A Word by Any Other Name

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My mom never understood the time I spent with books. When I was a kid, she would actually lock me out of the house with the command to “Get some sun.”  Ha!  Little did she know. I sneaked books outside with me and sat in the shade of our backyard birch tree to continue my journey away from reality.

I was no less avid a reader as a teen, but definitely a whole lot more picky.  The books targeted to my age group covered serious and realistic concerns: drug use, mental illness, running away, teen pregnancy, etc.  But why, I wondered, didn’t any of the characters in these books ever swear? My peers—especially those of the male persuasion—certainly knew how to let the curse words fly (when the parental units weren’t around, anyway).  So why did these people have such clean mouths?

That, of course, was in my naïve youth.  And trust me, I was more naïve than most teens, even back in the ‘70s.  Remember, I was painfully shy and spent most of my time with books rather than people.  So I had this idealistic notion that people in Young Adult books should talk the way kids in life do.

When I wrote my first novel-length story at age 15, I gave my characters realistic dialogue.  No “f” or “s” word was spared when I figured a real peer would be using it.  Not that my characters had potty mouths. I didn’t put in any gratuitous cursing, either.  I just wanted to produce something that I wished had been available to me as a reader:  characters my own age speaking real dialogue.

Once finished with the novel, I blithely showed my creation to my English/Creative Writing teacher.  She did not like the swearing at all.  However, she did say that I write dialogue well because I really listen to people talk.  For a very young writer, the latter was encouraging while the former was just adult silliness.

I did eventually get it.  Parents don’t necessarily want their teens to be exposed to (ahem) “realistic dialogue” in their reading material regardless of what they may be hearing around them every day in real life.  I’ve chosen not to have kids, so I don’t have my own parental viewpoint on the matter.  All I do know is that my late mom never censored anything I read as I was growing up.  Whether that’s because she was a liberal thinker or because she was just relieved that I was reading instead of going out and getting into trouble, I have no idea.

This is my first blog post, so I’m not sure how many are reading this.  For those who are, I’d love to know if any other avid readers and/or fellow writers have ever felt the same way.

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8 thoughts on “A Word by Any Other Name

  1. I’m an avid reader who spent more time with books than with people also. When I was a teen, there were few, if any, YA books, so I went directly from Nancy Drew to books written for adults. I look forward to reading your blog.

  2. I’ve had a similar struggle writing dialogue for plays. I have a VERY hard time banishing swearing since it simply the way people talk. When there are calls to submit scripts and language must be clean, I have very little from my collection that I can submit. I’ve tried going through and making G-rated versions of existing plays, but it doesn’t feel right.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Stan. Right now I’m going through a YA novel manuscript and cleaning up the language before I submit it to the ABNA contest. I have a feeling that the realistic dialogue is a part of what kept the novel from making it further than the first round in last year’s contest. But I’m spending a lot of time hesitating and wondering, “Can I get away with leaving this one in?” Because a teenage boy getting angry as a longtime friendship crumbles is going to have a lot more to say than “Darn you.” Cleaning it up just doesn’t feel right.

  3. This is a great first post. Yes, swearing in dialogue can be an awkward issue, especially in a genre for younger readers.
    But the majority of people swear, even in normal conversation so it’s not something you can ignore or avoid, but again, just how much depends on what the subject matter is and who you”re writing for.

    • Thanks for the good words! I spent a long time being idealistic enough to vow realistic dialogue in my YA work. However, I’ve begun to resign myself to the fact that I won’t be able to accomplish that, especially if I want to see my work published in the traditional way. I’ve chosen to write in the two genres that shy away from swearing: YA and cozy mystery. Still, there are exceptions!

    • Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’ve got to say that was one of the most fun stories I’ve ever written, and probably the one that came to me the most easily, since Wrigley Field is my favorite place in the world!

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