How Do You Tackle Swearing When Writing For Children?

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

This morning I’ve been researching the interesting world of swearing, for my MG fiction book. This is the first time I’ve written for pre-teens and I hadn’t realised how many mild swear words litter my writing, or how different words have different shock values depending on the country.

For example bloody hell and bugger off probably wouldn’t cause too much consternation in the UK, although there is obviously more impact on the written page than in the spoken word. I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid at crap or oh my god or good heavens. But then I come from a non religious family and I’m sure the latter two would worry religious families more.

Interestingly my children are more shocked by ‘rubbish’ and ‘stupid’ than ‘shit’ because we as a family have given the words more power, although I do try and distinguish between saying ‘that shot was rubbish’ and ‘you’re rubbish’. I’m not even going to discuss the reaction I got from nursery when my son repeated my stressed-out-end-of-tether phrase ‘shut up!’ to another child. Let’s say they would have been less disapproving if he’d said f-off. Maybe.

Swearing, after all, is all about shock value. You only had to see my unfortunate and accidental (and instantly-regretted) reaction when my daughter mispronounced ‘can’t’ during a recent reading session. Having to explain why even Mummy wouldn’t use that word probably gave her the ultimate weapon against me. But I digress.

Some level of exclamation is needed when writing, to show emotion and make dialogue sound realistic. Unfortunately I don’t yet have Tweens, so I don’t know what they say when they’re upset/shocked/scared/angry. And I’m sure what they say to each other isn’t what their parents want to see them reading in a children’s novel.

Scouring several websites this morning, it seems the safest thing to do is to make up your own swear words. But how to do so without sounding twee? In Elizabeth Kay’s lovely book, Ice Feathers, she uses phrases like ‘for the Wind’s sake’ and ‘flapping’. Unfortunately they make me think of all the phrases I hear on Cbeebies like ‘galloping guinea pigs’ and ‘flapperty flippers’, ‘jumping jellyfish’, or, my favourite, ‘Well, I’ll be a sea monkey’s uncle.’

I think I will use foodie words for my male protagonist, as he loves cooking. Things like ‘fried tomatoes’, ‘pancakes and crepes’ and possibly ‘shiitake mushrooms’ although apparently that’s from a Spy Kids movie and I don’t want plagiarism issues. My female lead is a fairy and lives in the woods, so phrases like ‘eggshells’ and ‘creeping caterpillars’ might work. Is ‘bird poo’ too much? I’m sure I’ve borrowed books from the library for under fives that have the words poo and pants. Does it become unacceptable if Mummy isn’t reading it?

Who knew writing for children was so much harder than writing for adults, especially when you’ve had a colourful upbringing. Well, me actually. But it will be worth the effort I hope!

What are your favourite non-swearing cuss words? What do you let your children say and not say?

Related Articles:

Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog: Danika Dinsmore ~ Tropes & Tips for Middle Grade Fiction Writers

From the Mixed-Up Files… Of Middle Grade Authors: Is it Okay to Curse in MG Books

AbsoluteWrite: Acceptable Swear Words for Children?

Stuck and Sahara Dust

Under a dust cloud

Under a dust cloud

I got stuck on my WIP today, despite flying along this week. Yesterday was a 6,000 word day – my first for a year or so I should think – and I managed 2,500 in 90 minutes this morning. And then stuck. Not from writer’s block but from world-building block.

I don’t have a particularly active imagination – a funny thing to admit for a writer. Or, I should say, I don’t have a world-building imagination. I can do characters and dialogue, but scene building is tougher. When I wrote Dragon Wraiths the details of the world and its history kept me puzzled for weeks. I would wander round the fields walking the dog trying to figure out how it all worked; what happened to the body, how did the mind transfer to Taycee and so on. I’m not entirely sure I figured it all out but, shhh, don’t tell anyone!

And now I’m having the same problems with my children’s book. The world is a mishmash of all the books I’ve read recently – not intentionally I hasten to add. I never set out to steal an idea – I’m a pantser, I very much make it up as I go. But when I review what I’ve written, I can see the influences coming through my subconsciousness. A world covered in cloud? That’ll come from The Curse of The Mistwraith (Janny Wurts). A world like ours but different, where the animals can speak? That’s The Divide (Elizabeth Kay). A missing father? That could be The Extincts (Veronica Cossanteli) or To Be A Cat (Matt Haig). A bunch of boys who mess around? That’s probably from Johnny and The Bomb (Terry Pratchett).

We live in the purple bit...

We live in the purple bit…

But now we get to the nitty gritty of my story – where my characters are themselves, not parodies or plagiarisms – and I’m stuck. Merula’s a fairy who goes through blending when she’s twelve (or younger, haven’t nailed down ages yet), but what is blending? And when she’s banished she visits the wild ones, but who the hell are they? A baddy called Vulpini has cast the spell to cover the sky in cloud, but whatever for? And why have all the parents disappeared and where are they?

I love pantsing – I write to find out what happens next (as my husband often says) – but sometimes the drive in the dark is along a nice straight road and sometimes you sense there are cliffs and chasms either side. It’s the same road but one is easy and the other terrifying, even though you’re equally blind.

I tried my usual trick of wandering round the field with the dog, asking and trying to answer questions, but we’re currently sitting under a cloud of Sahara dust and the view is as hazy as my mind. With eyes full of grit and a throat clogged with dust, I returned home defeated. Maybe there’s a reason I write Chick Lit. World building? Give me one that’s already made, please.

In Celebration of Pantsing

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Sorry I’ve been quiet this week. On top of drafting a new novel, which has been draining my energy, I had my daughter at home on Wednesday, because the teachers were on strike. Goodness knows how I’m going to write or blog in the school holidays: I think I might have to try and plan to have manuscripts with editors so I can take the time off without guilt and frustration.

On the plus side, I am really enjoying getting stuck into a new novel, especially one where I have no idea what’s going to happen next. With a Romance, there’s a certain inevitability to the plot, no matter how much you try and avoid cliches and tropes. Eventually boy meets girl, they have some problems, but they get together in the end.

With this Middle Grade fiction book I started only with a character and a rough idea that it would be a fantasy book, along the lines of The Divide – one of my favourite MG books in recent years. (The first book in the trilogy is currently free on kindle. Bargain!) The trick will be to avoid plagiarising Elizabeth Kay’s book and coming up with my own, original, story, while still learning from what I read.

The best bit about Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) is that you avoid the info-dump. The most tedious part of editing a first draft of a Romance novel for me is that I always info-dump in the first couple of chapters, so have to go back and rewrite whole sections. In fact, for both Baby Blues and Class Act, I ended up adding a bunch of chapters at the beginning of the manuscript, to turn the info-dump into action.

But when you know nothing more about a character than his name and the fact that he lives in a farmhouse with his mum and two older siblings, it’s much easier to drop in backstory as required and as it occurs to you. Then the second draft becomes about continuity.

I’ve just watched a top tips video by Barry Cunningham, the man who published Harry Potter, on how to write children’s stories. His first four tips (the fifth covered submissions) could be summarised as:

1. Put yourself back in the age group you are writing for: remember the excitement of that age [Ah crap, I can hardly remember being a child]
2. Include lots of details: The setting. What are they eating? What do they look like? Kids love detail [Oh dear, I’m not one for reading or writing lots of detail]
3. Planning: make sure you know when to introduce and remove characters, when your climaxes are, in order to keep the reader engaged [This is a blog post on Pantsing. Enough said]
4. Remember the importance of humour, especially in dialogue [My book is shaping up a bit dark and depressing. I’m screwed]

Oh well. Plenty of stuff to work on in the second draft! For now I’m enjoying finding out what happens next.

Croquet and Colouring: 2013 365 Challenge #127

Mastering the art of croquet

Mastering the art of croquet

It’s Bank Holiday Monday here today and we’ve spent a lovely time catching up with family over in Cambridge. The sun shone down from a sparkling blue sky and it was shorts all round for the first time this year.

I love going to my father-in-law’s when all the family gathers. There are eyes aplenty to watch the children, who love to play with their smashing big cousin, and I get to catch up and natter with some grown-ups for a change. Good food, fine wine, great company and plenty of time to sit and read my on my iPad: I feel like I’ve had a holiday.

I intended to write my post while the kids were happily entertained, because I knew I’d be too tired when we got home. Unfortunately I downloaded the second in The Divide Trilogy – Back to the Divide – this morning and was too easily distracted from working by following Felix and Betony’s adventures again. I fear the cost of buying the iPad might be only the beginning of the expense!

Colouring with Aunty

Colouring with Aunty

I came across an interesting dilemma today when one of the books I wanted was only a pound cheaper for the kindle than for a paper copy. My heart still belongs to the paper book, but there’s no doubt it is much easier to read on the iPad with the children around (I can cuddle two children and sit, iPad on my knee, with just a wriggle needed to swipe the page over. Genius. If only I’d had one for all those boring months of breastfeeding at 2am!)

Still, an ebook is horribly intangible and I love to have a pretty row of paperbacks on the shelves reminding me of all the great stories recently read. Maybe I’ll just bookmark that one for future reading: there are plenty on my list!

As an aside, Two-Hundred Steps Home reached the 100,000 word mark with today’s post. If it ever becomes a novel it will need editing by half, but it still feels like a nice achievement.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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The road stretched relentlessly ahead of Claire, solid with Sunday evening traffic. To either side, fields as flat as glass met a distant horizon, with flocks of clouds filling the space in between.  She tried not to let the lines of red lights make her impatient. There was one road home and the only thing to be gained by chaffing at the traffic was anger that had nowhere to go.

Sky slumped in the passenger seat, sleeping after her long day on the sunny beach. A tiny smile illuminated her face, giving her the look of a cherub. You sleep my little angel. Enjoy your happy dreams while you can.

A sharp sound rang through the silence of the car. Claire looked at the phone on the dash and mused whether to answer it. With a quick glance in the mirrors to make sure there were no blue sirens or panda cars around, Claire reached for the phone and raised it to her ear.

“Hello, yes? I’m driving.”

“So you are coming back then? Your father said you’d be home by now.”

Claire bit back an angry retort. Challenging her mother at any time was an exercise in futility and for once she had reason enough to be curt, with her daughter in hospital.

“Sorry, Mum, I’m not the only person heading back from the coast. The traffic has been horrendous. We won’t be much longer. Sky’s asleep.” She hesitated, afraid to ask her next question. Gripping the wheel with her free hand, she inhaled, her nostrils filling with the scent of sand and sun cream. “How is Ruth?”

“Not good.” Her mother fell silent and Claire wondered if she wanted to know any more. She was about to hang up when her mother drew an audible breath and let it out in a long sigh. When she spoke again her voice was low, and gentler than Claire could ever remember hearing it.

“Oh, Claire, the doctors think the tumour must have spread before they caught it. They say the chemo will help, but they’re fighting the wrong battle. They need to understand how far it has spread and adjust her treatment.”

The words rang through Claire’s mind without making sense. Her mother sounded tired, beaten, but her words suggested hope. She wanted to ask more, but driving one handed in heavy traffic on the A47 was not the time.

“I’m sure she’ll be fine, Mum. Ruth’s a fighter and she’s in safe hands.”

There was silence, and Claire wondered if her Mother was drawing breath for a new sarcastic come back. When she did speak, her words were so unexpected Claire nearly drove into the tail-lights of the car in front.

“You’re the fighter, Claire. You’re the one who has gone out and taken on the world. Ruth, well, she’s not strong like you.”

Heat rushed to Claire’s face at the unexpected compliment. It rattled her more than her mother’s unaccustomed gentleness, more than Ruth’s illness. She felt wrong-footed by it, as if it was easier to know that her mother loathed her than to believe she really cared.

As if needing to restore the balance, Claire heard her mother cluck her tongue. “Goodness, look at the time. Are you going to be much longer? I need you to take over at the hospital so I can go home and feed your father. You know he’s incapable of boiling an egg for his supper.”

“What about Sky? I’m not taking her to see Ruth tonight. She’s exhausted and needs to be in bed.” She heard her mother chuckle and wondered what could possibly be funny.

“Listen to you. Thought you didn’t have a maternal bone in your body. I’ll take her back with me, we can tuck her up in her bed. I’ll bring her in with me in the morning.”

It took a moment for Claire to realise the implication of her words. So I’m spending the night at the hospital am I? I guess it makes a change from a hostel bed. Stifling a yawn, Claire focused on the sleeping face beside her, reminding her of what was important.

“Okay, Mum, see you soon.”

***

Parenting: Snow Fun. 2013 365 Challenge #84

Snow Monster

Snow Monster

Another snowy day survived. Thank god it’s Monday tomorrow and the darlings will be at nursery (assuming it’s open. Please let it be open). I’ve had a great day with the kids today but three days at home, trapped by the snow, are taking their toll.

The snow that fell overnight was softer, and drifted. No good for snowmen but great for snow angels and snowball fights. The dog especially loves catching and eating snowballs out of the air, until she resembles a snow monster.

My mistake was starting one of the random books I bought in my last charity shop visit.

The Divide by Elizabeth Kay. It’s brilliant. About a back-to-front world where magic is real and humans are imaginary. I’ve come to realise that MG fiction is about my level right now, although there do seem to be a lot of things dying in this novel considering it’s for middle grade kids. It’s written with enough subtlety, adventure and fascinating characters that I don’t want to put it down (Maybe I should see if I can write MG fiction – I might find it easier to edit a 40k novel rather than a 100k one!).

Snow Angels

Snow Angels

Anyway, good book = bad parenting. I want to read quietly and the children aren’t used to letting me do that. I decided that reading would be setting a better role model than standing at the computer all day consuming blogs and losing time on Twitter. It might be, but it doesn’t mean they leave me alone any less. They only go off and play nicely together when I want them to eat their dinner or leave the house in less than five minutes.

When my husband and I stumbled into bed at 10pm, exhausted and aching from pulling sledges and making snow angels, helping prepare home-made pizzas and playing fully dressed in the bath (it seemed like a good idea at the time), we both said to each other: “Another day survived.” No one died. (Littlest Martin tried quite hard to do the latter, having fallen off the bed, the sofa and the window sill. That was when he wasn’t having one long, endless, unexplained tantrum. They joys of being two.)

It reminded of a blog post I read recently on the Mumsnet blog network about parenting becoming a ‘thing’. In her post Neurotic Parenting (and Salmon) Lisa Parry writes about the difference between ‘being a parent’ and ‘parenting’:

[B]eing a parent means getting to the end of the day without needing to take Ben to A&E with anything too serious and giving him a couple of saucepans to hit with a wooden spoon. Parenting means doing stuff to stimulate him in a thoughtful fashion not because, you know, that’s just what you do with babies. It means following a theory – attachment parenting or Gina Ford – and entertaining the possibility that every single thing you do can have repercussions.

She goes on to discuss possible causes for the shift, quoting Nora Ephron’s ‘Parenting in Three Stages’ (which I think I might read)

Ephron thinks it could have been a consequence of the women’s movement – in a backlash against it, some women elevated parenting to a job and as parents can be quite competitive, the whole thing snowballed. One of my oldest friends who juggles her own business with her one-year-old thinks it could have been brought about by late motherhood: women leaving work as highly successful individuals and then managing their babies how they managed an office with timetables and targets. She may be right.

Endless Tantrums? Moi?

Endless Tantrums? Moi?

Whatever the causes it does seem to me that it’s no longer enough to keep our kids alive, healthy, happy and with an ability to read and write by the time they leave primary school. Parenting has become competitive and complicated and parents rarely pull together either in real life or online as often as they should. I have my own theory: I think we’re all so worried that we’re not shaping up to some ideal ‘supermummy’ image that we have to justify our own decisions and actions, forgetting that every child, parent, family and life situation is different. To validate our own choices we must therefore condemn the choices of others. At a time when you’re tired, vulnerable and isolated it’s difficult to see that there can be as many good versions of being a parent as there are babies in the world.

I don’t know what the answer is, I certainly don’t manage my house like an office. It took twenty minutes to get the kids in shoes and coats this morning. I do know that I’m relieved to have come out of the insulated hole, the tiny frame of reference you have when the babies are young, to realise that there are more important things in the world than whether my baby can do sign language or yoga. Not having to take him to A&E on a Sunday is a good start.

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Claire looked at the looming snowdrift crowding the road ahead. The snow pushed through winter hedgerows like marshmallows caught in a giant’s teeth. Snow in Manchester was grey and wet, like dirty slush-puppy. She’d never understood how a few inches of snow could bring the whole damn country to a halt. Now, seeing how the wind had whipped the snow ahead of it like a pack of huskies, until it buried most of the country lane, Claire understood how people became trapped in their cars. And died.

“Come on Stella, keep going. It can’t be much further.”

She had been driving for an hour since leaving Youlgreave hostel, against the advice of the hostel manager who clearly thought she was nuts.

I think he might be right. This wasn’t my cleverest idea. I don’t even have a blanket in the car, never mind a flask of tea or a shovel. I’m guessing this doesn’t count as an ‘essential journey’ although the police who advise against non-essential travel are never specific.

Thoughts twisted through Claire’s mind like eddies of snow as she concentrated on the half-concealed road ahead. Her eyes itched and she needed a wee but she suspected if she stopped the car it would refuse to start again.

I do not want to walk anywhere in this weather. Especially not with my rucksack.

It felt as if the landscape was closing in around her but it was hard to tell with the world turned to white. The first stretch of road had been flat and exposed and she prayed that rising hills meant the hostel was somewhere up ahead. Trees draped over the road, their branches bare and stark against the white sky. Claire felt as if she was driving through a tunnel. I really hope there’s a light at the end of it. And a steaming mug of Earl Grey.

At last a house materialised out of the white and Claire felt the knot in her stomach ease slightly. The need to pee took over. Driving into the village the road was clearer; more slush than snow. Claire considered abandoning the car and walking the rest of the way to the hostel but she was sure the cold air would enhance the call of nature. I’m damned if I’m going to squat for a pee in a snowdrift.

Stella the Skoda slipped and span on the slushy road, the back end swinging out towards parked cars. Knuckles white and brow furrowed, Claire wished she was back in her bunk reading Hunger Games rather than living her own adventure. Not that negotiating parked cars in the snow is really the same as fighting for your life against your fellow man. Well, only a little bit.

Eventually the Hall came into view. Claire had no time to marvel at the stately building tucked in amid the snow-laden trees. She slid the car into what she hoped was a parking place and scrambled out. Not waiting to retrieve her bag she scuttled into reception and searched for a sign. When she couldn’t see one she felt a flutter under her ribs. Come on, come on.

A head popped up from behind the desk and a smile greeted her pained expression.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, toilets please?”

With a bemused smile the woman pointed to a door round the corner and Claire fled.

***