From Squick To Library-Friendly in Six Easy Spices
Blame it on the word, “Eviscerated.”
More specifically, blame it on this bit of dialog:
“Did you kill him?”
“Heck no! I just eviscerated him. He died all on his own.”
That quote comes from my very first Invisible Flying Pony story. Until that moment in the story, it was ya/mystery/comedy. But the word “eviscerated” pushed the story over the line. My beta readers had two distinct styles of fit:
“Eviscerated really came out of nowhere. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
So I had some options to ponder.
Was it my intention to Shock and Eww my audience? If so, then it was safe to leave as-is.
Was I going to cater to the Rated-G crowd? If so, then I needed to change it, and several word choices later in the story.
Or was I going to own that R rating? If so, then I should probably seed that first third of the story with words/situations that let people know what kind of story this is. That way, the word eviscerated wouldn’t be such a surprise.
Eviscerated isn’t a swear word, but certainly is an adult idea, and I did have some swear words that came up later in the story. They all had the same effect, in a story with a 13-year-old protagonist. But I was surprised that none of those spice words had the impact or reaction of the word eviscerated. The options haunted me for a long time, as I tried to decide what type of story I was writing, and what kind of audience I wanted to enjoy it.
In Oct 2014, I wrote this analysis of using and avoiding swear words in fiction, and it was around that time that I decided to take my own advice. I’d used alternative swear words before. (I used “Static!” as a curse word in my 6th published story “Homeward Through Darkness”) I saw no reason why I couldn’t use some other kinds of spice words that would imply the ideas I wanted to convey, but wouldn’t keep my books out of the library.
Yes, I admit, I wanted my books in the library. Someday. Maybe. And if it’s just a few key words to change, then I figured it was worth the effort.
Looking to pop culture for guidance, I toyed with using “Barnacles” and “Tartar Sauce” from Spongebob Squarepants. Then, “Schtako” from Defiance and “Baktag” from Klingon, both of which translate to “excrement.” Weeks of manga research kicked up a handful of words, but nothing really catchy that would be understood outside that community. I even tried using “Fish!” from BoJack Horseman. But in the end, none of them really fit the prose.
So I parked the upteenth revision of Spider-Leeches on the shelf. It sat there for a long time, as I moved on to other projects which lent themselves better to the natural language of flat-out swearing.
Kitchen Spice Rack to the Rescue!
I think it was the word “Shiny” (from the Firefly TV series) that actually sent my brain seeking out some other word implying Desirable:
The word just popped into my head. And it was perfect. Right on the heels of that came the opposite:
And the four-letter f-word, FLAX!
I dashed to the kitchen and rummaged through the spices. Every single one was a hit. BASIL! FENNEL! NUTMEG! CINNAMON! DILLWEED!
I opened up the Spider-Leeches manuscript and loaded it with spice words. Done and done, I thought, and sent it off to the editor.
Turned out to be too spicy.
The editor came back and said all the slang was too much. So I dialed it back. Sugar and Salt are the primary swear words, Sugar replacing “Cool” and Salt replacing “Shit” of course.
The rest of the words I’d use very sparingly, if at all. I decided to introduce a new one in each episode of the series. Flax would mean Fuck. Dillweed was… well, probably Dickweed for people who remember a time when “Homeslice” was a thing. (And to this day, I still don’t know what homeslice means.) Cinnamon is reserved for ultimate bestness.
New Swear Words? Cinnamon!
I expect to get decent use out of these new words in the Invisible Flying Pony series. I’m hoping other authors can make use of them as well.
In fact, I’ve started using sugar and salt in conversation. It’s amazing how natural and effective they are.
I really hope these words catch on. It would be sugar if we could embrace a whole new category of spice words to spice up our conversation.
And if you don’t agree, then you’re a dillweed and you can go flax off.