You can’t write that!

News Alert: The Bleeding Crowd is coming out August 27th, for those interested, from Melange Books. In the mean time, you can find my short story, In a Handbasket, available for free here through Boxfire Press. Please enjoy!

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A common theme I have been seeing on my favorite haunt, the NaNoWriMo forums, lately, are questions about what you are and are not allowed to write. The first time I saw this question, I was a little surprised, but now that I’ve seen it more than once, I figured I would take the chance to cover it here.

While the NaNoWriMo site came down for repairs before I could find the original thread (literally asking what you are and are not allowed to write), but today’s post which sparked this post includes this line:

But since a character in my novel is a rapist (and yes, this is essential to the plot and the ending) there are some rape scenes…I heard that you can’t actually show the act happening (I think that’s a bit weird, considering how other acts of violence are considered totally fine) but whatever, it’s not that important.”

Ok, rape is a touchy subject, I don’t think anyone is going to argue it isn’t (especially not after all of the news stories out in the past couple of days). There are many, many people who have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lives (men and women) and there are several more who don’t care to read about things such as rape in their novels/short stories/etc. But does that mean you can’t write about it.

Honestly, my first reaction when reading that post was, “Where did you hear that you can’t write/show a rape happening in your story?” Part of me just really wanted to know if it was a passing comment the poster had picked up and internalized, or if someone in a creative writing class was teaching there are certain things that you can and can’t write about. Because honestly, when it comes to creative writing, there is very little you can’t write about.

This advice might be a little different in countries that are known to censor writing (there are a few out there where less-than-complementary writing about the government can end up with the writer in prison, I believe) but at least in the United States (and any other country with no state-sponsored censorship), the list of what you can’t write is pretty short:

1. You can’t plagiarise. That is, if someone has written something before you, you can’t take it word-for-word and call it your own. At least not without getting sued (same goes for things under copyright you haven’t gotten permission to use, even with proper credit given).

2. Libel. You can’t present something detrimental to someone’s character/life as true that is not. (This is more relevant in journalistic writing, but basically don’t write that your neighbor likes to kill people in his spare time and act like it’s true when it’s not [if it is true, you can write it, but please, call the police first]).

3. Child Pornography (if you’re in Australia or Canada). Both countries have laws banning cartoon, manga, or written child pornography. Outside of those countries, it isn’t illegal (though it is still rather icky, just saying).

And, well, that’s about it. There are a couple more things that aren’t protected under freedom of speech/the press that the Supreme Court has ruled on, but if you’re writing fiction, it more than likely doesn’t apply to you.

The long and the short of it is, there is no morality police who is going to swoop down on you for writing something that could be offensive. We don’t live in a police state. There is no Hays Code that prohibits, rape, drug use, swearing, graphic sex, blasphemy, or any other topic from being put into print. If you are ok writing it, you’re more than allowed to put it down on paper.

This does not mean, however, that people are required to give you a platform to distribute it. While you are allowed to write about something many people might find offensive/disgusting/reprehensible, publishers/distributors are more than allowed to not publish/distribute it on their site.

For example, for romance/erotica publishers, you will often find notices such as this on their submission page: “We  do not accept: scatological stories, incest/twincest, sexual content  involving anyone under the age of eighteen, snuff, rape or bestiality.

You are more that allowed to write something incestual, you may even be incredible popular with it in your story (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin), but that doesn’t mean you can demand that someone publish your book just because you wrote it.

Far too often, I come across someone who has had a post removed from a forum online, and they start railing about how the site is violating their First Amendment rights. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again, A private company/person/other private entity cannot infringe on any of your constitutional rights. The Bill of Rights protects you from the government. The government isn’t allowed to take down your blog. Someone hosting it for you, however, can. It’s their site, they can choose what they’d like to put out there. (Note that I don’t just say publishers, but distributors. Many right remember some controversy over Amazon.com pulling books and banning authors from selling on their site. If you violate their content guidelines, even as a self-published author, they have the right to remove you. You can read more about that here.)

So, can you write about touchy subjects? Sure. Should you? That’s a little trickier. Like everything with writing, it’s about trade offs. Think about what your goals are. Do you want to market to a wide audience/be able to pitch it to every publisher in your genre? Maybe you should second guess how detailed you’re going to be about that scene. You know the one I’m talking about. Are you writing a gritty, adult novel that will most likely find a home in a niche market? Have at it. If you’re willing to write it, no one is going to stop you.

And so, write what your story needs. Most likely the only thing limiting your writing is you.

$*&# @#*%

Note: In an attempt to keep this blog as family friendly as possible, strong language will be censored (e.g. a**, f***, s***, etc.) [yes, I couldn’t fight the urge to start and end that with Latin abbreviations…] and external links to sites/clips/articles which include strong language/adult content will be marked with a caret (^) so as not to be confused with other asterisks (*). If you prefer not to read such content, please avoid those links. You have been duly warned.

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Television and Movies have some fun rules when it comes to what actors can and can’t say on screen. Where plays and novels have not had many problems with restricted content, state censorship of motion pictures has gone back nearly as far as motion pictures themselves. This censorship of motion pictures eventually gave way to The Motion Picture Production Code (perhaps better known as The Hays Code) which strictly governed what could and couldn’t be shown between the 1930’s and 1960’s. Though quite long in its entirety, The Hays Code included some points such as:

II. Sex. The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

V. Profanity. Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ – unless used reverently), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

And the list goes on and on.

Though The Hays Code is no longer around, it’s predecessor, the MPAA movie classification system is still alive and strong, currently marking movies as G, PG, PG–13, R, or NC–17 based on the movie’s content and the way that content is handled.

Other broadcasted media finds itself likewise watched by The Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  This governing body decides what is allowed on the air, and is the reason George Carlin couldn’t say his “Seven Dirty Words^” on television, much to the chagrin of some TV writers. Some more risqué shows, such as Fox’s Family Guy, have gone so far as to out right mock the FCC (in song)^ during their broadcast.

However, while the screen and airwaves might be regulated, plays and books aren’t.

If you so desired, you could see a fully naked Daniel Radcliffe in a recent production of Equus, and you’ll never see an ‘R’ rating on a book just because a character says f***. You certainly won’t find major outlets refusing to carry books that would likely be NC-17 films the way many major movie theatres often cap what they show at R. So novelist/playwrights don’t have to worry about how they use strong language in their work. But should they?

In my opinion, yes and no. As with everything else in writing, it’s important to think about the pros and cons about what’s being put down on paper, and what you’re trying to accomplish, when you use strong language.

1. Pro: Real people swear. In an earlier blog, I touched on the pros and cons of dialogue and narrative. Though it isn’t the point of that blog, it’s briefly mentioned that it’s important to keep dialogue sounding natural. Well, depending on who you know, it’s possible more than half of what you hear in any one sentence involves strong language. It’s possible to use “clean swears” some times, but we all know people who wouldn’t say “Darn it!” or “Shoot!” if they banged their knee against a table. If your character would swear, it’s awkward sometimes trying to get around it. After all, as John Brophy wrote in his 1930 book, Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918:

It [F***] became so common that an effective way for the soldier to express this emotion was to omit this word. Thus if a sergeant said, ‘Get your f***ing rifles!’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said ‘Get your rifles!’ there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.”

Can you imagine a soldier in the trenches really say, “What the frick???”

2. Con: Strong language can lose readers/make readers uncomfortable. All right, maybe you don’t want to censor yourself just because someone might be offended, but if you’re writing for publication it is something to think about. Are you willing to turn some people off just so you can use the exact language you want? If yes, use it. If not, strongly consider toning it down. As a part of one review for my book Grey Areas, one person mentions language is why they’d rate the book as 3.5/5 instead of 4/5:

Now… this would have been 4 stars but all the swearing was a bit much for me. Yes, yes – I know – Demons – bad guys – of course they swear! I totally get that, and I agree. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind a couple in a scene when the situation really calls for it, but there were a lot of f-bombs.”

For me, the swearing was carefully planned in the book (one group swears [often] the other doesn’t at all), but doing that I (and the rest of us who want to do something similar) have to accept it can make some people uneasy.

3. Pro: You can tell a lot about a character based on the language they use. Going back to the first point (real people swear) you can quickly characterize someone based on the type of language they use. Do they swear? How often do they swear? What (if any) words are taboo to them? Do you have a character that swears in every sentence, but still won’t say f***? Do you have a character who won’t even say ‘Jesus’? Just by knowing that, you (and the reader) know a lot about your characters (and you have a good place to figure out more about your characters if you’re doing a Character Questionnaire. Why do they/don’t they swear?)

4. Con: Swearing can be a crutch. As my mother use to say, swearing is often the sign of a poor vocabulary. Now, I believe that can be far too easily generalized (nothing wrong with swearing if that’s how your character talks) but if you’re using strong language in places that might be better served with other words, it can be lazy (and often weaker) writing.

5. Pro/Con: Rare strong language can be shocking. This point can really be a pro or a con depending on how you look at it. As with the soldier example up there, when a character often uses strong language, it loses its effect (e.g. “Get your f***ing riffles). However, if a character doesn’t swear, the one time you hear that character swear, it becomes very clear very quickly how serious/upset they are. Whether that means you should use a lot of strong language or little depends on whether you want “Get your f***ing riffles!” to be routine or urgent.

And I’m sure there are more, but those are what I generally consider when it comes to strong language in otherwise unmoderated writing. Feel free to supply your own considerations, though comments/tweets/emails will be moderated for language (re: family friendly) before posting.