Friday, February 22, 2008

Writing R Us

Edward George Earle Lytton (Bulwer-Lytton,) the 1st Baron Lytton (1803–1873) was a playwright, poet, novelist, and a politician. And very well thought of in his day in all these arenas. His book, The Coming Race (published 1870) is considered one of the earliest -- if not the first -- science fiction novel(s) -- as well as, some say, a blueprint and inspiration for the German Nazi Party.

Lord Lytton is responsible for the first-in-print use of such phrases as "the great unwashed," "pursuit of the almighty dollar," "the pen is mightier than the sword," and most infamously -- thanks to Snoopy -- "It was a dark and stormy night ..."

Today, aside from the pen-and-sword thing, alas, his fame rests upon being the inspiration for San Jose State University’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing. This is to select the best worse first line for a story.

Over the years, there have been some brilliant ones. It takes a certain amount of skill to pen a line that is to bad it is good. Sort of like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Reaves and I wrote a short book, Thong the Barbarian Meets the Cycle Sluts of Saturn, in which we insulted the memories of E.E. "Doc" Smith, R.E Howard, and H.P Lovecraft, one and all, and if there was a dreadful said-bookism or adverbial Swifty we missed, it was by accident. Long out-of-print, and signed copies are spendy but we, of course, think worth it.)

I bring this up because I had occasion this morning to do what is called a job-shadow for a couple of high school students interested in writing. Which basically amounted to meeting them and their teacher at the local Starbucks and answering questions until we ran out of steam.

One of the questions had to do with what one hopes to accomplish with one's writing. For me, this is simple: I want to write books that people pick up and can't put down. I want to grab them by the throat, to curse me if ever we should meet, thus: "Stupid son-of-a-bitch! I stayed up until two-thirty in the morning reading your damned book, I couldn't put it down, I had to finish it! I over-slept and was late for work!"

Guy walks into the 7-Eleven and has enough to buy a paperback I wrote or a couple six-packs of beer. If he decides to go with the book, I want, when he is done, to feel as if his money was well-spent. I don't want him wishing he'd bought the Schludwiller instead ...

Nobody knows what the ages will bring, and I've never tried to write for them. I'm pretty sure old Baron Lytton didn't envision that a hundred and some years after he died that his work would be the inspiration for a contest looking for bad writing. You just never know.

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