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I sort through the entries after the deadline, in an attempt to try to minimize any bias toward entries that arrive early (or late), but I can't help but look at most of them as they come in. One really caught my eye, and even after looking at hundreds of other entries, it still stood out. Here it is:
The men greeted each other, wearing various smiles on their faces.
The principle that underlies this contest is that brevity is the soul of
In the past that has meant a limit of 25, or 30, or 33 words; at present
the limit is 200 characters.
So here's a question — while this will never be a rule, is it
best to limit the number of sources of humor in an entry?
Here's what I mean.
Consider the following:
Prussian nobleman Baron Chili von Carne, the protagonist of this book, walked out of the O'Hare International Airport (ORD) men's room and into my heart.
That's not a real entry, but there were many that were constructed along similar lines. This kitchen-sink approach seems to be based on the notion that if there are five different parts that are supposed to be funny, then stitch them together like Frankenstein's monster and they add up to knee-slapping hilarity! And maybe for some readers they do. But I find that not only do the different types of humor distract from one another, but if there's one clunker, it ruins the whole thing. The entries that tend to rise to the top are the ones that deliver, not a flurry of different attempts at amusing badness, but a single haymaker.
And then of course I was going to talk about how, sure, it's amusingly limp to start your book with "The men" (vivid! intriguing!), and to have them doing something as mild as smiling, and to specify that their smiles are on their faces… but that, ultimately, what makes this work is one thing: the hilarious misuse of the word "various." "Various" means "a bunch of different"; an album might be credited to "various artists," or a professor might deliver a lecture on various topics. To pair it up with "smiles" is just weird! They had a bunch of different kinds of smiles, but the author isn't going to specify what kind? Ha ha ha ha! And then there's the fact that the numbers don't line up — it seems to be suggesting that each guy had multiple smiles. Because if "various" means "a bunch of different," and there are only two guys, then—
—and that's when I realized: it doesn't say there are only two guys. For months I had imagined it as two guys. But if "The men greeted each other" doesn't mean two guys waving, but a whole bunch of different guys gathering together and exchanging handshakes and such, then, yeah, I guess that if one had a cheerful smile and another had a nervous smile and another had a relieved smile and so forth, you could indeed describe them as having "various smiles." It's still not good writing, but it's no longer so inappropriate as to mark this as the best entry of the lot. It would have been an honorable mention.
And then it occurred to me to try doing a Google search on the phrase "various smiles on their faces" — and I got multiple hits. I see no reason not to give Noah the benefit of the doubt that he came up with the phrase independently, but it was another reason to make me question putting it in the top spot.
What I ultimately decided was this: since when does it matter who "wins" this thing? This isn't the Nobel Prize. This is a silly web page. I had something kind of similar happen in 2006, when I wanted to give the top spot to the one about the mega beasts, but since it was a found entry in the days before that was a separate division, it seemed unfair to choose it and not one of the original entries. Still, to me the best sentence in '06 was the one about the mega beasts. So, make of this what you will. If you imagine two guys and therefore find "various smiles" hilarious, then, great, the entry above is the winner. If you imagine multiple guys and therefore don't see "various smiles" as particularly inappropriate, then pick one of the entries below as the winner. Perhaps this one, one of this year's runners-up:
The stranger rode into town with eyes that said his sixgun would have stories to tell, if it spoke any language other than the guttural tongue of violence.
On the flip side, we have this:
The town was built in the lowlands, risking flood, as if the founders dared the mighty mountains surrounding the town by asking for giant rivulets of detritus, saying Give me them to the mountains.
One more runner-up for you:
My dear wife jolted awake, rolled over, and looked at me. I just lucid dreamed that I killed you, she said sadly.
On to the honorable mentions. While most people submit entries that contain some sort of error that is meant to make them funny, I have a soft spot for those that are funny for what they imply about the author, or the fan base, or the publishing industry, or society in general.
We had succeeded in evaluating the strengths and needs of the enemy battlestation. Eureka, I exclaimed. Prepare to utilize Attack Plan Theta on the rear defensive shield!
J. Forbes Stimson
Madison was a shy, awkward, inwardly beautiful teenaged girl just like you.
Pius XIII stood on the balcony, triumphant. Earlier, when the white smoke had vacated the chimney, not one citizen of FurRome would have bet on a Shibu-Ina to emerge.
Charging, sprinting, loping with great speed, the cheetah lunged at Theodore Roosevelt, but he already had that cheetah dead to rights.
It seems like we're seguing into the entries that did rely on awkward language choices. I tend to especially admire those whose awkwardness is structural — it seems to me that they carry a higher degree than those that hinge on a word or a phrase. For instance:
This isnt fair!, wept Case, who had previously been the team captain but due to events yet to be described was not now.
Please, just give me the answers to the test! said Ron. Jacob pulled his mouth over his teeth as if to say I am not going to give you the answers.
Then of course there's the phrase "pulled his mouth over his teeth," which brings me to the ones built around an awkward phrase:
Jacques entered out of the rain, drenched from that selfsame precipitate.
Carrie sat alone, at the most expensive restaurant in town, for the third time that month. Maybe if she turned her violet-eyed head the right way, she would get swept off her feet by a gorgeous man.
The fast man raced quickly after the other man, while a third man tried to keep pace with the first man.
One more that relies on a phrase:
The sex I had with a girl last night filled me with a feeling of 100% Grade A joy.
One other entry in this vein made the cut:
John ejaculated with such strength as if to say I love you Mary.
So we've done sentence structure, we've done phrases… I guess that brings us to a couple of entries that, like our Schrödinger's winner, may be amusingly bad for several reasons but ultimately hinge on a single word:
Amy gasped for her last breath, as she entered the intoxicating room of her brother.
BOOM! said the bomb very loudly.
It was a beautiful night, and the full moon glew like it had never glown before.
The fireman squad extinguished the house, as it was aflame.
Lots of entries showcase a wacky simile, but most of these don't really fit what this contest is going for. Still, with so many of them, I feel like I should pick at least one for the list, and I liked this one pretty well:
Sirens had always made Simon feel safe, like being inside a strong mans muscles.
As all true prophets know, the lips of fate are tightly sealed, and only the crowbar that is the passing of time can manage to pry them open.
Taft slid slowly, carefully into the bathtub. He knew that it would be the best bath that he and the bathtub had ever had.
Like Venice in Italy, Thailands magical Bangkok is built on a wide network of canals. So it should be no surprise that the art of the noodle is equally prized in each.
Chicken Pad Thai page on saffronroadfood.com
As Joseph Leahy, whose research focused on the biodegradation of hydrocarbons, ducked for cover, a bullet tore through the top of his head, severing his right optic nerve.
"What Made This University Researcher Snap?", wired.com
FROM THE DIARY OF PIOTR KULCZYNSKI: My name is Piotr Kulczynski.
The Radiant Warrior by Leo Frankowski
For years, scientists have been trying to harness the raw power of an eclipse.
Mitsubishi Eclipse commercial
So that's it! As always, let me say that there were many fine entries in addition to those above, and on a different day the list of winners might have looked a little different. What keeps this contest going year after year, when you'd think everything would have been done by now, is the amazing creativity of the contributors. So even if you didn't win this year, rest assured that I appreciate all the entries that I get. Thank you for giving me them!