Wednesday, May 12, 2010

F-Bombs Away!

Blogger mi over at i know, write?!? has posted a great piece discussing the issue of cursing in YA fiction. On the one hand, it's realistic for our characters; a lot of teens do curse, after all. On the other hand, do we want teens thinking that by writing about it, we condone swearing...or drugs, or sex, or whatever undesirable behavior our characters engage in?

mi's post got me thinking. I started writing a comment, but I soon realized it was going to be such a long comment, it might be better as its own blog.

When it comes to writing, I'm a realism gal. I don't like sugar-coating things or glossing over them. I believe if we're going to write, we ought to write as truthfully as we can. I guess that comes across in my own work; reviews have called my novels authentic, gritty, even hard-boiled. (I hope that last one was a compliment; when it comes to reviews, oddly enough, sometimes it's hard to tell.)

But as much as I love realism, it doesn't reign supreme. What does? Story. The story is king; the story trumps all.

When I was writing my first novel, I knew my main character, Tallulah, was rebellious and short-tempered and just generally difficult. I wrote her voice the way I heard it in my head, and the F-bombs dropped at an alarming rate. Later, people who read the manuscript told me it was like getting smacked in the face every other page. When I went back and read the manuscript, to my surprise, it was like getting smacked in the face. It was hard to see past the cussing to the character underneath.

In fact, I realized, I didn't have much of a character underneath. That's when I learned that realism isn't the same thing as transcription. I was using the swearing to convey that Tallulah was a tough girl. But instead it made her seem more like an unpleasant caricature than a flesh-and-blood person. And it wasn't helping the story; in fact, it bogged the story down.

So I dropped the profanities. (Most of them, anyway. At one point, Tallulah gets struck in the chest by a horse; having had the same experience myself, I can vouch that this is one instance that absolutely justifies swearing...just as soon as you manage to suck the breath back into your lungs.) But getting rid of the swearing, I discovered, left me with enormous character holes to fill. I had to go back and figure out how to get across Tallulah's tough-chick attitude with inflections and tones, body language and action. More importantly for the character, and the story: I had to figure out what she was really feeling...and why.

Once I did that, Tallulah took on dimensions and shape. She became real. And as she took on more depth and complexity, so did her story. I realized I'd been using the swearing as a shortcut, as if to say, "See? See how rebellious she is?" But I hadn't actually shown it.

Some years later, I was listening to an interview of a punk rock band. (Don't remember who, unfortunately--I'm terrible with names.) Anyway, the two guys who wrote the songs talked about how one night they were brainstorming lyrics, and one of them wrote, "F*** this s***," and they were both like, "Yeah, dude! F*** this s***!" and then one of them turned to the other and said, "So like, what s*** are we talking about, specifically?" And they realized they had no idea. So they thought about it, and they began writing about what they felt was wrong in the world, and why, and how it made them feel, and how it might change. That, they said, was the turning point, when the band took off. I can't for the life of me remember who those guys are, but I've never forgotten that story, because it's absolutely true: if you say "F*** that s***," you ought to at least be clear on what s*** it is you'd like to get f*****.

All this rambling isn't to say that there's no place for swearing in YA fiction. I believe there is, depending on the character, depending on the story. In fact, there's some in my current WiP. (Gasp!) Bottom line, the way I see it--Story is All. If it adds to the story, through rich characterization or meaningful conflict or other fabulous story-building s***, have at it. If it detracts--or if it's serving as a placeholder for something the author hasn't figured out yet--take the axe to it and dig deeper. Same goes for everything our characters say and do. If it doesn't serve the story, it's gone.

One other thing about cussing (and other disreputable goings-on) in YA. If there's swearing in adult books, nobody cares. If there's swearing in YA novels, lots of people care. People like librarians, teachers, and parents. (Just take a gander at this list of books banned in 2009. The first thing I noticed: Damn, that's a long list. The second thing: "profanity" or "vulgar language" is one of the most-cited reasons for banning.) So, could it be an issue? Like all else in publishing: Maybe. Depends. (Another thing to notice about that banned-books list: How many award-winners and literary classics are on it. Being banned isn't like being shunned when you're Amish. Lots of people will still come out to play with you.) Agents and editors can, and probably will, weigh in with their advice. Still, in the end, it's up to the author to decide how best to tell his or her story.

Story is All. Story is King. Long live Story.

(Thank you, mi, for writing such a thought-provoking post!)


Melissa Amateis said...

Excellent post, Christine! I have struggled with some cussing in my novels, too, as I always add a bit. But then I think of Clive Cussler's whose characters don't cuss at all, yet you know they are tough, no holds barred characters. It's a great exercise in showing who your characters are vs. telling, I suppose. :-)

Christine Fletcher said...

Melissa, it took me a long time to figure out how to show character, rather than tell. The swearing was probably my first big lesson in that. And I didn't figure that out until the 3rd or 4th draft of my first novel. I don't learn fast, but I do learn eventually. :)

That said, lots of writers use swearing appropriately, and for great reasons. I agree with mi's point about writing the first draft the way it comes, and then see how it reads.

mi said...

christine, your post brings up points i never even thought of. especially that of using the swear words to convey who your character is as opposed to showing the reader through action and dialogue.
it's definitely something i'm going to keep in mind when i go in to do my edit.
thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

Lisa Nowak said...

I love how you've detailed your learning curve on showing character. I don't use a whole lot of cussing in my books, because I realize that these particular stories will probably be popular with the conservative crowd. There are a few words that might get them banned by the strictest people, but no f-bombs. In another book, things might be different.

Christine Fletcher said...

mi--you're welcome! As I mentioned above, I think your approach is great--let the first draft rip, the way it comes to you. Time enough later to go back and polish.

Christine Fletcher said...

Lisa--knowing your audience is always a good thing! I'm willing to bet that most people don't think about this until their editors point it out to them.

Anonymous said...

Shannon Hale recently did a post on banning books. It's crazy what books parents want banned!

I love your insightful post! It's so annoying when authors put lots of swearing, or sex, or drugs, into books to make it seem like they are real teenagers. It's like they're saying that's all that teens do, or that all teens do that.

Christine Fletcher said...

Hi, Anon! I agree, when authors put in stuff just because they think "that's what teenagers do," the reader can always tell that the characters aren't genuine. And it's insulting to teens.

I read Shannon Hale's post on book banning--thanks for pointing it out! I always thought it was nuts that in my Catholic all-girls' high school we read a lot of books that were banned in the public schools. What are these pro-banning people so afraid of? I never understood it. Still don't.

Sally Nemeth said...

In television (which I also write for) there are words you can use at 10 PM that you can't use at 8 PM. Likewise for YA. Kinda depends on the age you're writing for. If it's low-end YA, for tweens & up to 14 year olds, the "f" bomb doesn't ever really get dropped. Over 14? Bombs away...if - as you correctly point out - it's supported by the character and the world and not just there to convey toughness and coolness. But you gotta write whatever comes out in the first draft and THEN go back & fix. To censor in that first flush of "gotta get it down" is counterproductive.

Christine Fletcher said...

Thanks for the TV perspective, Sally! (One thing about books--we don't have the FCC listening in, at least.)

Walter Rowntree said...

Wow! Fantastic post. It deserves to go viral on the author circuit.
(The security verification words on the comment page has made me a better scrabble player)

prashant said...

I agree with mi's point about writing the first draft the way it comes, and then see how it reads.
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