Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Round Table: Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Part Four

This posting brings the roundtable to a close, and end one of the single most rewarding interactions with authors I've had since starting the blog. This project was an absolute joy from start to end, no matter the delays and challenges that moderating such a huge project (at least, for me) entails. I'd like to take a minute to thank Kameron, Zach, Doug, and Jeff for taking part and being such consumate professionals while I stumbled my way through this. Any success I'm having here is in direct proportion to the amazing answers they provided. 

With that I'll let folks get to what brought them here. Links to the earlier questions are posted below.

52 Reviews: Most of you have a background in some form of martial science, be it boxing, martial arts, or some other discipline. How have those experiences helped or hindered your writing of action scenes? Does your experience change the approach in any way? 

Kameron Hurley: I took four years of boxing and mixed martial arts classes, on and off, when I lived in Chicago. So when I was struggling to come up with some kind of martial art for the magicians in my books to practice, boxing seemed like a more fun and natural fit than, say, Tai Chi (for me, anyway). And it was more unexpected than me just throwing in the typical yoga-practicing magic user. It was also a lot easier for me to write about the correct way to stand, block a hit, and throw a punch when I created characters who trained as boxers instead of Kung Fu artists.

I’ve heard folks say that successful writing isn't so much about writing what you know as writing about the things that youlike. I may be a poor athlete, but I do like boxing a whole lot. There was something very real and visceral, for me, about putting two people into a ring with the sole intent of beating the crap out of each other under a set of prescribed rules. It has that weird "civilized brutality" dissonance going for it that both fascinates and repulses me.

Many martial arts philosophies are centered around teaching you to avoid or diffuse fights very quickly, and I still remember my instructor saying that once you square off into a fighting stance against an opponent, you have chosen to fight, and you must accept those consequences. There are all sorts of ways not to get into a fight. I diffuse fights and conflict all the time. Which may be way I liked the boxing. It didn’t ask me to avoid a fight. It asked me to seek one out within a prescribed set of rules.  I found that boxing was also very much about conditioning you to keep hitting your opponent longer than they could keep hitting you. It was the perfect metaphor for a society at perpetual war with their neighbors, as was happening with the folks in my books.  Extreme violence with limited rules. That's war.

You can read about fighting all you like, but the details you get from doing it yourself – from studying and watching real fights, too – really make these sorts of conflicts come alive on the page. One of the things I never realized when watching boxing, for instance, is how much stamina and endurance you must have. It’s not just about hitting harder. You think, “Oh, it’s only three minute rounds! Then you get a rest!” But boxing well requires a huge investment in cardio. I was devastated to learn that in order to keep up with the boxing drills in class, I needed to start running three miles a day, at least twice a week. I fucking hate cardio. I just wanted to hit things and lift weights. But you just won’t make it otherwise. So I took up running. Which I hated.   But those long nights pounding the pavement along the lake also ended up being great book fodder for describing scenes of wretched endurance. Everything's material, and all that.

There are other details – what it’s like to get hit, or the satisfaction one gets from knocking over an opponent, or how fast a series of punches can really come at you, and how quickly you can get overwhelmed – that I think are more believable on the page because of that training. After reading God’s War, a lot of folks came away from that book believing I had first-hand experience boxing (I was horrified to hear there were some identifying me as “a boxer,” which I am most certainly not by any stretch), which, to me, means I did my job on the page pretty well. It's very satisfying to fool readers into thinking you're smarter and more experienced at something than you actually are (more often, as writers, we're assumed to be the opposite. It's a tough gig).  

After boxing, my next favorites are probably kickboxing and Krav Maga. I like fighting schools that give the appearance of relying heavily on brute force without the aid of a weapon, even if, once you get into them, you discover it's just as much a mental and cardio game as anything else. 

Zachary Jernigan: Anyone who knows me really well would laugh at seeing me described as a person with a "background in some form of martial science." It is technically true -- I did practice jōjutsu for a couple years -- but the honest fact is that I don't think the experience contributes overmuch to my writing. How could it? I was quite young when I studied the art of wielding a stick against a sword. I've forgotten most of the details. In fact, I just stood up and tried to go through one single defense and attack (I learned thirteen before quitting), and couldn't remember anything but the beginning stances to a few of them.

Moreover, I hated studying jōjutsu. When, every once and a while, my teacher would cancel class (which consisted of only two students) and I would be so, so, so happy. It was like I'd avoided being run over by a car for two to three hours. In fact, my overall impression of martial arts was colored by my experience with that teacher. I've avoided martial arts ever since.

Well, hell... Now that I've written those last few sentences, I have to call myself on some bullshit. Can anything that influenced me that much rally have failed to come into my writing?

And now that I think a little more about it, I see that of course it's had its effect on me as a writer -- perhaps not in the way of being able to write perfectly choreographed scenes or describe how it feels to have a knife enter one's stomach, but certainly in the way of being aware of one's body as it engages an opponent. In No Return, there is a focus on the internal: even when the events are largely external, as in a fight, I tend to be interested in how the characters feel inside before focusing on which fist goes where.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying this is better than another way of writing, or that it reflects the reality of all or even a significant number of combatants. I know many people who do not experience heightened awareness of their internal state before a fight. Indeed, many people seem to "turn off" parts of themselves when engaging in action. All I can say is that this has never been the case for me -- I am intensely aware of how I feel, perhaps even abnormally so, before an altercation; this has always helped me react with speed, as opposed to freezing me up -- and so my characters tend to express themselves in similar ways.

In this regard -- and perhaps unlike Kameron -- I'm writing what I know.

Kameron Hurley: This is interesting. I'm one of those people who "turn off" during times of heightened conflict/emotion. It's really handy when somebody's bleeding profusely or threatening to kill themselves in front of me, but it's gotten me labeled as "cold" and "emotionless" quite a lot. I find it really helpful, if only because, if I didn't turn off the emotion, I'd be completely paralyzed by it.

Being able to be totally aware of what you're feeling during a fight/conflict sounds terrifying to me. I always thought that awareness would be a handicap, not a strength. It's interesting to see this isn't the case for you.

52 Reviews: This is fascinating for me. I've been a martial arts instructor since the late 90's and I find myself in between the two of you. There is a moment of intense awareness at the outset followed by a period of extreme detachment when I'm actively defending myself largely with muscle memory. Of course, afterwards the emotional and fear responses slam back in to me. Much like the feeling of narrowly avoiding a car wreck. Just goes to show, we all react differently to stress of this kind. 

Zachary Jernigan: Well, crap. I guess I described that the wrong way. I meant two things, really:

I am abnormally aware of how I feel internally, as in how my body feels inside my skin. The pumping of blood, the tightening of the throat -- that kind of thing. I suppose that is technically external, because it happens outside the brain, but I don't think of the body that way. My view of the physical form is, perhaps, more holistic than some. That's part of what I mean about being "intensely aware of how I feel."

As for emotions, yes, I do feel them in a heightened way during stressful periods, but I (generally) don't allow those to show too much unless the situation warrants a display of emotion. I think I'm pretty cool under pressure -- then again, I would say that -- but that has little to do with whats going on inside. I think being aware of how I feel in that moment, where time seems to slow down, helps me better make decisions.

But that might just be me rationalizing my own reactions. Perhaps I'd be better in those situations if I were able to "turn off" to a certain extent.

Either way, I write most often from that perspective. Hopefully, there are some folks for which it rings true.

Jeff Salyards: It’s been a while since I’ve been active in any kind of martial training. Any training, really. I’ve pretty much been a sedentary slug. If it weren’t for the mile walk to and from the train every day, and the other odd bits of accidental exercise, I’d really be in sad shape.

But for a long stretch, I was pretty busy with the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) and armored up every weekend, and I’ve dabbled in some of Western Martial Arts groups. And before that, I wrestled in high school, so that has to count for something besides some minor cauliflower ear.

Unlike Eastern martial arts (which often have rich and longstanding traditions and training), folks studying European medieval or Renaissance swordfighting and grappling have had to do a lot more research, trial and error, studying medieval and Renaissance manuals and treatises to learn how to fence with longswords, sword and buckler, rapier, polearms, even crazy stuff like sickles and flails, and resorting to reinvention and educated guesswork to fill in the gaps.

Unfortunately, you’ll sometimes find derisive attitudes among some camps—some WMA groups look down their noses at the SCA for adhering to silly rulesets and using poor analogues for weapons, and some SCA folks throw stones at other groups for not going full steam. But in my experience, the best fighters I’ve encountered are those who cross-train, willingly exploring different approaches and rather than dismissing them. Because at the end of the day, a lot of the same fighting concepts apply across systems—timing, balance, range, footwork, alignment, drills, and the free play that allows you to put it together and experiment.

As for how that’s impacted my writing, well, probably good and bad, depending who you ask. As Kameron said, writing what you like might be a better mantra than writing what you know—the problem is, I like playing with swords and shields (yes, I’m a big man-child), and I know just enough about medieval combat to get myself in trouble.

Zack mentioned a bunch of comments back that he doesn’t really enjoy writing/reading about the mechanics of a fight, or at least not in great depth. I totally get that, and there are times I wished I had the same disinterest/restraint. I like my action to be grounded in reality--I’ve always preferred the climactic scene in Rob Roy to the more flashy action sequences in most Hollywood fair—and that shows up in my fiction. I try to describe the choreography of a fight in a way that shows how real techniques work and fail, while still being both clear and exciting. And I’m sure sometimes I go overboard, giving too much detail so it looks like I’m either wallowing or trying to write a treatise myself. There’s a fine balance here, and I’m sure I don’t always strike it, but I try to give the reader a real sense what it’s like to hit someone in armor and feel your arm go numb with reverberations or grow heavier by the blow as exhaustion sets in, to witness what happens when two equally matched combatants square off, or how dumb luck can end a bout or a life just as easily as skill or training can save it. And conversely, having dabbled and researched, I try to avoid perpetuating arms/armor/combat myths—a longsword didn't weigh ten pounds (not counting ceremonial monstrosities), folks in armor weren’t as helpless as overturned turtles if they fell (and even that might be a myth—maybe overturned turtled WANT you to think they’re helpless), a blade didn’t shear through mail, etc.

Which is all to say, I try to make a violent scene feel as real as possible, and I’m sure whatever martial training I’ve done plays into that. For good or ill.

Douglas Hulick: I'm not even going to pretend to be coy with this one. I've been fencing, with one weapon or another, for over twenty years, and teaching historical rapier combat for nearly half of that. Throw in a couple of years of aikido and other random eastern martial arts, along with my (sadly infrequent) attendance at Western Martial Arts conferences to learn about things like long sword and poleaxe and quarterstaff technique, and it's hard for me to not think about how this stuff influences my writing. The thing is, that influence can be both a boon and a bane, depending on the day.

A boon because, well, I know about this, don't I? The feel of a sword in your hand, the techniques and strategy and geometry involved in a rapier fight, the training and endurance required to be able to do this kind of thing even half well. I'm familiar with the muscles that get sore, the joints that get strained, the rush that comes from a perfectly executed attack and the feeling of quick-fire relief when you manage to save your ass through a combination of a sharp eyes, quick reflexes, and plain dumb luck. How one sword can almost seem to dance in your hand, while another feels like a metal bar with a handle at the wrong end. The reassurance of seeing someone take a guard you recognize (well or poorly, it doesn't matter--you know about their fight by the school they study) and the unease that comes with facing someone whose fight looks to be all instinct and hunger and chaos (the unschooled fencer is a more dangerous opponent in that they don't know when they are in danger, and so are both unpredictable and more likely to take you down with them). In other words, details and subtleties and shorthand that I can call on to add verisimilitude to a sword fight or, by extension, other kinds of action.

Which is exactly where it becomes a pain. Because while I can block out a sword fight in my head from beginning to end, or even free-style it on the page, I can also pour in WAY too much information. The mechanics of the fight that Zack hates? That's my first draft in spades when it comes to my fight scenes: every move, every action, every thrust and counter is right there on the page. I throw in not only the kitchen sink, but all the plumbing as well. This is where my writer's group and beta readers save my behind--they tell me when there is too much, when they can't follow what's going on, when the gymnastics on the page drag things down instead of move them along. I pride myself on writing good action scenes, but that doesn't do me any good if what's happening on the page doesn't make it to the cinema screen in the reader's head. I may write the initial draft for me, but the final version has to be for everyone else. 

There's an old saying in fencing: that a good bout is like having a conversation in steel. Each fighter says so much about themselves by they way they fight, how they phrase their strategy, the pauses and exchanges and punctuation they choose during a bout, not to mention how the other person responds. It's very visceral, very personal. Very unique. I try to convey this when I write my combat scenes--try to give even the lowest thugs or spear carriers a sense of individuality through their weapons and actions. It's said that good dialog reveals more than just information, it also reveals character. I think a good fight scene can do that same thing, whether its written precise and detailed, or broad and emotional. 

If actions speak louder than words, then how much louder can we make a conversation in steel?

1 comment:

  1. Huge thanks to Matt for hosting and running this crazy roundtable. It was a lot of fun.