Category Archives: Renegade

Is Katniss Everdeen a strong female character?

I have now seen all four Hunger Games movies and read all three books, and I am now doubting whether Katniss Everdeen’s character is worthy of ascending into the pantheon of strong female characters. Well, that might be too strong of an indictment, but I don’t think she makes into my top ten. This is a reluctant conclusion, but as a novelist who features young adults and women in ensemble stories, I think “strong characters” should have at least five characteristics:Mockingjaypart2

  1. Strong characters should have strong identities. Identities evolve, and characters don’t need to start out strong, but they need to end strong. They have to develop a sense of their own place in the world and how they relate to it. Moreover, this identity has to be recognized by their peers.
  2. Strong characters should relate to peers as a peer.  Self-doubt, even self-loathing, can be powerful tools for the novelist, and often provides tension that propels story. But at some point strong characters need to break out of their narcissism and begin relating to other characters, either as a leader or as a full-blown member of the team. Characters can be first among equals, but they still must operate on the same plane as those they interact with on a regular basis in the story.  
  3. Strong characters should make important choices. Making choices is what defines identity and character. The kinds of choices they make determine the character’s integrity and their honor. The choices do not necessarily have to be the right ones, but the character needs to make them, and they make choices only they can make. These choices propel the character arc and the story.
  4. Strong characters should take personal responsibility. Once these choices are made, the character has to accept the consequences, good or bad, of those choices. These consequences also serve as ways to propel the story, but a key test of a character’s integrity is how they handle the consequences. In most cases, the character has to restore balance, or re-establish some sense of fairness, in the world in which they operate.
  5. Strong characters should exhibit courage. Strong characters are self sacrificing in order to achieve something bigger than themselves. This is again one of the most powerful tools of a character. They can’t lay in hiding throughout the story. Without a doubt, a character can begin weak or cowardly, but they must evolve to a point where their self-sacrifice becomes a defining part of their story. Sometimes, the exhibition can be very small in the context of the story, but it has to be big in the context of the character.

How do I rate Katniss Everdeen along these five characteristics? She never quite achieves a state of self-fulfillment or identity. In fact, she retreats from the world and refuses to engage in it once her tasks are completed. The Hunger Games is very much a plot and setting driven book so the story is very existentialist; the characters are driven to act because of circumstances beyond their control. Thus, the characters are reacting and relating to their environment; they are not manipulating their environment.

Beyond this story-telling constraint, which appears to be intentional by author Suzanne Collins, Everdeen’s character is never in control. Even when it appears to the reader (and viewer) she is in control, she really is not. We never really get the sense that Katniss is her own woman–independent, strong willed, courageous, yes, but she’s not in control of her destiny. Not surprisingly, she plays defense, not offense. Even in a world in which defense is the only option, defensive strategies can be used offensively, but Katniss Everdeen is never that strategic. She leaves it to others to make these choices and take on the risks. In short, her choices do not drive the plot or the broader story. The exception might be in Mockingjay where she decides to go on her own to kill Snow, but even this is a weak form of decisionmaking and commitment. Her quest to kill Snow becomes driven by an existential drive for revenge and retribution, not a reflective choice about outcomes.

Moreover, Katniss’s ultimate goal is to return to her home with her family. When she returns to District 12 without her family, she is essentially forced to cope with the loss, but doesn’t exhibit any of the courage associated with overcoming the scars and wounds of the violence she has experienced. She is depressed, and she has nightmares, but these define her new reality. She never engages in the healing that is necessary to seize control of her life, and she is not challenged after the rebellion finally takes control. We are left with some hope at the end, but we don’t have a real sense she has come to grips with the ugly realities she was forced to confront. We don’t get a sense that her character is stronger or more complete than when she stepped into the Hunger Games for the first time.

So, while Everdeen certainly has several characteristics of a strong female character, she doesn’t exhibit the character or the arc in the story that elevates her to the level of a strong female character or, for that matter, a character that should be emulated or become a role model. Here’s a brief summary of my scoring of Katniss Everdeen as a heroine along these criteria:  

Strong Protagonist Check List
Characteristic

Katniss Everdeen

Strong identity

weak

Relate to peers as a peer

weak

Make important choices

medium

Take personal responsibility

strong

Exhibit courage

strong

Just for fun, and because this is a blog that highlights my professional journey as a writer, I thought I would rate my four principal heroines (I have others) along the same criteria. I’ve taken a look at Nicole Klaas, the CEO of NP Enterprises in St. Nic, Inc., Isabella the escaped slave turned pirate captain in The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay, middle-school bully Maria from Renegade, and the strong-willed Lucy who tries to save her friend Luke from bullies in their school in A Warrior’s Soul. Here are the results: 

Nicole Klaas

Isabella

Maria

Lucy

Characteristic

St. Nic, Inc,

(2014

Panther Bay/

Tortuga Bay

(2014/2015)

Renegade

(2011)

A Warrior’s Soul

(2010)

Strong identity

strong

medium/strong strong

strong

Relate to peers as a peer

strong

medium/strong strong

strong

Make important choices

strong

strong/strong strong

strong

Take personal responsibility

strong

strong/strong strong

medium

Exhibit courage

strong

strong/strong strong

medium

Interestingly, my strongest characters are Nicole Klaas and Maria. Both of these novels won literary prizes. Renegade won second place in the children’s chapter book division of the Seven Hills Literary Competition. St. Nic, Inc. won second place in the Published Mainstream/Literary Category in the Royal Palm Literary Awards. I have taken my own advice to heart, however, and Isabella has evolved into quite a heroine as she takes her crew into the maelstrom of a nascent slave revolt in Port-au-Prince in Tortuga Bay (published in 2015).

While I am disappointed that Katniss Everdeen doesn’t score higher along these criteria, The Hunger Games books remain very engaging reads. I recommend them for their quick pace, anti-violence, anti-war message even though Katniss Everdeen’s character arc is shallow. She is definitely brave and skilled, but she falls short of the leadership qualities and understanding of her own identity that would take her to the top of my list.

Now for shameless self-promotion: get free shipping & handling if you buy any of my books from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing through December 30, 2015! Use the coupon code STNIC.

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Five expected and unexpected benefits from winning a literary award

By SR Staley

St. Nic, Inc. was awarded second place in the 2015 Royal Palm Literary Awards, and the win was a real confidence booster for me personally. This isn’t the first time I’ve won a book award–Renegade (Wheatmark) took home second place in the Seven Hills Literary Contest and Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Books) earned 1st place in the Sir Antony Fisher Memorial Prize–but the RPLA award has elevated my fiction writing to a new level of respect among my fellow authors.

RPLA_2ndPl_BadgeWith a few more years of experience under my belt, however, I can reflect on the impact of the award and its meaning, personally and professionally. So I put together these thoughts on the expected and unexpected benefits of winning the award.

  1. Professional validation. Perhaps now more than at any other time, authors wonder if their writing is “good enough.” In part, this is due to the tremendous change in the publishing industry. As traditional legacy publishers with integrated national distribution networks consolidate, and smaller presses focus on niches, authors are finding the only practical pathway to publication is often through self-publishing or some form of subsidy publishing. While many excellent books are published through these sources–in fact, Renegade was published through Wheatmark, a very professional hybrid publisher–authors are often left wondering whether their writing is good enough to compete. Winning an award tells us that yes, we can write and we can achieve excellence, at least as measured by our peers.StNicInc,COVER
  2. Reader validation. I didn’t really think about this until I pondered the self-centered nature of a one-star review I received on amazon for, ironically, St. Nic, Inc. The reviewer trashed St. Nic, Inc.–and I mean trashed it–despite a slew of four- and five-star reviews that proceeded it. When our books win a literary contest, we validate our readers and all those who enjoyed our stories and characters. No one who left a good review on amazon.com will ever have to justify their positive review, and, just perhaps, we hold the book snobs and narcissists accountable for their bad behavior.
  3. Raising awareness. Winning an award, or even making it to the semifinals or finals, raises awareness about our work, giving us a needed boost to our marketing efforts. Sometimes, publishers and authors get caught in a cycle of simply generating content and posts on social media just to keep our name visible. But winning a literary award provides real content and is a win-win: Authors benefit because the quality of our work is validated through an external, third-party source and the book awards benefit by marketing their contest, raising the competitiveness and improving the validity of the contest in future years.
  4. Rekindling the joy of writing. Writing is a long, arduous process. As creative as the it can be, we face many periods of slogging through stages we would prefer off load to someone else. I remember when my first book was published–Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities–its actual publication seemed anti-climatic. So much time had been spent finalizing the manuscript, monitoring the book through the production process, developing the marketing plan, and navigating dozens of other smaller administrative decision points that that joy and wonder of writing seemed completely displaced. Winning the Fisher Award goosed my creative energies (as have the Seven Hills and RPLA wins).Renegade,cover
  5. Validating my publisher(s). With nine published books under my belt, I think authors tend to forget the importance these wins have for our publishers. I have become more keenly aware of this since my venture with Wheatmark, a subsidy publisher (but not a true self-publishing company because they don’t take every project), I am more keenly aware of the time, effort, money and resources needed to bring a quality book to press. My publishers–subsidy, self, or traditional–deserve my best efforts to market and sell books for them. Otherwise, they go out of business and our careers stall. In years past, self-publishing was a dead-end for a career. Now, the game is completely different, and publisher like Wheatmark and my current (traditional) publisher, Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, are partners. Winning book awards validates their investment in me as an author.

Many authors are rightly proud of our work when we win an award. But I think the benefits are far broader than we often appreciate. So, this award is not just for me; it’s important for everyone who supports and invests in my career as an author.

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Pirates, Aliens, and Cats, Oh My!

I will be signing copies of the Pirate of Panther Bay, St. Nic, Inc, A Warrior’s Soul, and Renegade at My Favorite Books in Tallahassee on Saturday, July 18, 2015, from 11 am to 1 pm. If you are in town, come out and join me as I talk about these books and others, including the forthcoming Tortuga Bay.June2015-signing

 

I will be joined by Bruce Ballister, the author of Dreamland Diaries and Orion’s Light. These popular sci-fi novels are great for young adults and adults, and Bruce’s stories are characterized as “science fiction with a southern accent.”

 

We will be joined by Chris Widdop, author of Velcro: The Ninja Kat and Velcro: The Green Lion. Check out Chris’s blog for insights into popular culture and media, including timely movie reviews. Need I say more?

I’ve not met Chris before, but he lists Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Interstellar among his top five movies for 2014. I think we’ll get along well.

Don’t forget to visit my updated website for the newest news!

See you on Saturday!

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Mapping ninjas into the classroom

Imagine a series of middle-grade novels that allow parents and teachers to explore the following questions in their classrooms:
  • How does violence effect human behavior and psychology?
  • How do stories reflect how people behave through fear, shame, power, strength?
  • What is the nature of courage and leadership, and how does this bystander culture limit it
  • How does bullying, intimidation and oppression, by individuals and in groups, effect human
  • How doe adults relate to children, and how is this different from peer relationships, whether child to child, or adult to adult?
  • How do young teens deal with the challenges, threats and violence they face on a daily or regular basis?
Well imagination is no longer necessary! These themes and more are developed through the stories and characters of A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade.  Honestly, I didn’t realize how thorough these themes were, and how well they mapped over to newly established Common Core literary standards, until I went through the exercise myself.
While I had written the books thinking about classroom use, I was quite gratified to see how well they fit the needs of classroom teachers.The results are available for free download at my website, www.srstaley.com, or by clicking here.
These maps are for 7th grade common core literary standards. I am working on 5th, 6th and 8th grade maps as well.
Stay tuned!
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Treating Guns Realistically in Children’s Literature

While volunteering for the Tallahassee Writers Association at Downtown Marketplace, an older woman picked up a copy of my book A Warrior’s Soul. My quick summary emphasizes that the story is about school violence and self defense. 

“Does it have guns?” she asked. 
I hesitated–it’s the first time someone had asked that question–but answered “yes.” She immediately put the book down and walked on. 
I was disappointed in her reaction, and it had nothing to do with the lost sale. Like most authors, I write stories that I believe are authentic. A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade are contemporary stories dealing with school violence. The deal realistically with the current problem and the brutal nature of bullying and violence. How can I not have a story that also involves guns?
The real issue should be how are guns treated in the story, and what purpose they serve to the plot. To avoid a role for guns, or other weapons, in a story of violence detracts from the power and realism of the story. Indeed, my experience with teenage readers is that they connect to the stories because they are real, not sanitized parent preferred versions of their world.
The gun serves as a powerful plot driver in A Warrior’s Soul, but it is never glorified. The story direct addresses the mystical allure of guns as a way to even the odds against more powerful enemies. And this is true. Guns are the Great Equalizers. It’s one reason why more and more women buy guns for self-defense.
But guns in the hands of an untrained and inexperienced user–Luke, Lucy, Chuck, Dirk, and the other kids in A Warrior’s Soul–represent a toxic and potentially lethal mix. The plot doesn’t shy away from the potentially tragic consequences of their use in the wrong hands. 
While some, apparently like the woman at Downtown Marketplace, may believe that we should purge contemporary stories for children and young adults of guns, I believe we need plots and characters that see them realistically. Guns are ubiquitous in our society–in film, in our homes, and on the nightly news. Denying this social reality puts our children at greater risk, not less. 
Guns are tools–adult tools–whether they are used for hunting, sport, or self defense. Our children need to understand their power and the circumstances in which they are used appropriately and inappropriately. In A Warrior’s Soul, their use is inappropriate, and the consequences of their use are potentially devastating because of poor decisions made by different characters. This, in fact, is one of the lessons from their story (and a subject of the discussion questions listed at the end of the book). 
Guns are not evil. They are not good. They are tools that can be used appropriately or inappropriately, depending on the circumstances, motives, training, and judgement of their human owners.
Shouldn’t we have more stories like this? Perhaps our children would have a healthier respect for guns as well as each other if they did.
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Southern Yellow Pine Publishing Lists Books by SR Staley

Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, a publisher specializing in southern topics and authors, is now selling the following titles by SR Staley:

Check out all the titles and their growing stable of authors here.
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“Renegade” book trailer called “captivating”

The book trailer for Renegade was published on youtube on Thursday, June 13th, and it’s getting rave reviews so far. Viewers have called “captivating,” “very powerful,” “as fast paced as the book,” “action packed,” and “inspiring.”

I’ll have more to say on this later, but I think one of the reasons viewers have responded so positively is because the trailer fits the medium–video (and film) is visual. This trailer is stylistically much closer to a movie trailer in that it attempts to communicate visually and sensually to draw in the viewer. 
Whether the trailer generates book sales is another story. Stay posted. 

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Book Signing: June 22nd!

Come see and talk to SR Staley as he signs copies of his novels The Pirate of Panther Bay,  Warrior’s Soul and Renegade at Tropical Smoothie Cafe’ in Centerville, Ohio on Saturday, June 22nd, from noon to 2 pm. The store is located at 6241 Far Hills Avenue in the Washington Square Shopping Center (behind Dorothy Lane Market). 

He will be appearing with science fiction author C.L. Gregoire who will be signing copies of his novel Death Spiral
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Does the New York Times boost book sales?

In an earlier post, I discussed a
recent article I had written that 
appeared in on-line forum Room
for Debate published by the New York Times
. My article
focused on the role bystanders have in intervening when they witness violent
crimes, and how that intervention is important in maintaining a free and civil
society. These are central themes in 
my
bullying novels
 for
middle graders, 
A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade.

Like most
authors, I am experimenting with different strategies for raising my visibility
among key audiences. I am appearing at the Downtown Marketplace in Tallahassee and I’m
active in the 200+ member Tallahassee Writers Association. Renegade
also won 2nd place in the Children’s Chapter Book Division of 2012 Seven Hills
Literary Competition, a national contest sponsored by TWA with blind judging. I
am also building my web presence and digital footprint to emphasize my
expertise in bullying and self-defense, and, most recently, I launched a blog
on “practical self defense” at www.defensivewarrior.com. All this
was set up before the New York
Times
 article was published.

On some metrics,
this was a very successful marketing event. Visits to my website (
www.srstaley.com) tripled, helped in large
part to the inclusion of a direct link in my tagline. Traffic stayed well above
typical levels for several days. Higher traffic to my web site also likely
drove a new tripling of traffic to my self defense blog since I linked used my
home page to link to articles for background.

So, did I
experience a bump in book sales when the Times article appeared? Or, more
directly, was I able to monetize this raised international awareness and
exposure? 

The short answer
is no. 

It’s a little
tricky tracking my impact but amazon.com provides a useful barometer. From the
basic metrics tracked by amazon, print sales have done virtually nothing since
the article appeared on April 22nd. Digital sales seemed to have increased
slightly as my author ranking began to spike somewhat more frequently around
the third and fourth weeks of April. But my rankings have spiked more
frequently since the beginning of the year, and these spikes seem to center
more around personal appearances than general publicity. Thus, the more
frequent spikes are just as likely a product of ongoing marketing efforts that
build on and link individual events rather than one specific event.

I also have not
added many twitter followers since the article appeared even though my twitter
handle (@SamRStaley) was included in my tag line. Visits to my self-defense
blog tripled on the day the article appeared, but quickly fell to their normal
levels. More interestingly, visits to my blog increased by nearly 10 times in
the day or two following a posting on Facebook by a follower with a high
profile in the martial arts community weeks in advance of the New York Times
article. In fact, his cross post generated nearly three times the traffic to my
blog than the Times article (and most of this traffic was the result of my own
marketing of the link though facebook). 

Of course, the
article I wrote was not directly tied to my books. They were listed in the tag
line (with links), not embedded in the narrative. And the article was not in
the book review section of the Times. All those factors would mitigate against
its effectiveness in monetizing this exposure.  

Lesson learned: A one time event is unlikely to boost
your sales unless it is directly tied to selling books. The value of the New York Times article was in raising general
awareness of my work and in validating my expertise, not selling books in the
short term. 

The key to
monetizing this marketing benefit is the consistent, steady application of a
marketing plan that focuses on building my marketing platform over the long
haul. 

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What Danica Patrick and Denzel Washington Tell Us about Character

Two articles recently spurred my thinking about characters and character development in my novels. 

The first was an article by Virginia Postrel at Bloomberg.com on why actors such a Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Clint Eastwood are wildly popular and their characters seem to have enduring impact. (Hat tip to fellow author Tori Eldridge for alerting me to this article and, for full disclosure, Virginia is a former colleague of mine.) Virginia’s point is that the most successful actors, artistically and in the public image, are “escape personalities”; they have traits that audiences can project themselves into, including elements of their own lives. In essence, sitting in a movie theater, you experience the movie through the character because, as a viewer, you identify with the character and actor as well as what they represent, on screen and off. 
Notably, these characters don’t just represent professional depictions of characters; they also represent popular virtues. Virginia writes (Bloomberg, 21 February 2013):

“In different ways, the three stars [Hanks, Washington &
Eastwood] all represent similar audience yearnings — above all, the desire for
moral significance. Even when they take on ambiguous or immoral roles, these
stars always inhabit a universe where right and wrong have weight and
consequence. Hanks embodies decency. Eastwood represents inner-directedness and
order. And Washington
portrays the high-stakes struggle for righteousness and honor — all the more
so when he plays fallen or villainous men.”

I find this is true for my characters in my books when my readers respond to them. My readers don’t just see the characters as something to be consumed. They experience the story and the book through the characters because they identify with key character traits, perceptions, or other elements of their personalities. I’ve found this to be particularly true for Maria, the self-conscious seventh grader fighting bullies and gangs in her urban middle-school in Renegade, and Isabella, the defiant escaped slave captaining a pirate ship in the 18th century Caribbean in the Pirate of Panther Bay

This brings me to Danica Patrick, the first woman to win the pole position (lead position at the start of the race) at the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of stock car racing. Patrick has been around the racing world for a long time, first in “open wheel” Indy cars, and then for the past several years in stock-car racing. Since winning the pole at the Daytona 500 last Sunday, Patrick has seen interest in her and her popularity rocket into the stratosphere. NASCAR’s top stars–men–are now bringing their daughters to meet her when last year she was all but ignored. More relevantly, the daughters are asking their fathers who she is, and their fathers are (fortunately) embracing their sports newest celebrity. 

Patrick was in a gym recently when a crewman from another team
walked up and showed her a video of his kids holding up a magazine with Danica
on the cover.

“They said my name and he said, ‘I have no idea
how they know who you are,’ ” Patrick said.

Patrick marvels at the attention and attraction
she has for kids.

“I have no idea. I don’t get it either,” she
said. “I don’t know where it is coming from. I don’t know if it’s something
that they see on TV that doesn’t seem to be so obvious to a parent or if their
kids, once they are in school, if it’s part of some curriculum. I’m not really
sure.

“I think it’s an interesting thing, though. It’s
very flattering and it’s a fortunate situation to find myself in. I enjoy being
inspirational to these kids. I’d love to know why.”

Given Virginia’s insights in her Bloomberg article, we now have an answer for Danica Patrick, and the answer is relevant for authors more generally: Patrick has become a personality that stands for something much greater than her role as a driver, or even a woman driving in a male-dominated sport. She has become a public personality through which average, everyday people can project their own lives through Danica’s experiences as a top level driver. That’s why to her fans she will be known as Danica, not Ms. Patrick–her fans will live through her on the track and off, and it will be a personal relationship, not a formal one.
We aspire for the same level of identification with the characters we write in our novels. When our readers start projecting their own lives into the experiences of our characters in our stories, we have hit a home run, artistically and professionally. 
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