Tuesday, September 07, 2010

There are no bad words....I am almost sure.

I got two very thoughtful, very kind, messages this past week telling me that my Resurrection of Magic books are well written, absorbing, and very hard to put down, but that "foul language" was an issue for both readers. If you have read the books, skip the next section. If not, you might want to skim it.

There are two stories in the Resurrection of Magic books--and two protagonists. The narratives go back and forth every other chapter. The stories are set about 200 years apart and the first story causes the second one:

First story: Sadima is a damaged, gentle person trying to make sense of herself and a young man she loves—even though he is tangled up in the rage and ambition of a fanatic who is intent on re-discovering magic and changing the world at any cost.

Second Story: Hahp is trying to survive (200 years later) in the decaying and brutal academy that is eventually founded by Sadima’s companions. It is a strange and terrible place. Hahp, 11 years old at the story's beginning, often uses the word "crap" in the first book and uses f-word twice. In the second book, (just over 550 pages long ) he uses the F-word fifteen times--about once every thirty six pages--and the word "crap" only twice. He has outgrown it, I think, and/or it no longer provides the rage and terror release it once did.

Both stories are terrifying at points, emotionally realistic--a portrayal of uncontrolled ambition and fanaticism and the universally human inequity of power and magic. The two stories gradually weave together: in the third book the time difference narrows to synchronicity, almost 200 years having passed by the end of Sadima’s story and about 7 in Hahp’s.

Neither of the people who wrote me made a single comment about the ordeal of either character, even though both are nearly destroyed by what happens to them. The books are very dark. Both readers were bothered by specific words Hahp used. All the “language” issues are in Hahp’s story, I am almost certain. Sadima copes with her experiences in other ways.

One person said it was impossible to recommend the books because she would be embarrassed if friends found out she had read them. Reading the third book when it comes out would be impossible, too, she said, so she would have to "make up an ending" to the “amazing” story because of the “profanity”. She closed with "I won't read the next one for fear of the same bad language." If she had used any word but *fear* I probably wouldn’t be writing this.

The second writer said she couldn’t wait to read the third one and explained that it was a single word that bothered her most (for clarity, it starts with F, rhymes with truck, was said 15 times in a 550 page book, or about once every 36 pages.. She said she had read a lot of books for teens and that few if any used that word. (this is not my experience, but maybe I pick dark books) She wanted me to realize that a great tale can stand on its own without foul language.

I agree.
Unless it is what the character would say.

I try hard to stay out of the way and to accurately record what happens. I never give the use of language by any character ten seconds thought. As loopy as it will sound to people who don’t write books, I never restrict the language of my characters: I have no right to do so. And I need to admit that if Hahp had even once said "Gosh, this is terrible," I would have canned him as a shallow and souless protagonist unworthy of the book and its readers and I would have held another casting call.

So here is my very respectful response to two people who could not have been more respectful to me in bringing up an issue that genuinely disturbs them both:

My own opinion is that words are words. There aren't good or bad ones. All exist because they were useful to human speakers for one reason or another. Some carry huge emotional freight…sometimes. Others don't. Many words, spoken or shouted with anger and/or hatred, can hurt. They can also sometimes ease the heart of the shouter, prop up courage, or announce a line drawn, hope abandoned, hope reclaimed, and so much more. They can build a proud wall between a bruised heart and bottomless despair. The use of words to communicate with ourselves and others is not a simple issue and it is a deeply personal one.

Interestingly, Hahp is using much less strong language in book #3—at least so far. He is older now, almost 16, and has seen more inhumanity that I ever will. He doesn't seem to need to prove/announce/prop-up his courage like he did a couple years ago. Yet anyway. He has nearly drowned in random and deliberate cruelty and confusion, and he has found a way forward in spite of it. He is a decent, fair person in a sea of brutality and has faced decisions that would torture anyone of any age.

I admire him.
I don’t care what words he uses to describe his story.
I just want him to survive.


Mike Jung said...


Kendra said...

And I say amem.

As an avid reader of YA, and a writer of it as well, I think realism is the most important trait you main character possesses. In shocking circumstances, would you really have a main character say "Oh, darn?" In middle grade, perhaps. But in the Resurrection books, both of which I've read, the language didn't bother me in the least. It was real and made sense in that particular scene.

As my MC has aged, so has his, um, "vocabulary"--sorry, young men swear. They do. Young adult readers don't have the same aversion to profanity adult readers do -- it's part of their everyday lexicon. Taking offense with a few, well-placed, swear words is like saying you didn't like a meal because the napkin was folded wrong.

Larissa said...

Well said, as usual. Thank you, K! :)

Krista D. Ball said...

I met a writer once who said he won't use swear words. So, he made sure that he only wrote characters that would never swear. Not for me, but at least he found his niche.

My family is against sex and language (but I can cut people into pieces...that's OK as long as they don't swear while doing it). I just now tell them to assume that they are going to be offended by what I've written.

And that's just it. Folks were offended when I wrote a character bisexual (I even got it mentioned on review sites...ouch!). The only thing I've written where no one swears and I still got hate mail.

So, I give up :p

Giles Hash said...

"Bad" language is a touchy subject for many people. Personally, I don't have a problem with authors who use it. I've read many books where the authors get around swearing in creative ways, and it's brilliant and entertaining, and it doesn't, in any way, detract from the story. I don't think swearing would improve the story in any way, either.

For me, personally, I make the choice not to swear in my writing simply because, in all aspects of my life, I want to try to be a good influence. Swearing doesn't necessarily make someone a bad influence, but if a young person is going to learn "less-than-wholesome" language, it won't be from me.

In all, though, by letting your characters swear, you are being an honest author, and I applaud that! :D

gbeaverson said...

The word that starts with f and sounds like truck is, in the vocab of the Simpsons' writers, a perfectly cromulent word. It's a good Anglo-Saxon word that is, as exhibited by the notes you got, very powerful. And it makes perfect sense that Hahp would use that word as he's almost powerless at first and gains power as the books progress. Isn't that why a lot of kids swear at that age? Swears are words of power, and young adults are in the process of discovering their power and learning to wield it. Thanks, Kathleen, for a very thoughtful post.

Kiki Hamilton said...

by not using certain words in our writing, do we pretend that they're not being used by our teenagers?

words are only a string of letters - it's up to each of us what value we attribute to them.

I say stay true to your characters.

Peni R. Griffin said...

I went to school with one girl who, when we read Catcher in the Rye in high school, characterized it as "nothing but dirty words." You can't please everyone. You can't reach everyone. You will always run into people who assume that their needs are the only ones that need to be met.

That's life.

Because I knew that girl I tend to avoid overt swearing, preferring to say "This character swore" or something of that sort. But if you need the direct quote, you need it, and that's life, too.

Because in our culture it is so easy to get a book challenged and even removed from schools on the basis of a "bad word" it behooves authors to consider carefully before using certain combinations of letters. I think we've all seen challenges for "foul language" when the obvious, true motivation was suppressing something like the admission that homosexuality, birth control other than abstinence, or imperfection in parents exists. If somebody's going to censor me, I want them to have to come right out with the real reason.

But all any of us can do is the best we can do, and none of us can afford to take one or two reactions - positive or negative - too seriously.

JChevais said...

I think the only time I was surprised by a word in YA lit was in Curious Incident of a Dog... where the word was the C word. Rhymes with hunt. Other than that, I don't care what the word is, as long as I'm convinced.

Rhia Raye said...

I completely agree with everything you've said here, Kathleen!

And might I add, in my opinion, the only 'bad' words in literature are the ones that don't get the story across.

Dakota said...

The only "bad" words that will throw me out of a story, or jar me so badly that I might put down a book (and have, once) are slurs. I read a Charles de Lint book a long while back - I don't remember which one but it was one of his horror stories, which was initially published under a penname - and the racial, sexist and homophobic slurs were too much for me to handle for that story. They were true to the characters. There was probably even some kind of message about how disgusting their repeated use is... but I couldn't get that far.

I hear and deal with those sorts of things frequently enough, and I read fiction to escape it. If I stumble across that sort of thing in a story, it's a turn-off for me, and if it's as severe as it was in that particular novel, I'll move on to something else.

But come on, I've got the mouth of a drunken sailor with Tourettes, and the word that rhymes with truck? Is probably one of my favorite words in the English language.

There's just no pleasing some of us. :D

Anonymous said...


rilla jaggia said...

Censorship by any other name....

You know I love your Resurrection of Magic series and I don't even remember that any character uses swear words. Which means, in my humble opinion, that they don't stand out as being conspicuous or out of context. I'm willing to bet that most people put in Hahp's situation would have a good many colorful things to say.

We don't protect children by hiding things from them. We protect them by showing them what's out there and giving them the resources to deal with life in the best way they can.

Just keep writing, Kathleen...there is a host of us waiting with bated breath for Book no. 3...and we're going blue in the face :0

MollyMom103 said...

I'm really worried about Sadima and Hahp. Someone better take down Somas or I'm going to jump in your book and do it myself.

Maripat said...


And the only time I was bothered by a word is when a teenager out of the blue says a ten word that he or she would never have said before. Shrug. I have been accused that I think too much about characters.

Angela Cerrito said...

I love how these two letters really made you think and how you noticed the change in H's character.

I agree that at times the "best word" is one that some people will dislike.

So true, there are no "bad" words!

kathleen duey said...

Thanks to everyone who responded!! You all said wonderful, true things and I really appreciate it!

Thanks also to the two people who wrote me the thought provoking letters, I am grateful for your honesty and respect.

Erin said...

thank you for this post.

Annie said...

Very well said. And I think YA readers appreciate that their worlds are being represented accurately, both positively and negatively.

I remember reading Catcher in the Rye in 10th grade. Our English teacher had us write an essay about the use of the f word in the novel (in particular, when Holden sees it written three times), and how it relates to his world view. Swearing in a novel doesn't just have to be used for shock value. Sometimes it's a connection to the emotional undercurrent of a character/situation.

Leelu said...

I wonder what it says about me that my first thought on reading this post was, "There's cussing in there?" I can maybe see people objecting to the insidious nature of evil, outright torture, just-shy-of-explicit child molestation, or murder, but "bad" words? I am baffled.

Then again, I really don't understand why people read cozies, or why Stephenie Meyer is considered a romance author, so what do I know?

Lexa said...

Wonderfully put, and agreed upon 100%.

I'm 17 now, and I read both of the Resurrection of Magic books when I was 15. I had no problems with the profanity then. And I appreciated the effect it lent to the stories, because in using those words Hahp is given a form of release to his insurmountable troubles. It helped emphasize the severity and utter lack of hope in his situation, and carried through that feeling to me, the reader, so that I could invest into his story and his plight. Honestly, I applaud you for not being afraid to use profanity in your books. If anything, I might even go so far as to ask you very politely to keep doing so. This is my own personal opinion, but I think that it's naive to nitpick and take offense at profanity in books. It's not as if books are the only source of such words; just take a look around yourself, at REAL LIFE. It's everywhere. And using profanity in books is acknowledging that such words exist and are used in every day life. It does no good to shield us from this stuff. As an ordinary young adult to whom your books are basically being marketed to, I couldn't possibly take offense with the profanity, because it fleshes out the story in its own way and is by no means the only place where the "f" word could be found. Sorry if this doesn't make much sense. I think I'm just kind of mad that there are people who would refuse to buy a wonderful book based on a fear of profanity, something that is basically OMNIPRESENT in society. Might as well become a hermit.

I think I got a little too carried away and off-topic... but maybe those two people are younger than the intended age range, and therefore take offense to profanity?

kathleen duey said...

Thank you ALL so much for joining in this discussion. Heartfelt thanks to the two people who made me think about my characters' use of strong language. It makes me REALLY happy that a lot of you never noticed the language in a way that interrupted the story for you. That is my intent, always--to make the story feel real, close, sensory, immediate.

guenhwyvar132 aka Jenn said...

I know this is a bit late, but I believe if you do not notice strong language than it is meant to be where it is in the book. I have read books where the author just randomly sticks swear words multiple times on a page for no reason to the point it detracted from the story. However, as many have already said in this discussion your characters say these words in appropriate places. Until i read this post I didn't even realize how many times Hahp used strong language which means it was so natural it belonged. I look forward to reading your next book with or without strong language because I trust that you as an author know your characters well enough to know when it is appropriate and when it is not Thanks you for that.

kathleen duey said...

Thank you Jenn for adding this...Natural, seamless dialogue is exactly what I hope to write.

I didn't know what kind of response this post would get and I am so....encouraged. You have all encouraged me...which means, literally, to "put courage into" someone. SO deep, true, thanks to everyone who took time to respond.

Kaethe said...

My feelings about language were best expressed in Inherit the Wind "I don't swear just for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We've got to use all the words we've got. Besides, there are damn few words everybody understands."

I just don't get the concerns of people who single out particular words as taboo, and I really don't get the concerns of people who would bother to count how many times a certain word appears in the text, in order to complain more fully.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

I agree there are no bad words in fiction writing, only words that render the character believable. I do get tired, though, of novels where "the word that rhymes with truck" seems almost obligatory instead of an aspect of character. And, as in any aspect of dialogue, redundancy can turn a reader off. Just as we don't include every "er", "uh", and "well", a character might say in real life, the "truck" word doesn't have to be repeated every time that character opens his/her mouth. "Less" really is "more".

Angie said...

I fully agree less is more and when used sparingly harsh words can have a shock value that adds to a scene, the desperation felt by a character, the surge of blinding anger, but when used so very consistently it takes away from the characters and distracts from the focus of the story, I cared about Happ so much more in book one. I felt his pain and terror and hope, he was more than just some trash talking teen. If you only read Happ’s story you would come across some sort of profanity every 4-5 pages…sometimes less is more.

Mary said...

Like most of the people who left comments I didn't really notice a lot of swearing (and looking back I can't really blame him!), but I can't help but think those two girls might be the wrong age for this series. I mean considering the setting and situation, Haph "swearing" isn't exactly surprising. In fact, I wouldn't love these books if his language was restricted. The first time I read them (and the multiple times I reread them) I've always loved how real the characters feel and how natural the dialogue is. It really feels like I'm reading journals that you were kind enough to combine into a series of books. I guess what I'm trying to say is it isn't your fault that he swears sometimes, that is simply his character, and I hope those girls read this post and give Hahp another chance.

kathleen duey said...

Mary, first, thanks so much for your kind words about the books. It means SO much to me that you have reread them and that you can hear the people talking, as they would talk.
Second: One of the people who wrote about the language saw this and re-contacted me and we talked about it, at length. In order to pass the books on to other she knows will like them she is using a pen to blot out the words she can't abide. It will take her a long time to go through every page of both books. As we talked, I liked her more and more and when she explained her solution, I could only feel honored that the core of the story caught her heart enough to DO that.

Joey and Christine said...

I never noticed language and I usually do in YA books. Here here about non censorship.

but the real reason I came here.. please... sob... please don't make me wait any longer to find out what happens! How much longer???

kathleen duey said...

I am writing it now, full time, after write four books (The Faeries Promise)for young readers. I think/hope it will be amazing. I don't have a pub date yet, I am still writing it. Sorry for the wait. There will be prizes for the ones who make me smile like you just did. They always give me some arcs... Remind me to get your address when you hear me screaming that I have finished....

megan said...

I honestly didn't even process the cursing as cursing. I finished the second book this past weekend, and so it's fresh enough in my brain that I know which passages are under scrutiny.

Seriously, though, I work with 14-year-old boys. All the time. Teens swear. Teens swear for emphasis, for shock. Hahp needed that in those places. It was far from gratuitous. Mostly, teens will apologize if you catch them swearing, because they have this sense that it's forbidden. Which automatically makes it cool, language prudes, so get off it already.

What really gets me is that apparently, to one person, that word makes the book unrecommendable!? What the hell? That's the most absurdly prudish thing I've ever heard. I can see the darkness of the series being something to temper your recommendations, but even then, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to any of my more sophisticated readers.

Ultimately, this is a language problem (duh), which I have been observing is getting worse and worse in schools. For example, who outlawed the word "crap?" The rhetoric that gets used in classrooms is so squeaky-clean it's a small miracle more teachers aren't tongue-tied (the effect is actually really funny. I can tell you, every teacher I know swears. You need to, after being so meticulous for so much of your day.)

Sure, there are words that should be shunned-- words that function only to hurt, words that fire shots below the belt, that isolate and injure. The F-word isn't in their league, though, ultimately. We're so pissed at this word that we don't realize it's one of the most brilliant words in the English language. What other word serves every grammatical function in the language, PLUS some functions for which there are no other examples in English language (I'm talking specifically about infixes here. Only that most hated word and its imitators can be stuck directly in the middle of a word [infuckingcredible] to change its meaning. That's a cool word.)

...also, your books bring me joy. Please write for adults, too (I think you're pretty close to it anyway with A Resurrection of Magic).

kathleen duey said...

Megan, thanks so much for writing, and thank you for working with kids. I agree about the extreme "sanitizing" of language. People who are forbidden/disallowed strong language are being asked to cap their feelings, soft pedal what they are really passionate about,scared of, or angry at. Words CAN hurt, they can also relieve, defend, make the listener understand how important something is or, used cleverly, make people double over laughing.

When I speak at schools, sometimes this comes up. I tell kids there are (or will be) people in their lives who won't hear any of the words that follow strong language. So they have a choice. They can either shock and offend those people, or communicate with them using language that they can hear. With the rest of us, say what you need to say, using whatever words carry the message best.

Thanks so much for writing, for your kind words about my books. I am thinking about writing for adults...

Pat Zietlow Miller said...

Hi: This is sort of related and sort of not. Your post reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend of my who's a high school English teacher. Whenever she hears kids using the word that rhymes with "trucking," she responds, "Choose another adjective." She said it works because it's low-key and because the teens have to stop and think, "What's an adjective?" If it was the word that rhymes with "truck," I'm sure she'd say "Choose another interjection."

kathleen duey said...

That seems like a reasonable and appropriate response for a teacher to make. It also gives me an idea for a short story....?!

Cynthia said...

I wish I could find you on FB. lol I eagerly await book three resurrection of magic.
8 of my children and I have listen to the stories while driving to town.
I was reading the language concern posts. And well, yes I noticed. It pops out as it so uncommon in the story. And it fits. Its right. Im sorry but honestly there is no way those words dont slip into use when people are going through such trial. "darn" is a curse... Ive tough my children the words are wrong and of poor taste yet they hear me slip. Like when Im very angry or drop something on my foot. Right? No. Forgivable? yes. Going to repeat its self? Yes. Try not to? of course. So I guess Im saying, Thank you! These books are incredible. So real. So in depth. Ill write another time on how in depth they really are. How entranced
we all are while listening....Very well done. I dare say a classic in the making.

kathleen duey said...

Cynthia, thank you so much for writing to me---and with such kind words. You can find me on FB! It's just my first and last name, no space between the letters. Thanks again! Say hello to everyone for me!!


Linda said...

This couldn't come at a better time for me and my protagonist. Thanks for the honest look at that issue. I feel much stronger in my belief that my MC should lead me to his words.

AnAlaskanGirl said...

It's been quite a while since I've read these two books, but I don't remember them having the F word or any cussing. They are dark in the subject matter, but to be honest I'd recommend them to people of almost any age over many other YA books.

I love that you don't sensor them!

I can't wait to read the next one! And hopefully eventually the rest of Russet!

AnAlaskanGirl said...

It's been a while since I read these two books, but I didn't remember the F word or any cuss words being in them. They are dark, based on subject matter, but to be honest I'd recommend your books to everyone, regardless of age over many other YA books out there.

I am glad you don't sensor your characters. It wouldn't be as meaningful if you weren't true to them and it would show.

I can't wait to read the third book, and hopefully eventually the rest of Russet!

Thanks for sharing your amazing gift and always being such a great role model as a writer!

kathleen duey said...

Alaskan Girl...I have pulled Russet out of the "tweet" format, but have kept it quick and breathless. I have about a hundred pages finished. Once the decks are cleared, I will be back to it. I love that story so thanks!! I looked at your blog...I hope your writing is going well.

Lisa Brooks said...

I was so into your characters that I didn't notice the swear words. I suppose because that is how I felt they would speak and react. I have noticed swearing in books by other authors where swearing was outside of the personality of the character. Kathleen, your comment to others...well said.