The Perils of Revision: Telling a Tale of Abuse

Post Date: September 4th, 2012

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I believe there is truth, black-and-white, good vs. evil truth. There’s wrong and there’s right. But the telling of it is often gray. That telling and its perilous navigation would be the purview of us writers.

Once upon a time, my YA novel, HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT, dealt with sexual abuse in the protagonist’s past. A 16 year-old girl, Wendy, is a survivor fighting to make sense of this horrible wrong, four years later.

In this current draft, the abuse happens in real time. My agent and I have discussed reasons for this rewrite–that YA readers if not many adult ones need current, suspenseful events to care about a character. Watching a character fighting to survive now is more compelling than hearing about the aftermath. The Hunger Games wouldn’t pack the same punch if Katniss told us how it all went down there in the woods when she’s sitting here in the present quite safe. A narrative frame such as that can lift you out of the action and remind you too much that you’re reading a story.

Author C. Hope Clark explores the plusses of making your reader uncomfortable–leaving your reader with a feeling of exhaustion. Conventional wisdom says in crafting your character’s plot, make something bad happen to your character, and just when you think, It can’t get worse–make it worse.

I’m following this advice. But these scenes of abuse, as you can imagine, are not easy to write. “Don’t go there” comes to mind. There is no joy writing scenes of murder, torture, or rape. And in this political climate where politicians use phrases like “legitimate rape,” it feels especially dangerous to turn the camera on a young girl being abused, a girl who is not sure she can call it that.

We live in a world where people across cultures ask if she was asking for it. Where questions of power seem to place a hot lamp on women’s unstoppable powers of seduction and apparently well-fortified reproductive organs. I don’t want to write scenes where young girls wonder if I’m asking if she was asking for it. I also don’t want to write scenes that predators would endorse.

But that’s the challenge of my job. Writers have to stand in limbo of shadowy, questionable gray. This horror happens and many people survive it. It’s an important story to tell and being afraid to tell it is part of the trauma people experience.

It’s not just politicians that motivate me to write this tale. I also feel sure I must do it when I see women snapping up the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey. What a strange light that shadowy work shines on our gender roles, desires, and the rules of power as they still play out. This wonderful rant by Britt Hayes makes me sure I am writing something that will challenge the crazy that’s made Grey’s author a multimillionaire. But I can’t say I’m enjoying the ride.

This revision is not fun, but it must be done. Now the veil is lifted on my worry that this writing is not going to do anyone any good, but yet something in me says, Go on, show how it goes, and maybe in the telling something pure and clear will emerge and maybe I and someone else could be able to see for miles.

As our students go back to school and search the hallways for friendly faces, and as they meet their teachers for the first time, there are some who will be hiding massive secrets. They will have horror to survive each week that no one knows. They could return home daily to Jerry Sanduskys and Mary Kay LeTourneaus and other tortured souls who call themselves parents, mentors, authorities in a child’s life. I write this book for all the youth who seek a trustworthy adult and find that trust abused; who didn’t know where the adult was headed with that first touch; who can’t speak for all the fears that choke them silent. I hope my book tells some to find a trustworthy soul they can tell and others–unknowing spectators–that survivors walk among them.

Back to the page. The way is foggy and often the page looks dim. But the purpose is sure like an arrow and somehow, I’ll emerge with something on the other side. Whether this is a YA novel remains to be seen, but I will file its genre under “GRAY” right now: adult themes, lived by youth. I’ll let librarians and booksellers work that one out.

Writing Prompts

  • Which books did you read in school or have you taught that deal with complex, traumatic events such as rape, incest, or abuse? How do you approach these works as a reader, a writer, or as a teacher? Do you call out these events as what they are, and speak of them? 
  • What works do you think are wrong for a high school classroom? Why?
  • What is gray about the telling of these things? How do authors make these issues gray, and in so doing, do both wrong and right to the subject and survivors?
  • How do you use journals and storytelling to help people explore issues that are highly sensitive? (Consult The Why and How of Writing Prompts for some assistance.)


  1. Bob Mustin says:

    “Watching a character fighting to survive now is more compelling than hearing about the aftermath.” Absolutely! It’s a cinematic, real-time world in the realm of writing.

  2. Hey, Bob,

    3 cheers for cinematic writing! No surprise that SAVE THE CAT has been one of my mentors throughout this process. How’s your revision kicked off?


  3. Bob Mustin says:

    Right now my writer’s voice that comes from the Middle Ages is having to compete with the one from Sam’s Place. 🙂

  4. Hope Clark says:

    No doubt, writing all that tragedy into one character is exhausting for the writer . . . if it’s to be exhausting for the reader. I still stand by it, though. When you think you’re done with a book, actually go back and look at each and every page, seeing if there is a word, a movement, a thought that can increase the pressure. You’ll be so glad you did.

    And thanks for mentioning me! I’m honored!

    Hope Clark

  5. Thanks, Hope. Yes, that final look helps me find ways to cut, too, which is another way to increase momentum. Telling too much lessens the pressure of a scene when action and dialogue can do most of the work.

    Bob, with 2 feet in 2 completely different worlds, you must have a beautifully divided mind!

  6. Laura Drake says:

    Lyn, What the reader wants most is the emotional journey. My current WIP deals with childhood sexual abuse, but the protag is now an adult, dealing with the scars.

    In the one scene where she recounts the abuse, I hone in on her feelings, and fade to black on the physicality. The emotion is more horrifying that any picture anyway. Your readers will get it, and thank you for not ‘going there’ with the physicality. IMHO

  7. Laura, I would add that readers do a lot of work during the “fade to black” and feel the horror of images they generate. Watching the movie Psycho the other day, I saw how Hitchcock shows no actual violence during the famous shower scene. You see the horror on Janet Leigh’s face and the blood pooling in the shower drain, and that is enough.

    With small children and abuse, how much do we need to see. With teens and abuse, how much do we need to see? That’s the question I’m asking–or rather, have been asked to answer, and I still struggle with it.

    Thanks for your thoughts!