Most writing contests encourage participants to write well.
Not so the tongue-in-cheek Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest which has been challenging “man, woman, and (precocious) child to write an atrocious opening sentence to a hypothetical bad novel” since 1982.
The English Department at San Jose State University organizes the contest in honor of Bulwer-Lytton. This minor Victorian novelist is credited with starting his novel Paul Clifford with the immortal words “it was a dark and stormy night,” which the cartoon beagle Snoopy made famous.
The contest gives awards in several categories, including crime, fantasy, romance, historical fiction and general “mischievous dishonorable mentions.”
The grand prize winner this year is Tanya Menezes, who wrote: “Cassie smiled as she clenched John’s hand on the edge of an abandoned pier while the sun set gracefully over the water, and as the final ray of light disappeared into a star-filled sky she knew that there was only one thing left to do to finish all this wonderful evening, which was to throw his severed appendage into the ocean’s depths so it could never be found again—and maybe get some custard after.”
At 17-years-old, Tanya is the youngest winner in history, and the first from the contest’s hometown of San Jose, California.
Some of my other favorites are:
Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award
I knew that dame was trouble as soon as I set eyes on her, see: there was a stain on her clingy dress, wine, difficult to get out (you notice these things when you’ve been in the business as long as I have); there was a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of her high heel, cherry, that would leave a gristly pink trail following her every step (you pick up on these things when you are as experienced as I); and when she coolly asked me directions to the detective’s office, I pointed her down the hall and went back to mopping the floor. Bridget Parmenter, Katy, Texas
Nothing looked familiar to Travis, who, recalling a favorite line from Tolkien — “Not all those who wander are lost” — reckoned the “not all” part implied that most who wander, like himself, are in fact lost, yet buzzards would pick his bones before he would think to ask for directions. Dr. Joel Phillips, West Trenton, New Jersey
Crime/Detective Dishonorable Mentions
For rookie detective Lara Stinson, the hardest aspect of her most recent case was not discovering that the adolescent victim had been thrown from the tenth story of the apartment building by his own grandmother, but rather trying to spell “defenestration by octogenarian” in her subsequent report. Thomas Purdy, Roseville, California
Who knew what answers the elongated, odd-shaped gray trunk would reveal, but there was no doubt that in solving the mysterious homicide at the zoo the great weight of evidence pointed to the elephant in the room. Jay Dardenne, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Dark & Stormy Dishonorable Mention
Sufficiently numerous airborne water droplets struck various grounded objects at appreciable velocities, illuminated by ambient light from a sub-horizon sun such that fewer photons were absorbed by the retina of our protagonist’s eyes within a given interval of time than the number at which he would struggle to decide whether the amount of light he perceives should be considered “bright” or “dark”; in other words, it was a dark and stormy night. Shea Charkowsky, Santa Clara, California
Vile Puns Dishonorable Mention
As the prosecution wrapped its case, Reynolds listened and knew he’d been foiled again. William Lindley, Glenview, Illinois
Phoebe sighed happily as she read the text from Mark asking her to be “friends with benefits,” as she thought maybe, just maybe, she would finally get that 401K and dental insurance. Amber Burns, Callhoun, Georgia
Historical Fiction Winner
And it came to pass that, in those days when the young and powerful Alexander, called The Great, boldly ventured forth on his mighty steed Bucephalus, leading a vast army to conquer, claim, and generally visit the more tourist-y areas outside his empire, there remained at home his lesser-known brother Demetrius the Mediocre, who kept the fires burning and, to everyone’s surprise, produced a pretty decent BBQ. Marsha Engelbrecht, Lafayette, Louisiana
Purple Prose Dishonorable Mentions
He was a bold man, thought Arial Calibri, the typesetter’s daughter, but he wouldn’t recognize a superscript if it was underlined, believed that “strikethrough” was a baseball term, thought italics were people from Italy, and that sans serif was a Caribbean island. Sarita Hough, Blacksburg, Virginia
Priscilla was a persnickety, perspicacious, and petulant old prude, with a parsimonious purse brought on by pernicious poverty, prone to pettiness, and with an air of pusillanimous if not precarious ways, all proving that the worst things in life are pure pride of place and a pretense of presumptuousness brought on by pouting at the people who preferred prune juice over pilsner. Linda J. Ashmore, Lynnwood, Washington
More Dishonorable Mentions
Once in a great while a story is so magnificent, so grand, so great that it begs to be told and while this is not one of those stories, it’s nice to know that they’re out there. Douglas A. Bass, Farmington, New York
Though she had just been laughed out of the forty-second delicatessen that week, Epicurean philosopher Florence Smoot was determined that she would find the answer to that age-old question of which came first – the chicken salad sandwich or the egg salad sandwich? Joshua Long, Harrison, Ohio
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders” overheard Preston the Praying Mantis of his fiancée chatting with her mother, though he may not have understood the full implications thereof. Peter Bjorkman, Rocklin, California
The following is a work of fiction and resemblances between a character in it and any person, living or dead, are purely coincidental apart from the one based on my bitch of an ex-wife. Lewis Gurran, Gresford, Wrexham, Wales
I had a tough time selecting this sample of winners, as the entries are a lot of fun. You can see the other winners from last year (and more than two dozen other years) at the Bulwer-Lytton website.
And, should you get inspired, you can submit an entry any time during the year.