When I first told my father over lunch one day that I was writing an adult general fiction novel, he put his fork down, congratulated me on my brave new experiment and gave me the following sage advice. “Put some sex in it,” he said with a straight face. “People like a little sex in a book.” My father also later advised me to steer clear of religion in the story. When my wife’s uncle read the book he sent me some criticism after he finished it. “Avoid the overuse of foul language. In few of the great books of literature will you find much bad language. Not because the authors don’t know these words, it’s because they can get their points across without the use of them.” Among other points of constructive criticism he also mentioned, “there is no need to describe the sex encounters. Let the reader imagine some of this.”
So there you have two men relatively close in age, both of them avid readers, who had conflicting advice. So what is a writer to do? First, don’t feel obligated to take anyone’s advice. The story is yours, tell it the way you think it needs to be told. Second, there is no one single answer to that question other than you have to do what you have to do.
I took some of my father’s advice about the sex, not because my father knows best, but because an intimate encounter was crucial to the story. The religious bits, however, I left in despite his suggestion to remove them. I felt they too were important to the story. The advice from my wife’s uncle came after the book was published, but I don’t think that I would have drastically altered the content much if he had delivered it before hand. As I look back at my first effort I do think that I was maybe trying too hard to write a “contemporary adult novel.” I could have edited out some of the language but I don’t feel that any of it was gratuitous. I wrote the words that I felt my characters would use and described them doing believable things.
I guess the crucial questions to ask yourself are: What kind of audience are you writing for? What genre are you writing in? What period and setting are you writing about? Answering those questions will help you decide how to write the book, how tame to make the language, and what sorts of situations to include.
I approach fiction with the attitude that I want to engage and entertain the reader, but before that, I want to entertain and engage the writer. I think that a good story consists of believable characters, plausible situations, honest emotion, and realistic dialogue. My story has to feel right to me and if keeping it realistic calls for dropping the f-bomb or including a sex scene, then that’s what I do. Be truly passionate about what you write. Don’t sugar coat it or dumb it down, but don’t go overboard either. If you use the words needed to tell the story, they will be the right words.
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