Online Self-Defense

On Monday, I was called an antisemitic whore. Yesterday, I was told twice to go f*** myself. It’s turning into an eventful week, and I can’t wait to see what today brings.

I’ve written before about trying to apply Sanchin-Ryu (karate) to other areas of my life, particularly my writing. Some of my interactions this month have gotten me thinking about how those principles of self-defense might apply online.

Take yesterday as an example. Over on Twitter, I posted, “Dear white folks trying to defend, justify, or minimize the shooting of an unarmed black kid. Please just shut the hell up already.”

I knew perfectly well that this will piss some people off. (I’m amazed I haven’t yet been accused of censoring or hating free speech.) “Please shut the hell up” is an aggressive statement, and given the public nature of the internet and the number of people following me online, I know some will get angry and tell me to go f*** myself. The question is what I do next.

Walk away. It is really hard to walk away from someone being wrong on the internet. It’s hard to recognize that I have a choice about whether to give someone my time and energy. I’ve only got so much; why should I spend it on this clown?

There’s a part of me that wants to DEFEAT ALL THE OPPONENTS, but that’s just ego:

“Hines, you’re nothing but a punk, and I should kick your ass!”

“Avast, random internet person! You smell like goblin farts, and I shall pwn you like Éowyn pwned the Witch-king of Angmar!”[1. Yeah, I really need to work on my trash talk. But at least I’m using pwned correctly!]

What’s the point? Is my ego so insecure that I can’t tolerate one person hating on me? If so, I probably ought to get out of the writing biz. Or am I worried my readers will see this person’s Frothing Tweets of Hines-Hate and say, “By the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s meaty balls, he’s right! Jim C. Hines is a punk with a highly kickable ass! I bite my thumbs at him, and shall never read his books again!”

If the only reason to engage is to soothe my injured ego, then I need to walk away. If I have so little faith in my friends and readers, then that’s my problem, one I have to work on.

But sometimes walking away doesn’t work. Sometimes people bring the fight to you, whether it’s a bully who follows you after school or a troll who comes to your site to attack you and others.

Everything begins with stance and breathing. If someone hits me, I can’t strike back effectively until I regain my balance. If I try, I’m going to end up flailing around like a Muppet gone wild.

In a real fight, I’ll have little time to take a breath, settle into a stance, and take control of the situation. I train so that this will become automatic. Online, I usually have more time to regain my balance. The trick — the thing I always struggle with — is remembering to take that time, to just breathe and get past the initial HULK SMASH adrenaline rush.

Don’t react. Act. Monday night, I was working with a sensei who talked about controlling the pace of a fight by deliberately slowing your strikes. The opponent will follow suit to match your speed, and you can start to speed the other person up or slow them down with your own actions.

If I swear and yell and go ALL-CAPS on someone just because that’s how they wrote to me, then they’re controlling the interaction. The hell with that. If I choose to respond in kind, that’s one thing. But I’ve also had success online by responding in different ways, at which point the other person changes their replies to match mine. Suddenly I’m controlling the interaction and determining how things will go.

It’s hard. When someone punches me, I want to punch back twice as hard. But I think back to another sensei describing an interaction where the other person threw the first punch. The sensei howled, “I think you broke my ribs!” and hobbled away, hamming up his injury for the whole crowd.

He was fine. He knew how to take a punch. He could have broken his opponent into bite-sized snacks. But he didn’t have to. Instead, he took his opponent’s mental balance and ended the fight just like that.


Confronting is not the same as fighting. Speaking out is a form of confrontation, and I think it’s important. And sometimes, confrontation does lead to fighting. But if that happens, I want it to be my choice, and I want to make that choice for (in my opinion) the right reasons.

If someone is abusive to me or others on my blog, I’ll step in to end that behavior. If a stranger talks crap at or about me on Twitter, I need to recognize that they’re probably not worth my time or energy.

These are all things I’m struggling with, and posting these ideas  doesn’t mean I’ve learned to live them yet.

Thoughts and comments are welcome, as usual.

Black Belt and Writing

I’ve written about writing and martial arts before. I’m rather fond of the Writer as Martial Artist post I did at SF Novelists almost three years ago, where I proposed a belt ranking system for authors.

This past weekend, I received my shodan (black belt) in Sanchin-Ryu during our weekend retreat/workshop. There was the requisite joking about learning the secret boot-to-the-head technique and mastering the way of the ninja, but in many ways, this feels like a beginning. I am not in any way prepared to go toe-to-toe with Jet Li or anything like that. But after 4+ years of study and practice, I feel like I’ve established a foundation.

I feel a lot like I did when Goblin Quest came out from DAW, actually. On the one hand, having a novel out from a major publisher was a goal I’d been working toward for a long time, and it felt awesome to have arrived. On the other, once that first book comes out, you start to realize just how much more there is to learn and how much more work awaits.

Rewarding work. Exciting work. But work nonetheless.

Last night I entered my regular dojo wearing a black gi and belt for the first time, and it was different. A little intimidating. A little overwhelming. I’ve instructed groups before, but last night there were more questions, more bows, and in my own mind, more pressure. At one point I was tempted to say to a brown-belt friend, “You realize I’m the same guy I was a week ago, right? I don’t suddenly have all the answers or anything like that.”

It’s very much like having that first book show up in the bookstores. People treat you differently, even though you’re the same writer you were before. You still mess up. You still crumple up drafts and start over. You still get stuck.

As a kid, I never considered the “art” piece of martial arts. I didn’t get it. But there are so many parallels between writing and Sanchin-Ryu, and each one has given me a great deal of insight and understanding into the other.

I wonder if this is one reason so many of my writer friends study martial arts. Writing tends to be a sedentary occupation, so it’s important to have something that gets you out of the chair and makes you move. But for those authors/martial artists reading this, do you also find a resonance between the two? I feel like my study of Sanchin-Ryu complements my study of writing, and vice versa.

Neither a black belt nor a published novel suddenly change who you are. I still go to classes and practice at home when I can; I still buckle down every day during my lunch break to work on the book. But both belt and book represent a next step, and sometimes it’s important to stop to recognize how far we’ve come … and how much farther we have to go.

As with that first book, I feel like shodan needs an acknowledgments section. I’ve received a tremendous amount of help and support from Master Cataline and the other masters and senseis who’ve given me so much of their time and attention. I’m also grateful to all of the other Sanchinkas (students) I’ve trained with. And finally, thanks to my family for their support, especially as we struggle to sort out our various busy schedules.

In closing, I’d like to share one of the most important lessons I’ve learned: both promotions and publications are best celebrated with ice cream.

Hello there, Monday…

A friend asked me about how I balance writing, blogging, family, and everything else in my schedule. In part, I do this by trying to prepare blog posts over the weekend. But then you get weekends where there’s an ice cream/dodge ball event for my son, then a day-and-a-half karate workshop, and then the joys of pushing our minivan out of a snowy ditch. (Everyone’s fine, and the van is undamaged.)

So instead of the book review or the guest blog post or anything else I had planned, y’all get a few bullet points instead, ’cause that’s all the brain I had left.

  • Galactic Suburbia just announced the and winner of the first Galactic Suburbia Award, “for activism and/ or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction in 2011.” I’m honored to be among the honorees. (If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you should probably be reading most or all of the folks listed.) Congratulations to winner Nicola Griffith. You can listen to the podcast here.
  • Every time I go to a karate workshop, I’m struck again by how much karate and writing have in common. This weekend, we were talking about the need for an outside perspective, someone who can see what we’re doing and help us to refine our techniques, because just practicing in front of a mirror isn’t enough. And this is why writers have editors… (More thoughts on the parallels later. Maybe.)
  • Blurbs are hard. I’m struggling to come up with a blurb for Jaime Lee Moyer‘s novel Delia’s Shadow when what I really want to do is write a review. (I’ll probably write a review anyway.) Do you think the publisher would just give me a full page or two to talk about the book?

Finally, have some LEGO Quiddich. This set was part of Brickvention in Melbourne. It was built by Jennie Sasson, and the photo is by Shannon Ocean. Click the pic for a larger view, or here for a second shot of the match (with thestrals!)

The Right Way to Write

One of the unusual things about Sanchin-Ryu is that the class meets only once a week, through the local community ed. program (which helps keep the cost down). But you’re allowed to visit other classes, which I’ve tried to do on a fairly regular basis. Last week, I was at the Lansing class, where Master Barnes was working us through the basics, presenting them in a way I hadn’t seen before.

The first punch was slightly higher. The second and third extended out further. The heel-palm strike was targeted more to the center. I’ve been doing these moves for four years … but not like that.

This has been an ongoing thing with Sanchin-Ryu, the idea that there’s no single way to do a technique or a form. Throwing basic ten with a chop to the shoulder and a heel-palm to the ribs is totally valid … but so is throwing the chop to the temple and following up with a heel-palm to the eye socket.

We talked about that some last week, and this time I got a new answer. Instead of talking about how there isn’t a single right way, Master Barnes suggested that there is in fact a right way to perform a technique: the right way is the way that works, that allows you to get out of the situation alive.

I like that. And writing, to me, is the same way. The right way is the way that works, the way that allows you to most effectively tell the story you want to tell.

Which isn’t to say there are no rules. If I try to throw a kick while standing on my head, it’s going to be pretty ineffective. Stances and techniques are taught that way for a reason. But the more you study, the more you learn how to take the idea of a certain stance and apply it to different situations. An “Open L” stance might be longer or shorter depending on where you are, what you intend to do, and so on.

Writing is the same. There are certain rules and techniques that pretty much every published author I’ve met has learned to use. But as you continue to study and grow as a writer, you learn to adapt those rules, when to take risks, and so on.

And you are taking risks. If I modify the throw in one form, maybe I can do a bit more damage, but I also open myself up to a strike to the ribs. Likewise, if I adjust the techniques of storytelling, I might produce a more effective scene … but I might also jar readers out of the story.

Writing has rules, but those rules are fluid. A white belt writer breaks the rules because s/he doesn’t know any better. A black belt writer adapts those rules deliberately, to achieve specific ends.

Discussion is welcome, as always.

Black Belt

So far this week, the release of Goblin Tales  [Amazon | B&N] has pretty much dominated my brain (91 sales and counting), but I did have other news I wanted to share. On Monday, my sensei gave me my promotion form for shodan (first degree black belt).

I’m sorting out my emotions on this one. Excitement, definitely. Some anxiety as well. And there’s certainly a bit of pride in the mix, though I get pounded regularly enough that I don’t think I’m in danger of developing a swollen ego.

It’s been just over three years since I started studying Sanchin-Ryu. From what I’ve seen, that’s faster than average … but I had some martial arts background going in, and I’ve been attending extra classes for much of those three years, as well as working out with a few more experienced (and higher ranking) friends at their place.

My first Sanchin-Ryu post from March of 2008 is here, where I talk about my initial impressions and how I was invited to join my daughter in working out. (She has since chosen to stop attending classes.) I still enjoy this style and the overall atmosphere: supportive and noncompetitive, but also practical and results-oriented.

They say black belt is a beginning. That now you have a foundation, and can start to truly learn and understand the style. It reminds me a bit of selling that first novel, and the realization that after working so hard to reach that point, there’s so much more to do and learn.

Sanchin-Ryu doesn’t have the same kind of formal tests as the Tae Kwon Do classes I took as a kid. Rather, as Master Cataline puts it, every class is part of your test. Your promotion begins the day you first walk in the door.

There will still be a promotion night probably later this year, once I get my paperwork completed and turned in. And I expect to get my butt whooped that night, but it’s very different from the kind of thing Peg Kerr has been describing as she prepares for her black belt test. (Not saying one way is better or worse; just noting the differences. Also, I need to make a Sanchin-Ryu LJ icon!)

I’ve gotten a lot out of the past 3+ years of study. It greatly helps me to manage stress. I enjoy the people and the physical workout. And while I’m not ready to start moonlighting as a superninja, I do feel more confident about my techniques. Even though I know there’s so much left to learn. Or maybe because I recognize that there’s so much to learn … that perspective better highlights how much I’ve learned, too.

It’s been a good journey so far. I’m excited to see what comes next … especially if I get to learn the legendary Boot-to-the-Head technique.

Brown Belt

Last night was my promotion to first brown belt in Sanchin-Ryu.  This is the last of the kyu ranks, meaning next up is black belt.  (At which point I shall finally learn the much-feared “Boot to the Head” technique.)

Naturally, this was the night my uniform was still in the laundry, so I did my promotion while wearing a Superman T-shirt.  I kind of like that, actually.

Sanchin-Ryu is different from other styles I’ve done in that there’s no formal test.  Or, as Master Cataline puts it, your test is going on every time you come to class.  When he decides you’re ready, you get the paper form for the next rank.  I received that last week, sent it in, and then last night was promotion time.

By “promotion” I mean Jim gets out in front of the class and performs various forms while several of the black belts demonstrate another advanced technique known as “messing with me.”  I did the wrong CBA[1. Combination Basic Advanced.] at one point … but better to do something than to stand there doing nothing while you try to figure it out.  Then came the fun part, where I got to square off against three higher ranking black belts at once.

How did that go?  Well, I’m still alive.  They say when you kumite[2. Controlled practice fight, essentially.], you regress three ranks.  I can testify to this.  But all things considered, I’m satisfied with how I did.  Though this is the second promotion in a row where I’ve used a quick groin kick against one particular master … I suspect if I try that move on him a third time, he’s going to take my foot off 🙂

The next time I’m in class, I want to ask whether they have any suggestions for handling adrenaline.  During the three-on-one, I ended up striking one master in the face with more force than I intended.  That started the adrenaline pumping, like speed injected directly into the veins.  This … is not helpful.

(If you’re curious about the punch, I spoke to the master afterwards to apologize for my lack of control.  He said it was his responsibility too.  He had been told to attack one particular part of my body, and was focusing on that, so ended up stepping into my punch.)

Overall, I feel pretty good about it.  I’ve still got an awful lot to learn … in fact, now that I’ve reached this rank, I feel like I’m finally starting to realize just how much I have to learn.  (Once again, Sanchin-Ryu reminds me a lot of writing…)

But I enjoy learning, and while it’s not all bunnies and rainbows, I’m having fun and feeling good about my study.  And the best part of my style?  According to Sensei Jonathon, all promotions must be celebrated with ice cream.

Taking the Hit

I’ve talked before about the similarities between writing and martial arts, but the more I study Sanchin-Ryu, the more I appreciate it as a metaphor for writing.  (Or maybe writing is a metaphor for karate, I don’t know.)

One things I struggled with in Sanchin-Ryu is that there’s no blocking.  Oh, you learn pretty quickly to keep your hands up to guard, and there are strikes to intercept an opponent’s attack, not to mention learning to move into your opponent to disrupt their attack.  But no blocks.

Because you’re going to get hit. No matter how long you study blocking, no matter how fast you are.  Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan … they all get hit.  So we focus on acting instead of reacting.  On controlling the confrontation instead of trying to guess and deflect our opponent’s strikes.  On learning to take the hit, minimize the damage, and return that energy.

If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to get hit.  Some of those hits are going to hurt, as with my very first submission to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, which came back with a note “You must have had a point to this story … but I have no idea what it was.”  Or learning my French publisher wouldn’t buy the third goblin book because sales had been lousy.

Other hits are easier to shrug off, such as a negative review of The Stepsister Scheme which said “the book goes from happy girl power romp … to a few things that I’m sure could be found in an S&M porno.”

You can’t block every hit.  Some of them are going to knock you on your ass, like the day I learned Baen Books had withdrawn an offer to publish my novels.

Growing up, I remember the kids who would go crazy when hit, flailing about like a cross between Gonzo and the Tasmanian Devil. That happens with writers, too.  It’s not pretty.

You’re going to get hit.  Rejections and bad reviews, not to mention jealous friends or peers, trouble with editors and/or publishers, online trolls, flamewars, and so much more.  And it’s going to hurt.  Part of being a writer is learning to take the hit.

I think the most helpful thing is to regain your stance.  A good hit steals your balance.  Take it back.  Your writing career could span decades.  This is only one review, one rejection, one setback.  In the case of my French publisher, I had to remind myself that other aspects of my career were still going well.  (Happy side note: I now have a new French publisher which has picked up the first two princess books.)

In the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley, I found a way to send that energy right back.  I took her rejection as a challenge to write an even better story, one she would have to buy.  (I sold my first story to her in 1999, four years later.) 

Know which hits require a response, and how to respond.  Random Amazon reviewer?  You have to shrug it off.  Publisher refusing to pay you?  Start with one well-targeted strike from SFWA’s Griefcom.

Keep your focus.  Don’t let an opponent dictate how things are going to go.  One of the reasons I banned an individual from my LiveJournal last week is that I simply don’t have the time or energy for it; I have a book to finish.

And most importantly, remember to breathe.

Other suggestions or advice on how to take a literary hit?  Or how not to?

Everybody was Kung Fu Writing

Okay, so I’m actually studying Sanchin-Ryu, not Kung Fu, but I liked the subject line.  I spent Sunday afternoon at our first spring workshop.  Hundreds of students, lots of senseis and masters, and three hours of instruction and workout.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the parallels between writing and martial arts.  I riffed on this a year ago with a Writer as Martial Artist post at SF Novelists.  Both writing and martial arts require a great deal of practice and discipline.  With both, while many people dabble, far fewer stick with it to the point of mastery.

What I’ve been noticing a lot in martial arts lately is that I’m walking away from classes feeling lost.  Back when I was a green belt, I had a pretty good idea what I was doing.  I was learning the moves, getting the forms down, and feeling pretty confident.

What a foolish little green belt I was.  I’m now at third brown (which is the lowest rank of brown belt).  Remember those forms I thought I knew?  Now we’re breaking them down.  It’s one thing to do choreographed movements.  It’s another to perform part of a form with speed, power, and proper technique against someone who just grabbed your gi and hauled off to punch you in the face.

It’s frustrating.  My brain wants concrete right answers, and that’s not what I’m getting now.  Two masters will show me the exact same form, but they’ll do it differently.  Is one way right or better than another?  That depends on the situation, the effect I’m trying to create, and how much I’ve practiced.

Sound familiar?  Tell me, what’s the right way to write a story?  (Seriously, please tell me.  I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I still don’t know!)

One of the lessons I learned yesterday was that I think too much.  My partner throws a punch.  I step in, strike the arm, throw the kick … and stop.  The kick didn’t go where I expected it to.  So I pull back, trying to figure out what to do differently.  The master we were working with jumped on this.  Better to do something than to do nothing.  The last thing you want to do is train yourself to stop while fighting.  Throw the kick, and if it misses, follow up with something else.  Misses can open up opportunities as well.

Strange how well this matches my personal writing process.  I can’t revise when I’m working on a first draft.  I’ll think about the story on the road, or lying in bed, but when I’m writing I write.  If I write crap, that’s okay — keep writing, and see what I come up with.  Some of that crap will have to be fixed.  Some will create new ideas and opportunities.

They say the more you learn, the more you discover how little you know.  It’s a pretty saying.  In real life, it’s frustrating as heck 🙂  It’s also true.  Will I ever reach a point of mastery, in either Sanchin-Ryu or in writing?  I have no clue.  But I have to trust that I’m getting better, even when I feel completely overwhelmed by it all.

Especially when I feel overwhelmed.

Butt Kicking

When I was a kid learning Tae Kwon Do, I hated sparring.  I don’t like to fight.  Being small for my age didn’t help.  It was my least favorite part of the lessons.

Jump ahead 20 years to the present.  Sanchin-Ryu, the style my daughter and I have been studying, has been a very different experience for me.  Take last night.  We had a session of fighting practice.  I was the lowest ranked, least experienced student in the group.  Among other things, I took a punch to the groin (thankfully, the black belt who threw that punch had very good control), as well as a punch to the back of my fist[1. There is a scene in Red Hood’s Revenge where Talia uses this move. Trust me — it’s effective.].  That one’s still sore this morning.

I had a blast.  Yes, a part of me is wondering if that’s a sign of deeper psychological problems.  But mostly I think it’s because with this style and group of people, there’s always a clear understanding that everyone wants you to succeed.  It’s not about winning or scoring points; it’s about helping you to see and understand what you did well and what you need to do better.

It reminds me very much of the editorial process.  My editor kicks my butt with every book.  My agent often jumps in as well.  (Much like the me-against-two-black-belts scenario I had last night, actually.  That was fun!)  I usually come away bruised, but it’s a good thing.  They’re not the enemy; they want me to succeed and improve.

And if one of their comments hits a little too hard or in a particularly sensitive spot?  Well, you can bet that next time I’ll be paying attention to my form and technique to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Jim C. Hines