Except… I Didn’t Say Fudge

curse_symbols In the classic film “A Christmas Story”, little Ralphie accidently sends the lug nuts flying while helping his father change a flat tire, he cries out an exasperated “FUUUUUDGE!!” Except, as the voiceover narration informs us, “I didn’t say fudge. I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word!”

An article on curse words by Jo Eberhardt reminded me of the angst I put myself through when I dropped the F-bomb in the opening chapter of my novel “Beneath the Sky”. It’s not that I’ve never said the word. In my twenties, it was my favorite expletive… and noun… and verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, and on occasion preposition. Or was that proprosition? Whatever – I just mean to say that I’m familiar with its usage.

bar_of_lava_soapBut after a similar incident to Ralphie’s as a child – and one bar of Lava-brand soap later – I found myself freezing up over the word. I mean, really… what would my mother think if she ever saw this? It’s not like she’s never heard the word – note the incident with the Lava soap – and I’m sure she’s run into in any number of books she’s read. And it’s not like I used it gratuitously. I put it in early to draw a distinction between the worldly captain of the merchant ship and the overtly devout passengers of God’s Chariot. But still. “Did you have to use that word?”

I got over it, of course, and plowed ahead with the f-ing f-word for f-‘s sake. But my anxiety over it got me to thinking about when we curse, when we don’t, and why.

I used to curse up a storm, but I don’t so much anymore. You see, I have kids now, and I find I censor myself around them. I also censor myself in front of my extended family, business contacts, school teachers, employers, police officers, and judges in their Texas courtrooms. “My apologies, your honor, but when I called you a cockwaffle, what I really meant was…” I’m sure you do the same.

But get me in front of some of my rowdier friends, and we’re stretching the limits of polite discussion like a distended, gaping… um, blog entry. Yeah. But we’d never say those things in front of family, teachers, etc. Least of all, our mothers.

But what about fictional characters? How much do they curse, and who do they censor themselves in front of?

Consider that coarse forklift operator at the loading docks. He can make a bartender faint with his language, but he doesn’t dare say those things in front of his mother, or his childhood priest, or that sweet lady who runs the coffee shop near his apartment.

Or maybe that upper crust socialite? She would never use the f-bomb with her husband or bridge partners, but she gets shockingly explicit with her hairdresser.

It would be easy to say it’s all about respect, that you censor yourself around people you respect and curse at those you don’t, but it’s not at all that simple. Soldiers curse with each other all the time amongst equal or lower ranks, but they would be quick to tell you how much they respect each other. The same is true for any tight group coworkers. Yet they don’t curse at their bosses or officers.

There’s definitely an element of intimacy to it, but it’s not sexual intimacy – more like cultural intimacy. We often curse when surrounded by other people who are… I suppose, in our club. It doesn’t have to have a building and a membership list. It merely has to be recognizably separate from the outside world. We’re in the locker room, the cigar lounge, the fishing boat, or the salon. As long as “it’s just us”, we are willing to share that side of us.

But that’s still not all of it. Specific people in my life, who might curse up a storm of their own somewhere else, are still off-limits. If they showed up as a full-fledged member of whatever cursing club I was in, I suspect we would both clam up. Surely, you’ve run into this yourself and that awkward pause as you suddenly shift gears on your vernacular.

So anyway, I don’t have a hard and fast rule for knowing who I’m comfortable cursing in front of vs. who forces me back to darn and fiddlesticks, but I always seem to know it instantly without any conscious analysis. Somehow, this speaks volumes about each of those particular relationships, but I don’t know precisely what it says.

So, who do you curse in front of? Who do you censor yourself in front of? And when you see a fictional character shift language, what does it tell you about him?

Hook Me Early or Don’t Bother

I’ve just had a rather frustrating experience with a book sample. I was looking forward to this book. It’s SF from an award-winning author who I have previously read and enjoyed. The overall themes of the book are ones that interest me: Fermi’s paradox and first contact. It promised to be a good, intellectual story. The problem was that when I got to the end of the sample, the story had not yet begun.

The e-book samples for the Kindle are typically about 10% of the book. If it’s overloaded with front-end material, you might not get much of the narrative text, but most fiction books keep that relatively short. The paper version of this book is listed at about 800 pages, and the sample felt pretty long, though perhaps closer to 50 pages than 80. Still, it was a fair amount of text.

And yet, all of those pages were spent on introducing various characters going about their lives and showing off all the cool technology the author had imagined for this world. By the end of the sample, I had met seven or eight characters and also had some background text on the Fermi paradox, some poetry, and some of the recent history of this particular future Earth.

But I didn’t feel like the story had actually started. Instead, I had half a dozen story lines that did not seem to connect at all except that the character in scene fourteen was apparently the mother of the guy in scene nine. In fact, the only character I saw twice was really just one scene broken into two pieces a mere fifteen minutes apart.

In short, the author spent all those pages, and he never hooked me. I had not had enough time with any single character to develop a connection. In fact, the only character that had summoned any emotion from me was a spoiled brat who looked like he was about to die. My emotional reaction? “Good riddance!”

So when I reached the decision point for my purchase, I had not developed any connection with any character, had no desire to see what happened to anyone, and I still had no idea what the book was going to be about. The only reason I know that it’s going to be about Fermi and first contact is because the author has been promoting it like a broken record.

I think this has always been true, but it’s true now more than ever: You need to hook the reader early. How?

  • Give me a few characters to care about. There can be others, but focus on just a few.
  • Show how these characters are going to interact with each other. If they’re not obviously connected, give me some hints on how they will eventually connect.
  • Make it clear what the inciting incident is and that it’s happening right now. Yank these characters out of their ordinary world in the first few pages.
  • Show me a source of conflict early on. It doesn’t have to be THE conflict for the whole book, but at least put something or someone in jeopardy to keep me turning pages.

That’s about it. If you can hit those four things, I’ll keep going past the sample without even looking at the price tag. Miss all of them, and I’m going to go write about it on my blog instead.

And it’s a shame, too, because I was really looking forward to see what this author had to say on the Fermi Paradox. Maybe I should see if he wrote an essay on it.

Filling our Monkeyspheres with Fake People

Lately I’ve noticed that I’m filling my monkeysphere with fake people. They have no flesh or blood apart from the actors that might be playing them. In some cases, their only physical manifestation is the dead tree they’re printed on. With my new Kindle, they’re even being reduced to states of electrical charge and e-ink ball rotations. But before I get into it too far, let’s make sure we’re all on the same monkey page.

The best (and possibly the first) explanation of the monkeysphere came from David Wong back in 2007:

First, picture a monkey. A monkey dressed like a little pirate, if that helps you. We’ll call him Slappy.

Imagine you have Slappy as a pet. Imagine a personality for him. Maybe you and he have little pirate monkey adventures and maybe even join up to fight crime. Think how sad you’d be if Slappy died.

Now, imagine you get four more monkeys. We’ll call them Tito, Bubbles, Marcel and ShitTosser. Imagine personalities for each of them now. Maybe one is aggressive, one is affectionate, one is quiet, the other just throws shit all the time. But they’re all your personal monkey friends.

Now imagine a hundred monkeys.

Not so easy now, is it? So how many monkeys would you have to own before you couldn’t remember their names? At what point, in your mind, do your beloved pets become just a faceless sea of monkey? Even though each one is every bit the monkey Slappy was, there’s a certain point where you will no longer really care if one of them dies.

So how many monkeys would it take before you stopped caring?

That’s not a rhetorical question. We actually know the number.

That number, it turns out, is around 150, except it’s not how many monkeys we can keep track of and empathize with, it’s how many humans we can care about as individuals. This number is also referred to as the Dunbar Number, and it actually has a fair amount of science behind it, both in neuroscience and in anthropology. It varies from species to species and even from individual brain to individual brain, but 150 is a decent approximation.

So, I can think about and feel about only 150 people as individuals to the point where I really care about what happens to them. That doesn’t seem like all that many, so I should do my best to use those slots wisely, like on my family, my friends, my coworkers, and so on it. It would be nice, too, if I could spend a few on the people who help make my life better, like my doctor, my kids’ teachers, the fireman who lives down the road, and those guys who mow my lawn – you know, the boss guy and… and… you know, the other three guys. Oh dear, I think I’ve already run out.

And how did I run out so soon? Well, while I can’t remember the names of the guys who come out and mow my lawn every week in the blistering Texas heat, I do remember John Sheridan, Delenn, Kara Thrace, Luke Skywalker, Andy Sipowicz, Josh & Donna, Harry (both Dresden and Potter), and yes, even The Mule. There are easily a dozen or two more that I won’t bore you with, but you get the idea. I know these people far better than I know the mowers, or my kids’ teachers, or even my doctor. I know their sense of humor. I know their darkest fears. I have gone to sleep thinking about them and been grateful for their presence when I woke the next morning. They seem to be as real to me and my emotions as that fireman who lives down the street.

But they’re not. Yes, we can make all kinds of metaphysical arguments that my caring of them makes them real, or that they exist in the hearts of millions of fans, but the truth is that when my house is burning down, none of them are going to show up to help put out the fire.

And this is a very real thing. That fireman down the street saved the life of a good friend of mine once. My friend was mortally injured, bleeding to death in his yard, and the ambulance was wandering the neighborhood trying to find his house. He was going to die, but my fireman neighbor was listening to his emergency scanner at home, heard the ambulance dispatch, and realized it was someone in his own monkeysphere who was hurt. He drove over, assessed the situation, and called in the Life-flight helicopter to get my friend to the hospital. Thanks to the fireman down the road, my friend is still around and tossing shit at the other monkeys.

John Sheridan, for all his take-charge ways, wasn’t going to save my friend’s life. He couldn’t. And yet, he’s one of the reasons I can’t remember the names of my cousins’ kids. I can’t even keep track of how many of them there are. Sure, I remember a few of them, but for the most part they are faceless sea of youngsters that I know I’m supposed to remember and yet can’t.

Somehow John Sheridan made the cut, but little Maggie didn’t. (And here’s the shame of it – I’d have to go ask my mom if there even IS a little Maggie that I’m forgetting.)

I worry about this. The real social connections we have in this world make our lives very fulfilling. We can talk about happiness from career success or material enjoyment, but nothing seems to hold a candle to that personal warmth we get from the people who matter to us. And also, when the shit hits the fan, it’s those real people around us that will help clean us up and get the smell out of our clothing. How much are John Sheridan and his fake fellows costing me?

But then I think about what they are giving me. Certainly, I enjoyed all the stories, and even though I haven’t watched or read those particular stories in a while, I continue to enjoy my memories of them. But I think I get more than just that. I can go somewhere and start talking to someone I’ve never met, and if I’m lucky, he might know John Sheridan too. “Oh yeah,” he’ll say, “I know John and Delenn very well. Do you, by chance, happen to know Gaius Baltar?” I’ll nod and pull up a chair. Before long, we’re buying each other a drink and sharing common memories of mutual friends.

Suddenly, this stranger has become a fellow monkey, if just for a moment, because we both share these same fake people in our two monkeyspheres. This gives me something in common with not just 150 people but with millions of people. Maybe I’m being cold-hearted to little Maggie, but in the calculus of social engagement, I think that’s a worthwhile allocation of my monkeysphere slots.

Then again, maybe I haven’t cut myself off as much as I think. I wonder… does little Maggie know Harry Potter?