Adam Cadre's Lyttle Lytton Contest


Thanks for the warm welcome, everybody! For my inaugural mental_floss post, I think I'll just direct everyone to one of my all-time favorite places on the internet.

Most of you have probably heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, awarded annually to the worst potential first line of a novel. Here's the 2009 winner:

"Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the 'Ellie May,' a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests."

It's kind of funny, but very unwieldy. Cultural critic and interactive fiction pioneer Adam Cadre, however, has a solution: limit entries to 33 words or less. He calls it the Lyttle Lytton Contest. Here's his example of the proper way to mangle the English language subtly and briefly:

"Jennifer stood there, quietly ovulating."

Not only is he a great bad writer, Cadre is fantastic at explaining why Lyttle Lytton sentences work so perfectly:

"The non-action of 'stood,' the vagueness of 'there,' the involuntary process of ovulation treated as an activity, the inappropriateness of mentioning the volume of that non-activity, the uncomfortably gynecological detail of mentioning it at all — all combine to make a cringeworthy sentence. And since it's only five words long, its impact is instant; you don't have readers slogging through clause after clause after clause."

You can find archived lists of contest winners at his website "“ I reread these every few months, and I can guarantee they'll make you examine your own writing more closely. Enjoy!