The Bad Beginnings

I had all of the wrong role models when I wanted to be a fiction writer. I should have been carefully studying writers like Chekhov, Carver or Cheever, but in my ineptitude I read polished hacks like Somerset Maugham, who cranked out well-crafted but highly conventional stories. Maugham once wrote that there was nothing wrong with rising plots and action, except when they are poorly executed.

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...


Anti-Dada said…
I don't think you've posted enough of your fiction for me to make a judgment about whether you're a good or bad fiction writer. In fact, I think you're being an elitist because you have all of the information (your own writing) and, because of that, you are the only one who has the resources to make a judgment. It's terribly undemocratic. Despotic even.

See, now I feel like Smith. Not that I have any claim to any of YOUR writing. Nevertheless, I still feel like Smith, wondering what is in your fiction writing folder. And because of that I feel a desire to take those opening paragraphs and create my own damn stories. And when I do, I'm not going to share them with you because you didn't share yours with me. Damnit.

But ... what about starting with an ending and working back to the beginning. Or even a beginning and an ending? In the scheme of things, that exercise, starting with Maugham's unfinished story and completing it, is as much an exercise for exploring human nature as it is fiction writing specifically. I guess you could say that fiction writing IS an exploration of human nature, though.

If the latter is the case, though, is the quality of fiction then judged by how authentically it captures human thinking and behavior? And, if that's the case, then isn't saying you're a poor fiction writer really code for saying "I'm shitty at comprehending what it is to be human?"

Of course, I'm just playing around, Doc. I'm just needling you because I'm guessing that you are merely practicing self-sabotage. You know what? I would like nothing more than to read a story you write about an artistic genius--a Shakespeare in fiction, a Mozart in musical composition, a Van Gogh in painting, and so on--who never finishes any projects due to self-doubt.

Until one day when ...

Anti-Dada said…
Okay, after looking at the photo of Somerset Maugham, I realize that I completely missed the point of your post. The point? Never learn to write from a man who wears top hats. Really, never learn anything from a man with a top hat. I tried to learn economics from the Monopoly dude and went bankrupt in short order. I kept looking for "Go." so I could collect my 200 bucks. Where the hell is "Go" in the United States. I'm still looking.

Professor Quest said…
Loq, take self-sabotage away from me and what's left? That's pretty much my entire schtick.
Anti-Dada said…
Ha ha! I love it. Self-sabotage as your hook. I suppose that could be true. I don't buy it, but it could be true.

The first thought that popped into my head after reading that (well, after I stopped laughing, anyway) was of a guy claiming that he has nothing and that if he let go of "nothing" what would he have left? Something? Anything? Everything? ;-)


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