Fiction writing tip #1: Do not make things too easy for your protagonist

Here’s a writing tip from a reader: do not make things too easy for your protagonist.

I’ve been reading fiction books by new authors. They often make the protagonist struggle throughout the whole book and then suddenly give them super powers. Or sometimes they sporadically give them superpowers throughout the book. Or have magical creatures come to their aid just in the nick of time.

For example, in the book I read yesterday, the main character struggled with demons (the mythical creatures) her entire life. They killed people, they raped her, they chased her, they beat her up. And then suddenly, after several hundred pages of this, she realizes she needs other people and yells “I’m a soul catcher! Demons be gone!” and they all explode. Huh? Why didn’t she just tell them to all be gone 200 pages ago? The author could have saved us all a lot of agony.

Characters are interesting when they suffer. Especially if the problem is their own fault. We like to read about how they struggle, learn, adapt and eventually evolve and handle their problems. But the solution should not be superpowers, especially superpowers that don’t cost the character anything, no matter how much the author would love to say “demon be gone!” The solution has to be something the character has learned to do. Preferably a skill that’s hard to master and hard to apply. Otherwise, why are we reading about it?

What’s your favorite bad author pet peeve?

(Note that the book in question was well written. Dialog was good. Storyline was good. And the character did evolve – she realized she needed other people. But really, “demons be gone!”?)

My cool shoes: wearing Vibram barefoot shoes

Photo by joshunter.

I originally got interested in barefoot shoes when I read an article about the health benefits of going barefoot. (I thought it was a New York Times article, but it wasn’t this recent one about running barefoot.)  I also read a study that said that the more expensive your running shoes, the more likely you were to have suffered a knee injury. I decided I liked the idea being barefoot and I wanted to try to find a pair of shoes that would let me be barefoot in public in a socially acceptable way. I wasn’t crazy about the toes in Vibram FiveFingers shoes but since the other barefoot type brands didn’t have my size, I ended up with Vibrams. I love them.

Vibram shoes attempt to give you the experience of being barefoot while still protecting your foot. So you won’t get cut, but you’ll feel like you are walking barefoot. (Note that the classic pair does not protect against cold. I thought I was going to lose my toes to frostbite one night when I got to my car parked at the airport at 2am and had to scrape ice and snow off my windshield.)

Why do I like my Vibram Five Finger shoes ?

  1. Barefoot. The new theory is that it’s healthier to walk and run barefoot. Cushioned shoes have changed our gait. They offer our feet too much support which makes them weaker and often encourages bad behaviors like heel striking. By going barefoot, you’ll adopt good running and walking gaits and your feet and legs will be strong. (And believe me, if you continue to heel strike when running without a cushion, it will hurt!) During the day I spend most of my time barefoot, so walking wasn’t much of a transition. Running barefoot took a bit more practice – I have a terrible habit of heel striking that I’m working on correcting. Also, you use a whole new set of muscles when running barefoot. When I started I could only run a mile before I switched back to my tennis shoes for the next two miles. I’m still not sure I am convinced that traditional shoes are bad for you, but I think going barefoot is good for you. If you want to try running barefoot without buying a new pair of shoes, just try running barefoot on a treadmill.
  2. Comfortable. These shoes are about as close to wearing no shoes (or wearing socks like I do at home) as you can get. They are light, flexible and generally feel like they are not there.
  3. Travel. They are comfortable for walking in, pack up small (much smaller than carrying running shoes) and most airports will let you wear them through the security scanners. I had been on a search for a pair of running shoes that packs up small. (I wear large shoes and carry a small suitcase!) The Vibrams work great. On long flights, I still take them off and put on a pair of socks. It’s the material between the toes that bothers me when I’m trying to sleep. (I know, I know, it sounds strange.) I also wouldn’t take them as the only shoes for long days of sight-seeing on concrete.

Note that I bought the black shoes because I thought they would be more discreet. They are not discreet enough for formal work situations – everyone comments on them – and they are too hot to wear in the hot sun. Literally my toes feel like they are on fire if I stand outside in them on a hot sunny day. So if you buy some, buy the color you like the most.

I’d still like a pair of barefoot type shoes that I could wear with a suit but the Vibrams work great for more casual wear and for running.

I get asked a lot where I bought my Vibrams … you can buy them online from places like Amazon . You can also try them on in stores like REI and Jax in the US.

What’s been your experience with Vibram’s? Have you tried any of the other barefoot like shoes like Terra Plana’s?

10 steps to never suffer from jetlag again on short trips

I travel a lot and since my kids are little and I don’t want Frank to go crazy, I try to make the trips as short as possible. Which means I often travel 8 time zones away for just a couple of days.

I’ve tried lots of different ways of coping with jet lag on short trips and here are my secrets to success.

  1. Jet lag doesn’t bother you. Seriously, you must convince yourself that jet lag is not a big deal. If you spend all your time worrying about it, talking about it and complaining about it, well, then, jetlag will always bother you. Repeat after me “jet lag is no big deal”. Not on a trip of 2-5 days! Seriously, you might be a bit tired, but aren’t you often a bit tired at home too? Nobody gets enough sleep every day at home or on the road. Plus, after reading this post, jetlag really won’t be a big deal.
  2. Sleep on the airplane – especially east bound. Read John Graham-Cummings’ excellent post about how to sleep on a long haul flight.
  3. Keep yourself busy during the day – especially the first day. Try not to set up a schedule where you’ll be passively watching presentations or sitting in a slow meeting the first day.
  4. Sleep when you’re tired whenever you can. Conventional wisdom says you should stay awake until it’s time to go bed local time. While that works to help reset your clock in the following days, if you are only going to be there a few days, I recommend getting the sleep whenever you can. Plus, if you are on a short business trip, it’s likely you’ll be getting up early and staying up late with breakfast meetings, dinner meetings and post dinner meetings.
  5. Don’t feel guilty about naps. I used to feel guilty about taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon. (I so rarely do it that it feels like a luxury.) Then I realized that I never sleep more than 8 hours total in any 24 hours – and rarely that on business trips – so it’s not like I’m lazying around in bed all day.
  6. Don’t worry about what time it is at home. Except for making sure you don’t accidentally wake up your spouse, don’t worry about what time it is at home. You can fool your body easily. On my trip to Berlin on Wednesday, I fell asleep on my second flight. After a few hours of sleep I was exhausted and felt like I was waking up in the middle of the night. I found it amusing that it was only 8pm at home. Basically I had just taken a long afternoon nap but my body was convinced it was the middle of the night. So don’t worry about it. Sleep when you can, be awake when you need to be and don’t worry about what time it is at home.
  7. Stay away from alcohol unless you are planning on sleeping in the near future.
  8. Use good sleep habits. When you get a chance to sleep make sure you are doing your best. Make sure the room is dark and quiet (or wear ear plugs and an eye covering.) Wear whatever you normally sleep in. Try to keep the room cool. Think about something that makes you sleepy. etc.
  9. If you can’t sleep, don’t stress. If you get a chance to sleep and you can’t, don’t worry about it. Get up and work or work out or read a book. Use the time to get stuff done. Sleep later. Or don’t. Just don’t stress about sleeping.
  10. Do as much work as possible before the trip. It’s really hard to be on a business trip and keep up with all your email and regular work. Try to get ahead as much as possible. If you are really tired the afternoon before your talk and you have a chance to take a nap, you don’t want to have to work on your slides. You want to take a nap so that you can be awake during your presentation!

Does this work for you? Anything you would add?

What would your father (or you) like for Father’s Day?

I was looking at Amazon’s Lightning Deals on Father’s Day Gift and realized that they were all remarkably similar in types of gifts. They assume dads like really, really like gadgets. Especially ones dealing with:

But the one most attractive to kids shopping for their dads would have to be … the popcorn machine. (Luckily my kids do not have enough money to buy this one because I have no idea where we’d put it! The garage?)

So I went through the list and figured that I could find at least one thing appropriate for every dad I know. But they did not seem to be targeting every dad I know.

(If you like watching deals, you can check out the lightning deals on Amazon and see what’s coming up and when they start.)

Stormy’s Update: Week of June 1, 2010

This is my update for work done for the GNOME Foundation. For a higher level overview for what I do as the Executive Director, see What do I do as Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation?

Had a million conversations (well maybe not that many), followed threads and kept up (mostly) with email. Too many different things going on for a short week.

Organized a GNOME Roadmap discussion.

Discussed copyright policy with team putting it together and adboard member with feedback.

Discussed having a GNOME Mobile event at LinuxTag through WIPJam.

Talked to Zonker about GNOME 3 press roadmap.

Had some interchanges about GUADEC sponsors, logos, etc. I think all agreements are worked out except one now.

Set up some meetings at LinuxTag.

Met 1:1 with Brian and Rosanna (separately).

Next week:

  • Get out board approved proposal for using the Nokia money for GNOME Mobile.
  • Put together presentation for LinuxTag.
  • Attend LinuxTag.
  • Write opening letter for annual report.

Words are important – just not always the way you think

Recently I met someone who insisted on describing every department in his organization, all the acronyms and what they stood for. By the time he got around to describing how this whole thing related to me, he had lost my interest. (And I tried hard to hang in there!) He had given me too many irrelevant terms that didn’t relate to me.

We focus a lot in the free software community about what words we use: free software, open source software, free and open source software, …

When using words we should think not only about the meaning of our words but also about our audience. And what we want to teach them.

You don’t teach kids about magenta, mauve, carmine, you teach them about red. Then later you teach them the shades. And, unless you’re my grandfather, you are unlikely to teach them about magenta, mauve and carmine unless it comes up in a scene, in a story.

I’ve been talking about “web services” for a while and people often immediately tell me I’m using the term too generally and start defining web services versus SaaS versus online applications versus … While I think that’s important in some conversations, I think if your audience is only vaguely familiar with the term “web service” and has never heard of “SaaS”, you’ll lose them before you start if you insist on defining and using a whole bunch of new terms. (But I do agree that you should use each term appropriately.)

When you talk to someone who has said “open source software” for the past 10 years, and you use the term “free software”, they will likely think you are talking about something else. Something that is not open source software nor free software as you think of it. If you really want to teach, focus on telling your story rather than teaching a vocabulary lesson.

If you start out by defining terms, you’ll lose your audience. You need to explain meaning by either showing or telling stories.

So if free software versus open source software is important to you, tell as a story where the difference is clear. If web services versus SaaS is important, tell a story or give examples where the two are obviously different.

Tell stories, don’t lecture. (And yes, this post could use a few more stories and bit less lecture!)