Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Training Redux

A year ago, August 6, I posted a scene from an earlier draft of my book The Fifth Man, that I continue to work upon, describing a training scene.  The response was scattered and, naturally, I felt that it needed attention and work.  I've been working on it, over and over . . . and believe me, it is no easy scene.  Perhaps I am not there yet.

Still, I am feeling an urge to post something.  Beginning in February, many people rushed forward to give me more than $4,000 in donations, through my jumpstarter, through patreon, through the purchase of my books . . . and I want to reassure those people that the book is under construction.  I've given about four or five expected deadlines through 2016 and I don't want to give one now; I don't seem to be able to make any of them.  The book will be done when it is done; but yes, I am working on it.

In the meantime, I offer this rewrite.  As before, the character Herzog has agreed to teach his associate (no spoilers), Ruchel, the use of weapons.  The new scene is very different.  I think it is unquestionably better.  It comes after much research and consideration, not to mention rewriting.  Some nuance will be lost, as it is out of context, but I don't think that matters.

It is very hard to write any sort of training scene, as we are inundated with them.  We are all horribly jaded.  When this scene starts, Ruchel has asked to be trained in the use of weapons.  Herzog has not told her that he intends to do so.  [Please forgive any technical errors; I'm abandoning this passage today with much weariness; I'll fix the technical problems later].

Chapter 20

I stamped my feet when I came in the door of the house. Unsurprisingly, there was food cooking. Our gear was unpacked, the walls and floor neatly fixed, my sword in its scabbard hung on the wall. My father’s sword was not there. Strangely, I had expected to see it still in our baggage, but it was no longer in our hands. Ruchel had seen to it that the sword was his again.

I hung my bow next to the sword. Ruchel looked at me and smiled. She did not ask where I had gone. We sat down together and ate pleasantly but quietly, remarking only on a few things that she had observed about the house, that I had observed about the surrounding lands.

When my meal was done I set down my bowl. Ruchel was finished already, cheerfully basking in the soft fire with her chin raised, like a cat pleased with itself. “Turn towards me,” I said, turning myself towards her, cross-legged. She matched my position, so that we were knee-to-knee.

I held out my two hands towards her. “Give me your hand.” She placed hers between mine. “To begin learning weapons, there are two things you must first understand before they can be mastered.”

Holding her hand, I felt her heart leap in her throat, saw the evidence in her expression. “Yes,” she said, knowing nothing about what I was about to say.

“To hold the weapon, your hand must be strong. To persevere against your opponent, your body must be strong. We make the latter strong with our breathing. Close your eyes and breathe, feeling the air as it enters your body and leaves it.”

The echo of my father’s words whispered as I spoke to Ruchel. “Breathe as deep as you can and hold it,” I said. I watched and was pleased to see that she did not breathe with the shoulders. I saw as well that she used both her nose and her mouth to breathe in, though that was an easy matter to correct. “I want you to be aware of what part of your body is filling with air; I can see from the way your body expands that you are breathing into the lower part of your chest. Do you feel that?”

She nodded.

“As you hold your breath, you will already feel light-headed. This is because you have not taken in all the air that your body is able. Now breathe out.”

Ruchel did.

“I do feel light-headed,” she admitted.

“We can suspend that feeling through practice. Now I want you to take a series of deep breaths, about ten, very rapidly. Go ahead.”

I watched as she went through the exercise, unable to keep myself from automatically breathing in time with her. When she was done, I asked, “How do you feel?”

“I suppose . . . a little queasy.”

“Yes. And that is a problem in a fight. In a fight, you will be breathing very heavily and for a long time. If you breathe then as you do now, it will become difficult to maintain your balance. You will grow wobbly. Your vision and your thoughts will become muddled. Within a minute or two, you’ll be staggering around. Your opponent won’t need to engage with you – he will force you to engage with him and, when you’ve become weak and unsteady, he will destroy you. To avoid this, you must learn to breathe properly.”

“I understand,” she said, her eyes fixed upon me with fascination.

“My father taught me this,” I said.

“I know.”

I began to teach her how to breathe. I explained that she should take a deep breath into her chest, through her nose, with her mouth tightly closed. “Now,” I said; “As you let the breath out of your body, force your shoulders down and stretch your neck – upward, not forward. Watch, and do as I do.” Together, we repeated this a dozen times, as I patiently walked her through the process again and again.

“You must force the air down, into your body,” I said. “No, not the belly – completely through the body, to the groin.” To show her, I rose up on my knees and lifted up my shirt. “Put your hands around my middle, above my hips. Feel.” I drew in air, demonstrating to her as my father had once to me, the way the air filled my torso. “If it helps, imagine that you are forcing air into your body all the way to your feet, right through to the ground.” Telling her this, I squatted down again, opposite her.

“I think I understand,” she said.

“You will. It takes time. Training is difficult and exhausting; it is repetitive, endlessly repetitive, until it feels that your body will twist apart with the doing of it. This exercise, which we will begin again, must be done hundreds of times a day, until breathing with the stomach becomes natural. That may seem impossible now –”

“I have trained like that before,” Ruchel said excitedly. “Once, when I was only seven –”

“Quiet,” I said, cutting her off. I wanted very much to hear what had happened when she was seven, but I needed her to focus herself on what was happening more immediately. “Close your eyes. Breathe in, as I’ve explained. Together, with me.”

Within a few minutes, I comprehended her effort. I knew from experience that she was in excellent physical shape; I did not doubt that within a short time she would be able to sit and breathe patiently for an hour each day, over and over. I had not sat and meditated in such fashion in more than a month; the last time had been somewhere in the mountains above Herch, before Ruchel and I had met. At the time, I had not even thought of it as meditation, but merely time spent listening to the forest. I could not say how much time had passed – much of the afternoon, I was sure. It was not something I mentioned to Ruchel; she did not need my experience as she started upon the path of acquiring her own.

“Good,” I said, as I felt her breath weakening past the point where it would do her good. “We will work on that, perhaps later today. I want you to become conscious of something else now.”

I pressed her hand between mine.

Her eyes shone brightly. “Thank you for this, Herzog.”

“Do not thank me; you don’t know what you’re in for.”

“You were able to do all this, yes?” she taunted.

“Not easily.”

“I shall be able, too. You’ll see.”

I felt my chest swell with pride, but I said, “Quiet. Students do not talk. They listen.”

Ruchel blushed – a sight that caught me completely by surprise. With a small voice she said, “I will listen.”

“Then do it and be silent.” I pressed her hand between mine. “Flatten your hand but keep it relaxed. I am going to explain how to strengthen your hand, to make it stronger.” I felt her hand reflexively tighten and I opened my hands at once, telling her, “No. Look down.”

She did, embarrassed, the strain in her hand disappearing.

“I must teach you to correctly strengthen your hands. If we balance the tension within your bones and sinew correctly, we can make your hand a weapon. You must strain each muscle in the right way to make your hand like iron. Put both your hands around my hand.”

Without hesitation, she did as I told her. I purposefully relaxed my hand, telling her to press my skin between her fingers. Her hands were much smaller than mine but they were strong, a worker’s hands. Still, Ruchel’s eyes grew wide as I changed the tension in my hands to what I would before the beginning of a fight.

“It is like a rock!” she explained. “How are you able to do that?”

“It is a question of training. I can teach you.”

“How long did it take to learn?”

“Years. My father began teaching me when I was only nine. My hands were much smaller then; they’ve grown larger as I’ve gotten older and as the muscles have strengthened. Now, put your hand between mine again.” I held her gently. “Hold your palm flat, in line with your forearm. Like this.” I showed her. “That’s it. Press your fingers together but do not curl your fingers. Feel the tension. Now, relax again.”

She did.

“I show you this to explain this is not the tension we want. I do not want you to press your fingers together. I want you, instead, to pull on your thumb – that is, try to pull your thumb on itself, from within. Imagine it drawing back into the wrist. As you do, bend your knuckle – no, not as much as that. Yes, that’s it.”

Ruchel struggled to obtain the exact position of her hand that I wanted. I remembered how my own hands would ache when I began these exercises. I imagined that she, used to working constantly, would fare better than me. “Do not merely bend the thumb,” I said. Her hand began to quiver and I knew from feel that the tension she was feeling was correct. “That’s it. Exactly. Now, listen carefully. I want you to try to breathe as I’ve shown you; hold the tension in your hand. Yes, in through your nose. Good, good. Now, don’t relax your hand; that’s it; now this time, when you release the air –”

Exhaustively, she blew her breath out of her lungs and let loose the strain on her hand, pulling it out of my grip. She took several deep breaths. “Wheeew,” she breathed. “That’s much harder than I’d guess.”

“I was going to say, remember to stretch your neck when you breathe out. Are you ready to start again.”

She nodded, ready to take up the task again. I was proud of her. “This time, do not try too hard,” I told her. “This will not come in one day or even one month. The important thing is to understand the exercise. Without hurrying, find the right place with your thumb again.”

For many minutes thereafter, we went through the exercise of shaping the tension in her hand and matching this to her breathing . . . I directed her through the mastery of each finger in turn, urging her to retract each, to stiffen them correctly and to demonstrate how the muscles she needed to hold a weapon properly were – in her – almost wholly untempered and unused. We went through the process with each hand, until I finally told her to stop, to let her wrists rest loosely on top of each knee.

“This is how it begins,” I said.

“I’m tired,” she said with wonder. This was the first time I had ever heard Ruchel express fatigue.

“In a moment, we will spend time breathing again – and then we’ll be done for the day. We can begin again tomorrow, and each day afterwards.”

Without warning, she threw herself at me and embraced me tightly to her. “Thank you!” she cried. Her body was warm and fresh and filled me with longing. I held her for several long moments, feeling her forehead in the crook of my neck, her chest pressed against mine . . . but somehow . . . with courage . . . with regret . . . I disentangled myself from her arms, putting her back on the floor. There were tears in her eyes.

“I – I . . .” I answered clumsily. “You’re welcome.” I looked away, fighting back my own tears. “Let’s – let’s begin again.”

She nodded rapidly, lips tightly together before opening them to say, “Yes, teacher.”

“Good. Give me your right hand.”

At this point, the real-time narrative is replaced by a description of the next week, in which she trains before he progresses her to the use of a weapon.  I'm working on these scenes, still.

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Matt said...

I recall reading and being critical of the original post for this scene. This is much improved.

It seems that Ruchel's dialog avoids using contractions until nearer the end. This makes her early dialog feel a bit more formal, or stilted. My first thought was actually that she might not be a native speaker of the language she was using. However, as the passage wraps up she starts using contractions much more frequently. If this is not a stylistic choice (maybe the former is her trying to 'impress' Herzog and the latter is her exhausted?) it might be beneficial to make this more consistent, but being as there is no other context here, I am not sure if this is a real problem.

I like Herzog much better this time around. He seems like less of an asshole. The text does a good job of explaining why he is being harsh in his lessons. This was something I felt was missing before.

There is a particular line that I do not like.

her chest pressed against mine . . . but somehow . . . with courage . . . with regret . . .

When I read a story in the first person I tend to imagine the narrator as the author, not as a speaker. This little ellipsis storm reminds me of bad writing. That is not to say it is actually itself bad writing, but I would not want to see this as a trend in the book.

In fact, as I wrote that, I noticed a second line that I am more confused about than that I dislike.

For many minutes thereafter, we went through the exercise of shaping the tension in her hand and matching this to her breathing . . . I directed her

I do not understand what you are trying to convey with the ellipsis. This seems like it should just be punctuated with a period. If you are trying to convey anything of Herzog's mood or tone, I am missing it. This could be a lack of context, of course, but it again falls into the fact that I personally do not like ellipses used in this manner.

To contrast, I do like their use in the dialog.

“I suppose . . . a little queasy.”


“I – I . . .” I answered clumsily. “You’re welcome.” I looked away, fighting back my own tears. “Let’s – let’s begin again.”

These do a good job of establishing the cadence of the speakers. Definitely keep this. Not the lines necessarily, but the way you have written them. To me, this makes the dialog feel natural. It is easy to hear the characters speak in my head.

And I am sure I don't need to say so, but this is all just my opinion. I am not a professional editor, and I don't already have several books and a massive blog and wiki under my belt. I do hope I am at least helpful though.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I had a professor who used to say, "Never defend your writing - fix it or shut up."

Thank you for your comments.

Mike said...

The first person perspective is forced. Too much I asked, I said, etc. It feels like you are telling instead of showing.

O won't go into the training details, as to each there own, but very different than my experience in martial arts.

Jomo Rising said...

It's a nice chapter considering what it's for. Stepping in a chapter 20 is odd for me. I like your characters. They don't seem typical, which is good. I don't think the world needs another wizened Jedi Master type in Herzog, but someone who feels emotion, and is perhaps a little uncertain. You've kept a training scene interesting by keeping the humanity in it, refusing to let it be dry. I have no problem with your use of 1st person. In my writers group, I have the reputation for coming down hard on overuse of adverbs, that five "ly" words in one paragraph is too many. I'm critical of adverbs in dialog tags (Ruchel said excitedly). Overall though, not a problem here. I also try to eliminate "began to" and "started to" in non-dialog parts. They soften sentences that should be active, and can almost always be removed. Just my two cents. Thanks for sharing.