Preamble:  Starting next Tuesday, I’M ON TOUR!!!  And I may be coming to a bookstore or library near you.  Here’s what’s happening–

Tuesday, June 22nd at 6:00 pm:  Kepler’s Books, Menlo Park, California.

Thursday, June 24th at 7:00 pm:  Mission Viejo Library, Mission Viejo, California.

Friday, June 25th at 3:00 pm:  La Jolla/Riford Library, La Jolla, California.

Saturday, June 26th at 1:00:  signing in Disney Gallery, Disneyland.

Sunday, June 27th at 2:00 pm:  signing in Brisa Courtyard, Disneyland.

Monday, June 28th at 7:00 pm:  Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona.

Tuesday, June 29th at 7:00 pm:  The King’s English Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah.

If I’m not coming to your neighborhood, sorry!  I have little control over tour destinations, except I did suggest Salt Lake City because I’d never been there before on tour.

I’m going to try to post to the blog from the road, but it is conceivable that I’ll skip the next two weeks.  Now for the regular post:

On March 25th Loretta asked how much detail and gore to include in a fight scene.  She feared that parents wouldn’t want their children reading about graphic violence.

Along similar lines, on June 14th F wrote, What I mean to say is, say, do you think that it would be appropriate for the characters to curse in a given situation – I mean, this and that has just happened to them! But, the readers…they may dislike seeing the words actually in print. One can easily substitute writing the words with a ‘He let out a stream of carefully chosen curses’ or some such. We get to know the character’s angry. We don’t have to see the words.

But to satisfy “your internal reader,” the author chose to print the words, rather than allude to them, choosing to ignore the fact that it might be inappropriate for a few readers. :/

In other comments on my post about writing romance a few people thanked me for not including sex beyond kissing in my books.  And both F and Erin Edwards included links to several authors’ blog postings concerning the treatment of morality in their books.  I suggest you check them out.

Wow!  This is a complicated topic!  And no easy answers.

Taking gore first, since that was the earlier question, I don’t in general enjoy violent books or movies, but there’s violence in two of my books, Dave at Night and The Two Princesses of Bamarre.  In the latter, I’m explicit about killing monsters.  A few people die at the hands of the monsters, but I don’t go into their deaths in detail.  I’d guess readers rejoice when a monster bites the dust, except for the dragon Vollys, who’s sympathetic although evil.  In Dave at Night, the violence comes from a brutal orphanage superintendent.  No one dies, but Dave is beaten and another boy’s arm is broken.  I report the beating in detail.

The dead monsters in Two Princesses aren’t much mourned by the human characters, so their suffering isn’t much felt by readers, which is what I wanted.  The emotion in Two Princesses revolves around Meryl’s illness and her sister Addie’s quest to find a cure.  But in Dave at Night the other boys are upset and angry over the superintendent’s cruelty, and the reader shares their distress.  Both books are read by kids aged eight and up.  I think both are appropriate for the age group, although there are children, some older than eight, who are sensitive and whose parents would do well to keep the books from them, or who might put the books aside themselves when they see what’s up.

Glossing over detail that’s important to plot or characterization or mood, important to the world of the book, is flawed writing.  We want the reader to be affected by what we write, and detail engages him.  If someone the reader loves is hurt, the reader will care, but only if the reader experiences through detail the extent of the hurt.  Airbrushing it will only leave the reader confused.

Having said that, it’s always possible to overwrite, to pile up bleeding wounds and oozing organs until everything blends together and the reader stops caring – or starts laughing.  We need to cultivate judgment, which comes with practice and helpful criticism.

It’s funny.  I can write scenes that I would have trouble reading.  This is because I’m in control when I write.  It’s the difference between being the driver of a car and the passenger.  When I go through a yellow light, not that I ever do, it’s okay.  My reflexes are fast; I’ve looked around.  But when someone else is driving, boy, I wish he’d stopped.  I’m not making a point here, just remarking on the wonderful weirdness of writing.

As for offending readers or their parents, we are likely to offend someone no matter how cautious we may try to be.  Most recently I learned that someone was offended by the trial scene in Fairest.  And Writing Magic was banned from a school district in Illinois because I advised writers to make their characters suffer!  Can you imagine?

This is my segue into language and sex.  And here my approach is more nuanced.  I used the “N” word twice in the manuscript for Dave at Night.  The uses were natural for the situation.  My editor had no problem, and neither did an African-American friend.  But the head of library and school promotion at HarperCollins at the time pulled me back from the brink.  He said that I would set off a firestorm, and that I was using a hurtful word.  I took it out.  The word wasn’t essential to anything, and the book was just as good without it.  If it had been central, I don’t know what I would have done.

I’m a Jew, and the bad word for Jew is kike.  I’ve experienced anti-Semitism a few times, but that bad word was never spoken or suggested.  Racism and anti-Semitism don’t need a particular word to express themselves.

I adore language.  Every word has a place in my heart.  When we make a word or a phrase bad we ghettoize it and give it too much power.  I would like to live in a world in which all words are equal, where kike can’t hurt because we’re desensitized.  In that world kike would mean Jew and not filthy Jew.  The sex words that seem dirty would just be synonyms for the more scientific and acceptable terms.

As for actual swearing in dialogue versus having the narrator say that a character shouted a string of “carefully chosen curse words,” that depends on the kind of story you’re writing, the voice you’re telling it in, and the age of the audience.  But you don’t have to choose.  You can make the character scream.  If the character is tough and gritty, she can threaten someone.

Having said all this, I don’t think I’ve put profanity in any of my books.  My strongest influences when I write are the books I loved as a child.  There was no swearing in Heidi, and in Louisa May Alcott’s books, if I remember correctly, even an expression like fiddlesticks was beyond the pale.  I write back to those books.

Same goes for sexual exploration in books.  I am sure there are many young people – I was one – who are confused by the feelings their bodies are creating in them, who don’t know how to handle their early romantic attachments, and who are unable, for a hundred possible reasons, to talk frankly with the adults in their lives and even with their friends.  Many of these kids go to novels to see how situations play out, how believable characters play them out.

Moralizing books are likely to be transparent to readers and not carry much weight.  Rather than moralizing, I want books to be good, well-written, with complicated characters finding their way and making mistakes in complicated situations.  Let the reader observe these characters and ruminate on their decisions and the consequences that follow.  Let the reader find herself in the books and consider what choices she would make.

There is one other consideration, which wasn’t mentioned in any of the posts I read.  And that’s the market.  I want my books to be read, and I want to continue to earn my living as a writer.  My readers expect a certain kind of book from me.  If I change radically I’ll lose many of them.  I may pick up other readers along the line, but maybe not.  Of course, this cuts two ways.  The authors of more explicit books have also developed an audience, and that is a consideration for them too.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  You and I – all writers – are entitled to think of our livelihoods.

I’m done.  A long post on a difficult subject.  No prompt today.

  1. I think you should make a book about a old scullery maid who then finds out shes a princess and then she has to go through princess school to become the real her! I really like you books because they are sooooooooo fun and exciting to read! I've read 2 of your books and haven't been able to put them down! You are a great writer, and I wish I could be as good as you! I hope you can make the book! I've read Fairest, and own Ella Enchanted! Ella Enchanted the book is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much better than the movie!

  2. Nice post. I agree that that stuff all depends on the books and the characters as well as the audience.
    I have a question, though, but it has nothing to do with this post.
    I was wondering if you have any editing advice since I just finished the first draft of my first novel and it really does need to be edited. Thanks!

  3. Enjoy Salt Lake City! I had the pleasure of listening to you speak in Provo, UT at a writing conference. Unfortunately, I will be out of town when you're at the King's English. It's a fun little bookstore. Enjoy our mountains.

  4. Oh, I really wish I could see you! But all of those places are too far away. Perhaps in the future I'll be able to catch another one of your tours.

    I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again. I'm so grateful for this blog and everything you have to share with us. It's really a treasure!

  5. My personal thoughts on the topics in the post are these: like I said in response to F, the big factors are the style of the book and the expected audience for it. I don't mind violence in my books, if it's portrayed tastefully and not over-the-top. In fact, I think it can be exciting. And I'm more likely to mind if the author seems to be going out of their way to _avoid_ descriptions of violence – sometimes it's necessary to the plot.
    But I don't like strong language or indiscreet romance at all. I try to dodge it in the books I read, and it's a great disappointment to me if an otherwise good book includes that sort of stuff needlessly.
    Hope these thoughts help someone…

  6. Yes…I agree with everything you've mentioned. I'd been thinking about this for the last few days, and came to the conclusion that sometimes, the story needs to be told a certain way, and sometimes, perhaps, you can't have your character saying 'Shoot' when he would have said…something else (that's were the substitution can come in.)
    But I definitely agree with Rose – strong language and indiscreet romance is definitely a reason I put down books.
    Thank you, Ms. Levine, for answering my question! It was a great answer.
    On an unrelated note – I love Louisa May Alcott as well! Jo has got to be one of the best characters I've ever read. (though I was a bit disappointed in the second book.)

  7. Callie–Thanks for the suggestion!
    Elizabeth–You can pay an editor. There are free-lance editors who can be very helpful, but costly. Or you can find other writers and join a critique group. If you're writing for kids, as always, I suggest you join SCBWI.
    Yvonne–I'm going to read from the new book and show my picture book that's coming out in September. Then I'll take questions about any of my books or writing. Then I'll sign. Hope you can come!

  8. A book signing at Disneyland! What a fairy tale! 🙂

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on this topic. Re: the last comment. Yes, it is about the market, but I think it is also about developing a trust with your readers, which can be so important to young readers.

  9. Ms. Levine – I remember saying you wanted a picture book to support BETSY WHO CRIED WOLF. I hoped over to Amazon and I see that they already have the new one listed – about Red Riding hood. I see a theme – how delightful! I also see that the books have a same illustrator. Very smart, I think, on the part of whoever was instrumental of that.

    Yvonne – I learned a lot from Ms. Levine answering questions at the Texas Book Festival a couple of years ago. I highly recommend going to see her.

    Elizabeth – if SCBWI isn't in your town, I think you can join nationally and find an on-line critique group through them. Or you might try Verla Kay's blueboards:

  10. Great post about a hard topic, Mrs.Levine.
    I'm so excited to hear you'll be touring, A few of the stops are fairly close to my area so I may come for a signing!
    I've needed advice about violence and swearing for a while, this was very informative and helpful.
    I have a brief question, if you can't answer it, though, it's fine.

    A character in one of my books is an elvish priest, and he is immortal. When he meets the heroine, she stabs him in the ribcage. Because of his immortality, he isn't wounded or dead because of the action. It occurred to me that making him immortal takes away for the opportunity of a lot of faults to be added onto his character. I'm not sure as to if I should add more faults so he doesn't seem "perfect", or just remove the immortality aspect from his character altogether. I don't want to make him unbearable because of too many flaws.

    Thanks again for the great post!

  11. Elizabeth–If you aren't old enough for SCBWI, you can form your own critique group with friends who like to write. Also, a librarian may be willing to look at your novel and make suggestions. When school starts again you may find other writers on the school newspaper or literary magazine who will want to be in a critique group.
    Marmaladeland–I think an immortal character can have a few faults.

  12. Marmaladeland- One thing you could do to have the priest have more faults is to make him immortal, but he can still get wounded. That concept is used in the Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan where the Greek gods are immortal but can still get hurt. They bleed a special blood I believe is called ichor. That's just a suggestion. 🙂

  13. I'm so excited that you're coming to The King's English! Utah gets passed over a lot by awesome people on tour, so I love it when favorite authors/musicians/etc do come.

  14. @ Marmaladeland – the idea I've picked up about immortal elves is that they don't die of old age, but they can certainly get hurt by things like disease or pointy metal objects. I didn't invent this viewpoint, but I subscribe to it.
    But directly to your question – just because he's immortal doesn't mean he can't have faults. Perhaps he's a procrastinator, putting everything off for "later"? Or maybe he gets impatient with everyone because they don't know as much as he does, never mind that they haven't had the time to learn it?
    I think there's lots of possibilites for a character that's immortal. Hope this helps.

  15. How true that there is no way to please everyone. It can't be done.

    I believe a writer for children and teens has a greater responsibility in the type of writing they do, not only in quality but in content. We have a power to use words in a way that will impact kids, and we should never take it lightly. It is because of this that I have chosen not use cursing in the books that I write. My personal view is that it's kind of lazy writing anyway, like using lots of adverbs with weak verbs rather than taking the time and effort to pick out a good verb.

    As a parent, I do avoid books for my kids with excessive offensive language, primarily because it doesn't usually add anything to the story. However, if the quality of writing is there, we make adjustments for younger readers who would otherwise enjoy the story. If we're reading out loud, we just omit the swear words. If there is only one or two offensive words, we just leave them. If there are a bunch, the older teens in the family cover them with small pieces of adhesive notes so the younger readers can enjoy the story without the cursing. Because we don't use that type of language in our family, running into it in a story tends to jar the kids out of the narrative anyway because they stop to think, "Hey, that's not good language." This would probably not be true in many families, however.

    For writers who are uncomfortable using cursing in their writing, they can get around it if they're writing fantasy or sci-i genres by giving the world they've created a different set of oaths. C.S. Lewis did that in the Narnia books, for example.

  16. This is AMAZING!!!!! And exactly what I need!! As you know, not many of us have love experiences that are worth writing about. I have always wondered how I could write a sweet love story when mine was anything but sweet. Because of this "long and difficult" post, I am sensing that it will be, not only possible, but an exciting and fun challenge. A million thanks, Gail! (You are awesome, by the way!)

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