Every so often, I see posts from writers who are concerned about the content of their projects. How far can they go? Should they use the F-word? What about sex or violence? What if they offend someone, somewhere—a reviewer or blogger or parent or just some random community standard bearer? Not to mention a possible publisher!
The problem is, those questions don’t address the most important people of all. Teen readers. If you’re writing for anyone but your audience, you’re going at it all wrong. The best advice I can offer any writer, ever, is to write your stories the way they demand to be told. With respect for your readership, of course. But above all, with honesty.
I just finished my tenth YA novel, Smoke (2013), and I joked with my editor that it is probably the cleanest book I’ve ever written. The reason is simple. The two protagonists are from an uber-religious family. They don’t swear; they wouldn’t dare. Both are at vulnerable places in their lives where sex is unthinkable. They do find romance and, eventually, love, but sex is not a part of that. I am writing the truths of these young women. It would be dishonest to put the F-word in their mouths, or have them take off their clothes for their boyfriends.
Considering my reputation is an author who pushes the limits, that may sound strange. But the one thing I insist of myself is to always write my characters’ truths. I definitely don’t shy away from tough subject matter. In my latest novel, Tilt, my characters deal with teen pregnancy, falling in love with someone who’s HIV-positive, and self-destructive behavior as a way to gain acceptance. Obviously, there is a little sex in this book and, yes, you’ll find an F-word or two. Will it offend someone, somewhere? No doubt.
So, why take that chance? Because teens need books that address the issues they face at home, at school, at church, while walking down the street. I don’t write to offend. I write to offer perspective and honest outcomes to choices young people make every day. I write so they know, whatever plateau or abyss they have reached, they are not alone. I write to empower my readers with knowledge.
In Tilt, Mikayla must make the most important decisions of her young life—whether or not to carry her baby to term, and whether or not to keep her. Also in Tilt, I remind readers that HIV has not been conquered. It’s still out there, and despite all medicine’s advances, it will still shorten your life. Three quarters of a million teens get pregnant every year, and over fifty-six thousand people contract HIV. Allowing teen readers to experience these truths through books can only empower them with knowledge.
So, writers. tuck your doubts into some closet you refuse to open. Some people say to write from your heart. I say write from your gut. Write courageously. Write brilliantly. Forget about offending someone, dig way down deep and find the truths of your stories, then put them on the page. If you do that, you will find a vast, loyal audience, and that’s what really counts—your readers.
Watch out for our upcoming review of Ellen’s book, TILT.