Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

July 2nd, 2010

By Tom Carter

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest began in 1982 in the English Department of San Jose State University.  Simply put, it awards prizes in “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”  Anyone can enter, and multiple entries can be submitted.  I look forward to them each year because they’re funny and, frankly, resemble a lot of the prose I stumble across.

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, Baron Lytton (obviously a Brit, and something of a dandy) was a very successful politician, novelist, playwright, and poet who was born in 1803 and died in 1873.  The English public loved his novels.  The opening sentence of his novel Paul Clifford inspired the wags at the English Department to create the Bulwer-Lytton prizes:

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.

That’s the origin of the famous “dark and stormy night” quote, considered to be the epitome of bad prose.  It’s been used and abused for many years, most notably in the comic strip Peanuts, in which Snoopy the Beagle daydreams that he’s an author writing those famous words to begin his novel.

Bulwer-Lytton is also the author of a number of other, more respectable quotes, such as “the great unwashed,” “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

But on to the 2010 prizes!  The winner of the contest is Molly Ringle, a novelist from Seattle, WA.  Her entry for the opening sentence of a novel:

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.

The runner-up was Tom Wallace of Columbia, SC:

Through the verdant plains of North Umbria walked Waylon Ogglethorpe and, as he walked, the clouds whispered his name, the birds of the air sang his praises, and the beasts of the fields from smallest to greatest said, “There goes the most noble among men” — in other words, a typical stroll for a schizophrenic ventriloquist with delusions of grandeur.

The winner in the children’s literature category, Pete Watkins of Broken Arrow, OK wrote this (who says people in OK can’t write?):

“Please Mr. Fox, don’t take your magic back to the forest, it is needed here in Twigsville!” pleaded little Isabel, but Mr. Fox was unconcerned as he smugly loped back into the woods without answering a word knowing well that his magic was only going to be used to make sure his forest would be annexed into the neighboring community of Leaftown where the property values were much higher.

The runner-up in the detective category from Dennis Pearce of Lexington, KY:

As Holmes, who had a nose for danger, quietly fingered the bloody knife and eyed the various body parts strewn along the dark, deserted highway, he placed his ear to the ground and, with his heart in his throat, silently mouthed to his companion, “Arm yourself, Watson, there is an evil hand afoot ahead.

And a personal favorite, the runner-up in the historical fiction category, written by Mike Mayfield of Austin, TX:

The band of pre-humans departed the cave in search of solace from the omnipresent dangers found there knowing that it meant survival of their kind, though they probably didn’t understand it intellectually since their brains were so small and undeveloped but fundamentally they understood that they didn’t like big animals that ate them.

If one spends enough time reading stuff on the internet, and particularly on blogs, this kind of tortured prose will be familiar.  The difference is it’s meant to be serious writing….

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3 Responses to “Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest”

  1. d |

    Very funny,but kind of reminds me of when I thought myself a writer,in high school,and wrote stories. Hmmm. I love this contest.

  2. larry ennis |

    My attempt at being a writer pretty much speaks for itself. I don’t write so much for an audience but more to rekindle my own failing memory. I love this country and all it has provided for me. I like to recount old memories and hopefully bring some happiness to a reader from time to time.

  3. Tom Carter |

    I often read things on the internet that could be competitive for a Bulwer-Lytton prize, except the entries have to be the first sentence of a real or imaginary novel.

    I think most of us, at one time or another, have felt that we have a novel in us, or at least some short stories and a few poems. The huge differences between most of us and those who actually publish are talent (the really big one), determination, and willingness to do the very hard work of writing something significant. I’ve done a whole lot of writing and editing in my life, mostly academic papers and professional studies, research, postion papers, reports, etc. That stuff is hard enough; I can’t imagine actually producing a serious novel. I don’t think I’d get past the first sentence.

    A ridiculous story: It’s been said the shortest documents (and speeches, according to A. Lincoln) are the hardest to write. When I labored on the Army General Staff in the Pentagon (I try not to think about it), there was a little thing we had to write when we had something that needed to come to the attention of the Chief or Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. It had to be exactly 15 lines long (not 14, not 16) in a specific font and type size, no matter how technical or complicated the subject. I was probably writing about one of those a week and reviewing/editing others written by my staff. We hated them because they were so difficult and time-consuming. Stupid, yes, but I guess it served the purpose, sometimes generating additional requirements for papers, briefings, etc. Some of them would definitely have won a B-L prize!

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