First of all, we have the choice whether to pick up a book and start reading or to do something else, like leveling up our Pokémon or watching a repeat of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. We also can decide to put a book down and never look at it again (or throw it out the window of a moving vehicle, or donate it to a prison library). So if you find yourself reading something that’s too graphic, you know what to do (maybe not the prison library option if it is really that graphic—they don’t need any new ideas).
On a side note, I find it interesting that books haven’t been subjected to a ratings system like every other entertainment medium (TV, movies, video games)—especially YA books. No one has even gone the music industry’s route by slapping a “parental advisory” on the covers of more explicit books. Do people think that because there aren’t any pictures or audio that a book can’t be that graphic? Because that is so not true. The most graphic and explicit things I’ve ever encountered have been in books (and it’s not like I was seeking that sort of thing out either).
I finished those explicit books (and read more by the same author), so I’m certainly not promoting such a rating system if it would limit people’s access to an excellent story, but I’m not denouncing it either. I do think it’s good to know what to expect when you start a book. You don’t want to go to a movie expecting a comedy and find yourself sitting through a tearjerker, just like you don’t want to start what you think is a romance novel and find yourself reading from the point of view of a sadistic serial killer. Knowing the genre of the book helps prepare your imagination for what to expect, and maybe a ratings system would help too, who knows.
Anyway, when I write, I concentrate on doing what’s suitable for the characters and the story. I don’t put in sex to give cheap thrills, but I have had sex scenes to varying degrees in most of my books because it’s usually a very dramatic step for a character (and if it’s a common occurrence for them then obviously it would come up at some point as well, though in that case I wouldn’t give it the same level of focus as a first-time coupling).
As for foul language, I don’t have anything against occasional cussing. I love how every word in our language has its own meaning and implication, and “drat” or “phooey” just don’t express the same level of emotion as their counterparts. Every once and a while even I will yell out a choice profanity, and voicing my pain/anger/frustration helps me feel better.
But there’s a time and a place for dirty mouths. My defined time and place may be completely different from yours. Just like in a story there are some characters who don’t hesitate to drop an F-bomb, and there are others who blush after just thinking of a dirty word.
Censoring your own characters because you’re uncomfortable using those words would end up sounding as dumb as when network TV shows a movie that has been “edited for content,” and the gangsters groan, “Oh shucks,” or scream, “Flub you!” (I’ve heard some pretty funny ones before.)
Now, if I tried writing a middle grade or younger book, would I make a story featuring a hardened gangster who has an explicit vocabulary? Most likely not—I don’t like to rule out possibilities when it comes to writing, but I’d also want the finished product to be publishable.
Like I said before—it’s all about choices. Writers and readers have to decide how far they’re willing to go—where to draw the line.
I’ll use my manuscript The Hollywood Effect as an example. In the story, Valerie’s movie has to have scenes that she’s ashamed of people seeing, so there is sex, cussing, violence, and nudity. I did my best not to hold much back when I wrote it, and the best compliment I’ve gotten for it so far was when Brian A. Klems (here’s a link to his blog), an editor from Writer’s Digest, told me that he found the inciting incident—when Gwen is mugged—hard to read (he meant it in a good way).
In contrast, Valerie’s scenes in the rest of the book are much different. She’s not a saint or a prude, but she is nothing like her character Gwen—at least at first.
I want this blog to be accessible to everyone, but I also don’t want my characters–therefore me–to be censored, so I’ve made the choice to put a little warning before any posts with explicit language or scenes to let you know what to expect.