That is how chapter 3 of my son William’s book begins, the book he’s been writing for the last few days, pencil clutched in his seven year old fingers, red composition notebook already a little sweaty and bent from the effort of making real his dream of being a novelist.
His book is a doozy. I don’t want to give things away (although the title, The Revenge of the Kids, pretty much tells you everything you need to know), but there’s a lot of violence and a lot of swear words, also known as “suarewords”.
Which brings me to today’s topic: what do we say to other writers about their work when it veers wildly into a place we think is ill advised, particularly when we have been placed in the position of teaching them (not a job I’m qualified for, but I am the only one handy in the afternoons when the red composition book comes out). William’s a novelist just beginning on the road to acquiring his craft. He recently learned to read, and he can print pretty well, so there’s not much to keep him off the ladder that leads to the Pulitzer. His motivation for writing appears to be, in equal measure, a desire for power, and a desire to make a lot of money, which I’m guessing is somewhat typical of those who fill the ranks of creative writing classes throughout the country. That these things don’t actually happen need not concern us today. I am more worried right now about the suarewords.
They are in that story because yesterday afternoon he asked me if it was okay if he used “bad words” in his story. Remembering how shocked I was when my own mother told me that I shouldn’t write stories where there were bad mothers (how, then, I want to know, do you write ANY story at all?), I told him he could write whatever he wanted to write.
I should have added, however, that he could not actually read his stuff out loud at the dinner table, but by the time he’d read all the bad words to us, it was too late. William’s novel is full of cusswords. Billuns of them. They are not spelled correctly, but it is quite clear what they are. Read aloud, there is no doubt of them. Plus, lots of people are shot in cold blood and they die with nary a tear shed for their fates.
My husband was shocked by William’s work. He told him he didn’t like it and didn’t want him to use those words anymore. I stuck up for William, but I was a little worried about it myself and wondering if maybe I’d gone too far. So I pointed out to William that publishers of children’s books do not buy books that have lots of cuss words in them, and that, moreover, dying in droves is not always looked on kindly either. His reply: Even in middle school? He seems to have done some market research when he was not busy assembling his opus, one suareword at a time.
But I think I have hit on a solution. Do you remember that Francine Prose book I talked about a while ago? It’s called Reading Like a Writer and in it she talks about how the work of other writers can sometimes be all the help we need when we encounter issues with our own work. Want some help on dialogue? Try Hemingway. Don’t know how to get people in and out of rooms? Check out George Eliot and Jane Austen.
Want to use billuns of suarewords, but still want to sell your book to Scholastic Books? Then you do as Cecil Day-Lewis does in the Otterbury Incident which is the book we are reading out loud at bedtime these days. You say this, “He swore up and down something fierce, using words that are unprintable.” Cecil Day-Lewis is now William’s muse and inspiration. Your characters can swear, and you can still sell your book to the juvenile market. As a teaching technique, particularly when you don’t want to be judgmental or intrusive, it is very helpful to be able to point to someone else to back up what you are trying to say. It’s a little like having your brother tell your child it’s not a great idea to sneak cigarettes in the bathroom at school. It just seems more effective to have advice come from a third party sometimes.
I am still thinking of the dying in cold blood with nary a tear shed problem. I’m sure, though, that somewhere in the library my answer is waiting for me.