I had an interesting experience recently that I wanted to share. I submitted Back to Lazarus to a promotional site that gives featured books a Content Rating, sort of like a movie in theaters. Instead of simply saying it’s All Readers or Adult or whatever, the site also explains why the book got the rating. The rating is based on information provided by the book’s author in a detailed questionnaire that covers everything from crude humor to sex to violence to use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The whole thing is done in a very non-judgy way with the sole purpose of matching books with their ideal readers.
A part of me that thinks that—as readers—we should be surprised once in a while, taken outside of our comfort zones. I’m a fairly open-minded reader, and I’ll try just about any book if someone I trust recommends it to me. And yet, most of the books I personally choose tend to be mysteries and thrillers. My mother-in-law gave me a romance last Christmas (Me Before You) that I never would have picked up on my own, but I really enjoyed it. Albeit in a slightly masochistic, weepy sort of way. 😉 Similarly, this year I scored a major coup by giving my mom a Stephen King book she could actually finish (11/22/63). I don’t expect her to read The Shining anytime soon, but perhaps The Shawshank Redemption, Different Seasons, or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (she’s a baseball fan) would be up her alley. (Yeah, I know, I’m not holding my breath.)
On the other hand, as a writer, I want to make sure I get my books in the right hands, the hands of the readers who will enjoy them. For example, the Sydney Brennan Mysteries are not cozies. There are people who enjoy reading cozies who also enjoy reading Sydney’s adventures. (I’m one of them, but remember, I’m the anti-Mikey of reading—I’ll try anything.) But Syd’s stories have more violence than many regular cozy readers want to experience, even within the confines of a book. More violence and more… oh, yeah, I neglected to mention another category that goes into the content rating: Profanity, which authors are warned, “Please do NOT underestimate.”
According to the site’s FAQs, underestimating the amount of profanity is the single most common error they see in submissions. In fact, there is a specific FAQ that details what they consider profanity. Bloody is not (sorry, Brits). Hell is, unless you have the worst travel agent ever and it is a specific destination, as in, “The demons blocked our way into Hell.” No big surprise there, but one category I hadn’t given much thought to is “deity swears.” Any use of the words Jesus, God, Christ or Lord is considered a deity swear unless you are addressing an actual character by that name or it is contained within a prayer. In other words, the digitally ubiquitous “OMG” is a swear. “Godspeed you on your journey” is not. After a moment’s reflection, those made sense to me. The one that blew my mind a little: “Thank God, you made it safely” is considered a swear because it is not technically a prayer.
Because underestimation is so common, the site suggests authors search their manuscripts for the number of instances of the offending words. After a lot of searching, I now have Post-its of profanity counts from my novels papered around my desk. I came up with fewer than 150 in Lazarus. That sounds like a lot, but the books is over 100,000 words long, so that averages out to a swear (remember, swear includes Thank God) two or three times a chapter. Of course, as in real life, they’re more likely to come in bursts. For instance, in The Perils of Panacea, Syd repeats a particular curse under her breath several times when she’s pulled over by a cop with her drunk neighbor passed out on her backseat, like an I’m-so-screwed chant. And watch the counter go ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding…
If you’re interested, the site with book content ratings is My Book Cave. You should definitely check them out, so long as you promise me you’ll still spin on your heels with your eyes closed a couple of times a year at your local bookstore or library and take home whatever book your outstretched hand finds. Who knows? It could be your next favorite author.
[Reading child on couch by Josh Applegate and Fire by Tao Wen, both from stocksnap.io]