Bad writing competition: Better dead than read

John Walsh@johnhenrywalsh
Saturday 31 July 1999 23:02

FOR THE past two weeks I have had the good fortune of having to judge the entries in this newspaper's Worst Fictional First Sentence competition, modelled on the original begun by the San Jose University English faculty. I have been faced with scores of the most repellent openings you could encounter outside a dentist's surgery.

You were asked for examples of the worst initial sentence of an imaginary novel: not just any lousy sentence, but an opening - setting the scene of a book which you would have absolutely no desire to read further. We didn't ask for glumness or grossness (Wayne Stote of Oxford, you should be ashamed of yourself) - just a tone of voice, a style of exposition that was horribly off-putting, disturbingly con- fessional, inappropriately obsessive or that suggested a personality you very much wouldn't want to meet.

We had more than 60 replies. Lots of boring hobbies and unpromising obsessions, such as this wondrously tedious inventory from Dorian Roberts: "Mr Chambers, with satisfaction, looked at the neat row of labels marked Nails 1in, Nails 11/2in, Nails 2in, Nails 21/2in, Screws (wood) 1in, Screws (wood) 11/2in, Screws (wood) 2in, Screws (wood) 21/2in, Cup Hooks (brass), Cup Hooks (steel), Washers (rubber) 1in, Washers (rubber) 11/2in, Washers (leather) 1in, Washers (leather) 11/2in and so on and, catching a glimpse of the cold rain running down his shop window on the outside, he silently congratulated himself at his having chosen such a day to do his stocktaking..."

What? Sorry, I must have drifted off. There were entries on the joys of trainspotting, pipesmoking, etc, but the will to live was rapidly draining away. It was with relief that I turned to Sheila Stuthers's flood of oceanic mixed metaphors: "Rodina thought that she'd plumbed the deepest, most delicious depths of his I'm-nearly-a-doctor-you-can-trust-me eyes, but what surfaced through the flotsam and jetsam of his emotional baggage, in the wake of last night's frantic (no, desperate!) love tryst was a wreck of Titanic proportions; something steamily forbidden loomed in the pipeline."

The last seven words will linger in my mind for weeks. As will this first line from SJ Roche of London: "`Oh my love, my life, my little puss-puss- pussy' - thus had he written and thus had he broke mine heart." The final shootout was a threesome. In third place is Norman Foster, with this weep- makingly awful description: "The bead of sweat started from the crown of his hot, red-coloured forehead, down towards the furrowed brow above his bushy eyebrows, gathering momentum as it fell into the corner of a rapidly blinking eye, emerging replenished with the added liquid obtained from the disturbed pupil, to, tidal-like, mount the flesh surrounding the eye-socket to race down the rounded cheek, leaving a slug-like trail through the dust scattered across the heated skin, held taut across the hard bones beneath, keeping to the shade of the prominent nose it ran down into the corner of the mouth to be sucked in to start the same cycle all over again."

Runner-up is Margaret Waddy of Cambridge whose don't-all-rush beginning runs: "It was the custom in the troubled times in which these chronicles have their outset, for the male descendants, whether of direct or cousin- German lineage (other than any third son, whose life was owed to Holy Mother Church) of Mordred Cantifer of the parish of Wesley Combust, being sound in wind and limb and unaffected by `Congenital Idiocie, Accidie, Polydactylie or Sinistrous Tendencies' to be apprenticed to, and in due term employed by, a member of the Worshipful Guild of Knitters."

But the prize for the most off-putting first sentence of a novel goes to Dee Dent for this fine re-casting of Cold Comfort Farm: "I have often thought back to the day when Seth first came to our clifftop village, wandering up the path - Seth with his anguished eyes and that strange scar curving like a snake from under his tumbled dark curls; would things have been different if he had not seen my helpless, beautiful sister trapped by an unfair fate in her colourful wheelchair and returning his gaze with those clear cold eyes which would ultimately be turned upon the judge ... but I run ahead of myself and it is a long, tormented tale that I am about to unfold!"

Would you read on? I wouldn't. I think it's probably the words "her colourful wheelchair" that announce we're in the hands of a master. Congratulations to Ms Dent - to whom champagne and chocolate truffles - and to all who entered.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments