Saturday, 28 September 2013

York Open

I'm off to York to fence today. Having been around a few fencing competitions over the past couple of years, here are some things to expect at any one you go to:

  • Lots of standing around. Every fencing competition I've been to features multiple weapons on one day, meaning a lot of organisational work, meaning there are large gaps between anything happening while people add things up.
  • The presiding will be awful. Because no one has read the rules.
  • Getting there too early is standard, because you build in time for getting lost and then don't get lost. Except for the one time you forget to do it.
  • Because it is a healthy event, taking place in a sports hall, the only food for miles around will be cake.
  • The main event is not the fencing. It is finding a space to park first your car then your fencing bag.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Another Martial Arts Rant

The title should signpost where this one is going fairly clearly. No, I didn't go back to the jujitsu class that wound me up last time. Instead, having Monday free, I travelled most of the way to York, to Pocklington, to go to a class in a form of Eskrima. Where we spent an hour and a half working our way through basic angles of attack first solo and then with a partner in a kind of prearranged drill.

There's the word that always worries me. Prearranged. As in you know exactly what is coming next and can be in position to respond. Now, I'm willing to accept that it may have simply been an introductory class for me, but a student who had been there since the start of the class several months ago got what was apparently his first taste of his teacher feeding him these angles in a random order. After more than six months. I get kids choosing which parry they'll need with a sword on their first night of fencing. On which they will spar, because that is the foundation of practice. (As I'm sure it is with much other Eskrima. As with my blog on the jujitsu class, this is about training practices at a specific gym, not about an art as a whole).

Feeding someone random techniques is still a big step down from sparring. Trust me. I feed people techniques as a fencing coach, making them do what I want and choose an appropriate response. It still doesn't mean they'll do it when they have to take it into a bout. That requires the building of additional attributes. So if you find yourself in Pocklington looking for weapons work, get down to their rather wonderful sabre club instead. Sport fencing might not be terribly realistic, but you'll learn a lot more.

Which brings me to a brief public service bit, on signs to watch out for if you walk into a martial arts club for the first time. And when to walk away. None of these is necessarily a red flag on its own, and you might find that you like what a particular school offers despite some of them, since only you know what you're trying to get out of your training (it might just be getting moving and making friends, for example). Yet in my opinion, based on twenty-seven years to date of assorted training, each of these should have you asking questions:

Teaching purely by way of forms, whether those are solo forms, two person drills, or set piece techniques where the attacker and defender's roles are pre-determined. These do have a place in martial arts practise, to get repetitions in of techniques, but if they are all you do, then you will never develop the additional elements that make the moves work in an alive context. For me at the moment, this is the single most important thing.

Claiming to be too dangerous to spar with. This connects to the point above, but also comes up in a couple of modern 'self defence' classes I've observed which are ostensibly against forms. So they have you hit pads instead. Or practise thin air strikes against an opponent who throws an attack and stops. Commonly, the suggestion is that this lethal technique they have not practised in any meaningful way will come out under pressure and defeat anything else. We would never think that someone who goes to a fitness kickboxing class could beat up a pro Thai boxer just because they've done the same moves on the pads, so why would we think this is any better?

Doing three techniques to an attacker's one. This is common, and not entirely invalid. After all, boxers throw combinations, don't they? But if someone is standing still while someone else throws a couple of punches, does a throw, and then sets up a lock, please ask yourself why they have suddenly lost interest in beating you up.

Lots of talk about ancient grandmasters who did incredible things. Alternatively, lots of talk about all the military who may or may not have used this system. Or going on excessively about Bruce Lee/their founder. This is something of a judgement call, because it's fine to be proud of an art's history, and the achievements of those who have gone before. Judo players all learn a bit about Kano founding the art, and that's fine. But things happening in the past should never be a replacement for the ability to do things now.

Not breaking a sweat. If it's your first class, you presumably aren't so far in advance of your partners' skills that you can defeat them all without breaking a sweat in anything where they are resisting intelligently.

Mystical powers. I was taken in by this for years as a kid, by well meaning people who weren't trying to con me, because they genuinely believed that they could do impossible things too. Things like non-contact knockdowns. The trouble is, they couldn't do it to anyone but their own students. As far as I know, no one can. If someone starts talking about chi doing all the work in self defence, it is perfectly reasonable to ask them what it is and if they can demonstrate that it exists. At the other end of the scale, the same thing applies to any scientific claim made with big, complicated language. Sometimes, people make claims about skill acquisition, biomechanics, gross motor skills and the human startle response that they've acquired second or third hand, without taking the time to read any of the research. Modern pseudo-science can be just as annoying as the old fashioned sort.

These are just a few starting points. The main thing is to take a questioning mind set with you. Most genuine, straightforward teachers won't mind you asking why you do stuff, or where the proof is for the claims they make. If they call what they do the most effective system ever, or even a tested system, as how it has been tested and by whom. If a move or a training method seems to have an obvious problem, ask and see why they do things that way. It may be that they do things a particular way as a form of historical recreation, or for sporting reasons. Both are fine if you understand what you're getting. Remember, you're potentially entrusting your safety to this, so take the time to check it out properly.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Author Bio

Wendy Tyler Ryan is putting up the author bios from the contributors to the Second Avenue Second Hand anthology. Today, it's me. Pop over there to find out more about the anthology, the other authors, and the build up to publication.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Alex Cavanaugh- Cassastorm

A storm gathers across the galaxy…

Commanding the Cassan base on Tgren, Byron thought he’d put the days of battle behind him. As a galaxy-wide war encroaches upon the desert planet, Byron’s ideal life is threatened and he’s caught between the Tgrens and the Cassans.

After enemy ships attack the desert planet, Byron discovers another battle within his own family. The declaration of war between all ten races triggers nightmares in his son, threatening to destroy the boy’s mind.

Meanwhile the ancient alien ship is transmitting a code that might signal the end of all life in the galaxy. And the mysterious probe that almost destroyed Tgren twenty years ago could return. As his world begins to crumble, Byron suspects a connection. The storm is about to break, and Byron is caught in the middle…

According to his blog, Cassastorm, the concluding part of Alex Cavanaugh's sci-fi trilogy, releases today. Head to his blog for more. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Long Series

One element of the current publishing climate seems to be a tendency in genre fiction at least towards long series. It makes sense for the author, because they know that they'll have a readership for their characters. It makes sense for their publishers (If they have publishers. This is very much a trend in the independent market too. Perhaps even more so). It even makes some sense for readers, because they know what they're getting.

I've written series for other people, although for myself I've so far not gone beyond a single sequel. I like to be able to have a custom world for the story I'm writing. As a reader, there are also a couple of things that I watch out for in a series:

The first is for books that only make sense if you have read the rest of the series. Where everything in them relies on things before it, and where all the in jokes, internal logic and so forth are so established that the new reader can't jump in.

The second is the 'linking' book. That's the book in a series that only exists to get to the next one where the big stuff happens. It's a book long set up, where its own plot is secondary at best, and suggests that the series arc has taken over from the story arc.

The third one is the tendency to reset. In soap operas, characters don't grow quickly, if at all. They might 'learn a lesson' in one episode, but by the next, they're still basically back to being themselves. When characters gain more power but don't really change, that's a sign of the author wanting to preserve the central dynamic of a series.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Ju Jitsu

I've been dropping by a traditional ju jitsu class for the pass few weeks, figuring that it offered a wider array of techniques to add to the Brazilian jiu jitsu I've been practising (throws and striking to go with the groundwork). Now, this isn't a comment on classical ju jitsu as a whole, because I'm sure there are many great classes out there, but after last night, I'm not going back. The way this particular class is taught (and frankly, the way two of the three other clubs I've been to were taught) really worries me. Here's why:

In two hours of training last night, we didn't do a single minute of sparring. We didn't roll bjj style. We didn't do any judo style randori. We didn't do some kind of all in, MMA-esque sparring that would seem to best represent the multiple ranges the art works at. We didn't even do the point karate stuff that we did in the first week. It has been a hundred and thirty years since judo demonstrated the importance of alive, randori focused training as a path to learning to really do things against a resisting opponent. In the first week I was there, for a grading, we did some non contact stand up sparring, followed by some ground grappling. On my second week, where the main coach wasn't there, we did some ground grappling at the end as our only sparring of the night, because I suggested it.

In both of those ground sessions, I dominated completely, despite being a bjj white belt. Despite having spent most of my Sunday afternoons getting absolutely smashed by blue and purple belts. This is not because of some inherent superiority of the art, the traditional club did some of the same movements on the ground, but it is because I have had a chance to grapple flat out with people every week for a couple of years and they choose not to. I also more than held my own against them in the stand up sparring, essentially because it was just that peculiar 1950s brand of karate that is neither hyper traditional and brutal nor modern and based on the lessons of full contact tournaments. This is in some ways more worrying, because they considered themselves to be a very striking based club, and although I do have a background in both karate and kung fu, I know from my MMA training that I am not a serious striker. Boxers and Muay Thai guys have to hold back with me to the point where I feel the need to apologise to them for not giving them good training. And then choke them.

Learning techniques was frequently by way of either the kind of pairs technique where the attacker does something and then stands still while you do three things back, or by way of kata in the case of the ground work. No one seemed to care where these kata had come from, or if the techniques were genuinely effective. Because it was just a kata, some of the small things that you need to be aware of when using the techniques involved were completely missing. For example, when it started with kesa gatame, no one pointed out what both judo and bjj people have put in different ways to me, which is that it's a great hold down, but that you need to do this to stop getting rolled, and this to stop them immediately taking your back.

This came out most when we did a kata for leg locks. Leg locks are my 'thing' on the floor. I was doing them before I took up BJJ, most of my submissions against better people come from them, and they're the one area where I really feel like I'm in a position to comment. So I'm sure you can understand how upset I was when of the seven locks we did, four would never work against a resisting opponent, one (a version of the English Pretzel, which is quite rare) would have needed some serious adjustment to make it functional, and the remaining two, while fine, were taught without any of the fine detail needed to make them tight, and without any sense of how you enter into them. When I actually lost my temper enough to politely mention this problem, they shrugged it off.

Perhaps this reflects a broader error in how this particular group judges the effectiveness of a technique, which is to say that a joint lock or throw seems to be deemed effective if it produces pain at the end, whereas I would also include such criteria as 'can I actually do this to someone who is resisting intelligently' and 'is there an easy escape that anyone can do even if they haven't been taught it'.

Let's move to another area for an example and take kote gaeshi (the classic aikido throw where you evade and draw someone on, taking hold of their wrist, then reverse directions, using a twist of the wrist to force an already off balance opponent to the ground). I've picked this one for three reasons. One, we did it a lot last night, including against knife attacks. Two, I trained in aikido for about three years, so I should have a decent chance of making it work if it can be made to under normal circumstances. Three, it's a move that I have tried to mess around with in a bjj context, when people have reached out for me on their knees, so I know how it behaves in a live context.

It's a move that seems to work really well when you practise it with a partner. I know people go on about aikidoka jumping, but with kotegaeshi, the reason you jump is that it really hurts when you don't. The initial lead can draw you right off balance, the turn back gets you into all kinds of tangles, and the wrist lock is both painful and controlling once it's on. It's a move that looks and feels deceptively effective. Doubly so from the knees (where aikido does a lot of practise, which is why I tried it in bjj)

So why have I never been able to make it work in any kind of competitive sparring, either on the ground or wrestling on the feet? Well, the answer is twofold. First, in situations where the striking is not predetermined and/or from a longish distance, I have had real trouble catching people's punches. Because people trying to hit you hard tend to do so from close range. And because they typically withdraw their punches quickly, before you can catch them. Secondly, where I have grabbed their hands, and even started to put the lock on, in a wrestling/bjj context, they've just pulled their hands out of my grip. You know all those easy wrist grab escapes that used to form part of every self defence curriculum? Well, it turns out other people do them too, often by instinct. The same is true for a number of other wrist locks that really hurt once they're on, like nikyo. I actually use that now as a way of breaking a grip, because I know that even if I try to hold the hand, a sensible opponent just rives his hand away as I try to apply it.

So, is this a broad attack on classical jujitsu and aikido? No, but it is an attack on a way of practising, and more importantly on a way of teaching. Because a teacher who passes on techniques that he or she has not tried and tested in a meaningful form of interaction (or who has not at least seen them used that way- I will teach the counter attack with the sabre even though it doesn't suit me, because it is used extensively in international competition) is passing on techniques that they do not know will work. Their students will take what they say at face value most of the time, so they are potentially putting them in serious danger. Worse, those students will go on to be black belts in their turn, perpetuating the cycle.

I was going to end it there, but I feel I need to go one further. If you are a teacher of a martial art, and you have never trained against a resisting opponent in moderate/full effort/contact sparring (even once or twice would be enough, but there are differences from non-contact) then please do me a favour and stop teaching until such time as you have. If you don't fancy being punched in the face (and it's not my favourite thing in the world) then by all means do it through some hard grappling rather than boxing. But please don't pretend to be some kind of expert on fighting until you have actually fought, even if it is only in a controlled context. Trust me, everything you think you know changes in that one moment someone hits you, or doesn't let you past their legs to apply your lock, or actually fights for grips.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Release Date

We have a release date for the second avenue second hand anthology, an interesting collection of tales connected by objects from one of those mysterious second hand shops that seem to crop up occasionally. Apparently, the stories will cover a lot of different styles, and I'm in it to add a touch of comedy, with my comic fantasy story 'A Sense of Adventure' about knights, villains, and how exactly you keep such important traditional industries going in a modern world without much use for them.

It's due out on the 3rd of October, so keep an eye out for it.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013


This is for the IWSG. I'm in an ongoing process of trying to get my old novel 'the Glass' to a standard where it's publishable, and one question I've been asking myself is if that is ever going to happen. No, that's not right. Not 'is it going to be publishable' but 'is it going to be as brilliant as I want it to be'.

Those are two very different standards, because I think it's very easy to settle, when writing. I know, because I believe I do it quite easily. I think 'it's good enough. It's funny. It's not meant to be the greatest piece of fiction someone has ever read. It's just meant to be a good read.'

Yet is that standard a high enough one to hold writing to? Maybe it's just because I've been reading some of the more literary end of fantasy recently (like Mary Gentle's Black Opera), and I've been thinking that actually, yes, writing should be more than a few hours of fun for the reader. It should move them. It should change something for them. It should do all the things that poetry does, as well as all the things that prose does. I have, in isolated moments, done bits of that, which is what makes it so awkward. Should we push to do more of that kind of thing as writers, or is it okay to just put out a perfectly enjoyable book that will probably sell okay and then repeat a couple of months down the line?