Tag Archives: storytelling

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.

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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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The case for modern teen & YA fiction in school classrooms

by Claire W. Staley

Some people tell me that they wish they read as much as I do, but they either don’t have the time, or they don’t enjoy it. The way teenagers or college students see reading confounds me, especially when their faces are like most children’s when they are told to eat vegetables. Most students look at reading as a requirement for class, and most don’t even read those books. And yet, they want to read.

My friends believe they should read, and even have a desire to do so, but they haven’t had an experience with reading that makes them act upon this.

To enjoy reading, teenagers think they must enjoy all types of books, or, even worse, that they must enjoy the classic literature they are force fed from eighth grade onward. If students are not getting good books at home, the only experience with literature comes from school. I’m sorry to say that A Christmas Carol—or any other book by Charles Dickens for that matter—has done nothing to inspire me to pick up books and read them. And it has not inspired anyone else I know, either. If teachers honestly expect students to be avid readers after reading Shakespeare I think they are quite mistaken. I am not saying to this cut Shakespeare (or Dickens) out of the curriculum (I, for one, adore Shakespeare), but perhaps infusing it with modern YA books would create a new generation of readers.

Harry Potter got me started on books in fourth grade. The books taught me about the values of kindness, courage, intelligence, wit, reflection, loss, love, fortitude, standing up for my beliefs, and the power of a single individual. This is only a fraction of what I could say about Harry Potter, but there are a multitude of books that students love and are usable in the classroom. Divergent, Eragon, Artemis Foul, anything by Tamora Pierce, The Hunger Games, and countless others have created powerful role models that changed my life. When I have a problem I look to them. I look to Hermione, I look to Tris, I look to Peeta, I look to Percy Jackson, and I look to Hazel Grace. They always provide me with answers and support. They have never let me down, and I wonder why these characters aren’t a part of my education experience at school.

To pretend that John Green (The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns) is just teen fiction and has no basis in a classroom because his books are not “old” or about certain subjects is to deny every student and what they love. It reinforces the idea that there are good books to read and bad books to read, and that only one kind has value. Once teenagers find books with relevance to their lives and are well written, then they will read.

My next blog post will explore this concept even more as I discuss different books that I recommend for classrooms.

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How dwarves ended up in St. Nic, Inc.: An unexpected journey

Little people figure prominently in my newest novel, St. Nic, Inc.  Moreover, the climax hinges on the role of little people. In popular culture, little people are commonly associated with elves of myth, and some people have wondered if this why I included them as characters. Ironically, the mythology surrounding little people and elves is one of the reasons they didn’t end up in the story at all!

I completed the manuscript in 2000, and I didn’t know any little people personally at the time. St. Nic, Inc. is intended for a mainstream audience. So, as I began mapping the Santa Claus myth over the contemporary, reality-based world I was creating, I was trying to create practical analogues that would also be consistent if a North Pole operation actually existed. I purged fantasy elements from the back story. Elves didn’t figure into it, in the same way that the story doesn’t have reindeer, or flying sleighs, or a rotund Santa Claus (who is sometimes referred to as a “jolly old elf”). So, the early drafts tried to avoid little people altogether because I thought little people and elves would be conflated, detracting from the contemporary and reality-based setting I wanted to create.

For more on little people, check out the Little People of America (LPA) website here.

To watch the St. Nic, Inc. trailer, click here.

To buy St. Nic, Inc., click here and help out LPA at the same time!

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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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What “The Equalizer” film told me about character development

I often gauge a movie’s value by whether it stimulates my thinking as a writer and storyteller.  The Equalizer, the action film starring Denzel Washington, provided a welcome and unexpected opportunity to explore this. I’m a fan of the action/adventure genre anyway–all four of my novels fall into this genre, most recently St. Nic, Inc.–but I’ve become somewhat jaded by recent superhero (e.g., Superman, Wolverine, Lucy), super monster (e.g., Godzilla), and martial-arts action films (e.g., Ninja Assassin, 47 Ronin), that showcase special effects and gore over storytelling and character development. This is not the case with “The Equalizer.” Indeed, I saw just the opposite on the silver screen.

This movie, unlike other blockbusters, folds character development into the plot and at least tries to strike a balance between the two. (This is good because the plot–hero avenges injustice–is a bit tired.) But, for me, this film stood out for three reasons:

  1. The production values were very high. Sweeping vistas of Boston (one of my favorite cities), artistic camera work focused on characters and action, and the attention to the human aesthetic of the plot were top notch. This wasn’t all computer animated action. Time was spent to frame shots creatively and in ways that help tell the story. In fact, the opening sequence of shots itself does a fine job of providing important initial backstory to the lead character as an unassuming loner.
  2. Denzel Washington. Need I say more? Well, yes. A lesser actor would have made the lead character–Robert McCall–two dimensional and predictable. Even though we know how the movie will end, the character evolves at key points, and empathy is established early. Given the graphic gore level in the film, this is critical for keeping a good story flowing; we (as viewers) cannot be overwhelmed with the blood and mayhem or we lose site of the story.
  3. The producers and director. They didn’t let the genre or familiar cinematic tropes swamp character development and story structure to create suspense. They also made sure they didn’t waste the talents of Mr. Washington. While I still believe the gore was a bit too much, the bloody mayhem is important to understand McCall’s evolution as a character and how, in the end, he retains his humanity. The deaths of the bad guys have meaning, even if the gore seems gratuitous as times. We see how McCall’s own past changes the way he relates to the people he must eventually dispatch in pursuit of a higher good. This isn’t just a revenge flick, a familiar trope for these types of movies.

At the end of the movie, I found myself wanting to go back to Boston, one of my favorite cities, despite the blood and mayhem.

In the end, the producers and director recognized how the visually oriented medium of film could be used to convey character development. Audiences are brought into the story through character and then the plot is paced well enough to keep us involved.

Thus, “The Equalizer” is a rare example of a film that allowed me to think about my own approach to interweaving character development with plot can enrich the story and keep the pace moving quickly.

I think I see a new, distinctly American franchise in the future. We need a working class hero, with working class methods, a haunting and exotic past, and the maturity of someone who has seen and reflected on the world. Now, if Denzel just used more Akido, Judo and ninjutsu (or To-Shin Do), we’d also see why age isn’t as important in neutralizing threats as many people may think.

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The Hunger Games, Dialogue, and Voice

My new favorite young-adult series is The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The books literally grabbed me from the first page. I’ve been mulling over the stylistic and artistic reasons why I think these books were so good, particularly since I’m not a big fan of first-person narrative. Ironically, I think it’s the first-person voice that grabbed me.

For many writers, the first-person narrative is a mechanical vehicle for engaging readers by shifting the point of view. Rather than an out of body, third-person perspective, the reader gets to see the world through the eyes (or, more appropriately, lens) of the lead character. This technique is moderately successful, IMHO, but most writers don’t really exploit it effectively.

Collins does, however, because she has infused the first-person narrative with a distinctive voice and perspective: 16-year old Katniss Everdeen. The language is broken, littered with dependent clauses where sentence structure often seems incongruent. In short, she’s writing like a teenager thinks and talks. Take the first two paragraphs from The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough convas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed togehter. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is a fresh as raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Short sentences, short clauses, some strung together, some on their own. Throughout, Collins mixes present tense with past observations by the character. Again, these are techniques for pulling the reader actively into the story and Katniss’s character. As the story progresses, Collins infuses more of Katniss’s way of thinking into the book, including self questioning and the kinds of dilemma’s anyone would face in such as situation. And it’s all teenager, not adults writing like teenagers.

Where did she get this fresh approach? I think it has a lot to do with her experience writing screenplays for children’s television shows. Screenplays are all about dialogue and developing distinctive characters. That’s a critical stylistic building block for these books, and a good lesson for writers more generally.

So, voice, character, and perspective are wrapped together in a very fresh first-person narrative. And the rest will be history….

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“A Warrior’s Soul” Now Available for Ordering!

I’m pleased to announce that A Warrior’s Soul, my new novel, is now availiable for pre-publication ordering! You can purchase it at the regular retail price at the Wheatmark Book Store, or at a 25 percent discount through June 20, 2011 at the Dayton Quest Center’s on-line book store.

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