Most Influential Teacher

Daily writing prompt
Who was your most influential teacher? Why?

I’ve had a lot of great teachers in my life, and I owe a great deal to all of them.

One of the most influential was a teacher that not too many other students liked. He was a curmudgeon of a man with a short grey brush cut and muscular forearms that looked like they were built for strangling students. I’ll call him Mr. Z. The other students in my classes had other names for him… mostly inappropriate. Now that I’m older, I can see that the guy was a hangover from the sixties. Not the Singing Sixties either. (We had other teachers like that.) It was more like the sixties of NASA director Gene Krantz during the Apollo 13 mission… “failure is not an option.”

Photo by Pixabay on – Astronaut Edwin E (Buzz) Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the lunar module.

At the time, my high school has three streams for kids. Basic, General, and Advanced. Advanced was for those kids who were most likely to go on to university, and somehow I ended up in that advanced stream. At the time I had no idea I was going to go on to become a physicist. Going into grade nine I was a relatively average kid in terms of intellectual horsepower. Sure space was cool, but I also wanted to be a private investigator. My parents subtly nudged me, suggesting I try the advanced route and if it was too challenging, I could always drop down.

Mr. Z dropped a challenge on day one.

Science wasn’t just another subject to him. It was the subject. Science was how the world worked. And if we wanted to really make big contributions to the world… become engineers, doctors, scientists, leaders… we had a responsibility to understand the world the best way that we could.

Nothing ever came easy in his class. He took off marks for seemingly trivial things. He assigned (what felt like) mountains of homework. And there were frequent quizzes. I had to come to class prepared… every day.

There were times when I would rather have had a different teacher, someone easier, nicer, someone who might let us slack off just a little.

A lot of people found the guy intimidating. But he laid out the world as he honestly saw it. Not everyone was going to become a movie star. The best way to do anything was to understand as much about it as you possibly could. And as challenging as he could be, for some reason his teaching style resonated with me.

Mr. Z set the bar and I pushed myself to meet it.

40 Years of Judo and It’s Impact on my Writing

Forty years ago, I stepped onto the mat at my local judo club for the first time. Judo has been a part of my life ever since. I have been fortunate to have had many great teachers (sensei) over the years, and many more peers to practice with (judoka), and I am extremely grateful for all of that time on the mat, the friends I have made and the lessons I’ve learned. While I never became the champion I’d hoped to be as a kid, through judo, I have learned many valuable lessons that have made me successful so many dimensions of my life… as a father, as a scientist and clinician, as a professor, in my relationships with friends, in my time as a solider, and as a writer. I can’t describe all of this in a single blog post, but today I can share a little about how judo has helped me as a writer.

Photo by Artem Podrez on

Lesson 1: How to Fall

Ukemi— the breakfall.

There’s an old Japanese proverb that says: fall down seven times, stand up eight. If I had to reduced all of judo’s life lessons into a single statement, this would be a top contender.

This first thing you learn as a student in judo is how to fall. It should be easy, right? I mean, gravity does most of the work. But the point is to fall in such a way that you can stand back up again. You learn to spread your body out, and use our arms to transfer your kinetic energy to the mat in a directed manner that doesn’t involve breaking bones. You learn how to fall backward, forward and sideways. You learn how to roll out of a fall, protect your head, and come back up on your feet.

I have had a number of massive wipeouts in my life. Once, hiking in the mountains with the girl who would later become my wife, I tried to impress her by jumping down a rocky trail… and ended up in an ass over tea kettle fall. When I landed she had thought I snapped a femur! And I easily could have, but I managed to roll with the fall because my body knew what to do. I bounce back up, a little sore, but otherwise okay. Had I broken a leg, it would have meant a helicopter rescue, and given the remoteness of where we were, that would not have been fast coming. The thing is, even if that had been the only time judo saved me, it would have been worth it.

The point of course isn’t even so much the physical safety. Training your body to get back up after a fall also trains your brain. You learn that there are aspects of even the most chaotic situation that you can control. And you learn that you can get back up and keep going. When you do this on a regular basis on a mat, you can apply it to school, professional work, and even writing. When your manuscript is rejected, you take what feedback you can collect, improve it and move on.

That’s a skill worth more than gold.

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Core Principles of Judo

The first fundamental principle of judo is Seiryoko-Zenyo — 精力善用
(kanji from Wikipedia). It means to make maximum efficient use of energy.

In a competitive combative situation, each opponent has a fixed amount of energy they can expend. The physical techniques in judo (and many other martial arts) are focused on the strategic application of force in such a way as to achieve your goal (i.e. throwing your opponent on their back) while expending as little energy as possible. A fight or match is ultimately an optimization problem! No wonder it’s appealing to a physicist.

It’s self-explanatory how this concept applies to real life. Work smarter, not harder. Always seek to improve your skill set. Judo makes you do this on the mat and so it becomes habit to translate it to real life.

The second principle is Jita-Kyoei — 自他共栄
(kanji from Wikipedia). It means for mutual welfare and benefit.

The point of practicing judo is that all who do will benefit. This is why you can see fighters who can literally be trying to strangle each other in one moment, and then shaking hands and congratulating each other the next.

For me, this principle tends to make judo stand out as a martial art as well. Because of the mutual benefit rule, judo was designed so that it can be practiced at full speed with minimal risk of injury to the players. There are no (competitive) striking techniques. Other techniques that carry too much risk of injury are also omitted (or practiced only in kata).

This principle also has self-explanatory applications in the real world. Though a judo match itself is a zero sum game, both parties derive benefit from the match. Even when you get the wind knocked out of you, you get up and now you’ve identified a flaw in your technique.

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Translating Judo Experience into Writing

Write What You Know

Having spent so much time on the mat, I know what it’s like to fight competitively. I know how to apply armlocks and strangulation techniques. I know how to break someone’s balance and throw them to the ground. I know what it feels like to be choked out, how quickly one can physically tire, how anxiety, excitement, anger and fear can influence a person. Judo has given me a vast array of experiences to draw on when describing a character in danger or locked in a physical confrontation.

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The Outcome is Always a Dice Throw

Training, study, experience, physical fitness, size, speed, stamina, injury, and psychological motivation can all influence the outcome of a match in one direction or another. But there are no guarantees. These things simply make one outcome more probable than another. But I’ve seen a white belt (beginner) at his first tournament throw a black belt. Experienced fighters all know this. So no matter how good a character is, there are always elements that character cannot control.

As a writer you can take advantage of this so that you can move a story along as you need to.

The Difference Between Theory and Skill

I can show someone how to perform a throwing technique. I can break it down into its core elements of kuzushi (the breaking of your opponent’s balance), tsukuri (proper positioning to apply the technique), and kake (the final, forceful application of the technique). I can explain where the opponent’s (uke‘s) centre of gravity should be, and where that of the person applying the technique (tori) should be. I can review variations, setups, and combinations. I can show all of that and the student can understand it conceptually… meaning they understand the theory.

But almost always, the first time you try a new technique in free practice (randori) against someone who is not willing to let you apply it, it doesn’t work.

Skill is the ability to successfully apply the technique. It comes with years of training and development. You learn the subtle details about where to grab, how to move your feet. You develop muscle memory so you can capitalize on a split-second opening, without consciously recognizing it and needing to make the decision to attack. You work it into a larger strategy, using other techniques to set it up.

This applies to writing in general as well. You can learn and understand the “rules” – show don’t tell, avoid the info dumps, active voice, etc. but you need to work with them, practice with them and get critical feedback from audiences (editors, beta readers, critiquers, agents, people in your writing group, etc.) to develop your skills.

Should Writers Try Judo?

As a writer it’s important to try lots of things.

As a far as martial arts go, judo is quite accessible. It is designed to be practiced at full speed, so you get a full combative experience minus the head trauma or broken bones. But it doesn’t have to be practiced at full speed or even competitively. I’ve seen people practicing kata into their late eighties.

According to the International Judo Federation, roughly 20 million people in 199 countries around the world practice judo. It is well-established as an Olympic sport, and so it should be relatively easy to find a club or dojo near you, wherever you are. In my experience, it is relatively inexpensive for a martial art (certainly compared to a lot of other sports).

That said, you can get knocked around a lot. The risk of injury is certainly not zero. So it’s important that you go in understanding the risks.

For me the study and the practice of judo is certainly worth it, not just for what I can apply to my writing, but for the life lessons I’ve learned, the friendships I’ve made, and the life balance that comes along with it.

Book Launch: Fractured Command

The Official Release of Fractured Command is almost here!

If you’re in the Lethbridge area, join us for an in-person book launch.
Date: Friday, March 31, 2023
Time: 07:00 – 08:30 pm
Place: Analog Books
322 6 St S, Lethbridge, AB T1J 2C8
(local independent bookstore, in downtown Lethbridge, in Festival Square)

Join us for a reading, ask the author, light refreshments, book browsing, and more.

When a mysterious spacecraft with alien technology takes her best friend prisoner, junior engineer Cassiopeia Requin will stop at nothing to get her back.

The First Page of Your Novel

In a few days I’ll be a panelist for the Live Action Slush Pile at the Wordbridge writer’s conference. If you’ve never seen an LASP, brave writers submit the first page of their manuscript to be read… out loud, in front out an audience. Panelists (usually editors, agents, or other writers) sit at the front and as the story is read, they put up their hands if they come across a point where they would put the story down. If the audience sees three hands go up they scream out “DIE!” (Or something more encouraging… depending on the conference.)

The panel proceeds to dissect what they’ve heard. Sometimes it can get heated. But it’s always educational.

With that in mind, I thought I might offer some of my best tips on opening a novel.

Photo by George Milton on

Remember Your Goal

The goal of your opening page is simple: get the reader to page two.

That’s it.

Draw the reader in, orient them to your world, acquaint them with a character and a problem, but if page one doesn’t get the reader to page two, nothing else really matters.

Avoid Cliché Openings

Stated another way… never, under any circumstances, open with a dream.

Agents and editors complain about dream opening ad nauseam, simply because they see it so frequently. For whatever reason, dreams are a common way for beginning writers to open a story. Even if you happen to have the best novel in history of novels, starting with a cliché immediately puts you on shaky ground because 99 of 100 other stories that have opened like this have been duds.

Think of it like a spam email. Sure, there’s a small chance the guy who sent it may actually be a foreign prince willing to share his wealth with a complete stranger for the shelter of an offshore bank account. But are you going to take that risk?

Other major cliché openings to avoid include:
– a character waking up
– a character looking out over their land
– a character looking in a mirror
– the main character’s birth
– characters sparring
– a character going about their daily routine without a significant (to them) problem
– the weather.

Key Information Only

Avoid the info dump.

One of the biggest triggers in the LASP occurs when you have a great hook… an opening that totally grabs the reader… only to stop the momentum with a mountain of backstory that leaves the opening action in the dust.

This said, one of the biggest challenges writers face is that in order to tell the story, the reader needs key information, sometimes a lot of it. But it doesn’t have to come all at once.

When you first write a story, sometimes the only way to get it down, is to dump the information onto the page. And that’s okay. When I say avoid the info dump, I mean avoid it in any draft that’s meant for an audience. Once it’s down, your litmus test for whether it needs to be on page one is simple. Is this information needed to get to page two?

Avoid Too Many Unfamiliar Names, Places or Concepts

Similar to avoiding the information dump, it’s also important to avoid throwing too many unfamiliar terms at a reader. Each new term uses up active working memory. On the first page, the reader isn’t deep enough to know which terms are critical and which ones can slide into the background, so they give all unfamiliar terms equal weight, but each one requires work. Once this reaches a critical level, reading becomes too much work and they move on to another activity.

In writing science fiction that involves ensemble casts of astronauts working together to fly spacecraft, I struggle with this one immensely, because I have to introduce the team, their hierarchy and a problem they’re facing all at once. My best tip for managing this is to focus on a single, central point of view character. All problems and relationships are then viewed through that character’s lens. And while there may be other, bigger things going on, the reader can focus on what is most important to that single character at that single moment in time.

Clear Point of View

Head hopping is another deal breaker in the LASP.

If you don’t know, head hopping is when you describe a scene from more than one character’s point of view without any clear and obvious break for the reader to figure that out.

For the record, it can be done well. But more often than not, when it happens on the first page of a story, it can be disorienting for a reader. They lose track of who they’re following, the immersive experience diminishes, and they put the book down.

Sometimes this can be challenging for a writer to identify, because as the writer, you know what’s happening in your scene. This is where editors and beta readers help immensely.

Polish the Draft

This one should be obvious.

While it can be tempting to throw your amazing idea into the pile to see how it will fair, taking the time to do some self edits and having another person read it over privately will help immensely. The last thing you want in an LASP is a reader stumbling over awkward wording, or a typo in front of the audience.

Think about the efficiency of the wording. Have you picked out all of those pesky modifiers like “almost” and “nearly” and “began to?” Are you using active voice?

So What Works?

A lot of this advice is about stuff to avoid. But in the end, what makes it through to the end without triggering the audience death call?

Start with a hook.

That’s easy to say, I know. It can take a long time to come up with a knockout first line, and sometimes one never comes. Just remember you don’t have to come up with one immediately though. Sometimes the best opening won’t be obvious until you’ve finished the story and understand what it’s really about.

That saidKeys to a good hook include: (i) a unique or abnormal situation, (ii) it’s explained concisely in a sentence or two, (iii) it’s on target with the genre and/or theme of the story, and (iv) it leads the reader into the next paragraph.

Focus on a single character, with a single problem.

There can be other characters around them of course, but this character is going to lead the reader into your fictional world. They are the lens through which information is filtered and experienced. The first character does not have to be the main character. Sometimes it’s the antagonist. But the reader is going to invest time in the first character, and breaking away from them will provide a natural break point in the story and an opportunity to put the book down. So make a conscious, intentional decision about the character you open with.

The first problem does not have to be the core problem in the book. It could be something as simple as being late for a job interview. But it should drive the first character to make a decision and take action. And ultimately, you need it to drive your reader deeper into your story.

Establish Genre, Time and Place

When a science fiction reader picks up a science fiction book, they want to know that’s what they’re getting. Not every science fiction book has to open with a space battle, but there should be something on that first page that will indicate the kind of story they are in for… aliens, spaceships, artificial intelligences, that kind of thing. Because if it’s not there, that’s cause for the reader to put the book down and move on to something else.

A clear sense of time and place also helps. Orient the reader to the fictional setting. Incidentally this is why staring with dialogue is such a challenge. Because without any other information dialogue is two characters on a blackened stage.

Know Your Audience

My last tip is that your first page is ultimately yours. This advice is based on my own experience, and a part of that experience is that editors, agents, writers and readers don’t always agree. People have vastly differing opinions and what may glue some readers to a story will turn others off. There’s no single formula for a first page that’s going to satisfy everyone.

Feedback helps.

That’s one of the great things about the LASP. You get to see audience reactions. It’s similar if you get a chance to read your work with a local writing group, or take a creative writing class, or join a critique group. A single person’s opinion is just that. But when you have a whole bunch of opinions, and better yet objective reactions, you can identify patterns in the feedback. And that is what help you to improve as a writer.

Fractured Command… Out Now!

Astronaut and junior engineering officer Cassi Requin is back for another gripping space adventure.

Fractured Command is a new novel from Charles K James.
Available now.

Spacecraft engineers have one job… make it fly.

When a mysterious spacecraft with alien technology takes her best friend prisoner, junior engineer Cassiopeia Requin will stop at nothing to get her back.

Reassigned to a state-of-the-art deep space cruiser, Cassi and her crew jump on a chance that might be their only opportunity to capture the alien spacecraft. But when they end up in orbit around a black hole, their cruiser is catastrophically damaged, and their chain of command is fractured.

Predators become prey as alien drones close in and cut through the remains of their hull in a desperate fight for working technology. Cassi must improvise, adapt, and use every engineering skill she’s learned to hold both her spacecraft and her team together as they spiral toward the event horizon and make a desperate attempt to escape the crushing gravity of a black hole.

About the Book and Thanks

Thanks to all my readers who have been so supportive.

First Command was so successful, it was tough to come up with a worthy sequel. When the previous book left off, the characters were scattered, all embarking on careers in the Alliance Expeditionary Fleet. Bringing them back together for another adventure was a hurdle. But it’s been cleared.

This book was drafted multiple times, with many false starts. But now it’s been painstakingly forged and edited more times than I can count. When I (thought I) was done with it, it went off to my editor (shout out to Adria Laycraft), for multiple rounds of edits and fixes and finally a bunch more polishing passes. It has seen detailed edits from my advance reader team too – thanks so much.

And now, it’s finally ready.

Fractured Command is available now…
Other major book retailers:


Spacecraft engineers have one job… make it fly.

When a mysterious spacecraft with alien technology attacks an armored freighter and takes her best friend prisoner, junior engineer Cassiopeia Requin will stop at nothing to get her back.

Reassigned to a state-of-the-art deep space cruiser, Cassi and her crew jump on a chance that might be their only opportunity to capture the alien spacecraft. But when they end up transiting into the accretion disk around a black hole, their cruiser is catastrophically damaged, and their chain of command is fractured.

Predators become prey as alien drones close in and cut through the remains of their hull in a desperate fight for working technology. Cassi must improvise, adapt, and use every engineering skill she’s learned to hold both her spacecraft and her team together as they spiral toward the event horizon and make a desperate attempt to escape the crushing gravity of a black hole.

Fractured Command is a new novel from Charles K James.
Available for pre-order now.

About the Cover

I had a tough act to follow after the success of First Command. I was very happy with that cover so I went back to the folks at Miblart to help with my next project.

Fractured Command is the second book in the Cassi Requin Universe. The cadets from the first novel have now graduated and are working as junior astronaut officers throughout the Alliance Expeditionary Fleet, but when Emica, Cassi’s best friend, is taken prisoner aboard a mysterious alien spacecraft, Cassi must get her back. As the book progresses, Cassi and her crew chase the alien spacecraft into a black hole system, where their spacecraft is catastrophically damaged. I wanted a black hole to feature prominently on this cover. Secondly, I wanted the book to connect with the first one. First Command features Cassi looking all defiant on cover, standing in front of a crashed spacecraft against the backdrop of an alien planet. Ideally I wanted a similar image of her on the cover.

But there was a major problem.

When I went back to Miblart, they told me the artist who worked on the original cover was no longer with them!

For anyone who doesn’t know, Miblart is a Ukrainian company. I don’t need to explain how tough the last year has been on the people of Ukraine. Bombardments. Power outages. War. It must be an absolute nightmare and my heart goes out to all those who have to live through this. (On a tangent I’ll throw in a little plug for the Red Cross.) I’ve been happy and proud to continue working with them through this past year.

Through all of this, we managed to find an artist with a similar style. Here are a couple of the original concept sketches.

Two of the original concept art sketched. Both feature the main character, Cassi. At the risk of stating the obvious,
on the left, her helmet is on. On the right, her helmet is off.

They didn’t fail to disappoint. My initial impressions were that they got the essence of what I was looking for. But there was one major issue. On the right, Cassi’s helmet is off. She looks awesome and considering she’s got the long flowing red hair on the first cover, I thought for sure she’d be recognizable to readers as the same character.

But Cassi is not superhuman. The novel is soft science fiction. That means that I take fictional liberties with concepts like faster-than-light travel, but people still can’t breathe in space.

On the other hand, with the helmet on, you can’t really see her hair.

In the end, most people I showed it to thought the helmet off version was better, particularly if she could be drawn in a little more distress. One of the “rules” of novel cover making is that you’re not supposed to focus too intently on recreating a scene from the book. Rather, you want to convey an easily recognizable genre, and maybe some themes of the story. So I went with helmet off.

Cassi’s not superhuman. But she is pretty badass.

Fractured Command is available now…
Other major book retailers:

One Million Words… and Counting

This is my 20th year participating in National Novel Writing Month. Every November since 2002 I have challenged myself to write at least 50,000 words of a novel.

Every year so far, I’ve succeeded.

Today, I reached a significant milestone. Cumulatively, NaNoWriMo, has allowed me to write 1,000,000 words.

November 6, 2022. Author Charles James has cumulatively written over 1,000,000 words directly through participation in National Novel Writing Month.

For the record, my millionth word is somewhere this sentence:

Hey, I get it,” Raddock said. “This ain’t easy. That’s why you chief engineers make the big bucks.”

I was kind of hoping it might come out in a sentence that was more dramatic. But I’ll take it.

In the Beginning

NaNoWriMo Logo circa 2002 courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

I started National Novel Writing Month back in 2002. Back then I was working on my PhD and really didn’t have the time for something so ambitious. To hit 50,000 words in a month, someone like me needs about two hours per day to dedicate strictly to writing. That’s a huge commitment when you’ve got a candidacy to prepare for, experiments to run, code to debug, and academic papers to write. But writing is my constructive down time that allows me to be fully engaged and focused in all the other things that I do. So I gave it a go.

My first NaNo novel was an origin story about a ninja who worked for the mafia. The story fell on its face at about word 50,001, but I had fun writing it. In 2002 the NaNoWriMo website was pretty basic, but it allowed people all over the world to cluster together in regions where local “municipal liaison” (ML) volunteers would schedule meet ups. That first year I was so excited to finally start meeting some other writers, but I think we only had one event, and like my novel, it kind of fell on its face.

2003 was the year NaNo really took off in my local region. As October 2003 rolled around, I realized I was looking forward to November. And I mean… who looks forward to November?

The website had forums and on them, people were getting excited. I had an idea for a science fiction series about interplanetary marshals and bounty hunters. We had a new local ML who organized planning sessions and then, when November hit… write-ins! To anyone who hasn’t attended a write-in they must seem particularly odd. Back in 2003 we would all have been huddled around in a restaurant with clunky laptops all taking turns plugging into one available outlet, and quietly pounding out words. Then every twenty minutes or so, boisterous laughter.

Making Time

NaNoWriMo is not about producing a quality book, at least not in November. Writing that much, that fast, you can’t. (Or at least I can’t.) But what it does allow you to do is exercise your creativity as a writer. Over the years I have written science fiction, fantasy, westerns, thrillers, action-adventure stories, steampunk, horror, and stuff that doesn’t really fit well inside a genre box. Overall I’ve learned about crafting a story, not just the knowledge of “how” to do it, but what come from all that writing (and feedback when sharing the work) is the development of the skill in applying it. Knowledge and skill are two different things. It’s important for writers to have both. You can gain knowledge from courses, from reading, from conferences, etc. but skill… skill comes from doing.

In 2005 I successfully defended my PhD, started a new job as a post-doctoral researcher, got married… and still won NaNoWriMo.

From 2007 to 2009 I completed a clinical residency in medical physics. It’s called a residency because you more-or-less reside at the hospital. I also wrote my national certification exams… and I still won NaNoWriMo.

2010… my first child was born. I was a new dad. I also commissioned a new cancer center, including setting up two new nuclear accelerators and a CT simulator… still won NaNoWriMo.

2014… fellowship examination. I was now the father of two young children and a senior medical physicist…. still won NaNoWriMo.

From about 2016 – 2019 I volunteered as the Municipal Liaison in my city. I organized prep-parties, write-ins, and TGIO parties. I was even there a few times when no one showed up… and I still won NaNoWriMo.

Could I have been doing something more productive? Yes and no. I mean sure, I could have put that time into research, starting a business, etc. But writing is my constructive down time. Other people play music, paint, draw, do computer animation, build Lego, etc. Constructive down time makes you more efficient, more engaged, and more resilient against burn out. Once you start seeing it as necessary, it’s no longer a “waste of time” but an investment.

Writer to Author

Last year, in 2021, I took a major step. I took a manuscript I had been working on for a while. It wasn’t a NaNo novel per se, though many elements of prior NaNo novels come together in it, and I scraped together some extra money and hired a professional editor… shout out to Adria Laycraft. I had been workshopping this novel with my writing group for some time, but I decided to take the plunge. With a couple rounds of critical editing, I formed my own company, Megavoltage Publishing, and in June, I released my first major science fiction novel, First Command.

First Command by Charles James

The reviews have been incredible. The book has been consistently in Amazon’s top 200 of Teen and YA Space Opera novels. And the success has allowed me to start working on a sequel, which I began writing as a NaNo novel last year. Black Hole (stay tuned for release date info) is now going through its final revisions and I plan to release it in early 2023!

A Note of Thanks

I’d like to close with a note of thanks. Thank you to the team at the (former) Office of Letters and Light, now the non-profit group National Novel Writing Month. Thank you to the sponsors and donors whose generosity keeps this craziness running year after year. Thank you to all the people who volunteer as Municipal Liaisons, and those who support them, for all of the time and hard work that they put into local events and helping writers to connect. Thank you to my own community of writers, and those communities I have had the privilege of being a part of over the past 20 years. And of course thank you to my family and friends for always supporting me.

Harnessing Terror To Tell A Great Story

Deep down, everyone experiences fear. Sometimes it can motivate us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do. Sometimes it prevents us from doing what we know we should. Now that Halloween is upon us, I thought it might be a good idea to look at how this emotion can be used to drive not just the horror genre, but fiction in general.

Photo by Tejas Prajapati on

The Basis of Fear

“…fear is a fighter’s best friend… it ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. See, fear keeps you sharp, it keeps you awake, you know, it makes you want to survive. You know what I mean? But the thing is, you gotta learn how to control it. All right? ‘Cause fear is like this fire, all right? And it’s burning deep inside.”

– Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in Rocky V

At its most fundamental level, fear is a reaction to a perceived threat or dangerous situation.

When you recognize a threat, your amygdalae (almost-shaped clusters of nuclei in your brain’s cerebrum) release hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. This rush of hormones dilates your blood vessels and airway, quickens your pulses, increases blood flow to skeletal muscles and elevates blood sugar levels. In short, it triggers an intense degree of alertness, focused on the threat, and enables quick defensive or aggressive actions. This is quite commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. When seen through the lens of evolution, this stimulus-response reaction makes a lot of sense. That hyperaware state might make you notice the snake slithering in the branches over your head, or the panther crouching in the bushes.

As a writer, you can tap into that heightened focus, using your story as stimulus.

Classical Horror

The specifics of what people fear are fascinating, particularly in a classical sense, before our collective psyches were desensitized through repeated televised exposures.

Anthony Camara, an associate professor with the University of Calgary, argues that vampires, werewolves and mummies first appeared in the 19th century. For a very long time in western human culture the human body was seen as divine, and separate from the animal kingdom, but as we came to understand evolution, this worldview had to shift.

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Classical werewolves are a shape-shifter archetype. At the risk of speculating, the shifter, as a fear, may derive from a fear body dysmorphia… that a body does not look “as it should.” At the same time an argument can be made that this archetype has a root in fear of change. Thinking back to Michael J Fox in 1985’s Teen Wolf, there is a strong parallel with puberty. Suddenly you’re hairier than you used to be, emotions are more intense, you can venture out into the night, and you’re a lot more powerful than you were as a kid. Connected to this, there is also a fear of an inner animal, that uncontrollable unbridled emotional element of the human psyche that doesn’t obey the rules and brings forth chaos … Jeckel and Hyde… and from this even the Incredible Hulk.

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Zombies although “re-animated,” are often a symbolic (if not literal) representation of death. They embody both death’s random nature and its relentless forward march. You can keep ahead of them and stay safe for brief periods of time if you follow some simple rules, but horde doesn’t stop. The stories that evolve against the zombie background rise from those moments of humanity (or the hope for it) in the face of an unstoppable tide. That said, there are other elements of symbolism in the zombie milieu. It’s been argued that 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was a response to much of the imagery coming out of the Vietnam war.

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Monsters like Godzilla, or the Alien “xenomorph”, or even our fascination with the dinosaurs, can be seen to represent the fear of our place in the world, that despite all of the great advances of our technology, we human are not at the top of the food chain. In a more subtle way you could even lump vampire characters… those monsters of the night that feed on us, and to whom we must surrender our free will.

Our Biggest Fears

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

– Marianne Williamson

According to a 2014 survey published in the Washington Post, the number one fear in the US was public speaking with over 25% of people reporting this fear. More broadly, this can be lumped in more generally with social fears or anxieties.

Fear of heights is up there too.

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Creepy crawlies… snakes, spiders, bugs. This fear is very much rooted in evolution. In that link they talk about reactions that babies have to pictures of snakes and spiders that trigger an innate disgust response. Interestingly, pictures of animals like bears or rhinos (presumably far more dangerous) don’t invoke a similar response. There is likely an evolutionary advantage in noticing and keeping away from creatures that hunt or defend themselves with venom. Presumably without this, we wouldn’t move. But when there’s a bear or a rhino close, you’ll have other reasons to get out of its way, even if from a distance you think it’s kind of cute.

Closed spaces… claustrophobia. People with this fear can find small enclosed spaces unbearable. Movement and even air supply can fell limited and they can be overcome with a sensation of compression.

There are a lot of other common ones too… fear of flying, the dark or being unable to see, fear of disease, of blood, extreme weather, and death all round out the top 10.

Using Fear to Drive Story

Now that we know a little something about fear, how can writers, including non-horror writers, use this to make their stories engaging? I would argue that even in cozy romance, there reader will have a desire to see the two characters get together, but underneath that, is a fear that they won’t, a fear that some blundering misunderstanding, some bad decision or some inherent character flaw will keep them from finding their happiness.

There are two kinds of fear to be aware of in storycraft… the fear experienced by the characters in the story and the fear experienced by the reader as they watch what happens. Sometimes they are the same, but not always. In first draft, I find it’s important to think about what emotions the characters are experiencing, but then in subsequent drafts, think specifically about the reader.

To use fear effectively, you first need a character the reader cares about. Establishing that reader-character bond quickly is critical. I don’t think there’s ever a sure-fire way of doing it, but some things that help are giving the character a clear goal, forcing them to confront problems that are relatable to your audience, giving them interesting quirks, and having the character care deeply about something or someone.

Next you need a stimulus or a trigger… something that will put that character in peril. And it doesn’t always have to be physical peril. Remember, some people are just as afraid (if not more so) of being made to speak at the front of a full lecture hall as they are of standing in front of a hungry tiger. Ideally that peril will also oppose any goal that character has.

Now crank it up. Add a ticking clock so that the reader can measure and track the impending confrontation. Give the reader some information the character doesn’t have. (Or at very least don’t go the other way–it’s hard to create a satisfying story where the character is aware of something the reader is not.)

Compound the threats. One dramatic way to escalate the tension is to have the character search for, and attempt to solve the problem, but then have each attempt at a solution somehow draw the real threat closer, or add another one.

Avoid comfort. Sometimes it’s necessary for the story pace to slow down. The characters and the reader need to catch their breath, experience the less immediate emotions that come from whatever is happening to them, and plan for the next phase of the story so they can take agency for the outcome. But don’t let them get too comfortable, otherwise the reader will feel as though they have reached a comfortable spot to put the book down.

Surprises need to make sense in hindsight. Occasionally they can work out of the blue, but the reader needs to trust that the characters are working on a solvable problem.

The Hail Mary

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.”

– Stephen King

This quote from Stephen King sums up a last resort… the old gross out. But I recommend using such techniques sparingly.

Too often I think writers go straight for the vivid imagery but in doing so, lose sight of the story they really want to tell and what they’re actually putting out into the world. I’m not the story police, but I think it’s important for all writers to remember that what they are writing will have an audience, and ideally they’re going to be impacted, sometimes deeply, by the story. And sometimes in ways that were not intended. Readers carry their own fears, and hopes, and personal histories, including sometimes very real traumas into the story with them.

Happy Halloween

Plot Planning for NaNoWriMo

November is coming and writers around the world are preparing for the challenge of writing a 50k word novel for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve already posted my top tips for success, but one thing I didn’t touch on was planning out your novel. Plotting is a tricky topic, because every writer has their own system for doing it (or winging it, if you’re a pantser). By no means am saying these tips are the only way to do things. Instead, this more of a “this has worked for me” post. As writers we all have to find and hone our own process, but often there is value in reviewing what has worked for others.

So we have a few weeks until November starts. You want to give it a shot this year. You’ve made time in your schedule, you want to write, and you have a few ideas. How do you organize them.

Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Start with the Basics

The first thing to establish is your goal. Not the 50k words, but what kind of outcome are you hoping for? Are you writing for yourself or to share with a limited audience? Or are you writing because you want to sell a novel and start a second career as an author? As an independent author myself, I write commercially, for a broad audience.

Establish the genre you’re writing in. If you’re eventually looking to sell your writing it really helps to know your market. Read extensively in it. Learn the market trends. Learn what readers of the genre tend to look for. Of course this isn’t something you can just to in the last week of October. It more of a constant commitment. That said, if you haven’t done this before, go with the genre you read and enjoy most frequently.

In my experience you need two fundamental ingredients to a story… (i) a character, and (ii) a problem. It’s very easy to get bogged down in world building, character development sheets, themes, trying to fill in the steps of the Hero’s Journey, etc., but just about all stories are really about a character confronting a problem and changing in some regard through that confrontation.

A spy with two gunshot wounds in his back (character) is pulled out of the Mediterranean Sea and no memory of who he is (problem).

A young orphan (character) is summoned to attend a mysterious school that teaches magic and has a connection to the death of his parents (problem).

A banker (character) is convicted of a crime he did not commit and must survive in a prison without hope (problem).


This is where you get to go crazy with character development, world building, etc. For some people, this can be the most enjoyable part of writing. If so, embrace it and nerd out.

Your main character should have a goal that relates to the problem in some way. The reason the goal is critical is that once you establish it, you can brainstorm roadblocks, or obstacles that will keep your character from reaching their goal. In developing these, remember that the most dramatic ones occur when the character is forced to make a decision or take an action with consequences. Once you have a list, you can try to figure out how they interrelate. How can one lead into the next?

Something to remember here is that often a character may have a superficial goal… what they want in the beginning. But that may not be what the character actually needs. Sometimes what they need is in direct opposition to what they initially want. In brainstorming about wants, think about what your character needs and what you’d actually like to see that character attain by the end of the story.

One trick to help organize these ideas is to write out your blurb. Imagine your story is complete. What’s on the back cover? Writing out a rough blurb before you write the story can often make writing one later, once you’re ready to publish, a lot less complicated.

Plot Skeleton

The skeleton really helps to give the story a framework. It doesn’t have to be very detailed (but it can be). You just start with the initial character and their problem and outline each roadblock until you get to a final conflict that will ultimately determine whether the character achieves their goal.

Some people use beat sheets to accomplish this. These are detailed outlining tools that specify what should be happening in each story and about when it should happen and how many words you have to describe it. Some writers swear by these. Others avoid them altogether.

What I find helps during NaNoWriMo is a document that’s maybe a page or two long that maps out the rough turning points in the story and how they are related. To me this is the plot skeleton.

As you are pounding out words, you keep this available as a quick reference. Whenever you get stuck, it can serves as a roadmap of something to write toward. And if you’re really in trouble, your free to leave off in the spot you’re at and start at the next big turning point. Remember, there’s no rule that you need to write in a chronological or linear fashion. You can always come back and fill in holes later. This will help you to get those words out at a manageable pace instead of getting stuck wondering about the details of how to get from point C to point D.

Play With the Story

This is one aspect of planning out a story that’s really important for me. You start by trying it on for size. Sometimes this can even be the first thing you do. Write out a scene or two, with how you think the story will play out. Sometimes they’re awesome and you want to keep going and that’s how you know you’ve got something. Other times, you get that first page or two set up and you quickly realize that while the concept seemed exciting, it doesn’t really have wheels yet.

Just an opinion here, but this is I think why a lot of writers have files that are full of beginnings, but so rarely are they completed. It’s because what they’ve labelled as a beginning isn’t actually a beginning at all. It’s the author’s first landing in the primordial ooze of a fictional world of their own creation. It’s world building, it’s characters revealing themselves, it’s discovery of problems. That’s why you often end up with massive info dumps in first drafts… the author is figuring the world out.

Playing with the world ahead of your core creative effort (NaNoWriMo in this case) helps you brainstorm while you’re in direct contact with the characters. And this will give you lots of ideas that you can draw on when you need to focus on creative output.

Final Tips

In coming up with a plot one of the best things you can do is tempt fate. Ask what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? And then play it out. How will your character deal with this in a way that’s true to their traits? How will they grow from it?

No plan survives first contact with the enemy. So if it falls apart half way through, don’t fret. Having made the plan the first time means you can figure out another one from where you’re at.

A Day for Truth and Reconciliation

In Canada, today (September 30) is day for Truth and Reconciliation. Today I want to take time to reflect on and honour those children who were forced into the residential school system. Between 1867 and 1996, there were 140 federally run residential schools. Many of the children who entered these schools never came home. Those who survived were robbed of their language, culture, history, family, and ultimately their right to be children. My family and I honour those children and we honour their families and communities and the multiple generations dealing with the ongoing impacts of the residential schools.

National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. In this image, provided by the Government of Canada, the circle at the centre represents being together in spirit of reconciliation. The poster is orange in colour to represent truth and healing. The long pathway is meant to be the road to reconciliation. The eagle represents First Nations, the narwhal represents the Inuit, and the beaded flower represents the Métis.

Today as an author, I also take the time to acknowledge that the work I produce is written in Lethbridge, Alberta, within Treaty 7 territory. The Treaty 7 lands are the traditional and ancestral territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy: Kainai, Piikani and Siksika, as well as the Tsuu T’ina Nation and Stoney Nakoda First Nation. It is also home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.