Category Archives: Writing technique and tips

Heroes & Villains & other brouhahhah


Have I told you all how much I love blog tours? Once upon time, authors had to actually get dressed (okay, so I do have *some* clothes on, don’t worry) and leave the house to interact with readers—unless those readers were stalkers, but that is a villainous topic for another day. Now, we just go on tour virtually, linking up with the blogs of other “Authorpreneurs” who have had the nous to self-publish their works. That creates a huge network of authors and readers and maximises our opportunities for getting our books read and your opportunities for getting cool free stuff—all while we’re sitting at home wearing whatever the hell we like and hammering out our next masterpiece while sucking down a bowl of ramen noodles (the author dietary supplement of choice, for financial reasons).

Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in Martin Bolton’s stupendous Heroes and Villains Blog Hop, running from 3-6 May 2013 on twenty-eight awesome author blogs. As well as writing a piece on the villains in Cruxim and how I came to make them so dastardly, I’m also giving away stacks of great swag, including books, an Amazon gift card, and jewellery (which you can check out down there *insert downward arrows dammit* at the bottom of the post). Better yet, every one of the 28 fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction authors on the tour is also giving away fabulous prizes for readers, so make sure you hop along to all of the blogs listed at the end of this post, check out their books, and enter their competitions too.

So here goes … my little post filling you in on the evil workings of my own noggin.

The Characters you Love to Hate

As an editor by trade, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told authors that they have weak villains.  When writing villains, authors have to ensure that not only is their badass just as memorable as the protagonist, but that his or her motivations are just as clear and grounded in aspects of the villain’s past and his or her personal and psychological development. In real life, sometimes it seems that we see people (hopefully from behind the safety or a TV screen, or simply in a newspaper, rather than in real life) who seem to be just straight-out plain evil monsters. We’ve all seen the news stories that made us shudder at the depths of human depravity. Sometimes, it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to such cruelty, but dig a little deeper and there is often a profile to such killers: a number of factors (not causes, let’s not make excuses for it) that might lead to the kind of evil that serial killers or psychopaths indulge in.

If you’re an author like me, you’re probably a little bit fascinated by the psychology behind killers. What makes them do it? How can they live with themselves? How did they get away with it? When I was writing Cruxim, I wanted Amedeo to be faced with villains who weren’t just out to get him for the hell of it, but who actually had chips in the game. It would have been easy for my Vampire villain, Beltran, to just hate Amedeo because he is a Cruxim—after all, Cruxim eat Vampires. I’m pretty sure gazelles are not too fond of lions: same dynamic. But I wanted Beltran, who is also the primary Villain in the ongoing saga and appears in later novels, to have a real reason to hate Amedeo aside from the sheer circumstance of the supernatural food chain.

That reason became Joslyn—primarily Beltran’s love for the mortal-turned-vampire, and her enduring love for Amedeo, even as he forsakes her. I drilled down to what I thought were the major psychological issues Beltran had to deal with (and again, readers will find out more about some of Beltran’s background issues in book II in the series, Creche, which I hope to have out by July. So if you don’t want to read a very slight *spoiler* look away now). Abandoned by his father as a young boy, Beltran turned his feelings of helplessness into a craving for power. At first, it was just the power to defend himself and those he loved, such as his sister Evedra. But in his longing for it, power became a kind of lust for him. When he became a vampire and finally had that power, he was unable to control either the power or the lust. It manifested as a need to dominate others, particularly women, physically. But when he meets Joslyn, he falls in love with her innocence. He hates Amedeo not only because Ame truly represents the kind of pure, honorable power Beltran once craved, but also because Joslyn loves Amedeo for that sense of honor and hates Beltran for the perverted way he abuses his own power.

The other major villain in Cruxim is Dr. Claus Gandler, who I’ve found has given many readers shivers even more than Beltran. When I was stripping down his character to the bare bones (which is not a bad analogy for Gandler, given his predilection for torture and amputation), I revisited the biographies of some of the most heinous real-life villains in human history. Seriously, you couldn’t make up the kind of horrors these men inflicted on innocents. I wish I could scrub some of the things I read while researching Gandler’s character right out of my head. Among these beasts was Josef Mengele, the abhorrent, seriously depraved physician of the Nazi’s Auschwitz concentration camp, a man known as the Angel of Death. Not only did he personally order jews and those of other ethnic minorities to the gas chambers, Mengele also conducted appalling experiments into heredity upon twins and on others he considered abnormalities of nature, such as those who suffered from dwarfism or heredity conditions. Not even children were spared Mengele’s terrors. I also spent some time studying the hateful practice of travelling “freak shows” in the 18th and 19th centuries. As an Aussie author, I’d read a bit about them before, because unfortunately many Australian Aborigines were taken to Europe and exploited at such shows and “world fairs”, incorrectly portrayed as cannibals or imbecile savages.

I also considered how in real life those who come into close conflict with certain afflictions sometimes come to hate others who suffer from them, and I posited how Gandler might feel if he had a child who suffered from a “freakish” disorder. What if his only son, Fritz, was killed directly as a result of having that disorder: a rare blood condition in which he produced too much blood, making him a target for vampires? Would Dr Gandler understand other “freaks” (and I use the inverted commas because I recognise that these were simply unlucky people who suffered from medical conditions), or would he hate them and use them to try to get to the bottom of vampirism, would he exploit them for his own ends? I decided to make him hate the other “freaks” he collects for all that they represent—his inability to protect his son Fritz, his hatred of hereditary imperfections. That hatred of freaks, and his desire to understand how to correct/avoid such conditions and how to end Vampirism, leads to the horrible acts of torture and “experiments” he carries out. It is only when faced with his own imminent death that Gandler makes the decision which will eventually lead to his downfall. To my mind, Gandler is a particularly evil character because of the clinical way he goes about collecting and dissecting his freaks. His is a controlled, careful kind of insanity, and sometimes that is more dangerous than all-out “batshit crazy” (a phrase which I suppose applies to Beltran in some ways).

So did I achieve what I wanted to do with these villains? Yes and no. In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time letting Amedeo vanquish his foes. But in the heat of a battle, there is not really time to stop and crow over victories, however large or small; all of that must come after, and will to a certain extent in Creche. And as for Beltran … well, you’ll all just have to tune in to the next episode to see what happens to Beltran’s perverted power, and to find out how he gained such a power in the first place.

You’ve hung in this far, AWESOME. So, here’s what am I giving away?

Cruxim_cover_small* Two signed, personally addressed paperback copies of Cruxim.

* Three ebook copies of Cruxim (which the lucky recipients can have signed at

* A $10 Amazon gift card.

* The adorable sterling silver cross below right (a little larger than in the pic, which is not to scale).654459837_o

* And one of the beautiful angel wing bellybutton rings (far right, also not to scale.)

All you have to do is like my page on Facebook at and leave a message on the Heroes and Villains Blog Hop thread there to tell me which prize you’re most after.
OR, Follow me on twitter and either tweet about the #villainsandheroes blog hop or RT my tweet about the #villainsandheroes blog hop.
Leave a message on the comments below, to let me know you have entered. Every one of these actions constitutes one entry for each of the prizes. So if you like my page, tweet, and comment, that is three entries. The more entries, the better your chances to win.

Also, make SURE you pop past the blogs of these other 27 incredible indie-published authors, like their pages and enter their competitions too! And lastly, thanks again for joining me. I hope you’ve enjoyed the hop.

Nyki Blatchely
Martin Bolton
Mike Cooley

Eleni Constantine
Joanne Hall

Jolea M Harrison
Tinney Sue Heath
K. Scott Lewis
Paula Lofting
Liz Long
Peter Lukes
Mark McClelland
M.Edward McNally
Sue Millard
Rhiannon Douglas
Ginger Myrick
David Pilling
Kim Rendfeld
TL Smith
Tara West
Keith Yatsuhashi


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Bite on, little fishies: the importance of opening “hooks”

Hook into your reader as often as you can. Photo courtesy of

I started reading a wonderful novel called Blindsight by NZ author Maurice Gee the other day. It is … gasp … one of those old-fashioned things printed on … gulp … paper, but I’m reading it concurrently with several ebooks on my iPhone and, to be fair, I bought it secondhand. (I am probably one of the reasons Borders and Angus and Robertsons have gone under, as I like nothing better than spending the occasional Saturday morning kneeling uncomfortably on the cold linoleum floor of my local charity shop and picking up a preloved bargain. I do that because I am cheap love that someone else has read the book before me and passed it on, although whenever I come to a particularly suspect-looking stain I do wonder about my choices. Another good reason not to read erotica, I suppose. Anyhoo…) I’ve been a big fan of Mr Gee since I read The Halfmen of O as a child, and have continued to dip into his proliferation of novels ever since. Blindsight grabbed me as soon as I turned to the first page, and it did so because of the “hook”.

Never underestimate the power of a great opening line, or indeed a great opening paragraph. I am going to give you a few examples here of some great openers. I believe including these counts as “fair use for the purpose of study or review” under the Copyright Act, and that this might be seen to be fair and free promotion for these authors’ works. If anyone else believes otherwise, then feel free to set the hounds of the law on me and I will remove them and run like the blazes, but I reckon I can get away with adding just a sentence/paragraph or two here on a non-commercial blog that links to Amazon.

So, Mr Maurice Gee’s powerful first paragraph of Blindsight:

Father taught us how not to love.

The thought came fully formed as my brother walked by. As usual he did not see me, for I never stand in his way, but he slowed his step and changed his line for others on the footpath: college girls in summer uniforms, office workers with swipe cards on their belts. The girls look away with that affronted expression the young, especially the female young, take on at the sight of dereliction and decay. They cannot believe in a fall of such magnitude and set their faces in hostility. Some of the office workers believe. A man, well dressed, said: ‘Gidday, mate.’ That was kind of him — or perhaps it expressed foreknowledge in some way. Gordon did not hear; but must, I believe, have heard the whispering in my head, the message, the reminder, from the sister he had loved.

I dare not include more without seeking the author’s permission (in which case this blog post could be months away), but the next paragraph takes those mysterious elements (Why is she walking past her brother? What does she mean by I never stand in his way? What happened to Gordon and why is he a derelict? Why did she use ‘he had loved’? And, most enticingly, what does she mean by the somewhat ambiguous statement: ‘Father taught us how not to love’? ) and expands upon them even further, adding some even more provocative statements that completely reel the reader in.

The hook here, is that the paragraph above has the reader asking some enigmatic mental questions. However, this opening paragraphs also sets the scene. The ‘Gidday, mate’ places the story quite firmly in New Zealand, the reference to “foreknowledge” foreshadows some kind of conflict, and the reaction of the people on the footpath gives us an idea of how Gordon must be looking and behaving. I was hooked from page one, and if I didn’t have a freelance job on I would read this book straight through without putting it down. (In a weird synchronicity, I am working on a manuscript appraisal of a work also called Blindsight, a job I hadn’t yet booked in when I picked up Maurice Gee’s book! Life has a funny way of handing out those coincidences.)

Many great opening hooks catch the reader by creating more questions than answers. Here are just a few , from a range of favourites on my bookshelf, to prove it:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. — First sentence of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

What is a daemon? And why is this girl sneaking down the hallway and avoiding the kitchen?

The people who remained in this place have often asked themselves why it was that Ibrahim went mad. I am the only one who knows, but I have always been committed to silence, because he begged me to respect his grief, or, as he also put it, to take pity upon his guilt. — First two sentences of Birds Without Wings by Louis de Berniere

Why has the author used “people who remained” (a nice bit of foreshadowing)? Why did Ibrahim go mad? Who is the protagonist, the keeper of this secret? And what guilt does Ibrahim have?

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. — First sentence of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

Why so matter-of-fact, then, protagonist? And why after the war ended? And just plain ol’ why?

All of these are very powerful openers that force the reader to question. Some opening hooks (most often those written in first person point of view) also help set the scene and introduce the genre of the novel and its protagonist, somewhat like Mr Gee’s does above. Take the first paragraph from fantastic author and all-round nice guy John Marsden’s first book in the Tomorrow series, Tomorrow, When the War Began:

It’s only half an hour since someone—Robyn I think—said we should write everything down, and it’s only twenty-nine minutes since I got chosen, and for those twenty-nine minutes I’ve had everyone crowded around me gazing at the blank page and yelling ideas and advice. Rack off guys! I’ll never get this done. I haven’t got a clue where to start and I can’t concentrate with all this noise. — First paragraph of Tomorrow, When the War Began, by John Marsden.

Marsden very cleverly introduces not only his refreshingly down-to-earth, “farm-girl” teenage protagonist Ellie in this paragraph, he also introduces another main character (Robyn), drops hints that this group of kids is in an unusual situation, or at least unusual enough that it warrants writing down,  and leaves the reader wondering what has happened. It also very effectively and firmly places this novel within the young adult genre.

Not all opening hooks have to ask questions, some can just paint a beautiful scene. Take the opening sentences of my favorite book of all time, Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea:

It was dolphin weather, when I sailed into Piraeus with my comrades of the Cretan bull-ring. Knossos had fallen, which time out of mind had ruled the seas. The smoke of the burning Labyrinth still clung to our clothes and hair.

The Bull from the Sea is actually the sequel to Renault’s earlier The King Must Die, but I discovered it first, as an eleven-year-old, and I loved it. I have read it hundreds of times. Renault’s opening paragraph tells the reader so much in just a few sentences. The term “dolphin weather” coupled with the verb “sailed” brings to mind an idyllic sun-drenched day with dolphins leaping before the ship’s prow. “Piraeus” establishes she is talking about Athens, and the mention of Knossos and the bull-ring gives a sense of time, while “time out of mind” also reminds the reader of a long and ancient past. Ahhh, this is a historical novel. Thanks for the heads up, Mary. The evocative “smoke of the burning Labyrinth” clinging to our, as yet unidentified, protagonist and his “comrades”, adds a sensory touch that draws the reader into this world, right where Renault wants them.

Another opener that gives a sense of time passing, as well as an excellent insight into the protagonist, comes from a man who is probably my favorite Australian author, award-winning writer Tim Winton. In Dirt Music, he opens with:

One night in November, another that had somehow become morning while she sat there, Georgie Jutland looked up to see her pale and furious face reflected in the window. Only a moment before she’d been perusing the blueprints for a thirty-two-foot Pain Clark from 1913, which a sailing enthusiast from Manila had posted on his website, but she was bumped by the server and was overtaken by such a silly rush of anger that she had to wonder what was happening to her. Neither the boat nor the bloke in Manila meant a damn thing to her; they were of as little consequence as every other site she’d visited in the last six hours. First paragraph of Dirt Music by Tim Winton.

If you haven’t read all of these books yet, get thee to a bookstore, to an ebook store (or a secondhand bookstore or a library).

For me, the best hooks include intrigue, scene-setting, and a glimpse of at least one aspect of character, along with (in some cases) foreshadowing of what might be to come. Of course, a great novel has more than one hook and works more like a set of “jag hooks,” snaring the reader at least at each chapter opening and ending, if not at each scene change, preventing them from escaping the story even if they did want to. Does your first paragraph do enough of those things to reel in your little fishes and ensure they don’t swim off to someone else’s creative pond?