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The Line Between Young and Adult

In addition to novels, I also write short stories. Once I’ve got a story I think is good, I submit it to various publications, starting with the pro-level scifi/fantasy magazines (F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge) and then moving down the list until I get to the semipro markets. If I can’t sell a story at at least one cent a word, I don’t sell it. It goes in a trunk until I either stumble across an anthology that it might fit in or until I figure out a way to change it into a new story.

As you might imagine, there isn’t a vast array of pro-rate short fiction markets and, furthermore, not all pro-rate markets will take the story I’ve written. Analog, for instance, only wants scifi, and I don’t write scifi quite as often as I write fantasy. A bunch of markets want stories of 3000 words or less, and I tend to write stories that land in the 5K-7K range. This, again, limits the number of places I can send things. So it comes to pass that, after I’ve gotten rejections from the three or four ideal pro-markets that might take the story I’ve written, I’m left with fewer and fewer publication options.

That leads me to my topic of discussion for today: Young Adult fiction and what is appropriate. See, there’s a couple smaller markets out there that pay pro rates and cater specifically to a young adult audience. There are a few markets out there that insist upon a “PG-13” rating. There are others that simply describe themselves as “wholesome.” Now, I don’t typically write YA, exactly, but I do occasionally write stories with Young Adult protagonists dealing with Young Adult problems which, to my mind, ought to qualify. But I also write without any real regard to whether the language or subject matter is “appropriate” for younger readers or not and, as I honestly don’t read a great deal of YA, I’m often left wondering where the line is.

So, by way of example: I wrote a story once with a YA protagonist undergoing a struggle with his mother. It involved duels, intrigue, and some sorcery, but basically that was the main conflict – would this kid defy his mom or not and go dueling with this jerk. The story had a little bit of violence (somebody gets stabbed) and, at one point, I describe this kid’s rival as “miming fellatio at him.” So, here’s the question: Is the term “fellatio” (not the act – the word) sufficiently racy to knock it out of the PG-13/Young Adult rating?

Second example: Wrote a story pretty recently that was about some truly vile cyber-bullying and how this kid gets out of it (there’s a troll involved). His bullies, being nasty examples of adolescence, apply some very filthy and cruel language to this kid. There are f-bombs dropped, sexual situations described, and public discussions of this kid’s genitalia. Now, what about that one? Is that out of bounds?

From my perspective, I really don’t feel that it should be. Hell, it might actually not be, but I’ve had stories rejected because I had a guy lose his arm in a booby trap and that was too violent for them. And yet, in the PG-13 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a guy gets his heart ripped out and his body lit on fire and nobody batted an eyelash (well, perhaps not entirely true – they did invent the rating just for that movie because of the gore).

If you think these slimeballs say "darn" and "mother-fletcher," you've been out of school WAY too long.

If you think these slimeballs say “darn” and “mother-fletcher,” you’ve been out of school WAY too long.

As for profanity, I pretty much learned everything I needed to know about profanity by the time I was in 8th grade, and most of it from the mouths of bullies. I learned everything I needed to know about sexual terminology in high school locker rooms. I was harassed just about every day in middle school by nasty little assholes who said all kinds of vile things about my mother. In high school, it wasn’t quite as bad for me – I was a varsity athlete my freshman year and that gained me a modicum of immunity – but a lot of my friends got it bad and I heard about it or saw it. In my role as “stealth nerd” I also got to hear how the alpha males of the school talked to¬†each other, and it was hardly pristine. There was one guy who said “fuck” at least twice every sentence, and regularly used its verbal form to brag about which girls he’d had sex with and where and how often.

But can you put that in a YA story for 14 year olds to read?

I mean, I think so. Hell, these kids are living it anyway. I’ve always preferred the John Hughes approach to teenagers – treat them like real people with real problems. Don’t flinch because they’re “innocent” – they aren’t half as innocent as you think, anyway.

But, ultimately, it’s not up to me. And if I want to get paid better than .06 a word for some of these stories, I actually have to care about where the line is (or isn’t). Which is a long, round-about way of saying I’m worried some of my stories are going to offend somebody and I don’t think they really ought to.

I submit them anyway, though. Worst they can say is “fuck off.”