Writing Lessons from Martial Arts

Some of you know that I’m a martial artist. I’ve been training in martial arts for over 19 years as of this writing. I started in taekwondo when I was 12 and earned my first black belt in the now-defunct International Taekwondo Council (ITC). I trained for about two years in a Japanese Karate Association (JKA) Shotokan karate school before heading to college at 17, where I trained for a year in judo. When I transferred colleges, I ended up in a Chidokwan karate (basically Shotokan + escrima sticks + street-style self-defense) university club, where I trained for two years before taking over the club as the head instructor (for free… it was a university club, after all!). I was awarded an honorary black belt so that I could promote my students, based on my 9 years of experience at that point. Meanwhile, I was also training under a local Goju Ryu instructor and earned my first degree black belt in Okinawan kobudo, or weapons. This involved training with the bo, sai, nunchuku, and tonfa. Later, when I moved to Texas for graduate school, I took a brief break from training to focus on school, and then trained off and on at a Shotokan school in DC (while I worked) before having my daughter. I’ve been teaching for a different school for about a year and a half and mostly teach private lessons now.

So, I’ve had a little experience with martial arts. Many of the lessons from martial arts can be transferred to writing.

1. The details matter.

I’m not the strongest person in the room. I’m not the fastest. I’m 4’11” and 99 lbs, and I’m female. I’ll never be the strongest. But I almost always have the cleanest technique, and there is not a fighter in the room who doesn’t understand that I can score on them when I choose to. Why?

My technique is clean. In karate, that means that the movements are efficient, smooth where they’re meant to be smooth, and sharp where they’re meant to be sharp. Clean technique is harder to block, faster, more powerful, and easier to execute (provided you’ve done the necessary training ahead of time).

What does that mean in writing terms?

Write cleanly. Do the work to edit, pare down, shore up, and carry your story through from idea to beautiful execution. Don’t wimp out in the middle with lazy writing or inadequate editing. Yes, it takes more work. Nobody said it was easy. But if you do the work , the payoff is worth it… clean, efficient writing that achieves its purpose without wasted motion or flailing around.

2. You need examples.

It’s impossible to become an effective martial artist on your own. You need to see what others have done, and how and why it worked or didn’t work. You need to be able not only to analyse what they did, but why each situation was unique. Why did this technique work here and and not work there? Why does this trope continue to exist, and what makes it work when it works, even though it’s been done a thousand times already?

One of my favorite things in a martial arts studio is the mirrors… a long wall of mirrors. As in a dance studio, you can watch your technique and self-correct, provided you have a good example. You learn what correct form feels like and use that to form the muscle memory.

You need to know what clean writing looks like. Read the classics. Read successful, respected books of all genres. Read genre fiction, even if it isn’t “classic” or great literature. Figure out what makes them work. A Tale of Two Cities works for different reasons than The Hunger Games… but you can probably learn something from both of them.

3. You need feedback.

In martial arts, you have an instructor or coach. Often you have more than one. Given my training background, I’m a big fan of multiple coaches and multiple styles, but it can be challenging to find even one that is truly qualified not only to do, but to teach.

An instructor isn’t someone who knows everything. An instructor is someone who knows what “correct” looks like, and is reasonably competent at both executing techniques correctly themselves and teaching you to execute technique correctly too.

4. Doing and instructing are different but overlapping skill sets.

If writing is technique, editing is coaching or instructing. A writer may be a great editor, but not necessarily. A martial artist may be a great instructor, but not necessarily. A great instructor may not be the best martial artist out there, but he or she may have a phenomenal ability to pinpoint what isn’t working for you, and help you fix it. It would be nearly impossible to be a good instructor without being a competent martial artist, but instructing requires additional/separate skills that not all great martial artists have. A good writer is probably a competent editor, if only from the practice editing his/her own work. But truly great editing is different than just being a great writer.

As a side note here: Please don’t consider anything I write on this website as instruction. I am a writer. I am not an editor, nor am I a writing instructor. What I write here is meant to be insight into my journey as an indie author. I hope it is helpful for you, but it is not sacred writ meant to dictate how you do anything. What works for me may not work for you. In fact, it’s totally possible I’m the only weirdo who does things this way! Creativity is unique.

5. Not all instructors are equally beneficial.

There are a lot of people out there who bill themselves as martial arts instructors. A great many of them are mediocre at either doing or instructing or both. A non-trivial percentage are so bad they will actually make you less safe in a fight, because you’ll think you’re prepared to defend yourself when you’re really not. Some just want to pat you on the back and make sure you’re having a good time. Some just want you keep paying them for instruction, regardless of whether you’re learning anything useful. Some are well-meaning but just don’t have the skills they think they do.

It’s hard to find a good martial arts instructor, both because they’re rare and because when you’re a newbie, you don’t really have the skills necessary to evaluate instructors. Good writing mentors and editors are similar. If you’re not already an expert, it’s hard to evaluate experts… but in order to spend your money wisely, you have to figure out how. The wrong editing experience, workshop, or critique group experience can not only be painful, but seriously harm your writing for years. Choosing your writing team should not be done in a rush or haphazardly.

Every instructor-student relationship is different, but one tool you can use to evaluate your potential writing team members (editor, cover artist, etc.) is the experiences of others in your position. Does the editor have other clients whose books have sold well? Do they have some experience verified by an outside organization that can serve as some sort of quality assurance? In martial arts, there are many organizations with differing standards because there are numerous forms of martial arts… and not every great instructor is a member of a group, because organizations can be a money-suck for no apparent benefit. But if you like an organization’s standards, you can use an instructor’s credentials in that organization as a baseline. The same is true of editing – not all great editors are members of organizations, and not all great editors have previously edited bestsellers or previously edited for a large publisher. But those factors are one way of finding an editor who is probably competent.

Whether that editor or instructor is the best fit for you is something only you can evaluate. Some skills are objective, but others are subjective – the degree to which the editor sees your vision, the ability to work with you and your personality to bring your work to its fullest potential, etc. Don’t choose people who only want to pat you on the back and tell you’re great. There’s a place for encouragement, but it’s not the only job of an instructor. An instructor should make you better. At the same time though, perfection is impossible. Striving toward some mythical ideal is not only discouraging, but likely to strip out the voice and beauty that make your work unique.

6. You need to test yourself.

Training in a vacuum isn’t useful. You can develop nice technique by practicing in front of your mirror all day, watching videos, and self-correcting. But you’ll never know whether you can take care of yourself in a fight if you don’t spar. And by sparring, I don’t mean just playing tag… you need to get a little bruised. Sweaty. You’ll probably get a split lip a few times. Sparring with training partners and friends isn’t meant to result in injury, but you have to test yourself and your limits to find out what you need to work on.

7. You need to self-correct. Learn from your bruises.

I started my martial arts training in taekwondo, and I still have a preference for keeping my opponent at a distance by using my feet. Being smaller, this seems to make sense… I don’t want to get clobbered by opponents much stronger than I am. But since I’m so petite, most of my opponents have at least 6 inches on me,  often closer to 12 inches or more. A kicking-only fight can go downhill for me really fast.

Don’t keep fighting a losing game. If it’s not working, do something else. If your plot isn’t working, get creative. If your characters aren’t making sense, figure it out. Call in reinforcements… have a brainstorming session with some friends. All your beta readers hated your characters? Figure out why and decide what to do about it.

This does not mean that you need to change everything to satisfy every reader out there. Your stories are yours, and only you can write them. It does mean that feedback may have a kernel of truth it – dig out that truth and figure out how to use it.

Getting bruised hurts. It hurt when my Shotokan instructor kept bopping me in the head. But I learned to keep my guard up! Don’t pay attention to mean critiques that are meant to hurt. But honest critiques can hurt too. Don’t take them personally, and don’t take them as gospel, because writing is subjective. See if there is anything useful to learn from, and then move on to the next fight.

8. Do the unexpected.

As the shorter fighter, I had to overcome my natural tendency to keep my distance. Instead, I close distance. My opponents can’t kick me with their long legs, but I’m flexible enough I can generally still kick them, plus I can use my hands. What does this mean? I need to guard my head, because it’s at the perfect height for them to hit! But it works… closing distance isn’t what people expect, especially if they don’t know me. Imagine the fierce little bunny from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.

9. Play to your strengths.

See the explanation for point 7. Avoid your weakness and play to your strengths. Distance isn’t my strength; being in close is. Don’t fight a losing game… change it.

Does this mean never do anything that doesn’t come naturally? No. Using my hands did not come naturally – I had to retrain myself to use them effectively at closer distances. But my height is always going to be a factor. “Oh well, I’ll always lose to people taller than I am”…. NO! That’s not an option, not when you’re like me and you enjoy winning! What were my strengths? I’m naturally coordinated and athletic, I work hard, and I pay attention to the details. I care about getting it right. Those things allowed me to turn my petite size into something that, if not exactly an advantage, isn’t as much of a disadvantage. Use your strengths to overcome your weaknesses.

10. Don’t give up.

No one has ever become excellent at something without working hard. Sure, some people have more talent than others. Some people are more coordinated. Some people have faster reflexes. Some people are more intelligent. Some people are naturally slim and athletic.

Talent alone may make you decent. But it takes hours of focused practice to become skilled.

Don’t waste time and energy envying people with more talent than you. We all have talents, and we all have areas where we’re not as talented. We can’t change that. But we can develop skill. It takes hard work, humility, good examples and instruction, blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s possible.

Combine talent and skill, and you get excellence.

And a bonus point:

11. Don’t give up (redux).

Writing, like martial arts, is a two-person exercise. The writer writes so the reader can read. Aside from personal journaling, writing without a reader is like shadow boxing… you’re expending a lot of energy, but nothing really happens. No one can appreciate your skill or lack thereof, and no one can give you much feedback on whether your techniques are effective or not.

If you’re writing for traditional publication, that can be incredibly frustrating. Rejections can come for myriad reasons, only some of which have to do with the quality of your work. Maybe your work is great, but your “ideal reader” group is smaller than the agent wants to deal with. Maybe you wrote a great book but the agent or publisher thinks it falls into an overdone trend. Who knows? We need both constructive criticism and validation of our efforts, and when rejections pile up, it’s easy to consider throwing in the towel.

If you are indie-published, or are considering it, sales numbers may cause you the same frustration. You publish a book you believe in, but the sales are slow, reviews are non-existant or not as glowing as you’d hoped, and… you wonder if you’re wasting your time.

Don’t give up. Don’t hang all your hopes on one book. Sweat over it, give it your all, and then let it go. Move on to another book, another story, another opportunity to shine. Another opportunity to practice your skills. Another opportunity to find that spark that makes the hard work feel like fun.

If you look for famous authors who self-published, you’ll find whole lists. Self-publishing is no longer the self-imposed exile of the almost-good-enough or the not-even-close-to-good-enough. It’s a business decision, not a quality-of-work indicator. Consider it if your main goal is to reach your ideal readers. Aim for traditional publishing if your main goal requires something only traditional publishers can give.

Find a way to reach your readers.

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