Saturday, 25 February 2012

Swearing in YA fiction

Does strong language have an impact on the commercial success of a book?
There is a big difference between dialogue and transcribed speech. When people talk, in the right environment, every other word can be expletive and no one cares. Usually, this is because the swearing in speech is often used as a wild-card adjective to save having to think of anything more suitable. With teens, there is the added whammy that bad language can define independence. It becomes such a prominent part of their language that some kids can speak in nothing other than swear words and still get their point across.
In a book, that would be awkward to read and ultimately dull. Some writers of adult fiction suffer from this; their novels are so peppered with profanity that you end up having to skim through repetitive crap to get to the story. That bugs the hell out of me and usually puts me off.
So when is it appropriate?
A carefully placed f-bomb can have real impact in certain situations. Rather than just anger, attitude or strength, they can define a specific turning point for a character, their failure, or sudden confidence. There are only a few instances in Clash, and I battled with each one, deciding whether they were justified. If not, they went.
The alternative use of bad language is to show realism - because in the real world, villains tend to swear. The problem with this is that if you have villains in several scenes, you need to be consistent in their language. The single f-bomb no longer works, because that first instance wasn't a revelation; it wasn't a surprise. So if your baddy swears in chapter two, you need to follow through wherever else they appear. If you do that, the f-count rockets up and you end up wondering if this is going to cause a problem. Book sellers can refuse to stock it if they don't consider it suitable for teens, as can libraries and schools, parents...
But can you have a strong, violent thriller without bad language?
Two writers come immediately to mind. Suzanne Collins and Lee Child.
Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games, a book that’s chock-a-block with childhood violence and murder, but has no bad language. Is that because it’s a children’s novel? Maybe, but it doesn’t stop it selling to adults. The three books in the trilogy top the ebook charts as well as paperback sales. Does a lack of bad language hamper the story? Well... in places I can’t help thinking Katniss would react a bit more strongly.
But Lee Child is something else. Lee Child writes commercial thrillers for adults. His books are violent, include murder, imprisonment, brutality, violence, rape and paedophilia with a main character who is strong, moody, and at times explosive. But no bad language. Nothing. I actually reached the end of the first novel (actually, I read #11 first) before realising. So in that case, it worked perfectly well.
But why? Do these authors feel like I do, that too much bad language is repetitive and boring, or that too little makes it obvious that it has been toned down? Or is it a commercial strategy? It might not make a difference with adult thrillers, but I can't help wondering if the Hunger Games was splattered with swear words, would it still be the massive success it is?
I don’t know. All I do know is that Arabesque goes to proof in a couple of weeks... and I need to decide if the strong language I've got so far is essential to plot, or a bullet in the foot.
What do you think? Should YA novels have strong language, or can you maintain the illusion without?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

BOOOOOM!!!

I feel like my head's exploded. I've just completed a mega turbo ninja edit of ARABESQUE.

I posted a blog at the start of this edit when I first went over the document. It can be difficult for a writer to see all those red lines and comments, but ultimately, it's the sign of a good editor. Of course, the other sign is the editor who insists that all those marks are suggestions, and not orders.

In the case of Arabesque, I think I agreed with about 95%. Copy edits are a doddle - you just decide whether the gramatical changes suit. The suggested changes are the tough ones, but the most satisfying - that's the fun stuff.

So there you go. Writing a novel takes a bit more work than just churning out the words. And just because you've been through the process once, doesn't make your writing flawless the next time round. You'll still need an editor, but the process of editing become easier. It's also good to look back on old attempts and see how far you've come. You realise that what you once thought was brilliant, is actually crap. But more importantly, you'll realise why!

Right... off to find something else to do.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Kyle's Drawing from CLASH

Okay, Kyle is fictional, so no, this isn't really his drawing, but it is the image that inspired a certain scene.



In Clash, Kyle is at a loss what to do when his mother is in the maternity ward and her baby (Kyle's brother) is in an incubator in Special Care. He ends up doing a drawing so his mother can have an image of her baby by her bed - all because the other mothers in the ward have their actual babies in cots by their beds.

This scene was taken from real life.

When my wife had our first boy, he was in an incubator in the Special Care Baby Unit, and she was up in a ward where other mothers had their babies in cots - a bit cruel, but there you go. A decent ward might have put her in a side room.

For some reason I thought you weren't allowed to use cameras in the special care unit (there were some very premature babies in there under special lighting). So I nipped home, grabbed a drawing pad, pencils and set to work. I went back up to the ward and pinned the picture to the wall.

However, there is a spooky side to this story. When we lived in Washington, loads of strange things happened when Matthew came home. His mobile would spin on its own, the cat would go nuts for no reason... there were other weird things too, but the strangest was the morning when this drawing (in its frame) fell off the wall for no reason. This happened at 6am while we were still in bed. The bang woke us up, and I came downstairs to find the frame behind the TV. Rather than refix it there and then, I put in on the bookcase and went back to bed...

...That evening, we had a flood and every picture that was still hanging in our front room was ruined as water streamed down the walls.

Whoooooooooooo.