It has become something of a tradition for me to open the list of winners by talking about some types of entries that didn't win. In the past this discussion has focused on subtle and subjective principles of comedy. This year, not so much. Here are a couple of Things Not to Do:
Don't flagrantly break the rules by submitting 20 entries in a row. I think the language in the rules was pretty clear:
|You need not limit an entry to one sentence, and you can even enter more than once. However, the maximum length of all your entries combined is 200 characters. If the combined number of characters you enter is over 200, all your entries are subject to disqualification.|
Since this year social media led to an exponentially larger number of entries to sort through, I'm afraid that in these cases, once the entrant hit the limit, I did end up disqualifying his or her last 18 or 19 entries unread. (Even that is more generous than the rules indicate.) I've tweaked the entry mechanism for 2013 to keep this from happening again — entries that break the rules will now generate an error message rather than being silently thrown out.
Number two: Don't submit minor variations on previous winners. Yes, the "lion o'clock" entry from 2010 was amusing, but for that very reason, "tiger o'clock" is not going to fly in 2012. A sentence using the phrase "cried into the email" once won the contest, but that doesn't mean that "cried into the tweet" is going to win it for you. Come on now.
So what did win? First, the usual caveats. With the number of entries having soared well into the four digits — some of them not even by people named Chloe — many worthy submissions didn't make the cut. The final list of winners might have been a little different had I assembled it on different days. And just being funny isn't the only criterion here: other important factors are how believable it is that someone could have written the sentence without meaning to be funny, and how well suited it is to be the first sentence of a novel. Someone named Brandon Specktor summed it up very well: "Lyttle Lytton isn't an explicit, pee-my-shorts-from-randomness comedy contest so much as an unintentional, god-bless-you-for-trying-to-be-a-writer facepalm contest." As such, the winner of the 2012 Lyttle Lytton Contest is:
Agent Jeffreys trained eyes rolled carefully around the room, taking in the sights and sounds.
When I read the first half of this, I thought, yes, I've heard editors grumbling about the use of "eyes" for "gaze": "'Her eyes landed on his lapel pin' — didn't that hurt?" Then I reached the "and sounds" part and knew this one would be tough to beat. There were entries at which I laughed more, but the combination of craft, plausibility, and cringe factor — and, yes, laughs — put this one on top.
As for the ones that I found the funniest, here they are — this year's runners-up, in no particular order:
Bang! As the bullet hit her ear, she felt an excruciating pain, as if her ear were screaming into itself.
There were hundreds upon hundreds of entries that revolved around a simile (including the "Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup" one, as if I would be unfamiliar with a "worst analogies" list that's been kicking around for years). "As if her ear were screaming into itself" was the best.
She had the kind of face that made you want to say hey, look at your face.
I hold off on putting these results pages together until after the contest is over, just in case a really good entry sneaks in under the wire. This year the late high-placer was the one above.
This one, on the other hand, came in 363 days before the deadline, yet it still makes me laugh every time I see it:
Im a winner, thought Seabiscuit, galloping across the finish line.
I don't know whether I'm more amused by the notion of a horse articulating its victory to itself or by the flat affect of the horse's self-validation.
Here's another paean to a popular sport of the early 20th century:
There was to be boxing, Steve muttered. Punch, punch, punch.
Wrapping up the runners-up — I admit that I don't know what would be the best way to address the narrator's conversational partner in the following exchange, but this probably isn't it:
I parted her legs with great solemnity. Hello old friend, I whispered.
On to the honorable mentions! It can be hard to know where to start with these… I guess the most honorable of the honorable mentions are those that not only capture a moment, but really do try to suggest a whole novel to come that you would not want to read:
As I approached the dairy aisle, wondering what milk to buy, I remembered my doctor suggested a low fat milk, so I purchased skim milk.
I think one of the things I like about that one is that while the repetition is not self-conscious, it's still enough to make the reader think, "Please stop saying 'milk.'"
Dolly looked upon her paper expeditiously then elevated up her pencil. She had now commenced not only a race against the clock, but a race to get the best mark ever in the class.
And undoubtedly her parents still sneer, "'Best mark ever in the class'? Why not 'best mark ever in any class'?"
Other entries were less ambitious and contented themselves with a standard romance plot, generally beginning by introducing the love interest. Among those of note in this group:
Wow. He was firmly mesmerized by her bright blue eyes that complemented her blue floral dress.
Her golden hair bounced in the breeze like farm-fresh honey flowing from a jar.
I guess I still have a weakness for similes that don't match the main verb of the sentence. Hair the color of honey? Fine. Honey bouncing in the breeze? Another sign of Colony Collapse Disorder, I guess.
As long as we're talking about simile-based entries, let me get some more of those out of the way:
The moon shone like a star, while tears of heaven rained the sky.
Possibly funnier to stop after "star" (brevity being the soul of wit, or at least of this contest), but I guess it's still pretty punchy even with both clauses.
A lone plastic grocery bag fluttered in the breeze, like a sail without a boat.
This isn't quite as bad as the similar speech in American Beauty, but then what could be?
She was really really hot, her breast like flames to my heart and mind.
Which brings us back to the love stories.
Today was the night where our love was to be consummated, by making love.
Or as that last runner-up would put it, the narrator is about to make a new friend.
I am astounded that the following was not written by Rick Reilly:
Albert Einstein claimed that the only universal constant is light. However, Einstein never witnessed the power of Vittoria Lionhearts love.
Sadly, love stories don't always work out for everyone involved:
Do you still love me, John? I asked. I dont love you, Marie, came the reply from the letter I held in my shaking hands.
Poor Marie. People deal with trauma in different ways, of course; some fall into depression:
Even as I leaned on the lamppost, the sadness of my heart could not be brightened.
Others succumb to anger.
It was the worst possible news he could have received. He howled an inarticulate howl of rage, and threw the various decorations on his mahogany desk all across the small room.
The anger response seems to be especially common in the sword-and-sorcery genre.
Gramlax the Mighty raised his broadsword overhead and swung it mightily, roaring, You fellows will certainly pay!
I can't help but be reminded of George Bush's pledge on 9/11 "to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act."
In a similar vein:
Kaldor fondled the hilt of his sword with his lanky fingers and inhaled the sunrise. I taste the future blood of my enemies, he relished.
Our last honorable mention from the fantasy genre:
Melissaes ears, which ears were long and pointed on account of her proud elfin heritage, were perked up.
I think the phrase "which ears" may undermine the impact of the phrase "proud elfin heritage" here — clashing sources of comedy, and the "oh lord" factor at work in "proud elfin heritage" is stronger — but others may disagree. A strong entry in any case.
Phrasing is important, though; here's one that works almost entirely because of the inclusion of one extraneous word:
Robert woke up in a hospital bed and he couldnt remember the criminal man he had just killed moments before.
This one succeeds on the back of its scare quotes:
My pen allowed me to write this tale, your eyes to read it, your mind to get it.
Speaking of "getting it," it seems that every year there's an entry that makes the list of honorable mentions based on the "…whut?" factor:
Just as we were moving from the wedding to the reception, Mother demanded, Show me by the way that you dance that you are.
On the other hand, sometimes an entry arrives that clearly could only work once. That is certainly the case here:
Stephen knew today felt wrong, as he listened to Heart Cooks Brain, by the band Modest Mouse, from the album Lonesome Crowded West.
It comes with its own MTV corner stamp! (You know, back when MTV had corner stamps.)
The cat sat in silence on the window sill, doing catlike things while watching his owner tend to the makings of supper.
I love the implication that the author can't think of anything more specific for the cat to do than "catlike things."
Sheila woke up instantly; it was that dream again — the one with the face, and the man, with the face.
What's especially interesting to me about this one is that it's funny both with and without that last comma… but in slightly different ways. It also makes me wonder whether the man with the face had the kind of face that made you want to say hey, look at your face.
On to the Found portion of the contest. These took a back seat to the original sentences this year, which is as it should be. This section is always a bit odd. It was originally intended for sentences drawn from things like news reports and advertising copy which become funny when imagined as the openings to novels. A couple of examples that made the honorable mention list this year:
It was August 2009. On this sunny morning, Lake Como was a picture of tranquility, a striking contrast to the turbulence of the global apparel industry.
HBR Case: VF Brands: Global Supply Chain Strategy
I have been married to my wife Janice for 38 years. We have four daughters and have been blessed with twelve grandchildren. I can relate to individual and family issues.
flyer for David Dorward, Conservative candidate for
However, I soon found that a lot of people wanted to highlight sentences from actual novels and other fictional works that they found particularly atrocious. This year I had almost the entirety of Twilight quoted to me by various entrants. I elected to choose one honorable mention from this group, and this one struck me as the most fitting:
I awakened with renewed hope that I grimly tried to suppress.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Internet posts are also a popular source of Found entries:
In interacting with Japanese women, I noticed something.
a Something Awful post
As are people remembering their friends' attempts to try their hand at storytelling:
In the Land of Wasteland, there lived a city called Sand City.
an entry in a writing contest
As links to Lyttle Lytton were posted on various social networks over the course of the past year, I was interested to read that quite a few people initially found the contest mean-spirited, but changed their minds when they learned that the vast majority of entries are written for the contest and that the Found division is subordinate. This was quite a contrast to the guy who interviewed me for a BBC program, who didn't care for the original entries at all and was only interested in the "find and showcase bad professional writing" aspect. Which brings me to this year's winner of the Found division. When I saw this, I couldn't believe it, and sure enough, when I read up on it, it turned out to be tongue-in-cheek. For a moment I thought that should disqualify it for the Found division, since the author is in on the joke… but then I thought, wait, what's wrong with that? The point of this contest isn't to make fun of anyone, but to find that sweet spot of "intentional unintentional comedy," and this certainly qualifies. So, the winner of this year's Found division:
I draw a hot sorrow bath in my despair room.
Keanu Reeves, Ode to Happiness
And that concludes the 2012 Lyttle Lytton Contest. Thanks to everyone who entered; as noted, keeping this list to a reasonable size meant that many worthy submissions couldn't be included. If your entry wasn't selected, please do try again! Maybe next year you, like Seabiscuit, will have occasion to think, "I'm a winner."
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