The balance between basics and breaking new ground. An underlying principle common to aikido and to writing.

Here’s a thing that occurred to me this morning. However advanced and startling your new exploration of a craft may be, it must still abide by and satisfy the fundamental requirements of whatever you are doing.

Let me explain.

We’re teaching some advanced stuff in our aikido classes at the moment. It’s a small club currently, and with the youngest members off doing exams, we have two students working towards blue belt/2nd kyu and one working towards second level black belt/nidan. Since the other students in the class at the moment are also solidly experienced, we’re working way beyond the ‘stand here, move this foot, then that hand, move here’ level of teaching into refining and enhancing techniques everyone’s already familiar with, as well as using faster and more challenging styles of attack.

With varying degrees of success. Last night I found myself saying more than once, to more than one student, ‘the reason that didn’t work was you didn’t remember the fundamentals of that technique’. And then demonstrating what I meant. What was happening was the student was so focused on the new elements of the attack or some refinement of positioning that had just been explained, that they had cut short or even omitted some element of the actual technique. That allowed a gap to open up or closed up a gap they would need, not taking the attacker’s balance or allowing a recovery, that sort of thing.

The sort of thing we teach from the very start. Because a central aspect to understanding aikido is realising that the early stuff which you learn isn’t the baby steps. It isn’t stuff which you can master and then leave behind as you progress. What you learn at the outset forms the foundation for everything that follows.

Now let us consider books. I’m specifically casting my mind back to the two-hundred-plus books I read in my two years as a Clarke Award judge. Across that broad and varied span of writing, there were some very interesting new approaches and experiments in style, theme, genre-blurring, genre-crossing and more – which ultimately failed, certainly for me, and given their absence from subsequent, substantive discussion, I assume they didn’t make the grade for the other judges either.

Speaking purely for myself, those particular books failed because they were so focused on the new and different thing they were trying to do, that they forgot about the foundations of good writing. Compelling characterisation. Coherent plot progression. Rigorous internal logic. Vivid scene setting. Convincing dialogue. The list goes on. All those things which the reader shouldn’t actually notice happening but which are essential to draw you into a book and keep those pages turning because This Really Matters!

The books that won when I was on the judging panel? The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and Dark Eden? They both broke new ground at the same time as satisfying those fundamental tenets of good writing and thus, good reading.

All of which goes a long way to explain why I have no patience with book reviews that insist we must forgive some obvious shortcoming in a book like clunky prose or a plot hole or an unaccountable absence of anyone but middle-aged white men – again, the list could go on – because this particular special aspect is just so new and shiny!

No. In writing, as in aikido, there must always be balance. The unexpected, the breath-taking, the shocking, the ‘how the hell did that just happen?!’ will only be truly effective when it stems from a solid foundation of essential and well-honed skills.

That’s what I think, anyway.

Authors’ views, viewing the authors & audio too – Fight Like A Girl multimedia!

Over at SFFWorld, the assorted authors of the Fight Like A Girl anthology have been having a say about oh, all sorts of things. Part One of the mass interview is now up and Part Two will follow at the end of this week.

Meantime, Roz Clarke has posted her video highlights of the launch day in Bristol over on YouTube. You’ll want to settle in with a tea, coffee or other beverage of choice as it’s 50 minutes worth of readings, discussion and sword/knife fights. In which I demonstrate various things including how to get someone to cut their own throat without leaving any of my fingerprints on the weapon 🙂

To enjoy the day’s reading and panel discussions in audio, head over to Cheryl Morgan’s blog, where you’ll also find the panel discussion.

And if after all that, you want to buy the book?
Amazon – paperback
Amazon Kindle

There’s also a Goodreads giveaway running till April 30th

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Out and about, in person and online

They* tell you that writing is a solitary occupation. Only when it comes to the pen on paper, fingers on keyboard bit. They* really should say how much fun and inspiration there is to be had in this writing life when you get together with other writers and with readers.

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In the Olden Days~, that meant meeting up in person, and we still have many and varied ways of doing that in SF& Fantasy circles. This Saturday past I was in Bristol at The Hatchet Inn, for the Launch Extravaganza celebrating the publication of ‘Fight Like a Girl’. (ebook also available). This is an anthology I’m really pleased to be part of, sharing my take on this particular theme alongside established voices and newer writers in SFF.

Isn’t that such a great cover? And for the curious, those are my battle axe earrings on the right hand side. They seemed like appropriate jewellery for the day.

We had a great time, with readings from Lou Morgan, Sophie E Tallis and Danie Ware, a panel discussing this anthology’s inspiration in particular, and wider issues facing women in genre publishing, and then Fran Terminiello and Lizzie Rose (of The School of the Sword) demonstrated some fascinating swordplay, by way of a speedy run though the evolution of swords from the Medieval to the Renaissance. Great stuff.

And yes, as promised in my previous post, I demonstrated some aspects of aikido to prove that fighting like a girl may well be different to battling like a bloke – but it’s no less effective 🙂 With thanks to Fran for allowing me to demonstrate that bringing bare hands to a knife fight is not necessarily a problem, as well as the chap whose name I didn’t catch, who had done some aikido and generously allowed me to put him on his knees a few times and to show how being shorter is no disadvantage when it comes to getting a 6’3″ man off his feet. At which point gravity does pretty much the rest of the work…

(There may be photos/video in due course. If so, I’ll add links)

But that’s not all! These days we can meet up and swap thoughts, ideas and recollections online and a whole bunch of us writers are currently doing that over on Marie Brennan‘s blog. She’s celebrating the tenth anniversary of her first publication with a series of posts Five Days of Fiction, sharing her own thoughts on a series of questions and inviting others to chip in. I always find seeing what other people say in this sort of thing absolutely fascinating.

*’They’ being people whose knowledge of the writing life extends as far as repeating cliches and no further.
~ Twenty years ago.

The Knee to the Nuts Paradox, and other tips when you fight like a girl.

A while ago I wrote a post commenting on an article on the reasons why women smile at men who harass them. I explained how, from a martial arts point of view, that’s a winning strategy. To de-escalate a situation and leave without a fight. But that’s not always possible, so I think a follow-up post may be useful, in particular for those without any martial arts or self defence training.

(And if you’re free this coming Saturday, 2nd April 2016 and within striking range of Bristol, do come along the Fight Like a Girl anthology launch, where I’ll be demonstrating some of the self-defence principles I discuss in this article. As well as what to do if you’ve brought bare hands to a knife fight.)

If unwanted attention turns into being grabbed, that’s very definitely the time to fight like a girl. Which is to say, not by meeting force with force but by identifying and exploiting the ways in which your attacker cannot use superior strength or in ways that make such strength irrelevant. Because the aim of the game is not to stand crowing over your defeated, bloodied enemy like some cut-price Conan, but to get free of a hold and to get clean away as quickly and effectively as possible.

This post is also prompted by recent thoughts and discussions I’ve been having with fellow aikido practitioners about gendered responses to attacks. Though these observations aren’t exclusively for women’s benefit. My thoughts apply equally well to men who find themselves shorter and less physically imposing than an attacker. As well as to men who are tall, well-muscled, physically fit and more than able to leave an aggressor bleeding on the floor – but who know full well that will see them charged with assault. So, this should make useful reading for everyone.

However, this post runs long. I’m also aware that there will be those with no interest, for whatever reason, in reading even a theoretical discussion of the practical application of violence. So I’ll put the rest of this behind a cut. Click here to continue reading

A martial arts perspective on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Harass Us’.

Various people have been linking to a (very good) article* on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Harass Us”* with their own further valid observations and commentary, notably Catie Murphy

Essentially, women are aiming to de-escalate these situations to keep themselves safe. Not least because as just about any woman can tell you, ignoring a man who’s demanding your attention in an increasingly persistent fashion (whether drunk/horny/showing off to his mates) will NOT make him ‘just go away’.

Nor will responding in aggressive fashion. That will pretty much definitely make things worse. Read the magistrates’ court reports in your local paper for plenty of evidence there.

Now, one assumption underpinning this is that women de-escalate these situations because they wouldn’t be able to win in a physical fight. Up to a point, yes – and it’s a wholly valid point.

But some of us assuredly could. I speak as an aikido third dan with over 30 years training under my blackbelt.

And when I’m accosted/’complimented’/intruded upon by importunate men when I’m out and about on my own? Yes, I do exactly the same as every other woman. I smile and say meaningless nothings to keep everything calm and undramatic until I can extricate myself from the situation.

Because I’m not confident in my skills? Oh, far from it.

Because I don’t particularly want to end up in court charged with assault after Mr Harrasser ends up seeing a maxillo-facial surgeon to repair his broken jaw after unexpectedly meeting the pavement face first? That’s a consideration, yes.

Overwhelmingly though, it’s because of one of the very first things I learned practising aikido, over 30 years ago.

Our instructor, Kanetsuka Sensei came into the dojo where all the students were waiting. His pupil/assistant Tanaka Sensei was on the mat, ready. Kanesuka is not a tall man. Tanaka is huge.

They squared up, toe to toe. And then Kanetsuka Sensei ran out of the dojo at top speed. Tanaka stayed where he was, impassive. Everyone else looked at each other, baffled.

Kanetsuka returned, calm and relaxed. He gestured at the door, ‘Best defence.’

Then he raised a finger. ‘If you cannot.’ And proceeded to demonstrate the many and varied ways he could throw and pin Tanaka, rendering him utterly helpless.

Helpless, please note. Not bleeding or physically incapacitated. Aikido does not set out to break an attacker. The aim, first and foremost, is to break an attacker’s will to attack, while staying safe oneself.

(That said, yes, these are techniques which used in the street, on an attacker with no knowledge of breakfalls or rolling out of a throw, would leave them bruised at best and quite possibly with broken bones. Unless the aikidoka is sufficiently experienced to be able to choose otherwise. And let’s remember the key word here is ‘attacker’. Aikido is the martial art which waits for the other guy to start things – but I digress)

So here’s the thing. By far the best way to win in a fight (or any confrontation) is not to have it happen. Top level martial arts masters in far more disciplines than only aikido agree on that.

So a woman responding to that pushy, oboxious dude on a late night train or at a bus stop with a small, tight smile and some meaningless platitudes?

She’s de-escalating the situation while keeping herself safe.

She’s not a coward. She’s not losing in that encounter. She’s winning it.

* here’s a link to that article, though it’s displaying oddly in my browser today – I don’t know why.

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Nigella – a perspective from a woman with 30 years martial arts experience.

I don’t often blog about political issues and I can’t recall ever commenting on a ‘showbiz’ story before. This is different.

My responses to those appalling photos of ‘celebrity chef’ Nigella Lawson being attacked by her ‘millionaire philanthropist and art collector’ husband Charles Saatchi have been rather different to most. ( For those of you abroad, the story is here).

I haven’t been sitting here muttering (or tweeting) ‘she should have slapped his face/punched him in the nuts’. I haven’t even been muttering ‘I would have kneed him in the nuts’. Firstly, both those responses come uncomfortably close to victim blaming as far as I am concerned. Secondly, I know exactly how difficult doing either of those things would actually be, especially from a hold like that, with both participants seated at a table. That’s setting aside the risks that a violent response from the weaker participant in a physical quarrel will simply generate more and worse violence from the stronger assailant and that’s not going to end well.

Which is not to say there aren’t things you can do in that situation. I have studied the martial art Aikido for thirty years now, which specifically enables smaller, lighter, physically weaker individuals to get the better of any sort of opponent,. So I can say with a fair degree of confidence that anyone trying to grab my throat across a dinner table will end up face down in the crockery. For someone without any such experience? That’s a very different matter indeed.

As an instructor, one of the first things we must do with new students is get them accustomed to being attacked. The ‘fright-freeze’ response is deeply ingrained and it short-circuits conscious thinking pretty much entirely. Learning not to panic under attack takes time – and that’s in a friendly, relaxed dojo atmosphere, where senior coach/my husband Steve and I have already demonstrated that however hard and fast we might launch a blow, we have the experience to make sure we won’t actually make contact, if the new student fluffs the response. Most usually by standing still, wide-eyed and mentally gibbering ‘ohshitohshitohshitI’mgoingtodie’. Incidentally, gender or physical size has nothing to do with this. The biggest, strongest chaps will respond in the exact same way, especially when they are taken by surprise. Which is something I do every so often, just to make the point. That they’re being unexpectedly menaced by a grey-haired, middle-aged woman in glasses half a foot shorter than they are, makes absolutely no difference to their instinctive response.

So one of the most important things we teach from the outset, is how NOT to get grabbed. Once your opponent has a solid hold, your options are much more limited and depending on the nature of the hold, getting free will require a higher level of skill and experience. We very rarely practise neck holds – not least because they are so dangerous. I once saw a very experienced black belt try, and fail, to get out of a strangle and end up unconscious on the mat. So primarily we teach people how to NOT get caught by the throat, and only examine escapes from dangerous holds with senior students with considerable care.

The other thing about neck holds is they often involve nerve strikes to inflict pain. We do teach more advanced students to use attacks on nerves as part of other non-neck-gripping techniques which involve controlling the freedom of movement of an attacker’s head. A good many of these nerve points are underneath and along the inside edge of the jawbone. Looking at those vile photos, I think it’s perfectly possible that Charles Saatchi could have struck one by accident. You don’t have to have martial arts skills to get lucky. When we’re training students in pins and holds that involve nerve compression, we always caution them to go slowly at first. Just because they’ve never done it before doesn’t mean they can’t get it agonisingly right by complete fluke.

The point of nerve strikes is not to inflict pain for its own sake. It’s to inflict pain in order to completely short circuit the attacker’s thought processes. To turn the tables entirely, so they’re now the one under attack, and crucially derailing their aggressive intent with a good dose of ‘ohshitohshitohshit-she’s going to rip my arm/head/leg off and club me to death with it.’

Not that we do things like that in aikido, the clubbing to death bit, I mean. The central aim of aikido is not to break your attacker’s ability to attack (by breaking their arms, legs, faces and ending up in court charged with assault) but to break their will to attack, by various means such as not letting them even make contact in the first place and thereafter, taking the initiative in the combat away from them so they end up being thrown or pinned as the aikidoka prefers. But I digress.

Learning how to do that calmly and effectively, especially when you’re caught off guard, particularly if a nerve strike is involved, takes a good deal of time and application. Advanced cookery skills will be little or no help.

So much for that. Why are we even talking about what Nigella could or should have done? Let’s talk about what Charles Saatchi actually did, as proven in those photographs. He grabbed her throat, hard. Are there any circumstances when doing this is a legitimate part of a conversation between two people, irrespective of their ages, gender or relationship? No, there are not. He assaulted her, as anyone with even passing knowledge of the law knew yesterday, even before news of his police caution broke. He assaulted her. I have no interest in Charles Saatchi’s self-serving version of events thereafter. Playful tiff? Fuck off. He assaulted her.

According to the papers, Nigella has now left home. I hope she gets all the support she needs amid all this furore and I am very glad to think that she has the money to take whatever action she sees fit, legal or otherwise.

But let’s just take a moment to consider all the victims of domestic violence who don’t have the protection of money, fame and influential family and friends. The refuges and services that have offered them quite literally a lifeline, have suffered sustained and increasing cuts in funding. Tory party thinking has long been that charities will take up this work, funded by wealthy philanthropists, the great and the good whose interests they so assiduously protect. Patrons of the arts, like, oh, Charles Saatchi for instance. Do we think that he will be donating to unglamorous causes like domestic violence charities? Well, he might well do so now, for the PR value. He is an ad-man after all.

But should vulnerable women’s lives be dependent on the capricious generosity of supremely privileged individuals like him? No. They should be protected by the society of which we are all members and by the government which is supposed to act in all our interests.