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

January 09, 1985|LYNN SMITH | 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."

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