Sometimes a character will be a loner or an intellectual, and they will observe the action of the story from a distance, without getting too involved. We all know these types of wallflowers and, as writers, I’m guessing some of you fit this description perfectly. That’s what writers and shy kids do, they observe. While this is perfect in real life, it doesn’t work well for fiction. That’s not to say that your characters all need to be gregarious and outgoing, and you shouldn’t do away with characters who take pleasure in simply looking at the world.
But your character can’t simply be a video camera or a set of eyes. They must participate in the novel and in the action, because the reader really only learns about them when they reach out and do something. They can think all the want, or talk all they want, but it’s not until they interact with the world that you’ve created that it goes from telling to showing. The other concern with this type of character is that observers sometimes relay what’s in front of them in a dry, emotionless way. This is what I mean by my “video camera” comment, above. A piece of technology records the action without adding any of its own stamp (unless it’s Instagram and has all those nifty filters!). A character who observes but doesn’t comment or react is about as useless as a nondescript point-and-shoot.
Interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) is your best friend here. So if a character is not taking action, give them plenty of internal reaction to keep the reader connected to and invested in their experience. Still waters should run deep. Same goes for if you’re writing an aloof or mysterious POV–it’s very easy for readers who feel distanced from their protagonist to click off. You want to avoid this at all costs.
So if you want to do a shy character who doesn’t interact much, that is your creative choice, but you should be extra careful to make them a) a participant, not just an observer, and b) a colorful narrator of the story, not just a video camera. Force them into the action and, when they’re hanging back and looking, give them real narrative presence that injects events with voice and character and emotion. Otherwise, your wallflower could be just any old person, relaying a story in a detached, cold, and clinical way. Nobody wants that. So keep these things in mind when working with this type of character.
Picture book alliteration always annoys. Well, not always, but it’s getting there. I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books since I wrote a new picture book talk for the awesome SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle this past weekend. I’m also doing a lot of webinar critiques.
Picture Book Alliteration Is Overdone
This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration.
Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.
A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.
Alliteration Doesn’t Add As Much As You Think to a Manuscript
But more and more, I get picture book manuscripts that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see alliteration in PBs, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.
In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible opening line. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.
So instead of lending you a coveted voice, alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.
Picture books are my absolute favorite manuscripts to work on. If you’re using alliteration but suspect you could do better, hire me as your picture book editor. We’ll figure out your unique writing voice.
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.
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!
Here’s a question about sarcastic voice in young adult fiction from reader Kathryn. It’s one I’ve actually thought a lot about and addressed in many manuscripts:
I wanted your opinion on using the same voice throughout a MS. I have noticed with the latest two books I’ve read (by two different authors) that they use the same witty, sarcastic, always-joke-cracking voice. Even in tense parts of the story. What is your opinion of that? For me it broke character and when I am writing the harsher scenes in my book, and I feel like I am going to lose my reader.
Is Sarcastic Voice in Young Adult Fiction a Requirement?
As you readers know, there is a lot of room on shelves for sarcastic teen voices (read a previous post on the topic here). But you can’t just give readers a sarcastic, quippy voice and a character who is biting and caustic and call it a day. That’s not all there is to teen voice or teen characters. In fact, writers who think that they’ve made an instant teenager by adding one part extra sarcasm are a big pet peeve of mine.
Another pet peeve of mine is when the sarcasm comes out in inappropriate times or doesn’t feel genuine in a situation or for a character, as with the situation Kathryn is describing. I feel that voice does have to be consistent. And, yes, humor and sarcasm can come together to create a voice. But not all situations do well with humor, quips, or sarcasm.
Tense situations, scary situations, poignant situations, and some scenes actually don’t fit well with sarcasm. Why? Well, think of what sarcasm is and where it comes from.
Sarcasm Has a Place In Fiction
As a teen, I was definitely sarcastic, biting, and witty. But when I think of those times when I was most sarcastic, most mean, or most joke-cracking…what was going on inside my head? I was actually using sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism, as a wall. If I was uncomfortable or feeling challenged or otherwise feeling the need to put my shields up, I’d be more sarcastic or try harder to be funny than in situations where I was comfortable (unless I was riffing with a bunch of friends and getting all riled up, of course).
For important moments in your plot, I would stay away from too much sarcasm and wit. Sarcasm drives a wedge into high stakes and deflates tension. It puts up a wall between your character and your readers. Sometimes, that’s okay. In other moments, though, you want your character to have a genuine, shields-down reaction to events. This way, those events will seem genuinely significant. If your character cracks jokes or shrugs off important stuff, your reader won’t care much about it, either.
Why Sarcasm Can Be a Problem
For example, here’s some bad use of sarcasm:
My dad tells me that everyone in my family discovers some big and important power on their sixteenth birthday. It happened to Grandma and it happened to Dad. And then we’re expected to use it for good and all that junk. I’ll believe it when I see it, and so far, all I see is the great pair of Prada pumps that’s going to be my birthday present tomorrow.
As always, this is hyperbole. But you can see the problems here, right? This character is, more likely than not, about to encounter something life-changing that members of her family are concerned about. Is she scared? Probably. Should she be scared? Probably. But do we know about her fear? No, because the sarcasm is standing in the way of that, and doing a rather shallow job of showing us her true feelings.
Sarcasm Puts a Wall Between the Character and the Reader
So there are high stakes in the situation, or there should be, but they don’t come across in the way it’s described. She seems like she doesn’t care, or she’s making light and fun of it. That doesn’t invite us to take it seriously, either.
In important moments — moments when the reader is supposed to care — make the character care, as well. And as every teenager will tell you, sarcasm and humor, especially at tense moments, is a self-defense system designed to scream “I don’t care!” It has its uses, but it should be used judiciously, with thought to the psychology of how real teen sarcasm works.
Finally, one last pet peeve (I know, I’m full of them today). I am cautious about too much sarcastic voice in young adult or biting humor because I feel like, often, it’s the writer saying “Look at me, look at me, look at me, and how funny I am and how funny my characters!” This post has dealt with authenticity and when to use sarcasm, but also when to cut back for the sake of being genuine. In the same vein, the sarcasm or humor has to be real to the character, and can’t just be the writer showing off.
Voice is one of the trickiest fiction concepts to nail. But it’s critical when writing YA. Hire me to be your young adult editor and we’ll hone in on a voice that’s both true to the category and to you.
Heather asked this question in the comments a few days ago:
I’ve been thinking a lot about and practicing different YA voices. I know what my friends and I were like as teenagers (dry wit, sort of like Juno – “older than our years” due to divorce and other challenges) but I think the perception is that most teenage girls have a more young-sounding “voice”.
From a personal standpoint, I totally relate to the older, jaded, sarcastic, witty, dry, Juno voices in YA. That’s the kind of teen I was. I thought I had it all figured out and, even when I didn’t, I pretended I did. It was a defense mechanism, of course, but isn’t everything a defense mechanism during high school?
The thing is, this isn’t the only kind of teen voice. And that’s a good thing, because there are lots of publishers and lots of editors (and agents) out there with lots of different teen sensibilities. And sometimes, one agent or editor can fully appreciate both the younger and the older teen voices.
I would say that if you write the older type of teen voice, the story needs to match up, and so does the age of the character. Make your character 16-18 and give them a story that fits the voice in terms of depth and darkness. Part of the fun of Juno is that the story is really pedestrian, and Juno’s voice carries her through a pretty average, white bread, middle America teen experience. But I feel like this is hard to pull off in a novel. The voice, first of all, will have to be pitch perfect, and then it will have to completely carry the novel. (I can hear the editor in my head saying, “Yes, the voice is great, but what happens? Something needs to happen. What’s the hook?”)
When you want to use this voice, match it to a romance, a paranormal, an urban fantasy, or a really strong contemporary realistic coming of age, where the voice isn’t the only thing the manuscript has going for it (think Sara Zarr). My favorite recent example, which you haven’t read yet but will, and should, is WILDEFIRE by my client Karsten Knight, which is slated for release summer 2011 from Simon & Schuster. The voice is killer, dry, witty, sarcastic, and the plot is explosive and killer, too. It’s kick-ass urban fantasy.
I say this all because one of the biggest mistakes writers make in YA usually has to do with this type of voice. I know this is true for my own reading, and I’ve heard lots of editors say this, but biting sarcasm alone does not a story make. Neither is sarcasm appropriate for sarcasm’s sake. A lot of hopeful YA writers (perhaps those with snarky teenagers at home?) make their main characters so dry, so sarcastic, so acidic, so unbearable…that I don’t want to spend a book with them. And then there’s nothing else in the book that would play along with the sarcasm (like, for example, a kick-ass urban fantasy plot) and make the manuscript a cohesive story. Worse, the main character is so acerbic that it turns the reader off and you lose that connection. (To see pretty sarcastic, mean, horrible characters who actually manage to win the reader over, try BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver or the upcoming REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly, out in September from Delacorte/Random House.)
Just like a fondness for math does not make an Asian-American character more realistic (ask me how many times I see the annoying and insulting cliche about an Asian-American best friend with wicked math skills and “brown, almond-shaped eyes” or “straight black hair”), and a fondness for donuts doesn’t flesh out a fat kid character (puns all intended), the addition of biting sarcasm to your voice doesn’t give you “Instant Teen Protagonist” for your novel.
As I said in my first paragraph…there was something behind all my sarcasm, then and now. Sarcasm, just like voice, is a very multi-faceted thing. So sure, your teen main character can have the Juno voice. And they can be mature for their years. The market will, of course, bear it, like it will bear a younger YA protagonist with a sunnier voice. But all of the sarcasm and voice and maturity considerations have to be there for a reason: they have to have both depth and a thematic tie-in to the rest of the story.
And if you can pull all that off, then sure, I’ll read it. I guess. Whatever. 🙂
In the WriteOnCon chat, I caused a bit of a kerfuffle with fantastic writer Hannah Moskowitz (if you haven’t read BREAK, stop reading this, go buy that at your local indie, and go read it this instant). I said that, for MG boy books, in particular, sometimes the sense of action and adventure trumps voice. I still stand by that. I’ve been reading a lot of MG boy books recently. While they’re all well-written, I sometimes feel like the pacing and plot can hold more emphasis to readers and publishers than a really great, character-driven, literary voice. At least that’s what I see when I look at what’s on shelves these days.
Well, Hannah disagreed and said that voice and character are just as important in boy books as it is in girl books. We never disagreed over this point, I don’t think, but I didn’t want to hijack chat to make that clear. Of course boy books should put just as much emphasis on voice as they do on plot. But when I look at what’s out there, especially in MG, I don’t see it as much. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do boys read the kinds of books that publishers publish because those are the kinds of books they want or because those are the kinds of books that are getting published?
If you pick up, say, a MG book marketed to and published for girls, you will find pages dripping with interiority, character, inner monologue, inner tension, emotions, and, yes, of course, action and plot. If you pick up a MG with a boy protagonist, more likely than not, you will find lots of quick scenes, action, adventure, dialogue, and less of the kind of slow, interior stuff that tends to give more flesh and meaning to characters.
But that’s how things tend to be on shelves right now. That doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be. Hannah has written a great post about boy characters in YA, it’s called The Boy Problem. I think this also can apply to boy characters in MG. There are a lot of boy main characters in MG, and those boy readers are at a crucial point in their reading lives…they usually read through age 12 and then drop off the reading planet entirely or swing up to adult fiction to, as Hannah says, find stories that are relevant to them there.
There are, of course, writers with fantastic voice who target MG boys. Eoin Colfer, Rick Riordan, Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket, M.T. Anderson, Jeff Kinney, Trenton Lee Stewart, Nancy Farmer, Carl Hiaasen, the authors featured in the GUYS READ: FUNNY BUSINESS anthology coming out this fall from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins (edited by Jon Scieszka), and many more. They know how to tie characterization and voice together with action and plot in a way that’s really appealing to MG boy readers.
But other published MG books out there, and some of the submissions I see, don’t seem to put as much emphasis on voice as they should. So instead of saying, “That’s the way it happens to be right now and excuse me for just calling ’em as I seem ’em,” as I did in the chat, I’ve been inspired by Hannah Moskowitz to be one of the people who does something about this. For now, I’m talking about MG boy books in particular, not boy YA. Boy YA is a different can of worms, because the audience is different. Boy YA is a topic for another day. So, in terms of boy MG, are two things you can do right now to start solving The Boy Problem.
First: If you have book recommendations for published books with great MG boy voice and characterization, which manages to combine these with action and adventure, leave them in the comments. I’ve given you some starter authors, above.
Second: As writers, if you happen to already be writing MG boy books or are interested in writing them, read the books recommended in this post. Then work hard on your craft to reach and capture these very special readers. Write books with great characters, great voice, great scenes, and great action. Push yourself hard and don’t be satisfied with, “Oh, it’s a boy book, I can get away with some flat voice and character if I make enough stuff go bang.” Then, query me of course.
I’m officially putting it out there…I would love to see more MG boy books that put an emphasis on voice and character in addition to action and thrills.
One good and well-meaning piece of advice floating around online is: research an agent’s list and query that agent if your project is similar to what they already represent. This makes total sense, right? If they liked it once, they have a high chance of liking it again and representing your similar project.
And this is, like I said, good advice. It encourages you to do research and to choose your submission list carefully and with good reason.
On the other hand, though, you could set yourself up for disappointment by doing this. There are two ways to miss the mark with this strategy. An agent’s deals on Publishers Marketplace, where a lot of writers get information about books an agent has sold, are usually for books that haven’t come out yet, if the deal is recent. That means you can’t find the book and check it out. The agent knows that book better than you do, then, so they know for sure whether your project and their existing project are similar or not. If you see that they sold a mermaid project recently, and you have a mermaid project, those two projects could be similar in subject matter, sure, but maybe they’re actually completely different: yours is a frothy romp, the sold project is a dark tragedy. So you never know for sure.
This brings up a very important point: you should look for similarities in tone, voice, style, characterization…not just subject matter. It’s the subject matter that could get you in trouble, but those other elements, themes, and craft considerations, could get you through the door. Why? Read on!
If your book is too similar to an agent’s existing sale, the agent could pass on your project because it could, in fact, be competition. And an agent doesn’t want to compete with his or herself, meaning they don’t want to sell two books that would take business away from each other when on the same bookstore shelves. An agent wants all their clients to do well. If they sell too many similar books, they are cannibalizing their own list, especially if the books are slated to come out around the same time. So if you target agents and cite previous projects that are too close, you may get a pass from that agent you were hoping to work with.
The other side of the coin is for the agents themselves. I’ve spoken to a lot of agents who are frustrated because they have become “known” for a certain type of book. And, for the reasons stated above, they can’t sell too much of that type of book without doing potential damage to existing clients’ titles. So they want to branch out and do other things…but writers keep sending them the type of book they’re known for.
For example, Stephenie Meyers’ agent is Jodi Reamer, at Writers House. I haven’t personally read Jodi’s slush, but I could make a very educated guess and say that it probably contains a lot of vampire books. Why? Because Jodi has a very well-known track record with vampires.
But do you think Jodi will jump on every vampire manuscript that comes along and risk a) cannibalizing Stephenie’s book sales (as if that was possible!) or b) try to place yet another vampire book in a crowded vampire market? I can’t say “no” for sure, but that would be my best guess.
So I would say that research is really important, but you may find that the common ground you think you have with an agent may actually decrease your chances of placing a manuscript with them. Unless, of course, you don’t use subject matter as your criteria for similarity. There are many other ways in which books can be similar.
For example, “My book has vampires, just like your client Stephenie Meyers’ book!” may not get you far, but “This book has a romantic feel and a star-crossed relationship at the heart of it” or “This manuscript has a sarcastic tone that reminded me of another book on your list” might, since those themes and voices, not the subject matter of the story, are attractive to the agent.
I get a lot of emails and questions about voice. What is it? How do you recognize it? How do you find yours? Is “voice” the same thing as wit or sarcasm?
For most writers who are starting out in their careers and learning about the writing craft, my advice is not to worry about voice. It’s a very higher order skill and usually comes after the writer has already laid a craft and mechanics foundation. Get the basics down, then start developing the more advanced stuff.
But I don’t want to leave readers hanging. I’ve thought about it a lot and distilled my thoughts on voice to one rather clunky sentence.
Voice, quickly: The words you say and how you say them, which gives the reader insight into your character, too.
If that’s not enough for you, San Francisco agent Nathan Bransford (He has a blog, too…maybe you’ve heard of him? Ha! I kid! Everybody’s heard of him!) has recently written a fantastic study of what components make up a voice. For those who are still confused about voice, this might not snap you out of your confusion, but it will give you interesting things to think about.
I know it’s frustrating to keep hearing, “You’ll know it when you read it” or, “One day, you’ll just wake up and know,” but that’s really, really true. Keep hacking away at your writing and getting those words on the page and your grasp on voice will keep tightening, I promise.
Judging by the response to my last post about swearing, and thanks to all of the wonderful issues and perspectives that my readers brought up, I wanted to tackle this issue again. I’m serious when I say that posts about controversial issues always force me to delve deeper into my own understanding, thanks in no small part to the feedback I receive. This was such a post and such an issue. (If you haven’t read the Gayle Forman link recommended by KellieD, about swearing in her novel, IF I STAY, check it out here…)
It seems to me that there’s a perceived divide in more conservative thinking about the People Who Work With Kids and the People Who Write For Kids. Let me explain. The People Who Work With Kids — parents, teachers, librarians, administrators, PTA boards — think of it as their sacred duty to protect kids from harm and to usher them into the real world. That’s great. There’s no more important duty. But sometimes, some groups of People Who Work With Kids are in friction with another group of people… the People Who Write For Kids. It’s usually over content in a book, whether it’s language, sex, drugs, a religious idea, or whatever.
But if you really think about it, the People Who Write For Kids aren’t very different from the People Who Work With Kids (a lot of People Who Write For Kids also happen to be People Who Work With Kids). Children’s book pioneer and genius editor Ursula Nordsrom (who edited RUNAWAY BUNNY, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and most of what we think of today as “the classics”) once said that:
“The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”
I would argue that the People Who Write For Kids are doing just this when they tell their stories. They are telling the truth about their own experiences of being a kid (or their characters’ experiences) and they are doing it with the intention of giving other kid readers something to relate to, something to resonate with, something to help them prepare for their own moments of joy and tragedy as they enter the real world.
In my line of work, I have met thousands of people who write books for kids, published and not. All of the published authors I talk to want to tell kids stories that are true, authentic, that reflect the real world as the author sees it. None of these authors have bad intentions. None of them want to scandalize kids, corrupt them or turn them to “the dark side,” whatever that might be. Getting published in children’s books is hard enough for people with good intentions. I’d be very surprised if anybody managed to succeed with rotten intentions at their core. So what’s the disconnect?
It seems like People Who Work With Kids and People Who Write For Kids have the same concerns at heart (kids), but their methods disagree. For example, for some People Who Write For Kids, swearing is a daily part of life as a teenager, and therefore fits under the category of “telling the truth.” For some others, both People Who Write For Kids and People Who Work With Kids, swearing is gratuitous and unnecessary. Still… both groups care about the exact same thing, in the end. That’s worth thinking about.
Now, back to my perspective. I still stand by what I said. As a literary agent, all I care about is the manuscript and the writing. If a swear word is in character, in voice, and if it is a choice, I’m just fine with it.
The frustrating thing about this debate is that one side (pro-swearing) says: It’s okayto have swearingin a book, if it fits. That side isn’t saying that every book must absolutely have swearing in it. This side is just saying that sometimes swearing happens in YA fiction and it’s okay for the author to choose those words.
The other side (anti-swearing) says: There shall be no swearingin any of the books I buy/publish/stock/teach/show my kids/support,not ever.
I happen to disagree with people who are close-minded about swear words, but that is my opinion and I don’t expect everyone to agree all the time. I do not believe, personally, that one swear word makes a book wholly bad for that reason, nor that a person who swears is wholly bad. Nor is a book devoid of swear words wholly good for that reason, or a person who abstains from swearing wholly good. This black-and-white view on the issue makes me uncomfortable.
But it’s obviously a powerful and contentious issue for many, and one I’m REALLY glad I dove into with this blog. I realize that my last few lines of the previous post may have offended some readers. I do not apologize for my use of that particular word, but I do apologize for the offense it may have caused to some of my readers. Know that it was nothing personal. Still, that’s the word I used and it was a choice. I think it’s important to draw this distinction. If you read through my archives, you’ll see that the word has never appeared in one of my articles before, nor will it appear again unless I have very good reason to use it. (I’m looking at YOU, Bane.)
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.”
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.
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!