It's easy to write badly -- writers do it all the time. Usually no one gets to see those first drafts with their convoluted sentences, tangent-laden meanderings, strained metaphors and unforgiveable puns - unless the writer sends them to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, that is. Which I did, I'm glad to say.
I've followed the contest for years, ever since Bob Perry's 1998 gastro-criminal winning entry:
The corpse exuded the irresistible aroma of a piquant, ancho chili glaze enticingly enhanced with a hint of fresh cilantro as it lay before him, coyly garnished by a garland of variegated radicchio and caramelized onions, and impishly drizzled with glistening rivulets of vintage balsamic vinegar and roasted garlic oil; yes, as he surveyed the body of the slain food critic slumped on the floor of the cozy, but nearly empty, bistro, a quick inventory of his senses told corpulent Inspector Moreau that this was, in all likelihood, an inside job.
I remember one critic saying that it made him feel uncomfortably hungry. For this isn't just any old bad writing, of the sort we see every day in this prose-drenched culture wherein everyone blogs, has websites, and writes dubious copy for both. This is inspired stuff, dark, slightly warped and right up my street, or rather, twisted alley.
In fact the contest introduced me to the work of Bulwer-Lytton himself, which is much better than that painful, 'It was a dark and stormy night...' (with another 51 words of qualification added to this initial statment) would have one believe. Like most writers he could write both well and badly, and like me, he had trouble with opening sentences. I'm proud to be associated with his name.
Finally deciding to enter was a little daunting, but then I've run most of my writing career on the premise that I might as well give it a go. Trying to write badly on purpose, however, turned out not to be as easy as I'd hoped. I could only sigh and wish that I'd kept the manuscript of the gritty-yet-romantic novel I wrote when I was 19, most of which would surely have qualified.
My first entry was an attempt at grammatical satire, rich with dangling participles and infinitives split to bursting point. It wasn't very funny or interesting, though, and all those errors made it hard to read or understand.
Fortunately, like most of the best things in life, you can have more than one go at the Bulwer-Lytton. A day later, mind wandering (which counts as hard work for a writer, of course, or research at the very least), I rubbed my eyes, which were itching due to too much time gazing at screens. That made me think about eyelash mites, which have terrified me ever since an optician enthused gaily about them for hours, while my head was clamped into some sort of scary sight-fiddling device.
"They can cause terrible inflammation," she said with relish.
"Do I have these mites?" I asked in alarm.
"Oh no; none at all," she said, obviously disappointed in me. "They're such amazing creatures, you know! The female can lay 25 eggs in a single hair follicle...how is this lens, better or worse?...she eats the sebum, you know, the grease..."
As well as a fear of eyelash mites, I've also become somewhat wary of opticians.
Her words tend to return to me whenever I have any eye issues, and whenever anyone looks me straight in the eyes. Is that inflammation, I wonder at the slightest sign of redness -- and if so, what is its cause?
Scanning the Bulwer-Lytton categories I came across Romance, conflated 'I love you' with eyelash mites, and proceeded cheerfully to write the worst sentence of 2012 (so far).
I didn't think I'd win, of course. As with any competition entry I sent it off, let myself have a happy little dream about winning (and therefore being showered with gold and castles and attractive adoring men), and then forgot all about it and got on with my next writing project (a spoof diet book). I'm experienced enough as a writer not to get palpitations waiting for results and responses, nor to waste valuable writing time on speculation about editorial decisions over which I have no control.
I am, however, still green enough as a writer to be entirely entranced by any prize or publication, and this is my biggest win so far. I'm all kinds of happy. When my first story (a comic afterlife fantasy) was accepted, I cried and danced.
When my book (Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Puppwolf, 2010, available from hardly any bookshops at all any more but all over the internet) came out I walked around several feet off the floor in a fluffy cloud of bliss for days. This, admittedly, was swiftly followed by panic -- what do you do after fulfilling your childhood dream?
(The answer, in case you're interested or have the same dilemma, is to make yourself a new dream, and then go after that, whistling merrily.)
This is the agreeable sort of problem facing some of our athletes now after the London Olympics. Professor Scott Rice, who founded the Bulwer-Lytton Award, suggested that this year's contest might be called the XXXth Lyttoniad.
It's not necessarily all that far from the truth -- last time London hosted the Olympics was in 1948, and they were referred to as The Austerity Games. Rationing was still in place, corporate sponsorship was decades away and there was no cash for fancy equipment or pizazz. This is perhaps why literature was one of the 'sports' that year, along with music, painting, architecture and sculpture.
But perhaps we should be glad that writing isn't an Olympic discipline any longer, except metaphorically; like most writers over 30 I have the physique of someone who slouches at a desk all day, and I look about as good in a leotard as a manatee in a mankini.
So how do others react to my win of an award for bad writing? Frankly, as a poet I'm used to responses of bafflement, suspicion or pity, so mingled horror and laughter feels pretty darn good. One Bulwer fan Tweeted that I was a 'warped genius', which made my twisted day.
My loved ones are, as usual, delighted that I have achieved something I wanted, though one friend, on hearing that I had been given an award for bad writing, said it was a shame and that I should sue the bastards.
With the more respectable friends and relatives there is pride but also frustration: why do I use rude words in my poems, why do I write such creepy stories, why on earth have I written about parasites? Perhaps if I wrote nicer things then more people would read them and I'd make better money...but well done! You must be very, er, proud. I am!
One question that has been asked several times is: what would be the second sentence of the novel? I've been having fun writing various versions of it. This is the current favorite:
"I am inflamed with love for you, too, and my passion itches for release," she cried, whipping up some eye ointment with one hand and clasping him to her bosom with the other, "But isn't marriage basically a parasitic relationship?"
The other question regards titles for the thankfully never-to-be-published tome. I'm torn between Fifty Shades of Decay and The Slime-Gatherer's Wife.
I always knew that I could, and often do, write badly. But I had no idea that I could do it so well, or that it would be such fun.
Three cheers for Bulwer-Lytton, that darkened story knight.