The 2016 Winners

Welcome to the sixteenth edition of the Lyttle Lytton Contest!  This contest has two divisions.  In one, entrants write relatively short openings to very bad imaginary novels.  In the other, entrants submit relatively short passages they have found elsewhere, and we are to re-imagine them as the openings to very bad novels.  In the past, I have presented these divisions separately.  This year, I've decided to interleave them a bit in order to group together entries that employ the same techniques.  I have also tended to roll out the winners in each division by starting with the top entry, then presenting a few runners-up, and concluding with a bunch of honorable mentions.  But due to the increase in the number of entries, this year I found that after I had narrowed the field down to the usual crop of winners, there were still at least a couple dozen more that it seemed a shame to leave off.  So this year we'll do this National Merit style: the overall winner in each division will be presented in red; the original honorable mentions will be called the finalists and will appear in blue; and our bonus honorable mentions will be called the semi-finalists and will appear in black.

And that was a whole lot of prefatory hair-splitting over what is ultimately just a big list of jokes, so let's get to it.  The winner of the 2016 Lyttle Lytton Contest is:

It all started when my topaz eyes looked up into his soft emerald ones.

Shannah McGill

As those who have read previous Lyttle Lytton pages know — because I say it almost every year — when I'm going through the entries, I ask myself, "Does this sound like the beginning of a novel? Is it hilariously bad?"  If the answer is yes on both counts, the entry will probably show up in the list of winners.  But the first-place winner has to clear another bar: "Is this plausibly the beginning of a novel?"  So, here we have Shannah's entry.  Do writers ever compare eyes to gemstones?  Of course — so much so that it's a cliché, though a forgivable one.  Do writers ever write about a character's "soft eyes"?  Sure.  So it is absolutely plausible that someone would blithely dash off the phrase "soft emerald" without taking a moment to register that, whoops, no, that really doesn't work at all, does it?  Verdict: winner.  (And now I have to assume that an AI constructing the ultimate Lyttle Lytton sentence based on past results would write about "gazing into the chaos emeralds of his eyes".)

After sixteen years, it is neither easy nor necessary to come up with an entry that defies categorization.  Still, before I dive into the categories, I'd like to start with a few entries that strayed from the beaten paths.  We'll start with this year's runner-up:

1993, it is the future. Acid rain had destroyed civilization.

Eric Bauer

Post-apocalyptic fiction is of course a well-established genre.  I've read a lot of it — particularly from the 1950s, '60s, and '80s, when nuclear annihilation seemed like it was just around the corner.  The 1970s were a little different.  It was the age of détente, and pop culture shifted away from the apocalypse and towards the dystopia, extrapolating the world's ills into the future: overpopulation, pollution, inflation.  Now, I'm not saying that acid rain wasn't a problem!  It was — it blighted forests, killed off fish, corroded statues.  But still, the idea of a novel from 1974 or so sounding the alarm that in less than twenty years we will be reduced to a few last stragglers, living underground lest we dissolve in the low-pH downpour, is pretty delightful.

The usually handsome left side of my darling husband’s face spasmed a full 90 degrees into horror when I told him my little secret.

Harper Cole

Lots of things to like here, such as the way the sentence takes it as a given that the transition from handsome to horrified constitutes precisely a quarter-turn of the half-face, and that naturally no further rotation is possible.  (And of course there's the implication that the right side of the darling husband's face may not necessarily be anything to write home about.)

Some girls never get a pony, but Jane was good and her daddy loved her.

Sasha Cornish

This raises questions about where the plot goes from here, but it also suggests that this novel will be bad in an unusual way, to wit: what lessons will our young ponyless reader draw about her own value as a person and about her own relationship with her father?

All right, let's take a look at some of those categories.  I'll start with the most diverse: those that riff on phenomena that have bubbled up in the culture, often on the Internet.  For instance:

This is a story about an ENFP and an INTJ who fall in love.

anonymous

Myers-Briggs typology has been around for the better part of a century, but it does seem that it took the advent of the Internet and specifically the advent of things like dating sites and Tumblr "about me" sections for the types to become a core axis of identity for a broad swath of people.  This entry is therefore both intrinsically amusing and a playful shot at those who take the Myers-Briggs more seriously than is warranted, given that it has no foundation in actual psychological research.  But then, I would say that, being an INTJ.

“He was approximately 182.88 centimeters tall and 90.7185 kilograms,” the nice guy converted to the European police officer.

Bjorn Edstrom

On the surface, the joke here is clear: we see the word "approximately" attached to numbers that aren't approximate at all.  If we recognize where those numbers come from — that they are overly precise equivalents of "six feet" and "200 pounds" — all the better.  But while I don't know whether this is what Bjorn was going for, what made me laugh is that I actually encounter this phenomenon from time to time — for instance, I was once reading a Wikipedia article that cheerfully informed me that "On November 10, 1845, Polk sent John Slidell, a secret representative, to Mexico City with an offer of $25 million ($628,942,308 today)".  Oh, and "the nice guy" is a nice touch.

“Cucks! You’re all cucks!” I passionately exclaimed.

Z.N. Travers

Here we have an entry suggesting a very bad novel indeed, given how prominently the opening features Internet racists' new favorite word for non-racists.  From time immemorial members of minority groups have been tagged with disparaging names, and it is certainly not a new phenomenon for them to attempt to fight back by coining their own disparaging terms for those outside their groups.  (To pick one at random: "shiksa" apparently dates to 1892.)  But when they are new, criminy, they sound stupid.  A couple of years ago I learned that, at least on certain campuses, the jocks had started to make a point of dismissing non-jocks as "narps" — "narp" meaning "non-athletic regular person".  Sick burn, dudes.

Torval found great pleasure in his elfin mother’s lips; edgy, huh?

Robert Jones

Again, I'm not entirely sure when this became a thing, but all of a sudden it seemed like the word "edgy" was only ever used sarcastically.  I think it was around the time the exact same thing happened to the phrase "hot take".

In any case, "edginess" is essentially a matter of trying too hard to be provocative, which brings us to our next category: entries whose imagined authors are trying too hard in various ways.  One of the most popular ways is to stretch for some sort of disconcerting irony:

8:32 P.M., April 17th, 1996. Detective Fry cuts open the plastic cover on his TV dinner, while not seven miles away, a similar knife slides over the neck of an innocent man.

Ian Lundin

The rain thundered on the roof of the casino, washing away the grime on top, but not being able to wash away the sins within.

Kevin Shi

“Good heavens,” Jonathan murmured when he looked at the sky, for the heavens he saw were not good at all.

Luke Fowler

Other entries suggested authors trying really really hard to be gothic, or epic, or "street":

Ebony watched over the rain-wet street, her raven hair slicked by the rain. The roof was lonely, but she preferred the honest ugliness of the gargoyles to the beautiful lies of her shallow “friends”.

Roisin o'Hare

It was a time of darkness in the land of Gath-ka’noug. But then, out of the darkness, there shone a brilliant light. And the name of that light was: Horick the Elf.

Marc Silcox

Call me Bastardo Medio, for my costume is black, my skin is pasty white, and I am one muy malo hombre.

pseudonymous

But while these all succumb to varying types of excess, another set of entries reflected authors trying too hard to sound professional, employing conventional phrasings that, especially in context, are eye-rollingly pat.  Liz Jones submitted a Found entry from a book jacket that didn't make the cut because it sounded too much like a book jacket and not enough like the novel itself, but it's a very good illustration of what I'm talking about: "She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France… but invade they do."  Here are a couple more:

Amy was not going to be the only girl in her seventh-grade class without a boyfriend, and she knew just how to get one.

Duncan Stevens

The cyborg was loose in the alien ship, and it was clear from the gunshots that he was not here in the name of peace.

Crystal Society, chapter 29
quoted by Elena Churilov

Perhaps this year's ultimate example of trying too hard comes from another entry in the Found division:

Picture a drop of water balancing on a leaf, or a Zen master poised on one foot — mid-air — for what seems an eternity. NFL referee and Omaha attorney Clete Blakeman maintains his own special equilibrium.

"Omaha! Omaha!" on omahamagazine.com
quoted by Patrick Augustine

Aaron Rowden submitted this opening to an article written by Camille Paglia: "Like stumbling twin mastodons, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fell into the abortion tar pit this past week."  That's too specifically journalistic to sound like the beginning of a novel, but it serves as a perfect example of just how far some writers will stretch to try to kick things off with a striking comparison.  So it's no surprise that similes and other metaphors are also very popular with Lyttle Lytton entrants.  Here are some of the better ones this time around:

They were ensnared, their limp limbs bound together like a bunch of Twizzlers that had melted in the sun.

Michelle Vongkaysone

Blood was bursting from her arm like melted red rockets.

Sally

(To be honest, that one is so offbeat that I'm actually not even 100% sure it's bad!)

Here's a Found entry in a similar vein (no pun intended):

The blood came pouring into her mouth like a waterfall of gore and violence.

"Blood Raining Night" on fanfiction.net
quoted by Holden Long

This just goes to show how tough it is for entrants in the Original division to top the unintentional comedy of writers who actually are doing their best.  What gets me about this one is that "gore" and "violence" both fail as similes, for opposite reasons: it makes no sense to compare gore to blood because gore is blood, while violence is an abstraction.  It's like saying, "The cook poured the polenta into the pot like a waterfall of corn and nutrition."

The calligraphy of combat is written with strokes of sudden blood.

"Monastery Swiftspear" card from Magic: The Gathering
quoted by Tanner Swett

And in the horticulture of combat, what blossoms are wounds on the bodies of one's foes.

This next one was actually designed as a model simile for aspiring writers!:

My life is like a free online game, people seem to be playing with it.

"Conceit" on literarydevices.net
quoted by Molly G.

Do comma splices count as literary devices now?

Here are a couple more entries from the Original division that metaphorically went to the well of metaphor:

Her curves were the Pavlovian meat that made a man’s loins salivate.

Neil Martin

Her eyes were like deep, green pools of eyeball liquid.

Alexa Silverman

And a Found entry along lines similar to the above:

Her eyes were terribly broken, like fractured orbs of glass being frozen.

a college literary folio
quoted anonymously

Moving on to another category — every year there is a contingent of entrants who begin their imaginary novels not by diving into the story but with some sort of prefatory author's note.  This year my favorite of these was:

All characters in this novel are purely fictitious, with the exception of Dr Alpha Wiseman, whose blog posts are my own.

Nick Mathewson

Again, what I love about this is that it hits that sweet spot between mockery and plausibility — like, "Alpha Wiseman" is hilarious, and yet I can absolutely believe that our noble blogger would settle on that as the perfect name for his mouthpiece in his attempt to bring The Truth to the unthinking masses.

These meta entries are often exercises in self-aggrandizement:

The reason, you ask? The reason, I say, that you’re going to love this book, well, it’s simple. You’re going to love this book because I’m a fuckin’ wordsmith. You’re welcome.

Eric Scott

And speaking of wordsmithery, entries in which not all of the words are quite right constitute a well-represented category each year, and 2016 was no exception:

Ben slams the packet down by the Officer. “These are my kids don’t you see?” His own dear flesh, his dear old blood.

Lauren McNaughton

Gunther sashayed across the street one day and heard the cry of a gun.

Daria Bates

The individual stroked his mustache, following it up with a stroke to his beard.

Daniel Heddendorf

The problems in that one are more than purely semantic — referring to this character as "the individual" is worth a chuckle, but parceling the action out into two separate steps is amusing in its own right.  Here's one in which the fractured syntax does the heavy comedic lifting:

Yeah, it kicks ass to be living in this high-rent apartment with my girlfriend who’s real hot and I fuck her.

Wright Allenson

Yes, we can jeer at the imaginary author's value system, but it's the parallelism error in the description of the girlfriend that makes me laugh every time I see it.

This next one, on the other hand, makes it onto the list of winners because it encapsulates the imaginary author's attitudes in a way that is not only plausible, but that not too long ago would have made very few people even blink:

Agent Felicia Stone was tough and she was smart, but she still had the emotions of a woman.

Ax Hubs

To close out the Original division, let's turn to a mainstay of the contest: entries that you look at and just kind of go "whut".

“How did you do that?” gasped Danielle in astonishment as Eric ran up and down the hill with astonishing speed.

Aimee L.

The repetition of "astonish" has nothing to do with why this one made the list — I just really like the mental image of the guy showing off his speed by running up and down a hill, and then of the girl standing and gaping at this amazing feat.

The boy had a bounce in his step and a certain marsupiality of the face; we called him Kanga. But the girl, oh ho ho ho the girl, her we just called Jennifer the Bitch.

Dylan

Whut.

Okay, on to what remains of the Found category, starting with this year's winner:

When your hand becomes steel, there is nothing you can’t punch.

Deadliest Warrior, a TV show on Spike
quoted by Sean Kermes

First of all, this suggests an awful novel to come — that it's just going to be someone with a steel hand wandering around punching things.  But second, it isn't even true!  Like, even with a steel hand, you still can't punch the sun.  Actually, you can't punch anything that you couldn't punch with a regular fist; it's just that with a steel hand you'll do more damage and break fewer of your own hand bones.  I'm surprised at this, because Spike's programming is otherwise famous for its logical rigor.

Outwardly, they maintained the appearances of proper, educated Christians, but behind closed doors, they engaged in love triangles, in-fighting, drug use, and bad financial investments.

"Untangling the Tale of the Seven Sutherland Sisters and Their 37 Feet of Hair"
quoted by Brian Click

This entry above opens a category that was well-represented in the Found division but much less so in the Original division, namely, anticlimax.  Here's another along the same lines:

LONDON — It has seemed, almost, a land of two narratives, one in fear of jihad, the other confronting an older hazard: rain.

"Rattled by Terror and Floods, Britain Enters Era of No Quick Fixes" on nytimes.com
quoted pseudonymously

But I found this one particularly interesting:

Natasha Romanoff hated pierogies — but more than that, she hated lies.

Black Widow: Forever Red
quoted anonymously

It is a well-established maxim in comedy that some words are inherently funnier than others.  There's a reason that the standard joke is "a _______ the size of a Buick" and not "the size of a Lincoln" or "the size of a Camaro": "Byoo-ick" is just funnier to say.  (You can even break it down into its phonemes and note that it starts with a plosive B and ends with a K sound.)  "Pierogies" is one of those funny words.  It sounds funny, and the object it refers to is funny.  "Lies"?  Not funny.  To say that Natasha hated lies, but more than that, hated pierogies, would be to create a serious atmosphere and then puncture it with a funny word — a standard formula for a joke.  To say that she hated pierogies, but more than that, hated lies?  Putting the lies at the end makes that a serious sentence.  A serious sentence that for some reason has the word "pierogies" in it.

The Found division always requires a bit of extra sifting, because a lot of people tend to just submit sentences that are amusingly bad, rather than sentences that would make amusing openings to bad novels.  Here are a few that I thought worked well in their new context:

The safest place for the unborn child is in the firmly restrained pouch of the womb.

"Seatbelts" on roadsafety.transport.nsw.gov.au
quoted by Edward Timothy

Imagine one of those Victorian novels that begin with the birth of the narrator/protagonist.  Now imagine that the author elected to start things even earlier.

Reproduction is necessary for life and most of us have a preference for when and where we reproduce.

a biology paper written by the entrant's friend
quoted by Brendan Kelley

…or even earlier still!

There are two kinds of men in the world, savvy and nosavvy.

Pokémon Vietnamese Crystal
quoted by Carter Sande

Again, by itself that's just a pretty standard translation glitch.  But, to me at least, it becomes a lot funnier when you imagine that Jane Austen followed up Sense and Sensibility with Savvy and Nosavvy.

The nights were getting longer and the days were getting shorter, and on the plane, there was a bomb!

a story the entrant wrote at age seven
quoted by Gareth Williams

Hmm, that doesn't fit the category.  I believe that means we've reached the lightning round.

Cancer is always bad, but in the 1960s it was worse than it is today.

Opening Skinner's Box, chapter 6
quoted by Fionn Murray

Man, what wasn't.

Painted on the ceiling shines the red sun of Valmar that lights up the dark nights of vampires like you with its eight evil rays.

Darkiss, English translation
quoted by Lucian Smith

I bet a couple of those rays are just misunderstood.

She was cat-derived, though human in outward shape, which explains the C in front of her name.

The Ballad of Lost C'Mell
quoted by Adam T.

Good thing there are only 26 kinds of animals in the world.

“Punk” is nothing but death… and crime… and the RAGE of a BEAST.

Batman: Fortunate Son
quoted by Julie Crowley

To be fair, that's not always true.  Sometimes punk is death, and crime, and the RAGE of a BEAST, and fake British accents.

Ever since discovering that she was half human and half mermaid, Merliah Summers’ life had become an amazing adventure both above and below the waves!

Barbie in A Mermaid Tale
quoted by David Speyer

Half human and half mermaid?  Doesn't that basically mean one-quarter fish?  (Which in turn means, what?  That her fish tail only extends from the knees down?  She still has to hop around everywhere!  Inconvenient.)

“CB-99, show Lando the hologram of your file called JTHW — Jabba the Hutt’s Will!”

Zorba the Hutt's Revenge
quoted anonymously

Come on, you have holograms but you haven't invented long filenames?  Criminy.  A galaxy full of robots with human-equivalent artificial intelligence, but where filenames are concerned, they still haven't caught up to Windows 95.

Our daughter is not quite 12 years old yet. That means she is 11.

"Why Are We Sexing Up Children?" on deeprootsathome.com
quoted by Ben Waldorf

It was my understanding that there would be no math.

Actually, that kind of over-explanation does make up a category of its own most years; this year, that category also includes this entry:

I want to begin with an exercise, in
which you, the reader, put yourself in an authorial-cum-narratorial position.

"Discourse Style Makes Viewpoint"
quoted by PTTG

(1) It turns out that if you do a search on sentences that contain the words "cum" and "position", most of the results are not about narratology.

(2) The over-explanation that you out there reading this sentence are, in fact, the reader makes for a nice contrast to our final item, a lovely bit of under-explanation that, the moment I heard it, I knew would be my own contribution to this year's contest.  Imagine the novel that starts like this:

There’s something going on, and it’s bad.

Donald Trump, 2016.0114 debate
quoted by Adam Cadre

And that wraps up the double-sized roundup of the 2016 winners!  If you enjoy the Lyttle Lytton Contest, please consider supporting it by tossing a few cents at my Patreon account, the proceeds from which allow me to take less freelance work and devote that time to this and other projects.  One recent project was publishing a new, rewritten ebook edition of my novel Ready, Okay!, so if you're at all curious about what I get up to when I'm not curating Lyttle Lytton entries, check it out.  And with the plugs out of the way — many thanks to all the entrants, as well as to the posters, rebloggers, and retweeters who help to spread the word about this contest.  The 2017 edition is already underway, so I'll see you, the reader, next year!

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