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When Good Writing Goes Bad . . . On Purpose

Sep 27, 2012 by Steve Mallory

If you haven’t heard of San Jose State University’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, then prepare yourself: I’m about to lay some first-rate literary funny on you. In a nutshell, the goal of this submission-based competition is to give entrants from around the world the chance to craft intentionally awful opening sentences in the style of this gem, one of the more infamous purple prose passages from the Victorian era:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

The ghastly lines above constitute the opening sentence of the novel Paul Clifford, which was penned in 1830 by English author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the namesake of our contest. The first independent clause of this sentence has achieved quite a bit of notoriety over the years, to the point that it’s even been featured as a running gag in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip.

I’d also conjecture that Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy” opening was at least partially responsible for inspiring a scene in Danny DeVito’s 1987 film, Throw Momma from the Train. The scene in question has Larry Donner, played by Billy Crystal, struggling with a bad case of writer’s block. He leaves his typewriter behind to pace agitatedly while repeatedly tossing out ideas to himself, only to shoot each one down as soon as he utters it: “The night was hot—wait, no—the night was humid—wait, no—the night was hot and wet, wet and hot—that’s humid! The night was humid!” Larry, I can empathize. Also, thank the maker that we don’t use typewriters anymore!

I’d love to keep touting the virtues of Danny DeVito’s directorial oeuvre (Death to Smoochy, for example, is a brilliant yet underappreciated black comedy about children’s television), but I’d do so at the expense of sharing some amazing Bulwer-Lytton submissions. A fairly extensive archive of past winners is available on the official website of the contest, and I’ve gone through their records already in order to share a few random favorites with you.

Overall Winner (2009):

Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket Sound from the nor’east and the dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May,” a sturdy whaler captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.

—David McKenzie, Federal Way, WA

Detective Category (2009):

She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida—the pink ones, not the white ones—except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn’t wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren’t.

—Eric Rice, Sun Prairie, WI

Fantasy Fiction (2010):

The wood nymph fairies blissfully pranced in the morning light past the glistening dewdrops on the meadow thistles by the Old Mill, ignorant of the daily slaughter that occurred just behind its lichen-encrusted walls, twin 20-ton mill stones savagely ripping apart the husks of wheat seed, gleefully smearing the starchy entrails across their dour granite faces in unspeakable botanical horror and carnage—but that’s not our story; ours is about fairies!

—Rick Cheeseman, Waconia, MN

Overall Winner (2011):

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

—Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, WI

Historical Fiction (2009):

The Cunard “Carinthia” glided through the starry waters of the Bering Sea, 843 passengers aboard, including Harriet Dobbs, resignedly single for over a decade, while a nautical mile due west slunk the K-18 submarine, under the command of lonely Ukrainian Captain First Rank Nikolai Shevchenko: ships that passed in the night (although the second technically a boat).

—Dr. Sarah Cockram, Edinburgh, U.K.

Overall Winner (2010):

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss—a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.

—Molly Ringle, Seattle, WA

There you have it, some Bulwer-Lytton classics. I encourage you to peruse the site at length and dig up some choice openings yourself. Of course, we also encourage you to slap some of those purple passages on our Facebook timeline so that we can all share in the mirth . . . and ride on in the friscalating dusklight.

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