Friday, February 27, 2015

The Metropolitan Man: Post Mortem

About a year ago I wrote a novel-length fanfic about Superman called The Metropolitan Man. This blog post will make absolutely no sense to you unless you've read that first, and, as per the title of this blog, is probably something that you will find boring. At any rate, since this is currently my longest (completed) work of fiction, I thought that picking it apart to see what works and what doesn't might be helpful for future writing projects.

What Worked

  • I went with a historical setting - the 1930s - and I think it did a lot to ground the story in the real world, which is a hard thing to do when you have supernatural elements.
  • For the most part, characterization went well. When writing fanfic there's always a pre-existing characterization, and that means that you have to write along the lines of what other people have in mind. It's a narrow tightrope to walk, but I think that I did pretty well.
  • For the most part, the plot went well - the plot was fairly tight, one event flowed to the next, and the actions and reactions of the characters made sense within what had been established for them.
  • There are a lot of small scenes that I like, little details that make the city and world feel more alive. Part of this is that grounding in the setting.
  • Lex Luthor seems like he's smart - much smarter than I am. I used a lot of tricks to accomplish that, and I'm glad that I didn't get too many people telling me that Lex was being stupid.

What Didn't Work

  • When I said "for the most part characterization went well" there was one notable exception - Lois Lane. Her purpose in the story was to provide a contrast to the two principle characters, as well as a B-plot of her figuring out Superman's secret identity. For the most part, I think she accomplished that, but I tried to keep a realistic shifting of emotions for her which didn't come off well. In my own personal life, especially when there's a lot going on, my moods shift, and I have personal revelations that get canceled out and the whole thing is confusing. But while I might find that to be a realistic reaction, I don't think it's terribly good fiction. It's better to have a characterization that you hammer home over and over with slow and gentle shifts than to try to make someone as weird and complex as a real person - especially when they're the only one that's like that among your principle cast.
  • There's a scene where one of Lex's henchmen screws up and kills Ma Kent, in part because of the unforeseen event of the Dust Bowl which interferes with plans that had been put into place. He kills her mostly on accident. This is the first major thing that goes wrong for Lex, and the first time I wrote it, I think I flubbed it. I fixed it somewhat before the next chapter went out, but I still think that it's a weak point of the story - something that feels just a bit forced or unnatural.
  • The ending is the weakest point in the whole piece. I think that building up to the final confrontation went well, and the final confrontation itself went well, but the resolution came too suddenly and I don't think was foreshadowed enough. I've thought a lot about how I would change the ending, though I have no intention of doing so (mostly because I think that an author is better of not endlessly rewriting, especially when the work has already reached its audience). I've gotten comments that the ending is sad, which I'm totally fine with and intended, as I see the story as a tragedy. I've gotten comments that the ending never delivers on a promise of reconstruction, but I don't feel like I ever made that promise. But I've had people say that the ending felt too much like luck, and on reading it, I somewhat agree with them. It's a planned for sort of luck, the luck that comes from having lots of plots in play and plans within plans, but it's luck all the same. And at the same time, I didn't want for Lex to win simply because everything went his way. I think that if I had to do it over, I would include a scene from Superman's perspective, to show that he had options and took the one that was the most "good", and that's what got him killed. It's a somewhat cynical downer ending, but I think it would massage out some of the luck, and it's kind of a downer ending either way.
  • The prose was a little too lacking in emotion. A lot of the dialog is dry and descriptive, or focused on details. There are a few key emotional scenes that I thought were powerful, but it could have used more emotion in the day-to-day. This I'm less sure on - I think it might just be how I write, and one of those things that I get criticized on for future projects, but writing emotionally is one of those things I find difficult unless I can convince myself to really feel it.
Overall, among those people who have bothered to rate it, it has four stars. I think that's more than fair - my own rating would probably be more towards three and a half, though that might be because the flaws are all quite apparent to me, or because I've spent more time looking at the failures than the successes.

(The Lack of) Methodological Problems in High-Rise Syndrome Cat Studies

There's a popular fact that gets thrown around a lot: cats can survive falling from great heights, and actually survive more often when dropped from a greater height (above seven stories).

There's also a popular rebuttal to this: the study which came to this conclusion was only looking at cats that came into the emergency room, and has what's called a survivorship bias. What they mean is that it could be that there are (hypothetically) a whole bunch of cats who fall from above seven stories which die before ever getting to the emergency room. The study therefore has a methodological flaw, and no valid conclusions can be drawn from it.

Here's the rebuttal to the rebuttal: that's a misreading of the study. The study in question is almost always the 1987 Whitney and Mehlhaff study, which went viral pretty quickly and was then just repeated ad nauseum since forever. What the study actually showed was that the severity of injuries to cats was curvilinear with height - injuries increase as you add height, until a certain point where they stop increasing and start decreasing with height. Specifically, limb fractures begin to decrease while thoracic injuries remain more or less constant (or with a mild increase).

So when a cat falls from a large height, we can divide them up into three groups.
  • Dead cats, which don't go to the vet
  • Injured cats, which go to the vet
  • Uninjured cats, which don't go to the vet
In any study of cats coming into the emergency room, we're only going to be seeing cats in the middle group. We can further divide the injured cats that we're seeing into three groups.
  • Severely injured cats
  • Moderately injured cats
  • Mildly injured cats
Now, if mortality were increasing linearly with height, we would also expect the severity of injuries to increase with height. This is not what we see happening. What we instead see happening is the severity of injuries decreases with height. If you want to maintain that there's a survivorship bias going on here, that bias needs to explain why we see fewer injuries among injured cats.

I've had this debate online a large number of times. In fact, that's why I'm writing this blog post. The generalized argument among the counter-study people is this: most of the cats that fell from high floors simply died. When I ask what plausible hypothesis explains why those that don't die don't see increased injuries, I usually hear back an answer that doesn't make sense. It's usually some variant on "they were lucky", which as you can imagine, I find scientifically lacking.