Curse words are rolling around in my head right now. Could be because I’ve watched six episodes of “Orange is the New Black” in the last three days. For those who don’t know, OINB is a Netflix series that takes place in a women’s prison. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, it’s raw and wonderful. It has sex, violence and all the words you wouldn’t dare say at church. If my mother were alive, she’d be horrified. My electrician dad, whose language isn’t exactly bland, would turn away in disgust. But I love it, even if it does make me want to say F— in every sentence.
But should I say it? More important here, should I write it? It depends on the audience, whether in person or in writing. I have noticed that when I slip those juicy words into conversation, some people look uncomfortable. Even when I say “freakin’” instead of—you know. Most of them don’t talk that way. Since my day job is at a church, I know I have to keep my language clean when I’m at work or around work people. I also have to watch myself around children, my uber-Christian friends and in any situation where I’m not sure how a stream of curse words will be taken.
One of my favorite expressions (and my dad’s) is “son of a bitch.” It’s a great all-purpose release. Just in case, I’ve been dreaming up other words for the end, like “son of a bean” or “son of a beach bag.” Just like my best friend’s mom used to say, “Oh S….sugar.”
Ages ago, comedian George Carlin had a famous routine in which he listed the seven words you couldn’t say on TV. Now all but about three of them are being said on a regular basis. I’m still surprised when a sitcom character says “asshole,” for example.
The novel I’m reading right now uses all the good words, including the F-bomb. But the thing is, that’s how people talk. Not all people, but certain groups of people use all the forbidden words all the time, just like other people quote the Bible. It feels natural. It would be unnatural to offer plain vanilla language.
Certainly a factual article has no need for questionable language, unless a person being interviewed speaks that way. Even then you probably want to edit it out. In poetry, fiction, essays, and scripts, think about whether you need those words to make the point, whether they feel natural and necessary or awkward and ugly. Share it with someone you trust and see how they react. Are they offended? Uncomfortable? Do the words fit in so naturally that they don’t even notice?
You wouldn’t expect people in a prison, for example, to speak like nuns. Well, actually there is a nun in “Orange is the New Black.” She only curses when she gets really angry. Use the language that’s right for your characters. Some people never curse, some always do, and some make up colorful substitutes. People who don’t even believe in God will blurt out “Jesus!” in a stressful situation.
When you use the so-called blue words, some people will be offended and reject both you and your writing. Even a single word may earn you a rejection. So be careful. As with any question about writing style, read heavily in the genre you write and note the conventions. Does the romance writer refer to a woman’s “pussy” or just “down there”? Does she say, “I want to f— you” or “I want to make love”? If you did a search, would you find a single word your grandmother wouldn’t approve of? If you want to publish in that world, do likewise. Keep it clean or don’t, depending on the market. If you’re writing porn, go for it. If you want to publish the next bestseller from one of the major publishers, maybe you want to go easy on the R-rated words.
And if you decide to watch “Orange is the New Black,” don’t let your kids or parents watch it with you.
Here’s great article on the subject by Elizabeth Sims from Writer’s digest.
Another by Mark Nichol: “What the Hell Do You Do About Profanity?”
Now let’s go write.
Print vs. digital? In the writing world, the conversation about which is best never seems to end. Which is a better way to reach readers? Will print books soon become extinct? Does reading on a screen change how we experience books? Etc.
But in one area, I’m here to tell you digital is better. That area is market guides. For decades, I bought the latest Writer’s Market every year. I also bought the Writer’s Handbook, Poet’s Market, guides to agents, and other marketing books. Having them on paper was handy. I could sit out in the sun and go through the listings, marking the likely markets with paper clips or Post-Its. I could write in corrections and changes I found in my writing magazines or online. I plotted my marketing plans with lists of names and page numbers for magazines, newspapers and book publishers. I loved when the new guides arrived, so full of opportunities.
But here’s the thing. It usually takes a year or longer to publish a book. By the time those books are published, the information they contain has changed. I have been going through my own book, Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market, checking the references, and at least half are out of date. I try to keep my online reference list (which you can access above) current, but I can’t do anything about the print version.
The same goes for the market guides. Editors, addresses, and requirements may all have changed by the time you read about a publication. They might not even be in business anymore. So you have to go to their website to get the latest information. While you’re there, you can read as much content as they make available to get a better idea of what they publish. If it all looks good, you may be able to follow a link to a submission form by which you can submit your work right away. Digitally, of course.
The Writer’s Digest company that publishes Writer’s Market and its sister books for poets, short story writers, screenwriters, etc., has an online guide at writersmarket.com. It costs $39.99 a year or $5.99 a month to subscribe. If you find a market of interest there, you will end up clicking through to the publication’s website. Ultimately, you always have to go to the website, so why not start there? Do a Google search for your type of publication, such as “parenting magazines” and follow the links to the ones that interest you. It doesn’t cost a thing and gets you to the latest, most accurate information.
The market books are not useless. Most contain wonderful articles about all aspects of writing and publishing, and you can still take them out in the sun to peruse the possibilities. Just know that that’s not enough. You have to go online. Also know that old market guides that you might find in second-hand stores are not going to be much help.
Do you have favorite market listings that you use? Let’s share in the comments and compile a list, okay?
We can’t send out what we don’t write, so now . . . Let’s go write.
I seem to have spent the last week working for free. I was teaching at the Catholic Writers Conference online, something I have done several times before. Every time the organizers put out a call for people to teach workshops and lead chats, I think, sure, that will be fun. As the date approaches, I suddenly wake up and think, oh my God, why did I say I’d do this. It’s going to take so much time, and I’m not getting paid. (sound familiar to anyone?)
This year, I led two workshops, “Poetry Party” and “Power Blogging (their titles). For the poetry course, each day I presented a different poetry form with examples, offered a prompt and invited participants to write and post their poems for comments and critiques. Over the week, I learned more about the various poetry forms, and I wrote seven new poems. This is good!
As for the blogging class, I had wanted to teach this for a long time. I had an outline, but I had not written the lessons. Now, thanks to this volunteer gig, I have been forced put the whole course together. It was hard work, but I can use it for paid teaching opportunities. (See my list of classes at writeraid.net/classes.)
I can also add the workshops and this conference to my resume. So it was not a waste of time. I wrote every day, I made connections with other writers, and I also had the opportunity to participate in all the other classes for free.
The moral of the story is that it’s okay to work for free sometimes for benefits that go beyond money. Just don’t stop writing.
Many conferences are coming up. You can find listings of them at Writer’s Digest or Poets & Writers or Google “writers conferences.” If you want to attend but can’t afford it, think about volunteering to teach, help set things up, make copies, pick up guest speakers at the airport, or whatever they need. It will get you in the door.
Now go write.
In recent weeks, we have talked about approaching agents and book publishers to get your book published. Another path to publication is by entering contests. Many university presses and small independent publishers, especially those who do literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, hold contests in which they will publish the winning books. This can be a huge honor and a stepping stone to greater things in your career, or it may turn out to be much ado about not very much, a handful of copies that no one but you will ever see.
You can find contests in many books and websites. Here are a few: Funds for Writers, Moira Allen’s Writing to Win: Colossal Guide to Writing Contests, Poets & Writers, Writers Digest, Freelancewriting.com, and the Creative Writing Opportunities list at Yahoo groups.I So, you read the listings and find some that sound good. Now you need to answer some questions.
Who are these people?
Who else have they published? Do you like the books they put out? Would your book fit in? Go to their website, take a look at their books and see if it feels right. Then study the guidelines. Do you and your book fit their qualifications? Many contests look for authors who have not published books before or at least not in that genre. Some have requirements for age, ethnicity or place of residence. Others only want to see books that have already been published.
What do they require for entries?
Usually they’re looking for a finished manuscript. Will yours be ready by the deadline? Will it be the right length? Do they want hard copies sent by mail, email entries, or entries fit into a form? Do they want your contact information on the manuscript, or does it need to be anonymous with a cover sheet explaining who you are. You can lose a contest in a hurry by not following directions.
Is this contest worth it to you? Nearly all contests have entry fees, often ranging from $20 up. If you enter several contest, the fees add up. What will you get if you win? Is there a cash prize? Do they guarantee publication? How many copies will they publish? What rights will they take? Will they pay an advance or royalties? Will they help with marketing and distribution? Are there secondary prizes for runners-up and honorable mentions? Do they offer critiques for non-winners?
If you’re thinking entering book contests sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It is. But if you win the right contest with the right book, it can be the best thing that ever happened to your career.
You can’t enter a book contest without a book, so …
Now go write.
One piece of advice that especially hit home was Appel’s suggestion that we set our fictional stories in places we know very well, places where we have actually lived. With a guilty twinge, I thought about a novel that I drafted a few years back that I set on the other side of the country in a city in Massachusetts that I had visited for a few days. Great place. I took a lot of pictures and notes and always planned to go back and do more research, but can I ever capture the heart of a city where I have only spent a few days? I can gather lots of facts on the Internet, but can I really feel the place in my bones? I doubt it. Locals will know I’m faking it.
The novel I’m just finishing is set right here on the Oregon coast. I’ve been here for 17 years. I know the history, the people, the climate. I know what used to be where Walgreen’s just opened. I know the mayor, I swap critiques with a county commissioner, I have taught at the community college, had surgery at the local hospital, I know what kinds of birds, plants and wild animals live here, and I can name most of the businesses up and down Highway 101. I’m lucky that I live in a place where the natural setting offers plenty of opportunities for drama. I could write stories about the Oregon coast forever.
I come from San Jose, California, which has grown from a quiet farm community into a huge metropolis. You have to hunt for unpaved ground. Traffic, overcrowding and high prices are constant factors in everyday life. It’s a completely different scene, but I know that one well, too. My family lives there, and I visit often. I also know the road from here to San Jose ridiculously well. I’ve got so many places to set my stories.
How about you? Where do you live? What stories can you tell? Can you look at your hometown with the eyes of a visitor seeing it for the first time? Maybe they’re armed with a guidebook that points out the special attractions, but you know more about it than the guidebook. You know where the locals hang out. You know the history, the secrets, and the dangers. You know the language. One of my problems with the Massachusetts story was capturing that distinct New England way of speaking. But I don’t have to stretch to write dialogue from the West Coast. That’s how I speak.
Everywhere can be a setting for a story. For a writer, the whole world teems with stories. With enough research, you can set your story anywhere, but know that if you want to make it real, the best place to start is the place you call home. It may also help your career to become identified with a particular place. Give it a try. Write a story that happens where you live.
Next week: How to use where you live for your nonfiction.
I’ve still got a few copies of Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market available for $10, including shipping. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to buy an autographed copy.
Now go write.