Thursday, January 25, 2024

Trigger Words


(This post is not intended for those who get the vapors from foul language.)

Now that the trigger warning is out of the way, let’s get down to business.

I probably talk about foul language more than I should, but the controversy surrounding it randomly intrudes on my consciousness until it becomes an itch I have to scratch. What some consider offensive language is still language. As a writer, I have nothing else to work with, so yeah. It’s a big deal to me.

I use (probably more than) my fair share of potentially offensive language; never for the purpose of giving offense. That is not to say the character into whose mouth I put those words doesn’t mean to give offense. Sometimes giving offense is the reason they opened their mouth at all. Whether a reader is offended is up to the reader. I have plenty else to worry about.

I submitted a story a while back in which a woman, a detestable person, called a male associate a faggot. He responded by calling her a cunt. The story was accepted, but I was asked to change “faggot” because it’s an offensive term.

“Cunt” was okay.

Here’s the thing: I meant no offense by using “faggot;” the character did. My job was to expose her for the detestable character she was, and dialog is an outstanding way to do so. I made the change – to “bitch,” which I felt was watered down in that context – but  it got me thinking.

Conventional wisdom says to avoid potentially offensive language, lest you scare away readers. Let’s look at that. Lee Child is known for not using foul language in his Reacher books, yet the streaming “Reacher” series is laden with it. Are viewers less sensitive than readers?

Maybe they are. Apparently not always, though. Dennis Lehane’s most recent, Small Mercies, is loaded with references to “niggers” by racist whites. That’s the point: these people are loathsome racists and that’s the word they would use. They wouldn’t say, “Those n-words are going to my kids’ school over my dead body” and it’s stupid to pretend they would. Lehane faces up to it and the book is critically and financially successful.

I write about crime. I do not wish to smooth the edges from a hardened criminal by having him – or her – refrain from language that might offend someone. Much of what people like that say is intended to offend.

While I do not use sensitivity readers, I do take suggestions from my editor, who I trust implicitly. When he asks, “Are you sure this is the word you want to use here?” I may not make a change, but I will seriously consider it.*

Since I brought it up, what Is the role of a sensitivity reader? To ensure the book offends no one? I hope not. If, as Lehane has said, crime fiction is the modern form of social commentary – with which I agree – it’s not doing its job if it doesn’t offend somebody.  Maybe a sensitivity reader’s purpose is to identify when a particular group is unfairly characterized – which is worth knowing – but what are the qualifications for such a job? If you include women, gays, Blacks, Hispanics, and Innuits in a book, must you get a different reader for each? If not, who has the chutzpah to promote themselves as the universal arbiter of hurt feelings? (In case you’re wondering, my personal standard is “don’t be a dick.”)

Everything offends somebody, especially today, in what can reasonably be referred to as The Age of Umbrage. Maybe we should worry less about the potential for offense and more about the context and why someone considers the word offensive. “I don’t like that word,” or “It hurts my feelings” are not legitimate arguments.

A woman named Karen England roams the country recruiting and teaching people how to get books they consider to be offensive banned from schools, even in districts in which they do not live. (Could she be more of a Karen?) By her standards, the Kathy Bates character in Misery is a potty mouth. If that woman isn’t a cunt, I don’t know who is.

* I will run ideas past people I know who will have insights and experience I lack. When writing The Spread¸ I contacted a couple of gay friends to ask how a gay character might resolve a situation, and why. Their input made it a better book, as they had things to say I would not have thought of. I also did not run the finished product past them to sign off on.

  Paraphrasing. I can’t find the original quote.

There is even a district in Florida where the banners seek to include dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Imposter Syndrome

 The definition of “Imposter Syndrome” from Oxford Languages is

“The persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills.”

This is followed by my author photo.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate every compliment I receive from readers and other authors. I love speaking at conferences and sharing my knowledge; if I was born to do anything, it was to be a teacher. I will never refuse a request for advice, or deny a blurb to a friend.

I also cannot help but wonder, “Why are they asking me?”

This is not unique to my writing life. As a musician I always lived in fear of my limitations becoming exposed publicly. It took several months at my first “real” job as a network administrator before I could leave at the end of each workday without quietly mouthing, “Fooled them again.”

It’s not like I’m an anxiety-riddled rodent who gobbles Xanax like they were M&Ms. (Not that M&Ms aren’t delicious.) Nor do I lack confidence altogether. I look forward to opportunities to speak in front of strangers, in part because I have seen a lot of people who are so bad at it you can sense the audience’s discomfort. (Or disgust over having their time wasted.) I confess, it is not uncommon for me to listen to a speaker and think, “Step away from the podium/dais/stage. I can do better off the top of my head.”

So I do have areas of confidence. (Arrogance?)

So what’s my problem with writing?

I think a lot of it stems from having interacted with those I consider to be my betters. I read books by authors whose writing I aspire to and am often floored by the fluidity of their language as well as their abilities to craft unique voices. (I’m not naming names, as I would inevitably leave someone out.) I don’t see any of the doubt, re-writing, and editing that went into it; the books strike me as direct pipelines from the author’s imagination to mine.

Then I look at my process. It’s well defined and I have confidence that it works for me, but I always feel like there should be

More nuance to my plots.

More dimensions to my characters.

A more unique voice.

More descriptive language.

Tighter writing.

Better dialog.

A stronger ending.

I could go on, but I’m starting to jones for some M&Ms.

It is not unusual for someone to compliment my knowledge of craft, or of my genres. I am appreciative of, and grateful for, the praise. I am also painfully aware of how much I don’t know. If I am at a conference or talking with friends, or even reading Facebook posts, and come across an author or book people speak highly of, my first thought is often I should have known about that.

That doesn’t mean I always follow up; no one can know everything. The residue of being raised by two perfectionists is I am always aware of my own imperfections. I understand no one is perfect, but it still breaks my balls that I am not, even almost sixty-eight years along the road.

I try to accept all compliments in the spirit in which they are intended, but cannot help but think of things the speaker must have overlooked, or chose not to comment on to preserve my feelings. I am often uncomfortable when I am too effusively praised, because, no offense, I know better.

Imposter Syndrome is not uncommon, and I suspect it is found more often in people with a certain amount of ability, as they have something that might be worth impersonating. (No one has Imposter Syndrome because they think they are better than they are.)

I am also aware that people who are knowledgeable in a field are also the most acutely aware of what they do not know. I get that. It helps. But after panels or public events that go well, one thought is still most likely to run through my mind:

Fooled them again.




Thursday, January 4, 2024

Autumn's Favorite Reads

 Subtle Felonies, Austin Camacho. I’ve always had a soft spot for Hannibal Jones, Camacho’s PI character, and Subtle Felonies shows why. Jones is enough like a traditional PI to be comfortable, and different enough to hold my interest. This complex plot has a twist I did not see coming, but in hindsight was inevitable. That’s the mark of a well-written and enjoyable book.

A Stab in the Dark, Lawrence Block. I came late to the Matt Scudder books and I’m in the process of reading them in order. A Stab in the Dark is Number Four and frankly, I don’t know that I think it’s as good as the first three. That said, Block’s standard is so high, even a run-of-the-mill effort is still as good as 90% of the other books I’ve read. In my mind, Block is to PI fiction what Ed McBain is to police procedurals.

Small Mercies, Dennis Lehane. My God, what a book. Eye-opening, shocking, funny, and heartbreaking with a plot that never goes quite where you think it will even though the story is set against actual events that took place in my lifetime, namely the Boston busing riots. Lehane has a touch like none other for such things. Might be the best book he’s written, and when you stop to think about what else he’s done, that’s the highest praise I can give. (I had more to say about Small Mercies last November.)

Chicago ’63, Terrence McCauley. McCauley has written Prohibition-era crime stories, modern techno-thrillers, war stories, Westerns, and now this, a fact-based account of an unsuccessful assassination attempt on President John Kennedy three weeks before the trip to Dallas. The book reads like a cross between James Ellroy (without the sometimes distracting cadences of his later work) and Day of the Jackal. McCauley’s writing has never been smoother or more transparent. (I was lucky enough to score an advanced reader copy; the expected publication date is February 13, 2024.)