March 19, 2015

Write Better: The Coyote, the Road Runner, Sympathy, and Craft as the Art of Constraint

Back at the beginning of March this list of Chuck Jones's Rules for Coyote-Road Runner cartoons made the rounds:

(The pic, taken by filmmaker Amos Posner, shows a display in the Museum of the Moving Image's "What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones" exhibit. It's identical to the Coyote-Road Runner Rules Jones listed in his 1999 memoir Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist)

There's some question as to the consistency with which The Rules are followed, as well as their pinned-to-the-wall workaday legitimacy, but as I work through a set of hard revisions on an almost-just-about-right SF novella, I've been thinking about these rules--not because I'm employing any of them in my edit (I'm not), but because they embody a different way of looking at constraints[*], and I'm very fond of drafting with a fuck-all attitude and revising with a sharp blade and very narrow constraints. By hewing to constraints we drive our work towards the Graceful Universality of fairytales, Willie Nelson songs, Basho haikus, Jones' Coyote-Road Runner shorts, and the like. Besides, even if you miss the "graceful universality" bullseye, it's effort well-spent, since the entire target constitutes "stuff someone will pay money for" (i.e., "work that meaningfully touches people").

Jones' Rules have been floating around the Internet for more than 15 years, during which time the list has swelled to as many as 11 items listed (in fact, Wikipedia editors only culled back to nine following Posner's tweeted picture, even though Jones' canonical nine-item Rules have been in print since 1999). Interestingly, the earliest instance of the Rules swelling beyond the Canonical Nine traces back to its *first* online incarnation back in 1999, which includes this 10th Rule:

(Rule 10.) The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

This isn't in Chuck's Nine Rules because it's something he explains a few pages earlier in his memoir, while setting up the discussion of the Coyote-Road Runner Rules. he returns to the idea in his analysis at the end of the book. It's tacked on as a 10th Rule in that ancient webpage, but it's really the 0th Rule, the fundamental Truth: The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote, and to a greater or lesser degree the Rules guide the forward energy of each story toward this goal. The Coyote is humiliated not so much by an active antagonist (that damnable Road Runner) as by his environment, by the core physics of the universe, by shoddy consumer goods, and by his own mania.

You know, like the rest of us.

All of which is a nice reminder for me, that any part of the craft--all of the rules of thumb and editorial tricks and writing tactics and daily grinding--exist to serve the 0th Rule of the Coyote and Road Runner: You need to cultivate the audience's sympathy for the protagonist. "Sympathetic" doesn't mean "likable." Likability, in my humble, is bullshit: We don't "like" Richard III, on balance, or Hannibal Lecter, or Walter White, or Lady MacBeth, or Medea--but these are among the most compelling protagonists in Western narrative.

Similarly, "sympathy" isn't "pity"; pity is a form of contempt. We feel superior to those we pity. But I don't think most audience members ever feel superior to even the very disagreeable protagonists I've listed above, flawed and awful as they are. Why? I imagine it's because, like Coyote, they may be failures, but they certainly aren't quitters. We can respect that, and sympathy rests on a measure of (often grudging) respect.

Now there's most certainly another 3k words I can put to this--especially as it applies to the modern argumentative essay and social media--but let's stop here, with the nuts-and-bolts Write Better advice:

  • Our job is to cultivate sympathy--not to be liked or pitied.
  • We write better when we hew to constraints that guide our readers toward "feeling with" our characters (even the Bad Guys).
  • There are many ways of formulating constraints; it doesn't matter how they constrain you, so long as they do in fact constrain, that you at some point in your process feel hemmed in and annoyed by the Rules that you've set for yourself.

    Or, in other words, accept the Fundamental Truth that Chuck Jones never deemed worth saying--that most artists come to see as so self-evident that it doesn't bear mentioning:

    You cannot catch or eat the Road Runner. But you always must chase.


    Continue reading "Write Better: The Coyote, the Road Runner, Sympathy, and Craft as the Art of Constraint" »

  • March 13, 2015

    These Humans Are Downright Adorable!

    (although not precisely work-safe, unless you have headphones)

    Women Try Men’s Underwear For The First Time - YouTube

    Guys Try On Ladies' Underwear For The First Time // Try Guys - YouTube

    March 03, 2015

    Write Better: The Genius of Sasheer Zamata

    I love this piece for two reasons: It is perfectly structured, and it's compassionate.

    Structurally, we've got a clean three-part structure (which, established, I believe in with a passion that is sort of embarrassingly open and sincere) that conforms to my workhorse Setup-Tangle-Resolution formula. Although it doesn't strictly hew to my favored 45/45/10 distribution (in terms of time devoted to each of these three sections), I do note that the gag itself Resolves at the final 10% mark, with the line "It was like a date, with a lot of stuff missing out the middle." (I've got a sort of vest-pocket theory that having the Resolution drop into gear as you round the last 10% is fairly consistent across stories and storytelling modes).

    More importantly, she offers us this perfectly structured, perfectly delivered story in the service of compassion. I mean, there's really no way around it: in telling the story, Zamata inhabits a man who sexually assaulted her (however mildly, by some measures) and brings us to the point of identifying with and feeling pity for him. This is a joke, but it is an incredibly powerful joke, and even if it is an absolutely 100 percent factual account, it is also in its perfect craft an excellent example of moral fiction.

    I've watched this over and over and over again, and I love it every single time. It is an excellent primer on storytelling. Watch and learn, Oh My Best Belovéd, watch and learn.

    Continue reading "Write Better: The Genius of Sasheer Zamata" »

    February 26, 2015

    39-cents: White "Allies" in Race and Gender

    This is nice in a lot of ways—the use of the races of the actors (in that it both lampoons the explicit target of the satire *and* makes fun of the badly skewed racial mix of the SNL cast and staff without making *light* of this monoculture problem), the fact that the only person putting on a phoney-baloney accent is the white guy (in contrast to how "Africa" skits normally play), the pacing and delivery--it's a nice, concise take on self-determination and "White allies" when it comes to issues of race and gender, and how patronizing this kind of "help" can feel from the inside. In my humble.

    Continue reading "39-cents: White "Allies" in Race and Gender" »

    February 17, 2015

    Don't Miss Out: Hella Rad Deals on Geeky Kids' Books!!! (deals end 2/18)

    It's been a nuts couple or weeks:

  • The Humble Brainiac eBook Bundle (explained here)--which includes my book Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred--has done insanely well, selling over 30,000 copies (i.e., 1.5 times as many copies as a New York Times bestseller in this category). It's pay-what-you can: Chip in as little as a buck and you get my book and four other; folks paying $15 get a total of 16 rad books worth $300. The project has raised a couple hundred thousand dollars for the EFF and Freedom of the Press Foundation. Everyone is a winner here.

  • In celebration, my publisher--No Starch Press--launched a crazy promotion, offering 50% OFF print copies of *any* No Starch Press kids' book (again including mine)[*]. That's better than wholesale, and a whole mess better than Amazon will do you. Just use the coupon code BRAINIAC when you place your order through the No Starch site.

    But all of this wraps up around lunchtime *tomorrow*. Hop to it, cash in, and get some books!

    Continue reading "Don't Miss Out: Hella Rad Deals on Geeky Kids' Books!!! (deals end 2/18)" »

  • February 12, 2015

    The Humble Brainiac Bundle Just Got 23% More Rad--Plus 50% OFF on Print Copies of Geeky Kids Books!!!

    The Humble Brainiac Book Bundle (explained here) is doing bonkers-crazy well! As of today we've sold somewhere north of 22,000 bundles (to put that in perspective: If a book like mine sold *5,000* print copies in one week, it would be a New York Times Bestseller. This past week has almost *quadrupled* the total number of copies of my book currently in circulation).

    We want to keep this party rolling for the six days, and to do so, we've sweetened the pot:

    • My publisher has added three more titles to the Humble Brainiac Bundle! Beat the average (which is currently $13.37) and you'll get the core bundle, the original beat-the-average-bundle (which was four books: Two LEGO, the Mange Guide to Physics and Python for Kids) *and* three new bonus books: Beautiful LEGO, the LEGO Build-It Book Vol 1, and the Manga Guide to Calculus. That means that bundle buyers who go all-in and spend $15 or more will get 16 books; $300+ in rad reads! (As always, you can still get the five core books--which include my own SNIP, BURN, SOLDER, SHRED, as well as a Manga science book, a LEGO book, a Ruby-for-kids book and the excellent LAUREN IPSUM--for pay-what-you-want! And I mean, pay just about *anything* you want; you can pay a buck and get those five books. It's an honest-to-god-*steal!*)

    • For the next week you can get print copies of *any* No Starch Press kids' book for 50% OFF if you use the coupon code BRAINIAC (Good through 2/18). That's absolutely and totally old-school bananas! Like, 50% off is a better deal than they give *me* on my book, which I buy in bulk to sell at events. There are *so* many good books included in this deal, it's just mind boggling! This deal includes all of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful LEGO books, all the Manga Guides, innovative programming books, and just plain lovely things like Bunpei Yorifuji's Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified. For real: Stock up now for the next few gift-giving holidays! Go. Buy. NOW!

    Finally, my Ask Me Anything over on GoodReads (his what-what over on where-now?) is going strong. We've been talking about DIY projects, publishing, working with kids, finding parts, "inspiration," and more. I'm going to keep it up until the end of this promotion bonanza on February 18. Swing by and hit me with your questions! New answers go up every other day or so.

    February 06, 2015

    This is Officially the Most Sadly Prescient SuperBowl Ad Ever

    It's the RadioShack ad that played during the SuperBowl last year:

    And last night--that's just one year and three days days after this spot ran--RadioShack declared bankruptcy. An hour or so earlier I'd been on their site looking up stock numbers for a parts list in the final project of my new DIY book (*sigh*) Guess that'll be one more thing for the copyeditor to sort out. I love you, copyeditor. I am sorry.

    RadioShack, The Electronics Chain, Files For Bankruptcy : The Two-Way : NPR

    I'm sure the Internet is already filling with eulogies for RadioShack today--eulogies largely written by folks who haven't set foot in one or mentioned the store, apart from as a punchline, in years. I was in my local RatShack weekly, because despite everything that was wrong with the place--as a bricks-and-mortar businesses, as an online retailer, as a source of anything useful--it was still the only place to quickly get electronic components when you were in a pinch--and as a guy writing a book full of electronic instruments, I was often in a pinch. Yes, these components were mostly overpriced, and some were of relatively poor quality (their store-brand soldering irons were junk, as were their jacks; switches were occasionally janky). But they had a few components that I'm going to sorely miss: The funky, throwback hexagonal knob covers (part #275-507)--which weren't really a throwback, since RS had been selling them without interruption for decades--the General-Purpose IC PC Board (part #276-159), their celebrated audio output transformer (part #273-1380), the many books of Forrest M. Mims III.

    And, they had employees. Lots and lots and lots of employees (because they had lots and lots and lots of stores). And I've been in RadioShacks all over this great country, and I've gotta say: Those employees didn't always know a damn thing about electronics, but they were always very nice and very helpful (within their capacity), and few of the ones I've spoken to over the last year were willing to admit that this day was coming.

    So, yeah, I feel sad for my memories and sad I won't be able to get a couple RadioShack-specific parts I like and sad that I'm going to have to revise some chunks of a book that's already 90 percent of the way to printed. But I'm also really, really sad for the thousands of people who woke up without a job this morning.

    February 05, 2015

    Ask Me Anything about Crafting, Fiction, #DIY, #SciFi, Writing, Earning a Living Doing So--Anything!

    Yow! The HUMBLE BRAINIAC BOOKS BUNDLE (which includes my first DIY book and scads of other awesome family-friendly making/programming/science/LEGO books) is doing *incredible!* Thanks so much!(No clue what I'm talking about? Get the skinny on this Humbled Bundle stuff here)

    To celebrate, I'm doing an Ask Me Anything on GoodReads. Swing by with your questions about crafts, DIY, writing, science fiction, publishing, living by the pen, baking, childcare, liquor--whatevs. (Never used GoodReads? You can safely sign in using your Twitter, Facebook, Google, or Amazon account; if that proves odious, feel free to email me questions directly. I'll paste them and reply there.)

    I'm AMAing for the next two weeks. Looking forward to hearing from you!

    Sock it to me! Ask Me Anything: Goodreads | David Erik Nelson answers your questions — Ask the Author

    February 04, 2015

    Pay What You Want for SNIP BURN SOLDER SHRED & Four More DRM-Free eBooks in the *HUMBLE BRAINIAC BOOKS BUNDLE*!

    I'm super-pumped to have my first DIY book—Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids—included in this Humble Bundle.

    A QUICK INTO TO HUMBLE BUNDLES: Humble Bundles are collections of multi-format, DRM-free digital content (in this case ebooks) offered on a pay-what-you-want basis. When you purchase a bundle, you get to choose how much you pay and how that payment is divided between the content creator and several charities (in this case the EFF and the Freedom of the Press Foundation). If you pay more than average, you unlock bonus content.

    The "Core Bundle"—available to anyone who pays any amount—includes:

  • Ruby Wizardry: An Introduction to Programming for Kids
  • Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things
  • The Manga Guide to Electricity
  • Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids
  • The LEGO Adventure Book: Cars, Castles, Dinosaurs & More!

    Folks who pay above the prevailing average also get:

  • LEGO Space: Building the Future
  • The Manga Guide to Physics
  • Python for Kids
  • Incredible LEGO Technic
  • Build Your Own Website: A Comic Guide to HTML, CSS, and WordPress

    And big-spenders who break $14.99 (which, incidentally, is basically the price for any *one* of these books) get even more:

  • Steampunk LEGO
  • JavaScript for Kids
  • The LEGO Neighborhood Book

    That's 13 books--no less than $130 retail if you go with commodity ebook formats, and more like $250 for the high-end, ultra-crisp DRM-free PDFs No Starch sells directly. This is an insanely good deal. Even if you just chip in a couple bucks for the Core Bundle, you're getting some great books. The Manga guides are tons of fun, and both my kids (8yo boy and 2yo girl) love the LEGO Adventure Books (which are *soooo* slick and beautiful on an iPad). I gave my son a print copy of Lauren Ipsum for Xanukah, and he read it three times in two days, then got out his old copy of Phantom Tollbooth to re-read, then started reading them in some crazy cross-referenced tandem system of his own devising.

    CHECK IT OUT: Humble Brainiac Book Bundle Presented by No Starch Press (pay what you want and help charity)

  • January 29, 2015


    Now through Saturday morning you'll get 40% off and Early Access to my upcoming DIY book Junkyard Jam Band: DIY Musical Instruments and Noisemakers. That means you'll *immediately* get PDFs of three projects from the beginning of the book, and more chapters as we finish proofing, layout, etc. Plus you'll be among the first to receive your print copy this spring.

    Just add Junkyard Jam Band to your cart and use the coupon code BRIGHTANDEARLY to save 40%--which is a steeper discount than Amazon is ever gonna offer you. Everyone's a winner! (except Amazon--who, come to think of it, are hella beating the crap out of all of us, in the grand scheme, so EVERYONE'S A WINNER!!! [sorta])


    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.

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  • Contact: dave[AT]davideriknelson[DOT]com
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    Make cool things (water rockets, cardboard boomerangs, a $10 electric guitar, a sock squid, etc.) while learning cool skills (basic soldering, sewing, carpentry, woodburning, etc.), and do it all on the cheap (most projects are under $10, many supplies are *FREE*).
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