If You're Writing About Assault ...

Content warning: this post will discuss sexual violence

By popular request, I’ve decided to write a post (or rather, rewrite something I posted years ago on an anonymous Tumblr) about a major trend in Young Adult books right now: sexual assault.

As a sexual assault survivor who longed to see myself in literature beyond Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, I’m excited to see authors tackling sexual violence in YA literature. However, with this trend obviously comes the issue of how sexual assault is written about. Some YA books about sexual assault are written by authors with limited personal experience , so I thought I’d put together a post (like this one I did about queer stereotypes in YA) on tips for writing about sexual assault.

  1. Sexual assault is not a plot device. I can’t say this enough. It’s not for shock value, waking up drifting readers, or just making a book “edgy” or “modern” (given #MeToo). So if you’re just putting sexual assault in your book casually for shock value, please don’t. It’s serious and if you’re going to put it in your book, you need to do it with tremendous thought and care.

  2. Graphic details aren’t necessary. Most of the YA books I’ve read that I find do justice to sexual assault don’t have tons of graphic details. Sure, they have some, but the details are limited. For example, All the Rage by Courtney Summers just mentions a hand on the survivor’s mouth. A small detail, but not too graphic. Some books mention some physical pain in the aftermath. If you’re adding a bunch of graphic details beyond that, ask yourself why. They aren’t needed to show the reality of how sexual assault impacts survivors, and honestly, graphic details can often come across as being mostly for shock value. It’s YA, not porn (to be blunt).

  3. Survivors react differently. One of my friends moved on pretty normally; one didn’t know it was sexual assault until months later; one had a nervous breakdown; I tried to act normal but inside I totally lost it, though people tell me I seemed normal on the outside. Some days are normal, others are a mess, often for no specific reason. Not everyone melts down, and not everyone can ignore it; vary up your character’s reactions!

  4. Survivors and perpetrators can be anyone. Survivors can identify as any gender and be assaulted by people of any gender. Not all survivors are able-bodied. Not all survivors are white (and people of color are actually more likely to be assaulted). While most perpetrators are white cisgender men, some aren’t.

  5. Assaults can fit different molds. I usually only see two types of assaults in YA literature: an assault at a party where the survivor is drunk, or childhood sexual abuse where the survivor totally hates the abuser, and that’s about it. Oh, and everything happens at night. Assaults can totally fit that mold, but assaults can be totally different. They can be within intimate relationships that already exist, in households, at school, etc. Statistically most assaults happen during the day. And maybe the survivor doesn’t hate the perpetrator completely.

  6. Listen to survivors. Don’t use Law & Order: SVU as your guide. Look at what actual survivors say about their experiences for guidance online, and when they talk about things that bother them in depictions of violence or come to you directly about a problem with something you’ve written, don’t ignore them. (P.S. Feel free to contact me if you have a concern about something you wrote.)

In summary, be intentional, empathetic, and careful. Sexual assault is so important in the lives of young adults, and if you write about it well, you can change someone’s life.

Do you have suggestions for what to add to this list? Comment below or Tweet at me (it can be a DM) and I’ll add it!

Here are things suggested through comments and DMs thus far (edited for grammar and clarity):

  • Not every assault is rape, and rape isn’t necessarily more severe than other forms of assault.

  • Putting your rapist in jail isn’t always the goal and isn’t always necessary to healing.

  • Telling people about a sexual assault isn’t always this moment where everything changes for the better. Sometimes it sucks.

..... Writer's Block? (February 20, 2015)

"The Passion of Creation" by Leonid Pasternak

"The Passion of Creation" by Leonid Pasternak

Someone asked me earlier today how I deal with writer's block. I think it's only fitting that I address that question in writing at midnight, because I write best the later it gets in the evening.

Writer's block is something I had a lot of problems with back in sixth grade. I would start the same story seven different times and never get past the first page. I'd get frustrated and decide the beginning was too boring, my character wasn't likable, and the plot was stupid. Then I'd switch the font a dozen times because watching something change on the Word document made me feel productive.

Everything changed when I did NaNoWriMo in seventh grade. In one month, I went from being the person who hadn't finished a story in a year to writing 50,000 words. It was the worst thing I've ever written, but hey, I wrote it! And that's what matters.

Even though I still get writer's block sometimes (example: procrastinating by doing this blog post), doing NaNoWriMo helped me come up with many strategies. See if any work for you.

  1. If you're stuck, try letting characters/plots come to you. You don't need to force it. As you're walking down the street and pass someone, do you think about where they're going? Do you give them a name, hopes, histories, destinations? There, you have a character! Trust me, once you stop forcing yourself to think of characters and plots, characters and plots will come to you. You have to be patient and willing to listen.
  2. Screw the opening. Who cares how the story starts in a first draft? Heck, start with a quote you like if that helps you get going as long as you get rid of it later. My novels all at one point started with the same sentence from The God of Small Things. Whatever you put on the page first in a first draft won't be there later anyway, so why stress about it?
  3. If you're like me and you obsess over evil squiggly lines that yell at you for spelling things wrong, turn them off. It's miserable editing everything later once you enable the feature again, but worth it because you don't compulsively go back to fix typos when you're writing.
  4. Allow yourself to procrastinate. If you need a day off, take a day off. If Netflix is calling to you, watch Netflix. Don't stress about never taking breaks so you can finish extra early. Take the time you're given by a teacher, editor, agent, etc. and use it! And yes, relaxing as well so the writing feels less forced counts as using it.  
  5. Write at night. You'll be less inhibited. (As much as I'd like to discourage doing this on a school night, there's actually a fun sneaky feeling that comes with writing at 1am the night before a math test that lends itself well to mystery/suspense writing.)
  6. Finally, and most importantly: write FOR YOU. Write because there's a story that needs to be told, a character who needs to be heard, because you won't sleep until you've gotten all the thoughts in your brain onto a page. If you realize you're only writing because you need money (hint: pick a different job) or have a deadline, you're not writing for the right reasons. Do it because you hate to love it and love to hate it, because you desperately want to press the same letter on your keyboard thirty times in frustration at 3:06am because the words you just typed don't sound right together, because you miss the buzz of drinking three cups of hot chocolate, because you crave the feeling of your hand going numb from a carpal tunnel syndrome flair up from typing too much. Don't write because you think you should be an author; write because you're a writer.