“I knew she was trouble the second she walked into my 24-hour deli, laundromat, and detective agency, and after dropping a load of unmentionables in one of the heavy-duty machines (a mistake that would soon turn deadly) she turned to me, asking for two things: find her missing husband and make her a salami on rye with spicy mustard, breaking into tears when I told her I couldn’t help—I was fresh out of salami.” (John Farmer of Aurora, Colorado)
So reads the 2022 winner of the tongue-in-cheek Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Unlike most writing contests (which encourage participants to write well), the Bulwer-Lytton celebrates terrible writing. The Panel of Undistinguished Judges challenge people to write “an atrocious opening sentence to a hypothetical bad novel.”
The English Department at San Jose State University has been running this contest since 1982. It’s named in honor of Bulwer-Lytton, the minor Victorian novelist who started his novel Paul Clifford with the immortal words “it was a dark and stormy night”—words Snoopy made famous in the Charlie Brown cartoon series.
This year’s contest drew more than 5,000 entries. In addition to the grand prize, the contest gives awards in several categories, including crime, fantasy, romance and historical fiction.
Here are some of my favorites from this year.
“’Hoist the mainsail ye accursed swine’ shouted the Captain over the roar of the waves as the ship was tossed like a cork dropped from a wine bottle into a jacuzzi when the faucet is wide open and the jets are running full blast and one has just settled into the water with a glass of red wine to ease the aches and pains after a day of hard labor raking leaves from the front yard.” (Joe Tussey, Daniels, West Virginia)
Adventure Dishonorable Mention
“It was only when the booming voice of the Sergeant-at-Arms rang out declaiming the surprising order for each and every member of the firing squad to shoot the Sergeant-at-Arms himself and then turn their rifles on each other, an order assiduously followed by the well-trained soldiers, that the cigarette-smoking, blindfolded Gerry Corker truly appreciated the seemingly endless hours his mother had denied him on the baseball field during his lonely childhood, instead sending him every afternoon to Crazy Barney’s School of Mimicry and Ventriloquism.” (John Shafer, Tonbridge, Kent, UK)
Children’s and Young Adult’s Dishonorable Mention
“As the fearsome jabberwock bore down on Baldor the Unlikely, he suddenly regretted having passed on the vorpal sword in favor of the ‘verpul’ sword that was half the price and ‘practically the exact same thing, I swear you won’t even notice the difference.’” (James Avery, Millington, Tennessee)
Historical Fiction Winner
“Even though the heavy snow forecast threatened transportation problems at the mountain pass leading to the social engagement of the season, every invited member of the party had RSVPed in the affirmative, for the single reason that the Donner family chef was nationally recognized for his all-vegan menu.” (John Hardi, Falls Church, Virginia)
“Winning the Kentucky Derby was something Conrad had dared not dream of a mere twelve months ago because twelve months ago, he didn’t even own a horse but now he did, although to be perfectly honest, it was not the type of horse that had any chance of winning the Kentucky Derby which was why Conrad still dared not dream of winning the Kentucky Derby.” (Terry Drapes, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)
Hope you’ve enjoyed these. You can see winners from more than two dozen years at the Bulwer-Lytton website (https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/winners).
And, should you get inspired, you can submit an entry any time.