Thursday, March 3, 2011

On cussing, eating Ivory soap, and the limits of the F Word in YA

So, in case you've missed it because you're not following me on Twitter (@JennSommersby) or on Facebook (Jenn Sy and/or Jennifer Sommersby), the review for a cracktastic book is up at Best Damn Creative Writing Blog:

Okay, I'll stop now. I just get very excited about this stuff. Like a puppy who piddles on the carpet. But I did talk to Blake Crouch via email, and he's a damn fine human. You should read this book, unless you're squeamish, or have a problem with swearing. It is what it is, but you're sort of a wussy if you can't handle a few "F" bombs now and again. Come on--the story is filled with really bad people trying to brutally eliminate you. You'd cuss, too. I'd wager on it, if I had the first clue how gambling works. But I don't. In fact, in our house, when the lottery tickets are purchased, I'm not allowed to touch them. I might jinx 'em. (Did you know that in Canada, if you win a big fat lottery, you get to keep ALL the money? The Queen doesn't take her cut, not like Uncle Sam. You're jealous now, aren't you? I knew it. But I can't play the lottery because I jinx the tickets. Someone else has to touch them and hang them on the fridge. Ask my friend Lauren about the time we bought LottoMax tickets, and I wouldn't take the ticket from the clerk. Crazy white lady...)

SPEAKING of cuss words (do people really call them "cuss" words? Am I regressing into childhood vernacular?) ... I've got a problem. I mean, I think it's a problem. I sort of cuss like a sailor. I'm pretty good at turning on the filters, i.e., no swearing in front of small children (unless they're my own, and then that rule sort of gets thrown into the garbage disposal 'cuz they're my kids and they often do things that bring swear words to the front of my mouth before I even realize it). When I'm doing the photography stuff, I'm usually pretty aware of not swearing in front of strangers and their offspring. Popping off a resounding "Shit!" when I knocked the camera over last weekend was a slip-up, but it was well deserved. (Knocking over the camera snapped the Pocket Wizard right off the flash plate, and voila! $250 down the tubes. Shit!) I don't cuss at the elementary school, unless we're in the drive-through at the front, and THAT place is a profanity marketplace all by itself. Some people are so incredibly dense and selfish when it comes to dropping off their Pretty Pretty Princesses. "She can WALK, lady! It's only some effing RAIN!"

A little history: As a wee lassie, I played soccer. Eight years worth, thank you very much. (I still sucked after eight years of trying. When puberty was slow to come, I was getting my ass kicked on the field by much bigger girls with fatter thighs and bigger biceps, so I quit. Yeah, I'm a quitter. But I was 4'11" and 100 lb. at 14--didn't wear a bra until high school--so cut me some slack.) The year I was eight, my team was the Terminators (long before the former governor of California took hold of the name and made it his). And this one ref we had on a regular basis, a total cow as I remember, was super lame. Called all the wrong stuff, never penalized the other team for being stupid, everything we think about refs when our team is getting killed on the pitch/field/ice. One game in particular, she blew her stupid little whistle one too many times, and I called her out by dispensing with the F Word. Loudly. It sorta just slipped. In return, she handed me a red card and sent my wee arse to the bench for the remainder of the game.

Worst part of it? My mom was the coach. I ate Ivory soap that day. But it didn't stop me from cussing. There was an incident in 6th grade with my then-friend Ester, but that's a different post entirely.

The POINT, and I am trying to make one: How much is TOO much when it comes to your writing? As I was writing Sleight, I kept in mind my audience: teenage girls, ages 15+, enough angst to keep the pubertals interested but enough drama to (I hope) attract older readers. My girl Gemma is 17, so she's right on the cusp of being a grown-up. The four teen beta readers I "employed" were fine with the language, but another beta reader, an adult, had an issue with the occasional colorful language spewed by my characters. This reader went in and changed my "damns" and "what the hells" to "darn" and "what the heck" -- you get the idea -- and I promptly changed them all back on the third rewrite. There is one use of the F Word, but it's necessary. REALLY necessary. I tried on different word combinations, but they just didn't have the same oomph. And in that scene, nothing short of oomph will suffice.

I've spent a lot of time worrying about this swearing conundrum in the YA realm, and then I picked up a copy of Hannah Moskowitz's Break. It's an amazing book, and the F Word plays prominently in the story, but not gratuitously so. If you're hypersensitive to profanity, this might not be the book for you. But Hannah is a sublimely talented writer, and if anyone can make it work within this context, it's her. After finishing Break, I went back into my manuscript and replaced those words I felt had been wrongly sanitized. I was inspired by Hannah's bravery, and felt that a little naughty language peppered here and there was worth its weight. It needs to be there. Come on, people -- they're words. And I'd be a liar if I didn't fess up to the fact that fu*k is one of my all-time favorites. What other word can say so much with so little?

I throw it to you, now. How much is too much?

Next post: On handling criticism, my strategy for doing so as I head into indie publishing (will involve Irish whiskey and chocolate, no doubt), and how Dr. Foran destroyed me when, after years of teachers/professors telling me I could write, he said that my work sucked rocks. I was 25. That day still haunts me...


  1. I agree with your points on language in YA. I have to laugh when I see the ones that do have the "darns" and "hecks" coming out of the characters' mouths. The only time I've ever heard a teenager say that (or said it myself when I was a teen) was around parents or grandparents. It sounded awkward and you could tell they were making a conscious decision to use the "safer" words. Away from language-police adults, those same kids (myself included) swore like construction workers. Given everything that's on television and in the movies, it's unrealistic to expect teens to have "clean" language and not reflecting current dialogue trends in your writing makes the book seem a little out of touch.

    What I took far too many words to say is... f*ck the naysayers! Damn that adult beta reader, she doesn't know what the hell she's talking about. :)

  2. Great post, Jen. I've been wondering the same. My first novel was "clean" as they say and it worked okay like that, but this one, I've thrown in a hell or shit here and there, and I have to say, it's been invigorating (at least until my mother reads it, anyway) and it's fun feeling naughty about it, too. I get what you mean about the f-bomb but it would have to be necessary to the scene and I havent gotten there yet. Otherwise, I think a little is okay, right? I've read plenty YA with hell and dammit in them, so why the hell not?

  3. If my mom, or anyone else who knows me, were to read something I'd written that was lacking in at least one bad word, they'd take my temperature and send me for a check-up.

    Kara: Dammit, you're right! :o)

  4. Jenn,

    I just stumbled across your blog, and I'm in love with it.

    A few months ago I came up against the problem of swears in YA in my writing group. I brought in a short YA story with a few "F" bombs in it, and an older member of the group immediately called me out on it and said I had to consider my audience. Luckily, the moderator of the group was a librarian for the YA section and said swearing is becoming more commonplace in these books...not to mention more mature subject matter.

    Maybe it's because I swear like a sailor, but I think people need to lighten up. The way I see it, a teen will lose interest in a book if they think it isn't true to life. And "heck" and "darn" just aren't reality.

    - Ashley

  5. Hi, Ashley! Thanks for the comment and the visit. Love your user name -- Life With Coffee Spoons. Sounds like we might be sisters from another mister.

    I gotta say, the first time I read Twilight (my daughter made me do it), I about choked when I read the words "holy crow." As my mother used to tell me when I was a kid and didn't like what someone said to me, I had to consider the source. And consider I did. I think it's a safe argument to put forth that Stephenie M. is a bit of a cream puff when it comes to bad words. It's not like I *know* her, but I'm just guessing... Bummer for her. She's missing out the real thrill that comes from peppering a convo with a good ol'-fashioned "whatthefuck". Endlessly satisfying, like a Snickers bar dipped in coffee.