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Author Topic: YA Genre - Sex and Profanity
Member # 9202

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The novel I'm working on at the moment contains both. Profanity particularly in copious amounts. I originally thought it was going to be an adults fantasy. However, I'm finding as I write it that it is probably more geared towards young adults. Not 12-18 year olds though. More like 16 - 25 year olds.

The main character is around 17, self harmer (and self healer) and the one sex scene I've written so far, though only a short paragraph, is a little bit explicit and I worry that it's too much for YA fiction at the moment which seems to be rather chaste? (Could be just my recent book selection though). The tone is quite edgy and dark at the start. Any humor in it is dry and mocking.There is quite a bit of strong swearing in it at the moment. It's just how she is and I don't know if she'd be the same without it. It feels as though older young adults would be more drawn to it than older adult readers because of her age and issues plus the tone and pace of the book.

Thoughts? I like the story as it is, would rather not tone it down...... But if it's not going to be marketable as it is, then perhaps I should. Are there any recently published YA books you'd recommend I have a look at?

Sorry for the rather rambling post.

[This message has been edited by Delli (edited September 08, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by Delli (edited September 08, 2010).]

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Member # 8501

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The younger the audience the less tolerance for sex and profanity. Profanity is just as bad as sex.

I've been to a few conferences where the subject was discussed by YA authors. There can be discreet sex after you get above 18 or so for your MC. I think you need to subtract a couple of years from your MC to arrive at the proper discretion level.

You also have to watch for the violence quotient. Too much blood will disqualify your work as well.

You have more latitude if things are 'off-stage' rather than described in detail.

My vast reservoir of YA knowledge is, alas, exhausted.

I forgot a couple of books to read: Hunger Games and Gracelings come to mind for YA Fantasy in your intended target age.

[This message has been edited by Owasm (edited September 08, 2010).]

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Member # 8140

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As one who greatly enjoys gratuitous sex and violence and language, I'd say that if you're marketing it as a YA novel, then you're going to have to get rid of the language and graphic sex.

Unless your teenage protagonist is trying to be a Goodfella, or, perhaps, works in a brothel frequented by the sailors from The Last Detail...then keep it the way it is. If not, well...

You can have edgy and dark in YA books (just about anything by Robert Cormier, or, more recently, Unwind, by Neal Shusterman), but you can't have profanity or sex. You can hint at it, but you can't say it.

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Member # 5137

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I disagree. My librarian friends complain about it, but talk about the trend toward more sex, more profanity, and more boundary pushing in all ways of YA lit these days. Not just sex, but icky topics like incest or rape. Not just profanity, but kids using the language liberally.

Not to say all YA is like that. I write YA and I make a conscious choice to go a different direction, but I also write for the younger end of the YA market. There's some "crossover" kinds of discussions in YA circles these days - books targeted toward true young adults - 18-25 instead of kids still in high school. You might dig around and see if anything in that realm is similar/appeals to you.

One thing a librarian friend talks about as a difference with the way sex or other edgy topics are portrayed in YA (drug use is another example) is that in YA, for it to be really accepted by the librarian community at least, these things have to have consequences. You can't have a partying kid engage in drug abuse and not suffer some consequences in the course of it. This is true in the way the MPAA rates movies as well, I believe (sex and drugs and rock n roll without consequences sends a movie into the R realm, whereas one that doesn't deal with those topics graphically but does allow for consequences might be able to get a PG13.)

Good luck - I think reading more and talking with librarians in your local libraries (school libraries in particular) might be helpful.

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You might want to check out the "Skinned" series by Robin Wasserman. She is well known for "Breaking into Harvard." This series is YA, but very dark in tone and style. I have enjoyed it immensely. It is a dystopian tale following individuals whose brains are scanned once they have died and downloaded into cloned bodies. It starts out innocently enough, but eventually delves into discreet sex, a few F bombs, etc. It all works...quite well. Take a look at it.


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I just started reading Tithe by Holly Black which is Young Adult. I am like twenty pages in and there is swear words all over the place even a few f-bombs. This is a really popular book, so obvious YA isn't as squeaky clean as everyone makes it out to be. I have seen sex scenes and near sex scenes in YA too, so I think you are okay.

There are a lot of really chaste YA books out there, but there is an equal amount of edgier stuff as well. So I think your book is marketable.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited September 08, 2010).]

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A year-old post on my blog briefly addresses this issue. In case you're interested, the post is called The Elusive Definition of a Young-Adult Novel.

One day I asked a librarian about novels frequently borrowed from Teen Fiction, and I ended up reading Going Too Far. Jennifer Echols incorporated casual sex, drug use, profane language, and childhood mortality into a surprisingly good story.

[This message has been edited by aspirit (edited September 09, 2010).]

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Pyre Dynasty
Member # 1947

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First of all I say write your story, let it be true to itself and then worry about where you are going to sell it. I'll quote from the Simpsons.
Female Scientist: Who's going to buy a pill that makes you blind?
Male Scientist: We'll let marketing figure that out.

Although I don't think you will have much of a problem. I just came out of a YA literature class and I have to say that there is a major difference in what we think kids should be reading and what they are reading/what is being published for them. In some ways I think you can get away with more in YA than in otherwise. To the kids piles of profanities is interesting, it's edgy, whereas to a grownup it's just senseless repetition of words that are becoming progressively meaningless. Same with sex scenes, grownups don't need all the gory details.

As for suggestions try anything by Chris Crutcher (I personally enjoyed half of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, the not preachy half.) There is that incident with the dog in the night book, I forget the author. For sex scenes, Judy Blume wrote the book on that, it's called Forever and it's crap from cover to cover (this is coming from a pretty die-hard Blume fan.)

If all goes well then your book will be banned, then everybody will have to read it.

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You can find a lot in YA these days. I like the Simpson quote above (lol). Classic. They're going to be studying Simpsons 75 years from now in literature classes.

There might be a bit of truth between the lines there as well. Who really would buy a pill to make you blind?

Sometimes copious amounts of sex and profanity will actually shrink your potential market. Now, as I understand it, a book's break even point for many of the big 6 publishers in hardback is around 4,000 - 5,000 copies. So if the marketing is meant to garner 5-10k sales, then audience shrinkage might be a non-issue. Because it's likely there are plenty for whom the sex and profanity would be a non-issue or even an attractor. The book could easily find a satisfactory audience of that size or larger.

However, I know it can put a damper on word of mouth. Because I've witnessed it. Both in my circles and with public and school purchasing agents. For example, at an ALA conference I attended I talked to a book buyer for something like 14-16 libraries in Colorado. I can't remember if they were public or school libraries. But she filtered out books if they were too "heavy" in this regard because of her community's values. You may think that libraries aren't that important, but you'd be suprised. Here's what I found: http://johndbrown.com/2009/09/how-libraries-select-books/

Harry Potter was relatively squeaky clean. This meant kids could recommend to parents and vice versa. Same with the Twilight saga. And so the hand-to-hand marketing wasn't constrained except by the enthusiasm of a reader. But sex and profanity might contrain quite a few adults who read YA from passing it on to their kids and vice versa.

I think this may be part of the reason why most of the highest grossing films are relatively tame. Here's a list adjusted for ticket price inflation: http://boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm

You'll notice not ALL of them are this way. The Godfather is in there. And there are plenty of R-rated movies that do just fine. But something is going on with R-rated movies to make them so under represented in a list like this.

So we certainly have to write what we care about and believe in. But we also have to face the facts that sometimes what we produce might have a smaller market than it otherwise could.

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