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An Answer To Readers

When the reviews came in, not only was my book being critiqued, but my editors, my publisher, and the entire industry was as well.
| Sep 2, 2013 | No comments |

Patrick W. CarrEditorial note: as part of a discussion about Christian speculative fiction at Mike Duran’s blog, I challenged him to read one of several recent novels released by traditional Christian publishers and answer for himself the questions he posed in his article. He accepted the challenge and selected A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr. In addition, he invited his Facebook friends to join him (see for example, Katherine Coble’s review). A lively discussion ensued, in part prompted by Mike’s review and those by participants in the CSFF Blog Tour featuring the book the same week. Here is Patrick’s answer to some of the issues that cropped up in the discussions.

Becky

– – – – –

When I discovered that my first book, A Cast of Stones was not only going to be reviewed on the CSFF Blog Tour but would also be examined as an indicator of the state of Christian Fiction, I was thrilled. What author wouldn’t be pleased with a “twofer” for their work?

A-Cast-of-Stones When the reviews came in, however, I admit to feeling somewhat like a lab rat in the midst of a psychological experiment. Not only was my book being critiqued, but my editors, my publisher, and the entire industry was as well. Many of the remarks and criticisms were spot on. Others, however logical, missed the mark. So I asked Rebecca Luella Miller if she would entertain a response and to my delight, she agreed! Thank you, Becky.

Let’s address the content first. Or rather, let’s address what’s in the book and what’s NOT in the book. First, my protagonist is a drunk. This was always my intention because I wanted to show that a deeply flawed character could rise to be a hero. I chose drunkenness because it’s a very visual defect and lent itself well to description.

The editors at Bethany House never blinked an eye at using a drunk who literally has to crawl from the muck at the beginning of my book. As far as I know, there was never even a discussion at softening or changing my character’s obvious flaw. I was pleased that people, for the most part, seemed to take to Errol. Early on, when I submitted A Cast of Stones to the ACFW Genesis contest, one of the judges told me no major publisher would be interested in a drunk as a protagonist. I was happy to find they were wrong.

But the criticism has been posited that I should have had more realistic language and sex in the book as well. People have assumed that this was Bethany House’s decision. This is logical, perhaps, but incorrect. I don’t know whether my editors would have allowed more graphic language and relations than I wrote. To be frank, they never got the chance. Maybe if I thought I could handle it deftly enough, they would have had the opportunity.

The decision, however, was mine, not theirs.

My reason? I have read any number of excellent fantasy novels, and I mean ABA secular works, that have no language or overt sex in them. Take a read through David Edding’s Belgariad or Raymond E. Feist’s Magician or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game if you doubt.

Let me address the language first. I was writing a fantasy, a different place in a different world in a different time. Modern swear words would be anachronistic and would only serve to distract the reader and pull them out of the story world I hoped to create. I could have devised a swear-word set similar to the one Robert Jordan created for The Wheel of Time, but it would have required a LOT of repetition to establish in the reader’s mind, and quite honestly I didn’t want to sacrifice the word count it would have required.

Now, let’s talk about sex. After all, if Solomon can talk about it in graphic, albeit symbolic, terms, why shouldn’t Christian writers? Simply put, I didn’t want the burdens those scenes would place on me. Are my scenes perfectly realistic? No. But I didn’t want to climb inside the mind of a nineteen-year old male and recount those sorts of thoughts. The only reference I had access to was my own set of memories, and I am frankly unwilling to unpack those attitudes and images and place them in my prose.

Why not? you might well ask. Shouldn’t our fiction be real?

There were a few reasons, and I will list them in reverse order of importance.

First, I am something of a public figure. I teach middle school and high school and I try to interact with my students in more than just an academic fashion. I want them to know that I love them and pray for them. I don’t want to confuse their perception by having them read sex scenes written by their geometry teacher. Some of my students are 12-years old and many of them have read my book even though the target audience is admittedly a bit older. Many of my students have yet to develop a sufficiently nuanced view of the world and I didn’t want my witness to suffer.

Second, I’m a father. Children are often acutely aware of what their parents do or say and I was very aware of this fact when Bethany House awarded me a contract for my work. Even though my sons are of an age where they can see me as a man and not just a father, they are still my children. They all have a rather whimsical sense of humor and I can imagine what they might say after reading some “realistic” language and sex in my book. “Hey Dad, do you actually kiss mom with that mouth?”

But the most important reason is my last. I REMEMBER what it was like to be an adolescent male. Maybe I was the exception, but I thought about sex a lot. My awareness of girls and the knowledge of sex were new and mysterious and the passages I read in some of my books only served to fire my imagination. We live in a society where our children are bombarded with images of sex and highly sexualized behavior every day, and I believe young males are particularly vulnerable in this regard.

There is a fine line between describing something and glorifying it. My books contain violence, but I was careful not to revel in it like so many of our movies do. Likewise, I didn’t want to be responsible for inciting something in my readers that would lead them to objectify women. There is too much of that occurring already. Instead, I wanted my fiction to offer them a place where they can be free from those attacks for a while.

Bethany House never needed to say anything to me in this regard. So the discussion about what to include or not include in my book, while entertaining, misses the mark. A Cast of Stones could have easily been published by a mainstream, secular house. I think it is good enough. In fact, I have tried repeatedly to have it shelved in the bookstores with science fiction and fantasy instead of Christian fiction.

But even if my work had been published by TOR or Del Rey, the content would NOT have been measurably different.

What would have been different? The length. The criticism has been laid at my feet that the books are too short. They lack sufficient world-building and description and thus fall short of works by Jordan, Rothfuss, and Martin. Well, there’s only one thing I can say.

You’re right.

But there are two reasons for this. One, Bethany House knows their audience better than I. A massive fantasy tome was deemed too big of a risk. Publishers are businesses. They have costs, payroll, and a bottom line. They need to make a profit to stay in business and, quite frankly, the Christian market for a massive trilogy is limited, precisely because we can’t get our works shelved with mainstream science fiction and fantasy.

Two, I’m a new author. I don’t have an existing fan base to draw upon to mitigate the financial risks that a long fantasy trilogy would create. I hope to change that, but the secular publishing world treats their authors the same. If you don’t believe me, take a look at how J. K. Rowling’s books changed once she’d proven her market draw or observe how Guy Kay’s book length expanded after the success of his initial Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy of three fairly brief works.

I would have loved another fifty thousand words per novel to flesh out my world and lend it depth, but realistically, that will have to wait. Given the constraints, I had to make the decision to either abbreviate the world-building or skimp on the story. I chose the former and I think the reception and reviews of the people who have read the book indicate I made the right choice. Many have applauded me for creating an epic fantasy that is more “readable” than most.

So there you have it. I can’t speak for “Christian Publishing.” But in my opinion, some of the discussions miss the point. My novel is not substantially different from, say, Ender’s Game, Magician, or The Belgariad. Where it is different, I hope, is that people can see the allegory and symbolism in my work and that God will be glorified.

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Literaturelady
Guest

Wow, thank you for a polite and straightforward response! I plan to check out A Cast of Stones at some point; it looks like a great story.

And I admired your reasons for not including swearing or sex. Quite frankly, I don’t want to think about sex myself until I’m married, so I can appreciate an author who doesn’t zero in on the details.

Blessings,
Literaturelady

Mike Duran
Member

Hi Pat! I appreciate that you followed the conversation at my blog. My “review” came up in the context of a longer-running discussion we’ve had at my blog, and were in the middle of regarding Realm makers, regarding Christian speculative fiction. Some of your misunderstandings, I’d suggest, are the result of that ongoing discussion to which, unfortunately, you were brought into the middle of. However, I felt somewhat between a rock and a hard place as Becky is fond of suggesting that criticism of Christian speculative fiction if often the result of not reading enough of it. So I took her challenge. I chose your book randomly, knowing that it would be somewhat unfair to use one novel as a watermark for an entire industry or genre. For that, I apologize.

One thing I’d like to clarify: The discussions about language and sex are part of a bigger, ongoing discussion I’ve engaged in with Christian writers and readers, and not something specific to your novel. You wrote that, “the criticism has been posited that I should have had more realistic language and sex in the book as well.” I did not make such a criticism of your novel. In fact, I’ve suggested that one of the reasons that Christians write so much in the fantasy genre is because they can avoid language, which you seem to corroborate. My position is that certain conservative cultural codes have caused Christian fiction to be defined as “clean” and “safe,” a restriction I don’t believe Scripture demands of author or reader. A Cast of Stones, in my opinion, did not require language or sex. However, in the context of “the state of Christian speculative fiction,” which your novel was unfortunately the lab rat for, I pointed out how those strictures were still in play. So in that sense, no “new ground” was being forged.

Anyway, I appreciate you being a good sport and apologize for bringing you into what’s been a rather long, tumultuous discussions. Godspeed to you and your upcoming writing projects!

Phyllis Wheeler
Guest

Patrick, I really liked your books. Write more and more, please.

jilldomschot
Guest

I find it unfortunate that Bethany House would assume Christian fans of fantasy have shorter attention spans than their secular counterparts–unless they’re attempting to create a new market of fantasy readers?? Maybe they are, but they’ll lose fantasy fans who expect extensive world-building. The other criticism I didn’t see you address was put forth at Katherine Coble’s blog (as linked above), and that’s the tendency for some authors to not resolve the story, but be really cagey and make the reader wait for the next book to get the resolution to the cliffhanger.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Not every fantasy fan likes big doorstopper novels, though. You could fit the entire Earthsea trilogy into one or even half of a contemporary fantasy novel, and it’s possible to worldbuild without needing lots of pages. I think he tried to include too much plot in the first book, and I would have expected the ending to have happened in the second; ending at say his escape from the caravan would have been more than enough for me.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Jill, I’m not sure why you think Bethany House made some kind of statement about Christian fans of fantasy and a shorter attention span. Patrick said Bethany did precisely what secular houses do with new authors:

the secular publishing world treats their [new] authors the same. If you don’t believe me, take a look at how J. K. Rowling’s books changed once she’d proven her market draw or observe how Guy Kay’s book length expanded after the success of his initial Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy of three fairly brief works.

I’m not sure why the beatdown on Christian publishers has become so trendy, but I for one am celebrating their willingness to expand their market, and I hope more people who enjoy epic fantasy will find Patrick’s work.

Becky

Paul Lee
Member

Jill, I’m not sure why you think Bethany House made some kind of statement about Christian fans of fantasy and a shorter attention span.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think I understand the remark.

I am a fantasy reader. I’ve read plenty of big, thick fantasy books containing lots of thorough worldbuilding. Some of those books and series are too long for their own good, including The Wheel of Time, but the problem is usually that the plot is too messy and unfocused, rather than that there is too much worldbuilding.

It’s possible for there to be too much description and exposition of worldbuilding, but I don’t think it’s possible for there to be too much worldbuilding behind the scenes. Not for fantasy fans like me. If Christian publishers want to sell books to fantasy fans, they should not discourage their authors from including detailed, thorough, rigorous worldbuilding, even if that means they have to emulate Tor and produce 900-page doorstoppers.

Patrick W. Carr wrote

Given the constraints, I had to make the decision to either abbreviate the world-building or skimp on the story. I chose the former and I think the reception and reviews of the people who have read the book indicate I made the right choice.

He indicates that abbreviating the worldbuilding was the right choice for his audience. Fair enough. But if he, and Bethany House, had been serious about writing for an audience of hardcore fantasy fans (like me), abbreviating the worldbuilding is the last thing that they should have done. It would have been acceptable to split the book into as many installments as possible, in order for each individual part to be short enough for the publisher’s constraints. By abbreviating the worldbuilding, Carr and Bethany House demonstrate that Christian publishers are not fulfilling the needs of hardcore genre fans.

That’s fine; it’s their call. Theoretically, indie publishers like MLP or Splashdown Books should be more open to the needs of hardcore genre fans, and I can always get my worldbuilding fix from secular publishers if I need to.

Katherine Coble
Guest

“But if he, and Bethany House, had been serious about writing for an audience of hardcore fantasy fans (like me), abbreviating the worldbuilding is the last thing that they should have done.”

Exactly. They say they want to attract Fantasy fans, and then give Fantasy fans…not the books they were looking for.

jilldomschot
Guest

Agreed. Fantasy fans will go elsewhere.

Katherine Coble
Guest

Becky, I’m not engaging on a “trendy beatdown” of Christian publishers. For the record, my complaints about serialised fiction are ON RECORD as applying to several publishers. It’s a current marketing trend that I despise; one that became popular in the early part of this century when other publishers noted it as one of the main reasons Inspirational fiction was succeeding when other publishers were having constricting markets.

I resent the implication that any criticism of a poor business practice is a “beatdown” and therefore lacks substantive merit.

R. J. Anderson
Member

It’s not about attention spans. It’s about keeping costs down for a first novel by an unproven author who may or may not be able to find a fanbase. And it’s not just Bethany House (or Christian publishers in general) who do this. Debut authors in the general market are always encouraged to keep their wordcounts below a certain level in order to attract agents and editors to their books.

Only when an author has proven themselves a reliable seller with a fanbase that craves more are publishers willing to take on the extra expense of publishing that additional 50K, or what-have you. So Patrick’s experience is quite typical really, and not any reflection on what publishers think his audience are capable of reading.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Thanks for corroborating what Patrick said, RJ. I thought his example of Harry Potter was a perfect illustration, but it’s nice to hear from someone who has published with a general market press and isn’t guessing or supposing.

Becky

Katherine Coble
Guest

Harry Potter started as a book aimed at Mid-Grades and was able to expand as the audience expanded. It’s not a one-to-one comparison. In another place you, Becky, mentioned that publishers won’t risk a doorstop-size on a first-time author. Yet Rothfuss’ first novel was nearly 1100 pages. And it did NOT end with a cliffhanger. And people have bought it and continue to buy it.

Fantasy fans will buy good fantasy.

And while I don’t care personally for _A Throne Of Bones_, it was, IIRC, Marcher Lord Press’ best-selling title and it has 854 pages.

Christian fantasy fans will buy detailed fantasy epics.

—-
There’s no denying that Carr’s work is strong and that it has an audience. Yet I still maintain it would have a broader audience and a broad cross-over appeal if it were like the books fantasy fans want to buy as opposed to the books a romance publisher wants to sell.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

And I maintain Bethany is making steps in the right direction, and they’ll get there. I’m happy they’re in the game~

Becky

Ally
Guest

Absolutely I agree that JKR is not a valid comparison… I can’t put my finger on an interview or quote to support it, but JKR had the Harry Potter planned out SO far down to the little details (and only needing to change a few things) that I doubt she would have made the first couple of books longer if she’d had the option to do so. Just wouldn’t happen. Between the books growing with Harry, and the fact that they are ring structures (thank you John Granger), I just don’t see where there is room to try and claim that her first novels were short simply because they were her first novels…

R. J. Anderson
Member

Patrick Rothfuss was an exception. There are always exceptions. (Didn’t we just go through this in discussing Ted Dekker?) But Rothfuss wrote an exceptional book as well, one the publishers decided from the outset was going to be a lead title and a major seller.

(And yes, publishers do decide these things. Wide in-house enthusiasm for the manuscript, which I am pretty sure is what happened in Rothfuss’s case, changes all the rules. Rothfuss was positioned as the Next Big Thing in Epic Fantasy from the get-go, and it paid off. That doesn’t mean that every debut fantasy author gets the same leeway.)

Austin Gunderson
Member

Also, before he sold The Name of the Wind, Rothfuss had already won a 2002 Writers of the Future contest with an adapted excerpt from The Wise Man’s Fear. The exceptional quality of his writing has been recognized by pretty much everyone who’s ever come into contact with it.

R. J. Anderson
Member

It was the patient, cut-flower writing of a man who was waiting to be published.

Kessie Carroll
Member

I just read Cast of Stones for my book club. Aside from a chortle at the title’s similarity to Game of Thrones (it rhymes!), I liked it very much. The lots were an excellent plot device, and I read the book more or less to find out all about them. Also the staff fighting. It’s under-represented in fantasy, except in the case of double-bladed lightsabers, and I loved that, too.

I found it refreshing not to have to worry about sex in the story. I mean, it was there, we just didn’t have to go there. I read a lot of books in the YA genre to try to keep up with the competition, and there’s SO much dirty content. I get very tired of it. But the cynic in me assures me that of course there’s no sex in book 1. Robin Hobb’s Liveship trilogy was more or less clean until book 3 with the massive rape scene.

Kudos for using werewolf things as the bad guys. I love those! Kind of the same reason I’m enjoying the Wingfeather saga so much.

T. W. Johnson
Guest

I applaud your stance, Patrick. Your reasons for excluding certain content are logical. I’ll be adding “A Cast of Stones” to my reading list.

God Bless

notleia
Guest

How I interpreted the reasons for no sex/language in my head: “I chickened out.” Because avoiding the issues of sex/language except in stern, solemn sermons causes and exacerbates no problems whatsoever. And, as has probably been pointed out, it’s especially funny if we have a flawed, drunken protagonist. I doubt we’re supposed to assume that drunkenness is the path to righteous heroics. But I can get that the author could feel ill-equipped to handle those issues, especially with a limited word count.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Notleia, I certainly didn’t read “I have a witness to uphold and a responsibility to my readers” as “I chickened out.” I think that conclusion comes across as mean-spirited, and I’m trying to understand why you would ignore what he actually said to arrive at something so negative.

Becky

notleia
Guest

I’m wondering why he thinks it’s necessary to “guard” his readers so much.

R. J. Anderson
Member

Because he has a conscience about including such elements in his writing — meaning he honestly doesn’t WANT to write them, and doesn’t believe they are necessary for telling the particular story he plans to write?

Have you read the book in question, to know whether the inclusion of sex and swearing would have improved its “realism” or not? If you read the book and sincerely felt that the author had “chickened out” by not including those elements where the story called for them, that’s one thing. But if you’ve come to this conclusion without even having read the story to see whether they were necessary, that’s another.

I haven’t read Patrick’s book myself; I haven’t read a work of CBA fiction since 2009 (though there are a couple I’ve got my eye on). But I read general market YA fantasy all the time, and I’ve read plenty of general market adult fantasy as well. I can think of numerous books I’ve read recently which don’t contain sex scenes or any words that couldn’t be said on daytime television. And I don’t think that’s because the authors were “chickening out”; I think that’s because they simply weren’t necessary for the story.

And frankly, I think any talented author can write a satisfying and believable story without including sex and swearing; it’s all in the way the story is presented. We invent our own worlds when we write, especially when it comes to fantasy. There’s no law that says “Thou must swear and write vigorous sex scenes or t’will be shoddy and inauthentic!”

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I read the book. It would be a judgment call. Towards the latter half, where Errol is cleaned up, flirted with, and called a boy with a pretty face it could have worked. He’s railroaded into joining the church due to his abilities, and there’s both the question of whether this means celibacy or his own desires that isn’t entirely tackled.He doesn’t have time to react, and the church’s role in sanctioning readers is a bit underexplored.

Other than that I don’t think there was much of a problem. It fell more on the straightforwards action fantasy side, and sex and griminess would have distracted unless he wanted to make more of a grim, corrupt world than was in the book.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

There’s no law that says “Thou must swear and write vigorous sex scenes or t’will be shoddy and inauthentic!”

That’s the great irony. Hideous legalism can be perpetrated in the same of “anti-legalism.” Someone could say, “That book doesn’t have swearing and sex scenes? That looks like legalism to me. So it’s legalistic.” But in fact actual legalists have long used this very notion of “don’t only avoid what is truly evil, but what appears to be evil” to condemn behaviors Scripture never condemns.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Mere absence isn’t evidence of avoidance. You might as well claim that every author who fails to adequately address drug addiction in each one of his novels has “chickened out” on the subject. Ridiculous.

On the other hand, an author who writes scenes of sex or violence or obscene language out of a sense of obligation — i.e. just ’cause he thinks his readers expect such content — is the real chicken. The only question that matters in such cases is: “Does this content serve to advance the story in the most effective possible way?” And with sex, the answer is usually “No.” It’s quite amazing, actually, how frequently sex scenes tend to be not about the story, but about … well, the sex.

Funny how that works.

Literaturelady
Guest

Great insight! May I add that sometimes an author doesn’t have “story time.” as it were, to address all aspects of a certain issue? (I have that problem with my current plot). Maybe that’s essentially what you meant, although I see a small difference between “mere absence” and “don’t have time.” 🙂

Austin Gunderson
Member

I’ll give a hypothetical example of what I meant. Say a story requires two characters to have sexual relations (which is something not all stories need, by the way). At that point, the author has a decision to make: he can pull a decorous fade-to-black move by having those characters shut the bedroom door behind them, or he can choose to follow them into the room and watch what they do there. In my reading experience (though I do try to avoid such experiences), the latter option is generally pursued in order to titillate the reader. A sex scene conducted in such a manner rarely has much of anything to do with the story itself. Instead, the plot is put on hold while the characters get it on.

There are many reasons to eschew such scenes, word-count-management being the least of them. Perhaps the author is male, and so recognizes the inevitability that a male reader will be tossed into temptation by being placed in the position of a voyeur. Perhaps the author wishes to afford his characters more dignity than would allow for an outside audience to their lovemaking. Perhaps the author wishes to address a broad audience which includes younger readers unready for rated-R content. None of these are cowardly reasons.

notleia
Guest

The way he talks about it makes me think it’s avoidance, to not tarnish his image in the community, but granted, he could make it work in the story. Not all drunks congregate in seedy bars with swearing and hookers and gambling, but if that protagonist walks into a bar/tavern/pub/whatevs that we’re supposed to think is seedy, I’d really question the seediness if no one so much as said a bleep-worthy word. Verisimilitude, yo.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Unfortunately, I agree. I’ve struggled with this dilemma in regard to my own writings and come to your conclusions. But, as Patrick Carr said in his post, a world which doesn’t share our history needn’t share our obscenities.

R. L. Copple
Member

I don’t really agree with the need for cussing in a seedy bar scene. If you don’t mention it, readers will generally understand it is going on. Much like if you write: The phone rang. “Hello.” Is it being unrealistic to not include “He picked up the phone” in the narration? Or avoiding unnecessary descriptions that the reader will automatically assumed happened?

Now, if I wrote, “He entered the bar and never heard one swear word,” then you might have a point. There are lots of ways to show a bar is seedy, cussing being only one of those ways. If you convey the idea it is seedy well enough, readers who expect to hear cussing will imagine it, without it ever being mentioned.

Not mentioning anyone cussing does not mean there was none. It just means the author didn’t believe it was necessary to mention it, but doesn’t affect believability except in those who have to have it to be “realistic.”

Austin Gunderson
Member

You raise a valid point, but one which only applies to “background seediness.” For instance, I could easily write something along the lines of “A sudden commotion jerked Lance’s attention away from his drink. One of the soldiers across the room was staggering back from his table, cursing and dashing ale out of his eyes while his companions roared with laughter.” Seediness? Check. Swearing? Avoided.

But what if my plot requires Lance to have an actual conversation with that uncouth soldier? Like, with dialogue and everything? He can’t very well get away with saying “Blast it all, Lance, these confounded knaves just tossed their dang ale in my face!” If he starts talking like that, I can kiss any hope of verisimilitude goodbye. And, if I’m unwilling to either employ real-world cuss words or make up some good fictional-world ones, I’m left facing the disturbing prospect of being unable to write uncouth characters, period. Which effectively prevents me from realistically interacting with 90% of humanity.

R. L. Copple
Member

I’ve had a character swear a time or two, but I don’t believe you need it for believability. Sure, having a contemporary teen say, “Gosh darn it” isn’t believable, but not mention that they swore at all can be. Again, it can be assumed. There are plenty of ways to show someone is angry.

Now, if you want to use a character that cusses, I’m assuming you’ll have to show that to some degree. I’m not against it, mind you. Only I’m not agreeing that it is necessary to be believable. Emotions are shown any number of ways, but few writers will attempt to put in all ways in an instance. The ones that are left out are assumed.

It should also be noted that believability in these instances is more set by having a certain amount of realism among some very unbelievable stories. Even our dialog isn’t realistic, or it would have plenty of “Um, well, you know, it’s like this, sort of….” well littered throughout it all. I see little difference between that and adding in cussing words to increase believability. But in both cases, there can be reasons for leaving it out that doesn’t affect believability of the story.

But it also depends on your audience. Which is what I hear Patrick saying. He knows some of his audience will be young teens and doesn’t want to cut them out or lose respect in their eyes. But if your audience is biker gangs or seedy bar people, then I guess you’ll need some cussing to sound believable to them.

R. L. Copple
Member

BTW, I seriously question the 90% of humanity cusses idea. Must be differences in the history of the circles we’ve run around in. While I’ve been in plenty of environments where cussing was a normal occurrence, I’ve also been in plenty where it is practically non-existent. So much so that when I do hear cussing it almost always sounds silly and unrealistic. I mean, who seriously wants to make love to me when they are ready to rip my head off?

Austin Gunderson
Member

Well, I’m certainly not claiming that cussing is rational behavior. ;-p

Like you, I tend to spend most of my time in environments where nobody feels comfortable cussing. But epic fantasy sagas don’t typically take place in civilized offices or solemn churches or cozy Hobbit holes. They take place in the ‘special world’ of adventure, a world in which peril lurks behind every corner. Are you so very confident that the people you hang with every day wouldn’t spout obscenities if arrows started zipping past their heads and cutting down their friends? Unfortunately, most people in my experience would lose their verbal inhibitions when placed in mortal danger. And fantasy has a tendency to create those kind of situations.

In my case, my protagonist has absolutely no reason not to swear when extremely frustrated, which I’m in the habit of making him. I tried for years to keep his mouth washed-out, but it never worked. It always felt forced, contrived, unrealistic. It was, in fact, an inaccurate portrayal.

I respect authors who manage to avoid the necessity of cussing without making their dialogue laughable. But that’s not always possible. Like notleia said above, “Not all drunks congregate in seedy bars with swearing and hookers and gambling, but if [a] protagonist walks into a bar/tavern/pub/whatevs that we’re supposed to think is seedy, I’d really question the seediness if no one so much as said a bleep-worthy word.”

R. J. Anderson
Member

Allow me to give you a quote from one of my favourite authors — indeed one I’m convinced should be everybody’s favourite, because she is THAT good and has a lot to say about the relationship between humanity and the divine that Christians can identify with, even though (as far as I know) she is not a Christian herself.

To explain the context, the young King of Attolia has just been wounded defending himself, unarmed, against three assassins (who he managed to disarm and kill despite being taken by surprise all alone in an isolated place, because he is just that awesome). Costis, his reluctant guard and our narrator, is helping the king back through the palace to his bedchamber. And I quote:

“If these were death agonies, they were fake ones, Costis thought, and was sure of it when they reached the shallow stair at the far end of the reflecting pool. No one on the verge of death has the strength to pile one foul word on top of another like a man compiling a layered pastry of obscene language, from the bottom step all the way to the top.” — The King of Attolia pg. 172, by Megan Whalen Turner

Are we told any of the specific words the king uses? No. Do we get the distinct and vivid impression that the king is swearing fervently, prodigiously and in great detail? Absolutely. Would that impression be strengthened or deepened in any meaningful way if we were told precisely what foul language he is using? I really can’t see how. In fact, leaving it up to the reader’s vague imagination is actually more effective in this case.

So while I entirely agree that it’s unreasonable to imagine that characters in a dire or enraging situation (especially characters who aren’t religious in any way) would restrain themselves from obscene, blasphemous or other crude language, and that the attempts made by some Christian authors to substitute terms like “ever-loving horse hockey” come across as ridiculous prudery, it is quite possible to convey the full force and intent of foul language without putting the actual words on the page at all. It’s all in the way the author chooses to write the scene.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

RJ, I love your example from Turner’s story. I’ve read similar kinds of things in general market YA (also not from Christian writers). I’m thinking of one book in particular that skirted the issue of whether or not a couple was having sex–never mind showing it, that they were or weren’t was never explicit.

I do think too many writers across the board forget that the human imagination is more powerful than the picture we draw with our words. Suggestion rather than explication can be more effective.

Becky

R. L. Copple
Member

Austin, I understand your point. Yes, in frustration or threatening situations, some people cuss because they’ve been culturally conditioned to do so. I’ve been in such situations and not heard a single cuss word. Like when driving a vehicle full of people down a highway and my back wheel falls off at 70 mph. Even the times I’ve stereotypically smashed my fingers in the car door, I only screamed. Whether one cusses or not in those situations is purely conditioned by ones history.

I’m only saying that I believe the 10% figure you offered is much bigger than you think. I could be wrong and you’re right, because each of us is basing our perception on our own experience and history.

But, bottom line, not mentioning it can still be done effectively. That said, in one of my novels my antagonist was frustrated at one point, and the only appropriate word I could come up with was a mild cuss word. I could have alluded to it, but it would have muted his frustration emotion to do so. So it is in a published book now. But it is probably the only one in the book, despite having plenty of seedy taverns in it. I showed that in other ways.

Which you’ve brought me back to my original point. Background seediness doesn’t require cussing to make it authentic seediness. It can be one tool, but it is not necessary to accomplish the task. The original point I responded to appeared to suggest if my character walked into such a bar and didn’t hear some cuss words, I could not convey an authentic seediness. It is my opinion, but I disagree. It is not necessary.

Austin Gunderson
Member

rjanderson:

While I haven’t read any of Megan Whalen Turner’s work, it sounds from the sample you cited that her writing style lends itself to the relatively detached filter of third-person narration, which allows her to seamlessly incorporate course language into the “background” of a scene without getting specific, as I demonstrated in a comment above. That’s wonderful for her.

My writing style isn’t like that at all.

And, in addition to the disparity between our styles (my scenes play out in a more objective, real-time fashion), I have an absolute need to hear the specific things spoken and thought by one of my central protagonists — a calloused, cynical, battle-hardened man who happens to indulge, every so often, in non-admirable language. This is not merely an optional embellishment; it’s a critical aspect of his character-development. I can’t simply wave it off by writing “he cursed” every time he curses without calling undue attention to my squeamishness as an author.

R.L. Copple:

“Whether one cusses or not in those situations is purely conditioned by one’s history.”

Yup. Absolutely. And, since some of the characters in my own stories and in the stories of many, many others meet that criteria, I see no reason why those characters should feel the least little compunction about talking the way that comes naturally to them. If an author can bleep ’em out without undermining the integrity of his narrative, more power to him. But there are plenty of situations in which such action simply isn’t a viable option.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

You have to be a bit creative. Have the soldier come up to your hero, and open up his mouth…only to vomit over him, pass out on his lap, or have himself get cold-cocked in the face by your hero’s fist, because he knows the only way to enjoy a seedy tavern is by being the seediest person in the room. Or have your drunk soldier be a debauched member of the minor nobility who will use upper class language in a coarse or vulgar way.

Or, honestly, rethink the whole seedy tavern bit. Defy expectations. If you have limitations, use them.

Austin Gunderson
Member

I feel like there’d be something seriously wrong with my priorities as a storyteller if I restructured entire scenes with the sole objective of preventing certain characters from speaking.

When it comes down to a choice between the integrity of the narrative and my personal distaste for uncouth language, I’ll choose the former. There are boundaries, of course — things I’ll never allow my characters to say in front of readers. But I don’t believe it’s a sin to put a cuss word in a character’s mouth any more than I believe it’s a sin to describe a murder. (Sex scenes, for what should be obvious reasons, exist on a different plane.) While I myself haven’t uttered a single swear-word in my entire life (if you’ll believe it), I’ve heard and read plenty of ’em without falling into temptation. Plenty of my characters behave in ways I’d never dream of behaving. It confuses me that Christians seem perfectly fine with fictional depictions of murder and theft and false testimony and covetousness and idolatry, but the occasional curse word stirs up massive controversy. The inconsistency’s kinda glaring.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I’ve tried to explain this before, but I have friends who still doubt me on this. When I get caught up in a story, I start thinking in imitation of the characters. I may stop myself from saying profanity, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t popping into my head as a direct effect of having read that language.

I don’t, however, find myself tempted to greed by reading about a greedy character, or to gossip–as if that character doing it drops my guard against it–or murder, theft, covetousness, idolatry. Sex is the only other thing–words can evoke images, and I don’t think there’s any justification for a reader “watching” two people have sex.

I know I’m not alone on this, but neither do I think all people react the same way. Some people can write cursing and read cursing and apparently it doesn’t lodge in their brains the way it does in mine. I don’t think anyone has to tailor their writing to suit me, but neither should I be left with no options of books to choose from.

But anyway, I thought maybe this perspective would make the discrepancy less confusing.

Becky

Austin Gunderson
Member

I can appreciate your concern, but I think there are enough writers — especially in the Christian community — who share it that you’ll never be left “with no options of books to choose from.” I haven’t been arguing that fiction must contain uncouth language in order to feel real; all I’m saying is that if an author determines cuss words to be necessary in his story for whatever reason, he should feel free to throw ’em in without fearing some kind of reactionary backlash from Christian reviewers who only care about checking off their neat little columns of “clean” boxes.

(P.S. I’m not saying you do that. But I have seen a lot of it out there.)

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Notleia, I don’t think Patrick is worried about “the community” or his reputation in it as much as he is his students who are young and impressionable.

And for the record, for the sake of all those discussing swearing in a seedy bar, the taverns in A Cast of Stones are most often like those in The Lord of the Rings–bed and breakfast kinds of places for travelers used as central gathering spots for the locals.

In addition, in the opening scene, the protagonist has just been thrown out of the tavern, so readers don’t see the inside of it at this point. Later, as I recall, when he enters, he’s fixated on getting drunk, and there really isn’t a lot of thought about what other patrons are talking about or what language they’re using.

Becky

Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Guest

Loved A Cast of Stones & The Hero’s Lot. I appreciate the reasoning behind what was and wasn’t included in your books. I will state that i know of several 10 year old who read books in this genre and suggested age group and they don’t need to be bombarded by more books with sex.

Katherine Coble
Guest

I cannot BELIEVE that every time we get to the point where we can have a discussion about plotting and theme in Christian Speculative Fiction it devolves into yet another tired discussion about Anglo-Saxonisms and The Sexing.

“Dear Publishers, please take us seriously. Meanwhile we will not take ourselves seriously.

Thank you,
Christian Authors Everywhere”

Alex Mellen
Member

I had A Cast of Stones recommended to me by a number of people (including Bethany House’s publicist, a trusted friend), and got a chance through a free Kindle download to read it while attending college in the middle of nowhere. (By the way, nasty trick there providing only first one free. Now I have to buy them. 🙂 )
 
I honestly found it refreshing that Carr didn’t feel the need to thread some sort of overarching moral theme into the plot and character development. The first chapters did take a bit of patience, as happens when a protagonist doesn’t particularly care about the plot, but once in, I was hooked. Small beefs were no longer worth mentioning when the story’s pull was more powerful than a conclave’s compulsion. A plot should stand on its own merit, and Errol still has inner conflict toward the end of the book when he gets frustrated at all the secrets around him.
 
Also, thank you, Patrick Carr, for defending your choices in terms of content. I admire your personal convictions and ability to keep the book tasteful for the widest possible audience. When I have children, the earlier they can read your books, the better.

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