Sticks and Stones

Granted, it is a fulsomely salutary experience to parody bad writing, to comment on The Sad State Of Literacy by composing deliberate travesties of literary ineptitude. That is what the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is all about (that and the universal improvement of mankind). But how can people of our kidney rest there? The cause of enlightenment – the promotion of clear, effective communication and the future of civilization itself – demands that we take a more direct and muscular approach. It demands that we move from generalities to specifics. It demands that we rattle the cages of the offending scribes.

The aforesaid having been said, we propose a new pastime for Bulwervians everywhere. We the custodians, guardians, and stewards of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest propose a new game. We propose that you locate, isolate, and otherwise identify samples of bad published writing (that is, writing by those who are paid to write), and that you submit them to this page along with any commentary you wish to provide.

That is right! We are offering you the opportunity to display your wit and judgment at someone else’s expense, the expense of someone fortunate enough to be paid to write. With a little luck, you may even threaten someone’s livelihood. If this is not incentive enough, you may at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you are contributing to An International Dialogue on Literacy (sniff!).

A few simple guidelines:

  • You may address any kind of literary offense, be it (or they) of style or content, but
  • Try to keep your examples relatively brief, and
  • If you wish, comment on what you find offensive or amusing (for extra points, you can even use the passage to point some wholesome, salutary, and constructive lesson about fine writing).

Oh, and because we cannot expect total consensus, we will also permit responses to your submissions. After all, someone else’s fancy may be tickled by the very thing you loathe, abominate, and even dislike (and vice-versa). Now, because a few examples are better than a thousand explanations, we will implement the rotation of the sphere:


  • #She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco. — Danielle Steel, Star

In this case, we are viewing a pristine instance of syntactic incompetence. The phraseology suggests that her father brought her eyes from San Francisco, not a dress, although the latter is the writer’s obvious intention. You can argue that sense overrules the word sequencing, but should the reader have to guess what a professional writer is trying to say (“You said this but you meant to say that!”)? Granted, reading is a participatory act, and every piece of good writing carries the implicit instructions, “Some assembly required.” Good books demand good readers, even nimble readers. Put another way, good writing asks the reader to play Ginger Rogers to the writer’s Fred Astaire. Nevertheless, Fred would never signal Ginger that he was doing the Fox Trot when he was really doing the Funky Chicken.

From Steel’s sentence we learn that clear writing is a matter of effective sequencing. A sentence, whether it is in a novel or a technical report, is a sequence of information. Good writing is good sequencing. At least in this reporter’s opinion.

The word on the street, by the way, is that Danielle does not actually “write” her books. She dictates them to a tape recorder, then lets someone else type them up. Apparently, to borrow what Hemingway said of Gertrude Stein, revision is an activity that gives her no pleasure.


Helen Brooks, Husband by Contract, Harlequin

I was reading – attempting to read – a book over the weekend which brought Dark and Stormy to mind. The majority of sentences are over 60 words. Picked at random are a few shorter sentences for your interest. (Contributed by Su Irons, Auckland, New Zealand.)

  • #He spun round in the doorway with a violence that was tangible, surveying her bitterly with hard, blazing eyes before banging the door so savagely that the whole room shuddered and whimpered before sinking into an unearthly silence.
  • #They had only known each other for the last four months, Claire having come to work at the surgery following a long spell in hospital after a severe road accident, but the two of them had immediately hit it off.

(Apart from this enlightening entry Claire has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the book.)

  • #The possessiveness in his voice was deep and strong, its triumphant throb cutting through the layers of sexual delight as thoroughly as a knife through warm butter, and it hit her like a deluge of cold water.
  • #Donato nodded in a sharp little bow, clicking his fingers at Antonio, who reached behind her for the case, his pock-marked face beneath its chauffeur’s cap of blue and gold apologetic.
  • #The fifty-or-so-mile drive to Donato's magnificent villa in Sorrento would be no problem – the Mercedes’ excellent air conditioning added to the fact that the late-April temperature was only just touching seventy degrees made travelling at midday still a pleasure, unlike in high summer – but sitting in close proximity to Donato for well over an hour was a different matter.

Norman Mailer, Harlot’s Ghost,, Random House 1991

Your new “Sticks & Stones” category wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Norman Mailer’s misplaced modifier in the first line of “Harlot's Ghost”, the first novel to cost more than $30. (Contributed by Chuck Myer, Colfax, CA.)

  • #On a late winter evening in 1983, while driving through fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.

The pundits had a field day with this one, correctly inquiring as to how “recollections” could “drive.” It also inspired my own BLFC entry as follows:

  • #Driving along the main coastline, my recollections clasped the leather stickshift of my 91 Harlotte and shoved it into overdrive, catapulting the lengthy vehicle past three ten-spots; past a random house; and finally past the limits of Hyperbole, into the uncharted depths beyond. (1997 BLFC Western runner-up)

Sarah Lovett, Acquired Motives

No, he looked like a compassionate rapist. (Contributed by Gene M., Yakima, Washington.)

  • #Anthony Rowley didn't look like a self-confessed sadistic rapist.

I was at the check-out counter at the grocery store and happened to pick this up. I know a good opening sentence is supposed to grab the reader, but where? The implied formula here seems to be: sensationalism = good writing. I want a little more subtlety in my reading, something that assumes I have some brains and an attention span.

Jacquelyn Mitchard, The Deep End of the Ocean, p.106

Contributed by Larry Sherman, Fremont, CA

  • #Why do nuts women always have cats? Why not dogs, dogs who are just as excited to see you after you drive up to the corner to get milk as they were when they first met you, instead of cats, who, as Pat always said, regarded people as warm-blooded furniture? To keep her eyes to herself, Beth stared down at Loreta’s ample thigh in its armor of polyester, a blue that did not exist in nature. Why did nuts women aged about sixty-five who kept cats also wear stretch pants? With flowered blouses that looked chosen carefully for their potential to make the wearer look like ten miles of bad road under a tablecloth? Because something like these clothes had looked good on them when they were young? Because everything else looked worse? As she let her glance slide upward to Loretta’s tightly furled perm, like a head of late-spring buds, she heard the woman ask Candy, “So, do you want me to do a trance? Or just give you some impressions?”

You’ll have to pardon me for such a lengthy submittal, but rest assured that I omitted the first part of the paragraph which, in its entirety, might in itself contain enough exemplary material for an entire course in how not to write. The sentence fragments. Since when did “nuts” become an adjective? We’re all just lucky that the author didn’t enter this material in the BLFC, or we would all be one step lower in the rankings. At least.

Joan Collins, Hell Hath No Fury (unpublished)

Contributed by Jeff Vorzimmer, Austin, TX

  • #“And this,” Pauline continued, indicating the largest of the three men, “is Mr. Earl. He’s your security guard, and he’ll shadow you until the jewels are returned all in one piece.” Laura smiled charmingly at the beefy young guard, whose massive shoulders and biceps threatened to split the seams of his rented dinner jacket. “‘Ello, Miss,” he said, politely touching his forehead with a finger in a kind of salute. “It’s a right ’onor. ’Course, my old mum an’ I, we seen all yer pictures. She’s a great fan ’o yers, is me mum.”

This is my favorite excerpt from the unpublished oeuvre of actress/author(?) Joan Collins. The work was never published because Random House, with whom she had a contract to write two books, alleged that the manuscript she delivered, Hell Hath No Fury, was unusable and sued her for the return of their advance.

Jan Stacy, Bodysmasher, Zebra Press

Contributed by Colin Fisk, Fremont, CA

With little fanfare, in 1988 or 1989, possibly the worst written book ever published came out. Zebra Press, known for its “Men's Adventure” novels, released Bodysmasher by Jan Stacy. The premise gave notice of how bad it was to be; something to the effect of “Not only is Rick Harrison the world’s best professional wrestler, he's also the CIA’s most top secret operative.”

Despite touching on just about every cheesy cliché from the mad scientist who wants to destroy the world, to the evil Russian wrestler who kills people in the ring (hey, it was the cold war still!!) and, of course, the mysterious Asian spiritual mentor, this classic gave us such literary gems as:

  • #She wanted to wrap her legs around him the way a tree wraps itself around a mountain.
  • #She rode astride him like a bucking bronco in the rodeo of the flesh.

Cathy Cash Spellman, An Excess of Love

Contributed by Kate Nagy, Bethesda, MD

  • #He was as guarded as a virgin, but infinitely more experienced.

This, um, remarkable statement refers to the heroic Irish terrorist Seaneen O’Sullivan in Cathy Cash Spellman’s novel An Excess of Love. In truth, I found this book, which follows the fortunes of two sisters around the time of Ireland’s Easter Rising in 1916, very entertaining. I even picked up a little history. However, it’s been at least five years since I read An Excess of Love, and I still remember how I howled with laughter upon reading this line, which, when taken in context, does not appear to have anything to do with Seaneen’s sex life.

David James Clarke, The CNE Study Guide

The following excerpt is from The CNE Study Guide, written by David James Clarke, who attempts an analogy to help better the understanding of the term “Flow Control” in networking. (Contributed by Wallace Frost, Media, PA)

  • #Let's say you’re moving to a bigger, better home. You’ve been working all day, lugging around boxes, and you’re thirsty. Unfortunately, the soda’s on the counter and your hands are full of boxes. So what do you do? You ask your friend to give you a drink. He or she pours it down your throat with no sense of when is enough. After a few gulps, you decide you don’t want to drown in Coke and start waving your arms and nodding you head. Your friend gets the message and stops pouring the drink. This is flow control.

To start with, how can one wave their arms if they’re full. That’s what prompted this stupid analogy in the first place. Next, if they started nodding their head, the soda would be spilling all over the place. Not a pretty picture. But, let’s face it, this whole scenario could be elevated if this person just had enough sense to put the boxes down and get the drink on their own. Some people are just lazy.

Steve Erickson, “Cloudy, Chance of Annihilation”, New York Times

As you may know, the New York Times began this very week to publish color photographs in the Living Arts Section. One must occassionally accept such clumsy lurches into the modern era. However, lurking behind the visual gloss was an even more menacing species of written dross. The following was excerpted from the Op. Ed. page of today’s NYT. Both great art and great crap routinely defy description, so I present them unadorned without the handicap of my own ornate, brocade, reticulated, spiffy commentary. These are just a few of my favorite passages. True Bulwerians will wish to relish the whole tamale. (Contributed by John Ormsby, Berkeley, CA.)

  • #As it happens, maternity wards report that veritable monsoons of babies are born during storms and full moons, and since our kid’s due date coincides not only with the the rains but with the full moon as well, we’re preparing for him to come blowing out of my wife in such a gust that it will take the combined efforts of doctors, nurses, midwives, orderlies, physical therapists, security guards, parking attendants and previously comatose patients to lash the little sucker down. He will be an El Nino baby lit with demon moonlight, a child of chaos like the rest of us, counting down the minutes to the end of the world like the drops of rain that would wash us away.

“El Nino” is colloquial Spanish for the Christ Child. Heaven help us, writing like this must be a sin.

The Lily Series

Lytton was not the only bad writer of his day, not by a long shot. As a mangler of prose, he had plenty of company. One group of purple prose artists was featured in The Lily Series, a stream of wholesome novels spewed forth on both sides of the Atlantic. The publishers explained their morally uplifting (and doubtlessly lucrative) mission this way: (Contributed by Stanley Perks, Boca Raton, FL)

  • #The design of this Series is to include no books except such as are peculiarly adapted by their high tone, pure taste, and thorough principles to be read by those persons, young and old, who look upon books as upon their friends – only worthy to be received into the Family Circle for their good qualities and excellent characters. In view of this design, no author whose name is not a guarantee of the real worth of his or her work or whose book has not been subject to rigid examination, will be admitted into the “Lily Series.”

By the time Faith Gartney’s Girlhood was released in the series, seventy-eight titles had displayed sufficient “high tone, pure taste, and thorough principles” to pass the publisher’s “rigid examination.” Among the classics of the series were Quinnebasset Girls, How Marjorie Helped, and Madeleine: A Story of French Love (which couldn’t have been as interesting as the title sounds). As for the stylistic standards, well, they were downright Lyttonian:

  • #East or West, it matters not where – the story may, doubtless, indicate something of the latitude and longitude as it proceeds – in the city of Mishaumok, lived Henderson Gartney, Esq., one of those American gentlemen of whom, if she were ever canonized, Martha of Bethany must be the patron saint – if again, feminine celestials, sainthood once achieved through the weary experience of earth, don’t know better than to assume such charge of wayward man – born, as they are, seemingly, to the life-destiny of being ever “careful and troubled about many things.” — Adeline Dutton Whitney, Faith Gartney’s Girlhood, 1863

Whitney’s mortal pen also gave those “who look upon books as upon their friends” A Summer in Leslie Goldthwaite's Life

Louis Auchincloss, “Ars Gratia Artis”The Atonement and Other Stories

[This] comes as close to Paulcliffordism as anything I’ve seen. (Perhaps Auchincloss aspires to a Bulwer laureateship?) (Contributed by Fr. John Woolley, Denver, CO)

  • #Living in the past is constantly derided, particularly by those who like to pride themselves on being abreast, if not actually ahead of, the passing moment, but there comes a time in life for some of us, alas, when it seems the only place where we can live; and that is certainly the case of an infirm and antiquated bachelor living alone (except for a loyal caretaker and an uncertain cleaning woman) in his old family stone gentilhommie’re (I’m sorry; I like the French term) on the Yorkshire moors.

Comment: This is a first-person narration. Would you criticize Marlon Brando for Stanley Kowalski’s speech? [Or Tennessee Williams?] — Dennis Mahony

Lucas Malet, The History of Sir Richard Calmady : A Romance

[This] is the opening of a godawful Victorian novel. (Contributed by Fr. John Woolley, Denver, CO)

  • #In that fortunate hour of English history, when the cruel sights and haunting insecurities of the Middle Ages had passed away, and while, as yet, the fanatic zeal of Puritanism had not cast its blighting shadow over all merry and pleasant things, it seemed good to one Denzil Calmady, esquire, to build himself a stately red-brick and freestone house upon the southern verge of the great plateau of moorland which ranges northward to the confines of Windsor Forest and eastward to the Surrey Hills. And this he did in no vainglorious spirit, with purpose of exalting himself above the county gentlemen, his neighbours, and showing how far better lined his pockets were than theirs. Rather did and comely, and as the natural outgrowth of an inquiring and philosophic mind.

Guy Spangenberg, “Ford SVT Mustang Cobra vs. Chevrolet Camaro Z28”, Road and Track, November 1997

Contributed by Greg George, Cincinnati, OH

  • #Actually, you might say that it's more accurately been a battle between warring factions of fans who, for more than 30 years, have chosen sides, gathered behind the flapping banners of either the Mustang or Camaro, and proceeded to cross swords at virtually every drag strip and roadrace course in the country (as well as any intersection with a red light that eventually turns green).

Uncredited news article, Toronto Globe and Mail via Reuters and the New York Times

Contributed by Boris Krivy, Toronto, ON

  • #Trying to diffuse the crisis, Secretary General Kofi Annan offered yesterday to send a mission to Iraq to defuse the crisis.

The above appeared under a Reuters and New York Times byline in an article published in the Toronto Globe and Mail. It deals with Sadaam Hussein’s refusal to allow Americans to be part of a UN weapons inspection team. Apparently, Mr. Annan wants others to share in the U.S.’s problem by spreading it around.

Steve Whalen, POB2, A Love Story

Every time I go to the library, I like to get out a few books by authors I have never heard of, just to make sure I’m not missing out on good books merely because they aren’t well known. Occasionally, this effort turns up gold. Frequently, however, it brings me into contact with authors whose obscurity is eminently justifiable. The most recent example of that kind had me worried when I encountered the following line in the first paragraph: (Contributed by Jeffry Herman, Somerville, MA)

  • #She popped the elastic at the top of the second sock and pushed her sexually ambiguous Timex watch up along the blond hairs of her handsome forearms.

First – Sexually ambiguous watch? I have yet to meet a watch whose gender I could not identify – they don't have one. Or perhaps Mr. Whalen means the watch is attracted to both men and women? Second – A semi-reasonable meaning can eventually be grasped for the above, at least after wading through some of the more vivid images the odd phrase brings to mind, but what on earth does the verb “popped” mean in this context? What precisely is she doing with her second sock? Third “ Why does NEARLY EVERY NOUN have an at least one adjective? Do we really need to be informed, all in the same sentence, that it was the “second” sock and a “sexually ambiguous” watch and there were “blond” hairs on her “handsome” forearms? This trend is continued throughout the book – in the next paragraph, she straightens a comforter her grandmother made, and as she stares at the "antique" headboard and “fading” bedspread she can see the “gentle, arthritic” hands of the “old” woman etc., etc., etc. Part of bad writing is an uncanny knack for choosing the wrong word – the word that doesn’t quite mean what the author wants, or makes the sentence cliché, or is odd without being interesting, or boringly repetitive, or just plain wildly inappropriate. This author, in a very short space, has managed all of those – an impressive achievement. In addition, the sex scenes in the novel are among the most boring I have ever read in my life.

Stephen King, Salem’s Lot

Contributed by Kaye Bellot, Modesto, CA

  • #Even before the deal with Straker had been consummated (that’s some word all right, he thought, and his eyes crawled over the front of his secretary’s blouse), Lawrence Crockett was, without doubt, the richest man in ‘Salem's Lot and one of the richest in Cumberland County, although there was nothing about his office or his person to indicate it.

This comes from Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot, and for me, the imagery of those happy little eyeballs is a bit startling to say the least!

Dean Koontz, Intensity

Contributed by Jordan J. Earl, Asheville, NC

  • #Eighteen years ago, on the night of her eighth birthday, in a seaside cottage on Key West, Chyna had squirmed under her bed to hide from Jim Woltz, her mother’s friend. A storm had been raging from the Gulf of Mexico, and the sky-blistering lightning had made her fearful of escaping to the sanctuary of the beach where she’d retreated on other nights. After committing herself to the cramped space under that iron bed, which had been lower slung that this one, she had discovered that she was sharing it with a palmetto beetle. Palmettos were not as exotic or as pretty as their name. In fact, they were nothing more than enormous tropical cockroaches.

Frankly, this passage frightens me on a number of levels.

Lindsey Davis, Shadows in Bronze

Contributed by Anonymous

  • #By the end of the alley the fine hairs in my nostrils were starting to twitch.

Am I overreacting?

E.X. Ferrars, A Murder Too Many

I am still trying to interpret this! (Contributed by Sue D'Arcy, Northern Territory, Australia)

  • #Having had time to think it over, Andrew had decided that he did not believe in this for a moment. If he had not been so unfortunate at different times during the last few years as to become involved in the solution of a murder or two, so that he was more inclined than he would have been before he had been drawn into that rather gruesome activity to think that his own wild guesses were sometimes perhaps to be taken seriously, he would not even have considered such a possibility.

Matt Hayes, Jacksonville Times-Union, October 1997

Contributed by Bill Weldon, Bell, FL

  • #The son called his mother two days ago, hundreds of miles and two countries separating a voice of anticipation.

The son was Jesse Palmer, a University of Florida quarterback; his mother lives in Canada. Would those two countries be Michigan and Wisconsin?

Patrick May, San Jose Mercury News

This San Jose Mercury News writer, Patrick May, has definable talent. He should visit your classes and describe the manner in which he develops his purple prose. (Contributed by Rick Sherman, San Jose, CA)

  • #Shrouded in winter fog, trapped in the gullies of the Mother Lode, the ghosts of a thousand mining camps toss in a fitful slumber. Down in Dead Mule Cañon, up on Chicken-Thief Flat, the pick and shovel clang in muffled knell. A century and a half after that first golden glint caught James Marshall’s eye, after the lust and liquor scattered lost souls over every hill and hollow, these foothills still tremble. … The Gold Rush wsa the largest mass migration in American history. It was the champagne bottle smashed over California’s bow.

Sally Small, San Antonio Express-News

I would like to introduce you to Ms. Sally Small, the video review columnist for the “San Antonio Express-News,” which is the only English-language daily paper in the area. Ms. Small writes in a misspelled stream-of-consciousness style that, while probably intended to be chatty, mostly comes off as schizophrenic. She leaps from one incoherent phrase to the next, springing random unprovoked attacks on “liberal” celebrities. Religious holidays are an excuse for orgies of Christian prosyletizing. She recently informed her readers that a certain Asian actor resembled Number Two Son from the Charlie Chan movies. Eventually, after an entire page of this drivel, she offhandedly gets around to mentioning the video that was the purported reason for her miserable column in the first place. Here’s the best part: The people she’s attacked in her column are usually NOT EVEN IN the video being reviewed! I would go on, but words fail me. I’ll let the anti-writer speak for herself. I dunno, maybe YOU can figure out what the hell it is she’s trying to say. (Contributed by David Bryant, San Antonio, TX)

  • #Initiatively offended by this “prudish remark,” that’s what my friend of the opposite sex wanted to shrug it off as, Al asked me to elaborate.
  • #At first, “Event Horizon” seems to be the regulated sci-fi thriller.
  • #But, it’s THIS ludicrous episode that calls for the smelling sauce: …
  • #If that's not enough torture, guess who’s skinny again. Oprah. The sentimental, talk show queen willingly shares her holiday diet secrets. Hoo, hoo, please spare us. Excuse me, but aren’t we looking at a possible Iraqi situation?
  • #Sometimes, cheesy TV writers are fortunate enough to squeeze the blood out of an egghead’s dumb mistakes.

This is the agony we must endure in San Antonio. The damned Hearst press has a lot to answer for.

Author, Title, Publisher

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Fans, Stalkers, and Others

Mariann Simms, winner of the 2003 contest, writes about the BLFC in her blog. (April 2006)

Celine Shinbutsu: Fantasy Category winner’s blog from Japan. interviews 2008 Winner Garrison Spik (August 16, 2008) interviews the Grand Panjandrum (August 16, 2008)

Guillaume Destot interviews the Grand Panjandrum (2002)

“The Great Bulwer-Lytton Debate” (Manchester Guardian)

Sticks and Stones (a “new” contest, last updated August 2010)

Bulwer-Lytton's Ancestral Estate

Bulwer-Lytton’s Bicentennial Birthday Celebration at Knebworth House. With pictures. (May 20-23, 2003)

Literary Locales: Over 1,350 picture links to places that figure in the lives and writings of famous authors

The Eye of Argon (a Sci-Fi conference classic)

Dead White Guys

Dead Dogs

Shakespearean insult?

Bad Sex in Fiction Award

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night — the game for people who love to read

Dickens or Bulwer?

“Dark and Stormy Night Cocktail” from the Swig Bar in San Francisco: Pour ginger beer into a highball glass and top with Zaya rum.

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