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.
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.
And so we proceed apace with my verbage on the parallels between martial arts and writing (or, indeed, any creative industry). As you can see by that opening sentence, I've been watching a lot of Shakespeare recently. Which has no connection at all, but I'm enjoying it.
Next point we come to is a tricky one: Co-operation/collaboration.
Writers are often wont to say writing is a solitary art. And it is, in part. We tend to spend long hours frowning over our papers or keyboards, attempting to wrestle recalcitrant characters, swearing at pedestrian plots, and ignoring our long-suffering partners/children/pets.
But after the first draft is done and polished into our best product, we need more than our own eyes and mind to get to the next step.
Similarly with most martial arts. A student can do a lot of solo training and practice. Many arts have kata (practice movements) that can be done alone. And they're great for training muscle-memory, which leads to quicker reactions without having to think.
But for mastery you need other people. You need help. Partners. Teachers. Students.
Aikido literally means "The Way of Peace and Harmony". Which is both about avoiding confrontation, and about harmonising one's movements with your opponent and using their momentum augment your power.
Many people look at aikido, especially, and complain that the uke (training partner) is too compliant. That they run at the shitae (person doing the technique) with a hand conveniently offered and never resist the technique being applied. So the resulting throw or lock looks too effortless and 'beautiful' to be effective and wouldn't work in real life, they say.
(Much like a mature writer's work often reads more fluidly and beautifully than a beginning writer's.)
And it's true that, in aikido, uke doesn't resist; that they sail through the air and fall gracefully; that they leap up and return for more without damage.
What the observer doesn't see is the countless hours spent by both partners learning to finely judge timing and force. Because each partner is different and each training session is spent in learning to read people's body language, gauge their skill level; and in reacting to those so as to apply the right technique in the right way. At the same time, uke is learning respond to the technique in such a way as to not get hurt.
To begin with, it hurts. You feel awkward and clumsy as either shitae or uke. The technique only works because someone is jumping at the right time. You suck and your technique sucks. It feels like you'll never throw or fall with beauty and grace and power.
But, eventually, after years or co-operative help and practice, you get it. The moments where it 'just works' effortlessly become more frequent. Throws become more powerful. Falls become less painful. Anticipating the next problem/attack becomes easier. The subtle nuances of locking a human body into organic origami become easier to see and achieve. Teaching others opens new understanding and you improve again.
It's never perfect, but it's a heck of a lot better than when you started. And you don't have to think about it much.
Similarly with writing. We first put pen to paper by drawing on the practiced knowledge drilled into us by patient schoolteachers and parents. Then, when we are braver, we reach out to mentors, other writers, friends, and ask for feedback, instruction, critiquing.
And man does that hurt to start with. Every sentence turns out to be clumsy and ugly. Plot holes abound and you wonder how you could have possibly missed them. You feel like you'll never be a decent writer. There are often tears and swearing.
But slowly, if you don't quit, you learn to incorporate the feedback into new stories from scratch. And the editing/critiquing becomes more about subtleties and nuance than big, clumsy mistakes. Reading and critiquing others' work helps develop your eye for flaws in your own.
Slowly, with the give-and-take of working with others, you approach mastery.
So seek out other writers. Don't shy away from good feedback and don't take without giving back. Be glad that someone is willing to help you and help them right back.
It's the fastest way to learn to create graceful, powerful writing and stories that work in harmony with the reader's imagination.
So continues my blathering about the transfer of skills and attitude from one part of my life to another. Whether it resonates with anyone else out there is questionable. Hopefully, yes. Otherwise, well, I'm just enjoying putting my thoughts into order, so bear with me.
One of the big things you learn by sticking with martial arts is how to take a few knocks. During my year of intensive training for my first blackbelt, my arms were so covered in bruises that I drew sidelong looks from people in shopping centres. But, to me, they were badges of honor. They hurt, but I'd earned every damned one.
In many ways, physical pain is actually easier to bear than emotional pain. Physical pain from bruising etc heals. Might seem obvious, but there are few things as painful in life as rejection of one sort or another. Emotional pain often leaves lifelong scars that stop you from progressing, due to fear of being hurt again.
But the act of being knocked down - either physically or emotionally - is one we all go through. Some more than others. And the resilience to get back up, again and again and again, is a learned skill. It does come more easily to some bloody-minded souls than others. But it can be learned by anyone.
Martial arts is good at showing you what you can handle. That you can absorb more blows than you thought you could. That you can learn to be better - as long as you don't give up when you aren't perfect the first time. Or the second.
I've mentioned before the gentle art of the hajime class in aikido. Two to three hours of unrelenting action, yelling, bruising, throwing, falling, getting up, falling, hurting, getting up. Part of the agony is not knowing how long the class will go on for. It's up to sensei to decide when it's over. Your job is to access your warrior spirit. To dig deep inside and find the reserves and sheer determination to keep getting up even when your legs are jelly, each breath is painful, and your head is spinning. It's astonishing how far you can push yourself, if you just decide you WILL NOT fucking give up.
We are, in our Western-world lives, far to easy on ourselves. We choose, too often, the simplest path. And we complain when things become hard to achieve. This is why 1 in 100 people who start a martial art (or writing a book) actually continue past the first month. 1 in 1000 of those who continue past a month make it though to one blackbelt (or one novel).
We praise our children for simply existing, for being genetically gifted in some way - beauty, speed, intelligence. In doing so, we do our children a vast disservice. We should praise their tenacity, their determination to learn a new skill, their persistence in gaining each step towards understanding. Not how easily it came to them. How impressive their ability to keep getting back up is. Not how easily they did it the first time.
We need to praise their resilience, not their existence.
Doing so grows adults who can weather hard times. Who can take a publisher's rejection without bitching that the story is 'misunderstood'. Who can logically weigh up a good editor's suggestions for improvement, instead of as a taking them as a disparagement of the writer's genetically-gifted talent for writing. Who can keep submitting, even after dozens of rejections. Keep working to improve their craft until the acceptances outweigh the rejections.
So find your determination. Find your warrior spirit. Keep getting up, even after your heart is bruised and your ego is mashed.
Instead of seeking recognition for unearned 'perfection', seek the will of the warrior-scholar. Seek to learn.
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