Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest 2011 Results

SnoopyThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is one of my favourite literary events. It’s a brilliant idea. It stems from the awful writing of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. You probably think you’ve never heard of him. But I can almost guarantee you have. Here, see if this is familiar:

“It was a dark and stormy night;”

Yep. You know him. But did you know just how bad he was? Here’s the rest of that line, from Paul Clifford (1830):

“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.”

Holy crap.

It’s writing like that which gave rise to the contest. During his studies Professor Scott Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University unearthed the source of that famous line, “It was a dark and stormy night”, as being the opening of the Edward George Bulwer-Lytton novel, Paul Clifford. And it is a very famous line. After all, Snoopy uses it all the time and that Beagle knows his shit.

For all his hideous writing skills, Lytton coined some phrases we all know well. Among them “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed”, and “the almighty dollar”. He’s had an impact, has Bulwer-Lytton.

So Professor Rice, with the help of San Jose State University, has, since 1982, put together the contest which seeks the worst opening lines to the worst of all novels. You can learn all about the contest here: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

Meanwhile, the 2011 results are in. The winner this year is the shortest entry to ever win the contest. It comes from Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, WI. (Yeah, I thought that was a children’s clothing line for people with more money than sense, but apparently it’s a place too.) Here’s the winning line:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Top work, Sue. Congratulations.

Rodney Reed of Ooltewah, TN takes out the runner-up prize with this one:

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

There are other winners in several categories (Adventure, Crime, Sci-Fi, Vile Puns, etc.) and they’re all listed on the contest site here. Go and have a read. They’re hilarious.

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Alan Moore interview at The Guardian

Alan MooreAlan Moore is one of my favourite authors of all time. He wrote the seminal graphic novels of the 80s that totally reinvented graphic storytelling – Batman: The Killing Joke, Watchmen, V For Vendetta, From Hell, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and so many more. He truly is a master storyteller and he’s always a very contentious fellow. He has strong opinions about many things, not least of which the industry of which he’s an intrinsic part. There’s an interesting interview with him here at The Guardian, where he talks about his latest League project and also touches on other stuff, like how tablet technology might change comics and the value of libraries.

Go. Read.

(Photograph: Murdo Macleod)

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It might be fiction, but it has to be right

Things I’ve reserched today:

Ullapool to Stornaway ferry times.

Daylight hours in northern Scotland during winter.

Topographical features of the Isle of Lewis.

The Callanish standing stones.

Any guesses on where my characters might be headed right about now?

I really enjoy research. It’s like travelling without moving, only less Dune-like. I love to set my stories in interesting places and put my characters into testing conditions. In this case, far north eastern Scotland in winter. But it has to be right. I can’t just guess this stuff, even though I know most of the details above to some degree. If the story is going to seem real and convincing, the little details need to be right. Not about right, but exactly right.

What times does the ferry to Stornaway run during winter? Can I match that to the storyline? What time will it get dark during that part of the story?

These things are important. The best bit is that all those things are easily found. The website www.timeanddate.com gives me sunrise and sunset times anywhere I need them. The Calmac ferries website has a downloadable PDF of their summer and winter timetables. The Internet is just about the best thing to happen to research ever. I still use books. You know, the old-fashioned method. But I love being able to look facts up as and when I need them.

It’s fun to be a fiction writer.

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Harry Potter 7.2 – the end of an era

We went to see the latest and last film installment in the Harry Potter series yesterday, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. The film is pretty good, even if it is pretty much one long action scene. With a story there are normally three acts. There’s a setup, with questions asked and situations created, then there’s some kind of action and usually some extra problems thrown in, and finally there’s resolution. I recently saw something that sums this up beautifully:


I found this via Chuck Wendig’s Tumblr, and I love it so much I want to punch it in the face.

So, the problem, if you can call it that, with the last Harry Potter film is that it’s all the last cup. It’s all resolution, action-packed climax. But that’s okay. Because seven previous films have done all the work of the first two acts.

Say what you will about J K Rowling and the Harry Potter stories, there’s something truly amazing about the achievement. Sure, the stories may be derivative, distillations of so much fantasy that’s gone before. But everything is informed by something. Sure, Rowling may not be the greatest writer on the planet, but she does spin a yarn that keeps you reading, and what more do we really want than that? These aren’t wanky literary explorations of language and word form. They’re rollicking yarns, aimed mainly at young people. And Rowling does have a dab hand at naming things. She comes up with the best names.

I was a bit of a critic at first, especially of the first couple of books. Poorly written, derivative stories that insult the genre, blah, blah, blah. Yes, I’m blah, blah, blahing myself. It’s true to some extent, but Rowling kept going, she created a remarkable world and truly interesting characters. Well, mostly. Ginny Weasley, for example, was always a bit of a glyph. But Rowling got young people excited about books again, and for that she deserves a knighthood or a statue or something. We can forgive the small things in the face of the big achievement.

And that achievement is seven books that sell better than the Bible. A merchandising empire that makes nation states weep. Rowling is worth an estimated £500 million. That’s pounds sterling. That’s a mental amount of money from writing about a boy wizard. On top of that, we’ve got the films.

Never has a film franchise like this happened before. Sure, there have been film series’, though none with a single story that runs to eight full-length episodes. There have been characters who have cropped up way more than seven times, like James Bond. But each of those is a seperate story, and there have been many actors playing Bond. To have a story like Harry Potter extend over eight films, over ten years, with the same cast literally growing up as their characters is something we may never see again.


Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint (Harry, Hermione and Ron) from the first film and the last.

It would be fantastic if some other great book series’ received the same kind of treatment, but it’s unlikely. Not often does a prospect like Potter come along. Very few stories will guarantee a return on investment like Harry Potter does. It’s beyond mainstream; it’s ubiquitous. Producers and financers knew they could pretty much spend carte blanche on Harry Potter films and guarantee getting their money back several times over. Nothing is a safe bet like that in this world. Rowling created that – a guaranteed massive return investment. And you thought her magic was all fiction. This last installment shattered box office records worldwide, with US$169.2 million in US and Canadian ticket sales over the opening weekend. The opening weekend! And they’ve yet to truly milk it, with the rest of its cinema run, then DVDs, then special edition DVDs, then 8 film boxed sets. Not to mention all the associated merchandising.

Then there’s Pottermore to keep the whole thing monetised. Then there’s always the possibility of more books. The whole 19 Years Later thing at the end of the story is there as some kind of cap, but there are loads of ways around that if Rowling chooses to write more.

Of course, the real test of Rowling’s skill will be to write something else. Amazing as the Potter success is, she’ll always be measured against it and may not be able to write any other stories. I hope not. I hope she comes up with something all new, completely unrelated to Harry Potter and his world of wizards and witches, though I doubt she will.

So, for now at least, it’s over. It really is the end of an era. Children started reading books with the success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. They grew up alongside their favourite characters while film stars grew up playing those characters. I’m glad to have seen it through. There’s a good sense of closure now and the books and films will stand as one of the greatest storytelling achievements of all time.

I’m still left with one question unanswered. Why does Harry Potter, or any other witch or wizard, wear glasses? They can regrow bones, for goodness sake. Surely they can fix a spot of myopia. Then again, perhaps it’s good to be left with some questions. Well done J K Rowling, and well done Harry, Hermione and Ron. You all did good.

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