Walk through a busy high school and you'll know what I mean. My characters want to use words in conversation that I would never use in mixed company. Sometimes I use them when I’m alone and stuck behind a particularly tedious driver, or think them when I’m losing a close tennis match, but I avoid uttering them when other sensitive ears are around. My characters—golly gee wizz—some of them have mouths that would make my mother reach for the everloving soap.
It’s not like I can intentionally avoid situations where my characters drop F-bombs. I mean, they do it in times of stress, anger, happiness, sorrow. They swear when a friend sends a funny text, or when there’s nothing on TV, or when they don’t like the punchless punch at the prom. Essentially, as long as they have a pulse, they want to swear. So I see my role, as a writer trying to keep my manuscript true-to-life, yet clean enough for middle school and high school libraries, is to use what I call Profanitory Discretion. As in I’m the language referee and sometimes I just have to whip out a red card and say, “TIME FREAKING OUT!”
I know there are some wildly successful YA books out there that avoid profanity. I know that in many writing circles it is considered lazy to salt the manuscript with salty language. Sure, there are ways to keep it clean and not-so-clean at the same time. In my YA novel, POD—I had to do just that when my editor, after reading drafts one and two, said, “Steve, you need to clean up the language for the schools.” When I asked how clean is clean, he effectively said: “I marked all the words that need to go. It’s your call which ones absolutely have to stay.” The operative being absolutely. So I went through the manuscript, agonized over each highlighted syllable, and shed a tear with my disgruntled characters every time I made them speak or think a less redactable word.
Here’s an example. In my YA novel, POD, aliens have taken over the outside world so the characters are trapped inside. They’re running out of food and every crumb is more precious than gold. My twelve-year-old protagonist, Megs, figures out a way to steal a coveted hoard of tomatoes from my cruel, evil-to-the-core antagonist, Richie. When he discovers that his tomato stash has been eaten, he roars: “And she ate my (F-bomb) tomatoes!” Megs was hiding in an HVAC duct and heard his fury. When she grinned with satisfaction, I grinned with her. But was the F-bomb absolutely necessary? No, I decided. So I inserted damn, a word that ranks 2.2 on the 1-5 Profanitory Discretion scale. Sadly, when Richie used this less-offensive word, he sounded more like he stubbed his toe than a malicious thug that just lost a coveted treasure. And when Megs heard him, she looked more puzzled than pleased with the result. When she smiled it felt contrived, and I didn’t smile at all.
I recently attended the movie We’re the Millers with my wife. We endured an unending barrage of profanity—literally every third word in every sentence, as in “You are (effing) crazy!” “No, you’re (effing) crazy!” You get the idea. Teens were the most widely represented demographic in the theater. They laughed, we squirmed. It was a blatant abuse of Profanitory Discretion. I will never limbo down to that level. But I remain convinced, beyond all reasonable doubt, that using a well-placed, carefully considered, profanity—is more than justified. Not all my characters swear. In fact, most of them find better ways to express their emotions. But if one asks nicely and states that to do otherwise would not be true to his or her voice, I'll reply: abso-freaking-lutely.