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.

4 comments

  1. Same’s true of all forms of storytelling, of course: eg. TV shows or movies.

    I always say I can more easily forgive a less than stellar plot for the sake of really good characters (though not vice versa), but I’d rather have solid plotting AND good characters, etc.

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