On this fine Christmas Eve, I thought I would keep things in the holiday spirit and talk about something totally relevant to the season--swearing.*
Over on Mysterious Matters, Mysterious has a post about sex and swearing in the manuscripts he's been seeing. As I mentioned before, sex and swearing are hot button issues in YA because the readers of YA are under the supervision (at least theoretically) of adults. Some of those adults are strict, and some of them are my mother, and some of them are fine in theory with books that have a little bit of swearing in them, but get freaked out when the characters engage in sexual activities that are (statistically) typical for people the same age as the characters in question.
Here's the problem: I was (am! totally am) a young adult. I have spent time with young adults. And many of the people I know are teachers of high school and junior high students. And in all those cases, the anecdotal evidence suggests that young adult are quite a lot more vulgar and sexually active than their parents would like to know. If you could spend an afternoon in the hallway of a typical suburban high school, you would hear all manner of cursing and vulgar language.** Seriously, high school kids away from their parents like to try out this kind of language and see how it sounds.*** So a book that accurately reflects life in high school would have more swearing in it than most parents would be comfortable with. It would also have more swearing in it than, frankly, would be good for the story, because most of the swearing in your typical high school doesn't mean anything.
That's the key, I think. If you're going to have a character swear (or do anything else that might be "controversial"), it needs to add something to the story. Sometimes, the swearing tells you about the socio-economic background of the characters. Sometimes it tells you about the level of emotion the character is experiencing. Sometimes, like in Nick and Norah, the (copious) swearing tells you what kind of kid you're dealing with (in that book, New York scene kids).
If you're writing for kids 12+, you can probably sneak a few curse words past the chaperones. Not a couple on each page, unless you want to limit yourself to a certain readership, but a couple a book don't seem to be much of a problem.
What you can't do, though, is sneak imitations by the readers. Because nothing is going to jerk a teenage reader out of a story like a character saying "oh FUDGE!" Unless your character is a Bible study group leader, "fudge" isn't going to cut it. You can get away with "crap" or "ass" or "dick" (what I like to think of as the Second String Swears****), but you can't bust a swear word down to the minor leagues without your readers noticing and rolling their eyes.
The alternative, of course, is no swear words at all. Many perfectly good YA stories can be told without the use of a single curse word. Crazy, right? None of these are stories I personally am likely to write, but it's entirely possible. Readers aren't likely to notice that there aren't swear words in a book (at least, I don't think so--I haven't seen teenagers leafing through books looking for swears in the aisles of Borders lately); they're only going to notice if the language doesn't seem genuine to the story. So if you're telling the story of a girl who works in the mall and finds her first boyfriend working at the cell phone kiosk next to the food court, you can probably write the whole thing without a single swear word. If you're telling the story of a club girl with a drug problem learning that her best friend has just committed suicide, you may need a couple of swear words in there. I'm just sayin'.
So, in short, swear words: use sparingly. You're welcome. :)
* I'm kidding. This is just something that I've been thinking about lately.
**Some of this language is quite creative. When I was doing a presentation in a high school here last year, I heard one kid call another kid a "dick drip," which was new to me. Dick drip. I like the alliteration.
***The ones who get really good at it become lawyers. Kidding! Seriously, though, no one swears as much in the normal course of business as lawyers. I think it's because most of our jobs are so unbelievable that we spend a lot of time looking at one another going "are you f###ing kidding me?"
****I really shouldn't print the First String Swears in a blog that might, hypothetically, be being read by kids (someday), but they're your usually suspects--the F word, the MF word, the C word, and the like. Send me an email if you really need to know them. :)