Tag Archives: storytelling

I’m back: Florida Writers Conference 2018

I have once again been invited back to join the faculty of the Florida Writers Conference !

This year’s conference (the 17th annual conference) will be at the Hilton Orlando/Altamonte Springs, October 18-21, 2018. The theme is “Where does our muse live?” Other speakers will include former prosecutor and crime novelist Linda Fairstein as the National Guest of Honor; Florida Writer of the Year Heather Graham, (author of 200 novels and novellas!); and Peter Meinke will be heralded as Florida’s Poet Laureate. Continue reading

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

War memorials use immersive design to create visceral stories

The Entrance to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A few unexpected extra hours in Washington, D.C. recently allowed me to visit the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The experience left me with a powerful insight into how immersive physical design can create a visceral human connection to their subject.

All three memorials are incredible displays of physical art. They evoke solemn meditations about the conflicts and the sacrifices our citizens have made over the last seventy years. The World War II Memorial, in particular, was amazing in its ability to communicate the breadth of the conflict and America’s engagement. Its design makes it impossible to capture the entire memorial in one setting, surely an intentional design feature. Visitors are overwhelmed physically with a sense of scope of the conflict. Continue reading

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

What sailing ships tell us about storytelling

As a kid, I was fascinated by sailboats and sailing ships. I loved reading adventure novels such as C.S. Forester‘s classic Horatio Hornblower series. I also enjoyed building models. So, one birthday (or Christmas), my parents gave me a model sailing ship. The model was never built. I could never muster the enthusiasm to spend the hours working on the rigging, sails, masts, etc. to complete it. In retrospect, my reaction may have been my first practical lesson in visual storytelling.

One of the first lessons novelists (and screenwriters) learn is that conflict drives story. Conflict forces characters to act; they are forced to resolve the conflict by making a decision. A story where characters do not have to make choices isn’t very engaging. Readers (and audiences) invest in characters based on the choices they make and how they react to these choices. The various pivot points in those decisions determine the plot.

So, how does this apply to my model sailing ship? Continue reading

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

Review: Dunkirk‘s foreboding, somber tone masterfully executed

My full review of Christopher Nolan‘s new movie, Dunkirk, is now live at the Independent Institute. Nolan’s storytelling is masterful and innovative, something we’ve come to expect from an “auteur” filmmaker who brings his own aesthetic and storytelling style to his movies. Dunkirk is not exception.

The film uses several devices to convey the deep, foreboding mood of the evacuation and its implications for the attempts to stop the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Dialogue is minimal, the plot almost completely driven the actions of individuals non-verbally. Nolan uses sweeping vistas of the beaches of Dunkirk to convey the enormity of the task to evacuate 400,000 troops and the hopelessness. Lines of soldiers snake into the shallow waters of the beaches and breakers with virtually no sign of help stretching out to the horizon (and Britain).

The story of the evacuation—which was a logistical success that mitigated the enormity of the disaster—is told from the perspectives two soldiers trying to use their cunning and opportunity to get off the beaches as quickly as possible, a flight of three Spitfire fighter pilots that get whittled down to one, and a private boat operator and his son sailing into the heat of the battle to rescue soldiers. The stories ultimately converge, but the way Nolan assembles the stories is innovative and sometimes difficult to follow.

Nevertheless, the film is likely to be among the list of Best Picture and Best Director nominees at next year’s Academy Awards. I scored the film 9.13  (out of 10) on my rubric and gave it 4 1/2 stars on Rotten Tomatoes.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

How to fix Jack Reacher

jack_reacher_never_go_back_posterI recently saw the Tom Cruise action film Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. The movie was very serviceable as an action film—lots of fights, car chases, and take downs of bad guys—but I was disappointed overall. I personally believe Cruise is one of our best actors, and he, like Matt Damon, is capable of filling action hero roles quite capably even as he progresses through his mid-50s. (In fact, the sci fi action movie Edge of Tomorrow remains one of my favorite movies.) Even though Cruise has an entire wikepedia page devoted to his awards, he may be the best actor currently working yet to receive an acting academy award. Jack Reacher doesn’t come close to other movies in quality despite the talents of Edward Zwick, the academy award winning director of Shakespeare in Love and critically acclaimed films such as GloryLegends of the Fall, and The Last Samurai. Why?

I explored this question using a rubric that includes seven criteria to help me think through a film’s overall quality and pinpoint its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve done similar things for character development in novels (see here and here).

Never Go Back is part of the Jack Reacher thriller series penned by British novelist Lee Child. The story puts former military policy investigator Jack Reacher into the center of a conspiracy to swindle the U.S. government out of millions of dollars through illegal arms sales. The inciting incident is the arrest of Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who is in charge of Reacher’s old unit. She’s jailed for espionage, but is really a target for assassination because her investigative work uncovered the arms trafficking scheme. Reacher also learns of a paternity suit in the course of the investigation that claims he is the father of a 15 year-old girl, Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh). When Turner’s attorney is murdered, Reacher is framed for the crime. The assassins quickly link Dayton to Reacher, expecting to use her as a pawn to trap and kill Reacher. So, the film is off and running as action adventure crime thriller.

I thought Never Go Back was a enjoyable action movie, but fell short of being an excellent one. It relied too much on formulas, and not enough on creative storytelling. So, how did this movie fall short? What made the difference between mediocre and great? These are my thoughts based on my film criticism rubric.

  1. Production values & artistic scope. Overall, the film didn’t have anything that pushed the envelop. The cinematography was state of the industry, but not state of he art. In leading action films such as Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne, technology is used to augment action sequences. Creative editing slows or hastens the pace. The camera shots engage the viewer with different angles and perspectives to illuminate motivation, create suspense, and immerse the viewer. I didn’t see much of this creative use of standard film tools and techniques in Never Go Back. It was yoeman’s work, for sure, but not much beyond it.
  2. Plot, internal consistency & composition The plot wasn’t particularly creative;
    “good guy, but flawed, cop uncovers duplicitous arms dealer” is a pretty worn concept. Buddy rescue stories are also pretty common. The fact that the new boss of Reacher’s old unit is a woman (Turner) might have been innovative in the 1980s and 1990s, but in the 2010s it’s almost cliche. Similarly, the emotional threat of a family member being used to derail the good guy cop is also pretty common (remember Lethal Weapon?). Reacher is a drifter and loner, much like old western heroes, and being tied down by an unwanted child is also a familiar plot device (recall True GritShane, etc.). While the story had an internal consistency—few loose ends left around at the end—its plot and composition were pretty stale. Also, the subplot of the uncertainty about paternity seemed contrived to add some humanity to the hardened soldier turned outlaw. In part this was necessary because Major Turner could pretty much take care of herself. So, some character had to be vulnerable, and that ended up being the teenager that might be Reacher’s daughter. She was never fully integrated as an essential element of the plot.
  3. Story plausibility and dialogue. Okay, this is a bit of a stretch for action films—they are almost always implausible—but my assessments are put in the context of the genre. The dialogue was straightforward without nuance in Jack Reacher. The banter was standard and straightforward, with little wit; Audiences weren’t asked to interpret much beyond what was said by the actors. In fact, I found very little in the way of compelling visual storytelling, in contrast to other similar films such as Deepwater Horizon and Jason Bourne. What makes cinema different from literary forms is the ability to show character and emotion through facial expressions, physical action, and reactions to events and other people without resorting to dialogue to tell the story. Visuals substitute for literary description. The actors were asked to do little more than straightforward acting in the film.
  4. Context in terms of genre. The film’s plot is relevant to the action film genre. After all, the U.S. is winding down the war in Afghanistan, and those weapons can easily be diverted. But the story doesn’t unfold in a creative way. The theft of arms is a standard plot for military television series such as NCIS or JAG. The theme simply is transported onto the big screen in a formulaic way. Even adding a corrupt inside guy n the military isn’t presented in an innovative or creative way.
  5. Entertainment & audience engagement. Never Go Back was entertaining, but it didn’t keep me engaged evenly throughout the film. If I had received a phone call or text message, I would have been willing to leave the theater to take it believing I wouldn’t miss much by the time I returned. In part, this is because the film was predictable and lacked imagination. This movie could have easily gone straight to DVD and saved for late night parties for your teenager.
  6. Character depth & arc. None of the characters really grow. At the end of the film, Major Turner is redeemed and goes back to her job running Reacher’s old unit. She is restored to her position rather than given new responsibilities, and her relationship with Reacher is not significantly deepened. Reacher goes back on the road, taking up his vigilante lifestyle, and the girl goes back to school (albeit this time living with her real mother who has cleaned up her act). Ironically, its the teenager—Samantha—that grows the most. She realizes the truth about Reacher, develops true feelings for him, but takes on a more mature and adult role as daughter to her mother. Unfortunately, Reacher and Turner on the leads in the movie, not the girl.
  7. Social message & relevance. The film has virtually no social relevance or meaningful message, except that Jack Reacher might not forsake the child he may have fathered. The film ends with Samantha giving Reacher a phone for him to contact her, but he doesn’t embrace the new relationship. Similarly, showing bad guys as bad guys doesn’t really advance our understanding of human nature, or reveal new ways of looking at human relationships. It’s all standard formula action movie fodder.

I am not sure how these aspects of the film could be “fixed,” but actors, producers, and directors of Tom Cruise and Edward Zick’s stature and experience can certainly find ways to do it. I didn’t feel like I was ripped off sitting in the movie theater, but I certainly expected more and I believe the principals could have given more. With a production budget of $60 million, they could have. On the other hand, the film has generated nearly the same amount in domestic revenue and $136 million worldwide. So, in at least a commercial sense, the film is a success despite its artistic flaws.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

The art of visual storytelling: Deepwater Horizon

deepwaterhorizonThe action film Deepwater Horizon has a lot of elements that make it one of the best movies of the year—a smart screenplay, excellent action, immersive special effects, and a compelling narrative. (See my review at the Independent Institute here.) Missed in almost all the reviews of the movie, however, is a brilliant example of foreshadowing through visual storytelling that, frankly, drives much of the success of the film overall.

As a story, Deepwater Horizon faced what many writers would think is a fatal flaw: everyone knows the ending. Deepwater Horizon was the name of the oil rig at the center of the world man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history (and perhaps the world): The Gulf Oil Spill. The full costs of the spill exceeds $45 billion by all accounts, and BP Oil is shelling out more than $50 billion in compensation, fines, and reparations as a consequence of the blow out.

Everyone knows what happened. Where’s the suspense? How can this be built into the story?

The film was marketed as a heroic action film, showing how ordinary men and women responded to an unthinkable event (even though they technically had trained for one). This is all fine and good, except that the filmmakers, like most storytellers, want their audiences to be fully vested in the characters—we had to care about them, really care about them, to want to know how they get out of this mess. So, we (the audience) needed backstory.

Some films will accomplish this through flash backs, or dreams, or memory tricks. Deepwater Horizon doesn’t use these techniques. The story (by Matthew Sand with screenplay help from Matthew Michael Carnahan) starts with the protagonist, rig technology guru Mike Williams, waking up in bed with his wife the morning he is heading out to the rig for a long assignment.

Boring. Most people in a relationship get up with their partner or spouse every day. And many, military people in particular, see their partners and spouses deploy for months and years at a time. Nothing extraordinary here. Some reviewers have dismissed this scene as an “obligatory” nod to family and traditional values. But I think this is much more significant and critical to the story.

Conflict drives stories, and these small personal conflicts—the husband going to work, not seeing his kids, etc.—are very minor in the greater scheme of things, particularly in the context of the world oil spill in history. A cardinal rule of writing is that the “inciting incident“—the event that drives the plot and arcs of the main characters—must begin early in order to catch the attention of readers and viewers. They don’t have to finish the arc, but characters must start down the road to transformation to keep the story fresh. And conflict drives the actions of the characters and builds tension in the plot.

Sand and Carnahan do something clever. They write in the 10-year old daughter, Sydney, who is giving a presentation on her dad’s job (played by Mark Walhberg) to her elementary school class. She describes (beginning at minute 9 in the collection of trailers emedded below) how, way back in time, dinosaurs roamed the earth. When they died, the dinosaurs became big bad black monsters (oil) that were trying to escape. When humans drill for oil, the monsters try to escape (the oil gush). Her Dad’s job is to put a lid on the hole that keeps the monsters in the hole, using honey to illustrate how mud is used to block the hole.

During the entire presentation, the daughter is showing what happens by first taking an opened soda can representing the oil reserves that will be tapped, driving a hole in the top using one of her father’s tools to represent the men drilling for oil, and then containing the oil by putting honey down a brass pipe fitting (the oil pipe) until it stops seeping from the can.  Everyone is happy, proud of the daughter for coming up with such a simple, clever way to explain a very complicated job to her kids who, like most adults, know little, if anything, about oil drilling and its dangers. Then a chemical reaction leads to the soda exploding from the can—the “blow out”.  The family runs from the spraying soda, showing they are powerless to stop it. Since it’s just a soda can, it’s all fun and games.

However, what Sand and Carnahan have done is use foreshadowing to bring the inciting incident into the earliest scenes while providing backstory that shows a close, respectful loving family at breakfast. Now, however, with our advance knowledge and the privilege of knowing the ultimate end—tragic blow out—we know that this family will be threatened, perhaps even torn apart or destroyed. We just don’t know how.  We are invested in the main character. This is not an obligatory scene pandering to audience sensibilities; it’s critical to the story’s development and engaging the viewer.

Most of the reviews have focused on how the technical language of oil drilling is handled in the action sequences. Most people will not be able to follow the language, but it’s not necessary. Indeed, when I saw this scene, I realized that an important part of the sequence was to explain to the audience just how the blow out was supposed to be handled. The scene, and the daughter’s explanation, visually and orally explained the basic principles behind drilling and the tactics used to prevent a blow out.

But the scene also accomplishes something much more. It brings the inciting incident upfront in the film, into the opening minutes of the story. Now the audience is focused on whether Mike Williams—the father, the oil rig operator—will survive, whether he will make the right decisions, and, if he survives, how he perseveres through a tragedy that killed eleven men, injured scores of others, devastated an entire region of the Gulf of Mexico, and fundamentally changed the way deep water oil exploration is managed and regulation.

This is one reason why I believe Deepwater Horizon is one of the best films of 2016, and another reason writer’s can learn a lot from successful films and screenwriters.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

Where do good female characters come from?

TrisAllegiantposterWhile recently researching blog posts about the Divergent film series, I ran across a 2011 blog post from Veronica Roth, the author of the novels, that also discussed the origin of Tris Prior, her kick-butt female protogonist.  Many readers might think that Tris was always the center of the story, but not so! Here’s what Ms. Roth writes:

“…Divergent really happened when a bunch of these pieces of inspiration suddenly coalesced in my mind as I was writing, and I got about thirty pages of a story from Four’s perspective down, and then set it aside because it wasn’t so good. It was only when I discovered Beatrice that I was able to write the full book, four years later.”

The observation that caught my attention was that she had started writing Four’s (Tobias Eaton’s) story, not Tris’s. But it was boring so she stopped, and didn’t get back to it until four years later!

Pirate-of-Panther-Bay-RGB96Her experience is strikingly similar to mine when I was crafting The Pirate of Panther Bay back in 2000. At the time, I was writing a young-adult romance about pirates because I thought it would be exciting and different. The protogonist started out as a male. But after about 50 pages (I got further than Ms. Roth), I put the manuscript down because it was boring! My story was just another pirate trolling through the Caribbean for loot. Ugh.

I am not sure how Ms. Roth “found” Beatrice, but Isabella’s “birth” was actually quite analytical. Since I was writing fiction, and story turns on conflict, I asked myself what would happen if I made the pirate captain female? The story became much more interesting, because virtually any plot putting a woman at the center in a leadership position in the 1780s was going to create conflict and tension. This was particularly true on pirate ships where crews were superstitious and almost always banned women on their vessels. For Isabella to get on the boat in the first place, she would have to overcome significant hurdles. She would also have to be strong–she couldn’t be a stowaway or consort, or start out in a typical role. The path to the captaincy of a pirate ship simply couldn’t take that route.

More importantly, the conflicts created a fascinating story line that allowed me to really flesh out Isabella’s character as well as the major male protagonists. Each of the major characters had a dramatic arc and singular journey that would feed of each other. The results have been great, particularly in the most recent installment, Tortuga Bay.

I hope Veronica Roth talks more about the literary beginnings of Beatrice Prior. I found her character to be very similar to Isabella in terms of personality and temperament.

Now, if I can just get The Pirate of Panther Bay made into a major motion picture….

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

Katniss vs. Tris: Who is the stronger character?

KatnissVSTrisAs the DC Comics superhero clash movie Superman Vs. Batman hits the theaters this weekend, I began to think about some of the stronger female characters in recent young adult action books and films. More specifically, we now have a new heroine to consider with the release of Alligiant, the third movie in the Divergent series: Tris Prior.

We will explore two questions: Whether Tris a strong female character and whether Tris is a stronger character than Katniss Everdeen.

In a previous post, I argued that Katniss Everdeen is not a particularly strong character based on a few key criteria. I believe strong characters, male or female, human or alien, should:

  1. Have strong identities;
  2. Relates to peers as a peer;
  3. Make important choices;
  4. Take personal responsibility;
  5. Exhibit courage.

These characteristics allow the protogonist to influence the trajectory of the story, and I think this is essential for a character to be considered strong, rather than weak (or passive).

Characters don’t have to start out strong in each of these criteria, but they should grow into them or end strong on each characteristics them before the story ends or progresses too far. Katniss Everdeen, despite her reputation among fans, falls short on a number of these criteria. She doesn’t have a strong sense of herself or place and appears emotionally and physically weak among her peers. She does make a few important choices, but even the most important ones–like taking her sister’s place during the lottery for the Hunger Games–are driven by circumstances rather than an exertion of her own free will. She plays defense rather than offense. On a good note, she takes personal responsibility for her actions, and she exhibits a tremendous amount of courage. Nevertheless, in literature and the films, all these criteria need to be met before she can be considered a truly strong character. Courage is not enough.

So, how does Tris Prior, the heroine in the Divergent books and films, stack up against Katniss? I decided to apply the same rubric to test my own framework, and here are the results:

Characteristic Katniss Everdeen Tris Prior
Strong identity

weak

Medium-Strong
Relate to peers as a peer

weak

Strong

Make important choices

medium

Strong

Take personal responsibility

strong

Strong

Exhibit courage

strong

Strong

While these comparisons always carry some degree of subjectivity, I think Tris Prior is a stronger character than Katniss Everdeen on a number of different metrics. While she faces the uncertainty of the psychological aptitude test to determine which faction best suits her, she opts for Dauntless even though the tests are inconclusive. She enters her training determined to be equal if not superior to her peers, and she is unafraid to make choices–whether to flee, return to Chicago, or track down her nemesis to kill them to avoid greater tragedies from taking place. She also never flinches from taking responsibility for her actions even when she is unsure of whether she can accomplish the task. She is willing to pursue her objectives even without help. She is on the offense, and doesn’t simply react to events around her; she tries to change the trajectory of those events. Tris, like Katniss, exhibits a tremendous amount of courage throughout her journey. Indeed, this is demonstrated early in the first book/movie when she jumps through the hole in the Dauntless training facility without realizing she would be saved by a net at the bottom.

The biggest difference between the two characters, in my view, is that Tris begins with a stronger personality. She is willing to stand up against injustice,d despite the risks, and she is willing to try to change the trajectory of events. She is not interested in fading into the background. Unlike Katniss, Tris embraces her new skills and identity. While she doesn’t accept the leadership role she creates through her resistance to the authoritarian Erudite rule, she does not try to avoid the responsibility of leadership.

Thus, in the end, Tris is leader and stronger character.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

The story in “Unsafe On Any Campus?”

Staley,JohnLongMS,Nov2013

Sam Staley talks about writing novels about interpersonal violence and bullying at John Long Middle School in Wesley Chapel, Florida

Oddly, many people, including professional writers, don’t think of nonfiction books in terms of story. This is unfortunate, because any rhetorical work implies the presentation of an idea or perspective, and involves some form of persuasion. Otherwise, why write the book? My Newest book, Unsafe On Any Campus?, is a case in point.

Unsafe On Any Campus has two goals: educate the general public about the character, nature, and extent of campus sexual assault and rape, and provide a practical framework for reducing its prevalence and impact. But the book can’t be just a “brain dump”: a compilation of statistics and studies. It also can’t be what fiction writers call an “information dump,” dialogue or story interruption with the sole purpose of providing story or character background. In fiction (and screenwriting for that matter), every word in dialogue or the narrative is chosen to move the story forward. This is what we mean by “every word counts.”

Nonfiction writers also have to tell a story, and they need to use active voice and tone to move the story forward and keep readers. Like novelists, they need to “show,” not just tell. So, even though Unsafe on Any Campus? uses statistics, these numbers, case studies, thought experiments, figures, and charts are used to move the story forward in a compelling, active way. They aren’t just “dumped” on the reader, hoping they will sort out their importance on their own. Their inclusion in conscious, deliberate, and intentional.

I started thinking about nonfiction as story after my first published novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, was published. When I co-authored fourth non-fiction book, The Road More Traveled Ted Balaker, a policy book about traffic congestion, I thought about how the argument and story builds to its concluding chapter of policy recommendations. I learned a lot from Ted because his background was network television, and he understood the importance of showing or painting pictures for viewers to illustrate important points. In other words, don’t just “tell” your audience something—show them a picture and let them come to their own conclusions based on the information you have artfully provided.

Ted and I had a structure to the story. We identified the problem, and then showed how different ways of parsing data gave us a different way of looking at traffic congestion. This was just not an information dump. This section challenged our skills to explore the problem and show the reader a different way of looking at it. This new way of looking at the data then organically led to a section that showed how our worldview was different from conventional views—this builds the conflict in our story. Our books final chapters examined the path forward built on our new vision. (The follow up book, Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century, co-authored with Adrian Moore, was even more intentional.)

This approach to story structure in nonfiction was crucial for Unsafe On Any Campus? because of the controversial and high profile nature of the social issue and the conclusions and recommendations I present in the final chapters. My goal is for readers to look at the problem of campus sexual assault in a different light, cut through the “white noise” of pundits and experts talking past each other, and consider what I believe are practical and effective solutions in a more comprehensive framework.

The book has three parts: chapters that establish why campus sexual assault is an important issue (even if it is not an “epidemic”), how we need to think differently about the problem (contemporary campus young adult culture), and how these first two elements are essential to framing the solution. In other words, each section has its own internal purpose and goal, but they build on each other organically to reach a climatic conclusion in the story of how we address campus sexual assault.

We’ll see how readers, professionals, and pundits respond this summer with the book is released. For more on Unsafe On Any Campus, check out www.campusninjaselfdefense.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

Five take aways from the Royal Palm Literary Awards

StNicInc,COVERSt. Nic, Inc., my re-imagination of the Santa Claus myth through the lens of an action-adventure novel. won 2nd place in the Published Mainstream/Literary Fiction category of the Royal Palm Literary Awards. This was a great win for a small book (for now) from a small, but rapidly growing press (Southern Yellow Pine Publishing). But what does this mean for my writing?

A Few Notes on the Royal Palm Literary Awards

The RPLA awards have several benefits for writers, including the fact they provide feedback from the judges and they allow submissions into multiple categories. I submitted St. Nic, Inc. in two categories: thriller/suspense and mainstream/literary. St. Nic, Inc. didn’t make it to the semi-final round in the thriller/suspense category, but it nearly took home gold in mainstream/literary. So, this provides an interesting case study of how competition judges evaluate the same material.

RPLA_2ndPl_BadgeThe judging in the RPLA competition is based on two rounds. The first involves two judges reading the first 50 pages of a manuscript or book. Judges evaluate the submissions using a rubric that generates a numerical score between 1 and 50. Books need to score at least 80 points (or about a 40 from each judge) to make it into the semi-final round. If the book (or manuscript) makes it to the semi-final round, another judge will read the entire manuscript and score it using the same rubric to determine whether it gets into the final round and in the running for an award. The final judge’s score (also from 1 to 50) is doubled, so the final round submissions are ranked based on a total potential score of 200 points.

Here are the categories, each worth 5 points and scored from 1 to 5 except for overall impression which is scored on a 10 point scale:

  1. Setting
  2. Character
  3. Plot
  4. Story flow/plausibility
  5. Dialogue
  6. Creativity
  7. Mechanics/conventions
  8. Appropriate genre
  9. Overall impression

The Ugly: St. Nic, Inc.’s Uncertain Journey

Here’s the breakdown of the total scores for each judge for St. Nic, Inc. for both categories:

Judge Thriller/Suspense Mainstream/Literary
Judge #1 36
Judge #2 35
Judge #3 42
Judge #4 40
Judge #5 (FINAL ROUND) 49
Total Score

I think it’s pretty clear that the judges in the thriller/suspense genre—the one I thought St. Nic, Inc. “fit”–weren’t super impressed. I really wasn’t close to getting into the semi-final round, which means my book probably didn’t make the cut in the top 20% of submissions. (This is my estimate; RPLA does not release numbers of submissions by category.)

Reviewing the comments, neither judge felt the story moved fast enough, thought I devoted too much space to setting and not enough to plot and character development. One of the judges had trouble with the number of characters introduced in the first chapters (too many), and they wanted more “quirks” to make them interesting. On the final category, overall impression, they scored the story identically with a 6.

I appreciated the candidness of the comments as well as their specificity, but I could hardly be encouraged by their evaluation of something I had spent years developing. You need a thick skin if you are going to submit your work to the judgments of others. Fortunately for my ego, one judge wrote that he or she would like to see more work from me. Both these judges in this genre thought the book was in the right category. So, my decision to enter my book in this category was at least validated by the judges with experience in the genre.

Ironically, I’ve always felt that setting was the weakest part of my writing. I consider myself a character-driven author. These judges would clearly beg to differ with my self-assessment.

But this is where the story gets more interesting.

000_RPLA_Finalist_BadgeI also entered St. Nic, Inc. in the category of published mainstream and literary fiction. Honestly, I didn’t think it would perform well because I thought it was primarily an action/adventure story (and not really thriller/suspense either). I also thought this would be a more competitive category because many novels can fit under this umbrella. But my fortunes in RPLA this year turned because I accepted the risk of entering the novel into a second category.

As the table shows, however, the third and fourth judges didn’t warmly embrace my novel either. They also didn’t respond well to my emphasis on setting in the opening pages. Fortunately, these judges gave me scores that allowed me to get into the semi-final round where the full manuscript would be read by a fifth judge.

A review of the comments in the mainstream/literary category found that the first round judges also had issues with the plot and the lack of quirky characters. One judge noted it was difficult to determine which characters were the protagonists and which ones were the antagonists. They were also confused about the central setting of the story (which pivots between a hospital and DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia as two parallel story lines develop simultaneously). These judges also thought the book could be entered into the action/thriller genres, reinforcing at least my sense of where it would fit in terms of genre. The literary/mainstream judges wanted me to tighten up the action by streamlining the story, and one even suggested I consolidate a few chapters. Hardly a slam dunk into the final round, let alone scores to position me well for a top three placing.

Still, I made it into the semi-final round.

The fifth judge obviously made the difference. After reading the entire book—the only judge to read it in its entirety—St. Nic, Inc. received a 49 out 50. I have very little feedback because the judge liked almost everything in it. This judge also noted that the story could have moved faster, but she or he considered the story imaginative, creative, engaging, and pretty cool. Since this judge’s score was doubled in the final round, St. Nic, Inc., made it into the final round and received 2nd place.

The Good: Five Take Aways from RPLA

So, St. Nic, Inc. had a rocky ride in the RPLA judging. This was clearly not a cakewalk or an easy win. I also think it speaks well of the process, but that’s another story.

I want to close with a few observations about what this means for me as an author, with several more books in the pipeline. What are my take aways?

  1. You can’t always judge a book by its first chapters. Stories are organic, but judging (no matter how well it maps over buyer behavior) that focuses on the first chapters (or pages) really doesn’t tell you much about the story if it has much complexity. The first chapters are just the hook. While important, they are not the story. Many of the elements of Nic, Inc. that the judges criticized were, in fact, artistic decisions about plot and character development. As long as writers recognize the trade-offs involved, and the potential downside of readers not buying the book or judges appreciating its complexity in the early chapters, writers should note the objections and consider them, but not necessarily use them as a writing guide. Even in light of the judges’ comments, I don’t think I would change the story much.
  2. Stay true to your vision as a writer. Nic, Inc. scores ranged from 35 to 49 on a 50 point scale. At the end of the day, literary competitions, even when they use a rigorous methodology for ranking books, depend on the subjectivity of the judge. Notably, all the judges recognized that the manuscript was technically well written—no mistakes in grammar, syntax, plot development or character development. Their criticisms centered on the creative and artistic aspects of the book, many of which included choices I made as a writer about plot and character. Not all my characters had quirks because in many cases—such as the way I treat little people—I wanted to demonstrate they were normal people in an extraordinary circumstance and setting. Giving little people quirks would have transformed them into munchkins, the exact opposite of how I wanted them perceived.
  3. Judges in literary competition pay a lot of attention to craft. They like a balance of character, plot, and setting, and they are interested in manuscripts that push, or at least give a strong nudge, to pushing against the edges of convention. Good books that are excellent reads may not do well in a literary competition because judges are looking for artistic qualities, and these qualities may not be what readers care about. Paradoxically, genre judges tend to look for stories that fit certain formulas—the one page hook, unambiguous plots, etc. This all makes sense because they are looking for the stand out contributions, so they want to see something different within the confines of their genre.
  4. The book’s hook—the events that start the story off—is critical. As a writer I should not expect a reader (or judge) to be patient. Most people don’t want to waste an hour reading a book or manuscript to see if they are going like it. As a matter of efficiency (and practicality), the hook is essential. And, in the RPLA competition (as well as other competitions) the hook determines whether you can even quality for the subsequent rounds. An excellent hook is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. This is useful insight in general.
  5. The judges like tight, polished manuscripts. They don’t want to be distracted by formatting, grammatical, or spelling errors. This reflects a lack of professionalism, and they don’t want to bother reading a book when the author hasn’t done their due diligence in producing a book that respects their time and value as a judge. All judges noted that fact Nic, Inc. was free of technical errors and was well written.

This was the third time I have entered RPLA with a manuscript. Notably, last year I submitted St. Nic, Inc. as an unpublished manuscript and it failed to advance to the semi-final round. While the 2nd place finish was gratifying, the ability to see the book do well in published form and receive excellent comments from the judges will help me frame my future submissions and keep me centered as an author.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....