For Some Writers, Success Means Getting Off to a Bad Start

Times Staff Writer

There's one thing an Orange County planning consultant, an opinion researcher, an economics teacher, two housewives, a Ph.D. candidate, a loan processor and an insurance salesman have in common.

They all love words . . . in an obsessive, twisted kind of way.

They gleefully chain them together with commas, dashes and parentheses, constructing labyrinthine sentences about anything from cowboys to cats. They delight in torturing them into pithy phrases of dubious meaning and taste. They do this for fun.

They do it so well, and yet so horribly, they have all been awarded "dishonorable mentions" in the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, an annual competition for the worst opening sentence to a hypothetical bad novel. Last month, Penguin Books published their prose in "It was a Dark and Stormy Night--The Best (?) from the Bulwer-Lytton Contest." The offbeat sentences were culled from 10,000 entries submitted in the first contest, held in 1983.

Last year, the contest drew 14,000 entries, nearly six times more than the better known International Imitation Hemingway Competition. Created by Scott Rice, an English professor at San Jose State University, the Bulwer-Lytton contest challenges entrants to compete with Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton in the writing of a single, mediocre sentence. Prolific and popular, Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) is best known for the opening sentence to his novel, "Paul Clifford," which begins: It was a dark and stormy night; . . .

But then it continues: . . . 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.

Original bad writing is "hard work" that takes perseverance, said Patti Hall, 53, a Seal Beach homemaker featured in the book. "Look what happened to Bulwer-Lytton. He got so terrible he's gone down in history."

For the contest, she wrote: Her heaving bosom rose and fell like twin boiling suet puddings at Epsomtide, gleaming in the low glow of the incredulous candelabrum, bursting the straining fabric of her wildly embroidered kimono.

Hall signed it with a pseudonym, "Barbara Carthorse," which she absolutely denied refers to any person "living, dead or half-alive even."

Now researching a serious book on World War II, Hall said she started writing at age 4 with an ad--atop the radiator in her family's living room--for a store she was running. Once, she wrote a career advice column (both the questions and the answers) called "Ask Dr. Quicksand." It was published in a short-lived newsletter. Most of her writings are gathering dust in a trunk, she admitted.

Her dishonorable mention from Bulwer-Lytton--a "genuine simulated sheepskin certificate"--is tucked away in a drawer, face down, because she couldn't find a frame that was bad enough, she said.

Diane Cunningham, an economics teacher and consultant, submitted several sentences to the contest. Most were Edwardian in style, she said, with a bizarre murder or archaic reference to drugs. But the one singled out for distinction was different: The ritual slaughter of the anteaters traditionally took place on the longest day of the year.

"I thought if I read a sentence like that, I'd probably read the book," said Cunningham, who is a former dancer.

"The market for dancers was extremely crowded, especially for aging, short, dumpy ones, which I was," said Cunningham, 31. She turned to economics because it was easier than calculus or computer programming, she explained.

She lives in Placentia with her husband, Levern Graves (also an economist), a dog and two rabbits. The couple share an interest in opera and "the active pursuit of virtue." In addition, they like to read about Roman emperors, a pastime she believes is too strange to reveal gratuitously. "My favorite is Titus. My husband is fascinated by Caligula and Tiberius."

"I do not use any of these people as role models," she added.

Most often, Cunningham writes economic research, injecting her creativity by coining quasi-technical terms such as "punitive pricing" (referring, for example, to the fact that similar sterilization procedures are more expensive for women than for men). She also writes "long letters full of bitter commentary about the human condition" to her friends.

And she writes short stories for therapy. "If I'm depressed, I start something about a depressed person, and the depressed person gets more interesting than my own depression."

Although being published is not as fine an accomplishment as having lost 20 pounds, Cunningham said, she'll enter again this year. "I plan on starting early, now that it's become institutionalized and you can get better prizes."

During judging, contest architect Scott Rice and a panel of colleagues name winners in whatever categories the entries seem to fall (such as Western, Gothic romance or purple prose) and award prizes for overall awfulness. The 1983 winner received a Charles Schulz-autographed cartoon panel of Snoopy pounding out the famous opener borrowed from Bulwer-Lytton, "It was a dark and stormy night." The 1984 prize was a word processor. This year two word processors will be awarded to winners in the juvenile (18 and under) and masters categories.

How to Enter

Entries should be submitted on index cards, the sentence on one side and the entrant's name, address and phone number on the other and sent to: Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, Department of English, San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif. 95192-0090. The deadline is April 15.

Rice attributes his contest's popularity to a latent interest in language by "reading snobs." The contest, he believes, is a modern-day equivalent of the old practice of writing epigrams--short sayings that educated people as a form of entertainment.

Contestants are usually of two types, says Rice: good writers pretending to be bad writers and bad writers pretending to be good writers pretending to be bad writers. They do it, he says, to "enjoy the forbidden delights of untrammeled wordplay, to make ironic Orwellian statements about the value of proper language, to forge in the smithies of their souls the uncreated conscience of their race--in short, to get attention."

Carol Collins, 46, a Santa Ana homemaker whose short stories have been published in literary magazines, said she entered the contest because "it's fun to write a bad sentence." Collins, who has a master's degree in English literature from Cal State Fullerton, aimed to create an opening sentence that would make readers put the book down. It began:

She felt his intelligent hands roaming across her slender supine body, pausing to trace the front of her blouse . . . The hands continued their suggestive journey, following the jagged track mark that his carriage wheel had made when it caught her from behind as she fled towards the forest with her valise and the last three years rose in a misty turbulent cloud before her dimming eyes when she heard his playful far-off voice scolding, " And your best silk blouse, too, my dearest one."

The moment readers realized the heroine was going to tell her whole boring story, Collins knew she had succeeded in losing them.

"I really labored at it," she said. "For at least an hour."

Don Cameron, an urban planning consultant and "frustrated writer," said he spends much of his freeway driving time making up sentences, paragraphs and plots. He received dishonorable mentions both in 1983, when he sent 13 entries to the contest, and last year, when he submitted 30. His 1984 sentences described the progress of characters in his 1983 sentences and added new ones, including carefully researched sketches of the Bulwer-Lytton family.

One character was Lady Muriel Willoughby-Gore who looked misty eyed across the once lovely, long neglected drawing room of Gore-St. Mary's and realized with dreadful certainty that . . .

Then he offered five alternate endings for the judges, who accepted and printed the "conglomerate mess" including she was the failed end of a once proud line, and she had failed in her duty as a wife, a mother and a nurse and death was stalking her through the house like a cat after a rat .

Another character was Baby Boureaux who little and wiry and all coiled steel, sprang out of the Bayou, a cunning Cajun 'gator, and hit New Orleans like hot sauce on an empty stomach.

Each year he sends photocopies of his sentences to friends for comment and said he bought a local bookstore's entire supply of "Dark and Stormy Night" for Christmas presents "much to the annoyance of the staff."

Cameron, the former director of planning for the Irvine Co., has spent part of the past five years teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He now runs his own consulting firm from his South Laguna home. A lifelong fan of British fiction, Cameron aspires to write a mystery or crime novel someday. Writing his own fiction, says Cameron, is one of the things he thinks about but doesn't do. When he heard about the contest, he said he thought: "Dammit, at least I can write a sentence."

Robbi Nestor, (who is often mistaken as Rabbi Nestor) holds two graduate degrees and is now working toward a Ph.D. in comparative literature at UC Irvine. "Dark and Stormy Night" features two of her sentences, written, she said, with her husband, Richard, over a bowl of popcorn and a lot of laughs:

Under an edible sky, cheesy as a deep-dish pizza, X examined his sister's blork.

A cowboy should know his horse, but it seemed to the podners at the Triple Q Ranch that Vernon McChew had gotten too close.

A blork , she explained, is the equivalent of asterisks in a comic strip. That sentence, she explained, is a parody opener to an erotic science fiction novel. The other was a runner up in the Western Division.

Her favorite entry (Bleech! Shifting into star-drive always made Gordy puke. ) was rejected for actually being two sentences.

For the contest, she wrote under the name of "Beloved Remington." "It's the sort of name a pretentious person would give his typewriter and probably paint a heart with nail polish on it," said Nestor, 31, who lives on campus.

Writing and literature are central in her life, said Nestor. Writing genre parodies is not only fun, but also instructive, she believes. "Imitation teaches you how other writers use words to achieve their purpose; it gives you another strategy." The Bulwer-Lytton contest also teaches writers about the 19th Century, when sentimentality and polysyllabic words were more appreciated than they are today, she said.

Nestor said she hasn't written a novel because she's not good at characterization. Her goals, she said, are "to live to tomorrow" and to finish a book of poems before she dies. Also, she hopes never to deliberately write something bad when she thinks it's good.

Jim Kickham, 57, remembers when he was young that every evening after dinner, his five brothers and sisters would pester their father to tell World War II stories. Too tired to comply, he would start out, "It was a dark and stormy night. The captain stood forth and said . . ." Then each of the children would, in turn, be called on to complete the story.

Naturally, his sentence starts: It was a dark and stormy night; . . . Then, . . . the sailors were gathered 'round the camp fire and the captain, rising, his earring vying with the diamond insert in his gold front tooth for the firelight's reflection, and grinning salaciously at the captive Lady Imogene, said . . . .

The rest is rated PG.

A self-employed insurance salesman and member of Mensa, the national high-IQ organization, Kickham lives in Garden Grove. His writing consists mostly of letters. He ranks his dishonorable mention high in his list of accomplishments, which also includes credibly playing the lead male part in "The Pajama Game" at the age of 43 to a 17-year-old leading lady.

Terry Gallavan, 41, a loan processor and underwriter for a savings and loan firm, writes poems and short stories as gifts for friends. She writes seriously or lightly depending on how the muse strikes. Her theme for the contest was inspired by a newspaper article about a woman who had bequeathed her fortune to her cats.

She wrote: "I'll never marry again," she vowed, clutching her small fist to her perfect, pear-shaped breast, narrowing her feral green eyes, watching her remaining friends bear the over elaborate, heavy coffin of her latest husband, Mervin, down the long, sparkling white gravel drive to the manicured, green cemetery of the Griftwood Estate, knowing soon they would see her beauties, the heirs of her immense fortune, all 2 billion dollars of it, the only ones who really cared, who really loved her, her 300, carefully tendered, pampered cats, and then she slowly closed the door, never to open it for the next 80 years.

"You might call me a spinster," said Gallavan of her existence. "I live alone and I love it." And, she said, she loves cats.

Enjoys Accomplishment

"This is a great moment in my life," said Gallavan of her dishonorable mention, which is framed under glass and hanging in the bedroom of her Santa Ana home. It is the first time she's ever been published. Even though the award is for bad writing, she said: "You have to be a good enough writer to write a bad enough sentence to win the contest."

Don Weddle, 50, majority owner of the Long Beach-based Opinion Research of California, works 10 to 12 hours a day. To get his mind off consumer, government and political data, he reads after work. It adds up to about 20 novels a month. They have included--more than once--the complete works of Western writer Louis L'Amour.

His sentence represents a stylized beginning to a typical L'Amour novel:

As the dusty rider crested the ridge, he paused his horse and let him blow, meanwhile pulling the brim of his salt-stained and droopy Stetson low over his eyes, the better to scan the valley below, but quickly taking his silhouette off the rim by jerking the reins back and left as the whine of the ricochet spanged his gut, the shock coming from the scrabble near his mount's off-hoof--too close, he felt, to the cracked remnants of the time-ravaged scruff of his favorite right--and only other--boot.

Weddle said his bad writing is a natural extension of his former career as a journalist for which he was awarded the Monterey Herald Journalism Cup for general excellence ("They couldn't find anybody else") and second place in the California Junior College Journalism Assn.'s news contest, both in 1956. "I would have won first but I failed to include the deceased's address in an obituary," he said.

He described his bad writing method as "standing by the ironing board at home using a legal pad and several dollops of Scotch."

Used Pseudonym

Weddle, who lives with his wife in Buena Park, submitted his entry under the name Donald Duane. "Who would want to be associated with the execrable prose in that book?" he explained. He said he hid his dishonorable mention.

On the other hand, if the publishers liked his terrible sentence, perhaps they would be interested in his novel in progress about the inner workings of a political campaign, he mused.

There's a following for skillfully inept writing. "Dark and Stormy Night" sold out its first printing and is into its second, according to a Penguin Books spokesman. If there is a sequel, it, too, will be published as a paperback original, she said.

That's fitting, observed Weddle. "It's not even worth a hard cover. I love it!"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°