If you look hard enough, you can find life-lessons anywhere and apply them to anything. But sometimes we forget to do that. We pigeonhole Things I Learned from one passion and think they don't apply elsewhere. But my Yoshinkan Aikido sensei is all about living aikido, not just doing aikido. So I figured I'd do a series of short posts on the take-aways that can be seamlessly shoehorned into a writer's world.
We'll start with everyone's favourite: Discipline.
Not smack-on-the-wrist-go-to-your-room type discipline, mind you. Self-discipline and what it takes to start things you're afraid of and finish things that seem impossible.
Aikido is derived from samurai arts, and maintains many of the traditions of strict dojo etiquette. There is a lot of kneeling in seiza, bowing, shutting up, showing you've understood by saying 'osu'. People who lack discipline and are disrespectful of Sensei, other students, the art, or the dojo generally don't last long.
Writing is not dissimilar for the dedicated author. There are traditions to know, behaviors to avoid, shutting up to do, respect to show. All of those require a measure of self-discipline. The effort needed to learn the craft skills. The restraint required when the urge to rant at another author, or a reader, hits. The awareness required to know when you should shut the hell up and listen to what more experienced authors have to say. Mouthing off is easy. Shutting up is not.
It's all stuff that takes self-discipline to learn. (By the way, I'm not saying I'm perfect at it. We're all guilty of wanting validation, and of sounding like idiots sometimes.)
Then there's the daily self-discipline. In aikido, it takes an average of 3 years to get to the first black belt. And that's usually when your sensei smiles indulgently, and says "now you can begin to learn". Because then you're expected to suck up your ego, refine your technique and improve on what you know.
And it's not three years of one class per week. To get from brown to my first black, I trained around 19 classes a week, for a year. My arms were always purple and black with bruises. My ankles were often twisted and swollen (I have hyper-flexible ligaments). I went to sleep picturing techniques and practiced movements at work and at home.
Writing is similar. To complete a novel takes work. Every day, if possible. It takes the discipline to write when you don't feel like it. To write when it's not working. To write when people are telling you to go do something that sounds way more fun in the short term. Most people who start a novel, never finish it.
Just as most people who start in martial arts, never get to black belt.
And, when the novel is done, then the learning begins. Because you must put aside ego and send it off to experienced beta readers (not just your dad or mum). And, later, to an editor. Once you've shelved your resentment at their advice, that's when you start learning how to refine your technique as a writer.
There are many more parallels I could draw in the area of discipline, but I think you get the picture. Now go out and put fingers to keyboard and take the first - or the next - steps towards your writing blackbelt.
I know, it's a click-baity kind of title. But I found an old set of notes from a business seminar I attended and thought how utterly apt they were for this industry.
So here you go. Ten opportunities for regret, should you make the easy decision as a writer.
1. Choosing the pain of regret over the pain of discipline.
Want to write that book but can never seem to find the time? Want to finish writing that book, but you keep putting it aside and starting new ones? Lots of people want to write a book. A tiny percentage actually have the discipline to finish one, get painful feedback, learn, improve, and get it to publishable standard.
2. Choosing not to be brave.
As one of my characters (Kett, from the Kalima Chronicles) said: "Bravery doesn't mean being unafraid. Courage without thought is just recklessness. Brave people have just found something that matters more than fear."
Once you've written that story or that book, you'll have to be brave and get thoughtful critiques from people who know the craft. Your mum might love it, which is great. But to know if it's a good story - and to find out how to improve it - you have to put on your adulty pants and get some helpful critiquing. (NOTE: NOT Criticism, critique - there's a difference)
3. Choosing to say "I'll try" instead of "I WILL"
Don't get me wrong. It's important to set limits and guard your precious time so you're only undertaking projects that are important to you. It's ok to say No to things. But, if you're going to take something on, don't half-ass it. If you're going to be an author, learn the craft. No-one's perfect at writing - neither in their first book nor their 20th. But your 20th first draft should be a darned sight better than your first one if you're genuinely putting effort into learning the craft. So don't say 'I'll try to learn to write well.' Say 'I will learn to write well.' It's a slight shift in mind set, but you're a lot less likely to give up.
4. Choosing to try once or twice, instead of many times.
Rejections are inevitable - like death, and taxes, apparently. And almost as painful (well, maybe not quite). Many writers give up after a couple of rejections, unable to believe their work wasn't acceptable. We aren't trained for persistence. In the western world, especially, we coddle our kids by telling them they are exceptional and brilliant. It might be true, but it leads to a (false) belief that they should be perfect in the first attempt and are a failure if they're not. We'd be better off teaching persistence and the value of learning from mistakes. That gives resilience and the ability to get back up and try again. And again. And again.
5. Choosing comfort over discomfort.
Let's face it: a hot coffee, a couch, and Netflix is a lot more comfortable and relaxing at the end of a hard day, than facing a blank document awaiting your literary brilliance. But every time you choose the easy path over the harder one, you're treading water instead of making progress toward your dream of being a writer. By all means, take time off if you need it. Don't burn out. But do something more often than you do nothing.
6. Choosing not to apologise and grow
We all make mistakes. We all do the wrong thing - either to others or to ourselves. Don't wallow in self-hate over it. Acknowledge you did the wrong thing. Work out how you could do it differently next time. Talk it through with the person you hurt. Learn from it.
7. Choosing not to let go
Envy of other writers; bitterness over rejections; resentment for perceived or real slights. They're all pretty poisonous. If you can dial up the compassion - for both yourself and others - you may find a lot of these feelings fall away. If not, therapy does help. We all experience these emotions at some point, to varying degrees. But when they control your decisions and your thinking, you have a problem.
8. Choosing not to throw out your backup plans
Now, I'm the sort of person who likes to have backup plans because I always expect things to go wrong. So this is one I always struggle with. And sometimes it is necessary to have a backup. This advice is more about committing yourself to achieving your dream of being a writer. Given the crap financial incentives for being a writer these days, having a backup for daily income is a wise idea, not a bad one. Just don't let it shunt aside what you really love.
9. Choosing to be too proud/egotistical
Don't be so sensitive that you can't admit to fault. Laugh at yourself. Learn from your mistakes. Arrogant writers are often poor ones because they won't admit their writing needs improvement. Of course, it's also often a deep sense of insecurity and unworthiness (imposter syndrome), which is the other side of the arrogance coin. So some compassion for folks who come off as arrogant might be good, too. We're all struggling in different ways. We all want to be accepted.
10. Choosing not to care/Choosing to care too much
We all get emotionally attached to our stories, our characters, our dreams of being recognised. So rejection comes as a huge blow. And choosing to pretend we don't care is really just another face of caring too much. Feeling like a rejection of our work is a rejection of us as a person. People who choose not to care about something are deliberately cutting themselves off because they feel attacked. It's ok to care. It's ok to be upset when things don't go to plan. Just don't let it stop you trying again. If you cut yourself off from rejection, you also cut yourself off from the thrill of success and achievement.
That's my philosophical ranting for the day. Agree or disagree, it doesn't much bother me.
Have a good one.
One of the things I learned from doing Yoshinkan Aikido came from a class affectionately called a Hajime class. Hajime just means 'begin' in Japanese. And that's what it is - an hour, two, two and a half, three hours of beginning and never stopping. You do technique after technique as hard and as fast as you can. Over and over and over. No rests. No breaks.
The first time you do a class it's because you really don't know what to expect. You get prodded into it by sniggering classmates. It's an act of sheer willpower and spirit to get through to the end without collapsing or throwing up. (Many do throw up or collapse. Some come straight back onto the mat. Many quit.)
The second time you take a class because you DO know what's coming and you choose to do it anyway. That, to me, shows even greater spirit.
So, when I offered to help my writers group create a second anthology of short stories, it was the writing equivalent of a second Hajime class. I knew what I was getting in to: a year of stress, joy, frustration, excitement, exhaustion, and pride. There were times when I wanted to throw it all in. Helping 15 authors (from beginners to experienced writers) to develop stories to a polished, publishable level is not easy.
But it IS rewarding. Not only do I learn more each time about how stories work, I also learn more about how to help bring the best out in people. How to stretch them and find their strengths as writers. I'm sure the results aren't deathless prose or perfect - I'm not arrogant enough to think I know everything about writing stories - but they're pretty darned good.
What I like most of all is that I get to see the authors' glowing faces when they hold the book and see their name in print. There's nothing like knowing you've worked your arse off and produced something sixteen people are proud of. Nothing like knowing you've helped people you care about achieve their dream.
If you'd like to check out the result of all that hard work, you can pre-order here: ELEMENTAL
No, this isn't a blog about the fact that I'm weird - true though that is. This is a short story. Partly me experimenting (sorry) and partly just getting stuff out of my head about the baggage we all carry and how that holds us back. Well, me, anyway.
You carry fear and memory in suitcases. Some are heavier than others, but you cling to them all. They bind your hands and weigh down your heart. You stumble over them on every path to the future. Yet you refuse to let them go.
Even the earliest fears are there. A pink vinyl baby-bag, tucked into the linen cupboard of your thoughts, dusty beneath neatly-folded trivia.
You begin with trauma and it underpins your life. Remember? From warm, slumberous blackness you push forth into aching brilliance. You seek to return to the safe-dark of ignorance and parasitic security, for the world seems too big, too cold, to bewildering.
You can’t. There are too many cases to carry.
Recognise this tattered backpack, emblazoned with lovehearts in coloured pen and glitter? This one holds hallways echoing with the high-pitched chatter of small, unaware little people, the smell of paper and urine, the tolerant weariness in your teacher’s face. Tiny desks and uncooperative pencils. Sports-time sweat and lunchtime insecurity. The boy you want to impress in fifth grade, but who never sees you. The friend who forsakes you for someone more exciting. A thousand petty slights pile in until your backpack bulges with cherished false beliefs.
No, don’t let those go. You need those. They balance the broken pieces of your parents’ baggage you also carry, doled out like bitter, unbaked cookies, each time you go home to their unmet expectations.
But there’s another bag, isn’t there? What’s in the steel, sequinned purse encasing a slow-beating heart? Ah…It’s all sly, sweet glances and furtive kisses with hot, impatient breaths mingling. Bodies alive and sensitised, desperate and afraid, wanting. The potential for pain multiplies a hundredfold. Now we can be hurt in ways we don’t even understand yet. We’re exposed in body and soul. We’re sharing more than giggled secrets now; we’re sharing the sweetness of our Self. A Self not fully formed or understood; vulnerable to the knives of hateful words, thrown by a precise and angry tongue. Who would have thought the heart could ache so deeply for so long? Let’s snap a silver lock shut around that organ. We’re armoured now. Good.
So here we stand, holding our baby-bag, our backpack, our purse, our brokenness; longing for a life less ordinary, more magical. We haul our luggage along the comfortable path to and from work each day. We live for the weekend, for the relaxation, the precious time to suck up the energy needed to cope with next week’s stress. We watch the flickering screens at night, living vicariously through fictional figures, envying their imaginary lives.
Incremental world-wreckers in our cocoon, we hide the potential to save ourselves in complaints about others. We build walls with our baggage, seeking the safe-dark, keeping the world out.
Wishing, we ‘if only’ our life away.
If only I had time to write that story. If only I could quit work and live off my art. If only I could save the world, change the world, change myself…
But where do I start? Where I spend my time and money reveals my focus. I’m working eight hours and wasting the rest on nothings. Why? I’m afraid to commit myself to loving the world, pain and all. I’m so burdened I’ve stopped moving. These heavy bags have zipped away hurt and passion together.
But I am not my job. Not my pain. I am my creative soul. I am free. If I choose I can release these burdensome cases. I don’t need to quit work to be free. I don’t need to relive every trauma to be a loving adult. I can decide who I want to be, what I hold, what I release, and what I want to create. Then I just have to do it.
In fact, I will.
I leave my luggage to circle endlessly on the conveyor belt of others’ expectations and walk away. Now I have two hands free to embrace the world. My heart is weightless. The darkness is there but I push free of it and shed the cowl of fear hiding my future; face the light, brilliant and painful.
Life cannot be lived backwards
IBefore we start, transparency - this is an ongoing process. Not hating myself and my writing, I mean. Not sure I'll ever have it down pat.
I go through periods where things are going well and I'm on top of all the stuff that goes with being a writer - marketing, writing, editing etc. And I think 'yeah', I've *so* got this.
Then one night of bad sleep, or one evening of staring at words that that seem irrecoverably banal, or one three star review...and I'm back to square one.
Newsflash... I've always struggled with self-confidence.
Which may shock people who've met me. Apparently I come across as super-confident and always certain. It's all an illusion, my friends. Or perhaps a delusion on my part - not sure which.
What I am is a chronic over-achiever due to a pervasive and deep-seated fear of not being good enough. So I do things. Science degrees, opera training, multiple blackbelts, archery, knife-throwing, bellydancing, painting, playing instruments...yadayada.
But when I start, I'm also AFRAID to do those things. I'm scared I won't be good at them straight away. Or that people will criticise me and that HURTS, dammit. Fortunately, I'm also deeply bloody-minded and sometimes stubborn (ask my husband).
So I make myself do the things I'm scared of. Sounds weird, I know, but it works for me.
And who knows, it may work for you, too. Over the years, I've found the worst that can happen is I'm bad to start with, then I get better with study and practice.
Huh - who would have thought?
I'm never perfect, though. (Sigh) In a world of 15billion people, there's always someone willing to tell me I'm doing it wrong. So I may as well suck it up and stop being so easily-bruised.
Same goes with writing. My 80AD series, while wildly popular, is not my best writing. But it gave people 'the feels', so they liked it. The occasional mediocre reviews I got at first devastated me. Then I metaphorically slapped myself around the head and decided to learn how to write better - just as I'd decided how to play instruments, do martial arts, finish a couple of degrees.
And that's what it takes to stop hating yourself and your writing. Stop thinking you (and your writing) have to be perfect. Decide you're on a learning journey. Decide to take the criticisms (valid or not) in your stride and get better. Decide to accept the fear...and do it anyway.
Well, that was fun... Just got to spend an hour or so chatting with the very down-to-earth and fun Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon - authors extraordinaire. Hosted by the redoubtable Diane Morrison and joined by Stephanie Barr and Sarah Burman.
Hosted by the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Association (of America) on their YouTube channel, we talked about various aspects of what makes a story Fantasy and whether the genre divides are real, are useful or are just imposed on us by marketing forces. We also diverged into various other sidetracks, as happens when you get a bunch of authors together.
And we managed not to swear! Although we did agree to get it all out offscreen before the session started, so it's probably a good thing the camera's weren't recording at that point.
Suffice to say Larry and Mercedes were lovely and had some excellent ideas about what fantasy is and means to readers. Sarah and Stephanie and Diane also gave great insights. Hopefully this will keep you amused and or informed for a little while.
I used to write effortlessly, daily, with a slightly manic grin on my face and a bubble of excitement in my chest; with confidence about how GOOD the story was.
Then I published the 80AD Series. And that went nuts with hundreds of thousands of downloads and people of all ages emailing me from all over the world to say how much they enjoyed the series.
Weirdly, (or not, if you know me) that made me think: 'I should know how to write better, so I can re-edit/rewrite and do those stories justice. They aren't good enough as they are.'
So I learned stuff. Much stuff. How to structure a story correctly, character arcs, themes, plotting vs pantsing. Not all the things, but many of them. I'm sure I still have much to learn.
Now it's a horrible catch-22. Yep, undoubtedly my writing is clearer, more precise and evocative. I've been shortlisted for awards and had people who know more than me nod wisely and say nice things.
But writing is no longer the effortless joy it was a few years ago. Now I agonise over every damned word and fret over whether characters are put through the wringer enough, or whether the ending is foreshadowed properly, or too overtly. And, as a horrible side-effect, I can't watch a movie without a small part of my brain breaking down the story structure and predicting what will come next, or pointing out plot holes. During the movie. Not afterwards.
And there's the inevitable 'what do my peers think' creeping paralysis. I never had peers before. I was solitary, writing for my own enjoyment and throwing it up online to see if anyone else liked it. Now I've made some fabulous friends in the Australian writing scene. They're lovely people. Talented, interesting, smart, well-read. And I'm terrified to put my writing in front of them because it's never going to be as good as theirs.
The worst part is: there's no going back to the good old days of ignorance.
Which is also the best part.
So how do I move forward? How do I regain the fresh confidence in my work and still employ all the knowledge?
I have no idea. I probably need to find a middle ground between paralysing lack of self-belief and ignorant over-confidence.
Aiki Flinthart is the author of the highly successful YA Portal fantasy series, 80AD. Her latest release, Shadows Wake, is due out on the 25th March. Pre-order here: Shadows Wake.
We're all human (although there are probably a few who would prefer to be shape-shifters, vampires, aliens, or elves.) With our human-ness comes emotions. With messy emotions come Reactions and Responses.
As authors, it's important to get into a character's head and understand their emotions - so we can create characters that readers can related to and bond with. But it's also important to understand the difference between Reactions and the two types of Responses. The late, great Terry Pratchett used to call them First thoughts, Second thoughts and Third thoughts.
A large percentage of the world lives immersed in their First thoughts, reacting to every event like human pingpong balls. Someone cut me off in traffic? Anger. Frustration. School shooting? Guilt. Fear. Concern. Anger. Winning first prize? Pride, joy, excitement.
We all have Reactions and trying to suppress them is like deliberately hitting your own hand with a hammer - painful, counterproductive, and quite stupid.
The trick is: what you DO with your reactions.
Second thoughts are your choices made as a result of your Reactions. They're your Responses to the event. They're what you do to improve how you feel immediately after something happens. Cut off in traffic: Anger. Frustration = flip the bird, yell, sideswipe, accident. School shooting: Guilt, fear, anger = thoughts and prayers (wtf?), inaction, protests, lobbying, othering of those who disagree with you. (Or, if you're writing a story, your character's response might be to go on the warpath for revenge). Winning first prize: Pride, joy, excitement = go call your mum, get drunk with your mates, post a selfie on Instagram.
But dig deeper, into Third Thoughts. This is where you start to use the bloody enormous brain. to recognise your Reaction, and let it go. Then you recognise what your normal Response would be to the situation and see it as a reflection of who you are NOW as a person. Then you decide what sort of person you would LIKE TO BE, and Respond as you imagine they would.
Cut off in traffic? Reaction: Anger. Frustration. First Response: desire to yell and flip the bird. Considered/Compassionate Response: Perhaps that poor bugger is really late for a make-or-break meeting. Open some space up and wave him in. What have you lost, really, but about 2 seconds of time sitting in traffic.
So it's a three stage growth process. First, recognise if you're stuck in your Reaction loop - feeling the reactions and never separating or letting them go; just wallowing. Then recognise whether your Responses are stupid, selfish, or counterproductive. And see what that reveals about who you are NOW. Then work out what Responses are more appropriate for the person you WANT to be.
And yes, sometimes the considered/compassionate response DOES mean standing up for what's right. It does not mean you're a doormat.
If you're an author, work out where each of your characters sit on the continuum of Reaction and Responses. That will help determine what their choices will be when you throw them in the deep end and pile obstacles in front of them.
And who knows, you might even work out where you sit on that continuum as well.
Aiki Flinthart Feb 2018
Because even warriors get to take breaks while on their great quests, I'm actually taking a short holiday from work.
And doing some writing - in between renovating our house.
And, because it's December, and heating up your house by baking pies in the middle of summer is the done thing, I'm also making pies. My son is helping me contribute to global warming. We now have 7 pies in the fridge. There were 8, but one seems to have mysteriously vanished, along with a tub of icecream.
Now I'm sharing the love, so you too can make your airconditioner die of overwork as it tries to cool down a house being heated by both sun and oven. (Clearly I'm talking to fellow southern hemisphere dwellers, here).
Anyway... my grandmother's sweet pumpkin pie recipe.
Makes 2 deep pies
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (colloquially known as a f*cktonne of butter)
4 tablespoons castor sugar
4 tablespoons vanilla
(mix these three together with a fork until smooth)
4 cups of self-raising flour
(mix this through the butter mixture. resulting pastry should stick to itself, but not stick to your fingers too much. If it does, add some more flour)
Press this mix into two pie tins
Put back into the fridge to chill
Cut up lots of pumpkin and cook (I use the microwave) until soft. Allow to cool
Zazz with a hand-held stick blender or similar until pureed
Into a bowl...
8 eggs, lightly beaten
6 cups of pumpkin puree
2 cups brown sugar (less if you're trying to reduce sugar)
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
6 cups Carnation evaporated milk (this comes in tins in the longlife milk aisle)
Mix above ingredients in order then use the hand-blender to give one final mix.
Preheat oven to 220deg
Pour mix into the two pie bases
Sprinkle nutmeg on top
Bake for 15min on 220deg
Reduce to 190deg for another 45min or so.
Eat either warm or cooled with cream/icecream
#warriorwomanwords #writerfighters #writerslife
When your character's in trouble, what's her go-to weapon? Is she better with cutting words, or with actual sharp-edged weapons? Does she carry one? If not, can she turn anything into a weapon?
Hair swords are a thing with me. No, not swords made of hair (creepy), actual pointy things that hold your hair up. Of course I could use a pen, or a chopstick - but where's the fun in that?
I now have around 7 different styles - from a pair handmade by my son out of old drill bits, to a katana, to this gladius replica I picked up in Italy (she says casually).
They make for good conversation pieces. They're not concealed weapons. Not concealed at all, officer. Look, see? Right there sticking up like an alien antenna. I'll let you in on a secret. Most aren't even sharp - pointy, yes, sharp, no.
However that doesn't stop them being useful. They make good letter openers, for instance (honest, officer). Of course, the point is (pun intended) almost anything handy can be used as a weapon by your character. (Some may debate the usefulness of cooked pasta, but it would, at least, serve as a distraction while she hit the badguy with something more lethal. And don't underestimate the pain-generating ability of a really hot pasta sauce in the eyes.)
Use your scene location description to add key details (sauce bubbling on the stove; the rich aroma of tomato pasta sauce). Then use that casually-mentioned detail as a weapon in the subsequent fight scene. Think outside the standard weapons array. (Jackie Chan movies are good at that.) Have fun with it. If you character is a think-on-her-feet kinda girl, use whatever's to hand and it will add either realism or comedy (or both) to your scene.
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