Sherri L Smith Author Photo - High Contrastby Sherri L. Smith

“Good authors too who once knew better words

Now only use four-letter words

Writing prose. 

Anything goes.”

                                     — Cole Porter

The first time I ever used a bad word, I went home and asked my mother permission first.  I was in fifth grade and needed the big guns to combat the mean girls in my class. 

“Mom, when is it okay to use a bad word?”  We were on the cream-colored sofa in the living room.  I had trouble looking her in the eye.

“Well,” she said, “if you think you need to, then go ahead.”

I chose the b-word.  And it totally worked.

So, why was I frozen in place staring at the first page of my newest novel, Pasadena, worrying over the four-letter word taking center stage on the first line? 

I’m good girl, relatively speaking.  An actual girl scout.  I write for kids.  Sure, I use “adult language” on occasion (many occasions), but know when to reign it in.  I also know when to let fly.  And my protagonist, Jude, needs to use the f-word exactly as she does (adjectivally), when she does (line 1).  I am so proud of that opening line.  It sets the stage for everything.  And yet… yet…  My editor asked me, “Is there any way we can change that?”

Try searching a thesaurus for a replacement word for the f-bomb.  The ones that come up are specific— “copulation,” “intercourse”— and not at all what’s intended.  In this context, the word must mean “extraordinary,” “huge,” “undeniable,” but also express equal parts awe and disdain.  Anger is in the statement, as well as admiration.  Like spitting out a compliment you’ll regret.  So I tried a bunch of changes, and finally said, “No.”

My editor and I discussed it and agreed: the kid stays in the picture.

And everything was fine.  They even printed advanced reader copies (ARCs) and sent them out for review. I found myself hoping people would just skim the book and not even see that first line.  Until I got the ARC and saw the layout:  half a blank white page, and that sentence, that word, dead center.  Like a giant X marking the spot.  Like a scarlet letter F that froze me in place, in the living room, starring at the page. 

But it was fine, wasn’t it?  This was older YA.  I’d seen worse. 

And then I got a call from my second editor.  “Sales wants to know if there’s any way you could change that first line.”

Ugh.  I felt sick to my stomach.  If Sales is saying it, not changing the line could mean no sales!  I could single-handedly obliterate the success of my book by dropping an f-bomb!!!  It’s fine in the rest of the book, they said.  They weren’t worried about parents or librarians or booksellers—the gatekeepers to my audience— flipping through and flipping out at being (not exactly, but maybe) flipped off.  But front and center… well….

So, round two with the thesaurus.  Lots of hypotheticals and rewrites were discussed with good friends and hapless strangers.  I was like a potty-mouthed Goldilocks looking for a more comfortable expletive.

ME

(at dinner party)

Can you think of another word for f***ing

in this context?

FRIEND

Flipping?

ME

(at work) 

Can you think of another word for f***ing?

CO-WORKER

Effing?

ME

(online/in the grocery store/on the phone)

What’s another word for f***ing that conveys disdain,

disappointment and admiration in equal measure?

RANDOM STRANGERS

Spectacular? Complete? Total?  Nothing?  Frakking?

What?

Needless to say, the f-bomb stayed in the picture.  To be true to my heroine, I needed to keep the language as is.  It’s a great line.  It sets the stage.  But I was terrified no one would ever read this book.  Or worse, that that word would be all they’ll ever read.

So you’re asking, “Why is this called ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the F-Bomb,’ when clearly I am still worried, even if I love it in this one sentence.

Well, the reviews came in.  Reviews written by people who read the ARC with the scarlet letter F dead center. 

And you know what?  Unlike other bombs (and reviews!), there was no death and destruction.

And then the Junior Library Guild (the Junior Library Guild! Can you get more wholesome than that without going to Oz?)— they chose the book.  Pasadena is a JLG selection.  A JLG SELECTION!  These folks read over 3,000 children’s and YA books a year and help libraries develop their collections!  That’s like having a whole room full of librarians stand up and say, “Well, if you think you need to, then go ahead.”

And I do!  And I did!  Not lightly, not without much consideration, but I now make my peace with that word.  A character told me her story and I chose not to censor it.  Come what may.  Clap on the irons or ring the bells.  Pasadena hits stores in September.  Let’s see what happens next.

Sherri L. Smith is the author of five award-winning books for young adults, including Flygirl and Orleans, and a best-selling middle grade novel.  She teaches in the Goddard MFAW program, and reads the dictionary for fun.  Pasadena is her first noir mystery, in stores September 13th.  Learn more at www.sherrilsmith.com.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the F-Bomb:  A Young Adult Author vs. the Four-Letter Word
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Sherri L. Smith is the multiple award-winning author of YA novels Lucy the Giant, Sparrow, Hot Sour Salty Sweet, Flygirl and Orleans. In October 2015, she made her middle grade debut with The Toymaker’s Apprentice. Her books have been listed as Amelia Bloomer, American Library Association Best Books for Young People, Junior Library Guild Selections and appear on multiple state reading lists. Flygirl, a WWII novel about a light-skinned black girl who passes for white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, was the 2009 California Book Awards Gold Medalist and was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post. In 2012, Sherri made her first foray into speculative fiction with the “cli fi” novel, Orleans, a book dedicated to her mother, who survived Hurricane Katrina. The Toymaker’s Apprentice, a vibrant retelling of the story of the Nutcracker, is a Southern California Independent Bookstore bestseller. She has just sold a graphic novel, and is writing her first nonfiction project. Sherri has worked in film, animation, comic books and construction, including stop-motion animation on Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, and spent three years at Disney TV Animation, helping to create stories for animated home video projects. She was a 2014 National Book Awards judge in the Young People’s Literature category. She is a three-time writer-in-resident at Hedgebrook retreat in Washington State, as well as a resident at Wassard Elea retreat, in Ascea, Italy. http://sherrilsmith.com/
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2 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the F-Bomb:  A Young Adult Author vs. the Four-Letter Word

  • August 30, 2016 at 11:31 am
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    Lovely story Sherri, thank you! Do you know of Kim Addonizio’s poem about the f-bomb? By the same title, uncensored. It’s quite an affirmation of that word in particular, and the irreplaceable depth of it. Congrats on the book, and be well!

  • August 29, 2016 at 7:09 am
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    I’m gonna read it exclusively because of that word! 😉

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