Decision Fatigue

Saturday, January 24, 2015

I joined a new critique group this month which meets at a local restaurant for a light dinner and discussion every two weeks. Although I knew two of the members from a writing group I belong to, I was going to meet two new people in a new place and, as people usually do, thought about the first impression I’d make as I was getting ready. It was then I realized that I almost always wear the same clothes. Not literally, but I have multiple similar pairs of jeans and shirts—short-sleeved tee shirts for summer and long-sleeved sweatshirts for winter. I have variant “dress-up” versions of the shirts, meaning they have collars on them, for when I leave the house, but there’s not much variety in what I wear: jeans, a shirt, sneakers with white, ankle-high socks.

I have a few outfits I wear to church on Sunday, casual slacks instead of jeans, a blouse instead of a shirt, and shoes instead of sneakers. It doesn’t take me long to decide what I’m going to put on on any particular day as long as I stick to my routines.

So it surprised me how much angst I was having over deciding what to wear that night. I pushed hangers along the rod, examining every shirt, blouse, vest, and sweater I owned, evaluating whether it would give the proper first impression. I took a fresh look at the pants I had worn on Sunday, wondering whether they were too old and faded to wear to dinner that night. And I got frustrated at how much time and energy this simple decision was taking.

Coincidentally, I ran across an article on decision fatigue soon after. The term is self-explanatory. It turns out the more choices you have to make, the more tired you get. People unconsciously realize this, so they have a tendency to eliminate decisions in their lives to leave energy for the things that really need deciding. My boring wardrobe is nothing compared to Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs always wearing black. I at least give myself the challenge of what color shirt to wear on any particular day.

There are other things you do to minimize the number of decisions you have to make. You drive the same way to work every day. You don’t decide which route to take unless your normal way is blocked by a major accident or a jackknifed tractor-trailer or road construction. You run errands on the same days. You sit in the same pew at church every week and the same seat in class every day and you’re grumpy if someone sits where you expected to.

Decision fatigue also explains brand loyalty. I buy Progresso soup, Thomas’s English muffins, Bumblebee tuna. When I get to the shelves with all those cans of tuna on them, I don’t have to decide; I reach for the green can of Bumblebee and move on. Menus get routine: roast on Sunday, pizza Friday night, hamburgers and beans on Saturday.

Routines make for efficiency as well as eliminating decision fatigue. I’ve noticed this when starting a new diet. Most plans—Weight Watchers, Spark People—require planning menus in advance so you can shop and have the components on hand. You’re given sample menus, but you still have to decide which ones to use, which have foods you like versus foods you don’t like, which you can make with ingredients on your shelf rather than buying, which will satisfy you. Because many foods are new, you have to decide which brand and size to buy. All this deciding takes time and energy. This factor is probably why plans like Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig work—they not only do the menu planning for you, they ship you the meals. Phew!

As I was mulling this over off and on for the next week, it dawned on me that decision fatigue explained why planning a novel was so exhausting. Not only do you have to make countless decisions, you also have to come up with the choices! Which means more decisions.

For me, a novel starts with a concept, generally a fairly vague concept. For “Faith, Hope, and Murder,” it was “the border problem.” Not much to go on, right?

Then I start thinking about the characters. The sleuth: Male or female? What does (s)he look like? Fat, thin, medium; short, tall, average; long hair, short hair, bald; blue, brown, green, hazel, or violet eyes; what’s his or her job? The victim: how does (s)he die? Poison—which one? Knife or gun—what kind? The killer: What’s his or her motive: greed, jealousy, revenge, fear? Why? What happened to give him or her that particular reason to kill the victim? Suspects: They have to have motives, too. And all of these characters need physical descriptions, likes/dislikes, homes, jobs, friends, enemies, families, hobbies, cars, pets, etc. You don’t have to come up with everything for every character, but even which characteristics you need requires making a decision. Does it matter whether the killer has a pet or not? Does it matter whether it’s a dog or a cat or an iguana?

You have to think about where and how the crime is committed. What time of day it is. What season it is and does that matter. Who could have witnessed it. Did the victim make noise? What kind? Would that matter?

In one scene, your characters go to a restaurant. What kind of food? What’s the decor, the color scheme? Is it crowded or empty? Is it downtown or at a country club outside city limits? Is the waiter pleasant or surly? Is it a waiter or a waitress? Do they wear a uniform?

In the process, a writer has to make as many of the decisions easy as they can so as not to get bogged down by the choices. For that restaurant, you pick a restaurant you’ve been to, picture it in your mind, then use those descriptions because the details aren’t usually important to the story—it’s just a location for your characters to have a discussion or meet a suspect or an expert witness. Unless it is important—a character gets food poisoning or the restaurant has a common rear entrance with the crime scene location.

Orson Scott Card cautions about making these decisions too prematurely. If you go with your first idea, it’s most likely a cliché, something that’s been used so often as to present no surprise to the reader. They’ll get bored. So you ask a lot of questions to give yourself several ideas to use, then decide which is the best one for this story.

No wonder the first draft seems easy compared to the prep work! Unless I’ve decided not to do so much planning ahead of time, to write it in “pantser” mode. Writing by the seat of your pants doesn’t eliminate the decisions—you just have to make them as you’re writing instead of ahead of time. Sometimes that’s fun. You never know what your muse is going to come up with when you don’t think about decisions until you need to make them. Other times it’s a disaster. Some decisions make it impossible to construct a coherent story. You wind up throwing out whole scenes and writing new ones because they just don’t work. Or you abandon the story altogether. So, as I’m deep into that decision time as I’m planning my third Community of Faith book, I try to remind myself that I might be getting exhausted by making all these decisions now, but, hopefully, writing itself will be a lot more enjoyable—and a lot less tiring!

Picture Credits:
Image courtesy of Master isolated images at

Truth and Illusion and the Movies

Sunday, January 11, 2015
I saw The Imitation Game this week which was, as promised, fabulous. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley give outstanding performances, as does the rest of the cast. I laughed and cried. I even thought about some of the issues the movie raised.

Since the Golden Globes are tonight, I decided to see if the movie actually had a chance of winning Best Drama or Benedict Cumberbatch, Best Actor. I’d like to see them win. I haven’t seen the other contenders, though, so wanted to see how the competition was rated. Which led me to reading the user reviews of The Imitation Game.

Several of the reviewers didn’t seem to understand this was a drama, not a documentary. They downgraded the movie based on issues such as the Poles not being credited for their part in decoding Enigma, the team not being given enough credit, and Turing’s openness about his homosexuality being downplayed. There is also a faction that believes he didn’t commit suicide, but hints at nefarious plots to kill him. They didn’t evaluate the film as a movie, a story that gets at the essence of what happened, if not the literal truth.

Movies and books and other forms of art often do this in order to tell the story. There’s even a term for it: dramatic or poetic license. It’s understood that the true facts may be shaded in order to make a better story. I’m pretty sure if the film had been made as a documentary, it would be seen by far fewer people. It would never be talked about the way this film has been and, although it might have been nominated for a Golden Globe or Academy Award, it would have been in an obscure documentary category.

It’s not as if every other biopic made adheres to the literal truth. (That’s sarcasm, in case you missed it.) Most biopics eliminate unsavory aspects of the subject’s life, unless they’re capitalizing on those, in which case they omit the other side. I’ve seen biopics that omit mention of a second (or first) wife or children. It’s inevitable. A movie is only two hours long, hardly long enough to capture every detail accurately. As an example, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” the book on which The Imitation Game was based, is 792 pages long. If you want the details or the literal truth, read the book. Even I am hesitating at buying it, much as I like long books, because I already have two very long ones on my current To Read list.

I loved Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp, which was the story of J.M. Barrie. Kind of. While hunting for a biography of the creator of Peter Pan to read, I discovered that Finding Neverland adhered to the truth of J.M. Barrie’s life even less than The Imitation Game does to Turing’s. Which still does not diminish my enjoyment of the story told in the movie.

Novels are similar. I put a disclaimer at the end of Shadow of Death because there’s one scene that could not have happened exactly as I portrayed it. I knew it couldn’t, but, after contemplating the issue over several weeks, decided writing a scene with what literally would have happened would have bored the reader to tears, and they probably would have closed the book at that point. So I salved my conscience by putting in the disclaimer.

Law enforcement officials generally hate crime shows and novels because they don’t portray reality. Don’t ask anyone in law enforcement about the CSI shows unless you want an earful of angry invective. Writers get details about guns and investigative procedures wrong all the time. Lee Lofland, a retired police officer, has written a book to help them get the facts right and writes a blog on police topics for writers. He does a weekly review of each episode of Castle as well.

The people who watch these shows and read these books, for the most part, don’t care about technical accuracy. They’re looking for a good story. And, even if the writer is well aware that a CSI would not be questioning witnesses or when a warrant is or isn’t required, the writer may decide, for the sake of the story, to include that “inaccuracy.” Because the truth they’re telling isn’t about procedure or history or a specific event, but what it means to people.

The Pez Factory

Saturday, January 03, 2015

For the first time in a number of years, I spent the Christmas holidays away from home. I have a nephew who decided to get married on December 27th in Connecticut and, in order to allow for weather or equipment or other delays, my family decided to fly on Christmas Day. Fortunately the weather held off and the delays, although annoying, were minimal.

One of the advantages of being flexible in your travel plans is discovering things you never knew were there. Since we arrived with a full day available to use as we saw fit, we decided to follow the sign off the highway that led to the Pez Visitors Center in Orange, Connecticut. I remembered Pez from my childhood, but hadn’t heard much about it and assumed it was one of those brands that had disappeared over time to be replaced with more modern candies. It turned out I was wrong.

The novelty of Pez is not the flavor of the candies, but the dispensers. It’s not just a candy, but also a toy. When I was young (a long time ago), the dispensers were plain plastic columns. You press on the back of the top, which lifts it and allows a single rectangular candy to rise up and protrude from the stack. It’s a simple spring-driven machine, but there’s something addictive about pushing the top and pulling out the candy to pop it in your mouth.

Over the years, the dispensers have evolved. They have Barbie dispensers and sports dispensers and superhero dispensers and Star Trek dispensers. I had no idea the variety of dispensers that have been made. Needless to say, there are avid collectors of all the varieties.

The factory itself was closed when we visited, but there are clear walls where you can look in and see the machinery. The process isn’t very complicated. The candy itself is basically sugar and flavor which is mixed and then put under 3,000 pounds of pressure to create the tablets. While the factory in Connecticut makes fruit flavors, sours, and even chocolate Pez candies, the original peppermint is only made in Austria. I don’t think there was any explanation as to why.

It takes under an hour to go through the whole exhibit. If you’re in the area, you might want to stop by and see it. It’s a nostalgic walk down memory lane.
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