Writing THE PROPOSAL was more difficult than I’d anticipated. I encountered the problem of profanity–or, shall I say, the lack of it. I don’t think I’d find it as challenging today as I did back then, but I was less experienced in 1995.
I had two characters, you see, who were thuggy low lifes. (Low lives?) And I wanted to write them realistically, but I wanted to eschew profanity in my book. When they were chopping off a man’s finger, I couldn’t have them say, “Oh, darn it.”
Why do I want to avoid profanity in my work? Bottom line: Because it bothers a lot of readers. I was once at a secular conference where someone asked Diana Gabaldon (whose books I like) why she used so much profanity in her novels. Diana replied that SHE doesn’t use it, but her characters do. But I walked away from that talk realizing that to readers, it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter who uses it, it’s being used, and it offends a lot of people. (My book club once read a book of Carl Haissen’s, and we would have loved the story, but his language put us off–and we are not a “Christian” book club. We’re readers, period.)
I have since come up with ways to work around this problem, but it was a challenge in the beginning. (The ways around? Lots of options: Change the character to someone more urbane. Change the camera focus while the profanity is being spewed. Focus on a detail, zoom in tightly, work the violence with mood rather than explicit language. Like I said, it takes MORE creativity and skill to write without settling for the most obvious profanity or obscenity.)
Sorry to digress. Back to the writing.
Two years ago I taught the fiction track at the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference. It was a class of about forty, and we spent a lot of time together, so I attempted something different. I brought forty copies of THE PROPOSAL to class, taught a lesson on self-editing, and gave the class homework: to take a copy and self-edit the first chapter of THE PROPOSAL using what I’d taught them in class.
The next day they came in, and I walked them through the first few pages, showing how we could easily tighten dialogue, get rid of words that didn’t work, heighten the mood. One of my students raised her hand and said, “How did this get published?” I laughed. “It’s a good story,” I told her, “and I’ve improved a lot since I wrote this. You’ll improve, too, the more you write.”
(Aside: actually, I could pick up ANY novel and edit it. Almost anything can be tightened.)
It is a good story–the issue is important, the risks were real, and, after all, it’s about a writer at a writers’ conference, something I can easily relate to. But if I had it to rewrite, I’m sure there’d be a lot of words left on the cutting room floor . . . and some thug scenes written from an entirely different perspective.
Tomorrow: the editing