by Sherri L. Smith
“Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
— 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.
(at dinner party)
Can you think of another word for f***ing
in this context?
Can you think of another word for f***ing?
(online/in the grocery store/on the phone)
What’s another word for f***ing that conveys disdain,
disappointment and admiration in equal measure?
Spectacular? Complete? Total? Nothing? Frakking?
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.