Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Write Stuff

Are you a person who appreciates a deft turn of phrase, who revels in sparkling wordplay, who soars on the wings of language well used?

If that is you, read no further. Because today's topic is bad writing.

It's the time of year that we celebrate a man who is perhaps the most visible bad writer of all time. His name is Edward George Bulwer-Lytton and in 1830 he penned the immortal opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night."

Actually, he wrote: "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."

This kind of turgid writing is not lost on the good folks of the English department at San Jose State University who are even now accepting entries for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in which authors are encouraged to "compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." In other words, write something truly, deliberately bad.

The contest has become legendary over the years, attracting some 10,000 entries from throughout the world. It has also produced a truly remarkable body of work.

Some personal favorites:

"Jennifer stood there, quietly ovulating."

"Fleur looked down her nose at Guilliame, something she was accomplished at, being six foot three in her stocking feet, and having one of those long French noses, not pert like Bridget Bardot's, but more like the one that Charles De Gaulle had when he was still alive and President of France and he wore that cap that was shaped like a little hatbox with a bill in the front to offset his nose, but it didn't work."

"The dual-headed Zhiltoids from Beta Quadrant in the Crab Nebula, who lived entirely on a diet of steaming hot asphalt, thought they had died and gone to heaven upon landing in the Midtown Mall of Fresno, California on the planet Earth during the month they called 'July'."

"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."

"Dr. Metzger turned to greet his new patient, blithely unaware he would soon become a member of a secret brotherhood as old as urology itself."

"Sylvia leaned seductively back in her chair and downed the shot of cheap gin that Brad had poured for her, and speculated once again that, even if it did taste like something you'd rub on a horse, it had the pleasant side effect of softening Brad's facial symmetry which had always reminded her of the collapsed, pocked surface of a cheese quiche that's been cooked at too high a temperature."

"It seemed the stifling summer heat would never end, and it would not, for Bob was in Hell."

"Mike Hummer had been a private detective so long he could remember Preparation A, his hair reminded everyone of a rat who'd bitten into an electrical cord, but he could still run faster than greased owl snot when he was on a bad guy's trail, and they said his friskings were a lot like getting a vasectomy at Sears."

Anyway, you get the point.

As for me, I'm not a fiction writer. I depend on real-life experiences for inspiration:

"Bob drove to work on the 210 Freeway, the engine of his car humming like a watch - a really good one like a Rolex or Patek Phillipe, not a Timex or some knock-off - and passed over the Arroyo, home of the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy of Them All, which like many granddaddies is falling apart and needs repair, before exiting the concrete ribbon on Lake Avenue, which is near no lake anyone has ever seen and, parking his vehicle, walked into the office in Pasadena, a city that cares about only one thing: parades, football, money, sex, power, politics and bike paths. It was there he wrote about bad writing of which the preceding is a classic example."

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