Tuesday, October 11, 2011


No Sign and Best Lines

Last night I did a public reading in the upstairs room of the No Sign Bar in Swansea, the nicest pub in the city centre. This reading was part of a BFS (British Fantasy Society) open night. Such events are probably intended to be recruitment drives for the society, but there wasn't a whiff of proselytising while I was there, for which I was grateful. My own views on literary societies and all the baggage that accompany them (such as awards) are well-known, i.e. don't join them, remain independent, stay out of politics if you can...

Anyway, I'm a bit rusty when it comes to reading aloud. This was only the second reading I've done all year. I prefer using a microphone, as my throat tends to go dry quickly when I'm trying to project my voice. Nonetheless it seemed to go well and the audience were appreciative. I gave them a choice of three parodies: Poe, Lovecraft or Hemingway. The popular choice was Poe. So I read 'Poe Pie'. In the middle of the first paragraph I became acutely aware of how different the words of a story are when they are spoken rather than read quietly to oneself. Prose that flows on the page isn't necessarily smooth on the tongue.

Recently I was asked to compile a brief list of my best story opening lines for possible use in a book about the teaching of creative writing. Bearing in mind that I have written 606 stories, it was never going to be easy to produce such a list; but I finally came up with the following:

The Catastrophe Trials
In the old days, of course, murderers were often locked away in dungeons while hurricanes and earthquakes went free. And let there be no doubt that they took full advantage of their freedom. They rushed and shook, shattered and toppled whenever it suited them. They had no conscience.

The Man Who Threw His Voice
There was a man called Amos who could throw his voice. He could make it appear from inside boxes and jugs and teapots. But one day, he threw it so far that he lost it. The window of his kitchen had been left open and the voice sailed out into the afternoon, landing with a gurgle in the river. Down to the river rushed Amos but it was too late; his voice was nowhere to be heard.

Velocity Oranges
When Thomas was a bicycle, he used to talk to me from the depths of a dusty garage. Sucking on my pipe, I would grunt with primeval delicacy and attempt to match my facial expressions to the alarming profundity of his words. It was a cluttered garage, full of rusty garden tools and abandoned matchstick models. And Thomas was a cluttered bicycle, bristling with bells, water flasks and unusable pumps. He could make me laugh with the ungainly honk of one of his decaying rubber horns. We were rather more than just good friends. Often I would try to mount him from behind.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife's Hat For the Mad Hatter's Wife
They live in a house shaped like a hat. Music is in their blood, but they have different groups. In the evenings, they play backgammon by the light of a single candle. It is difficult to determine, with any degree of accuracy, whether they are inspired romantics or simply trying to save money.

When my neighbour plays the amplified trombone it means another sleepless night. But I don't sleep anyway, so perhaps it doesn't matter. I don't sleep because my neighbour plays the amplified trombone.

Worming the Harpy
His legs are covered in flea-bites. But they are both locked away in a little cupboard, side by side like a pair of high boots, so he is not too concerned.

Flintlock Jaw
When Robin Darktree takes to the road, he carries two flintlock pistols, a blunderbuss, a rapier and a bag of ginger biscuits. It is best to present a formidable appearance on the road. He also carries a spare tricorne hat. It takes but a single seagull to ruin a formidable appearance.

Ten Grim Bottles
I want to tell a story about the cannibal who lives under our old stone bridge but first I need some characters and a pot — I mean a plot. Not much is known about him. It is almost certain that he has lived there since the beginning of time and answers to the name Toby. Aside from that, he is often feared for his bad breath. He never cleans his teeth between travellers.

The Blue Dwarf
“All I require” the blue dwarf cried, as he placed his hand on my knee, “are your trousers and your soul.”

The Furious Walnuts
For more than a week, Walter had been feeling a trifle Scottish. It didn't help that his house was the colour of salmon. Nor that his wife was named Heather. He'd wanted a magnolia house and a wife named Patsy, but you can't have everything. A primeval force was moving within him, an urge to plunge through moor, lake and glen.

Muscovado Lashes
Because parrots know how to tell happy stories, he wore an onion on his shoulder. On deck, while the other men joked with guitars, he preferred to weep.

Asparagus on the Tooth
When a big city declares war on a small town, the womenfolk of both must be shut away. Not for their own safety, but to stop them saying that size doesn't matter. In such a conflict, it does.

The Story With a Clever Title
Bang! This story starts with an explosion, to grab the attention of its readers. Once the dust settles around them, it can turn into a complex, profound, mature piece of writing, and they will probably stick with it longer than if there wasn't any action in the first sentence. That's my theory, and it clearly works, otherwise you wouldn't still be here.

The Rhondda Rendezvous
It was half past midnight when Jerry Cornelius returned to Tenby as a last desperate resort. There are many desperate resorts along the South Wales coast. Tenby's turn had finally come. Jerry drove a Gilbern and smoked a cheroot as he changed gear. It wasn't easy swapping jacket and trousers while driving. When the process was complete, he changed gear. He felt unfashionable.

Twenty Six Broken Hearts
Walking by the sea one evening Rhodri suddenly thought about his broken hearts. He imagined them sitting inside his chest with springs coming out of them like smashed clocks. He even paused to feel his breastbone and was surprised it wasn't lumpy.

In Moonville
In Moonville when the sun goes down, the people go out to moonbathe in the streets, to drink moonshine and moon around. They love the moon in that town.

The Kissable Climes
The French kiss with tongues; the inhabitants of Faskdhfgasdhia with noses; unfaithful wives with other men; but Diddly Derek will only smooch with syllogisms.

Venus and Stupid
The Goddess of Love was born from a shell. That’s why there’s something fishy about romance, at least according to Mr Wilfred Nobbs, who thought he was a beautiful woman but wasn’t.

The Juice of Days
Squeezing juice from oranges and grapes is easy enough, and with adequate pressure even apples and pears will release their sweet fluid, but only the mad inventor Karl Mondaugen ever managed to make a refreshing drink from the days of the week.

The Ghost Written Autobiography of a Disembodied Spirit
As I walked home along the beach in the sunset my shadow lengthened to such an extent I hoped it might reach my house before me, put the kettle on and brew coffee for my return.

Southbound Satin
The boat broke open like a nut. That is a lazy image, but Jason didn't yawn. He splashed in the water, comparing the blue of the sky with the blue of the ocean. The differences were considerable, but unimportant. Then he realised he was standing on his wife.

Arms Against a Sea
I found an arm washed up on the beach, not a real arm but a carved one, a marble block chiselled into the shape of a slender female limb. It emerged from the midnight waves like the final gesture of a drowned swimmer, its pale fingers digging into the sand, a loop of seaweed around its wrist for a bracelet, its elbow jabbing a moonbeam.

The Talkative Star
The setting sun eventually became paranoid. “Why does everyone keep staring at me? They never scrutinise me in the middle of the day – only when I'm going to bed! I think I'll draw the clouds tight from now on and get some privacy!”

In most cultures throughout human history the moon has been regarded as a feminine body. So what is the Man in the Moon doing there? The obvious, I suppose…

The Yeasty Rise and Half-Baked Fall of Lyndon Williams
This is the tale of a man who turned himself into a windmill. Lyndon Williams was his name and he lived in the town of Porthcawl. To earn his bread, he'd been told to use his loaf, but the advice confused him, because it sounded like a circular argument.

The Burning Ears
Walls have ears, everyone knows that, but Thornton Excelsior still gasped in astonishment when he entered his new home and saw the fleshy organs growing in clusters in every room. Like oysters they were. Some of them, presumably the females, even had pearls, but those were just earrings and hadn't actually formed inside the ear.

(For the record, the one I regard as my very best is the opening to 'Southbound Satin', which loops out of normal fiction into metafiction and back again.)

I had a similar experience when doing a dry run for a BFS Radio thing that never got off the ground - I found reading out my own reviews a problem because they used words I had never previously spoken out loud...
Yes, that's it exactly!
Every time I do a reading I'm surprised at how different the same (familiar) words are...
Immediately after every reading I completely forget this!
This is the first time I haven't forgotten it! (So far!)
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