What do you get out of martial arts?
The other night our instructor asked the class, “What do you get out of martial arts?”
That’s a simple enough question to answer for kids, because they’re so new to this world that you can look at them and see the progress—discipline, respect, focus, control, critical thinking. For adults, it’s harder to define. By the time we’ve grown up, most of us have already developed the camouflages and workarounds that make it seem like, “Oh yeah, he’s definitely paying attention,” or, “Her? She never loses her temper.”
Although practicing martial arts has definitely helped me in all of those categories, they aren’t the reason I’ve stuck with it for six years. It’s not as if I go to class every week, on the days I’m tired or lazy or don’t feel great or am aching from bumps and bruises I got last class, thinking “I’d better go so I can learn to respect myself and others a little more.”
What do I get out of martial arts?
On October 31, 2017, we took the boys to a trunk-or-treat where they got a piece of candy taped to an offer for a week’s free karate classes from a man in an Edward Kenway costume (from my second favorite videogame of all time Black Flag).
Wait. Let’s back up even further. Summer 1994, watching The Three Ninjas with my cousin Nicole, giving ourselves nicknames and picking our ninja colors and practicing hitting the pressure points and jumping out of trees to attack the bad guys. Reading the Power Rangers chap books from the book fair, watching the Saturday morning Power Hour with the WildCATS and Ninja Turtles, hearing about “the good” kung fu movies and shows from my dad and uncle.
When you were a kid, what was cooler than martial arts? Easy—nothing.
If you lived in rural Missouri in the 90s, tell me how many martial arts schools there were in your county. That’s an easy one, too—zero. Even if my family had had the money back then for me to take a class, there was nowhere to go.
So it was that on Halloween of 2017, at the ripe old age of 30, I got handed a magic ticket to make all my little-kid dreams come true. But I would have to be sneaky about it.
“Hey,” I said nonchalantly to Joshua a few days later, “the boys got these passes to try out a martial arts class. I think they would like it.”
Although we were still living in the camper, by mutual agreement we weren’t traveling full time anymore, so committing to classes for a while wouldn’t tie us down any more than we already were. Unlike when we were kids, the classes were located in the town nearby, and we had the money. There were no practical obstacles in our way.
“Okay, if they want to, sign them up,” Josh said.
Phase one accomplished!
From the first class, the boys loved it. And you know who else loved it? Joshua. Sitting on the sidelines, he realized we could do the same things. Not only that, but also it was super cool.
“We should sign up for the adult class,” he said.
“Well, yeah,” I said.
Phase two accomplished! I was going to learn karate!
Without the big, scary risk of doing it alone.
Joshua and I started our martial arts journey together. We walked in every night together, him in the lead so I didn’t have to go first. We always partnered together for drills and self-defense, so I didn’t have to work with new people. He handled most of the talking to our classmates and instructors so I wouldn’t have to. We took our first belt tests together, competed in our first tournament together, got our black belts together.
Then one day, Joshua admitted that he didn’t want to do martial arts anymore. It wasn’t for him. He had known for a long time that it wasn’t… he’d only been sticking it out for me.
Walking into class on my own wasn’t the scariest thing I’d ever done, but it was close. When it was time to partner up, I wouldn’t have a built-in partner. When I was chosen to lead warm-ups, I wouldn’t have Josh to look out at for silent support. And what about before class, while the adults were all standing around waiting for the kids’ class to end? Was I supposed to talk to people? By myself?
Yes, as it turned out, I was. It was uncomfortable, and as with most everything I do, it was awkward. But by then, I had already done so much that was new and frightening that a few weeks’ worth of learning how to exist by myself for a couple hours at a time was just another step on the journey. Sometimes the next step takes you along flat, paved trails in a peaceful woodland, and sometimes it leads you straight up a mountainside, slipping in the mud with no handholds, but you take it. And sometimes you take it alone.
I took it, because over the last four years of training, that’s what I had learned to do.
Something happened to me when I took that step. I started walking into classes with my head up. I started looking my training partners in the eye. When it was my turn to lead warm-ups, I didn’t just call the stretches anymore, I led them. I helped lower ranks with their forms, drills, and techniques. I went to classes and testings and tournaments alone. I even started conversations with people I barely knew.
What have I gotten out of six years of martial arts? Multiple injuries. Punched in the face. Kicked in the face. The wind knocked out of me. Long moments of nerve-wracking anxiousness. I’ve broken boards and sparred and done my forms while judges, panels, and a few hundred laypeople scrutinized my every move for mistakes. I’ve taught classes full of rambunctious grade schoolers and adults with higher belts than mine. I’ve wrestled my way through frustrating techniques I thought I would never understand. I’ve fought people bigger, stronger, faster, and more talented than I’ll ever be. I’ve been hit by punches that could stop a freight train, eaten kicks that felt like they broke my ribs, been thrown and choked and swept by opponents twice my size.
None of it stopped me.
I don’t say all this to show how cool I am or how much better I am than anyone else. Because you can do all this, too. You just don’t know it yet. It’s weird, but most of us never know how much we can do until we actually do it.
I know I can do all these things because I’ve already done them, and because I’ve done all these, I know that if new, scarier, harder things come along, I can do those, too. It’s all just another step on the journey.
What do I get out of martial arts? Confidence. Inner strength. Perspective.
If you’ve always wanted to try something, but you’re scared of that first step, it’s okay. We all are. The good news is that first step will make you stronger, and so will every step after that. It will give you more confidence and put all of the other obstacles and challenges you face into perspective. It will show you amazing things you never knew you could do.
And it will make you cool, in your own eyes if nobody else’s.
Cowboy Pirate Island – An Interview with Set Sytes
One of the best things about reading is meeting varied casts of weird and wonderful characters, and no one does weird and wonderful like Set Sytes, author of such mean and magical works as WULF: A Weird Sci-Fantasy Western, India Bones and the Ship of the Dead, and How Not to Kill Yourself: A Survival Guide for Imaginative Pessimists. I’m a huge fan of Set’s work, and when I hounded the UK-based gentleman for an interview on craft, he actually agreed!
Beware, what follows gets a little wyrd. . .
Q: I really loved WULF and the follow-up book SLADE. One’s a mean sci-fantasy western and the other is a crazy post-apocalyptic alien adventure. Sounds impossible that one could be a sequel to the other, and yet you made it work beautifully. So, I’ll ask the question that’s on everybody’s mind: When is the third book in the series coming out?
Ahhh I wish I could answer that! I never know when anything is coming out. If I was to have a deadline calendar it would just be a pile of mud with a little cocktail flag stuck in it that said, ‘STOP WATCHING NETFLIX’. The best I can say is that the third book – VOLSYNG – is my No. 1 project now. And I’m not starting from scratch either – I’m always writing for future books while I’m working on the one I’m supposed to be working on, so there’s quite a bit of VOLSYNG already written (admittedly completely out of order).
As for changing genres, I see the books – or at least these three – as all westerns, but each guided by different approaches to the idea of ‘the Old West’, I guess. Different tropes all echoing the same basic concepts. Different ‘Ages of the West’. The first book is deserts and canyons and plains, outlaws and gunfights and showdowns, horses, a Man in Black – it’s the height of the Old West, the thematically archetypal adventure western paired with a lot of sci-fi/fantasy weirdness and (quite literal) darkness.
The second, SLADE, leaps forward and becomes more of an obvious sci-fi-western like Firefly or even Star Wars might be considered such; there’s still long coats and (mostly) traditional weapons, desert, a big dusty shootout in the streets, but it’s all broken, beaten-up, driven to failure. Less post-apoc and more drawn out degeneration. It’s the future of the Old West. The New West?
The third – VOLSYNG – is like the middle child, despite being third in the series; it has a kind of early-modern industrialized urban environment mixed with snowy, mountainous, forested, often unblemished terrain, not to mention the return of horses… It’s got a turn of the century kinda feel at times. Think of the 1900s-1930s when what was once the Old West was dying or had died, to be replaced by a new kind of world. It’s the end of the Old West. There’s a kind of chilly sadness but there’s also a lot of beauty. But again, like the others, it’s paired with a lot of crazy shit.
Q: Setting plays such a huge role in your stories, everything from the landscape to the local culture feels so lived-in and real. What’s been your favorite setting to write about so far?
Oh, I’m not sure I can answer that! It’s probably whatever I’m writing at the time, haha. I love creating worlds. I love describing the environment as it passes. Coming up with places and people and creatures and all that is my favorite thing about writing. As a kid I used to JUST do that, just write all the names of things (and maybe draw them) – but never get around to actually writing the stories. The act of naming is to me the first and most definitive act of creation. I have to rein myself in these days or I could do it nonstop and it would dwarf the plot. I already have way more ideas than I have stories to put them in.
Answering your question, though, I think the world of India Bones might have to take the cake so far. It’s like this weird, semi-magical mirror to our own world circa 17th and 18th century. I love putting completely (almost unrecognizable at times) new twists on things that exist or did exist in this world. It’s like someone took the geography and history of our world and put it in a blender. The act of naming disfigured – names we know attributed to things we don’t. I love that. I’m looking forward to concentrating on the sequel to it, possibly after I’ve finished VOLSYNG. There’s so much more to the world than already mentioned. I also recently came up with plans for another series set in the same world, but land-bound; a darker, more supernatural series for older readers, inspired by things like Sleepy Hollow and Wynonna Earp. I’d say the title but it’s too good a title for me to spoil publicly when it might not be written for a long time!
Q: Let’s talk about pirates. I just started reading India Bones and the Ship of the Dead the other day (it’s FREE right now on Amazon, and you should all go get it). It’s gorgeous, so magical and yet so full of excitement. From westerns to post-apocalyptic to swashbuckling, it seems like you could write a crocheting handbook and make it a roller coaster ride of adventure and emotional turmoil. Is there a genre you haven’t written in yet that you really want to? And are there any genres you would never want to write in?
Thank you! I read “crocheting” as “crotcheting”, which gave me a very different idea as to what that handbook would be about. Hmm, genres I haven’t written in that I want to. In terms of broad genre, probably not. Maybe a straight western at some point, one that isn’t blended with other genres, or an epic fantasy or sci-fi by the same measure. In terms of subgenres, there’s a LOT I want to write. I came up ideas recently for a genre I dub “jungle gothic” that I’m excited to get to one day. Same with Ancient Egyptian mythological horror. Or a disturbing blackly comic character-study set in Hell.
Couple of days ago I decided I really wanted to write just a balls-out fun shlocky horror series, very much like Ash vs Evil Dead with a cocky, drunk, demon-killing Native American/Chinese/Japanese/red-blooded All-American-Patriot protag. He’s descended from all these great family lines, historical figures and dynasties tracing way back in both American and Asian history, yet he’s just a carefree dick who barely listened to any of the shit they tried to teach him. I often get dragged down into grim, weighty things in my books, so that’d be a nice treat to myself. Although I’d probably end up dragging that down too. I expect it’ll end with the world ending.
I’ve also been encouraged to write Bizarro fiction – I’ve written some semi-Bizarro things in my short story collection Born to be Weird, but it can always get weirder. Checking my Word doc on future ideas, I have 34 concepts and plans for new stories and series. So that’s a lot to get through, and it only ever grows. I’ll be long dead before I make any headway, let alone finish!
Genres I don’t want to write – romance, supernatural romance, romantic thriller, erotic romance (worst of all), spiritual, true crime, or anything that could be described as an airport novel. I have zero time for sap or sop. I also don’t really want to write straight drama – like, there’s books out there regarded as classics, but I rarely want to read them. If the world isn’t fantastical in some way, or dealing with some historical culture or exotic (to me, in rainy England) setting, I’m probably not interested. I want escapism, not to drudge through someone else’s boring life.
Oh, and I don’t want to write Tolkienesque high fantasy. With the notable exception of Tolkien himself, I rarely like those derivative novels. I pick up the book in a bookshop, read the blurb, I see eight different ridiculously named people and places in a single paragraph, talk of wizards and magic, a coming storm or Dark Lord, warring empires etcetera etcetera, nothing of which gives me anything to ground myself or relate to, and I put the book down. And if I see the world elves then the book immediately goes down. In fact I’m going to introduce elves at some point in one of my stories, probably in India Bones’ world. But I’m gonna remake them completely. They’re one of my least favorite fantasy creatures (although I’ll grudgingly accept Legolas) and I’m going to turn them into something dark and savage, just so I can see the word in future and be okay with it.
Q: Are there any common themes or threads running through all your stories regardless of genre?
I reckon there are, yup. It’s always me writing them so I think those themes and thoughts often get in most of my stuff. Self-determination paired with self-admonishment, (comic) tragedy, desperation, egotism, fatalism most definitely – absurdism and fatalism are big factors in the Fifth Place series. A lot of humor, especially when everything is going wrong. A need for escapism, for escape, for something “more” – this has been present since my first ever book, and the biggest factor in my second novel, Moral Zero. I guess, also, and this more the author than the story, a desire to reinvent things, to spin worlds and creatures and people in new, different ways. Oh, and anti-heroes absolutely. I don’t know if I could write a goody-two-shoes, it would bore me, unless they’re a stiff-necked foil to someone else. Anti-heroes are always so much more interesting to write.
I think one fundamental thing is – I love fish out of water stories, perhaps my favorite “genre”, but I have always gotten annoyed at the trope that as soon as they’re in this strange new world, they want to return, they want to go back to the mundane world they left. It’s in so, so many books, and it’s extremely frustrating. It’s okay if they get homesick later on. But time and time again, no sooner have the characters arrived in this completely new setting, with so fantastically much to explore, then they’re looking for a way to get home. For the love of God, WHY? It’s so, ugh. It’s so un-adventurous.
Anyway, I’ve always subverted that and I guess always will. In WULF, the protagonist does get sad about what he’s left behind, but he also recognizes that, despite everything, this life is so much more amazing and vital and new than the one he left behind, and so he never really displays any eagerness to get home. I think what’s missing in a lot of these kinds of stories is showing a real passion and enthusiasm for the world, through the leading character, rather than presenting the world as a bad piece of business to get away from. I think the Harry Potter series succeeded in part, because of that. It was unrepentant escapism. “You’re a wizard, Harry.” And didn’t he fucking love it?
Q: Do you outline your stories before you start working on them or do you just sit down and wing it? And to go back to the cultures and worlds question, do you spend time before writing laying out what your world and its inhabitants are going to be like?
I just sit down and write it, admittedly in an all-over-the-place manner. I call it patchwork writing. The ideas in my head do not come in a reasonable order, and I can’t hold them back, so I just let them win and sort it out later.
The ideas are worked out in my head beforehand, they get developed there and on paper (well, Word doc) over time. I’ve still got the basic, semi-coherent elevator-pitch idea for a couple of my finished stories – Moral Zero and WULF – jotted down in a stream of conscious ramble of a paragraph, which I think were written as an excitable Facebook post, and it’s interesting to see what eventually resulted from that. Moral Zero I remember I just came up with on a car ride. It’s quite a lot to have a whole book in your head and no way to write anything down for hours. So yeah, generally I wing it, although with all the crashing ideas in my head not waiting their turn, I’m often writing bits for other books at the same time. Sometimes books I won’t get to for years. It’s no wonder my memory when it comes to the real world is notoriously poor. It’s already filled with demons and monsters and cowboys.
I’m not a planner. I’ve never been really been able to do that, nor found it useful. I’d only ignore the plan. For me, the process of on-going invention is what makes it writing. Planning is just planning. I find it boring and restrictive. With The Fifth Place and India Bones series, though, I did eventually have to have novel-separate documents where I haphazardly contain my scattered future ideas, plus names of places, creatures etc. They’re probably not very coherent to anyone else reading it, more like a madman’s encyclopedia. But those are worlds I found I needed to start keeping better track of.
Q: What do you think you get out of writing? And what do you hope your readers get out of reading your books?
I’m not sure. Haha. When I first put my website up, I said in the bio that writing for me is like an exorcism. I have to get it out of me. Actually, the words are probably still there, and still true. I have so much to tell. I wouldn’t say being an author of fiction is like having split personalities, it’s not that bad, but I think you do often feel like you’re containing a lot in you. Not just stories, but people, characters, all the things you could or couldn’t be, the worlds and lives you could or couldn’t ever have lived, all the things beyond your reach, either because they don’t exist, or they do but you never had that opportunity, or you already made your choice.
I do enjoy writing, too, although I have to push myself into starting it each day. I enjoy it when I’m in the flow, or when I’m the raw process of creation, that’s my favorite. The pre-writing, when you’re just thinking about the world, and you hit on some new thing, some new idea, and you’re like YES. Or something in your story, you realize the link, the amazing link that had never occurred to you before, and you feel like a genius (even if a reader will only shrug their shoulders at it).
Regardless, writing is the only thing I’ve ever been any good at, so that’s what I do. I like being able to give something to the world, something that only I could have made, and can’t just be replicated by another, replacing and essentially erasing my own product. Something that will be around after I’m long dead. An imprint on the universe, even if it’s a small one. Most people just throw stones into pools, and eventually the ripples cease. I want to launch a fucking aircraft carrier into the same pool, and a thousand years later it can stay there, a rotting derelict filled with moldy treasure for future explorers to find, and say to themselves, “This guy is not right in the head.”
Yeah, I have an ego. It’s hard to find writers who don’t, but then I haven’t yet met anyone else who plans to be Emperor of the Known Universe. To start with, I mean.
Q: So, I have this theory that the first novel or series a writer puts out is in a lot of ways exploring the characters of their parents and the second explores themselves. What do you think? Does that apply at all to your writing?
Huh. I’ve not heard that before, that’s interesting. I’ve always been on good terms with my parents, and because I’m fueled in that regard more by negative things than positive, I don’t think they’re going to make their way into my novels in any sense, even as some oblique parallel. My very first book was arguably a very loose metaphor or analogy of sorts for where I was at in my own life. Loose and fantastical, but also too on the nose at points. It became too cringing to think of it, eventually, so I took the book off the internet and all but disavowed it.
I’ve written since I was a kid, but that was the first book I actually managed to finish, because I’d always had difficulty finishing anything before that point. So in that sense it was an achievement, and I achieved it in part by writing – in highly abstract terms – of my own situation or mental state, some of my own needs and desires, miseries and angsts.
Since then, exploring myself, or more accurately, writing from the perspectives of all the people and perceptions that seem to exist within me, comes more naturally into the rest of my work. It’s no longer the focus, or the thrust of the stories in any way. Which is absolutely for the best. But I don’t think any writer can help but put a little bit of themselves in their plot and characters. It might not be who they are now, but as I said before, who they could be, or want to be, or don’t want to be, or a fanciful creation that exists only in their mind, but nonetheless may as well still be considered a buried, abstracted part of who they are. I believe that a writer’s characters are part of the writer’s identity. Even when they seem absolutely nothing like us, our exact opposite. Even when they’re horrible, twisted and evil. It doesn’t matter. What’s the saying? Write what you know.
Q: In addition to your genre-hopping fiction, you also write nonfiction. Does nonfiction require you to get into a different mindset than fiction?
When I wrote How Not to Kill Yourself, it was just a short piece, and unlike my fiction, I didn’t bother spreading it, sending it to people. I put it online and left it at that. I didn’t think anybody would care, and I didn’t particularly either. Fiction was my baby, not that. Naturally, the one thing I didn’t put out there, the one thing I didn’t spend any more effort on, was the one thing that got noticed and picked up! It’s always the way, isn’t it? While you’re hammering on doors till you’re red in the face somebody is quietly coming up behind you to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me sir, you dropped this about a year ago…”
I find it significantly harder to write non-fiction. There is no act of creation to draw upon, and little to no imagination. It’s also more personal, more real. I try and focus far more on advice and general thoughts, rather than talk about myself, but obviously my stamp is still all over this book and its sort-of spiritual successor, How to be Nice to People. You can’t hide behind characters and fictional worlds in that. You have to get real.
Reality is, unfortunately, not my forte, and rarely something that excites me. So I definitely prefer to write fiction. I prefer the mindset, the act, and the final product. I don’t really read non-fiction, even though I often convince myself I want to (there’s quite a few growing dusty on my bookshelf), and it can be difficult to write the kind of book you, yourself, probably wouldn’t read. Dealing with the kind of heavy subjects that I get into can also drag me into negative and frustrating thought bubbles, with little prospect of release while the writing is ongoing.
That said, I owe a lot to the publication of How Not to Kill Yourself by Microcosm Publishing. And I’m very glad that it helps some people out there. I get fan mail about it, which is really nice and very welcome. It might not be the “mark” I intended to leave, but it’s still a mark.
Q: If you could ask any person, living or dead, just one question, and they would have to tell the truth, do you think your heart could handle the answer?
What a peculiar way of putting that question! I thought you’d finish with, “Who would it be?” And even then, that’s a hard question that would require some thought. But could my heart handle the answer? I’m sure it could, but then I have no idea what the question would be! Haha. I’m an extremely curious (some would say nosy) person, and I have to know everything, ever, but I can’t think of anyone out there who knows something I need to know that badly.
Oh, I guess if I could talk to a dead person, if that could actually work, then I’d ask them about life after death. Is that too obvious an answer? I don’t know what specific question; whatever the answer I’m sure only a million more questions would arise from it. My heart could definitely handle it though (I’d force it to). It doesn’t matter what the question is, having an answer is better than not. I cannot think of any situation where I would not want an answer to a question I asked. Even if the answer would be awful. I still have to know!
Thank you very much for the interview, Eden. It was a pleasure!
You can find all of Set’s works here on Amazon, follow him on Twitter @setsytes, or check out his website: www.SetSytes.com.
Do you believe in Bigfoot?
As some of you know, I’ve been working on this awesome new series called Legend of the Treesinger with the UF/litRPG outlaw king himself, James Hunter. The first book in the series, Two-Faced, is up for preorder on Amazon now and set to hit digital shelves March 22nd. It’s part buddy-cop adventure, part fish-out-of-water, all Bigfoot. It’s also kind of a departure for me in that the heroine, Winona, isn’t a terrible person. She’s not a person at all, in fact. Here’s the blurb to prove it:
Winona Treesinger is a Bigfoot—and no, she doesn’t just have large feet. She’s an eight-foot tall walking myth and the last great princess of the People of the Forest.
All she and her people want is to dwell in the deep places of the forest, well away from mankind and the destruction they bring to the land and the world. But when Winona hears about a string of grisly murders in the nearby city of Missoula, she knows in her gut it’s the work of an ancient evil, driven away from their lands long ago.
Against the wishes of her Father, Chief Chankoowashtay, Winona must leave the forest and venture into the world of men, disguised as a frail human, in order to set the balance straight and stop the killings. And with the help of a handsome, slick-talking city detective named Chris Fuller, she might be able to do it. But if Chris finds out what she really is, stopping the creature might be the least of her worries …
Pretty sweet, right? And you haven’t even seen the cover yet. Check out this little beauty—and please, feel free to judge the book by it:
This has been a crazy-fun project, and James and I have had a blast working on it. If you guys enjoy reading Two-Faced half as much as we did writing it… Well, that’s math, and I’m no mathmagician, but according to these calculations, that’s a lot of units of enjoyment.