Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Keeping It Real in YA

I'm writing on YA fantasy novel (for want of a loose description) and I'm wondering about the use of profanity and drinking in a YA novel.

While swearing is not a massive part of the story there is the odd bit of what would be described in a movie as 'low level' language and I also have a fairly major party scene (it all goes wrong).

My initial instinct is to write what I want to write and worry about censoring it later as at this stage I'm part way my first draft especially as I hate reading YA where the characters say 'oh drat' or the equivalent. What are your thoughts on teens drinking and swearing?

Back in another lifetime I edited YA. I loved it and wanted to do more, but quickly became frustrated with what was popular at the time and what I was limited to doing based on what was supposedly selling. Now, keep in mind I was not working at a YA house and I imagine if I was I might have had a different experience, but still, what I was seeing published were not YA novels I would have ever been interesting in reading. In my opinion, they talked down to the reader, were written to appease adults, and didn't at all reflect the real life of teens.

Thank goodness times have changed.

The reason, in my mind, YA works so well today and has become so popular is that we are no longer afraid of adults. We are actually writing and publishing books that truly speak to kids. There is drinking, swearing, sex, abuse, love, hate, and bullies. We are no longer just writing about jocks and cheerleaders, but also about geeks and freaks and the one in between who is easily forgotten. Today we are writing about real kids and the real worlds they inhabit (sometimes).

I think your frame of mind on this is perfect. Write what you want to write and keep it real. When you've finished the book, read and edit and make sure that it sounds real. That the words your characters are using are fitting to the situation and to them. If there needs to be drinking and swearing, leave it in there. If it seems gratuitous, take it out. But don't take it out because you're afraid of what an editor or agent might think. Take it out only because it no longer suits the book (if that's the case).



Suzanne said...

Hm, this is an interesting question.
I just got back my reviews from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest and both reviewers commented that having only read the first 5000 words of my story, they felt the story was heading into more 'adult' waters away from the YA bracket :/ Now, my story does contain a bisexual protagonist, but there's no swearing in it, only implied sexual contact that never goes below the waist, and the violent content is no worse than what I've read in other YA stories. Their comments have left me a little baffled (and nervous that I'll be disqualified from the next round if they think my book is incorrectly labelled YA). So, is what is suitable for the 'YA' tag totally subjective then? And what makes a novel cross-over or New Adult then? *bewildered*

Anonymous said...

LOVED this post!! I was considered a "good girl" when I was a teenager, and even I went to parties, had too much to drink, made-out with boys I barely knew, and (sometimes) cussed like a sailor. There is nothing worse than reading a book about a teen who goes to a party, drinks punch and eats cookies, and then "snuggles" all night on the couch with the popular football player. I'm sure there are some teens out there who could relate to the latter, but I don't know any.

Anonymous said...

This is a double edged sword. I've been to an SCBWI conference where one of the writers started her novel with a girl (age 15) doing a dance on a stripper pole on a bet. The plot was how she deals with the aftermath of her actions. I was horrified. I would say read the books out there already. There are a lot of wonderful bisexual books for YA and you need to look at the editors willing to take such things on before you change your story from a few people.

That being said, Jessica, are we still going to get the "Wednesday Workshop"? It is the first place I go on Wednesdays when I have a free moment and your advise is wonderful.

Thanks, PLJ

Amanda K said...

I recommend that the OP read as much YA they can get their hands on! Especially if they are writing it. Some of the best authors now are actually true to what teenagers are and do - drink, swear, steal, lie, fall in love, hate themselves... it's a very wonderful and diverse genre!

Eileen said...

I write YA and can say with confidence that YA books cover a wide spectrum of topics. I can think of no topic that would be off limits, although writers should be aware that if his/her book is graphic (sex or language) there may be librarians/schools that will not carry it.

As to Xan's comment I haven't read your book- but there are certainly some great YA books out there with bi/gay/transgendered characters. What makes it YA for me isn't the age of the character (or what that character is doing) but how that character moves through the story. When it is an older character reflecting back on when they were young it feels more adult to me. Ask yourself who do you see as the target audience?

Anonymous said...

I'd have to wonder how much YA the question-writer reads to ask this question. Over 50% of what I read is YA, and the language is pervasive enough that I barely notice it. I've read stories dealing with loveless sexual relationships, violence (both real and fantasy), bullying, lots of language, drugs, and anything else you can think of. And no, the kids engaging in this behavior don't always get their comeuppance.

Page 1 of Courtney Summers's CRACKED UP TO BE has the word "fuck" in it. Twice. Page 4 of Kody Keplinger's THE DUFF. Same word. Those are two off the top of my head. If I looked through my collection, I'd find plenty more.

Go read tons of YA and you'll see your worries are for naught.

Anonymous said...

As a writer of two YA books for a big publisher, I can say that drugs, sexual innuendo (much less sex), and foul language can keep you off library shelves (which kills you if your book only comes out in hardcover) and out of the Doubleday Book Club, which can give an author tons of sales (and which my editor and agent warned me about).

Don't let censorship paralyze you, but know it's still out there.


Dale Bishop said...

I would think there might be ways to get around this in narrative, almost the same way authors get around characters that speak with heavy dialects. And we all know how wrong it is to write dialogue with heavy dialect. Simply state the YA character uses a lot of profane language without actually using profanities.

The teacher sent him a glance said, "Why don't you gather your things and get out of here."

The student glared at her, shouted the filthiest words the teacher had heard in years, and stormed out of the classroom.

It's hard to craft things like this into a story. But getting the point across that a character uses profanity can be done without actually using profanity in dialogue. This will keep your book on school library shevles.

Laura W. said...

@Dale: That is precisely the kind of thing I hate to read in YA. It sounds condescending. That is because it's more from the teacher's perspective than the actual young adult -- we're not hearing the kid think "I'm going to yell the worst things I can think of," we hear the teacher's perspective that the kid "shouted the filthiest words the teacher had heard in years." Also, it's probably hard to shock an experienced teacher, just saying...

Thank you for your answer to this post. I, too, am working on a YA fantasy where there is a healthy dose of all the issues you mentioned above. I'm aware that people might find it offensive, and I'm aware that not all teens deal with that, but I'm not about to sacrifice a realistic portrayal to avoid offending someone's sensibilities.

Suzanne said...

"I'm aware that not all teens deal with that, but I'm not about to sacrifice a realistic portrayal to avoid offending someone's sensibilities." Laura W.

I think this about sums it up. Thanks to all for the feedback regarding my question :)

Michelle Krys said...

This is a very interesting and timely post. When my book sold to Delacorte, it contained quite a few f-bombs and the like. I'm curious to see, when my revision letter comes, if they'll be staying or going.

Also, my book has a cheerleader :)

Bonnee Crawford said...

I read on a blog somewhere - a couple of blogs actually - that when it comes to higher rated material in YA, it's acceptable as long as it's relevant to the story. You shouldn't put ANYTHING irrelevant to the story into a novel, no matter how x or g rated it is.

Dale Bishop said...

@ Laura W. This wasn't a POV example. It was an example of how to get the point across without using too much profanity. And no one likes reading too much profanity. It could have been done this way:

The other guy sneered at Dale and said, "You're fat."

The other kids started laughing.

Dale squared his shoulders and stepped forward. He shook his fist, called the guy every filthy word he'd ever learned, and then slammed him in the face.

I think that comes from Dale's POV, and it gets the point across that he used profanity without actually doing it. Learning to craft dialogue and narrative takes a long time and a lot of practice. And too much profanity keeps YA books off library shelves.

Dale Bishop said...

"I'm aware that not all teens deal with that, but I'm not about to sacrifice a realistic portrayal to avoid offending someone's sensibilities." Laura W.

I'd also like to add that when you get pubbed and start dealing with real editors and publishers and it comes down to money, you'll change that tone very quickly. I've been edited more than once, for things that have fit into the storyline, and I had no choice but to sacrifice my integrity in order to get a book out.

I had a sexist character in one book, a real jerk of a guy. He said in one line: "Put a tampon in it."

Yes, that's sexist. I'd never say something like that. But it was relevant to the story and the character.

The publisher not only freaked out, she told me to take it out because it was too sexist. And I wasn't even writing YA. I was writing erotic romance. All that integrity and talk about sensibilities is wonderful...until the real world of publishing sets in :)

Laina said...

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which I'm pretty sure I remember seeing in Scholastic Book orders when I was in high school) has a page with like 30 f-words.