More on TILT
It’s easy to say, avoid the big bang opener, start gently and tilt your reader, engage the reader with language and probability.
But how can I show it works?
What follows are the openings of the stories in my collection “Ballistics”. A dozen First-Prize winners, two more $2,000 Bridport Second-Prizes, many of the stories reprinted often, many reprinted in anthologies.
I would argue that only Ballistics itself even comes close to a big-bang opener.
The stories are posted here in the sequence they are in the book, except for Ballistics and Postcards from BalloonLand.
Miguel Who Cuts Down Trees.
When I was a little boy, I had a wooden truck. One day the truck began to move by itself. It went around the yard and then it came back to me. I went to sleep. When I woke it was just a wooden truck.
When I was fourteen I was flying a kite. I saw an angel alongside my kite. She was very beautiful. I found I could make the angel move by pulling the string of my kite, but then I fell asleep and when I woke my kite was broken and trampled with mud.
$600 First Prize
The Smell of Almond Polish
Paddington, London, 1954
Bridie Collins steps down from the train, waits for the crowd to wrap her up. She looks above her; pigeons scattering under the great glass roof. Someone bumps her shoulder, rushes on. In the half-light she shivers, picks up her cardboard case and walks towards the ticket collector.
On the train, from Wales, Bridie had listened to the clattering songs in the track. "Did she do right? Well, did she do right? What could she have done? What should she have done? Was it right, was it right, was it right?"
$600 First Prize
Mother, can I ask, with you and Dad, my father, how did it happen, how was it? Were you frightened, excited, was he strong, was he clumsy?
You told me once, before you died, you said, "We walked out for almost a year and then, one day, on a bridge over the canal at Alt-y-ryn, he asked if he could kiss me." You said you laughed, couldn't help it. He ran home.
So Mum, how did you get from there to being my mother? How did that shy young man learn to make love? Was he your first, Mum? Nellie said to me once, (she was drunk on gins), she said you had a beau everyone wanted, but he was "a bit of a lad, a heart-breaker", wouldn't take no for an answer.
First Prize, Cadenza.
When you say it, finally say it, when you tell her you're leaving, when you finally realise that loving her isn't enough, not if she can bring you so much pain, your anger is so great you crush the wine glass you're holding. You watch as splinters embed in your hand, as a long, wicked shard of dark green glass hooks into the flesh of your thumb, your Mount of Venus, and you watch the blood from your palm, your arm, flow magically red to the floor.
The blood is everywhere, the rug, the drapes, but she laughs at your crucified hand, your slashed wrist. She says, "My, honey, so much drama for such a pathetic little man. Rush yourself to the hospital, why don't you?"
First Prize, Buzzwords
L for LAURA: L for LOVE
Ay for orses, remember that? A for orses, B for mutton? C fer yerself, D fer payment? Not sure I could remember it all. I'm not even sure if that's right, A-B-C-D.
A is really for Alice, B for Billy Smith she ran off with. C is for Clown, me for not noticing. D is for Diane my second, after we had to wait all those years until I was officially deserted.
You know what I remember? It wasn't jealousy. It wasn't shock or shame or humiliation. As soon as Alice was gone I realised I'd never really loved her, anyway. No, what I remember was realising that the world was a lot shittier than it looks on Christmas Cards (she went Christmas Eve) and all of a sudden nothing was just simple any more, or innocent.
First, Southport Short-Story Prize
An Old Man Watching Football After Sunday Lunch
I’m an old man watching football after Sunday lunch. Earlier we went to The Sun in the Wood. I had Cold Turkey, Mary had Roast Lamb, her mother looked like mutton dressed up, with mint-sauce. There we were, lording it, our Sunday-best, our table reserved as usual in the annexe, four bottles of Chateau Neuf du Pape opened and breathing, waiting for us when we arrived. El Perfecto!
My grandson plays soccer. (The manager is a clown). It’s a crap day, wet, wind, and I have to remind myself I’m a volunteer, here to watch my boy. When he pulls on that red shirt I realise he is the most important thing to me.
First Prize, Pencil, Bantry, Ireland
The Fucking Point-Two
My brother's habit is bloody annoying. He’s Friar Tuck and I’m running as Maid Marion and we are only four miles into the London Marathon and the swish-swish-swish-fucking-swish is driving me crazy.
“Fer Christ’s sake, Colin, I TOLD you. Go as The Sheriff of Fucking Nottingham, we’ll never catch Robin Hood and Little John now and that’s me and you down fifty quid each.”
“Ah fuck off, brother,” Colin says (he always says it like that, brother heavy on the emphasis). Then he reminds me the London is his seventeenth marathon and Robin and Little John have gone off far too fast.
First, Lichfield Short-Story Prize.
The first time he had seen her she was the writer – he didn’t know – of a story he’d already chosen as winner in a competition. He was aware of her but not seeing her – was her hair pulled back? Was there grey in it? Did she wear light-framed spectacles? He wasn’t seeing her because one of the students in the class was a nightmare, a conference classic, a bitter wannabe who couldn’t write, would never write – you need a soul to write – but could talk forever about conspiracies and rip-offs, and all those editors – no doubt including himself – who couldn’t understand.
He began by trying to be nice, but this monster was eating class time, moved to sarcasm – wasted, completely wasted – eventually had to call foul, suggest a meeting at another time, the class needed to get in some work.
Later, coffee, biscuits, the winner – her pseudonym was Obelisk – leaned in close, not for intimacy but for group-sustaining politeness (but she just had to say this), and he, not for intimacy either, but the feeling was intimate, dropped an ear closer.
$600 First, judged by Hilary Mantel, Connections Magazine
Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet & Watch.
Late February, 1991. Friday.
Friday afternoon, very cold, and Thomas Smith, sales manager, leaves his London offices for home. Tom has left a little early. Once a week he allows himself the chance to beat the crush of commuters travelling from Waterloo to the South Coast. He knows that the 15:30 train to Weymouth will be at worst three-quarters full, and that the one after that won't have an empty seat. Tom hates to board anything later. He knows that any train after 15:45 will be little better than a cattle-truck.
As Tom walks across Waterloo Bridge he rehearses a new joke, one he heard today at lunch. The wind off the Thames is vicious but Tom's eyes shine and he walks on. In December he had his first million-pound month and tomorrow his sales force are coming to a party to celebrate. That's why Tom wants to remember the joke. He chants the punch-line almost like a mantra. Tom is 33.
$600 First, Peninsular Magazine
The Last Love Letter of Berwyn Price
actually opens with an almanac entry
(about as far from a big-bang start as it’s possible to get.)
Price, Berwyn Philip. b. 11:2:21, d 12:2:97.
Wing and full-back, (occasionally scrum-half). Played, Aberavon (267), Barbarians (3), Wales (42). "BP", Known for his blistering pace, scored 27 tries for Wales, most notably the two tries in injury time in "BPs Triumph" the 1947 21-20 win over England at Twickenham. Also representative honours, Wales 100/220 yards. Empire Games Gold Medal, 1948 (100yds) Son of Philip Price, Swansea & Aberavon, one Welsh cap.
Mrs Bethan Price, if you're reading this, then it looks like I must have managed it, after all. I went and over-did it and popped my clogs, just like you and Doctor Llewellyn said I would. So bugger me, I'm dead, well what do you know? I'm sorry love, but if that's what happened, then it happened. I'll bet I died happy, though. Was it at the Arms Park? I bet all I could see when the moment finally came was red and white and green. I bet I could smell the lads and the mud, see the flags and hear Bread of Heaven!
Berwyn was $2,000 second place (4,500 entries)
in The UK's Bridport Prize
The Bastard William Williams
I am the bastard William Williams, late of The Universal Pit, Senghennydd, then the pit at Abertridwr, and latterly the cellars of The Commercial Hotel, as pot man. Now that the dust have slowed me I am easy to find. I am still lived next door to the English Congregational Church, Commercial Road, Senghennydd. I venture from my place only for the English Cong, and in summer, if I am lucky, a visit from a relation.
Until the coaldust on my chest confined me to my front room I have been known as a hearty man. My years is matched exact to the century and for the most part it have been a good life, wholesome. I think though, with what have passed, I shall not like to be here when the clock strike two thousand.
"William" was also placed second ($2,000) in The Bridport Prize
“William Tell” (eventually named “The Quarry”) won Momaya under a pseudonym. This one (best be fair and honest) was rejected by Writers Forum as having too slow a start. However, I disagreed, and so, obviously, did the judges at Momaya.
This opening was a boy describing how to build a home-made crossbow. It's "factual" but contains metaphors, character and a lot of foreshadowing of the story.
This is how you make your crossbow. A piece of three-by-two pine you got from a building site, cut it up. Make a crucifix, two nails at the centre, other-wise the cross-piece moves. You’re gonna have to buy the thick rubber, but no problem. Get over the wall at the back of Feraro’s Chip Shop, steal a few pop-bottles, take them back in the morning for the deposits. Smile.
Nail the rubber along the cross-piece. Don’t put the nail through the rubber. If you do it splits. Use a couple of nails each end, bang them in either side of the rubber, so far, then smash them over the rubber till it squishes down. You have to do two nails at least, otherwise it can come out. That’s what happened to Colin Hicks and that’s why he’s got a glass eye.
Result? Another First Prize.
Next in the sequence is “Postcards From Balloonland” but I will move that one to the end, along with the story “Ballistics” with an explanation, then.
Tomatoes, Flamingos, Lemmings,
& Other Interesting Facts.
I always think, you know, it’s like being on stage. You have to look your best. You come in from the wings and there’s your audience and straight away, you’re in the spotlight, you can’t hide, and every night you have to perform, no matter what. You’ve been short-changed on the maintenance again and the kids need new shoes, maybe it’s time of the month and you’re feeling lousy, but you have to do it, you do, look good for the punters. It’s yer job.
I nearly went stripping once, but at the last minute, I bottled out. I thought that being behind a bar would be easier. I’ve been here for two years, one month, a week and a half; five quid an hour, tips and a conveyor belt of blokes. I think I should’ve gone stripping.
"Tomatoes" was Editor's Choice in The Fish Prize, a competition I went on to judge, many years later. It has been reprinted many times all over the world and an extended version was broadcast on BBC Radio Four.
The following story, also known as "Ernie the Egg" appeared in three versions, a 2K, a 3K and 3.3K, earning its keep. The longest version was inches away from being my biggest, most-important publication at the time, in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly Magazine (US).
It was chosen to be the inaugural story for Atlantic Monthly Unbound, earned a further $250 and offers from US publishers.
Does it start with a big bang?
Meredith Toop Evans and His Butty, Ernest Jones
In the villages all down this valley, from Senghennydd down to Caerphilly, they call me Ernie the Egg.
I do not mind this, but for the record, I am Ernest Jones, poultry farmer, son of Robert Jones, Deacon, and they are my hens that run amok on the hill above the town. You may eat whosoever's pigs you wish, but it is my eggs that you shall have on your plate if you sup anywhere in the valley from Park Hamlet right through Abertridwr. My eggs is on the plates for most the best part of Caerphilly, too, though I know of some Cardiff eggs there.
Yes, I am rich, and the boys in the villages, and the old men, make jokes about me. Yes, Ernie the Egg I am, and with a few bob, and sought after by the Revenue, too, but I am wealthy by fortunate accidents and hard work, and with the help of God, and because of a great and ordinary man, Meredith Toop Evans, collier, and because I am shot in the neck in the Great War and because I am a failed scholar.
The hens have been my livelihood but this have not always been so. Once I was to be a teacher, then a collier, then dead underground, then dead from a bullet in the Great War. That I am not any of these things is an odd thing for me, peculiar altogether, but facts is facts, which is why I will relate my story.
The closing story in my collection Ballistics begins:
Happy as Larry
Larry wakes at 03:50, takes a piss, and with his shoes in his hands, goes out through the glassed front door leaving the stale jam-and-cream sponge, and the remains of Mary’s tea, stone cold. She had insisted, insisted on staying up to talk. Larry had taken to coercive or death-inducing mental incantations to make himself alone:
It’s-time-to-go-to-bed-you-cow, so knock it on the head.”
But Larry is away now, Larry is en route Larry is dans le car, tout le suite and he wants to get away vitely. He is leaving the Kremlin.
It isn’t even light yet, only the flabby yellow of two streetlamps but the sodium glow’s enough for padding Larry Peters to tread gently to the car, get in, lock the door, start up, reverse, and slink away. But as soon as he exits the cul-de-sac, once he is uncatchable, unshoutafterable, he puts his foot down. He flies.
In minutes, a country road, silver, dark birds lifting from hedgerows. Then another, better road, then the A303, and under a light, her, thumbing.
The title story of Ballistics is one of the few which might be argued to have a big-bang opening. Certainly there is instant drama referred to:
A set of car keys, fat as a grenade, is arching towards your eyeball. The tip of one key, v-shaped will precisely pierce the dark core of your eye. You're not yet two years old but this won't protect you. You are not old enough to understand that these keys, thrown in anger, began their journey a year before you were born, that maybe, a psychiatrist will say, they began even further back when a mother left a father, or further back than this, when a mining foreman, bitter, too bad for drink, strapped his wayward son.
You don't yet know the word key, but you know car and you know picnic. This is where you are now, out in the soft English countryside, and the sun shines, and down there is a clear river and over there moo-cows, and you have a mummy and a daddy. One day you will marry a much older man, a man with a criminal record for violence, who shaves his head brutishly short, who has his country's emblem tattooed on his chest, but nothing, nothing of this exists yet, not even this next moment, the long seconds when you look into the air, to the brightness. It's blue, and the black bird fills your view and then something happens.
However, the accident is referred to almost in passing and we move away quickly into the essence of the story. That is family, heredity, destiny and the way life and other lives shape us against our will. Remove the single fact of that first sentence and it’s another slow, titling start.
I moved Ballistics and Balloonland to the end of this discussion. Ballistics could be argued to be “big-bang” but Postcards suffered in early drafts for being too subtle.
It opened with three “innocuous” postcards from family members crossing the Atlantic. That was how I wanted it but in the hurly-burly of the market they could be read as trivial and pointless. The story bombed a few times before I added the two lines just after the title.
Maybe not too-subtle but it was easy to read three "so-what?" postcards and dismiss the story. I needed something to tell the editor or judge that the story was a serious piece and not some beginner's ramble about a holiday.
There are things we should say, things we should not.
And there are things we want to say but have never learned how.
The purpose of those two lines was to “salt” the start, to tell the editor or judge, “Yes, there’s something here, this is important.” After that the story sold and earned me about $1,500 then a further $900. It’s been reprinted many times
PS It's available in a collection of my early stories (some 20 years old now!) as an eBook at Amazon
Postcards from BalloonLand
There are things we should say, things we should not.
And there are things we want to say but have never learned how.
We’re in DisneyLand! Dad promised us that if it was the last thing he ever did we were going to go to America and go to Florida and go to Orlando and go to Disney and stop in the Contemporary Resort. It’s very hot. The grass is funny. There are hundreds of dead good things in the shops.
The Frog wants to go to the Magic Kingdom tomorrow and do all the girlie rides. Dad says we have to wait until Friday to go to EPCOT. The Contemporary Resort Hotel is brilliant! There’s a monorail goes right through the building! It took nine hours to get here. We saw Concorde! Dad had a headache when we landed. Mam said it was because of the flight. Gotta go. Bet you wish you were here!
I hope you and Dad are well. The flight was far better than I expected. There was so much for me to do that I forgot to be frightened! Peter was very tired, Rachel led him round everywhere by the hand. They bought me perfume. I told Peter off for spending but he just laughed and said, ‘What’s money?’ The kids played Scrabble most of the flight. Peter fell asleep in my lap.
Your loving daughter, Margaret.
He was Peter. Soft red curly hair, blue, bright eyes, thirty-three; married to Margaret, father to Benjamin, to Rachel and to three-year old Tobias. He read their postcards again. Rachel’s card was a picture of Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger in front of a blue-grey castle. The holiday was costing a fortune but he knew he had never spent money more wisely. Before they left, he told Margaret that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip and not to worry about the expense. It was all taken care of, he said. The look on the kids’ faces when he told them was sheer joy.
Pick up BASS (Best American Short Stories) or The OHenry Prize Collection, or the latest "Pushcart" and actually READ the openings.
What percentage are "big-bang"? I doubt if 1 in 20 is a BBO.
Why then, are there clowns out there in print and on the internet ADVOCATING starting with a bang?
I know that 99.9% of stories arriving on my desk and starting with a bang will be poor quality, almost certainly by beginners.