Monday, October 13, 2014

To Cuss or Not To Cuss

People who know me, or follow my Facebook or Twitter feeds know that I am a foul mouthed son of a bitch. I was raised in a working middle class blue collar neighborhood in the 1970's. I knew just about every racial epithet and swear word there was by age ten. I learned the rest when I went to college. Every job I have had in my adult life since has been shared with people who casually breathe out expletives roughly every third sentence without thinking about it or caring.

Profanity in books or movies does not throw or shock me in any way. The F-word is so deeply rooted in my vocabulary it's essentially filler. A synonym for "very". Like Smurf. It's an incredibly versatile word. It can be a verb or an adjective. Even a noun. It can be used to convey anger or humor.

One of the more memorable scenes in The Wire was when McNulty and Bunk were looking around a crime scene. The only word of dialogue for the whole scene was a single four letter word, uttered in a various tones to express surprise, suspicion, amusement, dismay, shock, worry, or even just "Hey look here." It was hysterical.

And so, in the crime novel I am working on, I'm up to 48 F bombs and 78 variations of feces. I even drop the dreaded N word. Twice. Two and a half if you count the time someone started to say it and was shot before he could finish it. Earlier drafts have an even higher curse per word count ratio.

I feel compelled to go on a sidebar here, which might put my opinion into context.

I despise political correctness. I loathe the compulsion that society has instilled in me to hesitate to speak freely with every fiber of my being. Especially in fiction, the words are being spoken by characters. When it's something a person would say... say it!

I just saw a great example. The TV series Spenser: Fore Hire finally came out on DVD. It was one of my favorite shows of all time, and a heavy influence on me creatively.

So anyway, there is a scene at the end of the pilot episode where a mob boss is threatening to kill Spenser. More accurately, order his enforcer kill him. At this point, Hawk betrays his employer and refuses to kill Spenser. So the big man turns to another guy in the room with them and orders him to do it. Hawk warns him not to.

At which point the mob boss blurts out, "You don't take orders from this ni**#r!"

I am sure the reaction to this in 1985 was "WOAH!!" If that happened on network TV today, the show and all its sponsors would be subject to death threats.

But... it's exactly what the guy would say. Take a small minded racist asshole, no matter how big time he thinks of himself, get him angry enough and that's what he'd say. To even call the line "unnecessary" is asinine. Not to mention the line was immediately followed by one of Robert Urich and Avery Brook's classic witty exchanges that managed to make a mockery out of said racism and move on with the story without going all social justice warrior on the audience. It reminded me why I loved that show so much.

I wonder if a publisher would allow a white author to write such a scene in 2014. I am braced for the possibility of having to rewrite my own scenes once I finish and get it into an editor or agent's hands, regardless of how accurate the context is, because it might be seen as too provocative. Even though it's not meant to be. It's just meant to be realistic.

It sucks.

But as I am wont to do, I digress...

Despite the fact that frequent use of foul language among, lets say, less refined segments of our population is the only way dialogue sounds natural to my ears... I am also aware that there are touchy feely pantywaists who feel compelled to brand books with 1-star reviews on account of what they feel is excessive language.

Okay, okay. Not everyone who takes exception to so-called "bad" language is that bad. I do not understand where they are coming from. Like at all. But I don't necessarily fault them. I take great exception to the kind of troll who 1-stars a book on those grounds, though. I hate the assumption made in such reviews that the writer is just trying to be provocative or shocking or pretending to be edgy. It's completely believable natural sounding dialogue in the setting of most crime dramas. It's how people speak.

Either way, enough people who pay to be entertained don't like it for whatever reason. Whether I agree with them or not, there are enough of them to make me care.

Thus I am torn.

On one hand, I want to sell books. I want as wide of an audience as I can get. Although it's violent crime fiction, I throw in a couple characters and a number of moments that I think will appeal to female readers, too. Though it seems women are the most sensitive to the language "issue".

And it's not like I feel compelled to force swear words in to seem authentic. Trust me. I am well enough versed in gutter speak that I don't need to fake it. I am always aware of who the speaker is, and the situation they are in. I recognize when swearing is just padding that real people would not actually use in daily conversation just to seem edgy (e.g. True Blood).

That said, I have met women who speak like Debra Morgan in real life (from Dexter, for the few of you might not get the reference -- and if you don't, rent it dammit!).

Example... One scene that made me stop and wonder if I'm going overboard was a greeting between two friends. They come from a world where busting each other's balls is just what good friends do. It's a sign of respect. It means that they like you enough to mess with you and have enough faith in you that you'll take the joke as the spirit it was given.

The response I wrote was: “Man, f*#& you,” he laughed and greeted me with a fist bump.

Sometimes when I hit lines like that, I get all hung up and wonder if I should edit it. I hear the outraged voices of the Oversensitive Class in my mind. I can see the comment threads already.

But ya know what... I'm sorry but if you are offended by lines like that, then I can't imagine you're a fan of crime fiction anyway. Writing any other response sounds completely unnatural to me. It feels fake. Wrong. That right there is a common greeting ritual among guys.

When it fits, it fits. The best argument in favor of profanity in crime fiction was from The Crime Factory blog. The takeaway quote: "Cuss words won’t make a crappy hardboiled story better, but removing them from a great story can destroy it."

But then there's this guy's point of view. No matter how justifiable the use of profanity, a lot of people have some oddly calibrated moral compasses. They won't blink at all the people getting shot in my story, but they'll freak out over allegedly inappropriate language. And those people have the power of 1-star reviews. Or even if they don't exercise such trollish behavior, they will be turned off by a story that they might otherwise like if they didn't have this hangup. I'm still losing audience members.

Yes, I still dismiss their deeply held personal feelings as a hangup. Because it's weird. I've never understood it and I never will. Sorry.

I guess maybe this is an example of what my buddy Sean Taylor meant by writing for the market vs writing for art. And the circle keeps spinning.

There are times when I will agree profanity is not "needed". In other genres especially, I commonly fall back on sentences like "She swore under her breath" or "He bit out a curse." Or I'll go with the euphemism if it doesn't sound corny. 

But when it is needed because the absence of it would make dialogue so watered down to the point that it sounds wrong... Screw it.

I am sincerely curious what y'all have to say on the subject, too.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writer Says Knock You Out

Okay so... there's this trope of novels and film that's been the topic of discussion lately. Modern readers are getting increasingly savvy to myths of the knockout blow. I'm thinking its mostly due to the rising concern over concussions in boxing and American football, but honestly even before then, it was starting to bug me a little, too.

All of the focus on popular media is on the long term medical effects. But as a writer, I am more interested in the short term immediate effects, so I can create great scenes.

There's two aspects to the debate. One is that it isn't anywhere near as easy to knock someone out as it looks on television. The other is that if you hit a guy so hard that you cause him to lose consciousness, you could potentially kill him.

Well meaning know it alls who want to show the world how much they care about the issue of concussions are quick to glom onto the latter point especially. But they take it too far. To hear them talk, writers should stop knocking characters out entirely. It's akin to trying to kill them. Feh.

On one hand, both points are valid -- to an extent. It isn't as easy to knock a grown man unconscious as TV and movies make it look. And yes, it is potentially lethal, with a high likelihood of long terms effects without medical treatment.

On the other hand, I've seen enough MMA and boxing fights (and more recently researched the subject) to know that it's not really all that hard if you know what you are doing. As always, the truth of the matter is somewhere in the middle.

So as a writer who wants to appeal to modern audiences, you may want to check yourself before using the knockout as a plot device too frivolously. Assuming your goal is to present a believable scenario, you don't want to yank your  audience out of the story.

But it's a convention of action dramas. It's one of those things that most readers will still accept, so long as you make some effort to present it realistically. So don't be too afraid to use it either. I'm a nitpicker from way back, and I'll still do it when the story calls for it.

So amid all the misinformation I've come across from people trying to sound enlightened, here's my 2 cents on the subject.

First let's talk about the mechanics of what's actually happening. If you are simply punching a guy, or clubbing them with a tire iron or a blackjack or something, what you are actually doing is hitting them hard enough to jar their head so suddenly that their brain slams against the inside of their skull. In other words yes, you are giving them a concussion.

So there's a moral component. Kinda. I say kinda because typically the kind of person who would do such a thing isn't thinking in those terms. They are either dumbass criminals who just want to get away, or take someone out without making a lot of noise. Or they just want to stop the bad guy from doing whatever life threatening thing he's doing, but they are either unarmed or not capable of killing.

Still, it's something to consider. IF your character knew that that's what they were doing to their opponent, would they care? Would it cause them to hesitate? Would it cause them to go for a "less violent" approach, if they even have the time or the wherewithal to think of one.

One increasingly popular method is the chokehold. No violent striking, so no chance of a concussion. Depriving the brain of oxygen would definitely do it. But again, if the character is not trained in how to apply it properly, it either will not work... or they could kill the person in the attempt. People HAVE died from attempted chokeholds. It's why the police don't allow them to subdue suspects.

But regardless of the approach, and disregarding long term effects and moral implications, how long will they lose consciousness?

One huge gaff in this era of savvy reading audiences is to have your character remain unconscious for the remainder of any given scene, usually as a way to remove them from some key plot point.

Don't do this. Seriously.

The scientific answer to how long a victim would remain unconscious from a concussion or blood loss is: It depends. There is no hard and fast rule, and no studies have been done for obvious reasons. I can only go by anecdotal evidence from watching fights and what fighters claim.

Most get up within just a few seconds. The average seems to be more like 20-30 seconds. I've heard enough claims of up to a full minute to believe it.

But from what I can tell, if a guy is still out after sixty seconds, he is in need of serious and immediate medical treatment or he could die. There are stories of waking up hours to days later, but every one of them wakes up in a hospital room.

I could not find any reliable reports, but I am pretty sure that the odds are FAR greater of waking up within a minute of getting knocked out than of death. Have that happen to you enough times over the course of many years and you may have trouble speaking clearly or recalling your name on demand, but you'll be alive.

And fighters know this. In real world self defense, free of police regulations, it is a completely valid tactic to try to end a fight quickly by rendering your opponent unconscious. If you are unsure of your odds of winning a stand up fight, and you are in legitimate fear of your life, or driven by whatever fill-in-the-blank life or death dilemma that fuels good pulp dramas, then by all means knock the bastard out.

But how easy is that to accomplish?

Well ironically, hitting someone on the back of the head is the least likely way to knock someone out. At least in the way it's normally portrayed. There's a lot of bone back there. You would have to hit a guy REALLY hard. Hard enough that you'd probably cave in their skull and kill them instead. Chances are you'll just really piss them off.

Where you want to hit is at the base of the skull, where the occipital lobe of the brain is most exposed. Trained fighters are very familiar with that spot. It does not matter how big you are. One solid hit there is lights out. The same ideas above about the length of unconsciousness and risk of long term injury still applies, thus MMA's strict rules against strikes to the back of the head. But it is the preferred method in urban self defense when possible.

The neck is another funny overused trope. The "judo chop" made famous by Captain Kirk and Austin Powers. Beyond the fact that Judo is a grappling and throwing art, hence no "chopping", it looks too silly to be believable because it is. Granted, cutting off the flow of the carotid artery is a completely valid way of rendering someone unconscious. It's been done many times. Accidentally more often than not. You've got to have fairly mad ninja skills to hit that spot with the right force at the right angle on purpose.

The neck muscles are usually too thick when striking the neck from behind or the side, too. It'd hurt like all hell, but it probably won't put them to sleep. You'd have better luck with a strike like that from the front. But that may require more focus than your average street brawler can muster.

Same with the well known "sweet spot" of the jaw. What technically happens there is similar to what I described above. The head whipsaws, but what gets actually gets hit in that scenario is a cluster of nerves below the ear which destroys your equilibrium. You never actually lose consciousness. You are messed up and wish you were pleasantly asleep, but you are aware of your surroundings beyond the deafening throb of blood in your ears. You will very likely stand up inside of ten seconds if determined enough.

Until you take one or two more shots like that.

But a well placed uppercut under the jaw... much more effective if the goal is unconsciousness.

Sidebar: It's always amazed me how infrequently the loser of a fight is described as simply unable to keep his wits about him to get up. A lot of times an opponent could legitimately lose the desire to keep fighting. They are knocked for a loop, but not out. In the famous words of Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.

You can accomplish taking an opponent out long enough to escape any number of ways. Knock the wind out of them, gut punches, blows to the kidney or liver. Repeated kicks to the legs work, too, outside of a boxing ring. The ankle can only take so much. Hamstring shots are especially painful.

Another sidebar: The reason fighters often have thick necks is because they work on those muscles specifically to be able to take a punch to the head.

Of course you can always kick 'em in the junk. Again, they probably won't fall unconscious. But you won the fight.

So there you go. Just be aware that a growing portion of today's readers have grown vigilant of this particular trope.

It can still be done, but try not to overdo it. And do your best to avoid judo chops.