Book Review: Six Expressions of Death

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Six Expressions of Death is a solid debut work from Castalia House author Mojo Mori. Set in 16th century Japan, the story begins with the murder of a traveller on the road between the city of Morijuku and the village of Iwagi. When Daikawa Tadashi, a poor but noble samurai, investigates the murder, he quickly discovers there is more to the crime than a mere murder-robbery. Soon, he is embroiled in a complex web of deceit, intrigue and violence. Clan war is on the horizon, and shinobi stalk the night.

Six Expressions of Death is a taut, atmospheric murder-mystery set against the backdrop of the Sengoku period. Japan is still divided among daimyo, and powerful, ambitious clans like the Takeda are seeking to dominate the land. The book demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail, from architecture to artwork, cuisine to culture, immersing the reader into its setting.

Buddhism and folklore are key components of the narrative. The samurai view themselves as drifting within an ever-changing dewdrop world, recognising that their lives are brief and transient. The titular six expressions of death refer to belief among samurai that the faces of the dead hold portents for the future. While religion doesn’t play a significant role in the narrative, it nonetheless informs how the characters think and act.

The Japanese obsession with honour, too, pervades the book. The warriors among the cast, for instance, strive to comport themselves with honour. Tadashi grapples with how to handle himself in the most honourable fashion, even as he deals with shinobi, whom he believes the most dishonourable of creatures. Likewise, when meditating on his relationship with his lover, he, too, tries to behave in a manner becoming of his ancient house. And of course, in the story, deceit and betrayal are seen as the most craven acts, while seppuku is always the final solution to regain one’s honour.

The prose is tight and clean. There are no unnecessary scenes, no wasted words, and the narrative flows cleanly from one event to the next. Mojo writes with a strong, clear voice, imbuing the text with a heady mixture of mysticism and violence. The action scenes are quick and lethal, with individual combats often resolved in the space of a breath. As the mystery unfolds, plot twists come at surprising moments, yet every revelation is carefully thought-out and appropriately foreshadowed. My only quibbles come with the occasional use of Westernisms like ‘sir’ and ‘Commissioner’; I would prefer the use of the original Japanese terms, but I recognise that such terms make it easier for non-Japanese readers to follow the story.

As I read the text, I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s notes on the character of a private detective. To quote from the master:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a >disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

Daikawa Tadashi neatly fits into the the archetype. He routinely confronts danger and death, but he is neither afraid nor negatively affected by his encounters. Being a samurai he is educated in the way of the pen, the sword, the bow and the horse, and is prone to reciting haiku at the drop of a hat. He is born of high status, yet he is also a poor man not too far removed from commoners. While the people he encounters treat him with the respect he is due, he in turn does not mistreat them or take advantage of his station. He is, of course, a man of honour, and as such he despises deceit and holds weak people in contempt.

Throughout the story, Tadashi uses his wits as often as his weapons. A perceptive and intelligent man, he is quick to pick up clues and piece them together. He is also equally handy with bow and sword, able to match trained killers on their own terms. Readers accustomed to ‘gritty’ works or noir fiction might grouse that he is too perfect, but I would say that Tadashi strives to hold himself to the samurai ideal at all times.

The rest of the cast is also well-characterised, reflecting both their personalities and the norms of the times. There is the loyal and unflappable servant, the extroverted if somewhat unreliable comrade, the incompetent commissioner, the feminine and faithful lover.

A common complaint I’ve seen among other reviews is that the ending is anticlimactic. The true villain of the story is dealt with in a few placid pages. I can sympathise. Readers accustomed to Western-style action stories would expect an action-filled climax in which Tadashi personally delivers justice at swordpoint. However, this is a crime novel at heart. Violence is punctuation, not purpose; the story is not driven by the fight scenes, but rather by Tadashi’s investigation. Likewise, as a poor country samurai, Tadashi’s ability to confront the mastermind is sorely limited; if anything, I felt his method of bringing justice to the offender was particularly inspired. It was entirely within character and completely congruent with the setting.

Six Expressions of Death is a heady brew of logic, spirituality, treachery and combat. It comes highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction and crime novels. It can be found on Amazon and the Castalia House store.

(Full disclosure: I am also published by Castalia House.)

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If you would like to see the work I’ve published at Castalia House, you can pick up NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House store. This one is for people who love urban fantasy, military science fiction, espionage and martial arts.

The Dark Tower Movie Won’t Come Close to the Dark Tower Novels

Watching the Dark Tower movie trailer, I understood immediately that Hollywood had once again taken a beloved franchise and warped it into something barely recognisable.

Part of these changes are necessary. Adapting a novel into a movie requires requires the filmmakers to make massive changes to fit the new medium. It is a difficult process for one story, much less seven. Looking at the trailer it seems that the Dark Tower movie is inspired primarily by the first book, The Gunslinger. We have Jake, a boy from Earth; the Man in Black, the main antagonist; and Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger. Who is now black.

The race swap isn’t the only difference. In the novels, the Man in Black is merely the servant of the Crimson King, who is imprisoned in a balcony on the Tower and wishes to destroy all existence. In the movie, the Man in Black seems to be the primary antagonist. There is no mention of the other principal characters of the Dark Tower series, such as Eddie and Susannah Dean. Most critically, in the movie, Roland Deschain is on a quest to protect the Dark Tower, the lynchpin of all worlds — but in the novel, Roland strikes for the Tower to demand answers of whatever entity that dwells there, and during his quest he tries to redeem himself for the wrongs he has committed in his life.

The Dark Tower novels explore destiny and damnation, redemption and repetition, obsession and addiction. Going by the trailer, the Dark Tower movie is a generic Hollywood action movie about good versus evil. A major step down from the series described as Stephen King’s magnum opus.

But that is now par for the course.

Coins from Controversy

What do GhostbustersGhost in the Shell, and The Dark Tower have in common?

First, purchase the rights to a beloved intellectual property. Then deliberately alter something about the main characters, making them female or of a different race. After that, create a hue and cry about racism/sexism/misogyny/bigotry. Ride on the controversy to secure media attention and box office sales. Then, disappear forever.

For Ghostbusters, Hollywood took an all-male cast of geeks and replaced them with an all-female cast. In Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood replaced the Japanese Major with Scarlet Johansson. For The Dark Tower, Hollywood replaced a character explicitly described as a white man with bombardier blue eyes with a black man.

Hollywood responded to the predictable outcry by focusing media attention on it. People who criticised the changes were immediately decried as sexists, racists and misogynists. These words are like dog whistles: break them out and hordes of Social Justice Warriors will jump to your cause, circle the wagons, talk up your movie and slam whoever won’t toe the party line. As the release date approaches, reignite the controversy as needed. With all that attention, Hollywood hopes that people will come flocking to the theatres.

It is far easier to generate controversy than it is to write a good story. To do the latter, you need talent and hard work, then invest the time and money to properly build the brand to attract an audience. For the former, all you have to do is to obtain the rights to a well-known IP, make a deliberate casting decision, wait for someone to criticise it, then run screaming to the media and let the SJWs handle your marketing for you.

This is an incredibly short-sighted move. In the short term it may translate into a spike in opening day sales, but if the story is poor, it will undermine faith in the medium and the film companies that produced the adaptations. People will realise that Hollywood is just leeching off famous brand names, and they will walk away from future movie adaptations, or even movies altogether. As seen in how badly Ghostbusters bombed, this will significantly affect the profit margin.

But never trust the players to think in the long term. Hollywood cares about recouping costs and seeing a return on investment, not telling good stories. Social Justice Warriors don’t care about profits or stories, just in pushing their agenda. They don’t have the customers’ interests at heart.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Hollywood. In comics, we have female Thor, black teenage female Iron Man, Captain America the Nazi, Donald Trump the supervillain, and more. Loyal readers punished Marvel’s ham-fisted attempt at left-wing propaganda by abandoning the company in droves, causing sales to plummet. The recent non-controversy about a female Doctor Who will likely follow a similar trajectory. Social Justice Warriors don’t care the audience, the brands, or even what makes good stories. They just want to push their agenda. They infiltrate well-known IPs, twist it into a gross and soulless husk, and destroy it from the inside out.

This is social justice convergence. Companies that have been converged will turn their customers against them, effectively committing suicide. At best, converged companies churn out forgettable creations, and at worst, they destroy the creative legacy of previous generations.

The Dark Tower That Could Have Been

In The Drawing of the Three, Roland draws Eddie, a white man, and Odetta Susannah Holmes, a black wheelchair-bound woman. Odetta has a split personality: Detta Susannah Walker, a foul-mouthed racist who heaps abuse and racist epithets on the men and plots to kill them. This conflict is the heart of the character drama in The Drawing of the Three, and resolving it forges an unbreakable bond between the trio.

By casting Idris Elba, a black man, as Roland Deschain, Hollywood can’t have that conflict any more. Indeed, in the trailers so far, it’s telling that there is no hint of Eddie or Odetta. After all, portraying a disabled black woman who spouts racist screeds against white men runs against the prevailing left-wing narratives. Better to pre-emptively bury the conflict before it even begins.

The character of Roland Deschain himself is based on Childe Roland of the poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, written by English author Robert Browning. In addition, Roland Deschain’s guns are hinted to have been forged from Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur. King Arthur is a European myth, not an African one. And the gunslinger is an American archetype, born on the frontiers of the Old West. If we use the standards of modern-day progressives, having a black man use the myths of white men is cultural appropriation. But the hypocrisy of the Left runs deep: it’s only cultural appropriation if a white man does it. Notice also how this little nugget went unnoticed in the popular press.

In the books, Roland Deschain the gunslinger is a lawman, a negotiator, a diplomat and an outdoorsman. He is less Rambo and more John F Kennedy. Yet in the trailer, Roland is reduced to a shootist with some fancy tricks. In Drawing of the Three lobstrosities cripple Roland Deschain’s right hand, forcing him to give one of his guns to his companions, symbolising his trust and growing reliance on them and reinforcing the dangers of his journey. In the movie trailer, Roland is a typical invincible Hollywood action hero.

The most critical change is the nature of Roland’s quest, and what it says about his character. In the novels, Roland is monomaniacally focused on reaching the Dark Tower, and will sacrifice anything and anybody if it means taking one step closer to it. His character arc has him seeking redemption and developing bonds with the other characters. In the movie, Roland is already sworn to protect the tower: his motivation is obvious, and knowing Hollywood, I wouldn’t be surprised if this Roland doesn’t possess the complexity of the original.

The Dark Tower movie has every sign of being all flash and no depth. The plot of the movie doesn’t even come close to the plot of the original. It may even be a decent action flick in its own right, but with all the changes to the story, it might as well be a brand new IP altogether.

But for Hollywood, it is far easier to piggyback off an established brand than to invest the time and money needed to build up a new one. And they will keep doing that, regardless of the cost.

How to Write Master Martial Artists

Everywhere he goes people whisper his name with fear and reverence. Bandits are either terrified of him or conspire to kill him. He walks with a palpable aura–either of carnage or of peace. And whenever he draws his sword, he leaves broken and bloodied bodies in his wake.

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Miyamoto Musashi takes on the Yoshioka School in the manga Vagabond. Spoiler: he wins.

Martial arts exponents are a staple of most genre fiction. From Chinese wuxia to Western high fantasy, sword & sorcery to steampunk, if the story justifies it, a martial hero or villain will appear. He wears an aura of supreme confidence, and woe betide anyone who stands in his way. His presence alone guarantees spectacular action scenes.

Unfortunately, most people have no idea how to write one.

To be clear, this article is aimed at writers who want to authentically portray trained martial artists in their stories. This applies to stories whose aesthetic favours the realistic portrayal of martial arts. Here, characters who properly apply martial principles survive battles, and those who are less skilled fall by the wayside or into shallow graves. In such a setting, their skills may be augmented by magic or superscience or some other justification, but this augmentation does not take the place of skill.

Why would you want to write stories like this? Readers are already used to portrayals of martial arts that are more grounded in fantasy than reality, in flashy visuals rather than gritty realism. It’s easy to just cook up a showy fight scene and move on. Why spend the time and energy to choreograph a realistic fight scene?

I do it because I’m a contrarian who grew up reading thrillers, and I get bored when I see unrealistic action scenes. Less flippantly, a realistic fight scene would reinforce the aesthetic of a story that is meant to carry the weight of reality. The gritty feel of action movies like Taken and the Bourne series come in no small part from the way the characters move, think and act in combat, reinforcing the notion that the protagonists are truly highly-trained operatives. Furthermore, a fight scene that respects martial applications demonstrates the true power and grace of the human body, a kind of beauty that can manifest in the real world outside of the screen or the page. Done right, it is so awesome it inspires people to seek training and build up their bodies.

It’s Not (All) About Speed, Strength, Size or Fancy Techniques

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Tiny girls, huge swords, not quite what we’re looking for.

When described in fiction, martial experts tend to fall into two not mutually exclusive categories: superstrength or superfast.

In the first category we have characters who rely heavily, if not exclusively, on physical might. Conan the Cimmerian is described as ‘steel-thawed’ and as primal as a wolf, with sword by his sword and magnificent musculature on display. Guts from Berserk carries a stupendously long and heavy sword, and is seen cleaving armored enemies in twain. Such characters are shown accomplishing incredible feats of strength, all the more impressive if they are merely mortal. More often than not, these characters tower over everyone else, emphasising their strength.

In the second we have characters who are incredibly fast and/or agile. Himura Kenshin is the most famous Japanese example, being able to accelerate and strike so quickly no one sees him coming. Yoda appears tiny and elderly, but he is deceptively acrobatic. These characters impress the audience by acting much faster than the average human.

At the intersection of both categories, we have characters noted for their special skills, which are usually flashy named moves. Himura Kenshin’s ultimate technique is an attack so fast it appears to strike all nine key targets on the body at once. In wuxia stories with heavy fantasy elements, heroes and villains routinely execute special techniques that grant them supernatural speed or strength. These techniques come to define the character, and the appearance of an ultimate technique signals the desperation of the moment.

In a realistic fight scene, none of these elements are paramount.

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Prodigious size and strength are useful, if you live long enough to employ them.

This is not to say that strength, size or speed don’t matter. They do. Mere mortals are not going win a grappling match with a three-hundred-pound sumo wrestler, or go toe-to-toe with Jack Dempsey in the ring at his prime. However, true mastery of martial arts allows the practitioner to at least partially negate these elements through applied skill. Being strong and fast and resilient is useful, and indeed necessary for the kind of physical work that martial heroes find themselves doing, but they don’t always decide the outcome of a battle.

As for flashy techniques, it is my experience, and the experience of those more experienced than me, that flashiness equals death. For the user. Sure, they can be fun to perform, and they may even work against rank amateurs, but the more complex a technique is, the more likely it will fail under a life or death situation. And that’s not even counting techniques that violate the laws of reality (see Himura’s ultimate technique).

Mastery of the Fundamentals

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Kenji from the eponymous manga shows us how it’s done

In my previous post on martial mastery, I described how mastery of the martial arts comes from mastery of fundamental skills. In my opinion, many creators ascribe to the physical what they should instead ascribe to skill.

The perception of superstrength comes from perfection of body dynamics. You can be the strongest person in the world, but if you don’t know how to punch, you’ll just hurt yourself. People with an innate understanding of how their bodies work will be able to transfer their entire bodyweight into the target, allowing them to defeat seemingly larger and stronger opponents. In addition, people who can move efficiently have no wasted movements, allowing them to move faster than those who can’t fully control their bodies.

The perception of superspeed comes from the understanding and application of footwork to control range. If you control the range between yourself and the opponent, you control the speed of the action. Counterattacks in the martial arts tend to involve stepping towards the enemy–in addition to adding momentum to the blow, you are also reducing the range to your target, which makes you look faster. Likewise, using deceptive footwork and body language, you can create a false perception of the distance between you and the enemy, allowing you to seemingly move faster than he can react. Stepping to the side maintains the range but changes the angle between you and the enemy, and a large enough side step may carry you out of an enemy’s cone of vision, effectively making you disappear to his eyes. Stepping backwards is usually contraindicated since a human can move faster forwards than back, but if weapons are in play it is one method of sniping at an opponent’s hands without getting struck yourself.

Proper timing creates the perception of speed and invincibility. A person with proper understanding of timing knows just when to move, allowing him to block an attack, strike at an opening, evade a counter. Such a person seems to have an impregnable defense and unstoppable offense. He doesn’t need to be strong or fast; or just needs to know where to move and when to defeat you.

Dojos and martial arts schools break out fancy techniques mainly as a means to attract and retain students. For combat applications, instead of flashy techniques, strive for what Rory Miller calls ‘Golden Moves’. These should do four things: put you in a better position, put the enemy in a worse position, defend yourself from the enemy, and dump power into him. For example, in FMA, a response against a downward slash is to step out with a rising cut. By moving to the outside, you have evaded the enemy’s attack and put yourself in a position where you can flank him. The enemy, in turn, can’t attack you without turning, buying you time to react. If your timing is poor, the rising cut deflects the enemy’s blade, and now you are at the right angle to pin the enemy’s arm and deliver a finishing stroke. If your timing is good, you’ll cut off his hand or arm. With excellent timing, you’ll slice right through his torso. Such techniques are easy to remember and pull off, are grounded in reality, are still accomplish the same goal as a flashy technique — that is, to finish the fight.

Every martial art is built upon certain assumptions and principles of movement. Kali is based on weapons, and practitioners move as though weapons are always in play. Boxers focus on punches, footwork, timing, slipping, blocks and footwork, usually with gloves on. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a powerful ground game. Every master has an inherent understanding of these principles of movement, as well as the above-mentioned skills, allowing them to perfectly execute their favourite techniques.

Going beyond mastery of the principles, martial masters control the fight. They won’t fight someone else’s game; instead, they use their skills to force the opponent to fight their game. For example, against a boxer, our master may use long-range kicks or shoot in for a throw. When facing a grappler, he’ll keep out of grappling range and wear him down with strikes. If the stakes are high enough and it’s a life or death situation, he won’t even go for a stand-up fight. He’ll call friends, bring tools, and use deception and the environment to get in close enough to unleash his skills without risking the chance of a counterattack.

Reference Materials

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Kamishiro Yuu gets his game face on in Holyland

This article is just a primer. I do not claim to be a master, only that I have studied under them. If you want to delve deeper into the subject, you need to do your research.

The ideal is to study a martial art and pay close attention to acknowledged masters of the art. Even if you don’t or can’t attend classes, you can find plenty of books and videos. Look at how these masters move. Observe the totality of their bodies, starting with their feet and working your way up, and seek the principles they employ. Look first at the universal skills — body mechanics, range, footwork, timing — then look at the skills specific to the art.

If you want to dive deeper, you need to develop the vocabulary to understand and describe what you’re looking at and for, and the effects of violence on characters. Rory Miller’s Violence: A Writer’s Guide and Marc MacYoung’s Writing Violence series are excellent primers aimed at writers. NRA Freestyle Media Lab examines action scenes in popular movies and breaks them down from a self-defence perspective, while Nerd Martial Arts and Martial Gamer examine techniques in martial arts.

Once armed with the basics, you have the foundations for additional research.

Done properly, though, violence is boring. If your character can reliably end the fight in one move, it’s not particularly exciting for your audience. To write exciting fight scenes, look also at how creators choreograph them. For movies, I recommend Taken (the original!), The Raidand The Raid 2, the Bourne series, and the Rorouni Kenshin live action film trilogy. In written fiction, look up John Donohue’s Sensei series for Japanese martial arts, Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town for Western stick fighting, and Marcus Wynne’s novels to examine modern combatives. For manga, there areVagabondOokami no Kuchi: WulfsmundKenji and Holyland. Anime has Junketsu no Maria and its authentic portrayal of Historical European Martial Arts while Cowboy Bebop has stylised depictions of Jeet Kune Do.

Fight scenes, authentically and excitingly portrayed, make stories stronger and show the reader what a trained human can truly do. If you want to do more than rely on the same tropes of superstrength, superspeed and flashy techniques, seek out the fighting arts of the world and see how you can apply them to your own work.

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Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that my own novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS features an exacting portrayal of Filipino and Historical European Martial Arts. You can find it on the Amazon Kindle store and the Castalia House ebook store. It is also eligible for the Dragon Awards; please vote for it under the Alternate History category. Thanks!

Martial Mastery: From the Fundamentals to the Complex

 

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Ikken hissatsu. One strike, sure kill.

It is the standard karate practitioners aspire to: to finish the fight in a single blow. Combative oriented martial arts echo this principle. Jeet Kune Do aims to swiftly end fights with decisive strikes. Self-defence instructors advise students to defeat an attacker with three moves or three seconds. In Filipino Martial Arts, when weapons are in play, combat can be decided with a single stroke.

In movies, television and video games you’ll see plenty of flashy techniques and drawn-out action scenes. During live demonstrations and exhibitions, performers will roll out complex and fancy kata. It may look beautiful, but it is not combat. It captures the artistic side of the discipline, but not the martial component.

If you train for real world applications, then you must align your training methodology with reality. Under the stress of a life-or-death encounter a cocktail of hormones will flood your bloodstream. You’ll gain strength and endurance and pain resistance, but you’ll lose the fine motor control needed for flashy stunts. You won’t rise to the occasion; you’ll fall to the level of your training. And the longer the fight drags on, the more opportunities the bad guy(s) will have to harm you and your loved ones. Thus, your number one priority is to end the fight now.

You don’t need a thousand techniques. You don’t need to memorise entire catalogs of kata. You don’t need to know how to do two-man drills blindfolded. What you do need is a toolbox of high-percentage techniques that cover the scenarios you’ll reasonably expect to find yourself in.

And these high-percentage techniques tend to be the basics.

The Hidden Complexities of Basic Techniques

Basics look boring. These are simple, uncomplicated moves that old, slow grandmothers can do with their eyes closed. It’s tempting to skip them and go straight to the fun stuff. But these moves are basic for a reason: they are the base upon which you build true martial skills. And the truth is, basic techniques are anything but.

A staple technique in Filipino martial arts is the number 1 strike. This is a diagonal forehand shot aimed at the opponent’s temple or neck and bisects him clean to the hip. It looks simple. It is simple. But to do it right, you need to understand the following:

  • Targeting
  • Footwork
  • Hip twist
  • Shoulder whirl
  • Elbow drop
  • Wrist alignment
  • Grip control
  • Range
  • Timing
  • Recycle

For this one technique to work, these eight elements (and more) have to be tightly integrated into a single fluid motion. Beyond that, you need to know a host of other things: how to avoid feeding your hand to the enemy, how the length of your weapon affects your footwork, how to adjust for a moving target, how to extend or contract your arm to suit different ranges, how to step and strike simultaneously, how to conceal your intent until the last moment, how to whip your arm if you’re striking, how to follow through if you’re slashing…

If you break down a single technique into the parts that make it work, you’ll find that you need to understand and internalise a huge array of concepts before you can perfectly execute it. Perfecting even a basic technique will take countless hours of sweat and hard work. Not because the technique is difficult — the number 1 strike is a gross motor technique and easily to remember — but because to get the most out of that technique you must be able to integrate all these principles into a single fluid motion. Hard enough to do when training; now imagine doing it when you’re facing a maddened terrorist with steel in his hand and murder in his heart charging at you while screaming “Allahu Akhbar!

Basic techniques aren’t basic just because they are simple. They are basic because they contain the base principles upon which the entire martial art is built. The principles I described above apply to every slash in every flavour of FMA out there. The body mechanics are the same, the considerations of range and timing are the same, the way the weapon and the target influences the angle is the same, the only real difference is the direction the strike comes from.

To master the art, you have to master the principles.

It’s not easy. With so many things to integrate, it becomes extremely easy to mess something up under stress. During my last training session, we did basic knife drills. A response to a low line thrust and a response to a horizontal thrust. They looked simple enough, but when we flowed at speed, everything broke down. Footwork became clumsy. Angles got confused. Suboptimal responses came out. More than a few times a stab or slash broke through. And it wasn’t even close to the speed of a true lethal force encounter.

Basics aren’t simple. For the basics to work you need to put together a vast array of seemingly disparate concepts. With the basics being so complex already, why make your life more difficult by jumping to the advanced stuff?

And, more to the point, there is no need to.

Martial Simplexity

The foundational skills are the building blocks for more advanced techniques. A thorough understanding of the basics gives you the keys to understand more sophisticated concepts, and build a toolbox of techniques that you can call your own.

In Pekiti Tirsia Kali, the forewall is the last-ditch block. You turn into an incoming strike, meeting the blow with your weapon and reinforcing your primary hand with your secondary hand. It is a basic technique, easy to remember under stress. The only major consideration is that if you have a sword, you should meet the enemy’s weapon with the flat of your blade to preserve the cutting edge. After you defend against the opponent’s attack, you dash in for the counter–perhaps a basic number one strike. To augment a forewall, step into the enemy. This shortens the distance between you and him, allowing you to absorb the shock of impact on the strong of your weapon (i.e. the lower half) and reducing the time you need for your counter.

This is a basic technique, but if you enemy has fast reflexes or anticipates the counter, he’ll just block or evade your counterattack and you’ll be back where you started.

Now suppose, when your weapons contact, you slide your secondary hand across your primary and check your opponent’s wrist. Then slide in with a cut from six o’clock to twelve o’clock, slashing up through his groin. With your blade now pointing at his neck, if he’s still standing, you can step in and thrust deep into his throat for the finish.

The check clears a line of attack and delays the enemy for a split second, long enough for your counter. As the groin slash comes from below his cone of vision, he isn’t likely to see it coming until it’s too late, and the arc of the slash chambers your weapon for the throat thrust if needed.

If you break these motions down into individual steps, you’ll see that they are all basic techniques. The forewall is the same, just with a slight modification. The slash is basic, and so is the thrust. But the application requires an understanding of range, timing and footwork, foundational skills which are less easily learned.

Now let’s say you get lucky. You step into the attack with your forewall, and you grab the opponent’s thumb. With your hands still crossed, swing your arms anticlockwise and turn the hand palm-up. Done properly, this would break his structure, weaken his grip and strip his weapon. If he hasn’t dropped his weapon yet, snap your primary arm to the side to disarm him. Then finish him as you please.

Every movement is still basic, but now everything must be perfect. You must land the forewall at the perfect distance to allow the grab. Your gripping hand must be dead on target, or you will either grab air or a live weapon. The wrenching motion must be swift and decisive. When you perform the disarm, it’s the same mechanic as a horizontal slash, but if the enemy has a sword you must present your arm to the flat or you will cut yourself. You must also send the weapon flying in a clear direction or send it straight down into clear space, lest you hurt yourself or an innocent person nearby. And the entire sequence must be performed so fast, the enemy must be disarmed before he realises what’s going on.

This is not a high-percentage move. FMA masters note that the best way to disarm someone is to dis-arm him: to destroy the offending limb. But if you are supremely skilled, if the stars align, if you have the opportunity to do it… Execute at your own risk.

Once you understand the basic principles, you can pull off some pretty cool moves. But you can only reliably execute these cool moves if you are intimately familiar with the principles that make them work.

Returning to the Beginning

My training purposes have remained the same: self-defence, research and health in that order. I would like to be able to defend myself against aggressors. I would like the knowledge needed to credibly write protagonists skilled at martial arts. I would like to keep fit above and beyond my regular gym sessions.

The advanced stuff sure is pretty, but in sparring and high-speed flow drills, I find myself reverting to the basics again and again. No flashy disarms, no eight-strike combos, just techniques easily remembered under stress. Even so, execution isn’t always perfect. And that’s okay; it just means there’s always room to grow. Basic techniques are complicated enough as is; there’s no need to make things even more difficult by adding additional complexity when the body isn’t ready for it. My current training goal is to grasp the foundational skills of my chosen art. It’s going to take a while, but that’s okay.

The basics will save your life. Everything beyond that is a bonus.

Anime Retrospective: Record of Lodoss War

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Record of Lodoss War belongs to a different era of Japanese anime, and indeed of storytelling. There are no obligatory fanservice moments, no in-jokes aimed at the audience, no audience surrogates in the form of bland high school otaku protagonists, no injections of unnecessary modern political messaging. Record of Lodoss War does one thing, and one thing only: tell a story.

The World and the Characters

An adaptation of replays of Dungeons and Dragons gameplay sessions, Record of Lodoss Waris richly steeped in the traditional Western fantasy canon. The land of Lodoss is vast and mysterious, the magic is fantastic and frightening, the monsters are evil and deadly. The story also makes a sharp ethical delineation, with the heroes suitably heroic and the villains clearly villainous. The art direction reinforces this attitude: civilised areas tend to be bright and colourful, while places controlled by monsters and enemies are dark and bleak; heroic characters dress in vivid, distinctive clothing while villains favour black.

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The star of the story is Parn, the son of a dishonoured knight, who knows little of his father save for the sword and armour he left behind. Driven out from his village, he seeks to investigate the evil befalling the land. He is brave but reckless, often needing rescue from the rest of his party, until he learns to balance offense and defense. Accompanying him is his childhood best friend, Etoh, who is a priest of the supreme god Fallis. Their paths intersect with Ghim, a veteran dwarf adventurer looking for the missing daughter of a priestess who saved his life; his friend Slayn, a powerful wizard; and Deedlit, a female high elf who is learning about the world outside of her homeland. Rounding off the cast is Woodchuck, a thief they found imprisoned in a dungeon.

You can clearly see the D&D influences in the party. Parn is the fighter-cum-party leader. Ghim is the party’s frontline combatant, and serves as Parn’s mentor. Etoh is the party cleric, Slayn the wizard, and Woodchuck the rogue. Deedlit is a shaman with some knowledge of swordplay, and doubles as the obligatory love interest.

What isn’t present are modern-day anime archetypes. There are no tsunderes or yanderes in sight, no fanservice characters, and most definitely no high schoolers. Instead of drawing on the same exhausted well of tropes and behaviours, the creators strove to grant each character their own personas and histories, influencing their words and deeds. Parn always rushes into the thick of things, and always gets beaten back; Etoh is the emotional and spiritual heart of the group; Ghim dispenses advice and handles the fiercest foes; and Woodchuck is driven by his criminal impulses, which blows back on the entire party. Instead of attempting to appeal to the audience, the characters stay true to themselves, the story and the setting.

Simple Story, Well-Told

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From the opening narration to the closing credits, every moment of the anime is shot through with earnestness. There is no attempt to snark at or with the audience, no enforced awareness of the fourth wall, no contrived situations leading to predictable ecchi moments. Every scene is played straight, driving the story forward.

True to the genre, the story has an epic scope, covering the entire continent. There is intrigue and high adventure, battles large and small, epic quests to save the world, and an undercurrent of romance. Among the principal cast are warrior kings driven by honour and justice, a dark emperor and his knight corrupted by the powers of darkness, ancient dragons of terrifying power, a sorceress manipulating events behind the scenes, and an evil goddess waiting to be reborn.

This isn’t to say the story is perfect. There are moments of cheesiness and predictability and the major battle scenes recycle stock footage. The anime itself begins in media res, and it’s unclear which episode is the transition point between the true beginning and the first episode. It packs too much story into too few episodes, requiring a second season to complete Parn’s tale. And Parn, of course, is utterly oblivious to love, always repeats the same failed offensive tactics, and always loses his sword in battle against humans.

Nevertheless, Record of Lodoss War is a simple story, well told. It possesses a clear moral compass and unambiguously heroic protagonists always ready to do the right thing, contrasted powerfully against vicious villains and the horrors of war. Instead of scoring cheap points with the audience with predictable tricks, it places the audience front and centre through its focus on the story. Its sweeping scale, diverse cast, exotic locations and powerful magic exemplifies the breadth and depth of imagination that is the hallmark of the genre. Most of all, it is refreshingly free of the stale tropes that weigh down modern anime.

Record of Lodoss War is the progenitor of all sword and sorcery anime. Its skillful employment of the storyteller’s craft enables it to hold its own against many modern anime. It is a hallmark of the fantasy genre, tracing its lineage to the seminal Dungeons and DragonsRPG, itself inspired by the great pulp masters of the previous century. Record of Lodoss Wardemonstrates that modern stories don’t need flashy visuals, otaku appeal or fanservice moments; they just need to be simple stories, well told.

The Unnatural World

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The modern world is unnatural. Edifices of stone and steel and glass and concrete surround us. Electricity comes with the flick of a switch, water at the turn of a tap. Food is superabundant, and the only predators we need fear are human. Everywhere safety is engineered into every facet of daily living.

Life is good. Life is safe. Life is convenient. But it is unnatural.

You are a human. You are biologically engineered to survive the harshest of terrain on Earth. Your ancestors walked the savannahs of Africa, the plains of Europe, the jungles of Asia, the deserts of Arabia. You were designed to resist disease and starvation and injury. Your brains gave you the smarts to live the life you are living now. But this life, this modern world, stay in it too long and it rots your brain and entropies your ability to live as your body calls you to do.

Reclaim your humanity.

Embrace Discomfort

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Walk proudly under the sun and bathe in its heat and light. Saunter through a storm, feel the rain on your skin, hear the crash of thunder and track the flash of lightning bolts. Seek regular, hard physical exertion; measure your labours by the pounding of your heart, the rivulets of your sweat, the fatigue in your muscles, and your ability to push beyond and achieve greater heights. Make your personal records a point of personal pride.

Fast wisely and intermittently, and feel your senses sharpen with hunger. You won’t start melting the moment you cease supplying yourself with nutrients. Cut off everything that harms you. Eat only enough to give you strength, shun all foods laden with sugar and hidden calories, and refuse to eat when you are full. Gird yourself against the inevitable social pressure to eat and eat and eat: you are a human, not a goose to be stuffed for foie gras. Develop a nutrition plan, be aware of what passes between your lips, and cease consumption when you’ve hit your goals.

Take cold showers. Sleep without temperature control. Skip unnecessary suppers and desserts and tea breaks. Do not chase the taste of good food, the feel of luxury fabrics, the ease of sedentary living. Take softness and hardness, heat and cold, dryness and humidity, when they come with equal indifference; treat them as forces to be adapted to, not fodder for complaints and grumbles. Whenever the world tempts you to overindulgence, smile and say no. The world cares nothing for your wants and needs; every so often remind your body that you, too, can throw back at the world everything it throws at you.

The Green and the Blue

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Strike for the forgotten corners of the Earth. Seek the places where the green of the Earth marries the blue of the sky. Witness nature first hand and remember when you were a hairless ape. Observe the frolicking of animals and wonder at their instincts, their rituals, their behaviours, their societies. Notice how they interact with other species despite the lack of a common language. Study them at life and play, and wonder how you can return to that state of innocence.

Climb a hill and feel the contours of the earth beneath your feet, the wind in your hair, the sun in your face. Remember and reconnect with the world that made you. This is the world you evolved to live in, not the four corners of a dreary cubicle or the air-conditioned sterility of a modern home.

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Stand before a cliff and study the patterns of erosion and plant growth. Before you is the story of a billion years. Cast your mind through time and visualise the forces of erosion, propagation, climate and rainfall combining to sculpt the rock. Before them, what are you? If even the hardest and most enduring rock can change before the inexorable might of time, how can you avoid change? How can you not be shaped by time? All you can do is recognise it when it comes, and shape your evolution to reveal your truest and innermost self.

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On spoiled beaches observe the infinite variations of waves crashing against the shore. In flooded pits and holes spot the hidden contours of the world and reconstruct the natural rhythms that created them, and the face of the world to come. Know that the litter you leave behind lasts for tens or hundreds of years, but the ocean has been here for millennia and will last for millennia to come. Recognise that the world is greater and older and more powerful than you, and recalibrate your mind to embrace the vastness of reality.

You are but one human striding across the face of this world. You are but a dewdrop in the face of four and a half billion years. You are indivisible yet interdependent, an actor yet acted upon. Have you honoured your body and tempered it to face the realities of a world indifferent to your wants and needs? What role do you play among your family, your tribe, your groups, your nation? What came before you to place you where you are, and what will come after your role has ended?

Depart the unnatural world for the natural, if only for a while, and remember who you are and where you stand in the great dance of eternity.

How I Wrote a Novel in 12 Weeks

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135456 words. 12 weeks.

A full novel in 3 months. By pulp standards it’s sluggish, but it’s the fastest I’ve ever completed a novel of this length. And I was juggling a full-time work schedule and regular blog posts alongside it.

If there’s one thing I understand about the writing industry, it’s that if you want to make real coin from writing, you need to churn out lots of high quality work fast. To even come close to the success of the pulp greats, you need to write as much and as often as you can. Here’re the principles I applied to write a novel in 12 weeks.

Planning

Well before I wrote a single word of the novel, I had planned everything out. I knew the characters, the major plot events, how each scene led to the next and the long-term ramifications of significant events on the story and the series. Errors and plot holes and inconsistencies had been caught and fixed before they were written, saving time and energy and frustration. With knowledge of the entire book, all I had to do was show up and write.

I planned my writing schedule and stuck to it. I set aside a block of time every weekday and many weekends to write. Before I sat down to write, while I was busy doing other mundane things, I planned the day’s work. I would visualise the actions and the dialogue, putting myself in my writing frame of mind. When it came time to write, I already knew what to do, so I didn’t have to waste time wondering what would happen next. I just had to do the work.

Planning is half the battle. If you know what you have to do, you won’t waste time correcting yourself or wondering what to write next.

Focus

The secret to success is to blind yourself to everything but what you need to achieve your goals. I set myself a goal and refused all distractions.

My goals were, to me, modest but ironclad. One hour every weekday. Five thousand words every week. Minimum. If I couldn’t hit that target I kept going until I could. If I had free time on weekends I spent it writing, effectively doubling my average word count per week.

During planned writing sessions, I focused solely on writing. Not editing, not researching, not chatting with people. Writing. I placed myself in a state of flow and rode it all the way to the end of the session. If I absolutely had to research something, I set hard limits for myself, restricting the time and topics to look it up, and then went back to writing immediately. If you’re not writing, you’re not getting closer to your goal.

Inevitably, I thought of many ideas to improve the story. I didn’t allow myself to get distracted or caught in the trap of endlessly polishing incomplete copy. Instead, I left notes for myself inside the text and continued writing. In doing so I maintained the momentum, keeping the story going while honouring the ideas that could make it better later. Likewise, when I had ideas for other stories and universes, I pursued them only when I wasn’t busy writing.

When you write, write. Keep your eyes on the prize and entertain nothing that leads you off the trail.

Personal Care

You can’t write if you’re bedridden. You can’t write well if you’re sneezing all the time or feverish and miserable. Thus, taking care of your health is paramount.

I maintained a regular workout schedule, and used the time to develop the story further. I pushed my body to the limit, in preparation of stretching my mind further. I made sure to eat right, drink plenty of water and sleep as well as I could.

An important side benefit of personal care is discipline. You need discipline to stick to an exercise regime, a nutrition plan and a sleep schedule. That same discipline spills over into writing, allowing you to stick to your plan and focus on writing.

A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. You need both to succeed at the writing game.

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

Don’t stick slavishly to plans and regimens. If you develop an idea superior to the current plan, roll with it. If a block of time suddenly frees up, use it for writing or writing-related tasks if you can. If you find that deviating from a plan leads to a superior outcome, do it.

While writing the novel, I came up with a number of new ideas on the spot. They deviated from the plan, but they fleshed out the antagonists, created a new one, and added a deeper layer to the story lore. I changed the location and circumstances of the climatic action scene, making it even more awesome and explosive than before, and altered the planned ending to inject tragedy, humour, hope and sequel hooks.

Have a plan, work the plan, but don’t be afraid to branch off and do something else if doing it will lead to superior outcomes.

Conclusions

Know what you are going to do before you do it. When you start, commit fully and do not stop until you have achieved your goals. Look after your mind, body and spirit. Deviate from your plans if doing so will achieve a superior outcome.

These principles allowed me to write a massive (by modern standards) novel within a short timeframe. While nowhere near close to Pulp Speed, I believe continued application will allow me to quickly produce the quantity and quality of content my readers demand. And I’m only getting started.

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If you’d like to see the novel that preceded the one I mentioned here, you can find NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

A Deeper Look at LGBT Discrimination in Singapore

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Is there discrimination against LGBT persons in Singapore? Activists and bloggers insist there is. Janelle Faye, a transgender Singaporean, arguesthere isn’t.

I think the truth is somewhere down the middle. In recent history, the authorities have not launched sweeps targeting LGBT people. There are no laws punishing people for the crime of being non-heteronormative. Sex change operations are freely available here, and LGBT-friendly bars, saunas and non-government organisations operate openly. Discriminatory attitudes and practices against LGBT people occurs at the level of individuals, families and organisations; not at the level of society. There are no formalised mechanisms of oppression aimed at LGBT people in the same fashion as, say, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or the Islamic State.

At the same time, there still exists laws and policies that, for better or ill, sweep up LGBT people in their wake.

Section 377A and its Consequences

Section 377A of the Penal Code states:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with >imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.

Singapore inherited its laws from the British, and the Penal Code is based off India’s. Since Independence, other legislation that criminalises “unnatural sex”, such as non-vaginal sex or lesbian sexual intercourse, have been struck down. Section 377A still remains on the books, but the government insists that it will not prosecute gays under the law.

In practice, this is mostly true. As far as I know, in the past two decades Section 377A has only been trotted out to handle cases of public nuisance, rape and statutory rape. It has never been used to prosecute men who have consensual sex with men in private.

Singapore’s government needs to balance the needs of multiple groups in society, including religious conservatives. Keeping Section 377A can be seen as a peace offering to keep them happy while the government does away with less controversial legislation on other kinds of sex. Unfortunately, retaining Section 377A has knock-on effects.

In the military, gay soldiers are assigned a special deployment status, kept away from sensitive information, and confined to day duties for the rest of their careers. This essentially means that openly gay soldiers will never be placed in career-enhancing positions within the military. I don’t think this is institutional discrimination, rather an operational security measure. If a spy learns that a gay soldier has access to classified information, the spy can deploy a honey trap and take compromising photographs of the soldier, blackmailing him to reveal this information on pain of being arrested and charged under Section 377A.

The criminalisation of homosexual male acts also has wide-ranging impacts on civilian life: marriage, housing, insurance, legal aid, medical services. Since same-sex relationships are not officially recognised by the government, such couples are not eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual couples, and homoseuals cannot make legal decisions for their partners. This situation will likely remain so until and unless there are no longer any laws on the books criminalising consensual sex acts between adults. Perhaps longer.

While Section 377A has not led to institutionalised discrimination, this is only due to the policy of the current government. With the People’s Action Party enjoying a supermajority in Parliament (82 out of 84 seats), if the government decides at a future date that it will benefit from cracking down on gay men, there is nothing to stop it. Likewise, if a future government decrees that it shall henceforth prosecute all gay men in Singapore, Section 377A empowers it to do so.

Section 377A hangs like a sword of Damocles over the gay community. Its existence automatically criminalises men who have sex with men, even if they have done nothing to harm others. No citizen can count on the eternal benevolence of the state. Section 377A must be abolished. In its place, Parliament must revise existing law to cover cases of public nuisance, rape, statutory rape and other crimes that were previously prosecuted under Section 377A, with an eye towards deterring and punishing harm as opposed to consensual acts.

LGBT People in the Media

There are no laws forbidding the portrayal of LGBT people in the mass media. Instead, the Media Development Authority — which develops the media by censoring it — issued guidelines forbidding the “promotion or glamorization of the homosexual lifestyle”.

This policy has claimed a long list of victims of censorship. Barack Obama’s pro-LGBT comments. A same-sex kiss from a theatrical production of Les MiserablesMass Effect, for its femShep/Liara relationship, for a while. A number of local films and plays. A full list of censored media can be found here.

This isn’t to say that the MDA demanded the media to hide LGBT characters. Indeed, there is no bar against having such characters, so long as they aren’t portrayed positively. A local Mandarin-language police procedural featured a male-to-female transsexual as a killer. Another drama had an episode where the cast convinced a transvestite to give up his cross-dressing ways.

This is discrimination by regulatory fiat. The MDA does not answer to Parliament or the people. If the government believes more restrictions should be placed on the media, the MDA can do it without having to go through the formalities of a Parliamentary debate or try to convince the people through the press.

But this should also be seen in context. The government has long held the position that Singapore’s media should be a ‘nation-building media’. The media takes its cues from the government, delivering the messages and creating the narratives that the government wants it to deliver. When controversies erupted over en bloc sales of real estate in Singapore, MediaCorp suddenly produced a drama about a family caught up in an en bloc sale. Press coverage of national events tend to be slanted to favour the government, emphasising Singapore’s ‘traditional values’, including religious harmony, efficient government, and de-politicisation of racial and religious matters. This is part of the government’s overall strategy of justifying its rule through ‘Asian values’, which is really a hodgepodge of Confucian and Victorian moral norms. It creates a narrative of ‘Asian values’ through the media, then uses it to claim the moral high ground.

The problem here isn’t just discrimination per se. It’s that the government uses the media as its mouthpiece to spread its version of public ethics, politics and news, and LGBT issues is just one of them. Singaporeans cannot count on the mainstream media to explore alternative stories and narratives that contradict the party line, and there is little profit in petitioning the MDA to change its policies if the government won’t. A more realistic approach would be to engage the government itself on portrayals of LGBT people, and why LGBT people should be given fair portrayal in the media.

But I won’t hold my breath. Creators who want to have LGBT characters in their works would find better luck in spaces the MDA can’t touch. In the age of the Internet, creators can upload works on YouTube, use Patreon or Kickstarter for funding, write and narrate digital stories, and more. Instead of butting heads with the MDA on legacy media platforms, seek places where the MDA cannot reach and build your audience there. This will pull receptive audiences to your platforms, allow you to render any and all discriminatory media portrayals in Singapore irrelevant.

Marriage and Housing

In Singapore, it is usually joked that the most common way to propose marriage is to ask your would-be spouse to buy a flat with you. That’s because public housing in Singapore is strictly limited, favouring family units (including newly-weds). LGBT couples must either purchase flats on the private/resale markets or wait until they are 35 years old and purchase a flat under the joint singles scheme. Is this discrimination?

Singapore, it must be remembered, is a tiny, land-scarce country. Land use must be carefully planned, and a flat may be retained in the same family for two or even three generations out of necessity. The government must prioritise the needs of families with children and newlyweds who will produce children, for they will ensure the continued survival of the nation and the people. Lesbians, gays and transsexuals who will not or cannot produce children will not contribute to the next generation or the generation after, so their needs must be placed last.

Unfortunately, since bureaucracies must operate with a broad brush, there will be unintended victims. This year, a couple lost their marriage to the mechanisms of state. They registered their marriage as a heterosexual couple, but the male declared that he intended to transition to female. The marriage was nonetheless allowed to continue, and was registered as a heterosexual marriage. After the former husband transitioned, the marriage became a same-sex marriage — which is illegal here. After months of hemming and hawing, the state forcibly dissolved the marriage and the couple had to move to a smaller home.

I understand where the government is coming from and recognise the necessity of prioritizing heterosexual couples (and, by extension, the long-term survival of the country), but this is most unfortunate for the couple mentioned above, and other edge cases that the bureaucracy isn’t equipped to resolve. On the other hand, I don’t think Western-style civil unions can resolve the matter either. If non-heterosexual couples in civil unions are accorded the same rights as heterosexual couples in recognised weddings, it could have a significant impact on the availability of public housing in Singapore. It is not fair for a tiny non-fertile percent of the population to have such an outsized impact on the rest of the population that will ensure the nation’s continued existence.

Should we build more public housing? Singapore is the very definition of a concrete jungle: where can more land be found? What about letting LGBT people rent flats? Rent prices are sky-high in Singapore: rental flats cater to PMETs with astronomical salaries or groups of people, leaving rented rooms the only viable option for most people.

I don’t have any easy answers. What I do know is that this issue isn’t discussed in public at all. LGBT people are left to fend for themselves while the government will not accommodate them. Instead of harping on such abstract matters as the ‘freedom to love’, LGBT activists should focus on everyday matters that affect the lives of people, and the government should in turn engage these activists to hopefully reach a win-win solution.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work

Having attended the original Pink Dot, I can confirm Faye’s remarks on its essential vacuity. Yes, it celebrates the freedom of love. Yes, it trots out speakers affirming non-heteronormative relationships and the virtues of tolerance and diversity. Yes, there is music and live performances and balloons. For one day a year it makes people feel good. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

I don’t care about feeling good. I care about doing good.

There isn’t widespread systemic discrimination against LGBT people in Singapore on the scale of the Middle East or elsewhere. However, Section 377A allows potential tyrants to oppress the LGBT community. Media portrayals of LGBT people in Singapore are a facet of the government’s control over the media. Housing for LGBT people remain a thorny but underdiscussed issue.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. LGBT people face a number of unique challenges that aren’t aired openly. Half of lesbian relationships involve domestic violence. Last year, there were 408 new reported cases of HIV transmission, and 52% of them originated from homosexual transmission. Advertisements about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention targeting the LGBT community cannot be aired here.

It’s easy to jump on bandwagons, chant slogans and repeat the tired rhetoric of power, privilege and discrimination. It makes people feel good, but it doesn’t do anything to resolve these issues. If you’re truly interested in helping LGBT people, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

7 Writing Lessons from Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman doesn’t suck.

After reading all the rave reviews and the recommendations about the movie, actually seeing it felt like a disappointment. Wonder Woman isn’t a terrible film by any measure, it’s just that I have a high bar for entertainment. Indeed, it accomplished what it set out to do: tell a straightforward superheroine tale filled with courage, battles, charisma, and spiced with romance and humour.

The story begins with Princess Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, discovering a man on the beach. The man is Steve Trevor, an American spy, who discovered a German superweapon factory and was shot down while attempting to flee on an airplane. Trevor speaks of the War to End All Wars engulfing the world, and Diana believes that Ares, the god of war, is responsible for instigating the conflict. Having sworn to defeat Ares once and for all, she teams up with Trevor to end the war once and for all.

It’s a simple story, competently told. But it could be done much better.

The Negatives

I am a pessimist, so I shall start with the negatives. The major knock against Wonder Woman was the presence of two major plot holes.

When Trevor makes his great escape, Germans intercept him and shoot him down. A squadron of ships chase him to the island of Themyscira, penetrating the mysterious veil that keeps it hidden from the outside world. The ships send a landing party to hunt for Trevor on the island, and the Amazons beat them back.

As a set up for a fight scene, it works. But what happens after the Germans are beaten?

Nothing.

Consider the situation. The Germans pass through a strange barrier and discover an unmapped island. They send a landing party and see a band of female warriors kill them…with bows and arrows and swords. The logical thing to do would be to rake the beaches with naval gunfire, massacre the defenders, and send in a second landing party to claim the island for the Kaiser and the Reich. Indeed, this scenario could have provided an impetus for the Amazons to act: realizing that their home is now threatened by the implacable machinery of modern war, the Amazons are forced to flee (or are wiped out), and Diana is driven to stop Ares and avenge her people.

Instead, after the beach sequence, the ships simply cease to exist.

Here is the first lesson from Wonder Woman: always track your villains and give them agency. Bad guys cannot simply vanish from a scene without good reason, more so if they possess the advantages the Germans did in this scene. Like heroes, believable villains have motives and agendas of their own, and will do everything in their power to meet their goals. By giving them the chance to interfere with the protagonists, the villains will be seen as a powerful, threatening foe and a significant player. Reintroducing the Germans would have added emotional impetus to the rest of the story. Instead, the following sequence is the same tired tale of a child rebelling against a parent by going her own way.

Plot hole number two comes near the end of the film, during the showdown with Ares. (Spoiler ahead!) Ares is revealed to have taken the form of a minor character who helped Diana and Trevor reach the frontlines. Which suggests that Ares himself helped Wonder Woman travel to the front, allowing her to defeat him.

Why would a supervillain be knowingly complicit in his own destruction?

This is lesson number two: Villains should not help the heroes unless it benefits them.

A superhero story demands constant conflict between superhero and supervillain. One would expect Ares to do everything in his power to stop the Diana and Trevor: sending military policemen to arrest them, having Allied command brand them as traitors and spies, dispatching the entire German Army to stop them. These maneuvers would have forced the duo to overcome these obstacles and set up Ares as a terrifying enemy. Instead, Ares allowed Diana to discover his weapons factory, derail his plot to continue the Great War, and knowingly meets her, a woman of a race Ares knows Zeus created to defeat him, face-to-face just to have a cliched We Can Rule Together speech. Instead of being a superb and subtle manipulator, Ares comes off as a cardboard character who exists only for Diana to punch out. If a story must have a villain aid the hero, the villain must believe he will benefit in some way, ideally leading to the hero’s destruction. That would make for a more clever and complex story, portraying the villain as smart and Machiavellian, and give the hero a chance to shine by reversing the scheme.

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Central to the movie is a German superweapon, a new chemical weapon that its developers believe will allow Germany to triumph. This Wunderwaffe is seen as an ominous orange gas destroying gas masks and breaking glass, killing all it touches. And just what is this Wunderwaffe called?

Hydrogen-based mustard gas.

This is utter nonsense. Mustard gas isn’t a gas; it is a liquid. It is deployed as a fine mist of clear droplets, not a thick billowing colored cloud. Further, mustard gas is composed of sulfur, chloride and, in a couple of formulae, oxygen. ‘Hydrogen-based’ mustard gas would yield, among other things, hydrogen sulfide (which was actually used by the British as a chemical weapon and later discarded) or hydrochloric acid. The only reason ‘hydrogen’ comes up would be to justify the final major explosion, which is ridiculous. Having hydrogen atoms does not automatically make something explosive: water, among other things, will not ignite.

This is the third lesson: if you must use technobabble, it must make sense. If you have to use technobabble in a story, then the properties of said technobabble must be employed in some fashion later on. If you encounter a reader who actually knows something about the science you’re pretending to employ, you’re going to annoy him. For the purposes of the movie, it would have been easier and quicker to simply call the Wunderwaffe an improved version of mustard gas, or just refer to it by some ominous-sounding codename, and have a character note that it is highly flammable. This achieves the same effect without having to delve into eye-rollingly bad psuedo-science. If you must use technobabble, it should either be clearly fictitious (i.e. made-up science like Minovsky Particles) or suitably and convincingly complex (like everything by John C. Wright).

Like every good superhero story, Wonder Woman has plenty of action. Like every Hollywood blockbuster I’ve seen, I turned off my brain when the action began and tuned it out. The action scenes are competent…for Hollywood…but I hold my entertainment to much higher standards of realism.

A critical action scene takes place at the front. Diana hears of the Germans occupying a town and catches sight of refugees somehow being allowed to linger in the Allied trenches. She is outraged, but the army won’t help her. She leads a one-woman charge across No Man’s Land, plows into the German lines, inspires the rest of the Allies to help her, and single-handedly liberates the town.

This scene establishes Diana as an idealistic, driven and impetuous woman. If she can’t get what she wants, she simply plows straight through the obstacles, heedless of the consequences. There were just so many things that could have gone wrong.

The Germans could have fired on her from so many angles she couldn’t block all of the bullets. Shells could have detonated against her armour instead of being deflected. She could have stepped on a mine. She could have run into a cloud of poison gas (and she never has chemical protection). A nearby blast could have blown her off her feet and showered her with shrapnel. Even if she makes it all the way across, the rest of the Allies are mere humans–and the German defenses would have cut them down. The Allies would support their hasty offensive with machineguns and artillery, and she could have been hit by friendly fire.

This could have been a scene where Diana discovers that her training was woefully inadequate to prepare her for the horror of modern industrial war. At the very least, Diana could have unleashed her superpowers, justifying her survival. Instead, she survives all this because the plot demands it , and because in Hollywood, Strong Action Females are more powerful than men and never pay the price for brashness.

Here is lesson number four: action scenes must make sense. The protagonist cannot survive simply because the plot demands it; her victory must be justified. On the flipside, the enemy must be believably threatening, and an enemy as powerful and dangerous as the Imperial German Army must act in a manner consistent with their portrayal. This means proper defensive tactics and measures designed to defeat an attack they were expecting.

Fixing this sequence is simple. Diana tries to cross No Man’s Land. Trevor holds her back, and explains to her in graphic detail what happens to idiots who try to make a frontal attack across No Man’s Land. She insists on going, convincing him that liberating the town is a worthy cause, and he in turn convinces her to launch a night time raid. Our heroes sneak across No Man’s Land, infiltrate the enemy lines and knock out the defenses, allowing the rest of the Allies to overrun the Germans and liberate the town. This scene would have satisfied the demands of characterisation and action while not being suicidal.

The Positives

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Despite the issues mentioned above, Wonder Woman isn’t all that bad. What sets it apart from other similar films is the character interactions.

Diana is a brave, headstrong, stubborn, rash and naïve woman who was raised on an isolated island. She is utterly ignorant about the outside world beyond knowing how to speak multiple languages (a convenient plot device to justify how everyone can talk to each other and how she can read a coded notebook). This shows throughout the story: she doesn’t know anything about fashion, she is filled with curiosity about the outside world, and she operates under the childish-yet-believable assumption that stopping Ares will stop the war. Despite all this, she acts in a consistently heroic fashion, fighting for the weak, the innocent and to end the slaughter of millions.

This is lesson five: heroes must be heroic. Heroes are memorable because they are larger than life. They have ideals they fight for and lines they will not cross. They will go the distance and commit themselves to their cause. Every aspect of their personality is magnified and consistent throughout the story, and their behaviours flow organically from their backstories and personalities. Diana walks with an aura of charisma because she lives and acts with honour and integrity, and Gal Gadot convincingly portrays this on the silver screen.

Wonder Woman might be Diana’s story, but Steve Trevor plays a significant role too. He helps her navigate the modern world, fills her in on critical details, and fights alongside her in the action scenes. At the climax, he gets a big action scene all to himself, stopping the mundane threat so Diana can concentrate on Ares. Throughout the film, the duo enjoy a respectful relationship. They may have their differences, but instead of sniping at each other or wasting time on pointless bickering, they solve problems and support each other, building each other up all the way to the end.

Lesson six: supporting characters must support the protagonist and the story. If a supporting character does next to nothing in a story, then that character can be deleted and his actions handed off to other, more important characters. If a support character does not support the protagonist, then there is no reason why the protagonist keeps him around. This is especially important for stories about superheroes and high-level violence professionals: such people will not tolerate the presence of people who could drag them down and potentially undermine the mission. Instead, they will keep around people who build them up and help them overcome problems, and Steve Trevor fulfils this role magnificently.

As an aside, consider this: how did modern culture reach the point where having a male supporting character contribute significantly to the plot and action scenes in a female-led story without being denigrated by the heroine become a noteworthy novelty?

Women are Wonderful

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The main flaw running through Wonder Woman is the assumption that Women are Wonderful. Diana makes no major mistakes and does not pay the price. She walks around with a sword in wartime London and nobody bats an eye; she wears her sword in the back of her dress at a fancy dress ball and nobody notices or cares. She leads an Allied army on a suicidal attack across No Man’s Land but it somehow makes out unscratched. Ares conveniently comes to her instead of making her fight to find him. As an Amazon she is destined to defeat Ares, so instead of having to work for her victory all she has to do is pour on MOAR POWA until he is defeated.

This is the Women are Wonderful trap. In fiction, women cannot be seen to make mistakes so women get away with making stupid decisions. In reality, the police would have hounded her, the Allies would have taken horrendous casualties to support her solo charge (and every death would be on her), and Ares would have opposed her every step of the way and forced her to find him. At every critical juncture, the Hand of the Director intervenes so that Diana need never suffer the consequences of her actions and never has to work hard or change her perspective to accomplish her goals.

This is the final lesson: actions have consequences. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Charge in recklessly and you get killed, or your allies get slaughtered. Slip up and the enemy will exploit it. Diana survived this adventure and remained an idealist simply because she suffers no consequences for any of her actions. As a writer, you must make your characters reap the bitter harvest of bad decisions. Only then can you have a believable story.

Wonder Woman could have been great. Instead, it is distinguished from other Hollywood blockbusters only by virtue of the characters. Learn from Wonder Woman, and craft better stories.

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If you’d like to see how I applied these lessons to my writing, check out my latest novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon or the Castalia House ebook store.

How I Deadlifted Twice My Bodyweight in Half a Year

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Having done all manner of bodyweight exercises for the past eight years, I wanted to try something new. My gains had tapered off, and doing more of the same wouldn’t help. I decided to sign up for a gym and try weightlifting. My plan was to run StrongLifts 5×5 and see where it took me.

That plan was scuttled on Day One.

The StrongLifts program requires power racks and barbells. Every time I entered the gym, every rack and barbell would be in use. There would always be someone else waiting in line to use them.

I had to make do with what was left.

Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

I took stock of the situation. The other gym goers didn’t just take the racks and bars. They grabbed the benches and occupied the machines. Without fail, there would always be people on the equipment, and more people waiting for their turn. The one thing I could count on to be reliably available were the fixed barbells.

Fixed bars became the foundation of my new program. My goal was simple: gain muscle by lifting heavy. I wanted to go for big compound lifts: I only had between 45 minutes to an hour at the gym, so I had to maximise efficiency. I played around with the lifts for a while, eventually settling on squats, bent over barbell rows, clean and press, and of course, deadlifts.

I started with 30 kilos. Lift five reps, rest, then lift again. I did one exercise at a time, moving on only when I completed my five sets. I timed each rest session for twenty deep breaths, longer I needed it, shorter if I could get away with it. As it transpired, 30 kg was the bare minimum I could do. Coming to the end of the workout, I couldn’t even hit five complete sets. The day after I completed a proper workout, I awoke stiff and sore everywhere.

But it was progress.

The plan was to work out three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The rest of the week was for recovery and light workouts. At that time, rest was absolutely critical: my body just wouldn’t handle heavy exercises two days in a row.

My initial goal was to hit five sets of five reps of 30 kilos for all four exercises. With each session, I aimed to lift more reps than the last. If I could only do three sets of five reps the last time around, then I aimed to do three sets of five reps, plus one more rep. I built on that foundation, steadily working my way up to 5×5. If I couldn’t meet the day’s objective of lifting more reps, that was fine: I stuck to the old number and kept trying until I could. Within the first month, I had hit my target.

StrongLift’s approach of five sets of five reps of ever-increasing weight sounded good, but since I couldn’t count on the bars and adjustable weights being available, I had to be very careful about increasing weight. The fixed bars came in increments of ten kilos. Not insurmountable — it just required care.

After clearing 5×5 of 30kg, I picked up the 40kg barbell. It was noticeably heavier than the previous weight, but I was committed. I began with the modest goal of three sets of five reps. The extra weight piled on me fast: rest breaks took longer, and near the end I could barely squeeze out that many reps. The following day, the aching muscles returned.

I decided I would stick to my original goal of 3×5 until I could lift the bar with good form. No failed weight, no stumbling, no loss of balance, just good clean lifts. When I met that goal, I slowly worked my way up to 5×5. I spent a week doing 5×5 of 40kg, ensuring I could take the strain, before moving on to 3×3 of 50 kg and working up again.

Every increment is a new challenge. At lighter weights you might be able to muscle your way through. But at heavier loads, you have to start paying attention to form, or you will develop debilitating injuries. More than a few times I had to scale back to a lower weight or stick to smaller sets until I was ready. I learned to listen to my body, to pay attention to how I reacted to weight, and adjust accordingly. When in doubt, I fell back on lighter loads and lower reps: a man can always try for heavier weights at a later date, but he can’t recover so quickly from torn tendons, crushed bones or blown joints.

Do the Work, But Don’t Be An Idiot

No matter how busy I was, I made time for the gym. The weather didn’t matter, the time didn’t matter, how tired I was didn’t matter, I showed up and did the work three times a week.

If I showed up late, I adapted. If I was really tired and I couldn’t lift big, I toned it down. If I had something to do on a regularly scheduled gym day that I could not avoid, I made certain to show up on the following day. No excuses, no whining, just show up and do the work.

That is the secret to success in everything you do. You have to keep working at it, and keep getting better. You will always be tempted to slack off. Know that to succumb to temptation is to sabotage yourself. Be it writing, martial arts, gym or whatever else you do, if you want to get good at it, you have to show up and do the work.

Of course, the flipside is that you shouldn’t be an idiot.

If you’re struggling to finish a rep, you shouldn’t recklessly muscle through it if it means compromising your form. You’re there to get stronger, not to risk injury. If you’re sick, you shouldn’t show up. Working hard will only delay the recovery process, and it is rude to pass on your disease. Two months ago, I was bedridden with severe conjunctivitis for almost a week. I couldn’t even exercise: trying to run, jump, do push-ups or other activities drove up the blood pressure in my eyes, leading to throbbing aches. I simply rested until I had recovered. When I returned to the gym, I started off light, then worked my way back up.

Work hard. Give yourself no excuses to slack off. But respect your physical limits and stay safe and healthy. You’re going to the gym to get stronger, not to give yourself lifelong injuries.

Building Back Up

The iron tears your muscles down. Rest and nutrition build them up stronger than before.

I can’t advise anyone on pre-workout supplements, protein shakes or sports drinks. I’m allergic to everything on the market. I had to figure out nutrition the old-fashioned way: clean eating.

There are plenty of formulae and guidelines out there to calculate your optimal nutrient intake. The general principle is to consume plenty of protein and nutrients, moderate your carbohydrate intake, and have more saturated fat. Thanks to my dietary restrictions I’m practically forced to eat clean anyway. The one major change I made was to reduce rice and other sources of empty carbohydrates, and substitute them with chicken, tuna, eggs, and huge amounts of vegetables.

My current diet revolves around oats, white rice, white meat, eggs, the occasional fruit, pork and mutton where possible, and all the vegetables I’m not allergic to. I don’t presently have the time or inclination to measure every little gram of nutrient that goes into my diet. I just make sure that at least two-thirds of what I eat every day contains vegetables and protein, and the rest takes care of itself.

My hydration plan is equally simple: lots of water every day. Tea if the occasion calls for it, fruit juice if it’s available, but absolutely no soft drinks and coffee. This is less a lifestyle choice than a dietary requirement, but I have no issues with it. The body, after all, is 70 percent water, and you need to keep yourself topped up.

For me, the critical factor was getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is the bane of modern living, and a roadblock to getting stronger. You can’t keep abusing your body and expect it to get better without giving it time to recover. While my current schedule requires a workweek that fluctuates between 50 to 60 hours of work, I still take time out to get at least 7, preferably 8, hours of sleep. It’s not always possible, but I try my best.

Putting Everything Together

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As I grew more comfortable with the iron, I experimented with other exercises and inserted other workouts: pre- and post-workout jogs, dumbbells, variations of my preferred lifts, other lifts, heavy bag work. I mixed and matched to meet my schedule, sticking to my core lifts and keeping track of my performance. I keep my workouts between 45 minutes to an hour long, but every now and then I test myself by going the distance, stretching to 75 minutes by incorporating additional cardio work.

In addition to gym time, I did other exercises. Filipino martial arts, minimum of two hours a week. Yoga, at least once a week. High Intensity Interval Training, on occasion or when pressed for time. With my Individual Physical Proficiency Test (Army fitness test) coming up, I swapped out one gym session a week to train specifically for the IPPT events.

Put everything together, and in the past half year, I gained 3 kilograms of muscle, going from 57 to 60 kg. For my last gym session, I did the following:

  • 3 sets of 6 dips
  • 5 and a half minute run at 13 km/h
  • 1 set of 15 reps of deadlifts, bent barbell rows, clean and press, and squats with 40 kg barbell
  • 1 set of 5 reps of clean and press with 80 kg barbell
  • 4 sets of 5 reps of bent barbell rows and squats with 80 kg barbell
  • 1 set of 5 reps of deadlifts with 110 kg barbell

In half a year of training, I deadlifted almost twice my bodyweight…at the end of a grueling workout.

This program is not and cannot be for everyone. I started with a baseline of physical fitness, having spent 8 years doing bodyweight exercises and 2 and a half years of martial arts training. Absolute newbies might have to go at a slower pace. I’m also certain there are other ways to optimise this program: split training, precise nutrition intake, more rest. On the whole, though, I’ve achieved what I set out to do: get stronger fast. Since the gym doesn’t offer anything heavier than 110 kg fixed barbells, I imagine I shall have to find a different goal soon.

Discipline, body awareness, and exercise and recovery plans. These were the tools I brought to the gym. Going forward, I intend to continue to employ these tools to meet new challenges. Regardless of how fit you are now, these tools can help you get stronger, fitter and healthier. If your goal is to get stronger, then make a plan, work the plan, and hit the iron.