Almost everyone has had the experience of finding a hair in their soup. If this happens at a restaurant, people are less likely to return. If this happens in a novel, or a series, the author can loose their audience. So what kinds of things qualify as a hair in the soup for writing?
The simplest example is using swear words in a children’s book. If you drop an F bomb in a book meant for 3rd graders, don’t expect any parents to recommend the book to their friends. It’s simple to see that line for Children’s Books, they are meant to be G or PG rated. But when you move into the YA world, some books are written at the PG rating, and others are PG-13. That means if you drop the f-bomb once in the book, as an expletive, many parents won’t let their children read it. If you’re aiming at the 13 and up crowd, that might be good. But remember that if there are even two f-bombs, or if its used in a lewd way, the movie would get an R rating.
A simple guide for how clean to keep your books is to know your audience. Take the age of your protagonist, subtract two years, and keep it clean enough for that age. Most parents don’t want their 12 year old watching R-rated movies, and some aren’t comfortable letting their 16 year old watch a PG-13. You can’t please them all, but you should aim to please as many as possible.
I know the argument: “But that’s the kind of character they are!” Well, guess what. YOU WROTE THEM THAT WAY! That means you change them. Even people who use foul language all the time often avoid using it in front of a priest, or other people who they know are offended by it. So if you write books on the hazy lines of PG to PG-13, or PG-13 to R, please take the time to consider whether adding curse words will broaden or narrow your audience.
A more complex example is one I often see when an author’s first (and only) series is a big hit. I’m talking about Christopher Paolini and Robert Jordan as prime examples. The first book is good, clean PG fun. But a couple of books later, they change things up, and suddenly we’re in PG-13 territory. Christopher Paolini includes several torture scenes, which even he admits is his attempt to write horror. The problem is, Eragon doesn’t belong on the Horror shelf. And truly, Brisingr doesn’t either, but it has enough horror in it to leave a foul taste in many people’s mouths. Robert Jordan made it through four or five books keeping everything good and clean, but his sixth book moves from PG into the PG-13 range. J.K. Rowling is an example of having her series evolve as the character grows. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is appropriate for most 9 year olds, and that’s appropriate, as Harry is 11 years old. But The Deathly Hallows is clearly written at a PG-13 level. Well, guess what! By then, Harry is 17, and the book is appropriate for most 15 year olds. Her audience grew up with Harry, and the kids who read The Philosopher’s Stone at age 9, were 21 by the time The Deathly Hallows came out. The audience grew up, the character grew up, and so did the writing.
The main message here is to consider how the elements of your novel will affect your audience. It isn’t about the author’s morals, but the morals of those who are going to pay money to get the book. Know your audience and make sure your book appeals to them as much as possible without losing artistic integrity.