Little Things

My old Kenpo instructor (now retired) used to say, “Kata is how the system expresses itself.” It was one of those little things he’d say that made perfect sense at the time as long as you didn’t think too hard about it. Later, I’d wake up at 3am or 4am or whenever the dog decided to go out, and I’d think, “Wait. What?”

Of course, after pondering for a bit, I’d come to almost the exact same conclusion that I had when I first heard it. Full circle.

Now, for those of you scratching your heads wonder what the heck a kata is, it’s a pre-programmed set of movements that’s common in the martial arts. Some systems live and die by them, others use them sparingly, still others eschew them entirely. Think of kata as a way of chaining strikes and blocks together and you’ll get the general gist.

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One of these people understands movement, the other does not

His intention was to point out that kata is a way to display the ebb and flow of the system. It’s not carved in stone, it’s not the end all be all of movement, but it allows us to take the bits and pieces of Kenpo and see how they can fit together. Each kata has a kind of theme with it, be it retreat, dealing with grabs, dealing with pushes, dealing with punches, or kicking people when they’re on the ground. And each of those kata are built up using techniques and transitions. In a way, kata is how the system expresses itself, by pulling the basics into techniques and then finally putting the techniques together into a coherent piece of expression. Ideally, in the final analysis of kata, they become moving meditation.

Since kata are built on techniques which, in turn, are built on basics, one could say a kata is a large system comprised of little things. They may look fancy, but at their heart kata are nothing more than a lot of things like steps, blocks, kicks, and punches all performed in a particular sequence. Which would imply each of those little things has to be done correctly to get the whole sequence to come out right.

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Otherwise someone gets shot.

This may seem like an esoteric thing, limited only to arcane aspects of the martial arts, but it’s really not. Every large system is built on little things, be it a book or a program or even just painting your bathroom.

Little things matter. In the writing world, it’s the small details that make the story come to life. Maybe a character’s penchant for peanut butter shakes or cheap beer doesn’t drive the plot, but it can say a lot about the character. That character, in turn, helps move the plot forward.

I’m not saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is wrong, I’m saying pay attention to those little details and treat those details with as much care you can. The end result, be it a kata, a program, or a book will be all that much richer for the attention.

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Even your chainsaw kata will look better.

Book Review – Mudmen by Shitij Sharma

Mudmen: The Quest for Humanity is one of the more unique books I’ve read. It starts with a question I think everyone has asked themselves at some point or another point in their lives: could I do a better job than God?

Don’t worry, the jury is still out on that one.

I think at some point in their development, every writer goes through a deeply philosophical phase. Most books don’t go too deep into philosophical territory for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is takes a steady hand to make such huge things small enough for most people to wrap their heads around.

Mudmen follows the events that take place after the world comes to an end and the whole of humanity is reduced to ashes. One person winds up with the ability to rewrite reality and sets out to do exactly that. Unfortunately for him, reality isn’t as easy to recode as, say, editing the text on the back of a box of cereal or pirating music. Reality, it turns out, is complicated stuff. Lot of ins, lot of outs, lot of interested parties, as the saying goes.

Out of the miasma this little guy creates comes something altogether unexpected: The resurgence of humanity. Of course, the humans do what we’re best at: steal the power of the gods for ourselves, even though we’re completely incapable of figuring out what to do with it.

This is book one of a three book set. Truthfully, it weighs in at 88 pages or so, so novella may be more technically accurate. Not that such triviality is all that important. The important thing to realize is this is just the first third of a longer piece. Truthfully, I would have like to see the whole work released as a single installment, but that’s just me. This first third gives us an introduction to the characters and rules of the Mudmen. Presumably, the remainder of the series will fill out the world more. Sharma asks some big questions in book one; let’s hope he provides some big answers as the story continues.

Rich in metaphor and deeply layered meaning, Mudmen isn’t a story to be undertaken expecting a few gun fights, a car chase, and some steamy sex. This is musings on the nature of being, the nature of the universe, and the nature of humanity.

What if you thought you could play a better god than God?

Mudmen is a story unlike anything you have ever seen before. It all starts with a half-crazed dwarf scribbling furiously on a piece of paper while the world outside his little cottage is ravaged by a great storm. There is an artifact in his possession which gives him power over all else, but that artifact is stolen by the very creatures that he gave birth to in his frustration – these creatures are what we come to know as the Mudmen.

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Get your copy on Amazon

Your Good Friend, The One Star Review

If you’re working on a book, I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to get negative feedback. It can range from critiques about the plot or the editing or the characters or any number of things. The first negative review stings. After all, you’ve just poured how many countless hours of blood, sweat, and bourbon into a story, stayed awake far longer than you should have, and worked yourself into a frothy frenzy worrying about things and now some jerk is going to come along and say he or she doesn’t like it?

How dare they?

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The Ultimate Warrior is enraged by that!

While it’s tempting to go full Trump and Tweet your outrage to the world, that’s not really a recommended strategy for dealing with negative reviews or feedback. Sure, it’s easy for me to sit on my high horse and pontificate about how you should feel when someone impugns your hard work, but step back for a moment and think about it before you do anything rash.

For starters, it’s a given that not everyone is going to like your work. People are different and not everyone likes the same things. Ergo, ipso facto, dominus pizza, there are going to be people who just don’t like what you’re writing just because they don’t like that style or genre. For instance, I’m not big on erotica or books about sports. Let alone sports erotica.

It’s kind of been my experience that negative reviews fall into two categories; the “this book is so bad it gave me cancer” category and the “this is what I didn’t like and why I didn’t like it category.”

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Zoidberg: Worst. critic. ever.

Trust me on this: ignore the reviews from the first category. There’s nothing you can do to change those. Nod, smile, and move on.

The second category, however, can be a gold mine. If someone takes the time to write a review and tells you why they didn’t like your book (other than it sucked), that’s the time to listen. You may not agree with everything they say, but they’re looking at your work with different eyes and may be seeing things you’re not. At the very least, take their comments to heart and try to look at your story through their eyes.

Because in the end, you may have written the story, but the readers get to experience it. That makes it their story.

And never, ever, reply to negative comments. Especially when Zoidberg makes them (fun fact: my computer’s network name is zoidberg. Why? Because I already had Fry, Bender, and Calculon). I have only responded to criticism once and that was to agree with someone who said there was a lot of head-hopping going on. There was and he was right and the fact that it was noticeable means I did it wrong. Even after I wrote a post on how bad of idea it is to head hop.

Sigh. I never learn.

Got any bad reviews you’d like to share?

 

Merging Writing & Kenpo

A long time ago, while I was studying for my Green Belt in Kenpo, I was a cocky dude who thought he knew everything. Newsflash, I was wrong, but that’s beside the point. While I working on a technique (Breaking Wing, I think), I kept rushing to the throw and missing the setup for the throw. So, when I was trying to work it with someone, I just couldn’t get the throw to work.

One of the instructors, a guy that had been around for a while – back to the Ed Parker days, I believe – told me to slow down and work each piece of the technique as if it were the whole technique. “Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it,” he said. After each part is done, then move to the next part and do it while you’re doing it.

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And remember to completely do it

The bottom line was this: the throw in Breaking Wing works because the previous two parts of the technique (a middle knuckle to the armpit and raking the ribs, followed with snaking around the opponent’s arm and torquing their shoulder) set up the final throw. Without those two pieces first disrupting the arm and then breaking the balance, the throw just ain’t gonna happen.

Kenpo’s full of stuff like that. It works brilliantly if each part is done correctly. Bork up one part and the rest is likely to fail.

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A little bit back Damyanti Biswas wrote a blog post about ideal writer’s retreats. As per Damyanti’s usual standards, it makes for an interesting read and leaves you with a good question to think about.

The general gist was, if you could create an ideal writer’s retreat, what would it look like? She trends toward the “no good view whatsoever” school of thought because excellent vistas mean excellent staring at the vista. Writing time, to Damyanti, is meant to be writing time, not staring into space time.

I realized I have no real ideal writing space. I prefer my chair with my feet up my beat-up ottoman, but our dog also prefers that space, so I wind up writing from the couch a lot of the time. Usually with the TV on and a bourbon and cola nearby.

On the other hand, I also wrote the first chapter of Transmute at the Starbucks on Central, surrounded by chatty college students and babbling homeless people. The coffee wasn’t that great and someone thought it would be a good idea to heat up my cheese danish. All in all, not the best of circumstances, but I manage to make it work.

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I’ll be this sucker would have drowned out the noise.

I guess, once I get into the zone of doing something, I tend to focus on it. Maybe those words from Mr. Ericson all those years ago actually found a place to take root in my skull and I’ve actually found a way to do what I’m doing while I’m doing it. All it takes is focus. And a wife that will put up with me asking what just happened on TV all the time.

See, the switch from Kenpo to writing only felt like a bizarre segue into a completely different thing.

What about you? Do you have anything specific that you need to write?

A Self-Defense Tip For You

It seems there’s still a large contingent of people out there who will believe you can use car keys to turn yourself into Wolverine.

The set-up is simple and there’s a certain elegance to it. The theory is this: you usually have car keys handy, so why not turn them into a weapon? While I applaud the idea of using common items as improvised weapons, putting your keys between your fingers and punching someone with them is going to have less than stellar results.

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Both of these are extremely bad ideas. Unless you want to hurt yourself, in which case, go for it.

(Actually, when you get right down to it, both of these examples are bad ideas for self-defense, but for different reasons.)

When I was a kid and reading “authentic” “ninja” training manuals, these things would have looked great. In fact, the first time I heard about putting keys between my fingers and slashing at an opponent, it seemed like a great idea. I mean, why not? Keys are quite pointy in parts and slashing at an opponent seemed guaranteed to shred their face, at which point I could take their wallet.

The problem is it only looks good on paper. There are a couple problems with holding your keys this way and assuming you’ve reached the pinnacle of self-defense. First: your attacker is likely to be covered up and keys aren’t terribly effective against clothes. Truthfully, they’re not great against skin, either. Your dreams of going full Weapon X on a guy in a parking lot with nothing more than the keys in your hand are going to come crashing down quickly when you slash at him and wind up doing almost as much damage to your own hand as you do to his face.

If you do any damange to him at all.

The problem is, none of the keys are stable. Try it. Put your keys in your hands like in the above picture and wiggle them. Not too secure, are they? As soon as you make contact with something, those keys are going to press into the webbing between your fingers with an enormous amount of force. Possibly even enough to make you drop them.

Next thing you know, you’ve got a pissed off attacker, a damaged hand, and you’ve lost your keys.

Which leads to the next problem. In any self-defense situation your primary goal should be survival. The best way to make that happen is to get away and the best way to get away is to get in your car and make tracks. If your car is locked and your keys are tangled up in your hands, it’s going to take extra time to find the right key to unlock your car and skedaddle. It may seem easy when you’re in your living room, but remember when you’re attacked it’s a high-stress situation. In any high-stress situation, adrenaline is going to be pumping into your body to stimulate the fight or flight response. Adrenaline’s good stuff, don’t get me wrong, but fine motor skills disappear when it’s pumping. In other words, your brain turns to mush.

So, how about a better solution? Hold one key – the one to your car or your door – securely between your thumb and forefinger. Make sure you’ve got a tight grip and the tip isn’t sticking out too far – that cuts down on the force that’s coming back into your hand and gives you a better chance of holding onto your keys. Now, you’ve got a secure weapon to slash with and you’ve got your key ready to go, so when adrenaline hits you, you don’t have to think about which key is which.

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Think tactically and strategically. The strategy should be escaping in one piece, tactics need to support that strategy, not hamstring it. Although, I would argue the “right” key is still held too far out to be stable.

Of course, you still have to deal with the pesky “getting a key past your attacker’s defenses” part, but if you do it right, you’ll have surprise on your side. Slash at the eyes or throat and get the heck out of there.

Just a quick note on the ring up there, too. Most people don’t know how to punch. It actually takes some time and a lot of practice to get good at punching something. If you slash at someone with that ring, it’s just going to turn on your finger and not do much to your attacker. If you punch someone with that ring on, you’re really going to be in trouble.

The thing about punching is the hand is very good for punching if you punch correctly, namely striking with the big two knuckles on your fist. That ring will put an enormous amount of pressure on the long bone of your middle finger. If you hit a hard enough target – anything on the head, for instance – you’ll break your own finger.

If you want some things to carry for self-defense that aren’t obtrusive, look for a kubotan or something similar. Heck, even a monkey’s fist made from paracord and a big ball bearing would work better.

Don’t believe me? Check these sites for more info:

Martial Arts on Stack Exchange

ACWA Combatives

Think Like A Black Belt

Good News, Everyone

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This is my first full-on We Are The World Blogfest post. The idea behind #WATWB was to say in even though it sometimes seems like it, the world isn’t really going to hell in a hand-basket. The bottom line is this: it seems dark and shitty, but the world will march on and eventually the evil bastards will be forced back into their holes with pitchforks and torches. With a bit of luck, we’ll remember these times and, just like the protest/counter-protest that erupted into violence, but ultimately descended into intelligent conversation, some day we’ll look back and wonder how we were manipulated into hatred so easily. Maybe it’s just in our nature.

But, just to prove Emperor Palpatine isn’t pulling the strings of the world, it’s important to remember good things happen, too.

Rather than focus on the differences and find the best ways to fight those things out until only one person remains, it’s still possible to engage those who think differently without resorting to violence. And even if the violence does erupt, that doesn’t mean it has to keep going.

There’s a video that’s been going viral lately about a man who breaks up a fight between a pair of 14-year-olds. In it, he encourages them to stop and think about why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s far too easy to resort to fighting for everything and finding offense in every little thing, but that doesn’t help things. As I used to tell the kids’ Kenpo class, it’s always easier to avoid a fight than to win one.

Go watch it here.

If you’re down for spreading a little good news every now and then, hop on board with #WATWB, click here or go check ’em out on Facebook. There’s no obligation and, just like the video, sometimes all it takes is one person to make a positive change.

Writing Experience

Back when I was a young lad growing up in Farmington, NM, I read a lot of books. It was a way of escaping a system that rewarded jocks for being jock assholes and didn’t care for creativity. I wasn’t a jock, although I did go out for basketball in the 6th grade (didn’t get to play in the one game we won) and track & field in High School (okay at shot put, miserable at discus). Personally, I didn’t care too much for either. I guess I’m not much of a team sports guy.

This was when Stephen King was doing his meteoric rise to, well, where he is now. I didn’t read a whole lot of horror – I was mostly into SciFi – but, of course I read King’s early works just like everyone else. It was required reading in the 80s, just like it was expected that you listened to Oingo Boingo. He did some pretty clever horror stories back in the day. Christine, Pet Sematary, Misery, It. He also did a great co-authoring work with Peter Straub called The Talisman which was pretty awesome.

I could usually be found with my nose in a book, listening to Iron Maiden or any number of 80s heavy metal bands and doing my best to avoid the multitude of bullies and assholes that thrived in an environment where athletic prowess was valued more than anything else. I also worked on the yearbook and that probably didn’t help my social standing.

Quick funny story for you: Our senior year yearbook has a strange aberration on the cover. If you look on the back there’s a piece of the wall that’s a different color from the rest. The reason that’s there is because it’s covering an anarchy symbol. We put the anarchy symbol on the cover because we thought it was cool. The school brass nearly had a heart attack over it and ordered it covered. I still think we should have kept it intact.

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ANARCHY!

Now, what’s funny is at this time, a lot of people thought Stephen King was a hack. Nowadays, he’s considered one of the greats, but in the early 80s, he didn’t have such high regard. Nevertheless, he sold books like a mad motherfucker and everyone was reading him no matter what the critics had to say.

King was making money and doing what he loved. While all the critics were going to sleep in their one-room flophouses and fighting cockroaches the size of Panzer tanks, Stephen King was sleeping on a huge pile of money, surrounded by many beautiful ladies.

He kept going and he kept doing things his way and now very few people consider him a hack. And he’s not the only one, either. Science Fiction as a genre was long considered the repository for people who couldn’t write good stories. Bradbury, Williamson, Heinlein, Asimov, and many others were looked down upon, not because of what they were writing, but because of their genres.

In Kenpo, we line up in class according to rank. During one of my first classes my teacher made an interesting point. “The difference,” he said, “between being at the front of the class and the back of the class is simply a matter of time.” If you stuck with it, you got better. It was that simple.

Writing seems to be no different in that respect. Keep practicing and you’ll get better. At least I like to think I’ve gotten better at it.

Of course, I’m still working at that “world thinks he’s a hack” level of popularity, but perhaps it will come in time. If it does, and I still get a bunch of reviews calling me a hack, hell, that’s a bunch of people that read that book and cared enough to leave a comment. I’m cool with that.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you’re struggling with something – anything, really – keep at it if you love it. Keep trying to make it better, keep trying new things, keep trying in general. There was a time when even Stephen King was an unknown tacking rejection notices to his wall.