Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 40

The boy looked about six or seven but the grime encrusting his hands and face made it impossible to be sure. Between pinched finger and thumb he held one end of a length of green string. The other end was tethered to the ankle of a wailing infant, equally grimy, that floated a few feet above the boy’s head.

The boy smiled at me with brilliant-white teeth.

“I won him at the funfair,” he said, his voice old and gravelly. “You wanna come to the funfair? You can win all kinds of stuff.”

The infant stopped wailing.

“Don’t listen,” it said. Its voice, neither male nor female, was soft and chiming and I felt myself go a little weak at the sound of it. “Don’t listen to a word this lying little toe-rag says. He’s filth and dirt through and through. Don’t listen.”

All kinds of stuff,” said the boy.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 39

Robert looked out of his bedroom window, hoping for impassable snow drifts. He really couldn’t face another day of filing and photocopying and pretending to take telephone messages. All thought of frozen precipitation fled his mind, however, when he was greeted by the sight of two Edwardian-looking gentlemen digging a hole in his front lawn.

The taller of the two gentlemen had his back to Robert, but the shorter of the two (by a considerable margin) was staring right up at Robert, lips pulled back from blackened teeth in a vicious grin that told Robert everything he needed to know about the purpose of that deep, dark hole.

It started to snow.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Fiction Writing Tips

A little detour: seven fiction writing tips.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 38

He taped a key to the back of each hand, filled his pockets with ash and placed a penny under his tongue.

When the coin began to taste like blood in his mouth, began to taste like a bitten tongue, he stepped out into the snow and set off in search of his dead daughters.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 37

“You can’t believe everything you hear,” said Sally. “Especially from the dead.”

“I didn’t say I believed him,” Ben replied. “I just think it’s worth looking into, that’s all.”

Sally looked a little disgusted.

Him?” She said. “They aren’t hims or hers, they’re its. Do you even know what ghosts are? I mean what they really are?”

“Of course, they’re people who’ve died and can’t move on. They’ve got – “

Wrong. They’re all the nasty and spiteful bits of the soul that can’t get into Heaven. They’re just so much slighted ectoplasm with a long memory and a complete inability to forgive. Next time one of the wretched things starts shooting its mouth off, do yourself a favour: stick your fingers in your ears and start whistling the theme tune from Laurel and Hardy. They hate that.”

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 36

An exercise.

Get hold of a volume of poetry, preferably an anthology rather than a single-author collection.

Turn to the Index of First Lines.

Ignoring anything obvious or well-known, scan down the first lines until something jumps out at you.

Use this as the title or first line of your story, and take it from there.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 35

"It's my favourite toy," Miranda whispered. "At night, it sings to me."

"What does it sing, Miranda? What songs does it sing?"

"Oh, they're not really songs. They sound all wobbly and sort of, I don't know, backwardy?"

Friday, 30 October 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 34

At first, Jack had been convinced the thing was some twisted little urchin’s idea of a toy. But then he'd cut open its belly and something like semi-liquified worms had glistened through the skewed slit of his inexpert incision.

Some small part of him was relieved. If it had proved to be a toy, what little faith he'd had in today's baffling youth would have evaporated in a moment. What kind of child would take pleasure in such a thing? Other than the fact that it was only eight inches long, from lank-haired head to what toes remained, it looked like something exhumed from a mass grave: emaciated, almost skeletal, flesh like filthy wet linen, drawn tight over disproportionate bone. The thought of a child playing with the thing, dressing it, positioning its limbs just so, turning its head this way and that...

(From my short story Nails Without Pictures published in Nocturne)

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 33

At first, I thought it was a dead chick: one of those barely feathered near-foetuses you stumble across every now and then while out walking in the woods. I wondered how it had got there: in the attic, on top of a pile of newspaper clippings, themselves stacked upon a small tower of battered suitcases containing my wife’s favourite clothes.

Scrutinising the thing (squinting, as if this would somehow make up for the naked 60-watt bulb’s lack of generosity), I was proved wrong. It wasn’t a chick at all. And it wasn’t dead. It was a foetus of sorts, however; I’d got that much right. It was vaguely simian, with the consistency and colouring of regurgitated liquorice. It pulsed and twitched, its tiny, gluey mouth opening and closing, its grimy eyes rolling.

(From my short story Undressed Wounds published in Fusing Horizons.)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 32

Nobody knew his real name. Everyone just called him the Tattooed Man. It seemed like something of a misnomer to Stephen, though. He wasn’t so much tattooed as vandalised, defaced. The images scrawled onto his body looked like the work of a demented child. Only the demented child was the Tattooed Man himself, or so the story went.

Each of the images etched into his flesh was a portrait of one of his victims. He was no draftsman, so the faces staring out from his hide were variously bloated, palsied, cross-eyed or otherwise deformed. Lack of artistic merit was exacerbated by the fact that the Tattooed Man didn’t employ the tools of the professional tattoo artist; instead, he used broken glass, razor blades and ink bought from a stationery shop. His portraits were raw, swollen and angry with the threat of infection.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 31

So they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, "The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size. There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.

Numbers chapter 13, verses 32–33

Friday, 17 July 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 30

"Is this it?" asked Paul.

Jenny nodded. "This is it."

Paul took the small wooden cigar box from the table.

"Heavier than it looks," he said. "Can I open it?"

Jenny shrugged. "Up to you, really. But why waste it?"


Paul put the box back down on the table.

He grinned. "I can't believe you actually got it, Jenny. I mean, you were in Los Angeles for, what, two days?"

"Some things are easier to find if you don't try too hard."

"What should we use it for first?"

"I don't know. Maybe we should test it on something small to start with. A spider or something."

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 29

"I dreamt it," said Alex. "Last night."

"Dreamt it?" said Wiley.

"Yeah. I know. Crazy. But there you go."

"It looks like--"

"I know what it looks like."

"I don't mean 'what'. I mean who. It looks like her."


Wiley looked away from the tree, looked away from Alex, concentrated on the cars trundling by with their oblivious drivers and passengers.

"Yeah, her. Suzanne."

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 28

The house was full of birds.

I mean full of birds. Not lots of birds flying and hopping around and turning everything into one big monochrome Jackson Pollock.

No, not that all.

The house was full of birds.

As soon as we broke one window, they came spilling out.

Thousands of them. Dead, of course. Most of them. The front yard was awash with them in seconds.

Detective Banks started laughing. Not because it was funny, but because, well, what else are you going to do?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 27

"You're telling me that this is the bus?" said Detective Ackerman, jabbing a finger at the half-submerged wreck. "This is the bus we've been looking for? This is the bus that went missing just twenty-four hours ago?" He laughed, cold and flat, humorless, then took a final drag on his cigarette before dropping it into the sand and scuffing it out with his heel, violently, as if it was the source of all his woes. "What the hell happened here?"

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 26

As tree stumps went, it was relatively small and Carl had anticipated it would take an hour to shift, two at most. But here he was, a full four hours later, hands raw, back screaming and with more dirt in his mouth and up his nose than he cared to think about.

He was on the verge of giving up entirely and calling in the professionals when it started to shift, courtesy of the garden fork he'd managed to wedge beneath the thing. He could hear roots tearing, tendrils snapping. And just as he was thinking how like a dentist he was, a dentist to ogres, he was surrounded by green-grey smog and a smell like every abscess in the world bursting at once.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 25

He was in a cathedral of sorts, the distant, vaulted ceiling barely visible through a swirling veil of rusty cloud. There were things up there, between clouds and ceiling: winged; serpentine; vast.

It was too much. Brodie had to look away. He focused his attention on the distant walls, but there was no comfort to be found there. The great blocks out of which the building was made were somehow both solid and fleshy; muscular. They seemed to expand and contract, as if the place were breathing the slow, deep breaths of a slumbering animal.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 24


It drew the walls in close. It brought the ceiling down within an inch of his scalp. There was brick dust under his fingernails, amassing, it seemed, by the second.

He could taste the damp of the wooden stairs, as if thousands of spores of mould were settling on his tongue, fungi taking root in his taste buds.

He had to close his eyes against the darkness to fend off the notion that it wasn't merely an absence of light but a living black fluid, seeping into his eyeballs, pulsing up his optic nerves toward the centres of his brain.

He couldn't stand it.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 23

The door slammed shut and Joey was alone in the cellar, the damp wood of the stairs beneath him; the cold, crumbling brick against his back; the darkness seemed to coat his eyes in thick, black ink.

He stopped crying; instantly. Once the door was shut, it wasn't wise to cry. It wasn't wise to make any noise at all, because, as always, something had arrived with the darkness. Joey could hear it, panting, growling, pacing, somewhere at the bottom of the stairs

Friday, 26 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 22

It didn't look like a key.

For one thing, it was spherical. Who'd ever heard of a spherical key? Certainly not Turner, and he knew keys. It was silver, this sphere, small enough to be concealed in a closed hand, and its entire surface was inscribed with delicate characters (Chinese, Japanese, Cyrillic, cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and something that was somehow all and none of the above).

It was beautiful, it was intriguing, but it was no key.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 21

It was just the driving rain and the liquidity of the mud that made them look like a child's footprints.

Robert had no idea how long he had been following them, or even why. He wondered if he was simply keeping himself busy, distracting himself from the squealing in his ears, the festering wound in his thigh, the cold numbing his face and fingers, the knowledge that everyone was dead, that he was alone and lost in this cemetery, this sewer, this labyrinth. These trenches.

(From my short story And Everything but Wretchedness Forgotten published in the From the Trenches anthology from Carnifex Press)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 20

You've been here before. You remember the way each warped and worn step creaked beneath your feet, each producing a slightly different note. A sort of musical instrument. A splintering melody. The distorted, threatening soundtrack that accompanied your escape.

But this time, you're going up, going back, going mad. The awful music plays backwards.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 19

John had finally got a grip of himself and stopped crying. Which was lucky for John: a couple more minutes of his blubbing and Frank would have killed him.

"I can't see anything," said Nick but resisted the urge to add, Maybe it's safe, maybe we can get out of here.

Frank said something, probably something sniping and sarcastic, but Nick didn't register the comment, because something had moved, in the waste ground between the overgrown garden and the woods beyond.

Nick tried to speak, to warn the others, but his mouth was dry as pumice and his throat had narrowed down to a thin capillary incapable of delivering anything more than a ridiculous piping sound.

It was one of the bigger ones, not one of the scavengers. A hunter. Its massive arms ploughed through garbage and rubble. Its tongues thrashed from the slash of its mouth like a nest of angry snakes.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 18

What if it winked at you, that strange disembodied face? What if it smiled, poked out a tongue or produced a large and impressive smoke ring?

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 17

Timothy didn't know what it was, the thing at the end of Elbow Street. It was big – bigger than a house, he didn't doubt, if it were to unfurl to its full height – and it was made of something beginning with 'c'.

He didn't know what it was, the creature at the end of the street, but he suspected it was there because of him.

Nobody else could see it. The other residents of the street edged around it, as if it was a large, murky puddle they didn't want to step into; they stared down at their feet or examined the contents of their pockets or found interesting shapes in the clouds. Their faces became set, as if they were deep in thought. Maybe they could see it but pretended otherwise. Or maybe it didn't want to be seen. Not by them. Just by Timothy.

(This is the first three paragraphs of my story 'Tabaniday' which appeared in issue 3 of Morpheus Tales)

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 16

"Watch," said Harry.

Holding the key between thumb and forefinger, he popped it into his mouth like it was a French fry.

He winked at me, then he started to chew. The sound of metal on enamel made my own teeth buzz. My fillings felt like they were sparking.

"That's not right," was all I could say. "That just isn't right."

He carried on chewing, smiling as he chewed. Metal on enamel still, but less so now, like the key was breaking down into smaller pieces.

A minute of this, then Harry swallowed.

"There," he said. "All gone."

He opened his mouth wide and stuck out his tongue, like a child trying to prove they've eaten all their greens and can they have some ice cream now, please?

Friday, 19 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 15

An Exercise:

Take two of my story starters and make one the opening of Chapter 1 and another the opening of Chapter 2, then see if you can make the two stories converge.

For example, what if the story of Stephen and his mysterious William Blake tattoo and the story of Thomas and the stubborn infinity cloud were part of the same overall narrative?

Perhaps, you could combine three, four or even all of them!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 14

Some first lines:

The man on the doorstep was soaked, water dripping from his overcoat and evaporating the moment it hit the dusty, sun-drenched porch.

On every page of the diary, the same nonsense word scrawled over and over again: scissormirror, scissormirror, scissormirror, scissormirror, scissormirror...

"Simmer down, kids," Ravi whispered. "It'll be dark soon. And we all know what that means, don't we?"

The road forked, north-east and north-west, but inbetween, a dirt track that was hardly visible at all.

Chris didn't care what the politicians said, or the weathermen, or the newsreaders; the arabesque patterns in the carpet told him all he needed to know.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 13

Some first lines:

Andrew didn't even have to open his eyes to know they were here.

The shoes, the shoes he had worn yesterday and for the last few months without any problems at all except for the usual breaking-in period, his shoes in other words, didn't fit anymore.

Sophia wondered how she could possibly have failed to notice his eyes before: one blue, the other a pale brown.

"Take it from me: you can never have too many scars."

The pain came back on Thursday and Vincent was so relieved he broke down and cried like he'd never cried before.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 12

Some first lines:

The flowers died on Monday, and everything followed on from that.

It was a beautiful house, gambrel roof, gable windows, immaculate, and it burned a treat.

At first, Nick thought it was just a bundle of rags that had blown onto his lawn during last night's gales.

Everything else he had been prepared for, everything except the blood, the redness of it, the impossible quantities of the stuff.

He couldn't get back to sleep, but he couldn't drag himself into a complete state of wakefulness, either.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 11

Some first lines:

God wasn't happy with me, and He let me know in His own inimitable way.

The only thing I can think of which might explain all of this, is the fact that I was born during a solar eclispse.

This was back in the days before cell phones and even answer machines, back in the days when, for a teenage girl, the words 'It's for you' were a source of excitment and delight.

To think, none of this would have happened if I'd just done what Karen had asked and mown the lawn last Wednesday.

John hadn't known about the hidden camera.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 10

How to start a book? How to start a book?

Imogen could remember the day she'd keyed that precise phrase into Google. The over-enthusiastic search engine had thrown up thousands of results, thousands, but she'd been drawn to one in particular, a Squidoo lens: How to Start a Book.

And now look. She could hardly move for paper. Her manuscript had taken over the dining room, then the lounge, followed by the hallway. It had crept slowly up the stairs and now it was taking over her bedroom. Hundreds of thousands of pages. Story without end.

How to start a book?

What about how to finish a book?

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 9

By Thursday, at least I'm pretty sure it was Thursday, but I can't be completely certain, by Thursday, there were only eight of us left. Helena and Justin didn't look too good. They had the marks all over them. By Friday, there'd be just six of us. No doubt. And six wouldn't be enough.

"We're not going be able to do this," said Catherine and her voice wasn't much more than an arid whisper.

"You been reading my mind, again?" I asked and tried to grin but my lips were too dry and sore, so the most I could manage was a kind of grimace that didn't fit on my face right.

"Not this time, Robert, no. No more mind reading. It's all gone now." She stumbled a little and Becky put a hand out to steady her. "All gone. The inside of my head's like a..." She barked a laugh. "I have no idea what the inside of my head's like. I don't have the words. I don't think their are any words."

"It's probably just like ours," I said. "Normal."

"Yeah," said Becky. "You've got a straight forward, regular old mind now, just like us."

"How can you stand it?" said Catherine.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 8

Thomas couldn't believe nobody else had noticed the cloud. They must have seen it, the cloud shaped like an infinity symbol, that sleeping figure eight. It had been there for, what, four hours now? Other clouds had come and gone, shepherded on by the wind, but this one had remained.

They must have seen it. Thomas could only surmise that everyone else had opted to ignore the cloud, had blocked it out somehow. And who could blame them? It was simultaneously meaningless and mind-shaking. An armada of alien spacecraft would have been similarly mind-shaking but it would also have been meaningful; it would have been a frightening sight but, ultimately, one which could be processed and dealt with. But an infinity symbol cloud which refused to do the natural thing and obey the elements? That was all kinds of weird.

Then, Thomas noticed the woman, petite with short black hair and a pronounced underbite. She was staring at the cloud and smiling.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 7

"A tattoo?"

"That's what I said: a tattoo."

"Very funny. I don't have a tattoo, Doctor Ahlberg. I think I'd remember."

Doctor Ahlberg stopped smiling.

"You're serious?" he said. "You really don't know that you have a tattoo? On your back? Right between your shoulder blades?"

Stephen's smile faltered, fell away, returned. "You nearly had me, there."

But Doctor Ahlberg still wasn't smiling.

"I'm really not kidding, Mr Phelps. You have a tattoo. On your back."

Stephen's smile vanished.


"Come here, let me show you."

The doctor guided Stephen over to a full length mirror.

"Look," he said.

"Oh," said Stephen.

"I don't know what it is," said the Doctor. "Looks familiar, though."

"It's The Ancient of Days, by William Blake," said Stephen. "I think I need to sit down."

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 6

By then, his coffee had gone stone cold, but Oliver drank it anyway as a kind of punishment. It was the least he deserved. The very least.

He drained the cup and slammed it down hard on the counter, hard enough it should have shattered. It didn't shatter, though, didn't even crack. So he slammed it down again and this time it did shatter. It made a noise like a gunshot.

No. Not like a gunshot. Not like a gunshot at all.

Oliver knew what a gunshot sounded like and a shattering coffee cup didn't even come close. A shattering coffee cup sounded like... well, it sounded like a shattering coffee cup. A gun shot: now that was something else. A gunshot, up close, sounded like God cracking His knuckles in readiness for the mother of all fist fights.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 5

Michael knew something big was going to happen the moment he saw Marvin Gaye's ghost browsing the Social Sciences section of Books a Million. Marvin was whistling Soon I'll be Loving You Again and swaying a little. Michael wondered if it meant something, that particular tune, if it was pertinent to the whatever-it-was that was going to happen. He'd have asked Marvin himself but, even by the skittish standards of most apparitions, Marvin was particularly shy and liable to just vanish with that sound they always made when they departed, like ice starting to crack and about to give way entirely.

Yesterday, he'd seen Curtis Mayfield sitting on a pile of tyres on the forecourt of Howard's Used Autos. Curtis had been singing Little Child Running Wild at the top of his voice. The day before that Mississippi John Hurt had shuffled past him on Page Street, his worn out ghost shoes letting in the ghost rain. As always, John had been smiling and humming Nobody's Dirty Business.

Something big was going to happen. Michael had no doubt.

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 4

Beneath the first layer of wallpaper was another layer of wallpaper. Beneath that layer, another, this one painted over with a thick yellow emulsion, making it almost immune to the effects of the industrial-strength steamer Matthew had borrowed from his brother-in-law. After an hour, Matthew was forced to give up entirely on modern technology and resort to brute force and a craft knife.

When Marie appeared holding two tall glasses of iced tea and said, "What's that?" Matthew stepped back and was about to say, "No doubt another damn layer of wallpaper."

Instead, he found himself saying, "I don't know."

"Looks like some kind of mural," said Marie. She placed the iced teas on Matthew's work bench, stepped toward the wall and wrenched away a broad sheet of wallpaper that looked like the thick, yellow hide of some long-dead creature.

"What the hell is that?" said Matthew. Then, his voice dropping to a whisper, "Is that you?"

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 3

The mirror was beautiful, the art noveau frame carved from mahogany, its vines and flowers interspersed with birds, butterflies and grinning cherubs. The glass was flawless and smooth, the silver beneath untarnished.

It was all Lauren could do not to drag it from the wall and throw it to the floor.

Wretched thing. Perfect mirror.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 2

It wasn't that Nataly didn't love her little brother, she did, she really did, but he was just so weird and demanding and weirdly demanding, and she really hadn't been able to take anymore.

She hadn't meant to hurt him. She'd just wanted to make a point, and maybe scare him a little. But that was all. Not this. She hadn't meant for this to happen, at all.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Writing Prompt / Story Starter 1

"What is it?" said James.

Paul said nothing, just carried on staring at the pale thing in the sandbox, poking it with the stick of bamboo he'd stolen from Mr Burchielli's garden only an hour ago, when everything had been normal.

"I don't think it's anything," said Angela. "I mean, it doesn't look like anything. Not really."

"Well, it has to be something," said James. "It can't be nothing. Can it?"

"Whatever it is," said Paul, still staring, still poking, "I think it's bleeding."