Category Archives: SR Staley

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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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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Narcissism and the one-star amazon review

By SR Staley

I received my first one star review on amazon.com a couple of weeks ago, my first in 47 reviews of my fiction. While I know my books won’t appeal to all readers, a one star is quite deflating. But then I looked at the larger picture, and I realized how narcissistic and impulsive the person posting the one-star review must be. Let me explain.

“Big Bad John”–yes, that’s his on-line handle–posted his review with the title “Save Your Money!” and basically trashes my newest novel, St. Nic., Inc., in four sentences. (He also didn’t buy the book from amazon.) I have no doubt this is his honest opinion of the book. And he is entitled to his opinion and post it on amazon.com. I have no objection with that.

But here’s the context: Big Bad John’s review was the 17th review. The lowest review before his was a 3 star, and these unenthusiastic readers wrote that the book was a “good seasonal read” and “a nice way to pass the time.” St. Nic, Inc. has 10 five-star reviews, seven of which were “verified” purchases from amazon.com. All the four and three-star reviews were verified purchases from amazon.com or the kindle store. So, BBJ has to either ignore all the other reviews, or believe his lone opinion was so superior to the others that potential readers should put aside everyone else’s views except his. I think this pretty much defines narcissism in the world of book reviews.

My biggest disappointment, however, was not BBJ’s displeasure although I do care what readers think. In fact, I incorporate their feedback–positive and negative–in my writing all the time. Rather, it was BBJ’s complete lack of content in his criticism. He had an opportunity to be constructive, but chose simply to trash talk the book.

Fortunately, I doubt Big Bad John will have much effect on my book sales. My book is better than he thinks, and I know that because the vast majority of the reviews on amazon are by people I don’t know. I have also won awards for my fiction.

I guess BBJ doesn’t want to be put on my Christmas card list.

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The unrocognized depth of the Divergent Triology

By Claire W. Staley

Popular books often become the target of criticism simply because they are popular. The dystopian, young adult novel Divergent by Veronica Roth seems to have fallen into this camp. Now that Roth’s books have become popular movies, earning more than $300 million worldwide, they seem to be the subject of even more criticism: Some say it’s just a story about a boy and girl who fall in love while they fight an oppressive regime. Some say it is too violent.

However, before denouncing Divergent and shoving it aside, perhaps it is more important than previously believed. This young adult novel taught me many things about life, and understanding this might change a society that looks down upon YA fiction novels. Here are just a few of my “takeaways” from these novels:

  1. Tris and Four, the lead characters, are equals. They support, love, and challenge each other in equal measures and they stand side-by-side. There is no love triangle (though I have nothing against these if done properly), and their relationship problems come from within themselves. This gives this particular book diversity from many other books.
  2. The enemy is constantly moving from one person to the next, from one group to the next, and from the good guys to the bad guys. Everyone is up for game and no one is completely innocent. Everything expands and retracts, gets larger and smaller, until you have no idea who is the actual problem and who is the solution. It challenges your critical thinking and frustrates you to no end- helping you realize that nothing in life is secure. Things and people change, and people aren’t always who you want them to be.
  3. Both Tris and Four are incredibly strong and real. They are role models because they make the hard decisions. They make the choices they must, and they learn how to deal with that and move on. They learn for to forgive-each other and themselves. And sometimes they have to put aside their personal ethics to do what has to be done. And it never gets easier. They do not get used to killing others. They understand and accept that they must make choices with no good outcome. When they are allowed to make choices that protect their hearts, they do. That makes them strong.
  4. People can change. And anyone can influence one to do so in positive or negative ways. Once you believe that no one can change, that no one can make different choices than those they made in the past, hope is lost, as is compassion. Love and understanding thread through the characters, even between enemies, and that makes a difference.
  5. People in power do not always make the right choices, and it’s okay to forgive them for making mistakes, but they are not always virtuous. They do not always make the right choices for the right reasons. They can be bad. They can be good. And the people are stronger than the government for a reason. Because the people are mostly good, and they thus are expected to uphold that. Everyone has an honor to themselves and to the people they live with. That honor must be upheld or chaos reigns.

Perhaps Divergent is really an educational novel, capable of teaching readers about, love, life, and people, and perhaps it is not just another book to read for fun. Divergent, like many YA books published these days, can be much more than light entertainment if readers give them the space to fulfill those aspirations.

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Why Write a Reality Adventure About the Santa Claus Myth?

My newest book, St. Nic, Inc., takes on one of America’s most cherished children’s myths, Santa Claus, and places it into a fast paced adventure that readers have compared to Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler. (Watch the trailer here.) Many people have asked what prompted me to write this book, so here’s my answer:

My story’s origin begins with the question every parent dreads: Do you believe in Santa Claus? As parents, we worry over how our children will react to the “truth” that Santa Claus is a myth. The overwhelming majority of our kids, of course, do fine. They may feel a period of betrayal and a sense of injustice, but they get over it. I think, however, many people underestimate how difficult this conversation is for parents and adults. We perpetuate the myth because we believe in its spirit and the core value of giving as an unconditional act of generosity. In this way the values are very secular. We are afraid that if our children realize that the myth is not real, the value of the principle is somehow degraded. I believe strongly in the importance of unconditional giving and charity. I think its a critical element of any sustainable society or community. As a novelist and storyteller, I wanted to reinvigorate this idea for adults. That’s why St. Nic, Inc. is not a children’s book. It’s a story with characters that gives us the space as adults and parents to believe if we choose to believe.

 

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St. Nic, Inc. Makes It to Audio Book!

Southern Yellow Pine Publishing has announced that St. Nic, Inc. will be issued in an audio book format. So, for all those people that spend a lot of time on the road–in cars, on trains, and in planes–there’s not excuse for not reading my newest novel!

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Lessons in Writing Styles: Cussler vs. Clancy vs. Staley

One of the great benefits of Beta Readers–those brave souls willing to read drafts of your work before presenting it to the world or a publisher–is their insight into your writing style. Sometimes we resist these comparisons–as happened in this case–but they often yield a useful perspective that helps us define our own style and gives us a marketing angle as well.

This came home to me recently while my Tallahassee-based critique group was reading an early draft of St. Nic, Inc., my fourth novel released in August 2014.  After reading the opening chapters, critique group member and aspiring novelist Emily Timm said “Your book reads like a Clive Cussler novel.” After a few chuckles from the other members, she added, “and I mean that in a good way.”

Now, at this point, I was a bit embarrassed. I had never read a Clive Cussler novel, although I knew he had sold a lot of books. In fact, he’s sold millions, and his books have been on the New York Times best seller list twenty times. But this information was really useless to me as a writer, and I didn’t know how to process it. I wasn’t sure if this really was a good comparison.

Then, another reader (but not a critique group member), Mark McNees, said St. Nic, Inc. “artfully combines the action of a Tom Clancy novel with the insightful social commentary and multiple levels of experience as George Orwell’s Animal Farm.” Two more great cites. The contrast in writing styles between these now deceased writers was potentially significant: Orwell wrote in a class literary tradition while Clancy wrote action-adventure-technology thrillers. 

While I am very familiar with Orwell’s work, I wasn’t well versed in Tom Clancy’s, except for watching a few movies based on his novels. Tom Clancy was a genre buster and one of the few writers to have their inaugural novel (The Hunt for Red October) shoot to best seller status.  Still, I understood the genre pretty well, and I was curious how my writing style compares to Clancy’s.

The only way to find out was to read their books. What I found was quite revealing.

Of course, my writing style is different–neither Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, or George Orwell. In part, this is the result of my focus on writing for young adults and middle school readers for the first three novels. St. Nic, Inc. is written for the general fiction market although it is accessible to young adults. These readers want fast plots, plenty of action, and a gripping story. The rule is the less description, the better. In this way, Clive Cussler’s style, although he is geared toward adult markets, is well suited to my approach.

But I also included layered characters with arcs that peak at different times based on the trajectory of the main plot and subplots. Thus, my stories aren’t as straightforward as Cussler’s, and my characters experience significant life changing events that influence how they view the world. Like Clancy, I strive to make my fiction authentic. The Pirate of Panther Bay attempts to stay true to the real world of pirates and the historical context in which the characters live. The Path of the Warrior series attempts to ensure the martial arts self-defense skills are authentic and realistic, set within the context of middle-school bullying and violence. These values permeate the stories and books.

So, where does St. Nic, Inc. fall? Of course, it’s a little bit of each. I admire the lean writing style of Clive Cussler even if it won’t earn him accolades from the literary elite. (Of course, readers love it.) While I would like a little more flourish when reading Cussler’s novels, the action and pace keep me engaged, and I’m not sidetracked by subplots or thinly disguised attempts to be classic fiction. The characters and stories are straightforward, and that suits his fans (and publisher). These are very easy reads, the epitome of escape literature. I like Clancy’s commitment to keep the adventure-thriller grounded in reality and the characters more layered and complex. This also has turned out to be a highly successful strategy, and it probably reflects his own personality as a writer. While still escapist in its approach, Clancy’s novels require a bit more patience and enjoyment of the journey.

Based on the comments I’ve received from readers, St. Nic, Inc. seems to reflect a happy evolution of my writing style, one that embraces a lean writing style with layered stories. I am pleased to embrace comparisons to all three highly successful (for different reasons) literary giants. I’m not sure I would have made these connections, and become more confident in my own writing style, if hadn’t been for the prodding and candid observations of my beta readers, friends and critique group.

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St. Nic, Inc.: Book Trailers, and Other Cool Links

With the launch of St. Nic, Inc. just days away, managing the anxiety surrounding the launch of my fourth novel it becoming more difficult. (I’ll just have to rely on my ninja training.)

A few critical links to the book and promotional material can be found here:

Pre-orders available from:

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Ready…set…launch–St. Nic, Inc. takes off on August 19th!

St. Nic, Inc., my fourth novel, is set to officially launch on Tuesday, August 19, 2014. Check out the book trailer!  Check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-YFLKDsWfU

Also, check out my website for reviews and other links! (http://www.srstaley.com)

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