Would your character really do something like that? Or, when not to listen to people in your writing circle.

 

Ever since I’ve started writing fiction and creative nonfiction, I’ve sought out feedback and critiques from readers and other writers alike. At the beginning, I used to take every comment to heart – almost no matter what it was – and at least try to incorporate the feedback into the next draft.

I don’t do that anymore, for obvious reasons. A lot of feedback is little more than noise. Some of it can be downright harmful. Experience is the only way to hone your instincts for separating good criticism from useless.

In the critique groups I’ve participated in, a common note relates to the implausibility (to the critic, anyway) of a character’s actions at a key point in the story.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” a well-meaning critic might say about something your protagonist did. “Why would he do that?”

Be careful here. This can be valuable feedback. But it can also weaken your character and undercut your work. Which way it goes depends on what the speaker is actually trying to say.

If she means that your character’s actions seem inconsistent with what you’ve established as the character’s personality, motivations, abilities and obstacles, then pay attention. That means you’re allowing the needs of the plot to dictate what your characters do, instead of having your characters’ actions drive the plot. You’re making them reactive instead of proactive, and in the process, forcing them to behave less like humans and more like puppets. Or robots. Whichever you think is worse.

If, on the other hand, what she really means is something like “well, I would never do that (or would have made a different choice) myself, so I can’t believe that your character would either,” you can probably safely ignore her.

Your characters don’t have to be rational. They don’t have to be prudent. They don’t even have to be smart. They do have to be interesting, and they do have to be consistent. If your character’s behavior is consistent with the personality you’ve established for them, and with the conflict that is at the center of your story, then you’re good.

This is the first in what may or may not be an irregular series on the writing craft and what little I know of it. I hope you find at least some of it useful.

NaNoWriMo update, 11/12

I had high hopes for this week. I’d gotten off to a slow start on the second novel (tentatively titled Following Seas, which is a thing we used to say in the Coast Guard, which fits because the novel is based on my time in that august branch of the service) last week, but I figured a strong showing this week could help me claw my way back on track.

Of course, on Monday I started a brand-new job, which is always an overwhelming experience, so mentally sorting through it all was already taking up valuable processing resources inside my brain. Still, I figured I could write through that without much problem.

And then Tuesday happened.

Without getting further into it, this election was a devastating shitshow made more traumatic by the fact that it was so totally unexpected (as if having an unqualified, unserious and unstable narcissist chosen to lead the most powerful country on earth wasn’t traumatic enough on its own, right?). It completely toxified my mentality, and I had a lot of difficulty finding the kind of headspace that would allow me to write. In fact, writing a novel suddenly came to look like one of the most frivolous uses of my time imaginable. How could I sit around and make up stories when … well, when the shit finally, really hit the fan? What was the goddamn point, really?

But really, that’s just an excuse. Writers write, and I could have tried harder to power through it. Besides, there isn’t anything I can do about a Trump presidency, at least not a) on my own, and b) right this minute. So maybe, just maybe, I should focus on what I’m good at and what I actually want to do with some of the time I have on this planet (as opposed to things I have to do, or am obligated to do).

So yeah, NaNoWriMo is basically blown for me this year, at least as far as the goal of writing a complete first draft goes. But I’m going to keep going, and use the rest of the month to re-discover the writing routines I used to finish my first novel. My goal is between 1500 and 2000 words each day, which means something like 10,000 to 14,000 words per week. If I can keep that up, I should have a first draft written in about seven weeks or so.

This week’s word count total: 2500
Total word count so far: ~7800

 

 

Ideas

I’ve recently started writing with an eye toward publication, rather than just posting to a blog no one reads. I’ve already churned out drafts of several essays, short stories, even the beginnings of a novel – and what’s more, I’ve had a couple of publications this year already.

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I always talked myself out of it for the dumbest of reasons – if I do get lucky and publish a few things right off, what happens when I run out of ideas? I’ve worked in creative jobs for much of my career, but I’ve never really understood – or learned to trust – the process of generating ideas. I don’t know where they come from, I can’t seen to make them appear on command, and the prospect of running out of ideas just when people start to expect them from me on a regular basis frightens me.

Yes, it’s silly. Yes, it’s putting the cart before the horse. But it’s still a real, if irrational, fear.

I’ve got a folder in Google Drive where I store all my ideas for future projects, both fiction and nonfiction. Some of them are ideas I’ve had for a long time but have never gotten around to filling out. Others are brand new, and I have no idea what they’ll look like if they ever turn into anything.

Notice I said if. Not when.

One of the things I’ve learned from this process is that just because I have an idea, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. That doesn’t mean it will ever turn into anything worthwhile, even if I do invest the time into arranging all the words just so. And it certainly doesn’t mean I’m obligated to send it to an editor, ever.

This is something I have to remind myself of, and more frequently than I probably should. I have sent out pieces that seemed like good ideas at the time, but just didn’t have any real meat to them when I was done writing them. I ignored that, most likely because I was very invested in my idea, or at least in the idea of my idea. On those occasions when I have realized that I submitted empty-calorie word salad under the guise of fiction or creative nonfiction, I have always cringed. I considered withdrawing these submissions, but I think that looks even less professional than sending in work that didn’t quite work. I’d rather let an editor dismiss a piece and try again with something better than withdraw it and say, “oops, sorry, changed my mind here.”

Luckily, the editors in question all agreed that these particular submissions weren’t any good and rejected them – and, most likely, forgot all about both them and me, which frees me to try, try again.

Sometimes, ideas are destined to remain ideas. Don’t try to force every thought you have into a story or essay. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll probably know when you’re doing it.

The systemic nature of sports, or the real problem with football

Today is Thanksgiving, perhaps the most tradition-steeped of American holidays. I’ve been thinking a bit about a particular Thanksgiving tradition lately, and I’ve come to a conclusion:

Football – at least the American kind – is a really badly-designed sport.

Take the end of the Tampa Bay – New Orleans game a few weeks ago. That game ended with the Buccaneers threatening to score a touchdown in the game’s final minute, which could have sent the whole shebang into overtime. Tampa Bay’s quarterback ran to his left, found a receiver in the end zone and delivered a perfectly serviceable pass for what looked like six points.

But it was not to be – you see, as soon as that particular receiver caught that pass in the end zone, he became guilty of illegal touching. Apparently that’s what happens when you step out of bounds, come back in bounds, and catch a pass when the quarterback is out of the pocket – at least, that’s according to the referee’s explanation after he threw a flag on the play.

Then, because the game clock had ticked to zero during the play, the game was over. Honestly, there’s no less satisfying way to end a sporting event than having an official explain what you just saw, why the play doesn’t count, and that the game is over so go home now, all you sunburned drunks.

It was ridiculous to watch it unfold, but it’s no real surprise that things like that happen, for the simple reason that football has way too many rules. Illegal touching. Illegal formations. Illegal shifts (whatever they are). Ineligible receivers. Intentional grounding applies when the quarterback is in one place but not another. And all that goddamn clock-stopping, for pretty much any reason at all.

Because of the oddly analytical way my mind works, I tend to look at games and sports as systems. Every system has a set of rules that governs the movements and actions of its component parts – when we’re talking about a sport, the rulebook determines how the players, coaches, officials and ball interact with and respond to each other.

So if these rules are set up properly, what could we expect if we had two identical teams play against each other from now until the sun burns out? Well, if neither side has even a slight skill advantage over the other, we would expect each team to win basically the same number of games over the next few billion years. Ideally, the rules would be set up in such a way that the “better” team wins more often than it loses. In other words, as fans, we expect skill – and not the rulebook – to be what determines who wins and who loses each game.

I’m not arguing that the rules of football give either side an unfair advantage. Certainly in the NFL, from what I’ve seen, we can generally expect the “better” teams to win more games over a long enough time frame. But I am saying that football requires way too many rules to get to this equilibrium, and that that excessive complexity is an artifact of poor design. In design, as simple as possible is almost always better.

Look at international soccer as a counterexample. The rules are certainly simple enough. And because of that, the game flows. It’s always moving. When the officials do stop play, it’s usually quick and fairly unobtrusive.

But in football, that’s not the case. Any rule infraction requires a couple minutes’ worth of official conference, explanation, and enforcement. The flow of the game is disrupted far too often, and for ridiculous things like an illegal formation or a holding call that nobody can find on instant replay.

(Of course, you could just compare the rulebooks. While the printed NFL’s Official Playing Rules and FIFA’s Laws of the Game are both about the same number of pages, the latter is much simpler, featuring graphs and a lot of white space. The former sometimes reads like a cross between stereo instructions and mortgage paperwork.)

The NHL used to have a similar problem. Used to be, it was illegal to send a pass across any two of the lines in the middle third of the ice. The two-line pass rule slowed down the game, which is bad enough – but it also favored teams with more gifted skaters while negating passing skill. Then there was the rule against offensive players having so much as a toe inside the goal crease on a scoring play. That was even worse than the two-line pass, because it took longer to resolve and often overturned goals scored in the run of play.

Fortunately, the NHL wised up and ditched both rules. Those rules degraded the product, and they were both unnecessary to bring the system into the desired equilibrium (which is a fancy way of saying that they didn’t make it any more likely that old-fashioned hockey skill would win out more often than not).

There’s a lot to like about football. The forward pass is one of humankind’s most beautiful creations. But the game has little natural flow because of the excessive (and excessively complicated) rules. Start getting rid of rules – like holding, for example, or almost anything that stops the game clock – and the game opens up and picks up a truly exciting, back-and-forth flow.

But I’m not sure that NFL fans really want that. A lot of them say they like the stoppages in play and the multiple replays from different angles. It gives them a chance to catch their breath, to let their minds process what they just saw.

And at a more basic level, if you start changing the rules of the system, you change its nature. Take away the holding penalties and the “skill” of clock management (could you hear my eyes rolling as I typed that?), and you might have a better-designed system that produces more free-flowing and entertaining result … but you don’t have football anymore. Football as we know it requires all those rules and stoppages and resets. Without them, you get a different equilibrium result.

So fine. Enjoy your clunky, kludged-together sport, football fans. There’s plenty of beautiful soccer out there for me to enjoy, thank you very much. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for the Detroit Lions’ annual Thanksgiving Day loss.

Language is important

One of the reasons I like working as a copywriter is that I love language. I find it fascinating – how it’s used, how it creates hidden meaning, how it changes over time.

Because I pay such close (perhaps too close) attention to language, my eyes are always drawn to copy like this. I have never – ever – heard anyone say “oh, his story was so fascinating that I was hanging onto his every word.” No – the correct phrasing would be “hanging on his every word.” Without the to, if you please.

Yes, I know. I have language OCD. I get it. But at the same time, I’m not a prescriptive grammar Nazi. Language should have room to evolve and change, to suit the changing needs of the people who use it. I’m completely okay with that.

What I’m not okay with is writers who demonstrate that they have a tin ear for language. The idea that a professional writer could come up with this idea and execute it so sloppily is troubling.

I’m hoping that’s not what happened here. I’m hoping this was a client decision – “no no, the phrase goes ‘hanging onto your every word. You’re wrong. Change it.'” That sort of thing happens a lot, and it’s a definite possibility here.

But regardless of who’s responsible for the awkward phrasing, the idea itself is weak. I could overlook off-key copy if the idea it served was a good one. Even in the context of a very iffy (in terms of clarity of message) campaign, this really falls flat.

St. Petersburg: cyclists’ paradise?

With another four-dollar-a-gallon summer driving season staring us in the face, the time seems ripe to look for alternatives to letting BP, Shell, and the gang gouge us every couple of days on our way to the office. Last time we had a gas price crisis, back in 2008, we were all looking for alternatives. But soon enough, pump prices fell, and the phrase “four bucks a gallon” became just another stock cliché of suburban commuter war stories.

Now some of us are starting to look at alternatives again. Yes, they’re out there, and they don’t have to involve gasoline at all.

For my money, the best alternative comes with pedals. I live in St. Petersburg, and I ride my bicycle wherever I can. Over the last five years, I’ve found St. Pete to be a very cyclist-friendly city—but I think I may be in the minority.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 only half a percent of American workers commuted by bicycle. Despite the bicycle’s increasing popularity over the last several years, this is still a car-centric country. There are certainly cultural and psychological reasons for that, but the biggest obstacles often have more to do with geography. We’ve built ourselves a real low-density wonderland since the end of World War II, with plenty of open space and few sidewalks or bike lanes. As a result, a lot of the United States is simply not conducive to comfortable bicycling.

Looking at the Census data, we find that the top cycle-commuting city was the environmental Mecca of Portland, Oregon, where fully six percent of the labor force bikes to work. Progressive cities Seattle and San Francisco also have plenty of bike commuters, at 3.6 and 3.5 percent, respectively.

But what about closer to home? At 1.2 percent, St. Petersburg beats both the national average and other southeastern cities like Atlanta (0.9%), Savannah (0.7%), Orlando (0.4%) and Charlotte (a woeful 0.2%). Still, cities like New Orleans (1.8%) and even sprawling Tampa (1.9%) outdo the Sunshine City when it comes to bike commuting.

Should we be surprised by this? Outside of civic pride, is there anything that really suggests that St. Petersburg should be a biking hotspot?

If we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the weather here actually sucks for much of the year. It gets hot. Humid. Sticky. Nobody wants to bike in that. What’s worse, there often aren’t showers waiting at the other end of the ride. Starting the work day plastered with sweat (not to mention the accompanying, um, aroma) is simply out of the question for most workplaces.

Did you know there is a network of bike lanes in St. Pete? Well, “network” may be pushing it—as welcome as the bike lanes are, they aren’t quite up to the task of supporting a true transportation network for bicycles. Coverage is limited and not really predictable, the lanes don’t usually run the entire length of any road, the lanes are narrow and there is no physical separation between cyclists and traffic.

Ever hear a news story about how dangerous it is to be a pedestrian here in Tampa Bay? It’s a pretty safe bet that everyone who’s driving to work instead of biking has too. Just last August, Transportation for America rated Tampa Bay as the second-most deadly metro area for pedestrians. Lots of people get run over here, and lots more people know it. That can be serious motivation for people to stay safely tucked away in their cars and SUVs.

But none of that explains why St. Pete even lags behind Tampa in bike commuting. For one thing, there are just as many, if not more, scary and dangerous roads in Tampa. And when I look at St. Petersburg, I see plenty of advantages that should foster a bigger bicycling community.

First, not everyone agrees that the weather here is even a problem. Andrew Blikken, founder of the St. Pete-based bike-sharing startup myBike, argues that our weather is something that other bike-friendly cities would give their eyeteeth for. “Try bicycling in Minneapolis, London or Paris, all cities where bicycle sharing is highly successful and the weather awfully unpredictable—or worse, predictably awful,” he says. He’s got a point: if cyclists don’t have a problem with the Portland rain, why should St. Petersburg sunshine deter anyone?

Second, we’ve got favorable geography to work with. St. Pete is both flat and compact, and Pinellas County is the most densely populated county in the state. At the city’s widest point, the “water-to-water” distance is around seven miles, which is not an unreasonable bike ride by any stretch.

Third, St. Petersburg has the beginnings of a solid bicycle transportation infrastructure. Yes, I criticized the welcome-but-inadequate system of bike lanes just a couple of paragraphs ago, but St. Pete also has miles of urban cycling and walking trails—including the iconic Pinellas Trail, which could potentially be used as a full-fledged people-powered transportation corridor instead of just a recreational resource. It wouldn’t take much to really integrate trails and bike lanes into a real, functional network for bike traffic.

“Pursuing an expansion (to the existing trail/lane system) will help cyclists feel safer,” Blikken says, adding that “perhaps covered bicycle parking next to bus stations, stores, restaurants and hotels would help” to both encourage cyclists and legitimize the bicycle as an actual vehicle in the minds of commuters.

To my mind, though, St. Petersburg’s biggest advantage is the relentless grid pattern of its streets. Most streets are numbered instead of named, and that number tells you where the street is in relation to either First Street (for streets, which run north-south) or Central Avenue (avenues run east-west). Simply knowing this makes it very easy to plan out a route without firing up the GPS.

But there’s another benefit to this as well. If you don’t feel comfortable biking along Ninth Avenue North, try a few blocks away, like, say, 13th Avenue. It runs in parallel to Ninth for miles, with far less traffic to worry about. And there are even stoplights at all major intersections, so you won’t feel the need to update your will and life insurance before crossing 34th Street.

These alternate routes are all over the place. A few minutes with a map will help you find low-traffic alternatives to all the major arterials, giving you a safer, more comfortable, and more enjoyable ride.

And when you think about it, actively looking for alternatives is something most of us rarely do as car commuters. When we spend our travel time in our cars, we stick to major roads, which makes sense: These roads can handle more traffic, the speed limits are higher, and the distances between stoplights are longer. And when we’re driving along 22nd Avenue or 66th Street, what do we see? Lots of other cars. It sure doesn’t look safe for cyclists out there, but why would it? When we drive, we tend to stick to the roads that are in fact the least safe for cyclists because those roads are the most convenient for cars.

Blikken is optimistic that this will change, though he expects the vehicle for that change to be the city’s shifting demographics, and not necessarily changing the attitudes of current residents.

“The USF-St. Petersburg campus is expanding, and more young transplants are following white collar jobs to town,” he points out. “We are also increasingly multi-cultural in St. Petersburg, and many foreigners accustomed to mass transit and cycling will help inspire the necessary critical mass of cycling.”

In other words, even if we won’t get out of our cars, the people who are moving here now and in the near future just might. Will we follow their lead?