The Bad Beginnings
He also once wrote the beginning of a story and challenged his readers to submit possible endings. He imagined two colonial British officers stationed on an island in the South Seas. Call them Smith and Jones. It doesn't matter, and I can't remember what they were called anyway. So every six month a ship arrives with supplies and letters from home. Smith always receives a great deal of mail. Jones not so much. One day, after the mail has come, Jones offers to buy a letter--any letter--from Smith. He offers him 10 pounds sterling for a single unopened letter. Smith laughs and agrees, so Jones flops down a 10 pound note, grabs a letter and runs off.
Weeks pass and eventually Smith can't help himself. He asks about the letter. Jones refuses to tell him anything about it. He bought it. It's his. If Smith really wanted to know, he shouldn't have sold the letter. Day by day, curiosity eats at Smith. He asks again and again, but Jones won't tell him anything. Their relationship deteriorates. Soon neither man is speaking, but both are eyeing each other warily. It's at this point that Maugham challenged his readers to complete the story.
I don't know why I love this idea. It doesn't create complex, nuanced characters or evoke a particular setting. It doesn't aspire to anything more than resolution of the plot. It's so cheesy, so hackneyed. Maybe that's why I liked it, and maybe that's why I am a failed fiction writer. Anyway, I have a fat file folder full of the first paragraphs of really bad short stories I'll never write. I was looking over them the other day. Here are a few of the bad beginnings:
I first learned my wife was a murderer on our anniversary. Well, not actually a murderer, but an attempted murderer.
Fowler knew only two things about himself with any certainty. The first was that he hated Flaherty, hated the very sight of his fat pasty face and greasy forelock. The second thing was that in his entire life Fowler had ever been right about anyone.
The first word to go was catsup. Seated at Danny’s, an after work watering hole, he had asked for some, but the word, which retained its meaning in his mind, came out as a series of sharp clicks and a glottal stop, not unlike the noise produced by contented porpoises. The waiter, after staring a moment, asked him to repeat himself. Again came the clicks and stops. It took four tries and a bit of pantomime but he finally made himself clear. A few days later the word “pool” transformed; then “plant” changed over. The stares became more frequent, the awkwardness increased. Yet he knew what he was saying. When the verbs and prepositions started slipping away, he also knew he had a problem...