Rewrite What Annoys You

It is very common for artists to spend a lot of time annoyed: You love a thing so much that you want to create more of that thing, and thus invest a lot of energy in honing skills at creating that thing.  Meanwhile, since you love the thing, you keep seeking the thing out. As your skills improve—and noting the immutability of Sturgeon’s Law—you’re bound to come across plenty of examples of imperfect executions of that thing you live.  Profound, near-constant annoyance is the natural consequence of this.

You can do two things with that annoyance:

  1. You can kvetch about it (e.g., preaching to your choir on social media)
  2. You can rewrite it the way you would have written it (i.e., the Right Way, Dammit!)

PRO-TIP: Almost every working artist I’ve asked about this has landed squarely in Group #2.

Consider this SNL skit—which comes very, very close to being The Best Twilight Zone Episode Never Written:

This piece could be great, but it falls flat and is unsatisfying. Why? What went wrong?

The problem is in the Resolution (that’s the final 10% of the piece — for an overview of my 45/45/10 Formula for narrative, check out this blog post or this one). In any piece the Setup creates series of “open loops“ that need to be closed in the Resolution in order for the piece to feel satisfied. The open loops here include social isolation (which is introduced by Danny almost from go, and keyed to his goofy dream of singing his “I wish” songs with friends), a Twilight Zone leitmotif (evoked by the musical cues, camera work, and acting style, especially with He-Man and Lion-o), and also elements of sexual frustration.  This last item is lightly implied by mother’s nap, but really explicitly introduced by He-Man—and this is crucial—at around the 2min10sec mark, when he punches through a wall out of sexual frustration.  The 2:10 mark puts this bit of stage business at about 45% of the way through the piece, where it naturally transitions from the Setup to the Tangle (no clue what these terms mean?  Check the bulleted 45/45/10 Formula overview here).  Given both the timing in the narrative and the drama of having a character punch through wall out of sexual frustration, you’re making this issue seem really, really important.

And then you introduced She-Ra—already a sorta-kinda sexually charged nostalgia callback—being played by Arianna Grande.

So, to recap, here are the unresolved open loops:

  1. Social Isolation
  2. Singing/Music
  3. Sexual Frustration

And we’ve just brought Arianna Grande onstage: a very gregarious and sexually attractive young woman with a stunning singing voice.  The audience is gonna have certain sorta obvious expectations of the basic outline of how these loops should be Resolved.

So let’s look at the Resolution:  Sexual frustration is sorta addressed (but not for the primary character, just for side-characters mom, Lion-o, and He-Man). But, social isolation and the Twilight Zone aesthetic go entirely unaddressed. Watch that final scene again: It seems almost like the actor is expressing his frustration at the skit more than Danny is expressing his frustration at the fictional situation.

As an audience member, I’m kinda let down.  As a writer, I’m almost fatally annoyed because they were so close to knocking this out of the damned park!

How would I fix it? It’s so simple: First, keep the Setup unchanged (that’s the first two minutes or so).  It’s a fine Setup, really. In the Tangle (that’s the next two-ish minutes), I would keep almost everything the same as well, but would strike the birthday hug gag between Danny and She-ra. (Don’t worry; we are still going to use this gag, just later, to close the skit.)

Let’s run through what we’ve got now: Same Setup (with Twilight Zone look-n-feel and Danny’s social isolation). We introduce sexual frustration. He-Man busts through the wall after Sister. He brings back She-ra. The three toys-come-alive all start trashing the joint. Mom comes in, chemistry sparks with her and the hunks. Those three leave for the hot tub. Now Danny asks She-ra for his birthday hug. We keep She-ra’s reply as written—she doesn’t like hugs; she likes to smash!—and Danny announces: “Well, I like singing songs with my friends—even if that means singing by myself!” Unashamed, he begins belting out his “I wish” song. She-ra (who, you’ll recall, is being played by a goddamned operatic pop star) is taken by Danny’s heartfelt song; she’s a warrior princess, and has never before heard the beauty of song. She begins to sing along with him—and then returns to smashing, never flagging in her song. Danny, thrilled to have a friend, keeps singing and he starts smashing the joint up, too.

The camera pulls back, swivels, and reveals a black-&-white Rod Serling impersonator (everything else is still in color). Cue Twilight Zone bongos.  Rod Serling looks dead into the camera, puffs cigarette, and delivers a Twilight Zone-style summary outro:

“A lonely young boy.  A savage warrior princess.  An unlikely birthday wish—and an unlikely duet that could only happen … in mom’s hot tub”—Serling stomps out his cigarette and races out the door to join the hot tub orgy.

Boom.  That’s the skit this skit clearly wants to be.

Hamish Trolove’s Hobopunk Lap Steel Guitar (with Active Electronics!)

I love hearing from folks who read my DIY books, because they are always up to something that I never imagined, and yet love on first sight.  Case in point:

Last December I got an email from Hamish Trolove, a Junkyard Jam Band reader who mentioned he was building his own riff on a Shane Speal 2×4 lap steel with a build-in Mud-n-Sizzle pre-amp (project 12 in Junkyard Jam Band) and dual LFO box (translation: It’s a junkyard lap steel electric guitar with a built in pre-amp—so things might get loud—and an automated modulator, allowing him to dial in anything from a little honky-tonk tremelo shimmer to a big pulsing metal wobble).

As Hamish explained:

The instrument uses waste cargo palette wood, and TIG welding wire to mark the “fret” spacings. I find that old palettes often have extraordinarily hard wood with some amazing colours when planed down, sanded and varnished. Hopefully by the end of the project I’ll have something that looks fairly tidy-ish in a hobo/steampunky kind of way.

“Fairly tidy-ish” is such an understantement.  Check this thing out:

Lap_Steel_Paraphenalia2

Lap_Steel_Head Lap_Steel_Tail

Detail of the pre-amp Hamish installed in his guitar
Detail of the pre-amp Hamish installed in his guitar
Dual_LFO
Front panel of Hamish’s Dual LFO box
Dual_LFO_Undercovers
Interior of Hamish’s Dual LFO

Oh daaaaaaamn! I love everything about this!  He also included a schematic of his expansion of my old Universal LFO (Junkyard Jam Band project 13), for folks interested in doing something similar:

Hamish Trolove Dual_LFO_Circuit-AsBuilt
Hamish Trolove’s Dual LFO

Hamish also put me on to Frescobaldi, a powerful, pretty, and free sheet music text editor that looks amazing. (For every 100 of you who are wondering why you’d ever need such a thing, there is one musical geek who is gonna click that link and weep with joy.  Trust me, for I have been that very geek.)

Incidentally, while you’re clicking links, don’t miss Hamish’s Baddest Mountain Dulcimer Ever.

RECOMMENDED READING: Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike by Grant Peterson

Although this is framed as a manifesto by a former bike-racer-turned-designer/bike-populist, railing against what “racer mentality” has done to the otherwise universal American pastime of “riding bikes,” I’m *manically* recommending it to anyone who likes to pedal. It’s a great, great book: a quick, fun read composed of short, tightly focused practical articles. the book is *packed* with excellent advice on fitness, maintenance, bike fitting, and riding techniques. E.g., this was the first I’d heard about using your hips to assist cornering, and it’s *changed my life.* I disagree with him about helmets (since I started riding daily in a city full of drivers-from-elsewhere, I’m *deeply* committed to my relationship with my brain bucket), but his points about how to own a slightly larger slice of the road by giving the *impression* that you’re an incompetent rider has been revelatory.
I’ve never been tainted by the bike-racing headspace (I’m *waaaaaay* to lazy to be into competitive *anything*), but I read this book in a single day, and have been going back to it frequently since, applying Peterson’s tips to my bike, diet, and exercise regimen. Get a copy, read it, and keep it close at hand.

Recommended Reading: Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking by Nicolas Collins

If you’ve enjoyed the “Electro-Skiffle Band” projects in SNIP, BURN, SOLDER, SHRED–or dug my Droid Voicebox talk at Maker Faire Detroit 2012–then you really, really need to check out Nic Collins’s Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. I give it multiple shout-outs in the book, but I’m being emphatic here: It’s impossible to overstate how inspiring and fun his book and projects are. I’m hugely indebted to Nic for having written it, and then revised it (the newest edition includes a DVD of audio and video examples, making it even awesomer than what my library had to offer when I first stumbled across this gem).

Also worth checking out is Nicolas Collins’s web site, which includes video tutorials and some great new circuits.

Print-n-Snip Boomerang Template

boomerangs-sm.pngThis PDF includes templates for three boomerangs: a scaled down version of the quad-blade fast-catch boomerang in Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred, plus two new tri-bladers). Each fits on a single sheet of standard 8.5-by-11 paper (and, as a bonus, each of these designs scales pretty well; if you have access to a printer that can handle bigger paper, then you can scale these up and make bigger boomerangs).

To use the Print-n-Snip Boomerang Template:

  1. Print out the boomerang that catches your eye (slightly heavier paper—like resume stock—makes for a slightly easier to trace template)
  2. Trace the design onto light-weight cardboard (such as poster board, a cereal box, a Krispy Kreme donut box, etc.)
  3. Carefully cut it out
  4. Crimp the quarter-line on each blade (as described in step 7 of Project 18 in the book)
  5. Tune and throw!

If you come up with a boomerang design you like and want to add it to the template, drop me a line! (My email is in the “About the Author” box.)

“Circuit Snippets” by T. Escobedo

If you have a little soldering experience–including building any of the electonics projects in Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred–then you’re ready for T. Escobedo’s “Circuit Snippets.” This document includes several dozen sound circuits (largely guitar effects, although they work with any sort of instrument you can plug into an amp), which range from the relatively common (e.g., distortion pedals, phasers, envelope followers, pre-amps, auto-wahs) to uncategorizable strangenesses. In terms of quality, many of these sound as good as mass-market stompboxes at one-tenth the price.
(The Synthstick entry has a bit more about Escobedo’s FolkUrban website, but the short story is that it was really cool, had lots of great designs for different instruments, and disappeared with GeoCities in October 2009. I saved PDFs of “Circuit Snippets” and the Synthstick, but many other Escobedo fans have done a much better job of archiving than I did, scooping up all of the audio samples, too. The “Circuit Snippets” mirror at Guitar HQ UK is one such faithful recreation of the old GeoCities page.)
“Circuit Snippets” by T. Escobedo

“The Synthstick” by T. Escobedo

For years, Tim Escobedo maintained the excellent FolkUrban website, which featured a wide array of instruments–both traditional and electronic–cunningly made from cheap, common supplies (lots of PVC and tupperware, grocery sacks, etc.) His projects were a huge influence, and served as invaluable templates to my tinkering; the synthstick was the first synth I ever built, and its VCO (the core noise-making circuit) found its way into many of my projects, as well as those built by my students (sharp eyes will see something very similar nestled at the heart of the Cigar Box Synth, Project 17).
GeoCities evaporated in October 2009, and Escobedo’s entire site with it. I archived the Synthstick and his collection of Circuit Snippets as PDFs, but these don’t include any of the audio examples. Happily, I’ve discovered that many other tinkerers loved Escobedo’s site as much as I did, and archived various chunks; Googling for “T. Escobedo” is a good place to start.
“The Synthstick” by T. Escobedo

“Making PVC Didgeridoos” by Steven L. Sachs

For years, Steven L. Sachs maintained a great page on didgeridoos. It largely concerned making PVC didges like the Electro-Didgeridoo (Project 11 in the book), but also offered info on modifying lower-cost store-bought bamboo and teak didges into instruments that, sonically, could often pass for their genuine (and expensive) eucalyptus cousins. When GeoCities folded in October 2009, it took Steven’s site with it. I’ve archived a PDF of his page, and humbly offer it here:
“Making PVC Didgeridoos” by Steven L. Sachs