Confession time. It's time to confess a secret heartbreak. Every year I submit to a contest called the Edward Bulwer-Lytton contest, but I have never even received an honorable mention. It's a contest for the worst sentence, or paragraph. It's a lot of fun to write badly. There's less pressure. Trying to write well puts tremendous strain on an author.
The contest is named for Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He is a Victorian writer, famed for these words: "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." That's not bad, really. I've read a lot worse. I suspect this Bulwer-Lytton is getting a bad rap.
There used to be a Hemingway parody contest. It got a lot of attention, got picked up in the papers. Ray Bradbury was one of the judges. Then it went away. It got too big and overexposed. I guess it was too easy. Everybody does Hemingway. He's easy. Just write a few short sentences, laden with pessimistic undertones. I walked into the café. The wine was good but not good. It is best not to drink good wine before going to war. Good wine is not so good when you are about to die. But a woman is always good, even a bad woman if she does not make you think of death too much, and if the winter is not too cold. There, that was easy. Not great Hemingway, but it gets the idea across well enough. I think the Faulkner contest is still around. He's harder to parody. More words, more involvement.
I tried a while back, to win the Bulwer-Lytton contest. A few people do. Old fogies, people who still read books. I wrote a few opening sentences that I thought were sufficiently awful. Here's how it went:
The past, once repeated, can never be begun again. How that sentence echoes through my mind. Echoes and reverberates, like a giant bouncing rubber ball, down an immense staircase, perhaps the one in my own house, which has a very fine mahogany finish, although it was never quite completed because the painters left early, and I hope it does not bounce too long, because it might disturb the cat who lives there, especially if it should bounce on his tail, for he is a very large cat and likes to sleep throughout the day.
I must admit the inspiration for this brilliant beginning was not entirely my own. I took a page, or at least a phrase or two, from a writer, formerly popular, named Eric von Lustbader, who wrote a story called "In Darkness, Angels," with an opening so colossally awful it has never entirely left my mind. Here's what he wrote:
If I had known then what I know now. How those words echo on and on inside my mind, like a rubber ball bouncing down an endless staircase. As if they had a life of their own. Which, I suppose they do now. I cannot sleep, but is it any wonder? Outside, blue-white lightning forks like a giant's jagged claw and the thunder is so loud at times that I feel I must be trapped inside an immense bell, reverberations like memory unspooling in a reckless helix, making a mess at my feet. If I had known then what I know now. And yet…
A rubber ball bouncing down an endless staircase. Who could forget that? And yet…
For this year's contest, I tried my hand at a horror opening:
A cold wind swept through the field. The cows mooed in fear at whatever dark terror had transgressed their hallowed pasture. An imposing sinister figure hovered beside the fence, but his ominous presence was tinged with a bit of a sigh. Truly, Count Dracula had fallen on hard times.
Pretty bonechilling stuff, huh? Unfortunately, they told me they only take sentences. No paragraphs allowed. No wonder I keep losing. It's hard to be funny in a single sentence. That also means my sword and sorcery entry goes out the window. It went like this:
Ulthar, mightiest of the barbarians, swung his mighty axe, neatly crushing the skulls of three of his fiercest enemies and neatly decapitating two others. The ground about him was an oasis of bloodied skulls and battered bodies surrounded by a sea of blood. Strange to think this would be the scene of what would prove to be his greatest
and tenderest romance.
All writers should try this sort of thing from time to time. Writers spend a lot of time trying to write well. At least, some of us do. Judith Krantz and Tom Clancy, maybe not so much. But writing well, or trying to, is a taxing enterprise, which is why it's good to unwind and write something truly bad once in a while.
Yes, it's a little sad to know my badness isn't bad enough. My worst isn't bad enough. We can't always achieve true badness, but we can keep on trying. With a little work we call all be terrible.