22 January 2019

I've Crossed A Line -- Warning: Rated X for Expletives


by Barb Goffman

You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take the New York out of the girl. That's my explanation for why I often pepper my speech with expletives. Anyone who read my 2017 column  titled "The Intersection of Plotting and Cursing" knows I'm quite comfortable with the word fuck. I've used it and other curse words in my stories without issue.

How often? I just ran a search of my published stories, and here are the results:

  • Asshole -- used in two stories (6% of all my published stories).
  • Fuck -- used in two stories (6%). A surprisingly low number. I'll have to work on that.
  • Shit -- used in four stories (12%).
  • Bastard -- used in five stories (16%).
  • Bitch -- used in fifteen stories (48%!). I might have to tone this one down.
Given these results, you'd think I didn't often write light cozy stories. And yet there's one big curse word missing from the list. One word that, until last week, I had never used in a published story. Can you figure out what it is? Here's a hint: it rhymes with the word for the smallest animal in a litter. See, I have so much trouble with this word, I'm squeamish about even typing it here, in an academic (ish) discussion about using curse words in my fiction. The word is ...

Cunt. There I said it.

And I'm cringing.

There is just something about this word that, to me at least, crosses a line. I know some of you are reading this thinking I must have no lines. But I do. And cunt crosses it. That's why I never say it. And until now I've never used it in my fiction.

So why did I make this exception? And was it a good choice?

To answer these questions, let's turn to the story in question. It's my newest story, "Punching Bag," which was published last week in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries, an e-zine that showcases crime flash fiction. I'm delighted that not only did editors BJ and Brandon Bourg choose to publish it, but they also chose it as the cover story and as the editors' choice story for the issue. It's the story of the darkest day in an emotionally abused teenage girl's life.

Let's stop here for a moment. I'm afraid that anything I say from here on will ruin the story for you if you haven't read it. So please go do so. The story is only 748 words long--the equivalent of three double-spaced pages. You can read it really quickly by clicking on the title in the prior paragraph. Then come back.

Okay, you've read it? Good. (I hope you liked it.)

You'll notice that the use of curse words is minimal. Toward the end the mom says the daughter is stupid and calls her a "disappointing, ungrateful bitch," and other unspecified names. That was all I planned to say about the matter originally, figuring readers could extrapolate from there. But one of my trusted beta readers told me she didn't think the girl was justified in killing her parents. She thought the girl came across as spoiled and selfish. I was surprised. I definitely didn't want that. I wanted readers to understand this girl, to be on her side, despite that she does a horrible thing. So I felt I needed to up the ante. That's when I added the part about her mom calling her a "self-centered cunt."

I figured if anything in this story was going to turn readers' perception of this girl from spoiled to sort-of justified, it would be that. If the word cunt crosses a line for me, I hoped, it would cross a line for readers, too--at least any readers whose line hadn't already been crossed by the mom's behavior.

So I submitted the story. But I worried. Was the use of the word cunt too much? Would it keep the story from being accepted? Then, once the story was accepted, I worried about readers. Would the word turn them off? Especially readers who know me primarily for my lighthearted, funny stories? The answer: So far, so good. I've gotten some feedback on "Punching Bag," and it's all been positive, with no one mentioning my use of that word. This response has helped me feel better about my choice, despite that the word still makes me cringe.

What do you think? Would you have been on the girl's side at the end if I hadn't included the "self-centered cunt" line? Or did the line push you onto the girl's side? Or do you think I went too far? What words cross your line?

One final note to my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti: Last week you wrote briefly about your newest flash short story (which is fewer than 700 words long), saying you were keeping things short because only English professors could get away with writing something about a story that is longer than the story itself. Ha ha, Rob! I have proven you wrong, because this blog about "Punching Bag" (excluding this paragraph) is 29 words longer than the story itself, and I am no English professor. Do I get a prize? Please don't make me become an English professor. I wouldn't last. I'd surely get written up for cursing in front of my students.

43 comments:

Stephen Ross said...

OMG! Shock! Horror!
:) :D
Great post, Barb!
I've used "fuck" in (from memory) on one occasion each in five stories. Every time I use it, I'm certain it'll get snipped out. But no. There are there, defiantly, in print.
As for the others, I'm sure I've used them all, at least once. But not the "C" word ("Conservative"? :D) It's all about context, and I've never had the context yet to need that one. My next story... Challenge accepted.

Fran Rizer said...

Barb, you started my day with a smile. Being a Southern girl who writes more cozyesque mysteries than other genres (horror and thriller), my speech is more peppered than my writing. I had to think long and hard about using mf in one of my books. I finally did it and laughed like hell when the proofer sent it back with a comment that I misspelled it.

O'Neil De Noux said...

When I studied 20th Century European Fiction at Loyola, I read Flaubert. Our professor told us Flaubert agonized over 'the perfect word' in each sentence. Maybe the prof was exaggerating. I don't know. I never met Flaubert. I do know – sometimes – a profanity is the perfect word.

Lynn Chandler Willis said...

Great post, Barb. I think you used the perfect word to do exactly what you wanted it to do - make the killing justified. I read the published story when you posted the link and never once thought the girl was to blame. Good job!

Liz Milliron said...

Barb, I think you nailed it. Great story.

I used a lot of PG-13 profanity in my stories. One novel made liberal use of the f-bomb until I dialed it back (I think I was angry when I wrote it). Learning my great-aunt wanted to read my debut made me evaluate every profanity in the book (although her husband was a police officer for 20 years AND she drove a bus of high schoolers back in the day) because "she knew those words, but she'd never heard ME use them." I realized that a lot of the f-words didn't really add much, so I dropped them.

Tina said...

One of my characters uses words I never say. They trip off her tongue. They feel right coming out of her mouth. The other has said only one obscenity in six books and seven stories, but when he did, everybody paid attention (like you said-- maximum punch). I think writers should write what works--like most things, profanity is usually best in moderation. Thought-provoking post!

Karen Cantwell said...

I had read the story, and loved it! I think your placement of that particular word worked really well to justify the daughter's action. I agree with you, that word is an atomic bomb of a curse word, to be used only when absolutely necessary!

Eve Fisher said...

Oh, gasp! Clutch my pearls!!!!! NOT.
I think that's the perfect use of the word "cunt". I'm not bothered, but then I curse fluently and frequently, in my head, if not always in writing.
One trick I have learned with profanity - other than to come up with other ways NOT to use it (make your characters "nice" people who wouldn't dream of calling you a effing anything while stabbing you in the back) - is when you really need every other word to be a variation on F-major is to make them British or Australian and use "bloody, bleedin'", etc. It's worked many a time for me.

R.T. Lawton said...

Barb, I (1) enjoyed your story, (2) liked that we both have stories in the same issue of Flash Bang [Go SleuthSayers], and (3) thought in your case that the use of that curse word put the "bitch" Mom beyond the pale.

Being old-fashioned, I generally stick with the softer cuss words. For one thing, I don't want to limit my market, however, I do see more hard cuss words creeping into stories published in markets that didn't use to allow them. Times are changing. I also think that the overuse of some hard cuss words, as seen in some movies these days, has caused those words to loose some of their shock value in those movies. For any one story, the use of a hard cuss word can put emphasis on a character, however the constant use of cussing gives the perception of a limited vocabulary. Now, having said that, you should(n't) hear me when I stub my toe while wearing flip-flops.

joshpac said...

Nicely done, Barb — both the story and the post. I don't use a lot of cuss words in my fiction, but some — though so far, to the best of my memory, not that one. I would, if I felt it contributed to the story, but so far that hasn't happened....

Earl Staggs said...


Barb, I use common everyday curse words in stories -- damn, shit, bastard, and the like -- but the F word makes me cringe every time I see it or hear it. I never use it in my own speech, and I've stopped watching movies that use it to excess. I even quit watching The Sopranos because of it. Believe me, I'm far from being a prude. To me, the word has been overused to the point of losing it's effectiveness. It's almost in the same category as using "you know" and "like" in conversation. But there are exceptions to everything, right? I have to confess I used it in my first book. I had an ex con serial killer who used it a half dozen times. I felt I wasn't being true to his character if he didn't use it. I may come up with another character in the future who needs to drop F bombs. If I do, I'll let him. Fortunately, I can cringe and type at the same time.

Vicki Batman, sassy writer of sexy and funny fiction, blogger at Handbags, Books...Whatever said...

That's one I don't use. Most others, yea, fair game. Good post.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

Stephen, "Challenge accepted" gave me my first laugh of the day early this morning. Thank you.

Fran, you gave me the second laugh of the day! While I've used fuck a few times in my writing, I've never used mf. And if I ever use it in my speech, it's rare.

O'Neil, I agree. Sometimes a profanity is the perfect word. I often find that is especially true when I stub my toe or bang another body part and yell, "Fuck!"

Lynn, thanks for commenting. It's hard to say a killing is justified because in some ways killing is never justified. I was about to write the prior sentence without the "in some ways' qualifier, but I realized that even though I know it's wrong, in my gut, sometimes I do feel some people have it coming. I guess that's partly why we have the death penalty.

Liz, you gave me my third laugh of the day. (Love that you realized you were angry when writing the first draft.) I do that too--analyzing whether certain words are really needed. Sometimes they are curse words. Other times they are just my crutch words ... like "just." Did I really need it before the ellipsis? And "really." Did I need to use it two sentences ago. Probably not.

Tina, yes, moderation can be so important because it allows something unusual to stand out. As a friend wrote on FB this morning, her son is a paramedics. The people he tends to might curse a lot because of pain, but he rarely does, because when he does, he does so to make the injured people really listen to him. And it works.

Karen, thanks for stopping by. So glad you loved the story. It was so hard to decide to use that "atomic bomb." I'm happy it worked.

Eve, good idea. I'm not English, but I find myself using "bloody" at times. Perhaps it's when I've been reading novels set in the UK. Or ... now that I think about it, it's probably when I've been watching the Harry Potter movies. Again.

R.T., you and I probably use the same words when we stub our toes. And I'm trilled to be in this issue of Flash Bang Mysteries with you, too. Loved your "Homework" story. The end is perfect. (Go SleuthSayers!)

Josh, Thanks! Take it from me, when the right time to use the word comes along, you'll know. And if you're like me, you'll agonize about it. But you'll know.

Earl, I love that you can cringe and type at the same time. That sums up perfectly what we as writers sometimes must do.

Barb Goffman said...

Vicki, yes, most others I use, but that one required a special need. Thanks for stopping by!

Elizabeth Bergman said...

I don't think what state you are from has anything to do with it. My husband was born and raised in Brooklyn and worked hard not to have what he calls an uneducated accent, nor does he curse. I don't either and I find excessive cursing a good reason to put the book down. It's appalling that a new senator chose to use foul language recently. I've never read anything that was enhanced by cursing!

Barb Goffman said...

Elizabeth, to each her own. Thanks for stopping by.

Sarah Glenn said...

What I found more interesting than the curse words was (SPOILER)

... who she killed first.

That actually made the story more believable for me. The one who should protect and doesn't raises the ante of desperation and fury for the victim.

Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barb Goffman said...

Sarah and Elizabeth, thanks for noting who the first victim was. I did it that way for exactly the reason you mentioned, Sarah. The failure to protect is what pushed the girl over the edge.

And Elizabeth, your story about your mom made me laugh. Thanks for that. I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

Elizabeth said...

Agree with Sarah Glenn's comment about who was first to be killed, & with your use of "cunt", Barb. The story is terrific!

I used the word "fuck" in one of my first internet-published stories, some years back, & warned my mother about it. Of course she refused to even read the story. We got her to watch The King's Speech by first explaining that it was a true story & the obscene language was absolutely necessary, otherwise the plot wouldn't have made sense. She watched the movie & said she enjoyed it.

Tonette Joyce said...

I don't t think it's the words as it is their usage.If you threw the c-word around, and used it often, then no. To use it to show the evil of this woman and to push the girl and your readers to a murderous frame of mind, then it probably worked.
The same with the F-bomb,(which I use in daily life around those near and dear to me), it is the same and it is also boring to read. On the other hand,"bitch" may well need to be use often in writing, esp. short stories, as it is very encompassing and gets your point across quickly,(whether it is a justified description or not).

Leslie Budewitz said...

Barb, I have the same reaction to cunt as you do. It's not an amplifier, like fuck or fucking, and has none of the banality of shit, asshole, or bastard, or even bitch, though not in every context; it's meant to wound, and it does. Which is what makes it perfect in your story. Well done.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Great stuff Barb! I saw a crime film when I was a kid (wish I could remember the title) where instead of cursing-and you're expecting cursing- one of the heavies says "Oh fiddlesticks." It blew my mind and always stuck with me. A well placed curse word can hit you there same way. Then again, there's always the Scarface method...

Mark Troy said...

Hi Barb. Great story! I read it and didn’t even think about the word. It fit right in. I have never been concerned about profanity in my writing. I let the characters say what seems natural in their mouths. You did just that in you story.

Robert Lopresti said...

Barb, the only rule is what works works. True about blog lengths and obscenity. Some people will refuse to read more by you, but that's true for a lot of things you can write.

In the UK the c-word is not a big deal and they seem amazed by how offended we get over it.

I have never used it, as far as I can recall it. The only piece of writing I have done with serious cussing was my novel GREENFELLAS. Couldn't write about Mafiosi without letting them express themselves a bit.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to say I'm all out of Give a Fucks, but I'm not when I write. It seems very permanent to write and see my fucks in my fiction. So I don't. I have no problem saying it in real life but it seems Bigger and More Profane when I write it. I don't give "a shit" or "a crap" and can write them, and even translate into Spanish as in "mierda" or "assholio" or even "puto" but I don't use the usual translation of "puta" which is the "c" word, which I don't say in English, either. And just to be clear, I don't judge, don't stop reading that word in other author's works. Those words usually add something to the tone overall or the character uttering them. So it's okay for others to use. I don't give a shit. Laura Hernandez (Guppie)

Eve Fisher said...

Yes, the British relatives / friends don't mind the "c" word, and I've heard it used often by British comedians. On the other hand, I understand that when Mike Myers came out with "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me", there were a lot of theaters that bleeped out the "shagged" because to the Brits shag and bloody are the two main no-nos...

Barb Goffman said...

Tonette, bitch does convey a lot in one little word, doesn't it--about the speaker, the recipient, and/or the situation.

Leslie, I never thought before of swear words being used as amplifiers (or not, as the case may be). That's a great point. And I think it backs up why Tonette and I apparently both use some swear words regularly but not others. We like amplifers! (And I'm so glad you liked the story.)

Lawrence, you make a good point that curse words can be used to surprise the reader, and someone who regularly curses and then doesn't can be just as surprising. Same with someone who the reader would expect to be hardboiled based on appearance but whose language is cozy. That doesn't just surprise. It reveals character. I read an article that said JK Rowling based her Hagrid character on a man she met in a bar who looked like a big scary biker, but then he began telling her how it was a bad year for petunias, and she knew she had to make a character out of him.

Mark, thanks for the support. I'm glad to know the word flew right by you. I wanted it to help the reader onto the girl's side, and I didn't want it to stop the reader. So, yay!

Rob, I think that's true. What works, works. But sometimes what works for one doesn't work for all. Sigh.

Laura, I like your live-and-let-live approach. You also made me laugh, so thanks for that.

Eve, really, bloody is a big no-no in the UK? Because I seem to hear it often in British movies, and I don't watch a lot of hardboiled stuff.

Leigh Lundin said...

Barb, I wanted to comment before the day's odometer scrolled off. After that, I promise to read the story.

It is not a word I could use easily (I even had to use a pronoun to refer to 'it', with one exception and not in a derogatory sense. I've known women intensely stimulated by words in an intimate situation, so sometimes so-called curse words can be used to make love, not war.

Barb, as an aside, my grandmother used to titter embarrassedly when she'd utter the word 'devil'. It was a forbidden word for her.

Leigh Lundin said...

Back after having read the story and comments. The word fit so smoothly, I probably wouldn't have noticed if you hadn't mentioned it. I also like the analogy of the punching bag swinging back.

Fran, who commented above, is known for 'kindergarten cussin' in some of her cosies. I think she even has a Wikipedia entry.

Eve's "clutch my pearls" comment cracked me up.

In reference to Rob's comment, you do NOT want to pat a girl on her fanny. It's not where you think it is… rather on the opposite side of the body, more in line with the c-word.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Fun post. I had a little trouble in the early years, but as my writing improved the realness had to follow. I remember in one book, I tried making up curse words. My crit partners were baffled. I gave in and let the character have his way. It was the first novel I'd used fuck in and it just fit. The story has to be real.

Jeff Baker said...

Love it, Barb! You said it as well as this guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ssJtD08vCc

Jeff Baker said...

Okay, I posted a link to George Carlin's "Seven Words."

Barb Goffman said...

Hey, Leigh, Brenda, and Jeff, thanks for commenting. I'm glad you liked the post and story.

Gerald So said...

Hi, Barb and everyone.

I'm going to use buzzwords in this comment only to analyze them as language. My parents never cursed at home. They may have reached the level of anger/frustration where other people curse, but if so, I never knew because it didn't show in their language. I heard profanity everywhere else: school, friends, books, movies. I can curse, but I generally don't because it didn't get me anywhere with my parents. I figured it wouldn't get me anywhere with most anyone else, and on the whole, that's proven true.

But enough about everyday life. In creative writing, curses are tools like all other words, used for effect, the more incisive, the better. Profanity appears in crime fiction because the stakes are high, the characters on edge. Anyone who says they don't at least understand why a person/character might curse in the same situation is lying.

About "Punching Bag", the mother's use of "self-centered cunt" didn't win me over to the daughter/protag's side, but I did feel that "cunt" affected the protag more deeply than "bitch", and that's the emotional escalation you intended. From there, I understood why she killed her parents.

For whatever reason, "bitch" has become softer and more commonplace in American pop culture, as has "whore", while "cunt" remains more hurtful on this side of the Pond.

Finally, which words cross the line for me? I've come to dislike colorful descriptions of skin color, "coal black", "cafe au lait", for example. There are better ways to help me picture characters.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for weighing in, Gerald. Interesting perspective on skin color. If the description is accurate, why would it cross a line for you? Do you find the descriptions vulgar, which I think is the problem most people have with profanity?

Gerald So said...

Hi, Barb.

I wouldn't say vulgar, but I think such descriptions show bias, which isn't necessary or desired if the describer-POV character is supposedly unbiased. Names may show origin well enough on their own, as may unbiased descriptors like Chinese, Japanese, Irish, etc.

Mark Bergin said...

the exact right word at the right time. So perfect that I missed it in my first read of Punching Bag as I hurried to the finish, it fit so well. Yes, it's an ugly word, my least favorite expletive. I can't give use percentages for my work consisting of only one work, but among 91,000 words in my book I used fuck 48 times, shit 21 (with a bullshit sub grouping of five) and dick once. I did not use cunt. I now have a new goal.

Barb Goffman said...

LOL. Good luck with your goal, Mark.

Robyn said...

That was a powerful story, and a perfect use of the word. I definitely felt for the girl.

Barb Goffman said...

Thank you, Robyn! I'm glad to hear that.

Tom Shepherd said...

After 20 years in the military, offensive language no longer offends me the way it did way-back-when. (Even though I retired as an Army Chaplain.) However, the C-word appears very seldom in my R-rated sci-fi/mystery stories, and always by an unsavory character. Conversely, I NEVER use the N-word, which is my line-don't-cross. When I was a young soldier living in the barracks, the word fuck/fucking was thrown about so generously that it lost all impact. "Pass the fucking potatoes" doesn't have the punch of the hero staring down the barrel of the bad guy's weapon and giving him the old, defiant, "F-you. No way you're getting my piece." So, the rule for me has always been natural flow, need to say it, place and time. I've not yet 'dropped the F-bomb' in a sermon. But, hey? Who knows what Goliath's brothers called David after he whacked the big guy? I'm retired. Fire my fucking ass. (The ushers will now receive the offering.)

Great article, BTW.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for the laugh, Tom.