Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On Choosing One's Words...

At my last school visit one of the teachers came up to me, full of praise for RIVAL. "It has such a powerful message about friendship--just the kind of thing our girls need to read," he said. "It's too bad we can't give your book to our middle school students."

The reason? RIVAL contains a decent amount of swearing. And this isn't the first time I've heard readers, librarians, teachers and parents mention it, which weirds me out because when I was writing it, I didn't feel like it was a particularly foul-mouthed book. My work is nowhere near what you'd call "edgy." Compared with many other YAs, my books are fairly sweet and clean. But I write the way I hear my characters speak, and they speak like today's teens, which means they occasionally have potty mouths.

I don't mean to give the impression that RIVAL is littered with f-bombs. Though it did surprise me when one blog did a tally of all the swear words in the book. I didn't think there were *that* many. And now I wish I'd thought twice about some of the language I used.

I know authors who feel like they shouldn't have to censor themselves at all. Kids are hearing and saying those words, and worse. Of course they are. And our books need to reflect their lives. Certain topics and certain voices demand that kind of honesty. I, personally, am not offended by swearing in literature for teens.

But when I look at my book, and the instances where foul language is used, I have to be honest and say that I could easily have found different words. None are vital to my story or to any character's voice, and I hate to think that a few cuss words might be the one thing keeping RIVAL out of some libraries and schools--that girls who might really love the book might have a harder time finding it.

I'm often asked if I have advice for debut authors, and this has become one of my biggies: If swearing is necessary for your book, then don't shy away from it. But if you can choose less-offensive options, and thus open more doors for your books to get read, then you might want to consider a lighter touch. That's what I'm doing with all of my new projects--so if you see an off-color word, you'll know I thought long and hard and decided it really, really, really needed to be in there!

23 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. I've read plenty of YA with authentic teen voices that don't include the swearing. And the characters don't seem any less real.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Sara! *waves from downtown Cincinnati* I had just a bit of foul language in my indie YA debut THE HALO CHRONICLES: THE GUARDIAN (4 f-bombs and one other word). My grandma read it and shamed me to take them out. I'm sooo glad that she did! I was able to easily find alternatives without compromising the text.

    And the beauty of indie is that I could update all digital and for print copies with the new and improved version.

    It's a learning that will influence every future YA I write. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heya! *waves at you from a nearby neighborhood* - Thank goodness for Grandmas. Who knew they were good editors, too?!

      Delete
  3. This is a great suggestion for newer authors. I've learned over the years that this is something really important to consider. Especially if you think you have a YA novel that MS students might enjoy. MS kids are SO hungry for YA novels! And if you want a chance at getting picked up by Scholastic, your book is going to have be clean. That's just how it is.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely, Lisa. I feel like my book appeals to a wide range of age groups, and with the recent interest in Glee/singing/competitive music, it would have been awesome for some book clubs. I wish someone along the way had pointed out how a few words could really narrow a book's opportunities. If those words aren't vital, find other words. It's not hard! :-)

      Delete
  4. Excellent post. I'm struggling with this exact thing right now. I have no problem with swearing, and I think it is more authentic sometimes, but I don't want to restrict the audience of my book in any way either.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At a certain point you do have to consider things like book sales and marketing, and while you need to be true to your story you need to consider possible barriers to sales if/when the book is published. If you can keep from handicapping your book with easily avoidable things like certain word choices, it's wise to do so. On the other hand, if you know exactly what kind of book it is, and it's a book that needs cursing, then you might not care if it doesn't get picked up by book clubs or certain schools. It's all about knowing your audience, knowing your story and having realistic expectations.

      Delete
  5. Hey Sara! This is something I've been thinking about lately, as I'm still in edits for my book and there is quite a bit of swearing. My novel is definitely upper YA and it fits the tone, but I do keep wondering if my editor will ask me to cut any of it. I guess time (and line edits!) will tell. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If your editor brings it up, definitely listen and consider. But honestly, I wouldn't wait for an editor to bring it up. My editor is wonderful but didn't mention the swearing at all - perhaps there were reasons for that. However, personally, I wish I'd had the foresight and taken the responsibility myself. I think you just need to decide what's appropriate for your book and what you're willing to give up if certain choices turn some people off. You can't please everybody and you have to be true to your story. But if you can take certain steps to make your story more marketable without compromising the honesty of your work, I recommend it. Maybe chat with your editor to see what he/she thinks, and good luck!

      Delete
    2. My gut tells me it won't be an issue as the material is quite dark to begin with, but you're right - best to just get it out in the open and address it now while we're still in edits. This was such a thoughtful post. Thanks!

      Delete
    3. No problem, and hey! Did I miss some news? You got a book deal?! If I missed that I apologize - sending you huge, belated congrats!!

      Delete
  6. Thank you for the honest information.
    I tend toward the prissy, myself, but some characters or situations, even in real life, do seem to call for stronger language, so trying to figure out how to show that in a book without putting off various groups is tough!
    Two or three things I rely on are
    1. edge back out of actual quotes like "You whore!" with associated F words, to "He called her everything but a nun" or simply "she returned his foul language in kind."
    2. Use blanks the way that older (I mean from the 1950s & 60s) fiction to indicate that the word has been started or said in full. "You are such a f----- liar!" he said.
    3. if you've got one viewpoint character relating it, show early that they have an internal censor and use the euphemisms that character has in place. "Son of a seahorse! Cheese is crusty, stone of a peach piece of junk car!!"

    I know that those won't work for everyone, or for every situation, but as you said, if you cut down the language, that may be enough to get you back on the approved list.

    Good luck.
    TogathMage

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ah, the joys of foul language. :D

    I don’t think much of the “realism” argument, unless you do write a realistic novel, unless you do write about real people where you do have to give a verbatim speech.

    It’s always a difficult this one, but personally I tend to judge this in a quite conservative way:
    Foul language should only be used when it is absolutely necessary to stress a point or a emotional reaction and there should be no derogatory use (well, the really Bad guys, the ones with a capital B, those you want the reader to hate to their guts, they may be given some leeway here, after all there it is the point to make them despicable). Still, strictly personally I rather see the F-Bomb in a novel than have it ever seem in the slightest that there could ever be a situation in which it is even remotely okay to name someone a “Whore” or worse.

    Language is what we make it, and as writers you take a more active part in shaping it than many others do. When foul language gets used for realisms sake it furthers its use, IMO. I firmly believe that the way characters talk leaves an impression on readers; this means that when foul language is used, it will be regarded as an affirmation that it can be okay to talk in this way – on the flipside I feel secure to say that there will always be readers that feel encouraged by positive examples to strive to better their own use of language; and isn’t that a thought that is far more rewarding for a writer than the nagging feeling that one may have accidentally aided in the decline of the fine English language?

    No offence meant, I just feel that writers should use the language they want to see in the world, not the one they do see (or make that hear). :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "When foul language gets used for realisms sake it furthers its use, IMO." <-- I completely agree with this! I know other writers who say "Kids all use swear words so it won't be real if I don't use them". But really, kids swear because they've learned those words, and how to use them, from somewhere else. If they could be shown other ways to react and converse without swearing then they're learning other ways to handle situations. Sometimes, books might be the only outlet to show them that.

      In real life someone might react by swearing, but in a book you have time to craft a response - how many times have we all thought of the perfect comeback too late to say it. But in a book, we can take the time and find the perfect dialogue. As I said in a reply here (and in my writing group), we know that all superfluous words should be taken out of a novel to keep it tight. Swear words are hardly ever used for their actual meanings now (definitely not by teens!) and as such become meaningless.

      Delete
  8. Brilliant post. I've found your blog because this was just linked to in the online writing group I'm a member of, and it's sparked a lot of discussion. I completely agree with the last part of your post here, that if swearing can be removed without changing the scene (or character) then it should be. It's not just because it's swearing, but because they are obviously superfluous words and as writers it's our job to remove any words that aren't necessary. Swear words shouldn't be in a different category when it comes to superfluousness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi - thanks so much for coming to comment! I'm not sure I agree that swear words are inherently superfluous - sometimes they're necessary, depending on the scene, the character, the voice/subject matter of the novel. But I do think they can be overdone, and if it's possible to make a different choice, then my learning is that it's wise to do that.

      Delete
    2. Well, I didn't mean that ALL swear words are superfluous, just that they should be treated the same as every other word in the story - if not needed and the scene stays the same without it, then cut it as any other word/phrase would be :) Sorry I didn't make that very clear in my first comment.

      Delete
  9. This is such a great post. I'll be linking it to my blog.

    ReplyDelete
  10. First off, I loved RIVAL. Every student I recommended it to loved RIVAL. And, yes, these were eighth graders and the book did reside on my classroom bookshelf. But many middle school teachers and librarians wouldn't/couldn't put a book with "excessive" cursing on their shelves (I'm sorry--I totally don't remember how much cursing was in your book. Not enough that any of my kids mentioned it!). With high school, they're a bit more forgiving because the students are older.

    However, it is something to think about when you're writing a book. Do you want to see it in school libraries? Do you want teachers to be able to read it with their students (aloud or as part of a unit or whatever)? Then you do need to tone down the language. Some cursing is acceptable but the big words like f--- and s---, especially if they're used more than once, can cancel out a book's potential in the classroom.

    Personally, I see nothing wrong with cursing in a novel when it fits the character and/or the situation. But, despite the fact that many students curse like sailors in the hallway (holy cow, the mouths on my 8th graders this year!!), schools themselves are held to higher standards and have to be careful with what they make available to their students.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely, Mary - this is exactly my point. It's great to get your perspective here - thanks! (And I'm soooo happy to hear that you and your students love RIVAL!!)

      Delete

Tell me what you think! Just keep your comments respectful and be kind to others, please.