The 2010 Winners

For the past few years I have begun these writeups with some prefatory remarks about what this contest is not: it's not about puns, it's not about gross-out humor or whimsical wackiness, etc. But this year I think I can dispense with the introduction, because the winner perfectly encapsulates what the contest is about. So let's get right to it — the winner of the 2010 Lyttle Lytton Contest is:

“I shouldn’t be saying this, but I think I’ll love you always, baby, always,” Adam cried into the email.

Shexmus Amed

I got this one back in August and am still awestruck every time I see the phrase "cried into the email." There's just so much wrongness packed into those four little words:

  • The ambiguity of the word "cried." We're so used to any piece of dialogue that's the least bit emphatic getting tagged with a "he cried" or "she cried" that initially it looks innocuous. But this quotation has enough of a blubbering tone to it to make us think it must mean the regular sort of crying. Who can say?

  • The "cried"/"email" pair. Again, it looks innocuous, because we're used to seeing the word "cried" affixed to pieces of written text, but you can't actually "cry" in an email, which can neither transmit volume should "cry out" be what's meant, nor convey the sobs that would accompany the other meaning.

  • The verb/preposition pair "cried into." This looks like it's just an idiom error and that the author meant "in"... but when you think about it, you can "cry into" things as well! Like, you could cry into an Erlenmeyer flask.
Put it all together and you end up with an image of this dude bawling the line above, the tears streaming down his face and splashing onto the screen of his Blackberry, where they magically resolve themselves into the letters that make up his abject missive. Throw in the suggestion that the entire novel will be about this guy's post-breakup groveling and we have a winner.

(The entrant added a note that the selection of the character's name was "purely coincidental." I should certainly hope so.)

No single runner-up this year. There were a lot of good entries, and here you can insert the standard language about "on a different day the list of honorable mentions might have looked slightly different." But here are the ones that stood out this time around, in no particular order:

Splashy the whale smiled secretively, flapping his flappers and swimming.

Jackie J.

I think Herman Melville's corpse just screamed. That's some awesome mastery of marine mammal anatomy on display there. (Also, couldn't you append "and swimming" to any description of a cetacean's activities? "Tillikum the orca pulled his trainer into the water, violently drowning her and swimming.")

The meteor formed a crater, vampires crawling out of the crater.

Peter Berman

Always nice to get an entry from a past master. A worthy effort! You've got the surpassingly dull "formed a crater" to describe a cataclysmic impact, the repetition of the word "crater," the so-very-clichéd appearance of vampires (from space!!)... but I think my favorite element is what appears to be an attempt to deploy the ablative absolute. Seriously, I think half the sentences I translated back in Latin 2 ended up looking like this.

This is a story about a racist hero who dies at the end, probably painfully since he’ll get shot in the face.

Kat Masterson

The phrase "shot in the face" does a lot of the heavy comedic lifting here (much as it did during the Cheney years) and the "probably" does its part as well. But don't overlook the switch from the present of "dies," with the author looking down onto the entirety of the timeline, to the in-timeline future of "he'll." Also don't overlook that the narrator is clearly noisily chewing gum while relating this information.

“You are the greatest human in the world,” the dragon told the boy who desperately wanted to be a dragon, too.

Adam Contini

I like this because it's so close to the "you're great just the way you are" message common to children's stories, yet goes that one extra step too far. Not sure it works as a first line, but I had to include it.

Then there's this one, which is probably too good to qualify — I can see several ways to make it work — but is also too irresistible to leave out:

This is a mystery about a murder I committed.

Lachlan Redfern

Which brings us to:

“Murder is the most terrible crime of them all,” the police commissioner thought to himself as he loitered purposefully near the deli counter.

Aidan Daly

While I'm glad the police commissioner has calmed down a bit since 2007, let's not overlook 21 U.S.C. §603 regarding the sale of tainted meat.

Once upon a time, there was a talking lamp whose lightbulb fell out and hit a person and the person got shocked and destroyed everything.

Megan Groppe

This is such an uncanny recreation of the way five-year-olds tell stories that I assume that the Axe Cop audience would buy up the entire first printing.

Zandor stood in the doorway, raking the onlooking crowd with the hot coals of his eyes.

Mark Caudill

I like this because I can totally see my ninth-grade English teacher giving it a green checkmark with a note saying "Powerful imagery!" Like a lot of the best entries, it seems like it should work: "hot coals of his eyes" seems all right, and "coals" goes with "raking," and "raking a crowd" is, um, well, and "raking with eyes" is, oh dear...

The general, one might have said, had a sly, sneering-smile expression upon his face.

Sara Barrett

The scary thing is that I've had altogether too many of those "dammit, what is the word for that?" moments lately. I can totally feel for this author. "Rrrgh, what's it called when your face is like— you know, and your mouth is like this, and you're all, like... I'm pretty sure there's a word for it..."

There was only one man salubrious enough to assuage my hunger for love — senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).

Kevin Sands

This is a gimmick that could only work once, and the "salubrious" part almost wrecks it, but I'm a sucker for those little party-and-state tags.

A number of other entries dealt with the timeless subject of love. A sampling:

“You are in pain; both physical and emotional,” my heart informed me.

Daniel Blackmore

My amygdala is informing me that I have been there, pal. Empathy subroutines activated. Also note the skillful deployment of the incorrectly used semicolon.

When John left me he took with him my heart, my soul, my everything — which included my happiness, my appetite, my energy, and even my tears!!

Zhao Feng

Not to mention my stereo.

“Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Amy sputtered. “What glorious lovemaking!”

Philip Stephen Ivanhoe

One does one's humble best.

Let's conclude this section with a grab bag of other honorable mentions:

“OMG” texted Sue-Anne to her compatriot Ellen, “MY OWN PARENTS R DED!” It looked like the Mystery Girls had a new mystery!

G. Paal

The IM-speak gag has been done before, but I couldn't read all that Bad Machinery and not let this one sneak in.

“Approach ramming speed!” commanded Commander Klamsky, as her frigate plowed through the celestial ocean at erupting speeds.

Austin Arrendale

I wonder whether it plowed east'ard.

Bookended with firecrackers, her birth was an auspicious occasion, festooned with all the ornaments of her birth, and solemn.

Dawson Smith

The mention of "firecrackers" and concern with whether the birth was "auspicious" makes me think this is supposed to be taking place in China... but a female fetus actually being permitted to come to term? I've seen the Chinese M/F ratio figures. This might stretch suspension of disbelief a bit too far.

As someone who has menstruated, I thought, I could tell you it’s no picnic.

Mary Potts

If you liked Judy Blume's classic Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, you'll love the long-awaited sequel Margaret: First Blood Part II.

“Hearken,” he spake, drawing thither, “and alight thine eyes on yon comely maiden betwixt such knaves as they.”

Joseph Smith

That's nice, but you're due back at the "Steak on a Stake" booth in five minutes.

The battlefield stank thick with writhing “progressives.”

Neil Martin

I was surprised to find that this was an original, since I assumed that there would be a source citation and that it would be from something released by Regnery Publishing. A matter of time, I guess.

Tuesday. Africa. Lion o’clock.

Jamie Harding

And here my watch says it's only half past zebra.

All right! On to the Found category. This year's winner is:

Some things are so small, so miniscule, so atomically insignificant, they can be seen only from three feet away using the Hubble telescope.

anonymous, quoting Rick Reilly, ESPN the Magazine, 2009.0629

This is a tour de force! Maybe not quite as abominable as the Straczynski sentence in '08, but it's in the same ballpark. The most obvious malfunction here is that Reilly seems completely unaware of the distinction between a microscope and a telescope. (Hint: which one looks at small things? ...No? Okay, hint: the Hubble Space Telescope looks at galaxies and nebulae and things. Are those small?) He also misspells "minuscule." But what makes this a winner is that it'd be hard to find a better example of a certain formulaic type of sportswriting, the type that relies on ostensibly humorous comparisons featuring references ripped from the headlines, by which I mean the headlines sitting at the bottom of your recycling bin. "Their playoff chances are as dead as Michael Jackson with a case of swine flu!" "He makes enough in endorsements that Bill Gates hits him up for walking-around money! You couldn't fit his wallet into Twitter!" Etc.

Now, you might well object that this may be bad, but it doesn't exactly sound like the beginning of a story. That's because you haven't seen the follow-up sentence, which brought the entry to just over the limit at 33 words. So while officially only the first sentence gets the award, let's enjoy the entry in its entirety now:

Some things are so small, so miniscule, so atomically insignificant, they can be seen only from three feet away using the Hubble telescope. The heart of Jean Musgjerd is one of these things.

So as you can see, it's really a character study. This actually saw print.

When I first established the Found category, I anticipated that it'd be filled with these sorts of repurposings. And I did get a number of good entries that weren't from fictional sources. Here's another one from the sports world:

Nine-year-old Kyle Graddy looked out across a minor league baseball diamond for the first time in his life and pondered the possibility of his own death.

Dylan Telfer, quoting Thom Patterson,, 2009.1021

From "the Guardian Angel guide to safe living" circa 1982:

Street punks live in a fantasy world of invincibility, and our fear turns their dreams into reality.

Duncan Cross, quoting Curtis Sliwa and Murray Schwartz, Street Smart

From the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

Andy Hallett was an only child who grew to stand 6’2”.

Paul O'Brian, quoting entry on Hallett

The saying “I have got your back” almost never has the literal meaning of receipt or possession of another’s spine.

Chip Snaxley, quoting entry on figures of speech

Here's one that juuust missed last year's deadline:

At the peak of a golden career Liu Yan lost control of the very limbs that experts say made her dances so magical.

Daniel Koning, quoting David Barboza, New York Times, 2009.0417

The very limbs! Those selfsame ones! This is the kind of stretching for irony we saw in last year's winner with Dan Brown's president — he's powerful, you see, but average in height!! But hey, if that's what you're after, why not go to the source? Here's Scott Silverstein again with another gem from the Dan Brown oeuvre:

David Becker had never held a gun, but he was holding one now.

Scott Silverstein, quoting Dan Brown, Digital Fortress

When I looked this one up, I found it was from Chapter 101. That's not binary!

But again, I didn't really think that this section of the contest would wind up with too many actual fictional works. Sure, I figured people would send in lines from books they hated, or fanfic that was poorly written but not in an especially funny way. But some of you have found stuff that's so eye-poppingly appalling that it makes the "vampires crawling out of the crater" entry look pretty solid. This is mostly vanity-press stuff by people with seemingly no concept of what constitutes basic competence in storytelling... and sometimes no concept of what constitutes human communication. Samples:

THIS STORY BEGINS on a Beautiful sunny day in Daytona Beach Florida With a man by the name of David Braymer. A 45-year-old Single man that works at the local High school as a science teacher and astrology in the 12-grade level.

Emily Joynes, quoting Dale Courtney, Moon People

Knuckles resembles a human, but with differences. Knuckles is neither male nor female, though referred to as a "he." Three-quarter-inch-thick dark-violet-colored (FFA000E0) fur covers his entire body. He is only 25 1/3 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and 2.5 inches deep.

Neil Klopfenstein, quoting Nick Smith, Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters

As you can see, these are both a little too long, and with good reason: the effect comes from the way the authors just keep going on like that, rather than from any particular sentence. This means they may not be right for this contest. Here's another that comes closer, though it's still a touch too long:

"By the whirling rings of Saturn," he growled as he gazed disconsolately at his paper-strewn desk. "I'd like to have those directors of ITA here on Mercury for just one Earth-month."

Dan Schmidt, quoting Arthur Leo Zagat, "The Great Dome on Mercury"

This one's sort of interesting in that, today, it could only be a spoof; before that, it could have just been clichéd; but it's from 1932, when this sort of thing was relatively fresh. So, philosophically speaking... was this as bad then as it is now, or did it only become this bad in retrospect?

(Also, because this and the "Jean Musgjerd" lines really should have been allowed, for 2011 I am upping the word limit to 33 words. But I think that's about as far as I can go before losing the distinction between this contest and the Bulwer-Lytton.)

Anyway, let's wrap up with a couple more short and snappy ones. Here's a real sentence from a real story that comes awfully close to the Lyttle Lytton ur-sentence:

Jennifer stood there imagining how good that pear would be.

anonymous, quoting Stephen Peterson, "What's Wrong With God... Or Is It You?"

And then finally one that I was sure would appear in my inbox at some point, but didn't. So here's my own contribution for this year. You know how these are supposed to be the first sentences of imaginary novels? Well, here's someone who's unequivocal on that point:

*((Gotta put First Things First))*

Adam Cadre, quoting Sarah Palin, official transcript of resignation speech

And that wraps it up for this, the tenth edition of the Lyttle Lytton Contest. I think this was one of the better years for it, joining 2001, 2004, and 2007... I guess that means I should probably wait until 2013 to run it again, but I'll take my chances on 2011. Thanks to everyone who has entered, posted about, or simply enjoyed the contest over the past decade. You are the greatest humans in the world!

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