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

Guest post – Zen Cho on ‘My Year of Saying No’.

You’ll recall how much I enjoyed reading Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. (If you missed my review, click here) So I’m extremely pleased to host this illuminating and thoughtful post reflecting on that story’s origins and her experiences as a newly published writer.

My year of saying no

Photo credit - Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography.
Photo credit – Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography.

In 2015 I became super obsessed with the BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This wasn’t terribly surprising – I love the book and have reread it several times, and the series had everything I like: men and women in pretty period outfits, magic, humour, and even a touch of the numinous. It wasn’t a perfect adaptation, but an adaptation that’s sort of almost there but not quite is perfect for inducing fannish obsessiveness.

What was new and surprising was that, for the first time, I started identifying with Jonathan Strange. Jonathan Strange is nothing like me. He’s a fictional rich white dude who would be dead now if he was ever alive. I’m a real middle-class Chinese Malaysian woman who’s only spent time in 1800s England in her imagination. He’s the Second Greatest Magician of the Age. I’m a lawyer who moonlights as a moderately obscure fantasy writer.

I’m also fundamentally not as much of a douche (I love the character, but it’s gotta be said). I take no credit for this. It is because I was socialised as a woman and was therefore taught things like listening skills and how to feel guilty for taking up space in the world.

But there was one big thing I had in common with Jonathan Strange. We had both figured out what we’d been put on earth to do, and we were doing it. The vocations we had each chosen were potentially of great value and importance to society as a whole — magic in Jonathan Strange’s case; writing in mine — but we were mainly doing it for selfish reasons rather than to benefit anyone else. Nevertheless our work felt like a great and serious charge, and what this charge required of us was a determined selfishness.

SorcerertotheCrownUKcoverlargeIn 2015 my first novel came out. It was a bit like getting married: it meant that something that had been private suddenly became very public, and people treated me differently about something I’d been working away quietly at for years. And it also meant that people started wanting stuff from me. They wanted me to answer questions, write blog posts, submit to anthologies, show up to events, blurb books, critique manuscripts ….

It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of “no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.

I had to learn to say no. Which was hard, because women aren’t encouraged to say no, and they especially aren’t encouraged to refuse to help other people. We’re supposed to be nurturing. Fortunately, I am pretty bad at being nurturing, but even so I struggled.

A lot of the requests I get are for nice things, things that support diversity in SFF and publishing, which is something I both care about and benefit from. How could I refuse when it was for such a good cause?

But I realised that if I was not ferociously protective of my time — if I didn’t play that role of The Rude Genius — I would soon find it sucked up in mostly uncompensated labour, in things that weren’t writing my own stories.

I don’t, in fact, have a room of my own. I have a sofa and an inbox full of requests for publishing advice that the querier could Google for themselves. So I’m learning to patrol the boundaries of the uncluttered space I need for writing — and for living, because I don’t owe anyone time and attention even if I’m not rushing to meet a deadline.

I’m still not as good at saying no as I should be, but I’ve already been accused of being grand for the appalling crime of not answering emails. I wonder whether the same accusation would be lobbed at me if I was a white man. We expect men, especially white men, to be rude geniuses. But it seems we feel entitled to the time and energy of women, especially Asian women.

You’ll point out I’m not a genius, which is true, but then I’m also not that rude. I say yes far more often than I say no. There’s still that fear, whenever I turn something down, that I should make the most of any attention I’m getting now, because people will stop asking eventually.

But you know what? I have never, not once, regretted saying no. And even if people stop asking and go away, it’s not like they’ll take the stories with them. Writing is mine – and it would be foolish to let a general sense of obligation to the world at large chip away at it. Jonathan Strange would definitely say something sardonic about that.

“You can teach craft but you can’t teach talent.” The most useless creative writing cliché?

I’ve worked with aspiring authors on an ad hoc basis for well over a decade now; running workshops at conventions and literary festivals, guest-lecturing at universities and colleges and occasionally running longer courses*. Most recently, I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable session with the Creative Writing M.A. students of Lancaster Uni, and had the distinct pleasure, and privilege, of selecting poems and prose pieces on the theme of ‘Monsters’ submitted by new writers, to feature in the new Mar/Apr/May 2016 edition of Mslexia magazine (now available!).

When I mention I’m doing one or other of these things, there’s a good chance someone will trot out this particular truism. It irritates me more and more, especially when you ask someone exactly what that means, and they say something vague about ‘well, people have to know how to spell and punctuate, but you can’t teach someone to have an imagination.’

Let’s examine both those notions.

There’s a whole lot more to writing craft than knowing where to put a full stop, or even the correct use of the semi-colon. An infinite amount; just look at the boundless variety of prose styles in published fiction. One of the workshops I run takes a wholly unremarkable sequence of dialogue and explores the different ways in which words can be woven around those identical spoken sentences to create significantly different effects for the reader, with regard to the place and the people. In one case, the addition of a single letter can be enough. Consider the implications of describing a woman as wearing ‘skirts’ as opposed to ‘a skirt’.

Then there’s the skill required to create atmosphere, whether that’s tension, sorrow, apprehension, excitement. It takes finely shaped prose to convey a character’s sorrow. passion, delight or fear. To indicate where the reader’s sympathies might lie or to hint that perhaps we’re not getting the full story quite yet? To write natural sounding dialogue – which is not at all the same as transcribing an actual conversation. To manage a narrative’s point of view, whether that’s in the first person or third person, and any transitions between perspectives. To convey vital facts and background to the reader without boring them rigid with a five page data-dump. I could go on but you get the idea. And that’s not even the half of it.

Once you’ve got all those words on the page, there’s the craft of cutting away the ones you don’t need. The more I write, the more eager I am to get the end of a first draft, to start refining and honing the piece, whether that’s a short story or a novel. Learning how to do that to best effect is a real challenge. Another workshop I run on such editing presents students with a piece of my work in draft and challenges them to get that down to a final version that’s on a par with my own. When I explain this means cutting those 388 words down to 117, hopeful writers’ faces vary from aghast to disbelieving. Because that first draft which they’ve just read is a perfectly good piece of writing, exactly as it stands. The craft comes in identifying the bits which the overall story can do without.

So let’s not get snobbish about the value of craft. Without a good carpenter’s skills, you’d be using splintery planks to board up that hole in your house instead of coming and going through a well-made and secure front door. Let’s definitely not accept any implication that writing craft is merely a toolkit of basic skills which a writer only needs to get to grips with once. I learn new twists and subtleties about different aspects of writing with every piece I write and frequently from what I read. Every writer I know says the same.

Now, about this notion that you cannot teach hopeful writers to have ideas, to have an imagination. The thing is, I’ve never, ever met an aspiring author who didn’t have an imagination. Surely that’s a prerequisite for being a keen reader, never mind for taking up a pen or keyboard to create original fiction? Would-be writers are never short on inspiration. Reviewing those Mslexia submissions proved that – not that I ever doubted it.

What writers need to learn is how to make most effective use of those plots and characters, scenarios and themes which are clamouring so loudly for their attention that the only thing to do is start writing them down. In some cases, the writer’s primary need is getting to grips with particular aspects of writing craft to make best use of their idea. As a teacher it’s very rewarding to see someone learning the skills that will turn their rough diamond of a draft into sparkling prose.

In other cases, in very many cases, the hopeful author needs to learn boldness. I see this time and again. I’ll be reading a well crafted piece, offering a solid foundation for a story, a character, an idea, but this particular writer hasn’t yet realised where and when they can take an extra step, or more often, a giant leap forward. Because all they can see is a leap into the unknown. Those of us who’ve already been through that learning process can now see it from the other side, where wide, new horizons open up before us. At other times, we take that leap and find a new vantage point to look back on a familiar idea and see it from a whole new perspective.

Here’s a case in point – without spoilers because this particular draft novel got all the way to publication and I don’t want to give anything away. The writer presented a confrontation between Our Hero and The Enemy. Our Hero used a recently acquired weapon to drive off The Enemy. I asked, why doesn’t he kill The Enemy? Because he’s not a killer, was the initial reply. No, I pointed out, but he doesn’t understand the weapon he’s got hold of. In this situation, he’s a toddler with a loaded handgun. He can still kill someone without any evil intent. What happens then? I saw the writer’s eyes widen, appalled at that notion, before they narrowed in thought… Even though that meant rewriting major chunks of the story to deal with the subsequent fall-out, both for Our Hero and for The Enemy’s Friends.

It’s that sort of boldness, offering some new angle, with some fresh take on places, characters or themes, which editors are looking for. Because they will have seen way more than enough slush submitted by writers who’ve been suckered into believing that the first idea they’ve had will take them all the way and once their genius is recognised, someone else will take care of full stops.

So let’s ditch this particularly useless cliché. How about we replace it with something someone whose name I alas failed to make a note of said? “Talent without craft is like fuel without a rocket. It may burn ever so brightly but it’s going nowhere.”

*For those interested in a week’s residential course focused on writing SF and Fantasy, I’m teaching at Moniack Mhor in Scotland, in December this year, alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Ken Macleod will be our guest writer. More details here

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – a review

SorcerertotheCrownUKcoverlargeIn Regency London, the Royal Society for Unnatural Philosophy has its first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe. Unsurprisingly, this does not please the great and the good (self-proclaimed) of English Magic. Zacharias, erstwhile child slave and later ward of the former Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, is well aware of their enmity but has far more urgent concerns. English magic is being steadily depleted and relations with Faerie, a vital source of power, have somehow been dangerously compromised. Add to that the British Government is pressing Zacharias to endorse and support their imperial ambitions in Indonesia. This raises the very real danger of French sorcières deciding such actions breach the longstanding gentleman’s agreement against magical involvement in the Napoleonic Wars.

So the last thing Zacharias needs is the eruption into his life of Prunella Gentleman, half-Indian orphan and pupil-teacher at Mrs Daubeny’s boarding school, where well-born girls unfortunately afflicted with magical talent are trained to restrain such unseemly impulses. After all, everyone knows that women are unsuited to thaumaturgy. Well, everyone except Prunella. And the witches of the Banda Strait. What with one thing and another, Zacharias can’t even find refuge in the congenial surroundings of his club, The Theurgists.

This is an entertaining and original addition to the Regency fantasies we’ve seen expanding and enriching the genre in recent years. Not least because Cho is drawing on up-to-date historical sources, including non-Eurocentric views of that era, as well as the literature of the period rather than anyone else’s later and potentially anachronistic interpretations. She evidently knows her Austen, and her Thackeray and more besides, I shouldn’t wonder. The attitudes of the English aristocracy, both in terms of class and race, are entirely of their time, as indeed are Zacharias’ and Prunella’s reactions to the prejudices and insults they face, whether incidental or intentional. Their friends and foes are similarly, satisfactorily rounded and believable.

Crucially, none of this exploration of attitudes to sex and/or race is mere set-dressing or clumsy polemic. It all drives the fast-paced plot by informing decisions and plans on both sides of the growing conflict. Action prompts reaction and dangers escalate. Now Zacharias’s outsider status gives him a different perspective on non-English and non-European magical traditions. Meanwhile Prunella’s determined to put her own magical resources to best use, to learn what she can of her parentage and to make a satisfactory marriage. However her naivety means she has scant idea of the consequences of her actions. Some of these outcomes are comical; Cho has a deft touch with humour. Others are chilling. Cho doesn’t compromise over the grimmest implications of the opposition to Zacharias, or the measures that must be taken to defeat it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s absorbing and well written fantasy enriched with a meaningful hinterland. So I am not surprised to see enthusiastic cover quotes from writers as diverse as Naomi Novik, Ann Leckie, Charles Stross, Lavie Tidhar and Aliette de Bodard. I’m very much looking forward to the sequel.

To find out more about Zen Cho and her books, click here for her website.