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Novel Openings: Creating A Fantastic – or Fatal – First Impression, by Simon Higgins

Just as in duelling, when writing a fictional piece, your foundational moves drastically impact on the outcome.

The reader is hooked and stays with you – or not.

That first impression registers as a fatal opening night debacle, or a fantastic, rave-review triumph. Your audience must be engaged from the start.

First suggestion: Exploit human curiosity.  

Most readers move from looking at the cover, to studying the blurb, to then sampling the first words of the book, with that familiar, wary, astute look on their faces. They have busy lives too. ‘To invest the time in this one, or not?’  They scrutinise the tone, language, inferences of the first few lines, getting the feel of the novel’ s world and voice. ‘Am I going to like this?’

Make sure they do. From the outset, infer, provoke and draw them in. Make the first phase as intriguing as possible. People love to play detective. They pull themselves in quite naturally if the storytelling has enough of a hook, noting at intervals,  ‘Hmm… that’s got to be a hint…’ You lead them with mystery and implication deeper into the forest of your plot. Readers also love a well-written scene or chapter closing that leaves them buzzing with some final enigmatic image, question or plot revelation.

Doctor Id was my first young adult thriller with Random House Australia, Asahi Shimbun Japan, and Mondadori of Italy. Set in the 90s during the rise of the internet, it featured a cyber-stalking serial killer cunningly taking advantage of the newness, naivety and unpoliced boundaries of early online culture. Doctor Id also introduced Jade Draper, the computer-obsessed daughter of a homicide investigator, with this opening line:

Jade heard the footsteps and quickly hid the newspaper in her lap.

How many questions are implied by these twelve words? Most readers will naturally hypothesise an answer to each of them.

So be sure you make good on those little mysteries later in the unfolding tale. One must deliver. I did a lot of structural planning with Doctor Id. I was actually working as a homicide investigator in South Australia at the time I wrote it, so Jade’s harrowing adventure, perhaps understandably, came out as a very filmic, edgy crime story.

The Children’s Book Council of Australia made it a Notable Book of the Year in 1999. It was published in Italian and also serialised – with awesome Manga style artwork – in Japan, in English, to a print reading audience of millions around the Asia-Pacific region. Given my long connection with, and great interest in Asia, you can imagine how proud I felt. I went on to write two other crime thrillers, sequels but also stand-alone novels in themselves, Cybercage and The Stalking Zone, both with Random House Australia. Award winning actor and Aussies-into-Hollywood pioneer John Orcsik is the former star of the hit TV crime show Cop Shop and an accomplished director and producer. John wrote a marvellous screenplay conversion for Doctor Id. Random House Australia even brought out a collectible omnibus edition of the crime trilogy under the cover of The DreamWeb Files.

So I guess the book has obviously worked on at least a couple of levels. What writer dares hope for more?

Second suggestion: Don’t be afraid to employ dramatic devices as you open. 

If you’re especially good at action sequences, or perhaps have a knack for instantly setting up a tense, gothic or era-evocative atmosphere, then use that skill to plunge the reader straight in there. Write your first draft boldly and energetically, enjoying the ride just as the reader later will.

Another day, in ‘editing mode’, a very different headspace to ‘creating’, textual imperfections can be hunted down, edges smoothed, language polished, story shape improved, all that. But for now, just get the thing moving forward engagingly…

There’s a lot of dramatic power to be had in the tasteful use of time-shift devices. For instance, you might open with a snippet of the climax, as below, then take us back to the beginning of the main timeline. We then see events unfold that increasingly remind us of being swept towards a life-and-death finale…

The piece below, BTW, is an opening I have never actually used. If you like, try varying it and writing on from it to see if a novel results. It’s all yours.

I looked down at the gun in my hand, realizing what I’d done. Just 16 hours earlier, I could never have imagined such a moment. My day had begun normally enough…

Third and final suggestion for now: Aim for good balance.  

When you draft your opening, whichever path you take with it, make sure you include enough information for the reader to picture the scene, but alos try to keep your narration lean enough to generate a crackling pace. Striking that right balance in style between information and story momentum is an ongoing try-it-and-see learning curve.

How do we develop this skill? Nothing replaces actually attempting it, over and over. Feedback will tell you if you have succeeded and what to correct in order to do better next time.


Simon Higgins’s bio page

Simon Higgins’s author website:

Simon Higgins on Facebook

Moonshadow - Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins - coverMoonshadow - The Wrath of the Wolf by Simon Higgins - coverIsland of the White Spear by Simon Higgins     Blackwattle Lake by Pamela CookInheritance by Lisa Forrest

Writing Novels in Australia


You CAN Learn To Write A Novel, by Robyn Bavati

I’m delighted to be a main contributor to Writing Novels in Australia, and hope to share what I’ve learnt about the art and craft of writing novels. Some of what I know was gleaned from books or writing courses – much of it through trial and error.

When I finished high school in the seventies and enrolled in university, there wasn’t a single creative writing course available at tertiary level in Australia. The prevailing opinion at the time was that novel-writing wasn’t a teachable skill; rather, it was an innate talent – either you ‘had it’ or you didn’t.

Early attempts at teaching the craft often failed due to popular maxims such as ‘There are no rules’ and ‘It works or it doesn’t’. Such statements, while undoubtedly true, just aren’t helpful – especially when used to end the discussion.

Fortunately, the discussion needn’t end there. Instead, we can ask: ‘If there are no rules, what is there instead?’, ‘Why does this story work while that one doesn’t?’ and ‘If it’s not working now, how can we fix it?’ Indeed, these are the types of questions that are asked in the many truly helpful writing courses that now abound, for the truth is, with the right set of tools, you can learn to write a novel.

Aspiring writers often ask how and where they should begin, meaning: Should I start with an idea, a character, an image, a plot? Should I start with a particular world in mind, or perhaps a conflict? The answer is: It doesn’t matter where you start. Far more important is what you’ve achieved by the time you finish.

Successful novel-writing depends on the integration of six basic elements – character, plot, setting, structure, voice and theme. It’s that simple – and that complex. Most writers are strong on some of these elements but struggle with others. This was certainly the case with me.

I wrote my first novel back in the eighties, when I was still in my twenties. A fantasy novel for children, it was called The Search For Lost Property City. It was about a boy called Peter and a ‘gump’ (an imaginary creature who lived in a ‘gump balloon’ rather like a large purple helium balloon) who set off together to find a new gump balloon to replace the one Peter had inadvertently popped at a birthday party, not knowing it was someone’s home.

Roughly modelled on The Magic Faraway Tree, the story had a lot to recommend it. It was imaginative and fast-paced, and a couple of schoolteachers read it to their second-grade classes, who greatly enjoyed it.

I sent it to Penguin (among others), and received a letter in return – a whole two pages long. In it, the commissioning editor told me how much she had enjoyed the manuscript. She also explained at length just why they’d rejected it: the main character, Peter, lacked personality.

The truth is, I already knew this. I’d told myself that by not giving Peter a distinct personality, I was making him an ‘everyboy’ – if he lacked any distinguishing features, then anyone who read the story would be able to relate to him.

The editor understood my rationale but she wasn’t buying it. She said that distinctive characteristics and idiosyncrasies actually make characters more, not less, relatable, and that the protagonist must display deep and recognisable emotions to enable readers to identify.

Now, I had read books on craft and knew that character was one of the six basic elements of story writing. And deep down, I think I realized that the idea of Peter as an ‘everyboy’ was really just a rationalization for what was in part sheer laziness, in part an unwillingness to admit that I didn’t know how to develop his character. Rather than acquire the skills I needed, I’d hoped to avoid having to develop the hero’s character by explaining why I didn’t have to.

The experience taught me a valuable lesson: that if you overlook one of the six basic elements of novel-writing, you can’t expect your book to be published.

Of course, I could continue to rationalise. I could say that the main characters in The Magic Faraway Tree were not well developed (and that would be true: Enid Blyton hooks the reader with her fabulous plots – and gets away with it). Enid Blyton’s books are classics. Kids love them. (I loved them!) But she was writing at a different time. Publishers’ expectations are greater now than they have ever been. If those books of Enid Blyton were written today, it’s highly doubtful they’d be published.

Spotting the flaw in someone else’s published work isn’t a justification for incorporating that flaw in your own. Just because another writer managed to get away with it doesn’t mean you will. If you can spot the flaw in your own work, you can be sure your readers will spot it too.

While the best story ideas may bubble up from the sub-conscious, novel-writing is not a mystical and inexplicable process. It’s a process that depends on understanding the six basic elements or ‘building blocks’ of storytelling and honing your skills.

To begin the process, you might like to take a moment to think about the six basic elements and ask yourself: What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What is it I still need to learn?


Robyn Bavati’s bio page

Robyn Bavati’s author website:

Robyn Bavati on Facebook

     Blackwattle Lake by Pamela CookInheritance by Lisa Forrest

Writing Novels in Australia

A Pavlovian Response To Writing Fiction, by Clint Greagen

Writing; it’s not trench digging, or underwater welding, or UFC fighting, but writing fiction is hard work.

The trench gets dug but the writer never stops digging. The underwater welder comes to the surface but the writer is always submerged. The UFC fighter heals between matches but the writer – published or not – is continually wounded.  The job is never finished.

That’s if they’re doing it right.

Many articles have been written about the motivations of writers. I’ve read and heard all the theories from healing the inner child, to being driven by beings from a celestial plane, to wanting to make lots of money (which would have to be the most fanciful).

My favourite theory, put forward by anthropologists, is that of the human brain as a sexual ornament. The male peacock has its beautiful feathers and mad dancing skills to attract mates and prove health. Humans have a complex cerebral cortex and mad story-telling skills. In our hunter-gather past the humans most likely to mate regularly were those who told the greatest and most engaging stories. We told stories orally, through dance, by drawing on stone, by carving ornaments from wood. A great story teller proved he was in possession of a good healthy brain and strong genes, and was therefore likely to produce successful offspring. Our most creative ancestors made the most babies and here we are: naturally selected story-tellers suffering from a now-redundant impulse. Great theory. But who knows what the truth is?

If I examine myself and the role writing has played in my life, I would guess that the motivation to keep at it, for me, is more Pavlovian. Whenever I receive positive feedback about my writing and stories, I salivate a little, my eyes get glassy and I start pawing at the earth and pulling against the chain to attack the keyboard again.

I can trace this response back to my childhood. I started writing stories at around the same time that a lot of my friends did. It turned out I was just a bit better at it than most of my friends. This brought me some praise from parents and teachers and class mates and the encouragement to keep at it. In that way writing and story-telling have become a compulsion with accidental origins. What if I’d been introduced to a different activity and shown similar potential? Could I be an obsessive footballer right now, a computer programmer,or a businessman with real potential to make money?

So, you could argue I’m suffering something akin to a trauma-based mental illness. My childhood was going so well and I was on my way to a normal life and then someone told me I was a half decent storyteller and my ego began to soar and took an immature, still-forming self under it’s wings, and here I am; screwed.

Since then thousands of hours of writing have passed and this flawed self has grown into its own winged bird, and whether I take flight one day as a recognised and successful writer, or shuffle my talons through the dirt with only a flutter into the world of publishing, it’s the only way I can be now.

For all the torment and withdrawal it’s brought me, it has also formed resilience, a pointed determination and a selective self-confidence that gives me the occasional adrenalin rush I’d associate more with extreme sports.

I’m addicted to the thing I do and this thing I’ve become.

And now I’d like to wrap this article up because I have more writing to do. This quote by George Orwell has always rang true with me:

“I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

(PS: I have never received any offers to mate with anyone as a direct result of my writing.)


Clint Greagen’s bio page


On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and FictionPsychonarratology: Foundations for the Empirical Study of Literary ResponseNarrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (Frontiers of Narrative)A Glossary of Literary TermsNineteen Eighty-FourAfter AmericaBeautiful Malice

Writing Novels in Australia

Point of View and Creating Suspense in Your Writing, by Jeff Nelson

Jack opened the bedroom door, walking into the room beyond. The fugitive, hidden behind the door, stepped out and shot him in the back.

Poor Jack. While the reader is likely to be surprised at his potential demise, where is the suspense that will capture the reader and draw them into the story? Particularly if the story is all about Jack and told from his point of view (POV).

Try using a different character POV – say that of the fugitive. I’ll call him Harry.

Harry nervously waited behind the door, his hands sweating, his heart pounding, as he could hear the cop’s footsteps approaching on the other side. He couldn’t let them take him, not again, he was prepared to kill rather than spend time in a cell again.

Jack opened the bedroom door ….

Better? The reader is now wondering what Harry will do, whether Jack will get a bullet or somehow avoids one. This is an example where the reader and current POV character (Harry) know more than another character (Jack). Harry knows the cop is on the other side of the door, but Jack doesn’t know Harry is.

Consider another POV this time from a third character, Steve a fellow police officer of Jack’s.

Steve lay on the rooftop, his binoculars trained on the apartment building opposite. Through a window he could see Jack in the apartment’s sitting room moving towards the bedroom door. Suddenly he saw a shadow move in the next window; someone was in the adjoining bedroom. Steve trained the binoculars on the bedroom window. It was the fugitive and he held a gun. The man had obviously heard Jack approaching and was waiting for him on the other side of the door. Frantically Steve reached for his mic.

Jack opened the bedroom door ….

Now the suspense is created by the reader wondering if Steve will be able to contact Jack via his mike and warn him before he steps into the room. Steve knows that the fugitive is there but Jack doesn’t.

I had an interesting conversation with Steve Rossiter of the Australia Literature Review recently on ways of adding different character point of views into a story to create and build suspense. Those conversations lead me to adjust and see clearer where my novel had to progress too.

We went through a number of ways that POV can be added:

1] Where the reader knows more than the current POV character.

For example the story will have already said earlier that the fugitive is hiding in the bedroom, so as we see Jack (in his POV) going for the door, the reader knows, but Jack doesn’t that the fugitive is inside the bedroom.

2] Where the reader and current POV character know more than another character.

Examples of this are the two given above using the different POV’s of Harry and Steve.

3] Where the reader and another character know more than the current POV character.

Here we could have the story telling how a tenant in the building where the fugitive is hiding sees him run into the apartment but doesn’t inform Jack as he hates Cops.

4] Where the current POV character knows more than the reader.

This is where the POV character knows or is planning something that hasn’t been revealed in the story yet. For example we could have Jack wearing a bullet proof vest, Jack knows he’s wearing it, but the reader doesn’t. It will come out later that he was wearing one.

…and finally

5] Where another character knows more than the reader.

I hope this helps in your writing.


Jeff Nelson bio page

B is for Burglar: A Kinsey Millhone mysteryMoney RunConflict, Action and Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing)Plotting and Writing Suspense FictionHitchcockThe Arvon Book of Crime WritingThe French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers

Fleshing Out My Young Adult Zombie Novel, by Belinda Dorio

2011 was my year for short stories, it was my year to get out there and write as much as I could. It ended with my work being published in three separate anthologies by The Australian Literature Review, an opportunity to meet author Michael Pryor, an anthology launch event in Toorak and a fantastic opportunity to work with The Australian Literature Review’s Steve Rossiter, emerging author and editor Beau Hillier, and Rhiannon Hart author of Blood Song (Random House), on an integrated short story collection titled Possessing Freedom (release date of April 20, 2012), with a ghost premise. Not to mention meeting and workshopping one of my stories from Possessing Freedom with international bestselling YA author Maria V Snyder!

2011 was amazing, but as the year drew to an end I felt the itch coming on to finally write a novel. I had a lot of fun writing from the perspective of Faye, a spectral villain in Possessing Freedom last year, and it really got me thinking about making genuine and relatable villainous characters. I believe a good book will blur the lines between what it means to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and so I wanted to challenge myself – to have a go at re-creating a stereotypical ‘monster’ in my vision, and narrate from one of the creatures POV’s.

I first drafted the concept and first chapter in October, and proudly named my creation Flesh.

Flesh is a YA post-apocalyptic thriller with romance and dystopian elements which follows one three teen narrators as they navigate a post-apocalyptic and futuristic version of our world. Books and movies that have so far influenced the work are: The Hunger Games, Inside Out, The Rosie Black Chronicles, movie In Time and classics such as Frankenstein and Dracula. With help from extensive research into the above, Greek Mythology, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and diseases such as Malaria, my own brand of zombies were created – creatures that threaten the existence of the human race in Flesh.

I know tampering with a much loved mythical creature such as the zombie can cause some backlash, but I am confident readers will enjoy the new creature they will find in Flesh.

Why do zombies have to be shambling, mind-less creatures? Couldn’t they be genetically modified beings who had to live off the flesh of humans, but still function reasonably well?

And if this were possible, what kind of ramifications would such creatures have on a ‘real-world’ scenario? If your mother died from a disease that was ravishing your country, only to come back alive a few days later – you’d be happy, wouldn’t you? So what if she had weird looking eyes that were drained of colour, so what if she kept smelling your skin and salivating… You love her.

In a world where these new creatures don’t seem all that dangerous at first, all zombies are forced to live in Sector Zero, and the human dead are no longer buried- but rationed out amongst the zombies. The zombies are being allowed to live, but the government holds them on a tight leash – the question is, when the zombies become volatile, sick of being confined like animals and believing themselves to be the ‘superior race’, is the leash going to be tight enough to hold them?

I can’t wait to write more of Flesh, and each week I try to add at least 3,000 words to the manuscript.

I hope you enjoy my zombie creations as much as I do!


Belinda Dorio bio page

Inside OutTouch of PowerMonster Island: A Zombie NovelBlood Song (Lharmell)Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Wordsworth Classics)Dracula, Original Text: The Graphic NovelIn Time

Plotting and Outlining My Novel ‘Night of Thieves’, by Jeff Nelson

Over the coming months I will be writing my first novel manuscript, provisionally titled ‘Night of Thieves’.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the French Riviera in the early nineteen sixties, a period when the jet-set flocked to the Riviera’s sun drenched beaches and picturesque towns.

The story follows a man whose enviable lifestyle has been financed by a string of jewel thefts that hadn’t until recently attracted the attention of the Surete (French Police).

The novel opens with him restless and longing for excitement, and quickly moves to a glamorous party in Cannes announcing a new film to be shot on location on the Riviera. He meets and is immediately attracted to the film’s young actress who is wearing a rare and valuable diamond necklace that will be featured in the new film.

Challenges arise for him when his Fence (a buyer of stolen goods) has a buyer for the necklace and wants him to steal it and when his former protégé returns to the Riviera with her eye on the necklace.

Can he resist the temptation that the necklace offers, does he even want to? – And what of the French Police who’ll be looking at him should the necklace go missing. But the necklace also has a history and a violent background to contend with.

Night of Thieves is a story I’ve been pondering and plotting for a little while now and actually came about from plotting out a background story for another novel I was considering set in contemporary times! – So aspiring writers be careful that you don’t spend too much time working on back-stories for the characters and plot or you’ll never get started on the actual writing.

But now it’s time for me to consolidate my plot ideas into a reasonably coherent outline and from there the build of each chapter upon chapter…, but first the outline.

My outline grew and grew and became many pages long and was in many parts filled with questions and possible answers to particular plot points – if I did this what would happen next, how would the characters resolve this problem, get out of this situation etc…

I then found out about the synopsis, a generally 2-3 page outline of your novel submitted to potential publishers, and started to write one and failed – I ended up with 11 pages (they were double spaced however!), but what I did achieve is to finally shape those pages and pages of plot points, questions and semi coherent scrawling from my initial outlining into a reasonably coherent story and I now have a story outline, despite being 11 pages long from start to finish and in chapter order that I can work with.

The next stage will be consolidating those 11 pages into 2 pages for potential publishers and others that may be interested in the novel (but at least they can be single spaced!).

I’ve also began the start of the initial few chapters … but more on that in the next post.

Stay tuned….


Jeff Nelson bio page

B is for Burglar: A Kinsey Millhone mysteryThe Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet: The Great Victorian Jewel ThiefThe Fall of Lucas KendrickCary Grant: The Gentleman's Collection (Houseboat / Indiscreet / That Touch of Mink / To Catch a Thief) (4 Movie Boxset) Confessions of a Master Jewel ThiefStealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art HeistsThe French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers

Setting Out To Write My Horror Novel, by Clint Greagen

Let’s get to the point. I’m writing a horror novel titled Waxy Flexy. Old buildings, dense forests, the mentally incapacitated, tortured spirits driven by redemption… oh, and a couple of dead kids. If this isn’t your thing you might want to move on to a different author.

I like to be scared – it’s fun. In particular, I like scaring myself.

When I was a teen I used to read horror stories in my room, at night, with a small torch. There was a buzz about it; locking myself inside the story with the focused shaft of light, making the darkness around me more complete. It removed the walls from the room and opened me up to the horror inside the book. I could be in a haunted castle, a dungeon filled with the screaming of tortured souls or a serial killer’s basement. There was no door to safety. No mother and father to run to. And everything was lingering right there in the darkness – the monsters, the ghosts, the human parasites, the werewolves and ghouls; narrowed eyes, long thin fingers, curved sharp teeth, and always the clincher – the intention to do me harm. (Never look over your shoulder!)

I got very good at sitting alone and staying inside my fear. Feeling the torture and the exhilaration of it. When I was finished reading I’d turn off the torch and fumble my way to the light switch on the wall. That was the most terrifying part. I remember it most clearly while reading Salem’s Lot.

In my early twenties, I moved into an old doctor’s surgery with some university friends. There were ceiling roses, old plush carpet worn to a dull grey where it had suffered the most traffic, large mirrors in every room, and all the nightly noises that come with old houses. I loved it. We’d try to guess who had the room where the surgeries had occurred. Had someone died in every room? Did the noises belong to the ghosts of those who still thought they might walk out the front door? And the mirrors – there were many times I thought I saw something there in the corner of my eye.

I’d watch horror movies by myself in my room. Late at night when everyone else was asleep or out. The story coming out to me this time, flickering across the high roofs and bathing me in its light, all of it reflected in the mirror.  It wasn’t hard to get scared at that house. And I gave myself no choice but to see each movie through to the end.  Then I’d force myself to walk out into the hall, across the living room and into the kitchen before I could turn on a light. I’d have something to drink and eat and then watch the television in the living room to shake of the feeling of dread.

I’ll never bungee jump, or ride white-water rapids, but I’d call myself an adrenalin junkie when it comes to horror stories. It’s the feeling when the story is finished that’s the most rewarding. When muscles hum with fatigue, and the breathing returns to normal. It’s the quiet high that comes when you’ve won the fight. I know I’ll always search for it.

And that’s why I write horror stories. Late at night, my four boys to bed, I sit at the computer and lose myself in the small square of light. When I’m writing well the walls disappear around me, the darkness opens up and the horrible comes alive. The rules change and I allow myself to look over my shoulder when I’m writing.  The story opens up and I keep searching through it, trying for that ultimate reward – to scare myself.


Clint Greagen bio page

Salem's LotOn WritingOn Writing Horror: A Handbook by Beyond FearFracturedLet the Right One inOnly Child

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