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chrisbutler

Story beginnings

It's is often said that stories must have strong openings, must hook the reader quickly. Interzone magazine has just posted publicity material for issue 233, including the opening sentences of each story, and I thought I would take a look at each of them.

The first is by Nina Allan for her story "The Silver Wind":

Shooter’s Hill had a rough reputation. The reforestation policy had returned the place to its original state, and the tract of woodland between Blackheath and Woolwich was now as dense and extensive as it had once been in the years and centuries before the first industrial revolution. The woods were rife with carjackers and highwaymen, and scarcely a week went by without reports of some new atrocity. The situation had become so serious that there were moves in parliament to reinstate the death penalty for highway robbery as it had already been reinstated for high treason. During the course of certain conversations I noticed that local people had taken to calling Oxleas Woods by its old name, the Hanging Wood, although no hangings had occurred there as yet. At least not officially.
From this I deduce the story is set in the future, but probably not too far into the future (an alternative reality is another possibility). The place names sound like England. A reforestation policy suggests some kind of ecological decline from which a recovery is in progress. The word "carjackers" tells us there are still cars. There is a certain lawlessness, but still a parliament and harsh penalties for lawlessness.

The phrase "certain conversations" suggests to me that the narrator is involved in subterfuge of some kind. A spy, perhaps. Or is someone well-connected. In any case, the narrator is noticing things not officially recognised. We don't yet know if the narrator is a man or a woman, or have any real sense of where the story might be going. This could all be simply background information with no immediate relevance to anything. But I doubt it; surely we are to learn a lot more about the Hanging Wood.

A lot is being conveyed in not many words. I think I have a good idea what to expect from this story and I am keen to learn more. A possible criticism is that we are being told a lot of information in a fairly static kind of way. But of course this is only the opening sentences and the story might move forward quickly in the next few paragraphs.

The next story is my own "Tell Me Everything":

It was raining the night Sandra died. Remember that, it’s important. / I stared at my own handwriting from a year ago. This was written in my own file, not in the official case file because I was not officially allowed to work on the case. / I shook my head, picked up my towel and wiped a layer of sweat from the back of my neck. Stein police house was packed with people, a coiling mist of spores and voices bubbling up through the hot, stuffy air, telling stories of guilt, regret, and denial.
The opening sentence is intended to be intriguing from a plot point of view. How did Sandra die? Why was the rain important?

What is the relationship between Sandra and the narrator? We're in a "police house" so is the narrator a policeman? Why was the narrator not allowed to work on the case? What is this "coiling mist of spores" and why does it tell "stories of guilt, regret, and denial." This isn't something that happens in our world. So are we in some kind of alternative reality?

Tethered to the Cold and Dying by Ray Cluley:

Two-Nine is hilly terrain to cross on foot. It’s tiring work, and treacherous in the dark, but I have to keep going to charge the kin-gen. Without it, if the batteries die I die with them. Even in full outgear. As it is, I’ve got regulated temperature, zero grade rads, and a nav-com that crackles too often but is otherwise fine. I can’t afford to be without any of it.
Immediately we're in very different territory with this one. A place where you need some kind of suit or "outgear" to survive. Probably an alien planet. The title, too, suggests this kind of a harsh/tenuous existence, though perhaps more so for someone other than the narrator? The "kin-gen" is a cool SF notion right off the bat. The narrator must keep moving to charge his suit (I'm cheating and inferring from the illustration that this is a male character), and has to keep going even in the "treacherous" dark.

But is he walking on foot purely to charge the suit or does he have a specific destination in mind? And I wonder, in what way specifically is the terrain treacherous?

Crosstown Traffic by Tim Lees:

I worked for Reuben then, a stubby little tub of a guy from some place unpronounceable; he showed me where it was one time, pointing in the sky up over Houston Street. “Oh yeah,” I said, “I see.” “Got damn good eyesight then,” he told me. Reuben wore a yarmulke, though he obviously wasn’t Jewish. “I have a small blowhole in the top of my head like a porpoise,” he said. “This keeps it warm.” I said, “That’s really funny, Rube.” He didn’t smile, just gave me this peculiar sideways look like I was some sort of an idiot. Well, maybe he was serious. You never knew with these guys. In fact, that’s just about the only thing I ever learned in all my time there: that you never, never knew.
"Houston Street" makes me think this one takes place on Earth, or at least we're on a planet where Earthlings name the streets. But there are aliens too. They come from somewhere you can point to in the sky, but far away. They're not that unlike "us," although difficult to read. And they're doing well; the narrator works for one of them.

The last sentence leaves me unsure of the narrator's perspective in time. Is he/she looking back on events at a much later date? Or merely emphasising that they have been in this place a long time?

As openings go, this one suggests a comedic tone for the story, in a way that none of the others do.

All four stories are first person narratives. I assume this is just random chance rather than any particular bias on the part of the editors. Three of the four are in past tense, one in present tense, though it is always possible that any of the authors may play narrative tricks with this stuff as the story progresses. I think it is true to say that they all have hooks, and they all do something I call "setting out your stall." They give a clear indication of the kind of story they're going to be, right from the start.

At least I think they do. Time will tell.

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My reading of the opening of 'Tethered to the Cold and Dying' was very different from yours, I thought the narrator was heading somewhere specific to charge the kin-gen (a power generator or some kind) which powered batteries for a homestead or maybe for a settlement. On second reading your idea is more likely, but it wouldn't have been the first thing I thought of.

There's also this kin-gen thing and I have thoughts of people-powered batteries - electricity from the decomposition of the biological remains of your kin. Hence tethered to (or dependent upon) the cold and dying.

Since I don't subscribe to Interzone at the moment and seem incapable of writing a story that's their style, you'll have to tell me if I was anywhere close to the mark.

My first thought when I saw "kin-gen" was that kin was short for kinetic. My whole interpretation was based on that.

And obviously you're more than capable, Jacey! It's all a lottery, but you have to be in it to win it.

Kin = kinetic or kin = relatives... perhaps it's meant to be ambiguous. Or even kin = kine = cattle. A cattle-powered (methane?) power-plant. No wonder they want to keep it well away from the settlement.

Hmmm - I'm not sure I'm on Interzone's wavelength and I'm rubbish at working out what kind of story suits what magazine. I confess I've only ever sent about three or four stories to IZ, but in each case I thought they were pretty well IZ type stories. Not the case obviously.

Yes, you're right. If you don't send then the answer is always no. Not writing many shorts at the moment because I'm busy with the novels, so IZ will have to wait.

My guess was kin = kinetic, but I must admit, the idea of kin = relatives is a much more intriguing SF premise.

My Interzone formula is: lots of swearing + screwed up people + not ending well = Interzone story. (Joking! (Although admittedly it does describe my Interzone stories...))

Certainly works as a description of "Camelot". Which I liked, by the way. :o)


Just wanted to say that 'Tell Me Everything' was my favourite story of the issue - I loved the concept of the spores etc... great stuff !

Hi, Chris. I'm a Chinese SF fan. I read some reviews of your new story "Tell Me Everything", and like it very much. I would like to read that story but cannot buy the magazine here. So may I have one e-copy of the story from you?

Of course I will not spread it without your permission. Even if you are not OK with my request, I can totally understand you.

Anyway, thank you all the same.

Hi Coy. In all fairness to Interzone I don't think I can provide the story, at least for the moment. While it is in their current issue they will obviously be hoping to sell as many copies as possible. Times are tough for short fiction publishers over here. If it helps, e-versions are normally published on Fictionwise fairly soon after the print version comes out.

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