Did You Hear The One About Robert Silverberg, Georges St. Pierre And Chris Cornell?

Ogres may be like onions, but so are we, people. You know – Layers. Our lives unfold (at least without the persuasion of Alcohol of other un-inhibitor agents) slowly, as we get to know each other. We introduce ourselves by name, sometimes by country of origin, our profession, family situation, and other generalities. As our connection to each other deepens, more layers may shed, and we talk about elements of our belief system (though, some of it, likely leaks through our behaviors before), opinions on current events, or other topics, which continues to expose the core. Somewhere in this process, we talk about what we like. It’s this kind of conversation that makes some people raise a brow, when I share some of my more serious interests.
“Oh, you write? How interesting. What do you write about?”
“Yeah, what kind of music do you like?”
“Wait, what? M.M.What? is that the cage fighting? Hey, I know Conor McGregor!”

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At this point, some conversations seem to peter out. I thought about this for a while, and even to my brain, which is engaged in the general love of these three areas of interest, it did feel somewhat random. Literature and music are related as arts, but what about the people punching each other in the face?
Well, I could state the obvious (and I will) – M.M.A stands for Mixed Martial Arts. But this is not satisfactory. While musicians and writers create some “product” through their artistic process, the fighters merely meet inside the cage and try to beat each other, then leave. So, where’s the connection? Where is the deep meaning, that drew me, and kept my otherwise distracted mind engaged?
It started crystalizing, as I left the house for a walk the other day. I was more than a little irritated with the music (if you can call it that) my kids were playing on the computer. I won’t name names, but it was one of the more recent pretty faces, in skimpy clothing, bumping to some catchy, repeating computer-generated groove. I put on my earphones and hit play as soon as I closed the door behind me. Good, old Soundgarden for the rescue.
Bear with me people, I will walk you through my process.
As I listened to the wonderful progression of “Blow up the outside world”, I mused about what makes me like the musicians I do, as opposed to the ones I am not a fan of. And as I waited for a light to turn green, an internal one flash inside my head. It’s the tools of the trade.
Which musicians do I like? I can list many, but the point is – what do they all have in common? Well, the ones at the upper part of my list are musicians who write lyrics, play an instrument (or 5), sing and perform. I am not a huge fan of many “performers”, as in singers with great voices who “just” sing. Don’t get me wrong, I respect a great voice, but this alone does not me, a fan make.

Writes, Plays, Sings, Perform. Rest in peace Chris

This immediately resonated with the writer me. What makes a good story? Surely, it’s more than a good plot. It’s more than a relatable character. More than proper spelling. A good story is made, by using – there it is again – the tools of the trade.
And just like that, I found the connection. A mixed martial artist is another person, who needs to have the tools of his trade in order to perform well.
True. Art is not a competition – as opposed to MMA – but they are all arts. A writer, a musician and a mixed martial artist all present something pleasing by bringing all their capabilities, talents, training and passion to the table. If the musician plays the right chords, but sings out of key, or if the writer tells a plausible story about a flat and boring character, or if the fighter shows up with the skills but is out of shape… we will likely be disappointed with the outcome. But if they connect everything – and it doesn’t have to be perfect – we are almost guaranteed some fun.

Mixed Martial Arts

This was a nice little moment of satisfaction, in being able to identify something that links some of my main interests, logically. But it also started me thinking about the next question – can I use this?
Can I draw from what I’m learning of martial arts, and apply it to another? Can my appreciation to the martial artist inform my writing? Not just as subject matter, but as applicable knowledge?
Well, I begin by asking what does a good MMA fighter need? Skills in striking, wrestling, BJJ (That’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! Git yer head outta the gutter). He needs stamina, mental strength, discipline, patience. Practice is a must. I will stop here. I’m sure there’s more, even if the list as it stands is enough to deter anyone from even attempting…

Robert Silverberg

The focus of this exercise is the writing itself. Not the writer (I hope we already agreed there are parallels between the three professionals). So, what can we take from this list of skills, capabilities and habits, in order to help a story work? I’ll start with patience. The reader may not have it, but patience is the ability to act when appropriate, and wait when necessary. It’s in the pacing of the story. We don’t want to spill it all in one hurried stream of consciousness (well, not in a novel I’d say) on the one hand, but we also don’t want to keep the reader waiting for something to happen.
But the story needs to move forward, right? Just like a fighter who wants to win. Here is where some other skills come into play. The first thing that pops to mind is the art of the takedown. Sometimes you want to “floor” the reader. There are ways to do it. One is to sneak up on him with great speed, changing the level of your approach, grabbing him and putting him on his back. Other ways to do it is by using the great striking skill call “fake”. A jab might do the trick too. The idea is to let the story throw your reader slightly off. Not off the story, but a little off guard. A red herring is a tried and tested fake. slowly, teasing action, foreshadowing, is like taking jabs, preparing the ground for a good power shot. This also helps with pacing, so it’s a win-win situation.
What about Jiu Jitsu? There are a few things it could teach us. One of them is the shift of the power balance. If the story has your hero on his back, trying to avoid submitting to the antagonistic forces of the story, there’s a way you can help him turn the tables. The magic is in the steps. Normally, the fighters don’t just trade places. There’s always a struggle, both of force but also – even more so – technique. If you want to escape a dangerous position, and reverse the balance of power, you have to know the steps, and execute them one by one. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it may fail, as your opponent may (and likely should) be at least as skilled and powerful as you. Let your character learn these skills. In fact, it’s a must if you want a character that develop over time. A white belt will rarely sweep a black belt without proper training and practice. This is also where mental strength comes into play. Your character may not be very strong in the beginning, and even if he doesn’t end as a very strong character, he will need to “toughen up” some, in order to handle the multiple obstacles, you put in his way.
So, there you go. I love music, literature and mixed martial arts. Not only does it make perfect sense, I can even apply lessons I take from one and implement in the other.


No Conflict, No Story (Sad But True)

Boy, we haven’t done one of these in a long while.
Those of you who stuck around (got stuck) with me for a while might know that this here blog started, not as the MMA ramble-store (with seemingly random cultural commentary) it is now, but as a place for me, to flesh out my writing process, to air my dirty writing laundry and make some forward progress on that front.
With time, things have significantly shifted from the beautiful craft of writing, to the celebration of the art of mixed martial arts. I’m like that, I find beauty in the exquisite wordsmithery of Ursula Le Guin on the one hand, and the devastating accuracy of a prime Anderson Silva right cross.
With that been said, let us leave the sports, respectfully aside, and talk about the writerly side a little. I think a status report is overdue by a couple of years, and I do believe I have some things to say, that may or may not be of some value to those of you, who may or may not share my affliction.
Those of you who just got on board, might be surprised to hear that I have finished writing three novels. Well, ‘Finished’ is a big word, so let me be a little more specific. I finished a first draft of a science fictiony book. This one, serving mostly as practice, is currently sitting collecting some dust, until such time I decide what to do with it next. The third one, is a draft for a thriller I need to get back to at some point in order to decide whether it needs more polishing or re-writing. The second one is done! Oh yes, by that I mean that it was written, rewritten a couple of times, professionally edited, copy-righted, designed, edited for print and pending only one technical issue to be resolved before it gets published! I invite you to get excited for me, as there’s so much of this I can do by myself.
So in the macro, I guess I can say it’s all good. Can’t complain. But then again, what is a writer but a guy who just has to keep asking questions? (See what I did there? [and here?]).

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

See, people who’d written novels before, warn you all the time, that having done so once, doesn’t mean you cracked some ancient puzzle and all you’d need, in order to repeat that feat, is to go through the motions again and shazzam! No, it is quite obvious it is far more complicated than that. I wrote three of ’em bad boys, and I believe that it is the experience of having written them, that – quite ironically – put me in a state.
You hear a lot about the infamous “writer block”, and no, I don’t think I have one. I write pretty often, on different topics in different platforms, so I know I am not blocked. Yet, I have not made further progress on my creative writing endeavor in a while and I admit, it is starting to frustrate me.
I have all the reasons lined up. My day job is very demanding, leaving very little time for family, let alone other things that one does for his soul, and all that jazz. But in reality, that is not what’s stopping me.
Let me contradict myself a little before we continue. I do have a method to this madness, and this method took me through the aforementioned three novels. I’ve written about the 60 scenes method in the past, and wouldn’t have said a word about it, unless it actually worked for me – not just in theory, in practice – and I feel I can continue to use it for any future work.
So what is stopping me? I know all the questions a writer should ask himself. Or do I? And believe you me, I ask them. I spend smoke breaks, bedtime, showers, and other opportune moments to ask them. But I guess that I am not just asking questions, I am applying increasingly growing pressure on my poor brain. Who is your antagonist? What is the actual premise? What does your hero want? Is this your main plot? or is it a sub plot? Does this make sense? Why would he do that? Who is even going to care? Are the stakes high enough?

Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

One thing I am really struggling with is really an ironic, fundamental conflict between my personal journey in life, and my journey as a writer. It seems that the better I do in my personal development, the worse I do in writing. To wit, as I learn to resolve and diffuse conflict in my own existence, I find it harder to create it in my stories.
In most cases, I am able to separate person from writer, from character, but I find myself sitting in front of the paper thinking “Meh… this isn’t conflict. It’s tepid.” Then I create some conflict and after some reflection “Whoa… that’s not conflict. That’s world war 3 you moron. People don’t work like that!” and the internal critic (perhaps the least forgiving one) berates me to paralysis.
As my friend Christina Ranallo, rightfully says – If there’s no conflict, there’s no story. And so far, there is no story. There are many things happening to and around my character, all impacting him, and his goals, moving him along a path, but at this moment I am sorry to report that the path is going nowhere. At least nowhere you, as a reader might care about.
The most frustrating part of it all is, that – as you can see – I am aware of the problem, yet unable to get out of this loop… yet.

So what to do? I guess I can ask you that (and will be happy to hear about it here in the comments section).

Here are a couple of things I am already doing:
  • Reading – Always a good idea. catching up on some “Discworld” books, as well as some long-awaited Brandon Sanderson novels. Oh, also read Ursula Le Guin’s “The word for world is forest”, and Emma Newman’s “Planetfall” series… all very much recommended.
  • Writing posts like this one… Part of what’s stopping me is the fact that this discussion is going on inside my head. I find that putting things down “on paper” helps me look at it from a different perspective. Not to mention that it is writing about writing.
  • Writing – while nothing creative (in the artistic sense of the word), the action of writing is, in itself, a mechanism to keep this habit going, providing some outlet so my head doesn’t explode with thoughts, and hopefully, giving someone something to read and – who knows – maybe derive something worthwhile out of it.
  • perhaps something that doesn’t sound intuitive to this predicament – not committing to a timeline. I will do everything necessary to write this story (and the next), and will not cut corners, but I will take the time. No one is holding a gun to my head, is one? I’d rather come up with something worth writing, something that I can enjoy writing, than inflicting unnecessary, and unproductive pressure on myself. I do believe that there are a whole lot of writers there, to release read-worthy books while the world awaits my next piece of work… not to mention that I am about to release one very soon.
That’s it from me – for the time being. I have to wonder, what is stopping you? and what works for you in situations like this? I sure would appreciate your tips, tricks and pieces of magic.


 

 

The Extremities Of The Feedback Loop

Welcome back folks.
Very soon I will update with things such as “where the heck have you been?”. For now, I’ll just say – here, there and everywhere. Life has thrown a couple of curve balls at me, so I decided to make Lemonade. Or something to that effect.
I wanted to say a few words today, about the writing experience as I’ve witnessed it with other writers, as well as myself.
As a participant in writers groups, workshops and other such forums, one thing was always clear to me. No matter what kind of feedback one receives for one’s writing, it’s up to the writer to decide what to do with it. It sounds simple. Trivial even. But it is not as simple as it sounds to many writers, especially in the early stages of writing.
There are many kinds of feedback one can expect to get. In my world, the only rule is – discuss the writing, not the writer. Of course, honesty is appreciated, though cannot be expected. Which is part of the problem I’d like to talk about here.
Many writers are quite sensitive about their writing (speaking from personal experience here…) and it takes time for some to develop thicker skin, or as it really should be called – willingness to receive criticism.
Otherwise, we may fall into the trap I call the feedback loop.
What is this loop? It’s the cycle of feedback and response, that traps certain writers in an unproductive situation.
There are two types of feedback and responses that create this loop (as far as I can tell at this point in time):
  • The biased feedback: The kind you get from your family and close friends who are either afraid to hurt your feelings, or simply not equipped to provide the kind of feedback you need.
  • The ruthless criticism: The kind that is (sometimes) given with sheer honesty and no constructive value, or simply mean-hearted feedback (which many times comes from other people not really equipped to provide the kind of feedback you need).
These are the types of feedback that may start this loop, but the response is more important to the creation of this predicament.
Let’s discuss the second type first. What happens when we receive negative feedback? Well, for most of us, this is an unpleasant situation, and we deal with it in different ways. When we receive feedback that may be important, even if it comes in a negative way, mean even, what do we do? What I’ve noticed with quite a few writers is that they tend to respond to this in one of two ways – A “reboot” or complete “shutdown“.
Reboot, as in “Oh, you don’t like it? Here, let me throw all this garbage in the bin and start all over from scratch.”
Shutdown, as in “I’m no damn good. What was I thinking? I better find another hobby. Perhaps Macrame.”
What good came out of either one? The writer either gives up, and we may lose a few very good books sometime down the line, or, the writer may start something new, without learning what was wrong with the previous piece of work – which could have turned into something really good.
Not productive.
The second type of feedback loop starts with the biased criticism which, to certain writers, mean – good job! keep doing exactly what you’re doing.
This, of course does not teach us anything. Nobody’s prefect. A first draft isn’t call “first” without the expectation of having – at the very least – a second. It’s not called final, is it?
The result is at the best of scenarios – a completed draft that is far from where it could have been. In most cases, it leads to the never-ending writing of a never finished product.
Not productive.
So what do we do?
Before getting feedback on something I wrote, I ask myself – what’s the worst that can happen?
The worst that can happen is either hearing “Great job! I wouldn’t change anything! It’s perfect! You’re such a good writer!” or getting verbally abused for an hour about what a horrific piece of junk I just scribbled.
Either way – it is up to me to decide what to do next. So many questions are available to us in order to qualify the feedback we receive. Who provided this feedback? What is my opinion about his qualification to criticize? Have I received good feedback in the past from this person? Was it constructive? There are many more, and of course we need to ask and answer these honestly, otherwise we’re cheating no one but ourselves off a chance to make our work better.
Whatever we choose to do next, whether it’s to make changes to our work based on the feedback, or to ignore it all together, we must make the choice to be productive. Writing as a hobby is just nice and dandy, but if your goal is to publish something, this thing needs to be written.
  • Did you ever get one of these types of feedback?
  • How did you handle it?
  • Any other advice on how to avoid this trap?
Until next time,


About Those Resolutions

Hello 2016, Goodbye 2015, Happy New Year everyone!

I’m here to confess another little tidbit. I’m an amateur guitar player. I’m very serious about being an amateur, I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years now. Never had the time, nor the inclination to become professional about this either. It’s too much practice if we want to get down to it, and quite frankly, I am not one to play for a crowd of any kind, so why bother? So yeah, I can pull off some pretty nice tunes (rhythm guitar, forget solos), but that’s just for me, myself and I. Continue reading

Someone Call Billie Joe Armstrong

Hi everyone.

Not sure why, but this September has been very slow on this here blog. Well, I do have some pretty convincing reasons, not the least of which is being a busy little bee, plotting a novel. I also, you know, work and otherwise committed to householdy things, so there’s that. But even if I did have the time to sit and actually write a post, it seems like my brain (or that  part of it in charge of coming up with things to say) was as foggy as the Georgia skies have been these past weeks. Continue reading

State of the union – January 21, 2015

Welcome all, Republicans, Democrats, others. I don’t really subscribe to this divide, but you’re all welcome on this here blog.

You might have notice a “slight” slowing down here in recent weeks and I just wanted to update you on the current state of affairs. I promise that on this SOTU, you will get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me god. Continue reading