Dark and Stormy Was the Night: The Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton has had an impact on literature that belies his obscure and redundant name. As the Wikipedia tells it:

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton PC (25 May 1803 – 18 January 1873), was an English politician, poet, playwright, and prolific novelist. He was immensely popular with the reading public and wrote a stream of bestselling novels which earned him a considerable fortune. But, like many authors of the period, his style now seems florid and embellished . . . to modern tastes. He coined the phrases, “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword” . . .

. . . and he was also a cheat who put his wife in a mental hospital when she complained about his character, but let’s not dwell on that. Instead, let’s remember him for this famous opening line from his 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.”

Why should we remember it? Because everybody does.

Snoopy stole it:

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman did a riff on it in their wonderful novel, Good Omens:

“It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It should have been, but there’s the weather for you. For every mad scientist who’s had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is complete and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who’ve sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime.”

And in 1982, Professor Scott Rice of the English Department of San Jose State University named an international bad-writing contest after him in honor of it, the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest for the worst opening line of a novel. They don’t write the novel, you understand, they just write the really bad first sentence. As Professor Rice notes, the contest allows expression for those writers with “short-winded muses.” Here’s the list of winners since 1982, but often the real gems are found in the runners-up. Some of my favorites from 2009:

She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida – the pink ones, not the white ones – except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn’t wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren’t.
Eric Rice
Sun Prairie, WI

The wind dry-shaved the cracked earth like a dull razor–the double edge kind from the plastic bag that you shouldn’t use more than twice, but you do; but Trevor Earp had to face it as he started the second morning of his hopeless search for Drover, the Irish Wolfhound he had found as a pup near death from a fight with a prairie dog and nursed back to health, stolen by a traveling circus so that the monkey would have something to ride.
Warren Blair
Ashburn, VA

Melinda woke up suddenly to the sound of her trailer being pounded with wind and hail, and she couldn’t help thinking that if she had only put her prized hog up for adoption last May, none of this would be happening, no one would have gotten hurt, and she wouldn’t be left with only nine toes, or be living in a mobile home park in Nebraska with a second-rate trapeze artist named Fred.
Ada Marie Finkel
Boston, MA

Medusa stared at the two creatures approaching her across the Piazza and, instantly recognizing them as Spanish Gorgons, attempted to stall them by greeting them in their native tongue, “Gorgons, Hola!”
Eric Davies
Dunedin, New Zealand

If she wasn’t the poster girl for the word voluptuous, with her not exactly “bedroom,” but definitely “walking-down-that-hallway” eyes, her hair a palomino mane rather than platinum blond, lips reminding me of Marilyn Monroe not Angelina Jolie, and that slow hip-swaying walk that sweet-talks a man’s thoughts into dim, smoky rooms where R & B is played, she should’ve been.
Sandra Trentz
Yakima, WA

The deadline is April 15, and once it arrives and the winners are published I will post them here because, paraphrasing Dorothy Parker here, writing like this should be not be tossed aside lightly, it should be throw into the ether with great force. Stay tuned.

18 thoughts on “Dark and Stormy Was the Night: The Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest

  1. I freaking love Neil Gaiman. I couldn’t really get into the comic books but man is he an awesome writer. He has such an amazing imagination once I start one of his books it gets kind of tough for me to put them down. The winners of this contest were also awesome in their own special way. At least I laughed.

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  2. I have been fascinated by this contest for years . . . I think Snoopy introduced it to me (-:. BL reverberates through pop cultures of the decades like a trash can lid pounded in some back alley quartet.

    Drat, not long enough for a truly Bulwer-esque sentence, but I have a few more days to practice. LOL!

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  3. I love the results from this contest, they really crack me up.
    The best thing is that it reminds us that good first lines stay with us forever.

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    1. Yes, and my feelings about that are symptomatic of my feelings for the rest of A Wrinkle in Time: That is, I have so very many issues with it, yet I can’t help really liking the darned thing. A lot.

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  4. Okay, “not exactly bedroom but definitely walking down that hallway” ?? Genius, I love that line. Thanks for all the laughs.

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  5. I like this one:

    As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber, he would never hear the end of it.

    But then, I’m twelve years old in the humor department. Fart jokes get me every time.

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  6. Awesome! These were perfect for today – I read them to my boyfriend from his iPhone while he was in the recovery room after a tonsillectomy/sinus surgery. His blood pressure even started going back to normal faster when I was making him smile. 😀

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  7. Be prepared to wait for the new winners. The last few years they haven’t been announced until July. And it seems to get later every year. But it is usually worth the wait.

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    1. They keep all the old winners around somewhere on the net, not just the top prize winner but the whole magilla. I found the link once and then lost it. Unless I put it in the post. This week has been fraught. As usual.

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  8. I forgot to mention my abfab.

    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell into his whiskey glass, dampening his spirits.

    Why yes, I am easily amused. How can you tell?

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