Looking at what not to do is so much more fun than learning what you should be doing, right? Each year the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest invites writers to come up with the worst opening line for a novel they can think of (the rest of the novel is not required, presumably to the judges’ relief).
The contest has been run by San Jose University since 1982 and is named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote the infamous and excrutiating line:
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.
You could be forgiven for thinking, on the above evidence, that Bulwer-Lytton was a bit of a tool. But there are a couple of points that muddy the water for me on this one:
1. Someone thought that was good enough to publish in the first place.
2. Bulwer-Lytton also coined terms in his writing that are now used in common parlance, such as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, ‘the great unwashed’, and ‘the mighty dollar’.
So he wasn’t all bad. And, for anyone that cares about this sort of thing, Tim Burton chose to shoot Bulwer-Lytton’s house as Wayne Manor in Batman. You can learn more about him, and the competition, at the official website.
What the interested observer can take from this fun annual display of awfulness, is a lesson in how not to write. What qualifies as bad writing? Overwhelmingly, the culprits are cliché, running sentences, and non-sensical metaphors and similes. Being a bit gross seems to help too.
Here are a few of my favourite winners (you can see all of them on the contest website):
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)
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 was a giant, cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil. (Molly Ringle)
The bone-chilling scream split the warm summer night in two, the first half being before the scream when it was fairly balmy and calm and pleasant for those who hadn’t heard the scream at all, but not calm or balmy or even very nice for those who did hear the scream, discounting the little period of time during the actual scream itself when your ears might have been hearing it but your brain wasn’t reacting yet to let you know. (Patricia E Presutti)
Think you can do better (or worse)? Entries close for this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest on 30 June so get writing!
Bonus trivia just for you: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night by Snoopy is credited by the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, as being the shortest novel ever written. You can read it here. What do you think? Did Snoopy invent metafiction?