|The penis was enormous, at least thirty feet long.
Standing in the scrotum, breathing heavily after the climb from the road, Robert looked at the giant's erect member rising up the hill. Its pale outline enclosed lush grass scattered with plastic bags, cigarette packets, and scraps of damp faded paper.
"Any particular spot?" asked Karen, her voice full of anticipation.
Robert shrugged. "The top, I guess." He shivered as the cool evening breeze gusted across the hillside.
On a hill in the southwest of England lies a figure known as the Cerne Abbas Giant. It's about 180 feet long, and was made by cutting away the turf to expose the chalk bedrock, creating a white outline. Other landscape carvings exist elsewhere in England, such as the Uffington White Horse. However, the Cerne Abbas Giant is particularly notable — indeed, notorious — for his emphatic masculinity, as depicted through his enormous erect penis.
No-one knows when, or why, the giant was made. The earliest written reference occurs in 1694. However, it has been speculated that the figure may date back much further. One theory suggests that the giant was a fertility symbol, used in spring rituals connected to the rebirth of the land and the fecundity of women. Even today, childless couples still copulate within the figure's phallus, in the hope of increasing their chances of conception.
This background had long been familiar to me before I decided to use it as the basis for a story. The giant is a well-known landmark in England, such that most British readers would recognise a fictionalised version. What I hadn't realised was that many Americans — without an equivalent tradition of their own, and unaware of arcana outside their borders — would be baffled by the concept. When I workshopped an early draft of the story through Critters, some American readers didn't understand my description of the giant, because they couldn't connect it to anything in their experience. (I added some clarifying detail in the final draft.) Conversely, other Americans congratulated me on inventing such a bizarre artefact and mythology. (I didn't invent it, but I'm happy to take the credit for using it.)
According to folklore, making love within the chalk giant's phallus will help a couple to conceive. In writing my story, I had several questions in mind. Does the ritual really help? If so, what form could the assistance take, and what price might the couple have to pay? The narrative hints at answers, but without specifying a definitive outcome. Some readers have seen this as a weakness in the story; others as a strength.
An issue that periodically exercises writers is that of the "hook" — how should a story start, in order to get people to read on? One view is that a story should begin with an attention-grabbing sentence or paragraph — the hook — which is so compelling that the reader is immediately intrigued and wants to continue. This applies regardless of whether or not the hook makes much sense, or is the true beginning of the story. The usual argument for this strategy is that the top magazines receive hundreds of submissions every month, and editors don't read all the stories all the way through: in most cases they read only the beginning of a story before rejecting it. Therefore it's important to make sure that the opening has enough of a hook to make the editor read on. The counter-argument is that because editors read so many story-openings, they get very tired of breathlessly inflated pyrotechnics at the start.
I mention this debate because "The Chalk Giant" opens with one of my punchiest first lines:
|The penis was enormous, at least thirty feet long.|
Some workshop colleagues thought this was an audacious, attention-grabbing opening; others found it vulgar and counterproductive.
My own view of the hook is that, if used, it should always be the genuine start of the story. I tend to dislike stories that open with an exciting event, but then go backward to explain what happened beforehand. I consider such artificial fireworks as a sign that the author lacks confidence in the real start of the story. And if the author doesn't believe in their story, then why should I?
But, as long as you start from the true beginning, I view it as legitimate to write the most arresting first line you can come up with. And so, if I'm writing a story about the magical properties of a giant phallus, I find it natural to start by describing the huge penis.
However, there can be unexpected side-effects to this approach. After "The Chalk Giant" had been reprinted in a webzine, I discovered that the story was linked from a penis enlargement site, under the heading "Penis Enlargement Resources on the Internet". I guess that'll teach me to stop writing stories that begin, "The penis was enormous...."
I only visited the penis enlargement site after Googling myself. Not for any other reason. Honest!