The Multitasking Opener

The Multitasking Opener – focus on Carys Davies


If, like me, you keep a notebook just for recording the beginnings of stories you read, after a while you begin to notice just how much some writers can get into the first line or two. Some go for the grab and hook the reader’s attention with an arresting first line, others go for a slower burn. Recently I have recently been amazed at the increased sophistication of some openers which really do seem to accomplish more than should be possible in such a short space.

It could be that the normal requirements for the opening few lines just work harder in the hands of a master but by comparing a few beginnings, it becomes possible to see the difference in technique between authors who hook the reader and draw them in, and the stories where the reader is immediately placed in the middle of everything, the performance has begun, we are beamed onto planet story and we hardly notice the Gs.

The well tested techniques of beginning in media res, having an arresting first line, using the title to launch the reader into the story, all these things have not gone away and they are not new. Consider Chekhov and ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’:

People said that there was a new arrival on the Promenade: a lady with a little dog. Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, who had already spent a fortnight in Yalta and who was by now used to the life there, had also begun to take an interest in new arrivals.

Here is that arresting first line, a visual image (not very strongly drawn), the physical setting and the main protagonist. The title gives us a massive clue and after these two sentences there is some momentum, but not much colour. Modern writers are doing much more than this, but not all of them.

In her collection Other Stories and other stories, Ali Smith uses the opening paragraph of her story ‘Small Deaths’ to set a languid tone through a text rich with assonance and alliteration, but withholds much else:

Halfway through the summer the weather suddenly got better, hotter. For nearly a week the air was hot, hanging in the house as thick as smoke, hanging around the garden curling and deadening the leaves. I love it, you said. I love this weather. I love you.

Seen in isolation, it would be possible to think the reader knows very little indeed at this point, but there are other cues. The title is one. The light bulb motif is another – each story has a line sketch of a modern light bulb, echoing the cover, reminiscent of the lightbulb in Picasso’s Guernica. The story also come a third of the way into the collection, so the reader has already formed some expectations.

In a couple of punchy sentences, Jhumpa Lahiri takes it up a step. She lets you know exactly what’s going on, what the dilemma is, although in her stories the setting and characters usually take form a few lines further on. Here’s the opening of ‘Sexy’ :

It was a wife’s worst nightmare. After nine years of marriage, Laxmi told Miranda, her cousin’s husband had fallen in love with another woman. He sat next to her on a plane, on a flight from Delhi to Montreal, and instead of flying home to his wife and son, he got off with the woman at Heathrow.

I definitely do want to know the gossip, and somehow this opening feels colourful and full but all we really know about the characters so far, is a little about their attitudes and their social class. In other words, we have been treated to some characterisation as well that first powerful sentence. There is also a strong sense of the tone of the story, which serves in lieu of setting in these few sentences. Clever isn’t it? And so natural sounding.

In the first story to his collection Young Skins, Colin Barrett sets out his stall more fully. The opening paragraph gives insights in to the character of the first person narrator and raises expectations of a dystopian, dysfunctional Irvine Welsh-like set up whilst playing with associations to Clockwork Orange, Catch 22 and I challenge anybody not to read on. The Clancy Kid begins like this:

My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its full-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.


For understated beginnings that operate on many different levels, it is Carys Davies that the quiet master. The opening of ‘The Redemption of Galen Pike’ (winner of the RSL VS Pritchett prize 2011) gives us mood, tone, setting (geographical and historical) and two characters. The scene is also highly filmic:

They’d all seen Sheriff Nye bringing Pike into town: the two shapes snaking down the path off the mountain through the patches of melting snow and over the green showing beneath, each of them growing bigger as they moved across the rocky pasture and came down into North Street to the jail-house  ̶  Nye on his horse, the tall gaunt figure of Galen Pike following behind on the rope.

There is a whole community in the two words ‘They’d all’ – rustic American townsfolk who watched what the reader sees when this prisoner is brought down from the mountain by the sheriff and we fully expect that the protagonist, Patience Haig, was watching with them. The pace of the words suggests the plod of the horse’s hooves coming down the hill, all told in a slow country drawl.

The second paragraph adds specificity, saying there were a hundred and ninety-three inhabitants of this town in the foothills of the Colorado Mountains, but we almost already know that from the opening paragraph, it is so rich in meaning:

The current Piper City jailhouse was a low cramped brick building containing a single square cell, Piper City being at this time, in spite of the pretensions of its name, a small and thinly populated town of a hundred and ninety-three souls in the foothills of the Colorado mountains. Aside from the cell, there was a scrubby yard behind, where the hangings took place, a front office with a table, a chair and a broom; 

By the time we get to the scrubby yard where the hangings take place, we have the whole story in microcosm and sit back to watch how it’s done.

I asked Carys about her writing, in particular about her recent collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, including the title story. Her answers were characteristically rich and layered. Because it takes her such a long time to write the stories, they are so thoroughly distilled. By the time the finished article is published, she has lived with them for so long that she really knows what they are saying. One phrase particularly struck me and this must be the key to why the openings of her stories are able to multitask so effectively:  ‘Every paragraph in a story should in some way have something of the whole story inside it.

What draws you to short fiction as a form?


Their intensity, their capacity to take my breath away – to conjure an almost unbearable image or moment or feeling that burns, in the heart and in the mind, long after I’ve finished reading. All my favourite short stories do that  –  whether it’s the man and his two boys in Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge waiting, in the rising water, to die; or John Cheever’s lonesome swimmer wandering through the gardens of his suburban neighbours until he reaches his own abandoned house; or the nightmarish half-skinned steer stalking the old man through the wilds of Wyoming in one of Annie Proulx’s greatest stories; or the moment when someone picks up the first stone in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery – or when Joyce’s Eveline pulls backs from the barrier and from her young man and from an entire future to stay home in Dublin. I could go on and on! These moments or images are freighted with such extraordinary power and resonance they seem to drop like stones straight into your heart, the ripples spreading outward as the reverberations and implications of the moment begin to take hold.

With a short story, this effect is so, so important. There are so many ways to write a short story, as many ways are there are stories, each one has its own form and I think that with a story you can do anything as long as you can pull it off, as long as it has an effect – if it delivers this pulse to the heart or the head or both, it’s almost certainly doing its job. Even if – in fact especially if – you can’t explain how it’s done it.



      Can you say how you approach your stories please – do you have a whole story arc worked out before you embark on a story? At what point do you write the opening of a story?



I never know where a story is going when I begin. Even the word ‘begin’ is a bit of a misnomer because I almost never start with what ends up as the beginning of the story.

The tile story, The Redemption of Galen Pike, for example, was written over a period of about ten years. All I had in the beginning was a man in a cell. I didn’t even know what he’d done wrong. Later, I began writing about another man who came to visit him and they talked. And much later, that male visitor turned into a woman, Patience, and she and the prisoner hardly spoke at all….for me it’s always a long, long process and for a great part of the time, as I write, I have no idea what the beginning or the middle and certainly not the end, are.

I certainly never set out to write about anything.

The opening emerges as I write. It takes a long time for the beginning to emerge – the exact moment when the story I’m telling should begin, because of course any story reaches back before the first word on the page. It’s a very important step for me, finding that moment.


Do you know the ending before you start out?


Absolutely not. I love what Nell Freudenberger says, that ‘a story begins as a blind groping in the dark for something, both resonant and concrete’


      You have a particular gift for using the opening to do so many things at once. 

      What do you start with when you write such layered openings? 

      How do you add the layers?


I think the answer is that by the time I have what will become the opening of a story, I’ve been writing the story for a long time. I think it’s all the earlier writing that allows you to bring together things like mood, tone, character, setting. Every paragraph in a story should in some way have something of the whole story inside it.


                  The second paragraph of Galen Pike is fantastic in the way it shows so much of the town in such a distilled and small amount of text as we are led into the story.

Although the short story form is always tight, this level of distillation suggests something akin to extended flash perhaps, and there are a couple of flash-length stories in the collection. Is this something you would recognise or are conscious of as you write?


Yes – inasmuch as what I said in my last answer is true. A short story is made up of sentences and paragraphs, all of which are doing their job of advancing and deepening the story. Individual paragraphs, or groups of paragraphs, will often grow and build and end in the same way that a whole story does. This gives a story its shape, its ebb and flow, its drama – it’s how it exerts its effect upon the reader.


The author is grateful to Carys Davies and Salt Publishing for their help with this article.

This article was originally commissioned by The Short Story


Helpful things that have stuck – advice from Kamila Shamsie, Toby Litt, Diriye Osman

I’m not talking about all the ‘How to’ books I’ve read that all give great advice, the Sol Steins, Stephen Kings and A.L Kennedys who have entered my subconscious and are deeply embedded (or should be) in the general hum of accepted creative writing teaching, but something else. Those writers have undoubtedly given me confidence but as I embark on my new, scary writing project which is the novel Joanna Brown, I realise that I am carrying 3 things with me that I actually hear in my head as I write.

All from other writers, this is what has stuck :

I was fortunate enough to hear Kamila Shamsie speak some years ago and if I can ever get on a course where she’s the teacher, I’ll be taking planet apart to get there. I remember clearly that she talked about the ‘connective tissue’ that exists in the creative process and hangs in a sort of void between the handholds that you already have. She painted a picture of swinging from bar to bar in the dark, towards these almost known locations – having to release hold of the last one behind you before you can catch hold of the next one in front – it is having the faith that you will find the connective tissue that will sustain you and allow your work to have spontaneity and freshness. Of course it was beautifully expressed and has often translated in my terms into something more like – ‘carry on regardless’, or ‘what could happen’, ‘can it get worse’ and even at times ‘feel the force, Luke’, but that image has become a mechanism for allowing myself to finish something, to achieve a body of material a chapter or a story that I can go back to and re-write. It helps me avoid the panic in the dark.

Toby Litt is a great teacher and if I ever do an MA, I’d love to study under him at Birkbeck, although I’d probably want to do a poetry MA, but then again wouldn’t it be wonderful to do a fiction one, and so goes one of my favourite little daydreams. Before I eddy round in that little pool again, l will get to the point and say that Toby Litt’s advice on first drafts is an absolute goldmine. Here it si in a nutshell – he tells his students not to start at draft #1 but to have a DRAFT #0 – simple enough, but it’s DYNAMITE. Gone is all the pressure to achieve, to fill the page, to adhere to some sort of pre-imagined requirement. With Draft 0, I just go for it, I am playing, doodling, allowing the ideas to come… Then I tweak that a bit, cut it up, move bits around, big up this, play down that and Bingo – I’m already at draft 2 or 3 without ever having had the fear of starting off. Toby Litt has set me free.

The third thing is a little different – not very long ago I met the most wonderful person. He treated me like a writer, a real one. I have my first collection coming out in February/ March 2016. It’s been in the pipeline for three years and all that time I have asked myself  am I a writer yet or not?, am I ‘out’ as a writer yet? I know it’s something people often struggle with at the tender early stages. When do you tell people you’re a writer? When do you think you are?

Diriye Osman is a gay Somali man, he’s exactly 20 years younger than me. His collection Fairy Tales for Lost Children is deeply personal and has won the Polaris Prize for LGBT fiction; he says he uses his writing as a way to humanize himself, to counteract the malevolence directed at him. I’m not saying I can get anywhere near to knowing what he’s been through or that my life is anything like his (although I get my share of shit) – what I AM saying is that this man reached out to me with acceptance, and that was a profoundly moving thing. Oh yes Tamsin, we’re all in the same boat, we’re all trying to find our way. You just keep going, keep putting yourself out there. So if he can put himself on the line like that, so can I.

I bought his book, of course I did, and this is what he wrote in it for me:


Good luck with your book and Stay Excellent.

So lovely. Nobody else says anything that kind, so of course I keep that in my head when I write now too.

(Just for the record – if anybody wants to tell me Diriye writes that in everybody’s copy, I’m not listening)

Visiting speakers #2 Publisher Lisa Highton from Two Roads and CB Agent Gordon Wise

This week’s paragons of publishing were another charming publisher full of nurturing zeal, Lisa Highton of Two Roads, presenting with Literary Agent of the Year, Gordon Wise.

It was apparent from everything about her that Miss Highton is one of those dedicated people to whom their clients and their books are everything, and for whom there are no boundaries. She describes her imprint, Two Roads, as a tiny Russian doll inside the lager Hachette shell. She appears to have been given the space to do what she loves to the best of her ability, which is clearly formidable – so well done to the creative person who actioned that blue sky thinking because hearing her speak,  you just know that if she loves your book, there are no limits to what she would do to help you. That much dedication can be scary stuff, yet as a speaker Lisa Highton is hilarious if you are on her wave length. She describes her process of selecting books to publish as a sort of mutual heat-seeking process, there is a feeling of having found one another when editor and author are right for each other.

One of the most interesting things that came out of the agent editor double act last night was an insight into the agent’s pitch letter to a editor. As agent of the Year, Gordon is of course a superstar at the pitch letter, giving a flavour of the book akin to the blurb on a book jacket, but sprinkled with signals to the editor about the kind of work and author he is presenting. Both Miss Highton and Gordon Wise referred somewhat coyly to these signals as ‘little tweaks’, but did not give any real examples. My imagination was instantly bombarded with hideous possibilities, which I don’t intend to share here.

As an editor, the agent’s pitch letter is particularly valuable if it shows that the author has understood what her work is about, something not as easy to achieve as you might expect, according to Lisa Highton. That has certainly been the case with my own jottings. Plan as I might, I have to follow the path before me all the way to the end to really know where I am going. The letter will also tell the editor if the agent has understood what the book is about, which is just as important.

Shockingly,not all agents send pitch letters. I don’t know what they do – just lob the proof out of a passing vehicle and hope it lands on the right person’s desk? Ping it off into the ether and go down the pub. Possibly. Some letters are appallingly generic apparently, not having been properly updated since the previous mass-mailing or correctly tailored to a specific person. Although they didn’t say so specifically, the hot tip in the subtext here, is to try and find out if an agent does proper pitch letters during your preliminary discussions with him or her. Now I’ll be racking my brain to think of subtle ways to ask that question without exploding a relationship before it’s started.

And while we’re on tips, the parting messages from both speakers were:

Lisa Highton- Be yourself. Nobody can fake a voice.

Gordon Wise- Although it’s a learning process, try to write something other people will want to read or else you’re just writing for the bottom drawer.


(The course includes six weeks of visiting speakers spread over six months. The next one isn’t for a few weeks.)

Agent and Editor talk #1 at CB Creative – Sophie Lambert and Alexa von Hirschberg

Last night was the first talk of six by visiting speakers, which should be one of the main real joys of the course – access to professionals in the industry. Sophie Lambert from CB’s sister agency Conville and Walsh came in with Alexa von Hirschberg, commissioning editor at Bloomsbury. They were pretty relaxed with each other, having collaborated on a couple of projects . This relationship was the interesting point or at least the new angle for me as I haven’t seen such a relaxed double act speak before, about what is a pretty fraught and aggressive industry according to the general hype.

This charming duo, paragons of publishing went into some detail about how they both work intensively to ‘grow’ their authors and are not put off by anything except excessive arrogance AS LONG AS THE WRITING IS GOOD – THE STORY IS EVERYTHING. Neither of them reject a manuscript from the first page (speak not of rejection from the first paragraph), Sophie reads at least 25 pages and Alexa up to 40 pages, although it must be said they both receive their diet pre-filtered by in-house readers. In fact Alexa credits the readers at Bloomsbury with discovering several of their big talents and calls them ‘the cleverest people I know’.  No need to differentiate your manuscript with anything wacky AS LONG AS THE WRITING IS GOOD, it will get the recognition it deserves.  Before rushing to apply for a job as a reader – apparently the CB/ C & W agents have received some outlandish submissions in the past, memorably one with the manuscript nailed to a sheep’s head and another one with dead rats, which, no surprises, didn’t get them an agent.

Both women are highly professional so maybe they were going easy on us since we’re vulnerable newbies, or maybe there really is humanity out there. Most comforting was the way Alexa talked about writers finding a home.  Anyway – Please God, let us all be blessed with agents and publishers like them.

Curtis Brown Creative course September 2015 gets under way

Last week we had our introductory talk with Course Director Anna Davis and Louise Wener, our tutor – ex popstar with Sleeper and author of Different for Girls. 

Louise Wener

Going round the table it was easy to see why the participants had been selected – confidence, great ideas and good presentation in abundance. Not intimidated. No Siree. I can ooze confidence when necessary, just need to work up to it. Anyway, Louise made it clear her watchword is NURTURING ENVIRONMENT (okay 2 watchwords), which is excellent because:

Tonight is the first teaching session and – hooray, I’m first up for a tutorial with Louise. You had to submit 3k words, and yes, I do have 3k words of this novel, but only just. Actually there’s 10k in existence but currently the drivelly outpourings of a first draft. Snot on the page as it were. Lucky Louise.

I’m doing my character notes (which I do for short stories but this is MORE – more characters, more depth, icebergs in the making), putting my plot points on cards a la Sol Stein and realising I have an enormous mountain of research to climb – I did know that, but now that I’ve started attacking it, the realisation has dawned afresh. Finding out that a lady’s maid is addressed as ‘Miss’ and the cook ‘Mrs’ regardless of her marital status for example. Just another way of dehumanising servants perhaps? Who knows? The Victorian psyche – well, that’s another post.

Dolphins Intelligence and communication – excellent article from National Geographic


Breaking the communication barrier between dolphins and humans – this article takes an in depth look at how we are getting on at communicating with dolphins. As ever, it seems they are being patient with us.