Last week, I started a short story on the subway. Even though I advise everybody to find beta readers other than their mothers, I must admit that one of my beta readers is, indeed, my fabulous mother. I rationalize this piece of “do as I say, not as I do” by saying that she is also a writer, and also, she birthed me, so she is obligated to read my work promptly and give critical feedback. (Check your birth certificate. It’s in the fine print.)
Of the following story opening she said, “It’s really gross, I had a physical reaction reading it. I guess that attests to the quality of the writing… but Tracy, who is going to want to read that?”
Okay, she may have a point. I can’t read a horror novel, or watch slasher films because I find them unnecessarily gory. And I find that sometimes in the query pile, you can tell when an author is trying to be as gross as possible in an attempt to appeal to male readers. (Like extraneous f-bombs, this also tends to turn me off. I do believe in necessary f-bombs in YA, though.) But in this case, eliminating the squeamish parts pretty much eliminates the entire story.
So I suppose the question for today is — how gross is too gross in YA fiction?
By the time you’re fifty, they’ve grown like a layer of feathers over your body. Small badges of skin that range in size, though rarely in shape, and only sometimes in color. By then, you don’t really notice them anymore, except when they’ve become bunched up in your waistband, or if you happened to get one caught in the collar of your shirt.
I looked at myself in the mirror. At seventeen, I already had 32 skin tags. I flicked the tag on my right bicep, which had grown after my mother had caught me with a Hustler. I cursed myself for being so foolish – if I was smarter I would have grabbed the Playboy. Perhaps then my tag would have been smaller.
But the one I hated the most was the badge above my heart. It was the largest, a two inch by two inch square that was a little purple. Worse though, it seemed to be growing.
I pulled on a t-shirt and headed to my car. Squeed expected me in the park in half an hour. He said he had something to show me.
Squeed hadn’t been referred to as Sean since the fourth grade, when he let out a girlie “Squee!” on the kickball field. He’d caught the winning out, but that part of the story is only remembered by the people that consoled him as the tag started to grow. “Squee!” was on his throat, in such a spot that he usually had to keep it laid on top of his shirt, in the middle of his collar. It looked like he was always wearing the beginning of a flesh-colored neck tie.
“Hey Squeed,” I said as I climbed out of my Honda.
Squeed was sitting on a park bench across from the parking lot. He had a scarf wrapped around his neck.
It was seventy two degrees out.
“Ricky, come here!” Squeed waved his arms towards me.
Squeed was always like that – telling you to do something you were already in the process of doing. Perhaps that’s why he hadn’t been extremely popular before the kickball incident, either.
Squeed unwrapped the scarf so that his tag was visible. He took a deep breath.
“Does it look… different, to you?”
I looked at the flap of pinkish, freckled skin.
“I don’t think it got any bigger,” I said. My own tag started to feel hot against my heart.