lot; particularly publishers. So, without going into the NSFW realm, it's time for some explanation about how the different genres are perceived, approached, and discussed within the literary community.

On one end of this spectrum is romantic love. This is, above all else, the journey of one person trying to find their perfect pairing (or their journeys to find each other). While the term "romance novel" usually elicits thoughts of a 250-page paperback with an intensely formulaic story, predictable ending, and a half-naked couple on the cover in a windswept embrace, the romance genre is more nuanced. In the strictest terms, it is an emotional journey. It is about discovery and connection, it is where the hero's growth brings them closer to that special someone. The intensity of the story is in the mind and the heart; other body parts are not required.

Of course, on the other end is smut. We all know what this end is about, so let's keep it simple. While the definition of smut is something sexually vulgar or obscene, a writer should think about the description that says, "...something having no artistic or socially redeeming qualities." In short, obscenity for obscenity's sake. Smut exists for one purpose only and it's not the narrative. This should not concern us as writers if that's not our thing, but knowing the definition is important when a writer decides on what parts of a story to discuss.

Case in point: One person at a workshop was writing a romance novel, and would bring a chapter to every meeting. They usually ran ten pages, maybe 2,200 words, each moving the story along, adding to the narrative, and generally well-written for first-draft copy.

Then came the chapter where the hero hooked up with someone.

That chapter focusing on that hook-up - with only a secondary character - was 22 pages, 4,754 words, no dialogue, describing their time together with forensic accuracy and an obsessive attention to every detail possible. Every detail.

Let's calm down and think about this chapter as writers. What happens to the pacing of the story? Each chapter goes block by block, then one piece is this huge block of writing, focusing on one specific element - the hook-up. Does that become distracting? Does it pull the reader away from the story? Is there enough character development created during that scene to justify twenty-plus pages on one event? Or is something off here?

The vast prairie of territory between romance and smut is filled with chapters like the above, and as writers, we have to go back to our basic toolkit for storytelling. We need to ask ourselves how much is necessary? Is there such a thing as too much in one scene? Are we using twenty pages to say what five pages could just as easily explain? Does our writing remain focused on our intended purpose? How this writer uses that hook-up chapter will help determine just where the story lands in the realm between romance and smut.

As a final note, as writers, we should let ourselves write what we want to write and see what happens when we put words to the page. However, after that initial joy of creation, we need to take a critical look at what we've made, and decide what we want it to become. Romance is a wonderful realm to explore this idea, but in any genre, we need to learn how to pare down our work to make sure we retain focus.

Guess what the next post will be about...

Friday, July 5, 2019

Pre-Writing: The Story Before the Words

When people ask me about what it took for me to write my first novel, The Book of Cain, I actually hear two questions. Obviously there's the curiosity about writing 75,000+ words full of characters, plots and events. However, I also hear a part of them asking how I came up with a lengthy story that was worth writing in full. That's the more interesting process, in my opinion. That part of the process is called pre-writing, and goes in a lot of directions.

We all know someone (possibly including yourself) who says, "I have a story all put together; I just need to write it." That's so adorable - as if writing is just like putting on the paint after building a house. Nope. Someone who has the idea all in their head is in the first part of pre-writing: Forming ideas. There are a lot of different steps and stages for pre-writing, and everyone uses some version that works for them. This post lays out the bare bones, and the very core of that skeleton is forming an idea.

We all have ideas for stories, but often they are little more than core ideas, and don't have that added part that makes it eligible to be a story. Here's a simple list of ideas:
  • The emergence of the first superhero
  • A pediatrician fighting an opioid addiction
  • Extraterrestrials arrive on Earth
  • Someone realizes their past was a lie

These are all interesting ideas, but not enough for a story on their own. When we pre-write, we try to take this to the next step. Those ideas are momentary snapshots - forming the idea means adding something that puts the idea into motion. Look at the first idea. We need to throw some clauses at the end to give them motion, such as:
  • ...and facing resistance from people that consider him a threat
  • ...with powers that start to bring out his more selfish desires
  • ...and how he learns the responsibilities that come with such power

Now we're getting somewhere. The idea goes into motion. When we pre-write, we should jot down an idea and then write ten different directions it can go as it becomes a story. At that point, we need to pick one or two that really inspire us, and start to build it out.

Building it out puts all the other bones on the skeleton. We ask ourselves a series of questions about the basic story structure: What puts the character into action? What is their journey/goal? What will the obstacles be? Are they external, internal, or both? Does their goal change during the story? What does the character learn during this story and how do they change between the first page and the last? Before we write a story, we should answer these questions. They can change during the creation process, but if a story does not address these questions, it will have an emptiness that the reader will feel.

One part of the build-out process that will make a story really resonate with readers is an underlying message. A well-written story is always enjoyable, but think of that one story where it was the message that stuck with you the most. With those books, the author knew that message before they wrote the first word. When you understand the message you want the reader to walk away with, you know how to present every scene, every conflict.

The last part worth mentioning is focus. When we flesh out the skeleton, we want to isolate on a few points that work well together. Many of the people I talk to who have the story "all written in my head" can tell me about all these ideas but there's no focus. They don't have one story, they have pieces of ten stories. That, however, does not add up to one story. Once that person focuses on the one thing they want to discuss, the one plot thread to explore, then the story shows up. A sub-plot can handle another arc, but a story without focus is a story not many people will want to read.

So when people ask me about writing my first book, I tell them about the pre-writing process. I explain why the character intrigued me, what I wanted the message to be and how the character would come to this realization. I tell them about how certain characters were needed to challenge the protagonist, to aid him, and to present opinions that guide the reader along.

Then I tell them that once I did all this stuff and understood the story, writing it was the easy part.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Watching the Language

We all know the protocol for language at the workplace. More importantly, we hopefully know the official rules and the unofficial rules - we know who we can be flexible with, who requires us to step carefully, and how other people treat the rules when they are around us. We also know that what works in our workplace might not fly in other places. For that matter, what works in our accounting department might not work with the boss, the admins, or any other department. Good employees learn these rules, and pack a different set of expectations for wherever they go.

How do we do this with a story? We know the ground rules for Not Suitable For Work (NSFW), but how does that apply to a reading audience? Reading markets are fickle, and can judge a title quickly depending on the language. And the demands of different genres can be in complete opposition. Unless we are willing to write several versions of a story, each modified to a target audience, we have to find some sense of compromise.

The last area of compromise a writer should consider is with their own story. If a writer feels that a story demands swearing and profanity, or situations some people might consider obscene, then the writer needs to go with that. Plenty of narratives, especially non-fiction stories, can get pretty salty, and it is integral to how the story works. The writer's main obligation is to examine the quality, quantity, and effectiveness of what they want to communicate, and consider the best route to do so. The details of doing this are pretty intricate, but here are some broad categories to work with.

Genre. I know plenty of parents who swear around their kids; that's the real world. However, books for children should be scrubbed clean - restrictions of genre demand that. That is an obvious case, but let's expand this out. Young Adult writing can have swearing, but it tends to be rare, exclamatory rather than descriptive, and characters who swear are usually crude, boorish antagonists. Stories with adult themes incorporate profanity in a more descriptive vein, but the better stories use it with purpose - defining how a character stands out from others with their language. Action and thrillers often use language to heighten tensions and emotion - during a high-speed chase, the protagonist rarely expresses surprise with "Yikes!" or "Darn!" because stronger words create a stronger emotion to the scene. Once we hit the horror genre, language takes the story to a very serious, adult, "We're not in Kansas anymore" mood. However, sci-fi goes the opposite way, with intellect virtually erasing profanity. (The trend in future-fantasy is to make up a new milieu of swear words and throw them around everywhere.)

Characterization. A general principle is that the more someone swears, the less they have to say. Think of people you know who use swear words as their adjective or adverb of choice. Does it make them stand out in a good way? If that's how you want a character to stand out, well, that's fine. That character becomes identified by their language, but other characters should stand apart from that one because they don't swear. Then there's contrast, and readers notice it. As the saying goes, "When everyone talks, nobody is heard." If everyone swears, it loses effectiveness. Which brings us to...

Effectiveness. The first time I heard swearing on network television, my eyes popped open. It was unexpected. Wrong. Harsh. People weren't supposed to say that, and there it was. I still remember that moment. Since then, times have changed (of George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words You'll Never Hear on Television (NSFW) piece, I've since heard three on main networks). The point is, when the word was used so rarely, it was that much more effective. It stood out. Scarcity made swearing powerful.

Alternatives. While swearing and profanity hold their place, a writer should consider obscenity as a creative alternative. Obscene things only have to create a sense of the taboo but do not have to use swearing or bad language. For writers who want to explore this, practice explaining something full of swear words without using the words. Imply things. Make veiled references. One of my favorite comeback lines starts with, "Well, your mother...". The best lines have no swearing and are often very obscene. That is the pinnacle of adult language - well thought out but technically not swearing.

There are plenty of finer points to study, but working with the basics can cover a lot of ground. Plus, those detailed discussions are definitely NSFW.