October 30, 2014

Narrative, Argument, and 3-Part Structures: Beginning, Middle, End; Pity, Fear, Catharsis; Claim, Support, Conclude; Arrive, Observe, Conquer

Listen: All pieces of halfway decent writing--all jokes, all ad copy, all novels, all recipes, all news articles--are narrative, and all narrative is formulaic. There aren't exceptions, just the rule. And that formula, at it's base, is the Fundamental Three-Part Structure[*]

But, to be clear, I never draft anything beginning with the Structure. I don't think the Formula is any good for generating "content." That said, once I catch the thread of what I'm working on, I invariably start to break it down into its three parts, in order to get a sense of how I should develop the piece. This is basically automatic now with essays--because I've been writing them for so damn long--but I still very self-consciously seek out the parameters of the "Setup," "Tangle," and "Untangle" (my pet names for these parts in fiction) when I'm working a story (and it very much feels like *working* a story, not *writing* it or *drafting* it; you work a story like you work clay).

So, while you might not buy into that tired old "three-act structure," I think you discount structure and formula, in general, at your peril. For me, the refusal to see writing fiction as being fundamentally the same as writing non-fiction--structurally--immeasurably slowed my progress as a writer of stories: All of my sales were happy accidents, all my failures bewildering mysteries.

But the thing is that not everyone's formulation of the Fundamental Three-Part Structure works for everyone else. Like I said, because I had an early and thorough introduction to drama (esp. Shakespeare--a writer of *five* act plays), I rejected the "three-act structure" early (and lamentably).

But there are *tons* of ways of characterizing the Fundamental Three-Part Structure--just like there are tons of faces of the One True God (*zing!*) The trick is finding the characterization that works for you (I'll share mine down the road--but tonight this needs to be short, so short I'll keep it). Aristotle, for example, characterized the Fundamental Three-Part Structure as the audience--identifying with the protagonist--being guided through Pity, Fear, and Catharsis.

It's in that spirit that I present this talk by Julian Friedmann. He's a literary/screen(?) agent I'd never heard of before, but he has a somewhat novel spin on the Fundamental Three-Part Structure. He talks about structure and Aristotle's Pity-Fear-Catharsis starting around 8:18, but the whole thing is a worthy watch. I also very much dig Friedmann explanation of why we consistently and deeply enjoy narrative, in that it is an opportunity to "rehearse our fears." I think that's important, esp. if you want to make some dough in this game, or are perplexed why something with abysmal writing--like THE HUNGER GAMES--is a bestseller, while countless beautifully written novels bumble along boring you to tears. A big part of it is that those lovely pieces of lyrical writing have failed to make sure their structure is sturdy and balanced. And part of it is that they are giving you no opportunity to rehearse your fear of what comes next.

Continue reading "Narrative, Argument, and 3-Part Structures: Beginning, Middle, End; Pity, Fear, Catharsis; Claim, Support, Conclude; Arrive, Observe, Conquer" »

October 28, 2014

#AnnArbor Voters: It's Probably Best to Vote YES on Annexing Whitmore Lake Public Schools

If you aren't a registered voter in Ann Arbor (or, I guess, Whitmore Lake), MI, then you probably won't care about this at all (unless you just *adore* inside baseball on small-town politics). And if you *are* a registered voter in Ann Arbor, you probably still don't even understand the annexation thing--nonetheless, we've gotta vote on the damn thing come November 4. Fortunately, there's a really very informative FAQ. Give it a read.

SHORT OVERVIEW: Whitmore Lake schools are broke. They asked AAPS to absorb them. We're gonna vote on whether or not we should do that.

TL;DR: Vote YES.

BUT WHY DAVE-O?: Well, a few reasons:

  1. We have great schools and this won't harm that. By the latest calculations, our per-pupil funding will go down, like, $7 per year post annexation. By annexing Whitmore Lake we help them keep their local schools, so we won't pump up class sizes in our existing schools. Win-win (well, incredibly-minor-loss-win, but you get what I'm getting at). On balance, this is a small price to pay for a larger good.
  2. It's a big boost to the kids in Whitmore Lake. Whitmore Lake is a small community--just 1,000 students, compared to our 16,000 students. After annexation they'll see something like a $2,000-per-student boost in spending. Their teachers will also be paid better--at AAPS scale--and their programs will be expanded, getting back art and music and AP classes they had to cut as their finances collapsed. These are all good things.
  3. It's cheap. Check out point #13 in the FAQ linked above; if Zillow says your house is worth $200,000, then annexing Whitmore Lake Schools will cost you just $25/year--or ~$2 per month--in added taxes. For $25 per year, you'll be improving the lives of 1,000 kids in a neighboring community, you'll up the pay for their ~60 teachers, and you'll ease the burdens suffered by their parents. That's good.
  4. Taking no action is risky. Right now this is a good deal because there are incentives in place to encourage AAPS to move forward with the annexation. If we decline to do this and Whitmore Lake Schools collapse, then we'll likely absorb the students into our local schools, with no incentives. They'll lose their local schools, their teachers will be fired, our class sizes will go up, and per-pupil spending will drop. That's bad.

    Also, just in case you've never suffered through it yourself, and haven't been watching what's up in Detroit, let's be clear: bankruptcy (and other forms of dissolution, like dissolving a school district) is *designed* to be an absolutely miserable process. It is chaotic, and it is hurtful, and it is absolutely punishing. Having helped family members whose noses were being pressed to that particular grinding wheel, I can tell you: I wouldn't wish it on war criminals or Internet trolls, let alone the basically blameless families of Whitmore Lake. Leaving Whitmore Lake out to dry consigns them to suffering and opens us up to the risk of being forced to shoulder the burden of more students with less money. That's a whole lot of downside risk for the dubious pleasure of maintaining our moral superiority and saving two bucks per month.


  1. Assorted Gish Galloping. Lots of distracting questions get thrown up whenever someone tries to talk about annexation: If annexation is so great, why didn't you do this for Ypsi? What about local control? Why didn't Whitmore Lake handle their finances better? What about our children?!? What about our taxes?!? My general policy is to restrict any given discussion to the present moment, not the past and future and relentless, endless hypotheticals, but just to hit these: 1) Ypsi never asked to be annexed to AAPS, and therefore it never came up. That's how it works. They have to ask. We aren't a horde of invading Huns and Mongols snatching up territory here. 2) "Local control" doesn't really impress me, "local contact" does. I have no idea who the folks are running for school board (sorry!), but I talk to my son's teacher, Mr. Taylor at Pattengill, literally every single day. He's given me his cellphone number, and he goes out of his way to work closely with me for what's best for my son and his classmates. I want as many students as possible to have that level of local contact, and so maintaining Whitmore Lake's neighborhood schools is a high priority for me, as a human being. 3) How did Whitmore Lake get into such dire arrears? I have no clue, and I don't really care, because it certainly is not the fault of the 1,000 children whose education some folks seem to be very eager to flush down the toilet. Those kids are blameless, and it's those kids who will be hurt most if their schools cease to exist. Besides, whatever Whitmore Lake Schools did wrong, they clearly won't repeat after annexation, because the administration will be entirely replaced by AAPS. 4) As for taxes: It's $25ish per year. If you think kicking in $25 so that a child can enjoy $2000 of education is a crappy investment, then that's your call. For my money, it's a terrific return. 5) And "What about our children?!?" Frankly, I think annexation is a good lesson for our children: We have an obligation to help care for our neighbors, and if you think you have something good, then you should share it, not hoard it. I think we have good schools. I'd like to share that. But, again, that's just for me. Perhaps you have a different lesson you want to teach your children. That's your piece, and godspeed with it.
  2. The ballot language is just plain awful. My old editor at the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Dave Askins, pointed this one out. Here's the ballot language for the annexation, and it's just awful. It's entitled "PROPOSAL TO ASSUME THE BONDED INDEBTEDNESS OF WHITMORE LAKE PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT" and begins:

    Shall the Public Schools of the City of Ann Arbor, County of Washtenaw, Michigan, assume the bonded indebtedness of the Whitmore Lake Public School District . . .

    I mean, for reals, who in their right mind would vote for that, just based on the ballot language? Ugh!

So, now that we're way down at the bottom of the page, if you've read this far and you hear what I'm saying, you might want to spread the word: Vote YES on "assuming the bonded indebtedness of blah blah blah"; vote YES on annexation

In case you have questions, there's one last community forum on the annexation. It's at 6:30 tonight (Wed Oct 29), at the Skyline High School Media Center.

October 26, 2014

Dropping a Mercury "Water" Balloon (!!!)

This strikes me as a terrible, terrible idea, but *jeeesus* that slow-mo footage is beautiful! (The slow-mo starts around 1:35.)

October 23, 2014


It's official! My new DIY book—Junkyard Jam Band: DIY Musical Instruments and Noisemakers—will be in stores early next year. This is what I've been working on over the past couple years, as a follow-up to Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids, and offers a whole new slew of musical instruments and noise toys:

Junkyard Jam Band is a step-by-step guide to making a full array of complete musical projects on the cheap, no previous carpentry or electronics experience required. Each build includes tips on how to coax the best sounds out of the instrument and encourages you to mod the project to fit your own style.

Wanna Sneak-Peak?

Here are a few of the videos I shot while prototyping projects (FUN FACT: While I live in Michigan, where my DIY books are actually physically printed, my publisher is in San Francisco, and I've only ever met one person in the company—and I knew her from back in knucklehead days. So, these books are entirely developed and executed as a series of disjoint emails, YouTube videos, Dropbox uploads, and disorientingly time-delayed VoIP calls.)

First off is the Elephant Trumpet, which is one of the bone-simplest projects in the book, a quick goofy-fun build (that's my nephew tooting that rubber shofar, FYI):

And here's the prototype of the core of what ultimately became the Twin-T Phaser/Wah, one of the more complicated builds (although still pretty accessible, even to folks new to hobby electronics—one of the things we've done in this book with the more complex projects is broken them into modular components that can be combined flexibly, so you can level them up into more complicated instruments and effects):

We're also including a section on improvised percussion, which I wrote based on interviews and chats with Vince Russo, who's featured on lead vocals and washboard with the Appleseed Collective in this video (their shows are tons o' fun; definitely check them out if they tour through your town):

Wanna Pre-Order?

In all honesty, I'm flattered—'cause it's a remarkable leap of faith on your part, as I'm actually still drafting the copy for the last several projects (if you caught my recent tweet-of-existential-relief when I discovered that a critical failure in a circuit was just a bum switch, that was in reference to the finalized production version of the Twin-T Phaser/Wah circuit demoed above). But, for reals, there'll be a book come my baby girl's third birthday in 2015, so order away!

PRO-TIP: The publisher, No Starch Press, is mos def offering the sweetest pre-order deal: 30% off plus free DRM-free ebooks (the PDFs of these books are *sweet-ass*! It's the PDF of my first book that I use as a reference when I'm building projects and doing demos.)

  • Pre-order Junkyard Jam Band: DIY Musical Instruments and Noisemakers from No Starch Press and save!

    And, of course, Amazon will hook you up:

  • October 22, 2014

    "Mongolian Throat Singing" for Dummies

    This is a pretty stunningly adroit demonstration of polyphonic overtone singing (which is often called "Mongolian throat singing," although I'm told "Tuvan throat singing" is the preferred nomenclature). Just some inside baseball on throat-singing here: The fact that she can move the fundamental (i.e., the lower tone) while keeping the higher tone steady is goddamned *amazing.* #FACT

    As Anna-Maria explains, "polyphonic overtone singing" basically means singing two notes simultaneously. This is accomplished by using your mouth as a sort of tuned resonating chamber: You generate the low note with your larynx (as per usual), but also use that vibration to excite the air in your mouth, creating the higher whistling overtone, which you can then control by changing your mouth shape (as you can see her doing).


    In my early- and mid-20s I was obsessed with overtone singing, which was much more obscure then (in large part because there was also less Internet then, and far narrower distribution of multi-media files on that much slower Internet). If Anna-Maria's performance is sparking something in your ear, most definitely check out Hun Huur Tu (who do very traditional Tuvan compositions and performances) and Kongar-ol Ondar (who toured extensively during his lifetime, performing both traditional tunes and working in contemporary music, most notably with bluesman Paul Pena, whose documentary Genghis Blues is about Ondar and available through Netflix). Here's a great Ondar-Pena track (I'm also enduringly fond of his very traditional "Shamanic Prayer for Richard Feynman"):

    As for Hun Huur Tu, this is an *amazing* 90 minute compilation of lots of their recordings:

    My son, who is now 8, quickened at a Hun Huur Tu performance in Ann Arbor, MI. They came back the next year, and so my wife and I took him to the show, and once they began singing he was so rapt that we momentarily thought he was having a seizure, and sorta kinda flipped out (as new parents are wont to do). He was not having a seizure; he was just really digging the sound, and to this day, has sort of a tendency to fall into the things that fascinate him.

    Speaking of which, a healthy chunk of my 20s was spent trying to figure out how to throat sing, and through trial, error, and lots of online text-based research, I managed to get the tiniest toehold into the fundamentals. Wanna try it? Here are some pointers:


    1. LOOSEN YOUR JAW: Keep your jaw slack and pushed a bit forward. Your mouth should naturally hang open (as Anna-Maria's does), with your lower teeth a touch in front of your top.
    2. FLATTEN YOUR TONGUE INTO A BOWL: This is the part that takes the most experimentation. You want your tongue to be a flat, shallow U, with the tip of your tongue down, the bottom of the U resting on the floor of your mouth, and the edges of the U pressed against your molar. The idea is that you're making your mouth into a big, round resonator (like the jug played in jug band).
    3. GROAN LOW: Make a deep, low tone in your throat and chest (your larynx will really be buzzing).
    4. WORK YOUR LIPS: Experiment with drawing your lips together into a pucker, like you are going to whistle, and then relaxing them again to the starting position. Work through this slow, and listen for that high, ringing overtone, which will eventually start to quietly peek out of the low, buzzing fundamental. Once you find that overtone, it's just a matter of long, patient practice to refine and control the exact mouth-shape that brings it out.
    5. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE—IN PRIVATE!: You'll need to practice and experiment *a lot* to even start to get this done—which is going to annoy the living hell out of anyone you live with. That said, two great practice spaces: The bathroom (natural home to all manner of shameful singing) and while driving alone (the windshield bounces your voice back at you, making it easier to pick out those first, shaky-legged little overtones coming out to greet the world).

    October 17, 2014

    This Clip Very Much Gets to the Heart of What I Love about KEY & PEELE (thx @craftingmystyle!)

    i.e., that it is the funny, bi-racial TWILIGHT ZONE--which is kind of exactly the TWILIGHT ZONE reboot 21st Century America needs, in my humble.

    (via Aisha Harris at Slate)

    October 16, 2014

    Dept. of Halloween Decor: "Dark Night" Paper Doll Bats #diy @nostarch

    This past weekend my wife and son were making Halloween decorations (as I've mentioned before, my boy is somewhat enthusiastic about autumn) and demanded bat paper dolls.

    I'd struggled to make paper dolls as a kid (I'm not super visual), so I was pretty shocked when I managed to make these lil guys on the first try. Here are some pointers:

    1. FOLD THE PAPER: Cut a strip of paper (mine was 11 inches long--because it was loose-leaf writing paper--by ~2 inches tall). Accordion fold this strip an odd number of times. As you can see in Figure 1, this puts both your "open" ends on the same side of the little folded paper packet. That's sort of important, or you'll wind up with a trailing half-a-bat.
    2. CUT OUT HALF A BAT: Hold your paper packet with the "open" side to the left and the "fold side" to the right. Cut out the half-bat I've shown in Figure 2, noting that the tip of the wing (circled in red in both Figures 2 and 3) is blunt and goes off the edge of the packet. PRO-TIP: If you hold the packet wrong, with the "fold" side to the left, you end up with monstrous inverse-bats. If you hold it with the fold to the top or bottom, you get half-bat confetti.
    3. UNFOLD: Voila! You've got bat-swag! Note that the wingtip is blunt (circled in Figures 2 and 3), which is what makes it possible for all your bats to link together (highlighted by the dashed square in Figure 3).

    October 15, 2014

    See the "Southern Lights" from the Outside

    The thing getting hyped about this fantastic time-lapse footage from the International Space Station is the opportunity to see the Aurora Australis from above, but what gets me every time I watch this is how many freaking thunderstorms are happening on earth at any given time, and the breathtaking contrast between those chaotic blue lightning flashes and the static golden glow of human-made electrical networks.

    WATCH: A Camera Attached To The Space Station Captured This Rare Event Happening On Earth. [VIDEO]

    The last three auroras, the bright glows, are Aurora Austalis, going firstly over the Indian Ocean and approaching Australia, then over a wider space of the Indian Ocean, then somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. This project was featured on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

    October 09, 2014

    If You Dug the Math of "The Traveling Salesman Solution," You'll Dig This ( #scifi @ccfinlay )

    This past summer The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction published my novelette "The Traveling Salesman Solution--which has generally been lauded for getting some hard math right[*] in the service of posing a totally non-mathematical ethical dilemma.

    If you're the sort of reader who dug that story--or would dig such a story--for the math, then you are gonna *love* this: A guy named Todd W. Schneider has put together a neat littler interactive web-app for solving instances of the Traveling Salesman Problem using simulated annealing.

    The Traveling Salesman with Simulated Annealing, R, and Shiny - Todd W. Schneider

    For folks who've read the story, you may wonder: Is this Todd guy gonna build a doomsday device now ('cause, naturally, that's what you do with computer hardware/software that solves the TSP). The answer is, "No," because his program doesn't *solve* the TSP, per se. The neat thing about simulated annealing is that it's a short cut for finding *good* solutions, not *optimum*, solutions. You save time by settling for something less than perfect (which, itself, is sort of a tidy lesson in trade-offs, ethical and otherwise). Very neat, but not the world-shaking all-purpose always-optimal TSP-solver that poor old Bryce built in the story.

    For more abut the story, you can check out this interview. Sadly, it's not available as an ebook yet (I've been busy), but you can order the print back issue directly from F&SF, or contact me directly and I'll see if I can hook you up with a PDF or something.

    (I got wind of Todd W. Schneider's simulated annealing TSP web app via The Atlantic's City Lab)

    Continue reading "If You Dug the Math of "The Traveling Salesman Solution," You'll Dig This ( #scifi @ccfinlay )" »

    October 06, 2014

    FUN #FACT: Time-lapse Videos of Babies Being Born Totally Makes Flies Want to Retch

    (one assumes, on account of the principles of symmetry and the Commutative Property of Inter-Species Disgust)

    (via @DavidGrann: Time-Lapse Of A Maggot Becoming A Fly - Digg)


    About the Author

    David Erik Nelson is an award-winning science-fiction author and essayist. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.

  • Find him online at www.davideriknelson.com
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