We were finalizing the manuscript of Seeking when my editor suddenly balked at my use of a certain four-letter word beginning with the letter "c." It had been there for months, if not years, so I was a little taken aback. And yes, it's offensive (although I understand that in Australia it's sometimes used as a term of endearment) but uttered by a 20-some-odd year-old male hockey player as a deliberately ugly way to get under an opponent's skin, it hardly seemed over the top.
In the end, my editor agreed with me, but she did ask me to tone down some of the other language in the story, and I, ever trying to make it my policy not to be defensive, tried to be open to the suggestion.
I had figured that the "f-word" would be the most concerning to her, but she pinpointed the use of "goddamn" as most troublesome. And when I actually counted and discovered that there were no fewer than 65 (!) instances of this word in the novel, I couldn't disagree, at least on the grounds of sheer overuse.
But how to proceed? I started by categorizing them. Some of the "goddamns" were there for emphasis or rhythm. These tended to be hardest to remove or replace, because rhythm is important to me, and once I get a certain rhythm in my head, it's difficult to change. Other "goddamns" were used as adjectives or adverbs. When I looked more closely at these, I felt that some were more justified than others. There were some cases in which, if the offending word was removed or replaced, the writing would be improved. But there were also cases where I felt it wouldn't be.
Sometimes, using "goddamn" as a modifier seemed like an excuse to not think of a more specific word. For example, this phrase:
...number three, for being such a goddamn good hockey player that he'd had to move far, far away;
is actually more lively and more descriptive this way:
...number three, for being such a ridiculously good hockey player that he'd had to move far, far away.
And it's easy to imagine Agnes thinking exactly that. On the other hand, in this case --
Is that really all she wanted? To go to that goddamn party?
-- it's difficult to think of a replacement adjective that would express everything that the "goddamn" expresses. That silly party? That lousy party? That overrated party? That overhyped party? That occasion that is, at the root of it, just a bunch of guys standing around eating and drinking together because they're lonely and single and have nothing better to do? The point is, there are a lot of things on Owen's mind at this moment in the story, and I think it's better to let the reader use the unspecific "goddamn" as an opportunity to conjure those things, than for me to pin it down, reducing it to just one idea. Also, it's hard to imagine Owen's thoughts containing any of those replacement adjectives.
In the end, I removed more than a third of the "goddamns" -- although my editor ended up questioning some of the removals, which led us to reinsert some of them. I also largely rewrote one of the book's scenes using my new criteria. All in all, I think that reconsidering the language improved the storytelling, and I learned some things from doing it.
What do you think? Are there too many "goddamns" and the like in Seeking the Center? I'd be curious to know!