Tuesday, December 07, 2004

those who do, get criticized

I

There are people who cannot factor in or even acknowledge evidence outside of their personal experiences. They tend to learn facts once--often in their youth--and those facts are immutable regardless of later evidence to the contrary. (This can get embarrassing, given the rate of knowledge acquisition and technological advancement in this age.) This personality type tends to take things overly literally, and often behave as if they are experts in their chosen field of interest. The scifi genre is particularly full of people like this.

One such person in my writer's group got huffy because a hired thug (in a story) pointed a shotgun at the hero's stomach, when "a professional should know that a head or chest wound would be more likely to kill." It wasn't even my story, but I felt obligated to point out that:
  1. a blast to the abdomen or even the leg is still going to be horribly incapacitating, even if not immediately fatal
  2. it's a freaking shotgun; accuracy is not of the utmost importance, and
  3. aiming at the torso gives the thug the largest available target, if the hero decides to run.
More recently, this same person made skeptical remarks about certain combat moves I had Quinn use in a story, i.e. smashing a thug's sternum. S/he said, "No way a woman could do that, unless she's Superwoman."

Er, yeah. In the first place, breaking bones and/or joints is not that difficult; it's a significant component of many martial arts. Admittedly, the sternum is a tough one, but if you can break a cinderblock with the heel of your hand, you can probably crack somebody's sternum, and if This Person were really so knowledgable about assassins and fighting, s/he would know that.

But all of that aside, Quinn IS a superhuman. That's kind of a major plot point, no? This Person has read at least two of the Quinn Taylor stories, including the first novel, yet s/he never caught on that QT is a genetically enhanced super-soldier? I really have to wonder about This Person's reading comprehension abilities.

II


I got some feedback from a fan who took offense at the use of colorful metaphors in the "Insomnia" story (check the July archives).

My mother used to ink out the swear words in her books. Sometimes she marked them out in my manuscripts, too, although I never had a character say anything stronger than "bullshit" in those days (I haven't let her read any of my work from the last four years). Mom said, "You shouldn't have your heroine using language like that. Some young reader will idolize her and want to be like her and you don't want them using that bad language."

Mercy, no. I want all those impressionable young readers to have clean mouths, clean underwear and clean fingernails when they embark on their careers as professional killers.

Asimov claimed his characters didn't use profanity because they were intelligent, articulate people. Most of my characters are intelligent, and several of them are articulate, but they are also violent people, raised and groomed in rough environments, and submitted to horrific circumstances. I'm thinking they're going to say something stronger than "gosh" or "darn" when the fit hits the shan. If they don't, it just sounds silly. Stephen King has something to say about this in On Writing.

Personally, I usually go for a PG-13 rating in my work. Profanity, sex and violence don't generally bother me, but I find they become wearying after a while. There was a period of five or six years after Pulp Fiction when every third movie was competing to pack the maximum number of F-bombs into the dialogue. It had the same cumulative result as CGI effects in sci-fi movies: sameness and mediocrity. Using profanity to indicate "grittiness" is just as cheap as putting a token alien in the background of a Star Trek set and calling that scenery.

Heinlein used to write around the bad words by having his narrator say something like "I advised him to perform an impossible act of masturbation." When done well, and sparingly, it can be quite droll, but over the course of a 500-page novel it starts to take up a lot of space. I tried this technique, back when I was younger and verbose, but as my style got more spare and noir-ish it didn't work anymore. When Quinn's got a gun to her head and Seth's about to kick though the doors and unlease holy hell on the bad guys, it reads a lot faster if she just tells Ozee to go blow himself.

Feel free to generalize.

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