Thursday, March 29, 2018

Read for fun (sort-of): Resisting Happiness.

"Resisting Happiness" by Matthew Kelly.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I agree with a lot of his stuff but not all of it, and in some cases I disagree more with his style and attitude than his content.

First of all, daily prayer. I agree with this. Just a couple minutes (it doesn't have to be ten) in the morning helps with focus and gratitude and stuff.  Helping out in the community is a good way to show Christian love, and being active during worship services is a good way to understand it more, and enjoy it more. I find myself in greatest agreement with the first couple of chapters.

These are direct to the topic of "resisting happiness" and why someone would do such a thing; literally happiness itself. It's about people choosing shallow happiness, (like some luxury) false happiness, (like a bad relationship), or convincing themselves they are happy when they are not, to avoid trouble instead of seeking true happiness. That stuff makes sense. Even the part where he says that no amount of accomplishments can make someone happy/no amount money can make someone happy, have a certain logic to them, even though the way he writes it makes it sound as though anything other than evangelizing is pointless. These are some of the things that I am more half-and-half on.

Another of them is the practice of offering-an-hour-of-work-as-prayer. On one hand, it sounds like something that can make one's daily labor feel more meaningful, but on the other hand, it sounds like the kind of empty ritual that non-theists mock. There's also a lot of talk about the need to be passionate and zealous in one's faith. It's like a backhand to those who are quietly devout. There's no need to make a show of it; "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" and all that. Then there's the stuff that I disagree with entirely.

There's one chapter (ch. 19) where Matthew Kelly talks about how being bored is a massive insult to God. In other words, it is a sin to be bored. He really says that; "to say we are bored at any moment in our lives is a massive insult to God" (page 98 in my paperback). This is not about sloth, i.e. laziness, but feeling the sensation of boredom. One can be plenty active and industrious etc. and still be bored. You can do selfless things for others and still be bored. This is a sin. It's hard to take him seriously when he says stuff like that. Which leads into my next point -  the frame narrative with his uncle.

I am suspicious of the non-fictional nature of the stories with his uncle. The book is basically presented as conversations he has with his uncle about things someone should do to be "happy" (which quickly turns into "develop a passionate and active inner spiritual life") and the aftermath of them. I find them to be too convenient. They act a frame narrative, starting chapters and providing content for the rest. Sure, one could say that the stories fit the book so well because the book is just a recording and extrapolation of the stories, but, from my perspective, there are problems with this view.
All the dialogue sounds too exact; was he writing this stuff down at the time? Despite "making more money than my teachers" (ch 6, page 29), Kelly acts like a stereotypical teenager, i.e. lacking the maturity to start and run several business (while in high school and still making time for sports and his girlfriend). He acts obstinate and/or snarky when his wise uncle suggests something, quickly caves in, and then realizes that his wise-and-nameless-uncle is right. A similar set-up was present in other self-help books that I have read and one is thought to be bogus (this book is also similar to the story of Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism).  It's a fine teaching method but there is a more fundamental problem.

This book talks about selflessness and the importance of doing God's will instead of thinking "my will be done", but all of this advice and all of these lessons etc. are geared toward making the reader happy.  This book is marketed by promising to make the reader happy. So even if they follow Matthew Kelly's advice, they are still accomplishing their own will anyway.

Finally, there's instances of him plugging himself and his organization, Dynamic Catholic. I understand that his experiences will come from his work and that he has a lot of stories and examples of the lessons in practical and concrete fashion, but the fact remains that he's advertising his seminars and his book publishing. He's even asking for donations through stories of a woman who buys his books so she can give them to others, and a man who thinks God made him talented at making money so he could donate it to Dynamic Catholic.

The below grade reflects both what I like about this book and what I don't like.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Resisting Happiness" a C+-

Click here for the next book review (a request): Song Hereafter

Click here for the previous book review (for fun): Magic, Magic, Everywhere

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Read for Fun: Magic, Magic Everywhere

"Magic, Magic Everywhere" is basically the novelization of the movie "Magic Movie Night".

It is a quick read. There is a large font so the pages go by quickly. In fact, I went through fifty of them without realizing it. Even though I had watched the animated counterpart, I had difficulty putting this one down at my first sitting. I wanted to see the differences because I heard there a couple big ones. This is my impression.

This counterpart is simplified. Books, including novelizations, typically provide more information about the story; a wider scope. This one is smaller. This goes from background details to a significant part of Dance Magic being omitted (namely, the Crystal Prep student conflict/team up storyline). It's disappointing and one would think it would make a great friendship lesson for Starlight to witness, but understandable (see below).

This counterpart is Integrated. Instead of three loosely connected storylines, this one cohesive whole. The Crystal Prep omission was probably for streamlining the narrative and making this happen. Starlight Glimmer, for instance, is present for the whole story instead of the final third and spends the middle arc tracking leaks of Equestrian Magic on Sunset Shimmer's behalf. This is something I like. Starlight vs Juniper Montage is also something I like because it shows more cunning on her part (the "flip kick" from the animated version attracted flack).

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Magic, Magic, Everywhere" a B+

Click here for the next book review (kinda-sorta for fun): Resisting Happiness

Click here for the previous book review (for fun): Dungeons and Dragons Player's Manual (3.5)

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My realization about the pursuit of reader identification

I'm not sure why I didn't post this earlier. I guess it was because it was more of a stream-of-conscious self-reflection thing then something for my blog. However, it is something that I want to share. This self-reflection was triggered by "Canterlot Boutique", the 14th episode of the fifth season in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

The monotony of the same thing over and over again; the thrill of inspiration; satisfaction from others enjoying one's work;  trying new things; as an artist (albeit an author rather than a seamstress) I can relate to that. This could be my favorite of the season and high up there in the series as a whole. Is this the appeal of identification? It is certain relating. I could understand the joy at the start, the frustration at the middle, the shift between financial concerns and artistic direction. Yet, I didn't think that I was Rarity, in her shoes, or anything like that. Rather, it made me want to start writing. To enjoy my own craft. Yet I wanted to get my thoughts down first.

The pursuit of reader identification is a thing that has bothered me for some time. While I look through articles about writing and marketing books, I see "identify this" and "identify that". How important it supposedly is for a given reader to be able to identify with the main character (or some other prominent character) is regularly mentioned.  I saw this in a book about bats when the author spoke of the initial inspiration as if it were a self-imposed challenge. I believe the words were "could kids identify with a bat?" I see it in several places on Tvtropes, such as the tropes This Loser Is You, Audience Surrogate, and Lowest Common Denominator, among others. I even saw it in a Just For Fun page, "So You Want To Be a Voice Actor". The line was "the audience sees themselves in you". All this bothered me because it didn't make any sense.

Identify with a character? That's nuts. Emphasize with? Sure. Relate to? Yes. Understand their situation and trouble? Definitely. But think that I am the character or that the character represents me? No. I bring this up because "Canterlot Boutique" helped me achieve a moment of clarity.

A lot my own fears regarding my career as a novelist are here.
1. Someone taking over the process and taking credit for everything.

---> That's why I hesitated so long before publishing my first book. It took more mustered up courage and resolve to upload it to KDP than anything else I've done, including my driver's license test and the promotion for my black belt in Tae Known Do. It was like jumping off a cliff into cold water.
2. The fear of doing something dull and monotone endlessly; writing the exact same thing at the command of someone else (be it a publisher, agent, marketing team etc.).

---> That's the biggest reason I ultimately decided to be an independent author.
3. The fear of losing inspiration

----> ......I don't even want to go there.

There's also the joys that I experience as a novelist.
1. A flash of inspiration from a random thought or experience. A lot of ideas came that way.
2. The exhilaration of a review from someone who truly enjoyed my book. There are few bigger intrinsic highs for me.
3. The satisfaction of announcing a new book (i.e. grand opening).

It's not identifying in the sense that the reader thinks they are this character. Rather, it is a connection to them that goes deeper than sympathy or understanding. I can sympathize with and feel sorry for, say, Bill Yoast in "Remember the Titans" when he struggles between his ambition for the Hall of Fame and defending his fellow coach and players from racism but there's a disconnect because I'm not into Football (or any sort of team sport for that matter). I can relate to Ron Weasley of "Harry Potter" fame more than Bill Yoast when he's trying to make his homework report a little bit longer because I've been there and I understand the problem, but this is only a shallow thing because I am otherwise nothing like Ron. I had a bigger, deeper, more intense emotional experience with Rarity's dilemma because I felt like it spoke to me personally. I can understand why a writer would want to be able to evoke that in their audience. However, I still don't like the idea of trying to distill such a experience.

That leads to things like lowest common denominator and mass market appeal; a character generic enough to fit anyone in a given demographic doesn't fit anyone within it at all. Indeed, that was the surface conflict of the episode; making dresses that were exactly the same. Rarity has an Imagine Spot of everyone outside her shop wearing one of her dress designs and it saddens and depresses her because they are all wearing the exact same design. The idea of an assembly line making the dresses horrifies her. The satisfaction (and, yes, success too) comes from reaching customers individually. In other words, identifying them as individuals rather than a faceless demographic.

What do you think? Have you ever had a moment like this from a show/book/game etc.?

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Read for Fun: Dungeons and Dragons - player's manual (version 3.5)

I bought this some time ago for research purposes and I finished reading it last year. Since then, I have also read "Complete Divine" and I'm in the process of reading "Heroes of Battle". For a world-building nut like myself, this stuff is like a triple chocolate sundae with sprinkles for my mind. It's not a novel so I'm not going to use my usual grading scale.

Note: I read on Tvtropes that different versions of the game have their own divided fanbases just like different volumes of a novel series. This is the only version I've read about so I don't have anything to compare it to.

There's lots of stuff here that I recognize without reading it before. Talking Is A Free Action, for instance, is a trope on Tvtropes. The idea of quests for treasure and such is much older than D&D, of course, but I see here the modern template.

Then there's influence I see in video games. I know that turn based combat in video games came from board games like this but now I see that "successful attack role" meant that out of a series of attacks, one or more or them was successful. The in-universe combat does not stop. Also, I see that consoles in video games do the dice-rolling calculations that players do. A D&D board game is like a video game without the restrictions (assuming a sufficiently flexible/skilled/adaptable DM, of course).

I quickly saw how useful this could be for creating characters in a novel. Everything one needs for player building can be repurposed for character creation: background, abilities, religion, language, naming conventions, motivations, culture, behavior etc. This is the foundation for making a character more a collection of facts just as it is for making a character more than a collection of stats.

The spell list! Wow, the spell list is a significant chunk of this manual. Lots of different spells and their uses and their requirements and limitations; a minute magic system. It inspired me. Seriously, this helped with the development of a plot.

There were a few typos here and there but those are inevitable in something this long. I count about a dozen across three hundred pages.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Dungeons and Dragons Player's Manual 3.5" a +

Click here for my thoughts on other D&D manuals: Heroes of Battle and Complete Divine

Click here for the next book review (for fun): Magic, Magic Everywhere

Click here for my previous book review (a request): Nosferatu Chronicles: Origins

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).