Good writers must, by their very nature, know what bad writing is. That is the premise of the Edward Bulwer-Lytton contest.

Starting in 1982, the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (www.bulwer-lytton.com), a clever and whimsical attempt to find the worst opening line of a novel. Brainchild of Scott Rice, then a student at SJSU, who took it upon himself to find the author of what he considered the worst opening line ever, “It was a dark and stormy night,” the contest has drawn thousands of entries over the years.

That opening line, from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Paul Clifford,” goes:

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 entry deadline is April 15, though entries are welcome all year long. Categories include Westerns; adventure, romance and fantasy novels; science fiction and children’s literature.

The winners of the 2009 Edward Bulwer-Lytton contest have been named. They are Molly Ringle, Seattle, who won the overall title with this gem:

“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.”

Other winners:

Adventure

“The blazing equatorial sun beat down on Simon’s head and shoulders as he dug feverishly in the hot sand with the ivory shoe-horn his mother had given him before the homecoming game with Taft, when the field was so wet that he’d lost his low-tops seven times in the cold sucking mud.”

Children’s Literature

“’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.”

Detective

“She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA Routing Transit Number and Account Number and then disable your own Overdraft Protection in order to do so.”

Historical Fiction

“In Southwestern Germany just east of the Luxemburg border and north of France where history pitted various related Hapsburg Royals against each other and the Archbishops of Trier, the Abbots of St. Maximin, various members of the nobility, and mobs of axe-bearing villagers, there stands a ruin whose building stones mostly were carted off to build other buildings.”

Purple Prose

“The dark, drafty old house was lopsided and decrepit, leaning in on itself, the way an aging possum carrying a very heavy, overcooked drumstick in his mouth might list to one side if he were also favoring a torn Achilles tendon, assuming possums have them.”

Romance

“‘Trent, I love you,’ Fiona murmered, and her nostrils flared at the faint trace of her lover’s masculine scent, sending her heart racing and her mind dreaming of the life they would live together, alternating sumptuous world cruises with long, romantic interludes in the mansion on his private island, alone together except for the maids, the cook, the butler, and Dirk and Rafael, the hard-bodied pool boys.”

Science Fiction

“t’Bleen and Golxxm squelched their way romantically along the slough beach beneath the three Sommodian moons, their eye-stalks occasionally touching, and tenderly belched sweet nothings like, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had such a charming evening,’ and, ‘Say, would you like to gnaw that hunk of suppurating tissue off my dorsal appendage—it really itches.'”

Vile Puns

“It was a risky production unlike any mounted prior on the Met stage, the orchestra first imitating the perpetually beating heart of a man walled-in while in pursuit of wine , and then a soprano singing the plaintive aria of a barely alive woman stuffed up a chimney as her ancestral home was destroyed; however, it certainly was Opera Poe.”

Western

“He walked into the bar and bristled when all eyes fell upon him — perhaps because his build was so short and so wide, or maybe it was the odor that lingered about him from so many days and nights spent in the wilds, but it may just have been because no one had ever seen a porcupine in a bar before.”

I challenge you all to come up with great bad opening lines. I will start us off.

Brittney gazed out from her perch atop Whitney Peak at the glorious gold, red and purple of the sunset that blazed above the ice blue waters of Lake Laughalot, which were surrounded by bluebells, Blackeyed Susans and the occasional bright red foxglove, and upon which white-tailed deer and elk quietly grazed and thought to herself, “Wow. Bitchin’.”

Gloria marveled at the broad expanse of back attached to her gardener, Giorgio, just as he turned and winked at her from the Puerto Amore cabana that she had, so impulsively, whisked him to after discovering her husband’s infidelity with the golf pro at the country club, before thinking, unexpectedly, “Dammit. Did I leave the iron on?”

You can send your entries to Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, Department of English, San Jose State University, San Jose  CA 95192-0090 or [email protected] Or you can just share them with us.

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Janet Ward

Janet Ward

Janet is a long-time Atlantan, grammar and punctuation Nazi and public relations manager whose hobby is hating Republicans. There is not enough room to list her various jobs, but she is currently happy in her position with the City of Atlanta, where she spends much of her time explaining to water/sewer customers that, if they let their toilets run, they should expect their bills to be high. Janet lives in Candler Park with her husband, Jack Wilkinson, a likethedew contributor, their dog, Jack (hey, he’s a rescue. He came with the name.) and Rosie the Cat, named, of course, for the Springsteen song. She has an inexplicable thing for the Monkees.