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.
So this week I've been trying to catch up on the myriad of small, important things that have to happen in life. You know the Important but not Urgent things (to quote 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Which led me to remember the scale from Big to Small that happens when you're learning new things.
In martial arts, you start off with gross movements: this foot goes here, this hand goes here, now move this way. No, not that way, this way.
It's like learning to walk all over again - complete with falling down. A lot.
The point is, you start with the big motor control movements. You feel like an elephant. No, more like a completely uncoordinated sloth. Then, as you progress and you get those down into muscle-memory, you stop having to think about them and they just happen. Then your sensei or senior training partner starts adjusting middle-sized things - the angle of your arm, the depth of your stance, where your energy is focussed, the alignment of your whole body.
And you get better at those.
Then they start in on the little things - the angle of your wrist and fingers, the timing of exactly when to grab and turn, the awareness of exactly where your partner's foot is when you throw, recognising the feeling of when a throw or lock is perfectly working. The subtle things that cement power and fluidity into your technique.
The things that make it look effortless to the outsider while your uke (partner) feels like they've been hit by a truck. It takes years and it never, actually ends - the learning. You can always improve.
Writing is similar, but most of us start by just...writing. We often have no teacher to start with, so we just launch straight into a novel or short story. And when the rejections come, if we're determined and resilient, we start looking for why we got knocked back.
We start learning the big things - story structure; how novels in Western literature work. How short stories work. Character arcs. Thematic ideas. It's overwhelming to start with. There are so many things. But you get it eventually and your stories slide into correct structure (mostly) without effort. You learn the middle sized things - scene structure, pacing, character voices, wrangling subplots.
Then you tackle the small-scale stuff - the use of language to manipulate emotion, the structure of sentences, metaphor, poetic devices, purposeful word choices.
All of these things, together (with more, obviously) are what make your finished product appear fluid and powerful; effortlessly beautiful.
It can take years and it never ends. You can always find ways to improve.
Look! More stuff from out of my rather tired brain. Hopefully it makes sense. This week I'm thinking about how martial arts helps with Awareness.
I'm sure many have heard this term before. In martial arts, it's about how cognizant you are of yourself, your surroundings, other people, potential dangers etc. It's not necessarily something that all arts actually teach. At least, not consciously. But if you're a long-time practitioner, it creeps into your skillset, anyway.
You find yourself watching people, how they move, where they move, who they avoid, what they are watching. Your peripheral vision improves and you often bring up a hand or arm automatically to ward off a motion you hadn't consciously recognised yet. You pay attention to the 'gut feelings' you get about people and environments.
I was in a busy shopping centre the other day and my husband (whom I wasn't expecting) snuck up behind me and put a hand on my hip. But I didn't strike with an elbow, (as I normally would) in automatic response. As his fingers had touched me, I'd already become aware he was there - his familiarity, his scent, the tiniest glimpse of his sweater from the corner of my eye.
The point is, you become less oblivious to your surroundings and less focussed on your goal (eg: shopping). You see more, hear more, understand more. Not everything, of course. But more.
A writer often develops a similar open-ness to their surrounds. Not so much looking for potential threats, but just observing more. Looking for stories and people. Reading body language. Listening to interesting (or dull) dialogue. Watching character traits and tics; filing them away for future use.
Understanding people and how they behave as individuals and in groups is crucial for both writers and martial artists. But while martial artists are looking for people who might kill in real life, writers are looking for people to kill off in their stories.
Our way of thinking and behaving is not the only way. Nor necessarily the right way. Go out and people-watch. Don't just listen to dialogue, watch how they move, what they do with their hands, their bodies, their hair, their eyes. Try to work out what they're thinking based on their body language. Anticipate what they'll do next and see if you're right.
It's a good way to gain insight into both your characters, and people who might be a threat in the real world.
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