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How NOT to start a novel

How NOT to start a novel

This is both humorous and educational. A friend emailed it to me and I had to share.


The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest


The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest sponsored by San Jose State University to come up with the worst possible opening sentence to a fictitious novel.


An international literary parody contest, the competition honours the memory, if not the reputation, of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). The goal of the contest is childishly simple: entrants are challenged to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Although best known for The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal words that the “Peanuts” beagle Snoopy plagiarized for years, “It was a dark and stormy night.” (A much better writer, Madeleine L’Engle, also used it to open A Wrinkle in Time.) Having created a standard for bad openings with this line, and being an inspiration to generations of untalented writers, Bulwer-Lytton alone deserves to have such a contest named after him.


You may ask what’s so bad about “It was a dark and stormy night”?


Aside from being a little obvious and melodramatic, not too much, if Bulwer-Lytton had stopped there. Unfortunately, he went on:


“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.” Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1830)


Even by Victorian standards the opening sentence will not win any prizes for economy or subtlety.

The rest of the novel is written in the same manner, and sometimes it is even worse. In the very next sentence a character is “wending his solitary way.” Later in the novel a fellow lighting his pipe is described as “applying the Promethean spark to his tube,” a glass of beer is, “a nectarian beverage,” and a bedroom is “a somnambular accommodation.”


The contest began in 1982 as a quiet campus affair, attracting only three submissions. This response being a thunderous success by academic standards, the contest went public the following year and ever since has attracted thousands of annual entries from all over the world.



*** 2011 Results


** Grand Prize Winner

Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, WI [Note this is the briefest grand prize winner in the history of the contest]

“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.”



Rodney Reed, Ooltewah, TN

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.



** Adventure Winner

Jack Barry, Shelby, NC

“From the limbs of ancient live oaks moccasins hung like fat black sausages — which are sometimes called boudin noir, black pudding or blood pudding, though why anyone would refer to a sausage as pudding is hard to understand and it is even more difficult to divine why a person would knowingly eat something made from dried blood in the first place — but be that as it may, our tale is of voodoo and foul murder, not disgusting food.”



Mike Mayfield, Austin, TX

Sensing somehow a scudding lay in the offing, Skipper Bob tallied his tasks: reef the mains’l, mizzen, and jib, strike and brail the fores’l, mizzen stays’l and baggywrinkles, bowse the halyards, mainsheets, jacklines and vangs, turtle and belay fast the small cock, flemish the taffrail warps, batten the booby hatch, lay by his sou’wester, and find the bailing bucket.



** Crime Winner

Mark Wisnewski, Flanders, NJ

“Wearily approaching the murder scene of Jeannie and Quentin Rose and needing to determine if this was the handiwork of the Scented Strangler–who had a twisted affinity for spraying his victims with his signature raspberry cologne–or that of a copycat, burnt-out insomniac detective Sonny Kirkland was sure of one thing: he’d have to stop and smell the Roses.”



Andrew Baker, Highland Park, NJ

Five minutes before his scheduled execution, Kip found his thoughts turning to his childhood– all those years ago before he had become a contract killer whose secret weakness was a severe peanut allergy, even back before he lost half of a toe in a gardening accident while doing community service– but especially to Corinne, the pretty girl down the street whom he might have ended up marrying one day if she had only shown him a little more damn respect.



** Historical Fiction Winner

John Doble, New York City

“Napoleon’s ship tossed and turned as the emperor, listening while his generals squabbled as they always did, splashed the tepid waters in his bathtub.”



Andrea Rossi, Wilmington, NC

The executioner sneered as the young queen ascended the stairs to the guillotine; in the old days, he thought, at least there was some buildup, a little time on the rack or some disemboweling, but nowadays everyone wants instant gratification.



** Purple Prose Winner

Mike Pedersen, North Berwick, ME

“As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue.”



Jack Barry, Shelby, NC

The Los Angeles morning was heavy with smog, the word being a portmanteau of smoke and fog, though in LA the pollutants are typically vehicular emissions as opposed to actual smoke and fog, unlike 19th-century London where the smoke from countless small coal fires often combined with fog off the Thames to produce true smog, though back then they were not clever enough to call it that.



** Romance Winner

Ali Kawashima, Greensboro, NC

“As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would under- stand — who would take her away from all this — and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.”



Meredith K. Gray, Ithaca, NY

Deanna waited for him in a deliberate pose on the sailor-striped chaise lounge of the newly-remodeled Ramada, her bustier revealing the tops of her white breasts like eggs–eggs of the slightly undercooked, hard-boiled variety, showing a nascent jiggle with her apprehensive breath, eggs that were then peeled ever-so-carefully so as not to pierce the jellied, opaque albumen and unleash the longing, viscous yolk within–yes, she lay there, oblong and waiting to be deviled.



** Sci Fi Winner

Greg Homer, Placerville, CA

“Morgan ‘Bamboo’ Barnes, Star Pilot of the Galaxia (flagship of the Solar Brigade), accepted an hors d’oeuvre from the triangular-shaped platter offered to him from the Princess Qwillia — lavender-skinned she was and busty, with two of her four eyes what Barnes called ‘bedroom eyes’ — and marveled at how on her planet, Chlamydia-5, these snacks were called ‘Hi-Dee-Hoes’ but on Earth they were simply called Ritz Crackers with Velveeta.”



Elizabeth Muenster, Columbia, PA

Sterben counted calcium bars in the storage chamber, wondering why women back on Earth paid him little attention, but up here they seem to adore him, in fact, six fraichemaidens had already shown him their blinka.



** Vile Puns Winner

Joe Wyatt, Amarillo, TX

“Detective Kodiak plucked a single hair from the bearskin rug and at once understood the grisly nature of the crime: it had been a ferocious act, a real honey, the sort of thing that could polarize a community, so he padded quietly out the back to avoid a cub reporter waiting in the den.”



Marvin Veto, Greensboro, NC

Monroe Mills’ innovative new fabric-dyeing technique was a huge improvement over stone-washing: denim apparel was soaked in color and cured in an 800-degree oven, and the company’s valued young dye department supervisor was as skilled as they came; yes, no one could say Marilyn was a normal jean baker.



** Western Winner

Graham Thomas, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, U.K.

“The laser-blue eyes of the lone horseman tracked the slowly lengthening lariat of a Laredo dawn as it snaked its way through Dead Man’s Pass into the valley below and snared the still sleeping town’s tiny church steeple in a noose of light with the oh-so-familiar glow of a Dodge City virgin’s last maiden blush.”



Lisa Kluber, San Francisco, CA

Sunburned and lost, Jake tightened the noose around Randys diaper-white neck and growled, Any last words, varmint? to which Randy replied, Dont be afraid to go out on a limb, Jake–thats where all the fruit is! which marked the first and last time Jake and the boys hired a life coach to lead one of their cattle drives.

One Comment

  1. Bahahaha this is hilarious. XD I’m so entering next year!

    For people who’d like the link to their site:


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