Success and Happiness in Life: Some Reading Suggestions

  • by Gitabushi

I consider myself a philosopher.  Meaning, somewhere along the line, I realized that I was making my way through life (interacting with others in the world) according to a paradigm, and if I was unhappy with the results, I needed to improve my paradigm.

So I’ve done that many times in my life.  And I’m pretty happy.

This sort of came up in a conversation this morning, and I was reminded of a book I received from my best friend’s Mom for Junior High graduation: The University of Hard Knocks.

University of Hard Knocks

I read the book, and thought the lessons were a little too obvious to write a book about. And yet, I found myself thinking back to it in my early 20s, and remembering its lessons more and more.  I think this is partially where I got the idea of swapping out paradigms. It taught me about the occasional need to change the way I think about things.

But there was another book that helped me to understand and improve how I think: The Depression Book.  I don’t care if your depression is diagnosed as chemical, you still need to read this book to help conquer your depression…because anti-depressants eventually stop working, but if you can use the respite they provide to reprogram how you think, you might be able to improve your brain chemistry by establishing a different internal dialogue.

But now I think it might be worthwhile for everyone to read it. Mostly because everyone gets depressed at times, and this book can help you to minimize both those moments, and the damage of those moments.  The book was really helpful to me in understanding how to change the way I think about things.

So now I’m thinking about other helpful books that are Must Reads for increasing your chance to have a successful and happy life.

I’ve heard great recommendations for Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I’ve never read it, but the things people say about it make me think I discovered many of the same lessons on my own from other sources.  Let’s add it to the Must Read list.

I’m going to put in a conditional recommendation for Charles Givens’ “Wealth Without Risk.”  I own it. I’ve never read entirely through it. I found a few ideas in it that I like…I guess the best thing that I can say about it is it definitely contributed to my understanding of how money works, and how we earn money through smart decisions.

I’m not sure how mandatory it is to having a good life, but I’d like to make a recommendation for James Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy.  I mean, most people end up working in a bureaucracy, and most certainly end up at the mercy of one at some point.  It seems like it might be helpful to know what you are up against. Or what policies to push your politicians to vote for in light of how bureaucracies work.  Or don’t work. Or barely work.

I can’t really think of any other book that provided me useful knowledge I didn’t already pick up from school, life, job training, etc., but there might be some I’m not remembering.

What books do you recommend for a happy, successful life?

Advertisements

Plotting: A Suggestion

  • by Gitabushi

I recently “purchased” (it was free) and started reading an e-book on how to plot.

“The Plot Machine: Design Better Stories Faster,” by Dale Kutzera

For the most, it was worth what I paid for it.  Many of the points it made were obvious to anyone who has done any reading at all, much less writing.  Several other points were among the first, and most basic, techniques any writing book will mention.

Since it was free, I didn’t expect much from the book.  Even if free, there is still a time cost, and I invested that cost to get some additional insight into how to effectively plot a novel.

One point it made changed my viewpoint, and I think will have a deep and profound impact on my writing.

The book pointed out that while a novel is more complex that a short story, both should follow the Three Act format. In this format, the First Act is setting up all the pieces. The Third Act is resolving all the conflicts and returning all the pieces to their resting places.

The book says the Second Act: *that’s* what makes or breaks a story.

What makes a story good is what obstacles have been placed in the path of the protagonist, and how the protagonist resolves them. These obstacles make a memorable story. This is where most of the action occurs.  This is where the protagonist’s character is honed or revealed.

The book when on to explain that, in fact, it is the Second Act that defines your characters.  You want to put them through hell to make an interesting story, but they need a *reason* to go through the hell instead of just giving up.  They need a *reason* to be in the position to go through that hell.

As such, deciding on the conflict first can make it clear who your character should be. And deciding the conflict first makes it more obvious how to make the resolution more dramatic and effective.

Okay, maybe I’m reaching with this by embracing the book’s suggestion. Maybe it won’t work for you to write the conflict first. Maybe it won’t end up working for me to write the conflict first.

But too many of my stories have foundered when they reached the conflict stage.  I had a great beginning. I had a decent ending. I couldn’t get through the middle. Too often, the conflict didn’t match the motivations I established at the beginning. Or the method of overcoming obstacles didn’t match the character I established at the beginning.

You could say that this just because I write poorly, and I’d have a hard time arguing that. On the other hand, I think of a character and a starting point, and think I have a story idea.  Perhaps, instead, I should think of the conflict a character is going to go through, and think I have a story idea.

Looking at this from a different direction: I love twisty, complex plotting.  I have a “story idea” right now that I want to turn into a twisty, complex plot.  So I’ve come up with all my main characters, the universe, the starting motivations, and now I want to add complexity.  I can’t really get started on it. I can’t figure out how to put these characters into seemingly no-win situations where they have to dismantle the Destruction Engine piece by piece to avoid their destruction and win the story.

My plan was to start writing and add complexity.

I now think a better idea is to start with a complex, seemingly no-win situation and write backwards, figuring out how the protagonist got into this situation.

For example, I’ve been watching a few Chinese Spy/Suspense television serials.

In one, Protagonist 1 is drawn into the spy world to work for the Chinese Nationalists (who are resisting the Japanese occupation), and from there, gets drawn into being a Communist spy inside the Nationalist organization…because of the temporary partnership to resist the Chinese.  His older brother (Protagonist 2) is a collaborator working with the Japanese government…but is actually a Nationalist spy working to undermine the Japanese, and is Protagonist 1’s superior in the National spy organization. At one point, Protagonist 1 is given the order to assassinate his older brother, Protagonist 2, for being too effective as a collaborator. He didn’t know at that point that not only his older brother a Nationalist spy, but the order itself came *from* his older brother (who, having ordered it, knows how to avoid it, but it helps him gain additional credibility with the Japanese). When it is all over, however, Protagonist 1 learns that his older brother is actually his superior in the *Communist* spy ring that’s inside the Nationalist spy ring that’s resisting the Japanese.  He’s been acting according to his training and character, but he’s been moved around like a chess piece, based on his older brother knowing him, and being his superior two layers deep.

weizhuangzhe2

I don’t think you can build in that sort of complexity as you go.  I think you have to start with that incredible situation, and then work backwards, adding layers to the complexity as you move earlier in the story.

In another, the protagonist is just a normal Nationalist officer in what seems to be a National Guard/Reservist unit.. They are getting ready to go to the front line to fight the Japanese. His unit’s commander is out of action while recovering from surgery, and the 2nd-in-command is leading a cabal of the top few officers to surrender and collaborate with the Japanese.  The traitor has one week to do it, before the Commander recovers and returns to duty. A junior officer (not the protagonist) discovered this, and formed a group of officers and NCOs to resist (the Iron Fists). The protagonist joins, making 30 in all, and they are set to meet at 9pm on a certain date.

At 8:30pm on that day, the protagonist is getting ready to leave for the meeting when the 2nd-in-command traitor locks the HQ down. He then orders the protagonist to lead the arrest of the 30 cadre members who are mutinying. Meanwhile, the Iron Fist group, lacking two members, decides to start the meeting with the 28 who are present.

The protagonist arrives on the scene, and tries to make noise to alert the Iron Fists inside. It doesn’t work. With no other choice, he leads the charge. But the first thing he does is shoot out the light. With the lights out, he trips a few of the capturing force, throws a bench out the window to help the Iron Fists escape, etc. But it is all for naught, all 28 are captured.

The traitor officer knows two people didn’t arrive, and knows the protagonist did some weird stuff. Plus, there’s another officer who isn’t in his cabal. So he sets the 2nd officer to torture a confession out of the protagonist. The 2nd officer is, of course, the 30th Iron Fist (who was also locked up in the HQ building and couldn’t go to the meeting, and so was spared). He finds out that the protagonist was Iron Fist #29, and vows to help him.

But the issue facing them both is, “Who betrayed the Iron Fists?”  All 28 in captivity are executed within a day (to silence them), so Iron Fist #30 begins to suspect the protagonist, despite the protagonist being Iron First #29.

The Traitor officer has two military representatives in custody, one Nationalist and one Communist.  He finally decides (for a couple of reasons not worth explaining now) that *they* are the two missing Iron Fists, and so stops worrying about the protagonist and the other officer.  Except these two officers aren’t part of his cabal, so he doesn’t completely trust them.

To strengthen his position, he decides to get a hostage: the Commander’s mother. So he sends a team to escort her from her home (a day away) to his location.  He puts the protagonist in charge, sets the 2nd officer to watch him, sends one of his cabal officers along to watch them both, and sends along the two military representatives as hostages. They will go near a Japanese stronghold, and the cabal officer will give the Japanese the two military representative hostages to seal the deal that allows the traitor cabal to deliver the entire unit to the Japanese.

So along the way, the protagonist is trying to help the two military representatives escape without letting the other officers know he is doing it. At the same time, Iron Fist #30 officer is trying to help them escape, but not letting the other officers know he is doing it, and doesn’t see the protagonist doing anything to help, which deepens his suspicion that the protagonist betrayed the Iron Fists.

Everything that happens puts the protagonist in a no-win situation.  If he does anything to help get the word out, the cabal officer will kill him as a traitor. If he works too hard to follow his orders, the unit will be handed over the Japanese, and he betrays his fellow Iron Fists.  But when he helps the military representatives escape, he can only help by throwing some things through the window to them, and pre-positioning some escape aids, which they attribute to Iron Fist #30 who was actually able to make contact with them and tell them he was going to help them escape.

I hope that’s clear.  It’s pretty twisty to watch, and hard to explain. Basically, because the protagonist is trying to remain undercover, all his very risky attempts to help get attributed to other officer, so he is still considered a traitor by the people he supports, yet if he is any more overt, the cabal officer will kill him.

Again, I don’t think you could add in this complexity as you go.  The best way to write this (I think) is to start with a no-win situation: your protagonist is in a situation where if he acts overtly, he is killed; if he doesn’t act overtly, he betrays his principles.  What does he do? He tries to act *covertly*, right?  So how can we make those efforts not help? Add in another person who gets credit for it, *and* that person suspects him.  Okay, what kind of person would have the freedom to act *and* be in a position to matter in this sort of betrayal drama? A young officer who is the Commander’s favorite, highly principled and motivated.

Then  you just add in misunderstandings from there, working backward.

Well, time to see if it works.  I’ll report back in a later post, either way.

 

 

“Cultural Appropriation” in Fiction

Let me start by saying that I find the concept of “cultural appropriation” itself to be wrongheaded, foolish, and kind of absurd. It assigns some kind of collective ownership of the nebulous basket of language, tradition, customs, food, clothing, fashion, and all kinds of other ill-defined elements that supposedly belong to a given people.

Nevermind the fact that peoples and nations interbreed and change and that cultures develop and assimilate and adapt.

And who is supposed to arbitrate these transgressions? If one single Chinese person indicts me for enjoying their dim sum, am I guilty of creating a problematic situation?

Does it matter that another Chinese person rules that it’s ok for me to eat dim sum, but that I may not make it myself? Or that a third, more rational native doesn’t give a crap?

Does it change the calculus when the majority of a country or culture like having their culture appropriated (the real term is “appreciated”)? I can tell you from my time living in Japan and consuming Japanese media that the people over there are flattered and pleased when foreigners try on kimono, or dress up as a popular anime character, or take an interest in  Japanese language, lore, history, whatever.

It’s ridiculous to think cultures should be treated like private (group) property.

And so I was disappointed when I was listening to an otherwise quite interesting discussion of an old weird tale yesterday, and the speakers posed the question of whether a white man writing about a black protagonist was cultural appropriation.

Really?

Thankfully they were gracious enough to rule that this was not the case – after all, the white (racist) narrator was really who the story was about.

I’ve gotta say, I find it quite troubling and a bit confusing, how such big fans of speculative fiction could conceivably buy into the idea of cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to the fiction they read.

Scifi and Fantasy are full of stories about aliens and other non-human beings. But they’re not real, so I guess this is in-bounds. Well, women write male characters and men write female characters. Should this gender appropriation be pooh-poohed?

Is Captain Blood cultural appropriation, because it sees an Irish protagonist written by an Italian author? Or is this okay because they’re both white ethnicities? Do “White People” all get lumped together into one culture?

Is Othello problematic because its noble Moorish (often portrayed as African) hero was written by a white Christian?

Should books written by White People only feature white characters? If you think so, it sounds like you’re ready to nix an awful lot of cool SFF and other great literature. And why? Because a few emotionally unstable people have nothing worse in life to worry about than some white dude writing a story about a black guy?

51isW1RdvyL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_51oo82fc0kl-_aa300_Zorro

(Whoops – forget that last one – he’s one of those white hispanics!)

Are Japanese manga and anime highly problematic for featuring so many Caucasian characters?

And if you answer “yes” to all these questions, or even if your response is more nuanced or qualified, what’s the solution? Do we need a tribunal to determine which cases are acceptable and which are “problematic,” and then to rule on a remediation?

It’s such a silly piece of business. I’d be tempted to ignore it if I didn’t see the idea as such a threat to creativity and freedom of expression. Of course no one’s talking about outlawing cultural appropriation, but if it’s such a bad thing, I could imagine things moving in that direction in some quarters, someday. And really is there much practical difference between outlawing something and drubbing it out of polite society?

-Bushi

bushi

Crying like a man

Getting the baby into a routine, we’ve been playing music for him during bath time and on the changing table before bed. I’m in charge of the playlists, of course.

He seems to really like when I sing along to Dean Martin or Johnny Cash.

It has thusly occurred to me that while “real men don’t cry” is usually an axiom violently rejected or vehemently espoused, depending upon who you ask, allowances should be made.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Samurai Rebellion

Not to be confused with Samurai Revolution, Samurai Rebellion is a 1967 samurai flick starring an aging Toshiro Mifune.

This one pushes back a bit on the usual image of the samurai as an unerringly obedient servant-warrior.

Mifune plays a middling vassal to the lord of Aizu. As a young samurai, his sole focus was in swordplay and the martial arts, which in the current age of bureaucratic samurai aristocracy have become somewhat undervalued skills. Consequently, he considered himself fortunate when the head of a more prestigious family, impressed with his swordplay, asked him to marry his daughter.

Isaburo’s (Mifune) marriage is a cold one, unfortunately. His wife is a shrew and there is no love between them. But he’s a stoic man and he tolerates her. She bears him two sons.

This is all important backstory for the main plot of the film. Let’s fast forward.

Isaburo’s lord has become displeased with his mistress (who has already born him a son), and orders that she be married off to Isaburo’s son. The samurai and his family are initially displeased with this order and try to resist, but after the deed is done, Isaburo and his son are glad. Ichi winds up being a good wife and daughter-in-law, and she provides his son with the loving marriage Isaburo never had. She bears a daughter, and everyone is (for the most part) happy.

1

Suddenly the lord’s first son dies of an illness, and his son with Ichi becomes the new heir. And of course it is unfitting that the heir apparent’s mother should be married to a vassal.

The lord orders Ichi returned to the castle. Isaburo and his son resist, calling the order an unjust and tyrannical order, stealing a vassal’s wife.

Their lord orders them to commit seppuku for their insolence, and they answer they that will be glad to comply…when his head and those of his stooges are delivered to them.

2

What will happen? Watch and find out! Just so happens this one is available (for now) to watch online, here.

Without giving away too much, I will say that while I didn’t find the ending very satisfying (it’s not as bleak as some other J films I’ve seen, but neither is it happy), I found the movie’s focus on justice and love over blind loyalty and “honor” to be refreshing. Mifune, as always, is excellent, and the rest of the cast is great, too.

I did notice the tip of a boom mic in one scene, but whatcha gonna do…

-Bushi

bushi

 

Samurai Revolution

I just finished watching Kudo Eiichi’s Samurai Revolution Trilogy (not to be confused with Samurai Rebellion) – 13 Assassins, The Great Killing, and Eleven Samurai. All three films are available on Kanopy, should you have access through your local library. If not, you can probably get them through the Criterion Collection.

Eiichi’s three films share many commonalities, but interestingly differ in approach and style.

13 Assassins (1963) revolves around a plot to kill an evil daimyo, who rapes the wife of a samurai and then cruelly murders her husband. One of his retainers commits suicide in protest, but the affair is covered up because the daimyo is the Shogun’s younger brother and will soon be elevated to a powerful position.

The Council of Elders is instructed to “act with discretion” by the Shogun, but one of the men cannot abide the disgraceful behavior and the certain chaos that will accompany the daimyo’s rise. He therefore secretly summons one of Japan’s most formidable samurai and convinces him to lead a suicide mission to slay the evil lord.

In 13 Assassins, the heroes are competent and brave. Their plan is well-crafted and executed, and justice is clearly on their side.

Their main nemesis, as is so often the case, isn’t really the daimyo himself, but his chief retainer and bodyguard, who matches wits (and ultimately swords) with the leader of the samurai band. Despite his distaste for his lord’s behavior, he serves loyally to the end.

3

A great film, and my favorite of the bunch.

The Great Killing (1964) tells the story of a samurai conspiracy to stop the ascent of the Elder Councilor, who has maneuvered himself into a position of great power. Soon the Shogun will retire, and the Councilor’s puppet is set to be installed as his successor. Many samurai perceive this to be a great injustice and the Councilor to be evil, and so they plot to kill him.

Unfortunately for them, their conspiracy is uncovered and they are hunted down and rounded up. Many of them are tortured for information. One of the protagonists, a loyal vassal, is confused for a conspirator. His wife is slain and he is captured, but then escapes and winds up joining the plot.

Notably, it is a woman (who comes across as strong and self-possessed; not the typical demure Japanese flower you might expect) who recruits him to the cause.

2

Ultimately the last holdouts of the rebellion, who are notably flawed and even evil in their own ways, decide to strike at the puppet Shogun-to-be, as he is the easier target.

Their attack is clumsy and uncoordinated, in contrast to that of 13 Assassins. The assassination breaks out into a disorganized brawl, and each member of the conspiracy is killed before he can accomplish his objective.

In the end, it’s a samurai who wasn’t even involved in the plot who goes berserk at his friend’s death and slays the target before being cut down himself.

There’s a great analysis of this film to be found here.

This one wound up being my least favorite of the three. It’s dense, confusing, and only one of the protagonists winds up being sympathetic. In a way, it’s kind of an anti-samurai flick.

Eleven Samurai (1967) takes kind of a middle path between the other two (good synopsis here). Once again a cruel and unjust daimyo is protected from his behavior by his relationship to the Shogun. After trespassing upon the territory of the neighboring fief and murdering a fellow lord, things are hushed up and the facts altered. It is proclaimed that his lands were rudely encroached upon and a stray arrow struck the offending lord. As punishment, the slain lord’s fief is to be dissolved and his clan abolished.

Of course a plot is crafted by the victimized fief to take their revenge. Notably, one of the men who was to join the plot dies of an illness, and his sister takes his place (another interesting strong woman type role).

Somewhat similar to 13 Assassins, the heroes in this tale act like heroes. They’re mostly competent, brave, and loyal. They’re also fairly skilled fighters. Unfortunately for them, their well-laid plans keep being thwarted, and their final attack winds up being an impromptu attempt to catch the lord before he is able to reenter his territory.

The final scene is action-packed. Several of the assassins, cut and dying, throw themselves upon a fire to ignite gunpower they’ve stashed in their clothes. Another of the samurai hurls daggers (darts?) at foes. Of course there’s swordplay, too.

In the end, the original conspirators are all killed accomplishing their mission. The lone survivor is a ronin who joined their cause along the way.

The thing that struck me most about Eleven Samurai was the lack of that samurai fatalism in the leader of the group. He admonishes his men more than once, saying that their lives are his to spend as he will, but that they should not be so willing to throw their lives away. Although he accepts the likelihood that they will all die, he also seems to allow for hope that some of them may survive.

Likewise he grieves when his young wife kills herself in a show of loyalty to him (sometimes the wives of samurai would commit seppuku to follow their husbands in death), and exclaims that she needn’t have died.

1.PNG

There’s a lot about these three films to process. They’re still rattling around inside my mind, anyway.

-Bushi

bushi

The All-Too-Real Split Between SF and F, a Rebuttal

  • by Gitabushi

…Here I come.
Walking down the street
I give the craziest takes to
Everyone one I meet!

PC is putting his SF&F thoughts on a new blog, for branding reasons.  I originally tried to leave this response over there, but my browser was choking on the wordpress log-in.  What the heck, yanno? Let’s have dueling posts on this topic.

as you wish

Here goes:

Okay, we’ve had this discussion before, but I’m going to disagree again, even if means retrenching the battle lines we’ve fought so many times.  I actually think you have some new points, but I have some new counterpoints, too.

I think David Brin has a point. Not as much of one as he thinks, but a point.

I think SF&F doesn’t and shouldn’t really matter to the reader. But I think it does and should matter to the writer.

You have to know what you’re writing, and why.

Sure, there are some space operas like Star Wars that can be re-written as fantasies, and probably vice versa, but they wouldn’t satisfy the audience.

Because when I think of all the fantasies and all the science fiction stories I’ve read, I have noted that science fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and fantasy is about extraordinary people…who sometimes are just dealing with ordinary things, like revenge, and rejection from parents and/or being orphaned, or things like that.

Speculative Fiction is really about exploring what it means to be human. Science Fiction tends to be things like, how much can we distort Person and still be human. Fantasy tends to be things like, how much can we distort Reality/Environment and still remain human, and/or how much does power distort humanity versus merely amplifying the baser instincts.

Sure, there are exceptions. Frodo is really just an ordinary person who does great things, as Bilbo was, really. But every non-hobbit in that story was a singular example of something 10 standard deviations above the mean.

Star Wars was both good *and* clearly science fiction when it was just an average farm boy who helps destroy an enemy aircraft carrier with an atomic bomb capability. (Force isn’t magic, it’s *psionics*. #Duh). But it got worse, disappointed many of its audience, and became fantasy when it became a mundane estranged family relationship story. Not that “becoming fantasy” means “gets worse”, but it started as SF, and so got worse the farther it got away from SF and more into mysticism and fate and seeing the future and stuff.

Okay, that explains they difference.

But why does it *matter*?

Because if you are a writer, think of your story. Should it be SF or Fantasy? It depends on who the main character is, what you want him to do, how you want him to change. If you want him to be just an ordinary kid with some exceptional abilities that he can use under duress to save a bunch of people, then you should write a Heinlein juvie fiction SF&F story. If you wan to write about someone who seems normal, but is *really* the heir to some huge power, or huge wealth, or huge kingdom, and he’ll spend his time dealing with office politics, then you are probably better off writing a fantasy.

If you want to write about a humanoid race that thinks differently than human, but just as well, you’re probably going to write science fiction. If you want to write about a humanoid race that is pretty much fully human in intent, motivation, love hate, etc., just go ahead and write a fantasy.

If you want everyone to have the same tools and powers and opportunities, and just one person has the drive, insight, or persistence to benefit from it, you’ll probably use a SF setting. If you want someone to have access to special tools, powers, or opportunities that aren’t available for general use, then you’ll probably write a fantasy.

Yeah, Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Well, Arthur C. Clarke was wrong, and if he’d thought it through just a *little* bit more, he’d have realized it. And if he disagrees, he can come here and post his disagreement.

…okay, that was supposed to be for humorous effect.

The thing is, I think Orson Scott Card nailed it when he said that if you include magic, for it to be interesting, there must *always* be a price to using it. Or else, it’s just unlimited power and that’s boring.

But with technology, there is no price. The price was paid in the development, or in the working out of how to use it without destroying society.

Going back to Star Wars, the Force was fine when it was psionics and there was no price. It became magic when the price was having to struggle with the dark side, maybe cut yourself off from human affections, etc.

There is no price to learning to play guitar except that time it takes to work on muscle memory. But if you sell your soul to the devil to get good…

…that’s the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The reader just wants a good story. But if you want to write a good story, you need to know which you are writing, and stick to it.