“Well, if it’s right there in front of you…”

Little girl at play with paints, by Serhiy Kobyakov, Veer 3880292

Little girl at play with paints, by Serhiy Kobyakov, Veer 3880292

I thought I was finished.

Our writing critique group of five recently met for the last time in 2012 due to the anticipated busyness of December. Because I completed my book (now at 72,000 words), and gave myself a deadline to be finished with edits by the end of the year, I sent them the final three chapters instead of the usual one. Here’s what one member of my group said.

“You’ve said all along this story is about redemption and forgiveness, but there’s only a very tiny bit about this at the end. It needs to be the meat of the story. It went too fast. Show the hatred. Go through the grief process. We didn’t see the anger, tears, blaming…”

In my novel, under the noses of their parents, a 10-year-old little girl is molested several times by her 15-year old brother. The boy is found out and arrested. He gets sentenced to 10 months in a juvenile detention center.

There are several scenes showing the emotional impact of what’s happened. The feedback was extremely discouraging as I thought I’d gone deep enough.

More discouraging—disturbing, actually—was that out of the four other people in my group, two of them thought that I was too hard on the older brother. They are both retired folks—a man in his 80s, a woman in her 60s. They said stuff like:

  • “You sent him to jail just for messing with his sister a couple of times? That’s rather harsh, isn’t it?”
  • “He’s just experimenting. It isn’t that bad. It’s normal.”
  • “Well, if it’s right there in front of you…”

So many thoughts screamed through my head. They’re making so many assumptions. They’re so ignorant. This is why childhood sexual abuse is so rampant.

Thoughts toward the woman: If you or someone you love went through this, you’d think differently.

Thoughts toward the man: What do you have in your history? Did you doodle with your little sister or cousin and because they were “right there in front of you”?

Lord help me. Instead, I said, “I might agree with you to some degree if two kids are ‘experimenting’ when they’re the same age—like maybe two 12-year-olds. That’s at least understandable. But you’re telling me you think it’s okay for a 12-year-old to mess around with, say, a 5-year-old? Being abused, invaded, even once by someone you trust damages the soul. It destroys your ability to trust or make connections with other people. It’s a huge deal.”

The other two women in our group agreed with me. A debate ensued. I don’t think anyone’s opinions were changed.

There are two issues here.

  1. The assumption that “youthful experimentation” isn’t sexual abuse is a major hurdle. Other readers may have the same response as my critique partners. Clearly I haven’t told the story well enough to break them out of their assumptions. And I need to stop assuming that everyone agrees that doodling with little children is a bad thing. [It’s painful just writing that sentence.]
  2. If my group of five is a microcosm of society, no wonder little girls and little boys are seen as free game—“Well, if it’s right there in front of you.” [That comment sickens me.] Maybe the world needs my little book.

This should be the impetus for me to tackle my story with renewed vigor. I should be on a mission to write a story that will change hearts and minds.

The problem is I don’t want to work on this book anymore. I’m done. I need to move on. I’m so tired of this topic. I can’t keep looking into the darkness. I want to quit. But I can’t.

Is it my job as a writer to transform my reader? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.   —Proverbs 3:5-7

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14 Comments

  1. There’s only one who can transform anyone…and that isn’t you, my friend. I know that isn’t what you meant, but I thought I’d answer the question anyway. Take a break. You’ve worked harder than you ever knew you could. Take a breath. The emotional impact on you is immeasurable. And then ask God what he would have you do. If he is calling you, he’ll give you what you need to complete the task. But I’ve never yet seen him hand the “easy out” card to anyone.

    Reply
    • Kim – the reminder is much, much appreciated. Transformation is way out of my hands. I must allow God to do his work and get myself out of the way. And I also appreciate the grace that a break from this project may be in order. When I’m forcing it or pushing through on my own, there’s no room to hear that still small voice.

      An easy card sure would be nice, though. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Wow, Natalie. I don’t even know what to say about the comments from the retirees, so I’ll focus on your question. (This is a long comment, so feel free to edit away.)

    If God is using you to write what He wants written, then it’s your job to write it down and it’s God’s job to transform the reader — as it is with any message He wants to convey. No writer has the power to transform a person’s heart. We can give them the information that God will use, but to carry the burden of changing a person is not our responsibility — at least that’s what the Bible says.

    When I told my friend (a contracted author with a Christian publisher) that I wanted to write a novel that deals with abortion, she strongly advised me to include both sides of the issue within the story, if I truly want to make an impact and cause people to think. And that’s what I want to do as a writer: Cause people to think — both about the topic and about God — as I share a little piece of the world with my readers.

    The topic you’re dealing with is horrific and personal to you. I don’t know how you could want to offer another side. But if you think the comments from this critique group are valuable, then you will have to take a look at the way you’ve written the perpetrator. However, it doesn’t sound like you have much respect for at least two of them. I’d want to be sharing my writing with people I respect. And not every critique has to be taken as valid.

    Are there other novels about childhood sexual abuse that you can read for reference? How do they write the perpetrator?

    I suppose dealing with stuff like this is part of critique group participation. I’m sure not looking forward to it, and I appreciate your willingness to share the experience with us.

    If you’re tired of your story, though, maybe you should put it aside for now. That’s not quitting. I know you put yourself on a deadline, but why not change it and take a breather? It sounds like you could use it. I’m rooting for you, Sister.

    Reply
    • Darla – the reminder that it’s not my job to transform people was much needed. Thank you! I lose perspective when I get discouraged, that’s for sure.

      Both sides of the issue. That could be the depth that I need to add to the story. My biases slant the whole thing and leave the perpetrator – a child himself – out in the cold and without a chance to make it right. It’s not that black and white. Hmmm. Need to let that percolate. There are a few fiction titles I’ve found dealing with this topic – definitely time to read them.

      One of the things I’m enjoying about writing a novel is learning to exercise logic. Cause and effect. If this happens, then this will happen. Common sense. Consequences. It’s much more challenging than I thought it’d be; emotions are messy.

      My critique group is valuable, but I’m thinking more and more about how they aren’t representative of my audience. At the same time, because they aren’t my audience, I’m getting input from them that I probably wouldn’t get from a Christian audience. I’ll be thinking and praying about that during the month-long break from meetings… I’m feeling that it may be time to move on but need to be sure.

      Thanks for your support Darla!!!

      Reply
  3. Great post!! What an important topic. Bravo for your handling of these views. It sounds like you might be able to add just a few things and make a huge difference.

    Reply
    • Heather, I need all the encouragement I can get. Thank you! This project feels bigger than it really is at the moment. I have the framework built; I just have lots of gaps to fill in. With some time away from the project to give me perspective, along with prayer and listening, this baby will get written the way it needs to be, Lord help me. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Natalie, I am beside myself with what you endured in the writing group. I can’t understand why anyone would excuse such behavior, but when we think about how often this terrible behavior occurs, it’s no wonder.

    I think the job of a writer is two-sided and it’s hard to do it fairly. While we are rooting for the obvious victim, there is another victim and that is the teenaged boy. As hard as it would be to get in his head, or at least, to write his side with empathy, I think you have to. First of all, the book would be stronger. Second of all, you would be an honest author. The boy is a victim of society, or by an older sibling or a peer, whatever his story might be. But I doubt he is inherently evil. Perhaps that is what the commenters were picking up on — even though they didn’t word it well at all! — this is a boy ( a character) who needs to be fully developed.

    Good luck, and I hope you do continue to work on the book. I think it’s important.

    Reply
  5. I think I vomited a little in my mouth when I read the comments you received. I do think it’s a product of their generation and I wouldn’t hold it against them too much. The mind is a powerful thing and once manipulated it can be hard to “wake up”. Could be that the woman WAS abused and coped by convincing herself it wasn’t a big deal. Anyway, most of your readers will be younger and will NOT respond that way, I promise you. I don’t think your group is a microcosm of the reading population as a whole.

    Your job is not to transform a reader. Your job is to write the story God’s given you to the best of your ability, bearing “craft” in mind (don’t want to become unteachable of course) and then let the Holy Spirit use your words as He sees fit in the lives of those it touches.

    You will have to go back to this book again. There’s absolutely no way you can avoid it; it will need another polish before going to print. At least once. But for now you are done and can take a break without guilt! I know that feeling well and you need to come away and rest. Get refreshed. =)

    Reply
    • Michelle! It’s so good to hear from you. Thanks for reminding me that my job is to listen, to write, to let God do the rest. Avoidance sure is tempting, but I know this project cannot be abandoned. I’ll rest, but I will need to pay attention to when the rest ends and avoidance begins. 🙂

      Reply
  6. I don’t know why it says “christianhomepage” on my comment! LOL

    Reply

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