How Worser Can You Write?

by Alafair Burke

We’ve all heard about the magic of a book’s first sentence.  Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” or Orwell’s “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  Some sentences stay with you forever.  At the very least, we writers want our first sentences to set the tone for the novel and persuade the reader to give the book another few pages. 

There’s no shortage of commentary about good first sentences: examples, why they’re important, how to make them good. I won’t try to add to those lessons since I’m not a great writing teacher unlike, say, for example, Murderati’s very own Alex.

Instead, I want to talk about the bad first sentences.  No, not sad, pathetic bad.  Funny bad.  Intentionally bad.  Hilariously bad. 

“I have had it with these m-f’n’ snakes on this m-f’n plane! Everybody strap in! I’m about to open some f’in’ windows. “

Turns out there’s an award for worst imaginary first sentences.  Named for the author of Paul Clifford (as in “It was a dark and stormy night”), the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest promises that its www stands for “Wretched Writers Welcome.”  And wretched are the submissions indeed.

In the genre of detective fiction, the winner, from Steve Lynch (San Marcos, CA): “She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA Routing Transit Number and Account Number and then disable your own Overdraft Protection in order to do so.”

I somehow picture this guy as the lead in the film adaptation

I also enjoyed this “dishonorable mention” for purple prose: “Elaine was a big woman, and in her tiny Smart car, stakeouts were always hard for her, especially in the August sun where the humidity made her massive thighs, under her lightweight cotton dress, stick together like two walruses in heat.” -Derek Renfro (Ringgold, GA).

Like these guysOr maybe these (what can I say, they popped up in a search for “two walruses”)And the overall winner, from writer Molly Ringle: “For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.”

Pretty good (meaning bad) stuff, right?  But as atrocious as those first sentences are, I suspect we here at Murderati can reach even higher (lower?) levels of literary abomination.**  

I’ll get this party started.

The first sentence of my next novel (NOT!):  Harlow felt oddly detached from the sight of her own fat, rumbling inside the lipo hose like tapioca and cherry slurpee, as she wondered if her newly flat abdomen might bring Trevor back home.

Can’t wait to see what y’all come up with.  Go for it!

*Shout out here to fellow law prof Stanley Fish for his excellent NY Times Op-Ed on first sentences of crime fiction novels.

**Hat tip to my bible, www.ew.com, for playing this game first.

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22 thoughts on “How Worser Can You Write?

  1. Barbara

    Tilly spotted Regis the basset hound in the litter box gleefully chomping on Tootsie roll-shaped feces, his paws covered in feculence that looked like milk chocolate soft-serve on a steamy day knowing her louse of a husband would be home soon to be lovingly greeted by his beloved pooch so thankful one of the cats had diarrhea that day.

    Reply
  2. Trance

    Jackson knew that sooner or later his door would open and the most beautiful woman in the world would walk in, a woman so captivating and exotic that even his normally-stone-cold Marlboro face would twist into a smile and his smile would twist into a grin and his grin would twist into a laugh and his laugh would twist into a dance and his dance would twist into a little flight, sort of like Tinkerbell on crack or laughing gas or something like that. Suddenly the door opened and a woman walked in, a woman with a face that brought one thought and one thought only to Jacksonโ€™s brainโ€”No Tinkerbelling Today.

    Reply
  3. JD Rhoades

    "Bet he doesn’t have the guts to do that again," Lieutenant Bradshaw of the NYPD wisecracked as the fire department hosed the jumper’s remains off the sidewalk.

    Reply
  4. Fran

    Oh my goodness. I’m not sure I can compete with those, but here goes.

    "It was a dark and stormy night, except it really wasn’t, it was all in Beulah’s head as she drove through the warm spring sunshine, crying so hard you’d think it was raining like Seattle all over her face."

    Reply
  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great post! I’ve decided to save all the terrible sentences for the work I have to do today. Then I’ll put them through a sifter and keep the most terrible gems.
    JD – I think you get the prize on yours.

    Reply
  6. Jake Nantz

    Ever since those teen awareness videos in his six years of high school, Malcolm Jordan had been told that suicide wasn’t the answer, so on Tuesday of his third senior year he decided to find out if it was, instead, a question.

    Reply
  7. Jen Forbus

    I have a friend who reads for a writing contest for amateurs and some of the lines he’s shared with me from that could definitely compete here! There’s no shortage of gross in this contest is there?

    Reply
  8. Alafair Burke

    I didn’t mean to make it a gross out contest but I guess the yuck factor does make for worse writing.

    Reply
  9. KDJames / BCB

    I may never get that gerbil/water bottle image out of my head. Next guy who tries to kiss me will not understand when I burst out laughing.

    I don’t think I have the talent to write a really good bad sentence. Struggling to write really good good ones.

    Reply
  10. pari noskin taichert

    She twisted her thin neck, showing him hair the color of beeswax, and nibbled his ear one more time while he watched the men running and jumping on the field, the balls bouncing off their heads like popcorn in hot oil.

    Reply
  11. toni mcgee causey

    She woke up one morning to the sound of a hard rain on her tin roof, the kind that sounds like mice tap-dancing, but not your little garden-variety type of mouse–no, she had the big honking mo-fo horror-movie sized rats, big enough to wear their own tap shoes and have a bad attitude about tappers never advancing in those national dance shows, not even once, and they were going to keep her awake, just for revenge.

    Reply
  12. Becky Hutchison

    Opal looked at her ring finger and noted with a strange detachment that her ring was gone and only just then remembered sticking it down the throat of her two-timing, whore-cheating, cur-mongering, pile-driving, but fun-loving, fiance.

    Reply
  13. Catherine

    I think JD just auditioned for a position on the screenwriting team at CSI-New York.

    Toni’s makes me think the metaphorical mice would share dialogue ala ‘The Wire’ between themselves….if they went bad arse disney and actualised.

    Thanks for the laugh everyone.

    Reply
  14. Matt

    For decades he had ferociously attempted to rid himself of the thought of her effervescent and sinister beauty, but she was forever in his mind, sticking with him like gum stuck to hair on a hot summers day.

    Reply

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