Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What the #$%!

I've got a book out on submission now. It's MG, technically, with a 12-year-old protagonist who's something of a rebel. Throughout the book, he does all kinds of bad stuff. He runs away, he breaks into businesses, he steals things, and he almost burns down a school (but in context, it doesn't seem that bad). And yet, there's one particular exchange I'm worried about. Here it is: 

Murph stalked down the sidewalk, heading back toward the train station. He knew a lot of bad words, and he used all of them to describe Hermit. He used his four-letter ones, his seven-letter one, and even uncorked a twelve-letter whopper that was the worst word he knew. 
"Murph! Murph!"
Cherry and Henry were chasing him down the sidewalk. He stopped to let them catch up.
"Hey," Henry said, panting. "Why'd you run away like that?"
"He's an asshole," Murph said. 
"Murph!" Cherry said. "Don't say that! That's a horrible thing to say!"

Before I sent the book out, a few readers suggested I remove the word "asshole." I almost did, but in the end, I just couldn't. It was absolutely true to the character and the moment. And I don't know how many 12-year-olds you hang out with, but these kids today ... I'm sorry, I mean these whippersnappers today are pretty advanced. When my 13-year-old kid is telling me about the movie Saw -- which he hasn't seen, but almost all of his friends have -- then obviously things have changed. 

They say YA is getting edgier, but I'm not sure if this is a chicken-and-egg argument. Maybe YA is getting edgier because the kids are getting edgier, and the books just reflect that.

Whatever. The fact is, I told myself I'm not striking that word until an acquiring editor tells me it has to go (one can hope, right?). And even then, I'll probably squawk weakly in protest. As far as Murph is concerned, Hermit is an asshole. Simple as that.

So what do you think? If you're writing for the younger motherfu$#@rs, when is it OK to swear? And when will it hurt the book's prospects?


Jude Hardin said...

What you have to remember with middle-grade, I think, is that your primary audience will probably consist of eight- and nine-year-olds, even though your protag is twelve.

My second novel was MG (it's tucked safely in a drawer now, where it belongs), and I remember substituting buttmunch (a word my son actually invented when he was eight or nine) for asshole in a couple of spots. You can use it if you want. :)

I think the main problem with using expletives in MG (and even YA, to some extent) is with parents and teachers and librarians (and therefore editors). The kids themselves have pretty much heard it all by fourth grade. That was true even when I was a kid in the 60s.

LurkerMonkey said...

That's pretty much my concern, too. It's not the kids. It's the editors and parents ... well, at this point, mostly the editors.

And yeah, I've heard a general rule is that kids never read down. So a 12-year-old MC will attract readers between 8 and 12, while a 16-year-old MC will attract readers aged 12-16. In general.

That's funny about butt munch. I actually remember using that word and its various conjugations. It's a noun! A verb! An adjective! That's the great thing about swear words -- they're just so darn versatile.

Mark Terry said...

I'm inclined to leave it in. If your book was strewn with profanity I'd suggest changing it, but with a single usage, I'd wait to see if an editor or your agent tells you to change it. (They might, you never know. I had one scene in a MG novel where the teacher turns into a demon and he vanquishes her with a magic sword and my agent said, "Cut it. Period. The demon's not the teacher." I didn't necessarily agree--Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson got attacked by teachers who were monsters and he took wiped them out--but I saw her point and moved the demon outside the school. It's a weird world). And either way, the book didn't sell--though it should have, IMHO.

LurkerMonkey said...

My agent had nothing to say about it ... I also figured this wouldn't be a deal-killer. No one will turn this book down because, at his angriest moment, Murph calls someone an asshole. No, they'll find much more creative reasons to turn it down.

By the way, I've heard that before about teachers. Editors can supposedly be touchy about making them bad.

All I can say, those editors never met Mrs. Oerkfitz.