As a Christian, do you ever wonder if there’s a way to write “Clean YA?” We hope you are thinking about this as you prepare for our September Master Class with Tessa Hall. To help you consider this important topic, we invited Helena George to talk about the things which she considered in co-writing her debut fantasy novel, Ships, Secrets, and Survivors.
First off, it is possible to write clean YA without sounding preachy or ending up with a boring book. I have read lots of books that were very enjoyable and gripping—and also had no “cringy” moments.
What exactly is clean fantasy?
In general, when someone says a book is clean, they mean there aren’t any sex scenes or excessive language in a book. Violence usually is not included in the “cleanliness” factor, especially in fantasy genres, where fights are expected; if there are very violence-heavy scenes, they are usually explained away in an additional comment: hey, it’s super clean, but the fights can be very bloody and descriptive.
Clean fantasy can be written by a Christian author, or just a secular author has decided not to include things that might be seen as offensive.
But when the YA genre contains so much immoral content, how do we write a good YA story without including the “trends” of sex and language and excessive violence?
Step One: Don’t hide from the truth
In the Pirate Hunter Chronicles, a swashbuckling fantasy adventure series that I co-wrote with Sarah Rodecker, the crew gets captured by pirates. Everyone knows pirates are dishonorable scoundrels, so is it any surprise that one comes down to the cells to “have some fun” with the captive ladies? He doesn’t get very far, thanks to one dashing hero, but it is a very real situation. My co-writer and I used this scene to show two things—how evil these pirates are, and to demonstrate that the hero-of-the-moment had gotten himself free and is willing to help save a new friend. While the pirate never explicitly states what he wants, his intentions are clear, at least to older readers. He merely unlocks the cell and approaches one of the females before getting knocked out.
Another character, picked up by the crew close to the end of the first book, was raised as an assassin. He, in particular, has a foul mouth. But we left the words up to the reader’s imagination.
To quote the line from the book:
“Had to (omitted) follow the (omitted) splashing you (omitted) made, hoping I (omitted) didn’t (omitted)(also omitted) swim past you!”
“Malachy?” Ravin gripped his knife a little tighter. “Is that you?”
The assassin released a stream of words darker than the night surrounding them.
We did it this way to avoid teaching new words to our readers. We can still show the full extent of this character’s personality, but we made a choice to keep it clean.
Two: If it “must” be there, show it in the light of truth.
In our determination to write realistically, we can’t shy away from the fact that there is sin in the world. Even our best and most heroic characters have failings and flaws. There are some YA stories out there showing characters who struggle through trauma from rape and abuse, and how there is healing and hope for the broken.
And does our swearing character get called out on his language? You bet he does!
Three: Make others aware of your choice
We live in an age of social media. Putting a content warning on the description of your book is easy. You can review your own book on Goodreads and let readers know what they might encounter. You can write a blog post with your views on what you wrote, and why you did it. Do your best to let others know, and let them make the decision to read or not.
Because what constitutes a clean book differs for everyone, readers and writers alike. What you may think is clean is still “too much” for someone else. And what makes you cringe may not give others even a pause.
A Call to Write Clean YA
Don’t write excessive foul language because that’s just how everyone talks these days. Don’t include a rape scene just to “liven things up” in the plot. Don’t claim to be a “clean” writer, only to have your characters constantly admiring each other’s hair and muscles and thinking about kissing…and then pass over writing an actual sex scene, because, hey, it’s clean, right?
Writing a clean book is a choice. Choose to show good relationships. Choose to write honorable characters. You don’t have to make them perfect (who wants to read that??), but don’t make them loose and immoral just because you want them to somehow be “relatable”.
It is not a sad thing to write a simple story. We don’t need to include all the gritty details. We don’t need all these horror stories.
But what about the fact that we are talking about YA? “The readers are going through this transitioning time in their lives. They’re falling in love, they will be tempted to sin, they want to read about all the romance.”
No. Don’t add to this. Show characters making the right choice. And when the characters don’t, write that with tact, paint it in its true light of sin, and always show hope for the repentant sinner.
Helena George last blogged for Write2Ignite on Musing with Music. Her debut book co-written with Sarah Rodecker, Ships, Secrets, & Survivors was reviewed here. Her high fantasy series The Red War Annals is releasing in 2022. Helena is also the co-founder of The Order of the Pen Press, where stories have a deeper purpose and a higher calling. When she’s not writing, Helena can be found playing her instruments, conditioning for an endurance horse race, or blogging under the pen name Julian Daventry.