Mark felt his beach chair floating as he scrutinized the intricate whorls of his thumbprint like a gobsmacked philatelist, trying to capture the curlicue patterns with repeated impressions in the wet sand that mimicked the undulating and crashing surf cavorting before his swirling eyes, only vaguely having his creative chill disturbed by hearing his wife ask shrilly, “OK, who ate the whole wax paper package marked ‘Mom’s Special Brownies’”?
That sentence, submitted by former champion Kent Simendinger, finished fourth in this year’s 11th edition of my Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest.
Our local edition is a pale imitation of the international phenomenon that San Jose State University has been conducting for decades. The university’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest pays tribute to Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote the immortal, somewhat tortured opening line: “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.”
The real contest and my local version both challenge writers to create the first sentence of the worst possible novel. Those of us who have submitted entries to the international contest — which in the past has recognized several local writers, including me — are still awaiting the 2022 results.
As I explained last time, I sifted through 111 sentences – including multiple entries by several writers, local and nationwide – and submitted the best 25 to my panel of judges, who picked their favorite five. I tallied the results to arrive at our winners. I’ll add that the names aren’t attached when we’re judging, and even I don’t know who wrote what by the time I jumble them up and offer them to the judges.
Although we received excellent entries from many new participants, the top four places were captured by two perennial contenders, including Simendinger, who also won third place with this: “Walter hopelessly tried to disentangle himself from the web of last year’s bag of clumsily stored Christmas lights, repeatedly unfurling wires into fresh knots, randomly swapping unlit bulbs, musing all the while that this was a metaphor for his love life with long-time fiancee Jennifer, and that perhaps this was the year to look for an LED multicolor blinking pre- lit artificial tree, so to speak.”
Our top runner-up this year is a guy whose sentences have been my top choices several times, including this year, but who never got enough support from other judges to finish first. He’s Steve Lauducci, a bridesmaid once again with this rich masterpiece: “My dear Maurice, there is so much to tell — of the wreck of the Cheval Vieux, of the subsequent dragon attack, and of the sorcerer who now holds me imprisoned in this forbidding high tower — that I scarcely know where to begin; fortunate I am to have an ample supply of parchment and quills, though of ink I fear the quantity may not be suffic …”
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve figured out that our winner is Simendinger, a Laurys Station resident who won our 2014 contest and has placed many times since then as he has continued to hone his bad writing skills.
Here’s our winner, first on one judge’s list and second on two others. I thought the imagery was amazing: “Thoughts of love at first sight and opposites attract lingered in the air (along with Ax body spray), in the crowded high school hallway, and with an inadvertent bump, Kevin’s tattered copy of ‘Beowulf’ and Maria’s dog-eared ‘Jane Eyre’ tumbled to the floor, their eyes meeting briefly as they failed to correctly grab their own tomes while hearing clarion bells ringing, for fifth period, leading not to passion but to overdue library fines as their lockers became dusty tombs of unspoken, forgotten words.”
Simendinger, an information technology consultant, began submitting sentences almost a decade ago. He told me he entered the San Jose competition a few times without success, but he said he feels emboldened now to try it again.
When I emailed him about his victory, he responded: “I am thrilled to have submitted the winning sentence and be the first repeat champion! And knowing that two others made the cut is rewarding, especially given the groans and eye rolls I’ve hardened in the household for these many weeks.”
He told me he often tries the sentences out on family and friends. “They’re like,’What is wrong with you?’ It’s a warped world I live in.”
His advice to those of you who aspire to join him at the top of the bad writing ranks? “Be creative and have fun with it.”
Bill White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His Twitter handle is whitebil.