Monthly Archives: June 2015

Fixing writer’s block

By Claire W. Staley

As a writer, I am familiar with this common ailment: Writer’s Block. When it attacks it can make your manuscript seem like the worst in the world. It’s frustrating, miserable, and kinda makes you want to throw your entire manuscript out.writersblock

Don’t do that. Instead, breathe, and then think about the following.

First of all, keep writing. The most important thing is not to stop and take a break. Set a timer for yourself and keep writing. I don’t care if you write four paragraphs of “la, la, la, la, la…” or “weeeeeeee,” you need to keep putting letters on the page, because if you stop writing you may never return.

Second, my moments of inspiration often happen when I’m neck-deep in other, necessary, work. For example, my most creative inspirations often come while I’m in my calculus II class. I’m so disinterested in what I’m supposed to be doing that my mind finds an alternative, which usually comes in the form of storylines. I am also inspired when I have three tests and two papers that I should be working on.

Funny how that works.

And, for me, I let it flow. Mostly because I’m passing calculus with no problem, so taking some time in my mind to fix my entire plot problem is not an unworthy cause. Listen to your body, your mind, and the little beast inside you trying to sort through millions of plot lines and make it into a seamless story.

Someone once said that what you do when you procrastinate might be what you should do for the rest of your life. Now me: When I’m listening to music I’m thinking about what scene in my book it would go with. When I’m rushing to class I picture myself as my main character running to/from whatever she’s running to/from. I do my homework and I think about if my character’s love interest would need to know it. I read other books and I look for inspiration for plot lines and characters. When I walk around at night I put myself into the scene where my character is sneaking around to spy on someone.

It’s my procrastination. It’s my second world. My split personality. Is it yours?

If not, that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. But it certainly helps. I don’t know why you are writing a book, story, poem, song, or anything else, but trust that your reasons for starting are good enough to finish.

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Game of Thrones and rape as a plot device

By SR Staley

A virtual firestorm of debate erupted last month over a rape scene in the popular HBO show “Game of Thrones,” a long-running series based on George R.R. Martin‘s weighty fantasy novels “A Song of Fire and Ice.” I haven’t seen the specific episode, or the scene, but the controversy appears to be over a creative decision by the producers & writers at HBO to make a rape scene between two characters a central event out of a minor one in the books.  Martin has responded on his blog by noting that creative differences between film, television, and books have a long history. This, of course, is not controversial and we’ve blogged on these differences before (see here , here, and here).GameofThronesCast

What is more controversial, or at least worth discussing further, is the role that sexual violence and rape play in storytelling. Martin is quoted in the Guardian newspaper as saying “I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”

Does the pursuit of drama and conflict justify using rape and sexual violence as a plot device? Is rape just a plot device? I’ve struggled with this very question because my novels often deal with sexual violence in some form or another. Systemic rape during slavery is an essential part of the backstory for Isabella in The Pirate of Panther Bayand a motivator for her drive for personal freedom as a pirate. The existential threat to Maria in Renegade is the use of sexual violence and rape to destroy her, physically and emotionally. So, I am very careful to think about how sexual violence and rape figure into the story line and development of my characters. At first blush, I found Martin’s comments flippant and remarkably insensitive.

Of course, rape and sexual violence work as plot devices only to the extent they cause conflict. Ironically, in the value system of Game of Thrones (and most societies before the Enlightenment and emergence of humanism), rape and sexual violence were “normal,” or at least insufficiently deviant to create the conflict that propels story. The fact that readers and viewers are responding to the rape scene in disbelief, anger, and horror because of its depravity is a sign of social and cultural progress. So, in the sense of creating conflict among contemporary readers, rape and sexual violence can be an effective plot device.

But, good stories need more than plot devices. The plot points must move the story and characters forward. This appears to be the essence of the objections to the rape scene in the episode in Season Five of Game of Thrones. On the one hand, rape and sexual violence is a normal part of the story and plot lines. Martin correctly reminds us that his stories are intended portray a medieval world accurately. But this show is not a documentary; it’s a narrative story. The creative question is: Do these scenes move the story and characters forward? Or are they devices used merely to hook viewers through shock?

If they move the characters and stories forward, then rape (and misogyny) serve a creative purpose and are justifiable in the context of the story and storytelling. The decision should not just be about drama and conflict; it should be about story. The writer’s role is to ensure plot points move the characters down the right paths for the story, whether they move into darkness or into light. I can only hope the writers of Game of Thrones have thought through the plot implications, and the system rape and sexual violence isn’t just a plot device to hook viewers through shock.

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When it’s time to break the writing “rules”

By Claire W. Staley

There are specific rules that are almost always followed in fiction, such as no adverbs, show don’t tell, and don’t overwhelm your readers with too many characters at once. Agatha Christie broke all of these rules in And Then There Were None, a mystery novel involving ten strangers with shady pasts on a deserted island. And yet, she is praised as one of the greatest mystery novelists. After reading this novel, she had me question my own past. Was I a murderer, too?Christie,AndThenThereWereNone

The reader is immediately introduced to all ten characters at once, and the reader gets multiple points of view. It’s chaotic, but I kept reading. She uses adverbs all the time, and yet it seems appropriate for the story type. They did not jump out at me as usual. She tells the reader what is happening and how the characters are feeling instead of showing them, but it works because the reader is never supposed to understand the characters to their fullest extent.

There is a time to break all the rules. There is a time to do what feels right instead follow conventional norms. There are times it makes sense to forgo the common, but the decision should be made intentionally. The author should know why he or she chooses to break the rules, and he or she should understand why the rules are put in place. That being said: listen to your gut and remember that writers are artists, and artists are supposed to do whatever they want with their art. Go forth and be free, and write something amazing.

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Slytherins Unite! The good and the bad of the “dark side” of Harry Potter

By Claire W. Staley

Hello all you Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, and Slytherins, and welcome to the Slytherin common room, or as I like to call it, this blog post. I am a proud Slytherin, though it has taken me some time to learn to love it.

I struggled to accept the fact that I am a Slytherin, because I wanted to be a Hufflepuff, but I couldn’t deny all the tests I took and retook on Pottermore. I am a full-blooded Slytherin. My heart broke when I learned this; my soul died a little, and I didn’t know what to make of it.

And then I started researching. I reread the Harry Potter series, noticing more about the Slytherin house and who inhabited it, and I became more intrigued. The house with the worst reputation, with the most evil students, and with the most haters, was my house. How could I ever be proud of that?

I detest most Slytherins in the books. I really do. Many of them are vile and horrible, but they are also the ones most visible. They are the ones we’re familiar with, and we don’t really get to know many nice ones. We know who Draco Malfoy is and we know who Pansy Parkinson is because Harry hated them with almost every fiber of his being.

But there are plenty of Slytherins in the background that are not evil. To start off with, there is Severus Snape: though despicable in nature and rather unpleasant, he is not evil. There are plenty that are intelligent, stubborn, kind, and compassionate. Because if there weren’t, Draco would never have had the kind of power he does. Someone with a blacker heart would have stepped up to compete. But to be honest, no one wants to be Draco Malfoy, not even Draco Malfoy.

I find solace in the fact that the kind Slytherins help keep everyone in check. They have to, because they have to balance out the not-so-good ones. All Slytherins are expected to go dark from the very beginning, even by adults, making it much easier for them to go dark. They are surrounded by people telling them they’ll be evil. People judging and hating them because of the house they are a part of, and this comes from fellow students and adults. Imagine what it would take to combat that and fight to be good?

So to those kind and compassionate Slytherins, you fight a hard battle. You fight to be good when no one gives you the chance.

I think the Slytherins can be pretty amazing.

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Knowing Terror

By SR Staley

I now know why people die in riptides. And the experience was my first confrontation with sheer terror. I have known for a while that I am not a strong swimmer, but I thought I had taken all the appropriate measures to protect myself in the surf. In fact, I had swum safely in similar waves numerous times that day (and the day before) under the same conditions. What made this experience different was a wrong step–literally about twelve inches–where I unexpectedly found myself in water over my head.

The swimming in the ocean–just 30 feet from shore–seemed so normal. I didn’t realize I was caught in the riptide until several minutes later when I tried to swim back to the beach. After several minutes, I realized I wasn’t making any progress. This riptide had the effect of keeping me in place. All those tips about letting the current take you out to sea until it releases you, and then swimming toward shore? No help here.

That’s when I panicked. The waves were breaking over my head and I couldn’t touch the sand below. I was tired because I hadn’t recognized I was caught in the riptide until after several minutes of vigorous swimming. My wife was less than 10 feet away, but I couldn’t call to her thinking at the moment that I would just pull her into the same quandary. The lifeguard was easily a football field away–watching the busier parts of the beach. In these moments, I suddenly realized one poorly timed gasp of air, or one unexpected break of a wave, would send saltwater gushing into my lungs. I wouldn’t be able to cough it out. I would go under, and there was nothing I could do. I would drown. I was going to die.

Obviously, I survived. Why am I here? It’s not because I became a miraculous swimmer, or experienced a surge of adrenalin that gave me super human powers. And it’s not because others recognized I was in severe trouble, or I was saved by a lifeguard. I did not experience the direct hand of God, or an angel. In the moment, I foolishly thought no one could help me.

No, I’m here for other, more mundane reasons far more relevant for a life that is not so terror stricken:

1) I recognized that I was trouble and resolved to do something about it,

2) I recognized that I was panicking, and took mental steps to calm myself. I owned my mental state, accepted it for what it was, and resolved to move forward. I was quite surprised at how simply acknowledging that I was in a panic actually helped calm me down and settle my mind. Acknowledging and embracing my emotional state gave me clarity and rationality because I could compartmentalize it.

3) I stopped using the strategy that didn’t work–swimming toward shore. Instead, in a move that probably saved my life, I decided to go nowhere by treading water. This bought myself time and allowed me to physically regroup.

4) I remembered what all that life saving advice from the educational flyers about riptides. Even though it would have been a lot easier to be in a riptide they described–one that was taking me out to sea rather than the one I faced that kept me in a perpetual state of high water–I understood the principle. I stopped fighting the tide. I paid attention to the waves and the direction of the surf. I used this knowledge to rise with the breakers and claim inches that seemed like millimeters toward the shore and safety.

The entire episode probably didn’t take more than five or ten minutes, but I have never felt the level of intense, overriding fear that I experienced in those moments. I believed Death was literally coming from underneath to grab me and pull me from this life. I have experienced extreme, even life threatening physical trauma in the past, but I have few memories and no feelings from it because my brain shut down. I have learned that this is normal for trauma survivors and it’s part of the defensive mechanism of the human body.

Terror is different, I have now discovered. It’s so visceral, so overwhelming, that it sticks to your insides in a way that reshapes your body and mind. I doubt that feeling of being overwhelmed by nature, of helplessness, will ever leave completely. But having survived this trial gives me a confidence, self-awareness, and personal strength that makes me stronger and, with a little luck, wiser. (Note to self and others: No more swimming when the red warning flags are up, no matter how many people are in the surf!)

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St. Nic, Inc. Makes Royal Palm Literary Award Semi-Finals!

I am pleased to announced that St. Nic, Inc., my reality-based action adventure about the North Pole, as been named a semi-finalist in the Royal Palm Literary Awards! The next step is for a judge to review and score the manuscript to determine if it makes it into the finals. RPLA_SemiFinalist_Badge

This is the furthest one of my novels has gone in this competition, so I am keeping my fingers crossed. RPLA’s award competition uses a rubric for scoring the manuscripts. Manuscripts that reach a certain threshold in overall scoring make it into the semi-finals and finals. The award winners are determined by a panel of judges.

Reason magazine has called St. Nic, Inc. a “comic thriller,” and award winning author Donna Meredith writes:

When the talented SR Staley tosses DEA agents, moles, computer whizzes, and a multi-national CEO into one action-filled plot, you get St. Nic, Inc.,  a story that sparkles like the North Pole on a sunny day.  St. Nic, Inc. offers a fresh vision of what modern tools like the Internet and high-speed delivery services could accomplish in the hands of the right Little People. This heart-warming re-imagining gives us reason to believe—and fall in love all over again with our most cherished time of year.

 

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