It was a dark and stormy night … for writers of wretched prose |

It was a dark and stormy night … for writers of wretched prose

KEELY BROWNSpecial to the Daily
Keely Brown

Oh, frabjous day! Writers all, take note – it’s time once again for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest!For those of you who don’t keep up with such things, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest challenges (or you might say double-dog-dares ) its entrants to compose the worst possible opening sentence of a hypothetical novel – or, in other words, the most dreadful opening paragraph of what would probably be the worst book in the world.The contest was started back in 1982 by San Jose State University English professor Scott Rice, and has since spawned entries from thousands of wretched writer wannabees from all over the world. You don’t enter for the money (a paltry pittance, as the event organizers tell you up front) but rather for the sheer satisfaction of being – well, the worst of the worst.

Winners may also get published. For many years, Penguin Books published an anthology of the winners; many of us cherish our out-of-print Penguin copies of the annual contest results. This year, Professor Rice has announced that another publisher has agreed to print the winning entries for 2007.The rules are simple: You may submit as many entries as you like – in fact, the more, the merrier. The entry must be composed in the form of a single sentence, your own idea of the worst opening line a book could possibly have, and may be an unlimited length (although Professor Rice says that sentences of more than 60 words are entered at your own peril). In addition to the grand prize winner, there are winners in each category (bad romance, bad science fiction, bad children’s literature, etc.) and scores of dishonorable mentions. The contest website,, will give you all the guidelines – and inspiration – you’ll need to begin writing wretchedly.The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is named in honor of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a Victorian writer responsible for this opening sentence in his 1830 novel, “Paul Clifford”:

“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.”I have to admit that, while writing this column, I’ve already batted out five entries for the contest. For some reason, really bad writing comes easy to me (no remarks, please). But just as certain bad movies, such as those made by Ed Wood, can tickle the funny bone, so certain passages of deathless prose or poetry can transcend their spawned-by-meager-talent origins and rise to the exalted ranks of “howler.”Many critics agree that one of the worst writers in history was a poet named William Topaz McGonagall, a Scottish-born bard of the 19th century. If you haven’t heard of him, do an online search and read “The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,” his ode to a famous newly-built bridge in Scotland. You’ll thank me afterward.

But you don’t have to be an obscure writer in order to qualify as a bad one. The Poet Laureate of England during the late 1800s was a man named Alfred Austin, who was handed the job chiefly because, with Browning and Tennyson dead, there was no one else around to give it to. Austin is famous today for having written one of the worst lines of verse ever conceived by anyone anywhere, in his ode to the illness of the Prince of Wales: “Across the wires the electric message came: He is no better, he is much the same.” Which brings me back to Bulwer-Lytton. He WAS famous; for a while he was considered one of the chief novelists of Victorian England, ranking right up there with Dickens and Thackeray. Yet history has, for the sake of that one deathless sentence, proclaimed him to be the Ed Wood of literature. The title may not be undeserved; if you go online to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest website, you can read the rest of the first chapter of “Paul Clifford” and decide for yourself. In the meantime, stoke the muse and get out those pens. The contest deadline is April 15.

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