Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bleep: Swearing in YA

I wouldn't be a writer if I believed words were just words. I believe words have power, that they can affect hearts and minds. That words can change reality and create new worlds.

It should come as no surprise that I have many thoughts on the subject of swearing, especially in books intended for teens. Language continues to be one of the reasons books are banned or challenged by parent groups. We rate movies and slap stickers on CDs to warn about the use of certain words that we feel are inappropriate for children. Swearing is offensive. It's supposed to be.

Bria, the protagonist in THE ART OF FALLING, is 17. As I wrote her, as I dove into her head and examined how she would think and feel and react, I had in mind a 15-year-old reader. I wrote this story for that 15-year-old. And I don't believe there is a 15-year-old left in America who doesn't know a few swear words. Does that mean I threw them around without thought? No. I carefully considered every single word in this story - the mundane and the profane. Every word choice was made for a very specific reason. 

In real life, I don't swear. I never picked up the habit. I like to surround myself with beauty and find curse words and their meaning ugly. There are times of extreme distress or pain when I pull them out (like during labor with my second kid), but it's rare. When I swear, it makes the people around me pay attention. They work wonders as pain relief (It's scientific. Look up the Mythbusters episode on it!) and they have shock value.

In my writing, it's a different story. For one thing, my characters aren't me. If I wrote every character with my moral compass instead of their own, it would get old fast. It would create a barrier between my stories and my readers - a barrier I don't want. More importantly, when I do use swearing in my writing, it's for a purpose. It is meant to elicit a reaction from the reader. 

When writing for teens, my characters deal with things that are beyond their emotional and mental maturity. They're faced with situations that they are ill-equiped to handle. That's not a criticism because the fact is that they do handle their circumstances and learn and grow through them. However, they don't always have the ability to process like an adult would and sometimes shit or fuck is the best way to express something too big or too hard or too much to deal with. 

There are exactly two instances of the f-word in FALLING and I agonized over both. I could have replaced them with lesser swear words. I could have used effing. But even through my last round of edits, I couldn't change either one. It's a harsh sounding word with a harsh meaning, but in those two moments, I honestly believe it was the best way to express the complexity of what my characters were feeling. Given the infrequency of swearing in this story, that word is a signal to the reader to pay attention - something monumental is happening. 

I've said before that I feel no desire to write inspirational fiction, despite the way my faith shapes my life. Part of that is because it feels restrictive. I do want to write stories parents will feel comfortable giving to their children, but not to the point of censoring the story. I don't write explicit sex. I don't glorify violence. I think very carefully about the language I use. But to leave all reference to sex, violence or swearing out of books for teens does them a disservice. That is their reality. 

My point is this: we can either sanitize the world and create an environment that makes it even harder for kids to express their experiences or we can acknowledge the realities of a broken world. I expect some response from readers about the language. When one of my favorite bands (The Classic Crime) used the phrase hurts like hell in a song, some of their more sensitive listeners felt betrayed. The band responded by saying that if hell does indeed exist, it would certainly hurt. When my future readers question why I chose to include swearing in my book, my answer is this: because it was the best way to tell the story I wanted to tell - a story I hope will mean something to that 15-year-old reader struggling to figure out who she is and what she wants and how to deal with a life that expects more from her than she can handle. It's as simple as that.

How do you feel about swearing in books for teens? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Other Children

Do you see Ben & Bria? Maybe? No? Oh well.

I do this weird thing when I'm in crowds. It's worst with crowds of teenagers. I look for people I know. But not real people. Fictional people. My fictional characters.

Yeah. It's weird.

When you write about the same characters for 500 or 50,000 or 150,000 words, they get into your head. In a really deep way. I know things about my characters - about their needs and desires and why they don't eat orange Skittles - things I don't even know about my husband after more than a decade together. Somewhere along the way, my characters become real. 
THE ART OF FALLING takes place in Southern California, where I live. When I find myself in places my characters inhabit, I can't help but scan the crowd, searching for a flash of purple hair or an OHS Athletics hoodie. I expect to see them. I want to see them. 
Being a storyteller is a special kind of madness. I know I've tuned out my real live children to listen to the voices in my head. That's crazy. I've chosen to stay home and write instead of spending time with actual human beings. I've spent days researching hobbies and health conditions and food to make sure I get the details of these lives right. 

And I regret nothing. 
I get to make these characters come alive! I get to watch them take root in my readers' heads and become more than words. Nothing gives me a greater thrill than when someone else talks about one of my characters. Because that's when I know I've done it. 
I've made a character live. 

Do you expect to bump into your characters or maybe the characters in a beloved book? Any words of wisdom for my poor children who have to share me with my imaginary friends?