Haven't done one of these in a while. Life got a little crazy. I forgot to stop and just be; just breathe.
We all live insanely busy lives. Apparently 'busy' is the new black. It's easy to forget to centre yourself.
In Aikido one of the key concepts is breath control. Breathing in to prepare for a throw or lock. Breathing out when you throw someone or put a lock on. Regulating the flow of breath so you're not gasping for air because of exertion and adrenalin. Some branches of Aikido talk about the 'spiritual' element to the exhalation and its connection to power, but there are actually some very practical reasons for breath control.
First: your brain analyses the scent of the air and uses it to judge danger. The smell of a wild animal; the smell of fear sweat; the smell of off meat. It's a warning signal that can trigger a fear-response in you. That causes a cascade of chemicals in your blood preparing you for fight/flight type responses. Your reasoning mind goes a bit haywire and you become generally terrible at making smart, cool decisions.
So if the stress is purely in your mind - your own anxieties, not any physical danger - then taking slow, deep breaths helps show your mind there's no actual threat. So it can help to calm you. That's why meditation teaches so much on breathing. It gives you something to focus on to distract you from the quicksand of fear and anxiety.
And breathing out - whether accompanied by a strong 'ki-ai' cry or just a sharp breath - does help to focus your power when you're throwing or locking someone up.
Breathing and recognising how breath can affect your thinking and emotions is essential in martial arts.
Actually, it should be essential in everything. In writing, you'll often be faced with roadblocks. Either an overwhelming amount of 'stuff' to do to achieve your writing career goals, or perhaps 'writers block', or the stress of trying to understand and interact successfully with people.
In pretty much every instance, if you step away and take a few long, deep breaths, you'll find yourself calming down. Meditation is a brilliant way to settle your mind and help you find what's really important.
So next time you're stressed about a story going wrong, or a bad review, or some apparently insurmountable problem.... just take a few long, slow breaths in and let them out. Relax your shoulders and jaw. Feel the breath go right down into your body's centre. Release it on a scream if you need to. Or just let the stress go as much as you can with each breath.
Your brain will 'taste' the air and understand there's no external threat and the stress hormones will start to reduce in your blood and brain.
There are weeks when I look at my To Do list and just giggle hysterically, knowing there's no way I can get through it all. The urge is strong to just give up and not bother. If I gave up some things, life would be so much easier. SO much easier.
But there's a kind of sheer bloodymindedness that comes into play. Both for martial arts and for writing. Neither of them are easy. Both will deal painful injuries to either body or heart.
So why do we do it?
Biologically, it's because humans are addicted to the endorphins our brain releases as a little reward for achieving goals. That little glow of pleasure when you type The End. That thrill when you finish your grading and get handed your next belt. That's your brain rewarding you for hard work.
It's a neat feedback loop evolution has given us to keep us motivated for survival.
Which is why reminding someone of that potential pleasure can be such a strong motivator for them to keep going when times are tough.
When we do our hajime classes in aikido, the first one is hard because you don't know what's coming. Two+ hours non-stop of gruelling training at top speed and full effort. Two hours of being punched, thrown, pummelled, and thrown again - over and over without ANY breaks at all.
Sometimes the only thing that keeps you going is the fear of looking weak before your sensei and your training partners. Or the sheer bloodymindedness I mentioned before. The "I will NOT let this beat me" type of thinking.
The second one is even harder because you DO know what's coming. And you choose to push yourself to the limit again. To persevere when others quit or don't even start. To not give up because you want to be proud of yourself and you love that rush of self-pride and confidence you get at the end. Knowing you've done something really difficult.
It's similar in writing. Often the first book or story is difficult, but we don't really know enough to understand how hard it could be. So we plough through, grit out teeth and struggle through to the end out of sheer bloodymindedness.
Then we're faced with the second book. Often now accompanied by terrible doubt because we've now realised how much we didn't know last time. And we're aware that people are waiting to see if we can pull off another good book, or if this one will suffer from badsequelitis.
So the trick is to remember the rush. Remember how great it felt to type The End. How excited you were when your first good beta-reader feedback came in and you worked out how to make the story even better. How ecstatic you were with your first good review.
Forget all the doubts and fears that you won't make it. You will. Whether it's your first or your second or your twelfth book. The rewards are there at the end. Persevere. Push through the pain and doubt and exhaustion.
It's worth it to share your vision with the world. Even if you change only one person's life a little bit. Even if ALL it does is make you proud of yourself. It's worth the effort.
This has been one of those 'why the heck am I doing this weeks'. You know what I mean. When you doubt you can write, you doubt anyone gives a crap about what you write, you doubt whether it's all 'worth it', you wonder if you'll ever feel like a successful author (hint: probably not).
Those moments are really about commitment. How committed are you, really, to achieving whatever goal you set yourself?
In martial arts training, a lack of commitment by the uke (partner) causes problems for the nage (person performing the technique). And visa versa. Most injuries happen when uke doesn't attack hard, or because nage doesn't throw with full intent.
Sometimes nage panics and lets go too early in the throw, preventing uke from learning to fall correctly. Or uke lets go (or doesn't jump properly) out of fear of being injured, preventing nage from learning how to do the technique properly.
And, in an actual attack, if the victim doesn't commit fully to fighting back - with the awareness they will have to both take and give damage until they win - they will most certainly lose.
In writing, once you've decided you want to write that novel / get that publishing deal / get short stories into professionally paid magazines / etc, then it will take commitment to achieve that goal. You can't half-arse it and expect to reach your target.
You have to start the novel AND finish it. Then get feedback AND apply it. Then get editors - AND develop a thick skin and accept your writing isn't perfect the first time (taking damage to your ego, possibly). Then spend the time finding agents or publishers or learning how to self-publish AND handle rejections and bad reviews you might get.
At any step, you can quit, of course.
But if you really want to achieve your writing goals, you have to accept that you will take a certain amount of mental and emotional damage along the way. And you have to commit to the process of getting better at everything, following all the steps, and hanging on for dear life until you reach your goal.
If you're going to jump into this hobby / career, then jump wholeheartedly, with full commitment to being the best you can in order to achieve whatever goal you've set yourself.
As a writer these days, everywhere you look it's all about 'brand' and 'publishing strategies'. It can be overwhelming, disheartening, and feel like it's all to complex to get your head around.
If you ever get a chance, read The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. It's a book on ancient warfare strategies, but has been read and interpreted over and over by various other industries because a lot of the concepts cross over.
Thinking strategically applies to any situation, and to any career. It just involves the ability to look ahead and play out the possibilities in your head. Then deciding on the path that will take you to the goal you want.
In martial arts, you need to think ahead to avoid going places that will end up in unnecessary violence. (A lot of martial arts is about being strategic enough to NOT get into fights in the first place.) To think ahead when you enter a room or a situation. To assess the room, other people, look for exits, weapons, potential threats. To plan for how get out with the minimum of fuss. To protect yourself and others in the event you can't get out safely.
If you're in an altercation, you need to think quickly and strategically about how to use the space, deal with multiple attackers, avoid being trapped, use tools and obstacles to your advantage.
Aikido advises you to keep moving, keep changing, keep adapting. Because if you stay still, you'll get overrun and clobbered.
Writing is not dissimilar. Especially these days when things change so fast. While authors have always participated in building their own image and brand, today it's more vital than ever that they do it strategically. It's not enough to just send a manuscript in to an agent or publisher and let them deal with all the rest of the 'stuff'. Traditionally-published authors need to do a lot of their own marketing, manage their own branding, even sometimes run their own blog tours and pay for marketing.
And don't even get me started on how much an indie author has to do.
All of it with an eye toward what the market is looking for. Many authors start off in one genre, only to later find a niche in a different one entirely and have to rebrand themselves to suit. Indie authors have an advantage in that they can move fast, catch the latest trends and ride them, keep up with the latest software and platforms. Adapt quickly.
An author needs to think ahead. Decide what they want their future to look like, then plan accordingly. Do you write to earn buckets of money and recognition? Then be prepared to be VERY strategic about branding, marketing, and multiple streams of income.
Are you just writing for the fun of it? Then you'll still need to master a few basic strategies to reach even a small audience of loyal readers.
Whatever you decide, prepare to change your strategy fairly soon. The readers, the platforms, the markets - they all move on and you need to move as well.
I've been incredibly tired this week and when I'm tired, I'm far more likely to bull straight through a task without considering other ways of doing it. I just want things to work the first time without me having to think. Not great when you're a writer and your job is to be original and interesting.
The martial art of Aikido has often been likened to water. Not only because the movements are fluid (which they are), but because water doesn't resist - it wraps around, turns aside, redirects. Adapts. Aikido is never about resisting, because that's about strength. And there's always someone stronger. It's about redirecting, adapting, enhancing. That's one of the things I love about the art. It's actually an advantage to be small, because the ONLY to make a technique work on someone bigger and stronger is to do it correctly. Force is useless.
One of my senseis literally felt like a jellyfish when you grabbed his arm. The harder you grabbed, the harder you punched, the more relaxed he became. Then suddenly you'd be on your back seeing stars, with no idea how you got there, and wondering how soon it would be before you could breathe again.
Because brute-forcing something is a fool's game. It always ends badly, for someone.
Writing is also about being adaptable. There are pantsers and planners. Both (whether they admit it or not) have to be adaptable. (The planners have a harder time with this than the pantsers do.) Too often, people try to squeeze pantsers into a plan and force planners to be spontaneous.
The real key is to just relax. The more uptight you get, the worse your writing will be. The more you worry about whether you're doing it 'right' the more stilted your words will come out. Relax, adapt, experiment with a few different ways of doing things, change the plot or the character, or the setting, if you need to. Hell, change the whole world. You can do that, you know.
Don't force a plot or character into a set mould just because that's the way you planned it. Allow things to change if they serve the story's interest best. And don't force yourself to plan a story if doing so kills the joy for you. But, if you're a planner to the core, don't sit there and try to force spontaneity. That's an oxymoron.
There is no 'right' way to write. All of these rules you've read are just guidelines to point you in the right direction - the end of your novel or story. But you can take your own path. Flow with your own creativity. Adapt to suit yourself and your readers.
The most important thing is: RELAX and stop trying to cram yourself into some mental image of the 'ideal' writer.
This week in my writing I've been angsting...trying to understand how to write powerfully, so I can pull the reader along and make them feel what I want them to feel. It's not easy. (For me, anyway. I'm quite pragmatic.)
In martial arts, when you first begin, your throws have no power and you're trying hard to copy exactly what your sensei does and how he/she does it. Quite frankly, you're crap and your partner is doing all the work. You're doing well to move your foot to the right place. It's physically impossible to master the subtleties because you haven't yet mastered the gross movements. Every movement is bigger than it needs to be. Every punch is obvious to your partner. You're just going through the motions, copying what the blackbelts do as best you can, not understanding how to move people.
If someone attacked you a few weeks after your first martial arts lesson - or perhaps even a year after - you'd probably revert to instinct and flail wildly at them. If you did manage a throw or a lock or a punch, it wouldn't be as strong and centred as someone who had been training for years.
That's what practice and learning is FOR. The more you learn, the more you practice, the more powerful and effortless your martial arts becomes. Your training partner how HAS to go with your throw, or risk a broken or dislocated arm. You will also adapt it to suit your own physical quirks and capabilities. Your art will become uniquely yours, in subtle ways.
As a writer, most of us begin by writing derivatively. Rehashing things we loved as a reader. We'll often hit people over the head with preachy themes. Or have no theme at all, so the work seems flat and has no power to resonate. We write in cliches and overused tropes. We write obvious, predictable plotlines and shallow characters in obvious, predictable ways, not realising they've been done to death. We're just spilling words without understanding how we want to move the reader. Or how to write powerfully.
Then you learn the things you didn't know about. Things like story structure - the shape of stories - and how to use that to build tension. Things like how to interweave theme and character arcs to help readers relate to characters. Or you start to understand tropes and how to subvert expectations in ways that both surprise and delight jaded readers.
Once you get your head around the large-scale movement and braided elements of a story - plot, character arc, theme - then you start to work on scene-level techniques. How to create tension within the scene, between characters, or with setting. How to set mood. How to make the reader want to keep reading past the end of the chapter. How to write in ways that resonate with the reader and immerse them into your make-believe world.
How to write powerfully, in your own voice.
But it's a work in progress. Forever, as far as I can tell. And it seems to follow the graphical representation of the rule of diminishing returns. It's a steep learning curve to start with, then it flattens out and you learn in tiny increments and feel like you're getting nowhere.
It's only when you look back to the very beginning that you realise how far your writing has come. Or your martial arts.
It's only when you re-read your early work that you cringe and realise how clumsy it was.
But that's what learning is all about. No-one's perfect to begin with. But everyone can be powerful, if they are willing to learn, practice, and apply that knowledge.
This week I've been thinking about comfort zones. We all want to be in one. They're comfortable, by definition. But they're not where we learn new skills or where we do our best work. They're not where we find out who we really are.
They are good places to recuperate after undergoing the stress of change, however, so don't chuck them out altogether.
In martial arts, you most often find people wallowing in their comfort zone once they hit their first blackbelt. Whitebelts look at you with a bit of hero-worship. You often get asked to be uke (partner) for your sensei when he demonstrates (which is considered a mark of your ability as an uke). You are called on to help lower belts learn new techniques. It can be a heady time. So it's easy to feel like you've made it and you can cruise now.
Which, if your sensei is keeping an eye on you, is normally when he/she will step in and demonstrate something you don't understand. Or point out a flaw in a technique you thought you had down pat.
At that point, it's up to you. Do you suck up your pride and hurl yourself out of your comfort zone again? Back into the world of uncertainty and frustration you spent so long pulling yourself out of? Or do you ignore the promptings and rest on the laurels already achieved; bask in the warm fuzzies that come from passing on knowledge to new students.
Don't get me wrong. There's absolutely nothing wrong with passing on knowledge and enjoying helping others. You learn a lot from teaching people, as well. I quite enjoy it, myself.
But there's a danger in it, too. A danger of becoming too comfortable and too used to adulation. A danger of believing your own publicity, as they say.
The same happens in the writing world. Writers who have a few acceptances under their belts, maybe a few awards, a few published books. They gather a group of acolytes and mentor them along the path. It feels good. Everyone likes to be listened to and respected.
And you do, undoubtedly, learn from teaching and analysing other people's writing.
But there comes a time when you have to push yourself again. There are always new things to learn. Always new ideas, new techniques, new ways of seeing the world, the industry, how stories work. And these days the publishing industry changes so fast (as does reader taste) that you cannot afford to sit back and gloat over how great a writer you are.
There's always someone better. Never doubt that you can learn. Never arrogantly believe that you are the only one with good ideas and experience.
Find people you can learn from. Make yourself feel the discomfort of uncertainty again.
It takes humbleness, determination, and a dollop of self-awareness to push through the boundary between the comfort zone and the discomfort zone.
But it's worth it for how much better you become, and how much larger your new comfort zone is when you master the new skills.
The best blackbelts, and the best writers, are (I find, anyway) the ones who are most humble, least self-aggrandizing, and most open to learning from anyone.
This week I've been suffering - as many of us do - with self-doubt. Is my writing good enough? Why isn't this easier? Maybe my stories aren't being 'seen' by enough people because my writing really is terrible. Our brains are horrible to us.
Many of us are afraid. Afraid to hurt other people. Afraid to try in case we fail. Afraid to throw ourselves into things in case it proves we'll just never be good enough. It's especially obvious when you get women on the mat in the dojo. Painfully obvious just how socialised they are not to hurt people; not to be physically resilient; not to believe they are capable of mastering something as potentially lethal as a martial art. Women hit you, then apologise all the time. It takes ages to stop that habit.
But, with time and training, both men and women will learn to overcome their fears in incremental steps, and will become capable martial artists. Often women are better than men because they can't use strength to make techniques work. They have to do it right or it just won't work.
Mastering a martial art gives people just that little bit of extra self-belief that can be critical in times of stress and fear. In a true fight, self-doubt and fear will cause you to hesitate and you will lose the fight before you even start.
In writing it's not always so clear when you're improving and succeeding. There are no coloured belts to achieve. It takes every writer time and practice to overcome their instinctive fear of not being good enough - of being judged unworthy. Even the best writers admit they, too, experience bouts of self-doubt.
It's normal, but they don't let it cripple them or stop them writing.
We are a tribal animal. We rely on feedback to know our place in the tribe and to survive as a group. Self-doubt is hardwrired into our brains as part of our need to fit in and survive. Accept that you'll never completely overcome it. Understand why it's there. Let it go as a pointless waste of time. Every little new skill you learn IS improving your writing. If you're learning and thinking about what you want to get across to the reader, then your writing probably is improving, even if you can't see it and don't get a grading certificate.
You'll never be perfect. Accept that.
Use the doubt to improve your skills, but don't let it stop you from writing.
I've been thinking a lot this week about what type of books to write. I gave a Fight Scenes workshop at the Romance Writers of Australia conference and it reminded me how much I used to love reading romances. And I wrote a bunch when I was younger. Most were terrible. Some weren't and I'll probably revisit them at some point.
But I moved on to Speculative fiction writing, because that was where I felt most comfortable. But I still read widely in other genres and enjoy mashing genres up in unexpected ways.
It's similar in martial arts.
When people first come to a martial art, they often know little about martial arts in general, and less about the differences between various arts. Sometimes they join, hate the style, tar all martial arts with the same brush, and quit. If they're more open-minded, they'll hunt around until they find a dojo or sensei or style that suits them, then stick with it. Master it. Become terrifyingly-skilled and powerful in that one style.
Some get to a reasonable level in one art, see the gaps in its curriculum and move on to another art to round out their skillset. Often they end up with a hybrid martial art that's unique to them and fantastically-effective.
It all comes down to knowing yourself, what you want from your art, and finding the right sources of information to learn from. If you want a martial art that's brutal, and immediately practical, then don't do Tai Chi (which is a martial art, believe it or not). If you want one that's meditative and flowing, then don't do Jujitsu.
In writing (as in all creative arts) it's hard to know what your 'style' or 'voice' is when you start out. You often start by mimicking your favourite stories. A lot of great writers started out in fanfic. A lot still write fanfic.
You might start in crime, then decide thriller is more what you love. Or you might be deliberate and find a niche market that's booming in a genre you love, and write that. Or you might start in the genre you devoured as a teen and never change because it's fulfilling to write the stories you couldn't find.
The point is, any of those options is fine. Gone are the days when you have to stick to one genre for the rest of your life. You can if you want to, but if you love to read widely, then why the heck not write in different genres, too? Some readers will follow you, some won't. If you're worried, use different pen names. If you don't care so much, then don't.
Study the genre you love as intensively as a martial artist studies the style they love. Understand its nuances and tropes. Then branch out and master other genres if you want to. Use their influence to modify your core love and create something even better.
I was in the shopping centre the other day and watched a toddler throw the biggest tantrum. It was epic. The parent dealt with it quite calmly, leaving the child the scream and informing her that when she could control herself, the parent would listen. I almost applauded.
Self-control is slightly different to self-discipline (which we covered earlier). To my mind, self-control is more about knowing when certain emotions are appropriate to reveal, and when they are best off sent to their rooms to sulk. When they will do harm and when they will do good.
In aikido, the most frequent, potentially-damaging emotion seen is frustration. Usually it's self-directed. People can't make their bodies do what they 'should'. Or they can't 'see' how the instructor is making a technique work. I've seen people reduced to tears of frustration - most often women (myself included).
When a technique doesn't work in aikido (or any martial arts) the first temptation is to muscle your way through. To fall into anger and frustration at being thwarted and react like a child having a tantrum by doing the technique harder and faster. Or the opposite happens. People give in to self-doubt, throw up their hands and say 'I can't do it. It's too hard.' I've seen both. In writing as well.
When people first start and are eager learners, they usually put aside their feelings of inadequacy and decide to learn (if they don't quit). But when you're a higher belt and learning the nuances of a technique, it can be a real blow to the ego to suddenly realise you've been doing it not-quite-right this whole time.
If you train with a partner who resists in order to teach you something new - or a writing mentor who decides that you're now ready for deeper critiquing - that's the money moment. And it takes a great deal of self-awareness to put aside the urge to bull through - or to ignore them and dismiss their advice. It takes self-control to put aside the resentment and self-doubt, and to open up to re-learning what you thought you already knew. To taking critique when you just want to hear that you are perfect, already.
As a writer or a martial artist, there's nothing wrong with frustration - as long as you don't give up or let it cloud your ability to make clear decisions. Harnessed properly, and controlled, frustration can be an excellent impetus to get it right. There's nothing quite like the rush of endorphins when you succeed and your training partner collapses in a heap with a faint scream of surprise.
And there's nothing like that writing breakthrough moment when you finally understand what your mentor has been trying to teach you. That relieved, 'ah-ha' moment when the understanding of how to shade your writing with a specific nuance or tone blossoms in your mind and you do a little happy dance.
Because that's often followed by a reader contacting you and saying 'OMG, that just blew me away.'
And those are pure gold.
Learn self-control so you can open yourself up to new skills and new levels of brilliance.
I live in Australia - which tells you I have a sense of humour. We're a self-deprecating people, we Aussies. My aim is to, one day, vanish in a blinding flash of enlightenment. In the mean time, I'm doing my best to learn as many