Subtle Interiority

I’ve been working a lot with editorial clients on the idea of interiority. I’ve written a lot about it, both in the book and on the blog. One of my favorite posts, which serves as good preparation for this post, is here. A lot of writers do balk on the issue of, “Well, if I share the character’s thoughts/feelings/reactions, isn’t that just another version of telling?” As we all know from the old adage, telling bad, showing good. (Here’s a handy post as to why that’s such a popular dictum.)

It’s true that, when you use interiority, you are technically telling. But if you think about it, you tell all the time in writing. A storm is brewing. She puts her phone on the coffee table, waiting for it to ring. The car is blue. Telling is alive and well in fiction and there’s no need to make it the enemy, except for when you tell about characters and emotions. (She is a bully. He is sad.) That’s what really makes prose lie flat on the page, and that is where we want writers to stretch a little and show how she treats other people, or how he’s ready to give up on himself, and what that might look like to this particular character. Of course, I would prefer that you do this without using too many familiar physical clichés (butterflies in the stomach for nerves, heart fluttering for love, etc.)

I could go on and on about this issue. And there are a lot of shades to it, as you can tell. By now, you probably feel like I’m putting you in an impossible box. “I need to tell when it makes sense to tell, but not when it comes to emotions, which I should show, only I can’t use hearts, eyes, stomachs, or any other physical clichés to show the visceral effect of the emotions… WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING, MARY KOLE, AND WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME CRAZY?”

Whoa, buddy. Take a step back. All of these posts are to help you think about what interiority truly is, and when you should aim to tell, and aim to show. Take what makes sense to you, leave what doesn’t. I hope some sort of larger logic emerges once you study this part of my story theory. In the meantime, there’s also another subtle use of interiority that completely circumvents the show vs. tell argument. A cheat! Brilliant!

Well, maybe not a cheat, but definitely another tool you can use. It’s subtle interiority. And the best way of explaining it is “emotion in description.” This works whether you’re in third person (usually close third is the best candidate) or first. And it’s a key component, for me, anyway, of that other frustrating concept: voice.

The key is to inject emotion toward an outward object, place, or person via description or narration. If someone is annoying, maybe your character describes them as “grating her way through the story.” Compare that to “she told a story.” Changing one verb lends emotion to it, and, without showing or telling, we come to understand that the narrator doesn’t think much of the object of the description. We get emotion secondhand without having to conquer it directly. Look at how emotion creeps in:

“He parked his vehicle” vs. “His gaudy Beemer sleazed across two parking spots” (exaggerated, of course)
“She ate a sandwich” vs. “She pecked at her food”
“He kissed her” vs. “He slimed her” vs. “He devoured her”

I’m mostly doing this with verbs so far, but you can play with adjectives, too:

“The skyline” vs. “The noxious smog-obscured wasteland” vs. “The glittering metropolis”
“The countryside” vs. “The tranquil retreat” vs. “The cauldron of boredom”
“Her face” vs. “Her luminous visage” vs. “Her fug mug”

And here’s where this all comes back to voice and character. The guy who waxes poetic about his crush’s “luminous visage” is not the same as the catty girl who knocks her former acolyte’s “fug mug.” Description should contain hints at emotion, which is another way of incorporating interiority, defining character, and developing voice. Whew! It’s all coming together, folks!

 

Building Emotional Anticipation in Fiction

I bet you are quivering with anticipation to learn about…anticipation in fiction. When I work with my editorial clients, I work a lot with interiority, which I define as thoughts, feelings, reactions. Emotions are a big part of getting to know a character. Often, a protagonist’s (or other POV character’s) emotions are the reader’s guide for their own feelings. If Chris is getting anxious about X, we will also feel that tension mounting. If Amy can’t wait for Y, the audience will (ideally) sit a little straighter in anticipation of it.

anticipation in fiction, make a reader care, making a reader care, creating emotion in fiction, interiority, emotions in writing, creative writing emotions
Make readers ache, hurt, care, anticipate, fear, and long. Creating emotion in the reader is literally the best thing you can do for your novel.

Anticipation in Fiction and How it Builds Tension

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of anticipation. Tension rises best when it builds gradually, in my opinion. Think about it. The most (wonderfully) painful horror movies are the ones where the doomed character searches the entire house for the murderer who we know is there. The first few opened closets (complete with musical crescendo) are painful. The part where they peek into the attic is worse. But by the time they’ve searched every room and they’re about to open the final door, I’m on the very edge of sanity, eyes half-closed, rocking in my seat.

It’s an altogether different thrill when the first door they open is the one hiding the killer. It works, and it’s shocking, but the build-up is missing. After all, a lot of ink is spilled in dating advice columns reminding readers that seduction starts long before you reach the bedroom.

Tension and anticipation.

The same principles apply, I think, when working with character emotions.

Generating and Using Nervous Energy in Writing

Imagine that your character is nervous about an event that’s a big part of your plot. You would be squandering the chance to develop emotion by hiding that from readers until the minute before the event. Instead, build tension. Build anticipation in fiction. And layers of it. Not just “I’m nervous” but “I’m nervous that… (insert specific fear here)” and “If X doesn’t happen, then I’m afraid of Y” or “I can’t imagine my life without a successful outcome here.”

“Nervous” is a blunt instrument. Specific manifestations of how someone is nervous, why, and with what consequences, now that’s a more human and personal interpretation of the emotion. And it doesn’t come online right before the event, either.

An Example of Building Anticipation

Personally, I hate flying. I do it all the time, and I love the adventure that awaits me once I land, but I hate the act itself. There’s certainly the acute fear of flying that takes over once we’re roaring down the runway (take-off is my least favorite part). That’s definitely a nervous feeling. But there are many different shades to my fear of flying.

Every time I book a plane ticket, for example, I get a little twinge in my gut of, “I can’t wait for my trip but, ugh, I have to fly.” A few weeks before the trip, I’m invariably hit with, “Ugh, maybe I can just call the whole thing off and stay home. Besides, it’s unfair to leave the dogs for so long.” As I’m packing my toiletries in the TSA-required zip bag, “Should I write a living will?” (Yes, I really am this irrational.) At the airport, “Uuuuughhhhh, dread dread dread dread dread.” And on and on. And on. Trust me when I say that I’m really no fun to travel with until that double bell goes off signalling that we’ve reached 10,000 feet.

This is perhaps a bad example because all of this tension and anticipation has been leading up to an event that, I hope, is perfectly anticlimactic. In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics. Etc.

Build Emotions Before the Plot Point, Don’t Just Wait for the Plot Point to Generate Emotion

Imagine an on-topic example, then. Eileen is angry. Her best friend blew her off because of a “bad cold,” only to post pictures on Instagram from a mall outing that includes new, more popular people. People who, Eileen thinks, are trying to steal her best friend from the second grade. Eileen feels betrayed. She has a sick, anxious feeling in her gut that she’s about to be replaced. Or worse, that the switch has already happened.

Now who will she turn to? Self-pity enters the mix, making the existing anger boil. Maybe uncertainty: perhaps the picture was from before, and she’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Self-doubt flexes its muscles.

When should we hear about this toxic cocktail of emotion? When Eileen explodes at her best friend, maybe thrusting a phone open to the damning pics in her face? That’s just part of a much bigger story that’s been unfolding inside Eileen since she was hurt. All of this is to explain a very simple concept that I hope more writers take to heart:

Especially when you’re writing a scene that calls for big emotions, focus less on the scene itself, and more on peppering in the lead-up to it, which usually happens in interiority. Tension and anticipation. The power you have to build something up shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The orchestration of reader emotions is key when writing fiction. With me as your novel editor, I’ll be able to help you master this powerful instrument.

The Blurt

No, I’m not talking about blurbs, the juicy quotes you try and get as a soon-to-be author that (may or may not) help sell your book. Though I probably should at some point, because it’s a pretty hot topic in the publishing world and ahuge source of anxiety for new authors. This post is actually about the action of blurting. No, I haven’t run out of things to talk about. I have about 100 ideas in the “soapbox file” on my computer. (Lucky you!) I know this sounds very specific, but, as usual, I have a larger point to make by delving into something small.

You know those times when you open your mouth and…the worst possible thing just seems to fall out, as if on its own. I know I’ve had this happen. A few times. Usually during fights with my mother. And I hear about it for the rest of my natural life. Ha! Well, in addition to this happening a lot to me, I’ve noticed that it happens quite a bit with fictional characters. A lot of big events in manuscripts I’ve seen seem to spin on characters blurting. The big secret. That they love the guy. That they’re not who they say they are.

I understand the urge to throw one’s arms up and hinge an important scene on a blurt. It’s easy. Your character would never do something so silly until, she just does it! You know how that goes, Reader. Sometimes ya just run your mouth! But here lies the problem. It’s careless and unintentional and often feels like a cheat. Especially if blurting is out of character for your blurter (new word). It tells me that the writer needed certain information to emerge but didn’t know how to go about it. This technique is especially disappointing when the character has, elsewhere, been in control of themselves with interiority and being present and vulnerable with the reader. A blurt under those circumstances just feels wrong and a little too convenient.

So how do you get around the blurt cliché? If you think I’m going to say, “interiority,” you would be correct! You’re writing compelling MG and YA fiction with great access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, yes? Great. Since you have spent time making your character mindful and aware, they must know that what they’re blurting will have ramifications. They will know the risks of confessing their love to their crush. They will know what awful things might happen if they let their true identity slip. They will think about it. And instead of blurting it once their author has painted himself in a corner, which is passive, they will make the choice to say it with intention, which is very much active.

Make the moment of your blurt a conscious turning point! Get in their heads when you feel tempted to blurt and have them make the decision to say the Big Deal thing instead. Anyone can blurt anything. But we will learn so much more about your character if they take the risk and do the stupid thing with full agency. If blurting is careless, then knowing the risks and going for the reveal full-bore is ballsy. And that’s the kind of action that gets me more invested in your character.

Are there any blurts in your manuscript? Can you make it work as a choice instead? How will that reel your reader in or reveal a new shade of your character?

With Feeling

On a completely unrelated note: Moving is the worst. And I’m bleeding money left and right on all sorts of home-related purchases. On a better note: I am sitting in front of my new fireplace, so things could be worse! I look forward to getting to know my new home of Minneapolis. Now (ahem) moving on…

I was reading a manuscript recently for a freelancing client and noticed a lot of pretty shocking things going on…without the usual reactions that should accompany shocking things. An example would be a character developing a really painful physical condition and then shrugging it off. And his friends noticing that something is off and saying, “Well, I guess he’ll tell me what’s up eventually” instead of confronting their ill companion.

Here are two missed opportunities to deepen the reader’s connection with the world of the story. The first happened when the character refused to allow events to impact him. Or maybe he decided to keep up an illusion of normalcy and was therefore nonchalant.These are both realistic choices–there are certainly people like this in the world, lots of them. But are they good choices for fictional people to make?

A character who keeps everyone at arm’s length is only good if they have cracks for the reader to crawl into. The reader isn’t a character, for the sake of talking about fiction. And they’re not really a person. They are a sort of mind-meld creature that can and should get just a bit closer to the bone, especially in parts of a story that are full of fear or anger or hurt. The toughest characters in the world can have their walls, but they should also have their vulnerabilities, especially if the reader gets some access to those (via interiority, for example).

The second missed opportunity in our example scenario is the lack of reaction to whatever is weird. If one character is doing something to disturb the status quo, the characters around him need to take notice instead of taking the path of least resistance. I know there are some worlds, like totalitarian societies in a dystopia, for example, where any kind of out-of-line behavior is frowned upon and maybe it’s a bad idea to react. Even in that case–and maybeespecially in that case–characters should be tough on other characters. That means confronting them, forcing them into the vulnerable places, throwing open closet doors and letting the skeletons out. If something is weird, it needs to be weird for the POV characterand those around them.

This level of reaction helps the reader get context. Classic story theory dictates that a story really begins when a character’s normal gets thrown into a state of abnormal. They spend the rest of the story trying to either get back to normal or establish a new normal. So events that leave the status quo behind should be reacted to with feeling, and lots of it. Both internal and external. By everyone involved.

This is something I’ve discussed a lot on the blog, but it never becomes less important. Writers are notorious for taking shortcuts and making it easier on themselves. That’s why characters shrug off bumps in the night until it’s convenient for the writer’s plot to finally involve the monster. That’s why they ignore a friend’s mounting pallor until–oops!–they’re found in the cemetery at midnight, feeding on a fresh kill. If your protagonist and the other characters in your world have such tight control over themselves and their reactions to events, there are fewer opportunities for your reader to get to know them.

Connecting Secondary Elements

You’re writing a novel and putting a lot of images, events, characters, settings, and objects into it. Grand! A lot of manuscripts don’t take the necessary step after this, however, and connect the dots. If you introduce a character early on, they should work their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of your plot. Images should reappear and gain significance each time. A bird in chapter one will ideally have new shades of meaning halfway through the book, and then even more in the final chapter. Settings should change as the plot unfolds, meaning that the quarry your protagonist runs away to on a carefree summer day might change drastically when she takes a boyfriend there at night. Not only might your character experience these images, events, places, and people, you should keep in mind how your protagonist reacts to them.

Imagine a photograph of two people you’ve never seen before, young girls playing table tennis. To a random stranger, this elicits little or no reaction. But imagine if you were the girls’ mother, looking at the photograph? Or one of the girls, but maybe thirty years down the line? That object has now become imbued with some very personal emotions. Give the important secondary elements of your manuscript significance by building a relationship between them and your main character. These relationships can change and evolve over time.

Mimic the human brain and don’t let your characters think linearly. This means that you shouldn’t just bring an important secondary element to the page when it’s convenient or right when it’s needed. In between encounters with that bird that keeps reappearing or a character who is crucial to the plot, let your main character remember them or wonder about them. That’s too convenient, and it plays on the surface. Free yourself from only referencing one of your carefully chosen story points when it’s needed and let them form a richer tapestry using your character’s inner life.

The Power of Reaction

There’s one tool available to writers that I find is often underused: reaction. This is a missed opportunity. Even if you’re in third person but especially if you’re in first person, you need to highlight big moments in your story and call attention to emotion and character relationship by making sure each noteworthy exchange or event lands with your character.

How your character reacts to something gives your reader valuable clues as to how they should be reacting, what they should be learning from whatever just transpired, and how significant it is to the overall story.

For example, a character is staring out the window at night when, suddenly, she sees a firefly turn into a fairy princess out on the lawn. What is her reaction? If she thinks “Oh, no! Not again! That means dad will make me go out there first thing tomorrow and wash the fairy dust off the grass…” then that tells the reader that fairies are common in this world, and a bit of a nuisance. Not only do we get the character’s attitude about the firefly fairy, but we get valuable worldbuilding information (especially if this is the first time we see that this world has magic/fantasy elements to it). If she thinks “WHAT THE F*** IS THAT?!?!?!?!?!” and runs screaming from the room, we may take that as our cue that firefly fairies are not the norm and that something truly odd is going on.

This is an example of how a reaction could fill in larger world context. It also gives us information about character. (Does she like magic? Is she over it? Etc.) You could also define relationship through reaction. If a girl we’ve never met comes up to a boy in the cafeteria and says “Hey,” and he says “Hey,” back, then that’s a rather bland scene. However, you could fill in a lot with reaction.

Two possible scenarios:

“Hey,” she said.
How could she be talking to him so casually after what she’d done. Now she was staring at him. Great. He couldn’t be the one to make this awkward. He bit down the string of obscenities that she deserved hurled at her and mustered up a rather bland, “Hey.”

“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said, and immediately regretted the wasted opportunity. This was Cassie Price, of all people! Talking to him! The moment he had been waiting for his entire life and it was over just like that. Now Cassie had moved on, taking that musky scent of her jasmine perfume with her, and he didn’t know whether he’d ever have this chance again.

Same dialogue, two completely different scenes and relationships. And yes, for those of you wondering, I consider reaction to be a very important–if not the most important–function of Interiority.

Use it to make things seem important, too. If something is a BIG DEAL, make the corresponding reaction big, whether through dialogue, Interiority, or action. Draw attention to the things that matter by letting them matter more to your character. I bet there are a lot of such missed opportunities in your work.

Layers of Emotion

Protagonists have to be emotional beings. Without being clued in to their Interiority–thoughts, feelings, reactions to what’s going on in the world–and without getting a sense for their emotional lives through voice and the way that they describe everything and everyone in your story (this applies to third person, too), we won’t truly know them.

As a writer, it’s your job to clue the reader into emotions at every turn, but always through Interiority and showing. Telling when it comes to characterization and emotion is probably one of the biggest problems I encounter in manuscripts.

But even when you manage to convey emotion correctly in your novel or picture book, don’t be content to play on the surface. In a good book, there should never be just “happy” or “sad.” All emotions have causes, degrees, and consequences. The more complex the emotion in every situation, the more specific you’re being, and the more engaged your reader will become.

For example, prom is something a lot of teens look forward to. But “happy and excited” can also be cliché and boring. Not to mention unrealistic. A much more authentic experience for your character might be that prom is actually bittersweet. Sure, it’s the event of the year, but it’s also a rite of passage for graduating seniors. It’s a signal that the year is almost over and that this is one of the last times all these friends and enemies and peers and teammates will be under the same room ever again. For every emotion, find it’s shadow or highlight, search for a deeper layer, and give your reader several facets.

You can easily do it in Interiority. If we run with our prom idea, planting seeds of melancholy can be accomplished quickly and efficiently like this:

“Cheese!” Lacey grinned at the camera, clutching her date. As the flash went off, she felt a pang of nostalgia sharp enough to make her draw a quick breath. This will all be over so soon, she thought. But then the thumping bass beckoned her from the hotel ballroom, and she marched off toward it, ready to be lost in a crowd of her friends.

Ideally, we’ll get the primary emotion–excitement–and then hints of something else. No matter how you accomplish it, this kind of layered narrative is always infinitely more interesting to me as a reader, and it makes for much richer character.

Worrying Isn’t Action

Let me tell you a little story about how I fly. If y’all have spent any time following my blog or Twitter, you know that I seem to wind up on airplanes a lot. Last year, I logged 75,000 miles, with my longest flight lasting 12 hours. It may come as a surprise to you, then, that I am not a good flyer. In fact, I’ve resorted to many possible solutions for my flight anxiety, from hypnotherapy to whiskey. (Both happen to work, but the latter makes for a rather groggy arrival, just FYI.)

These days, the only real problem I have with flying is takeoff. Landing is fine, being in the air is fine, but takeoff always gets me. (In the air, you don’t really realize you’re going 500 mph because you don’t have the ground as a reference point. On takeoff, you can see exactly how fast you’re going and you can feel yourself pulling against gravity, and I think that’s what bothers me. It’s a physical reminder of the forces involved and I don’t like to think about it.) Turbulence used to really bother me until someone I sat next to once said, “Imagine a stick bobbing in a river. It’s not comfortable, but it’s safe because it’s behind held up by water. Water has mass, and so does air. We’re floating on top of a choppy current, but we’re being held up by the air in much the same way.” That really helped.

Until I got my head straight re: turbulence, though, I would sit in my seat, pinned down with worry, operating under the mistaken notion that my constant vigilance was the only thing keeping the plane in the air. I wanted to note every noise, feel every g-force, monitor every bank, and otherwise white-knuckle it until landing. Flying is completely out of a passenger’s control, and through the sheer force of my anxiety, I flew for years in a state of hyper-vigilance, hoping to regain some of that lost agency.

If I were to give you my Interiority on a plane–my thoughts, feelings, emotions–there would be a lot going on. Every second would be consumed with my brain’s whirrings. Worry is a very familiar, specific, and active thought process. (And here I arrive at how all this applies to writing…) There are lots of novels where I read characters worrying, and it’s a very natural emotion that helps raise stakes and build tension. In fact, I think that a lot of characters don’t worry enough, and a lot of writers miss great opportunities by not sharing their protagonist’s anxieties with the reader.

But there’s also a danger in writing a character who is constantly worrying. Think back to me in my window seat, monitoring every aspect of the flight and gripping my armrests. Internally, I am a hive of activity. But, to the observer in the seat next to me, I look like I’m…just sitting there. Worry is great in doses, but you can’t build a plot on a character whose entire tension is internal. Because it’s static. I happen to find my thoughts as I fly fascinating. But Mary Flying would make a terrible movie because it is physically passive and static.

So use worry to amp up tension and raise stakes and definitely include it as Interiority. But remember that you need to balance it well with external conflict, or you risk your character…just sitting there. At one point, they have to cross the thought/action barrier and do something about all of their anxieties. They need to be proactive and to make something happen in the world of your book. We learn a lot about character through Interiority, but I’d argue that we learn more as they actually get out of their heads and take action. (There’s also the juicy tension of them thinking one thing and doing another, for example. But, again, you can only get there once you put them in motion.) As for me? You’ll often find me 30,000 feet above your heads, but these days, I’m more often than not (thankfully) asleep.

Writing Young Adult Present Tense

Wondering about writing young adult present tense? This post is actually more question than answer, because Lynne did such a great job of summing up the issue and, to be fair, answered most of this question herself. But I wanted to post that process and contribute to it! What’s the issue? Present tense.

young adult present tense, writing present tense, children's book present tense
Present tense lends immediacy to your YA manuscript, letting the reader feel like everything is happening now now now. But is this desirable?

For my WD seminar, every writer got to ask me a question and I was guaranteed to answer it. Roughly a tenth of all the questions were about tense or POV. Someone even asked about the tense that should be used in a query letter. What?! I’d never thought about that for a second in my life. I have thought about POV a few times before, and some articles on that are behind this link. Tense? Not as much. So here we go.

Young Adult Present Tense Is So Hot Right Now

I’ll start with Lynne’s question:

Lately when I’ve perused the YA section at Barnes & Noble, there seem to be awful lot of new releases written in the present tense. Several have been fabulous and very successful (e.g., Suzanne Collin’s HUNGER GAMES trilogy, Ally Condie’s MATCHED). Others are less well-known, but ten minutes in the YA section and you’ll have an armful. There’s been some buzz about the “trend” of present tense. Some authors don’t like the use of present tense and suggest its a fad (see Phillip Pullman’s take in The Guardian).

Others question whether it’s a trend at all, and conclude that in the end, it doesn’t matter because if the writing (in any tense, present included) doesn’t work for you, you can always just put the novel down. (see Laura Miller’s article in Salon). Another article or blog I read recently mentioned the appeal of present tense to young readers is its immediacy; that current teens are so used to a culture where everything happens at breakneck speed that younger readers today aren’t jarred by the use of present tense and may even gravitate toward it.

My question is two-fold: First, do you feel there a trend toward present tense (especially in a first person POV) in YA lit right now? Are you seeing more of it in your slush these days? And second, if so, what do you think about it? Do manuscripts written in the present tense intrigue you? Turn you off? Or are you neutral, and just wait to see if the writing lives up to the challenge? And are editors seeking books in present tense or are they wary of them?

In the end, I would think it all comes down to the story and more than anything, the quality of the writing. Present tense presents different challenges than past tense, and the immediately of the tense can be exhausting for the reader. Also, the stream of consciousness filter can be tough, so can the effort not to mix tenses. It’s still not the norm– but is it a trend?

Does The Tense Fit the Book? That’s The Only Consideration

To tell you the truth, I felt lazy with my short answer to such a long question, but so it goes. I think that tense really doesn’t matter as long as the book works. There is a trend of present tense YA out there right now, for sure. But do I gravitate toward or away from a piece because it is in present tense? No.

Also, I haven’t really heard an editor talk to me about young adult present tense in particular. We talk about story and hook and character. Sometimes POV comes into the picture, but the most I usually hear from editors about POV is a thought on really polarizing POV, like second person direct address (YOU by Charles Benoit is an example of that, and comes up often in discussions). It seems like us literary types should spend more time discussing tense but it really does fade into the background for me when I’m reading, as long as the writing, story, character, and voice are there.

Long story short: I think young adult present tense is hot (for the immediacy reasons Lynne mentions, which I also always cite), but it’s not really a consideration for me. I’ve read present tense. I’ve written in present tense. I don’t know if I’ve represented present tense yet. (See? I can’t even remember if my clients’ books are in present tense…although I do know WILDEFIRE has sections of present tense second person direct address, because Karsten Knight is crafty like that…)

Tense is very low on my list, in other words, of things I care about when I’m reading/considering. Hope that takes some of the, ahem ahem, tension out of the issue for you all!

Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

At the last few conferences I attended, people have been very interested in swear words in young adult fiction. Now, a brilliant writer I know said to me, when I asked him for guidance on this issue: “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”

swear words in young adult fiction, writing young adult fiction, ya fiction
This young adult is about to drop some swear words…or not…

The Considerations of Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

I completely agree. If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me. (You may get an odd glance from a few people in my DFW Writers Conference audience, who apparently gasped when I dropped an f-bomb or two in response to this same question. What? The guy who dropped it first looked self-conscious, so I had to take some of the heat off of him!) You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

The thing is, kids are really good at figuring out what’s a good fit for them and what isn’t. If they are reading a book that has swearing or action or other content that makes them uncomfortable, that they can’t handle, or that they don’t want to handle, most readers will skip that part or put the book down. Parents, librarians, administrators and booksellers shouldn’t always presume to know exactly what kind of book is scandalous to what kind of teen reader.

Everyone Has Their Swear Word Limits

On a recent trip, I was getting really into a story, and dropped an f-bomb. Not loudly or rudely but, you know, sometimes I get carried away. The man in front of us, who was sitting with, no joke, a 17 or 18 year-old daughter, in a college sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, turned around and hissed, “Can you please not say that? I’m traveling with a child!” He indicated his daughter with an angry nod of the head.

I can guarantee that his scowling teen was 500% more scandalized by being referred to as a “child” in public than she was by a word I said. Words only have power if you give it to them. (Of course, I shut my yap right after that. I may not have agreed with the guy but I’m not a jerk.)

Superfluous Swear Words

Speaking of which, there are certain times when I don’t think swear words in young adult fiction are necessary. If it’s every other word, that might be too much. If it’s peppered in to be hip or cool or edgy, then it will come across as forced. Some people circumvent the issue by creating their own colorful vocabulary. If the language is natural enough, this could work, but it mostly feels contrived to me. The important thing to remember is that nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it’s your manuscript. You can swear if you want to but, by the same token, if you don’t want to swear, you can write a clean manuscript and that’s just fine, too.

Swear Words in Young Adult Writing Are Totally Up to You

If, though, as mentioned above, the swear word is a conscious choice, a careful choice, then there’s no problem with it. An editor or agent can always let you know if something is too much or not right. And if you do publish a book with any kind of content — swearing, violence, drugs, drinking, sex — there will always be people who balk.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.

🙂

Come on. I had to.

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult fiction editor.

ETA: WOW! Clearly, this is a very passionate issue. Lest anybody here thought that swearing in books was settled, let them come and read the comments. The use of a swear word or an opinion about swearing, one way or another, has caused certain readers to lose their respect for me. It has caused other readers to gain it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.

My favorite part of keeping this blog and of teaching writers is ALWAYS how much I learn about my own subject matter in the process. In throwing up this post — and its intentionally cheeky last few lines — I’ve had so many new thoughts on the issue of swearing in YA. I’ve delved a lot deeper into this issue in my head. Watch out for another post about swearing in YA on Friday.

Lastly, as one reader pointed out, and to repeat the obvious, this is about swearing in YA fiction. The same rules do not apply for MG at ALL. (I would highly recommend NOT swearing in MG.) Thank you all for the food for thought!