The 2011 Winners

As those of you who have followed this contest over the past decade-plus are well aware, there have been a number of tweaks to the rules over the years.  For instance, the word limit has been bumped up a couple of times, largely because I’ve received one or two great entries that went just a leetle beet over.  This may have been a mistake, because most entries that come near the word limit are indistinguishable from the looooong Bulwer-Lytton sentences that this contest is reacting against.  For instance, here’s an entry that fell into this trap—​I’ve blanked out the words so as not to make the entrant feel bad, but something that runs on and on like this is not what this contest is looking for:

  • Xxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx, xx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx, xx xxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxxx, xx xxxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxxxxxx, xxx xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxxxx xx, xxxxx Xxxx xxx.

On the flip side, one of the rule changes that has proven to be a great help was one I made several years ago, when I added a parenthetical to one of the bits near the end: “[…] winning entries (or winning portions of longer entries) and any honorable mentions will be linked to this page […]”.  Never did that come in more handy than this year.  A lot of the entries for 2011 consisted of a great ten-word clause buried in a thirty-word sentence.  But speaking of going on and on, I should stop talking about the entries and start presenting them.  The winner of the 2011 Lyttle Lytton Contest is:

The red hot sun rose in the cold blue sky.

Judy Dean

As is often the case, I’m betting that this won’t be one of the readers’ favorites, but to me this was the top of the heap.  First, you’ve got the eyeroll that comes from the ham-handed contrast between “red hot” and “cold blue”—​and then a second later you realize that “red hot” actually means a temperature of about a thousand kelvin, and is therefore hilariously inadequate as a descriptor of the sun, a gigantic nuclear furnace with a core temperature of roughly ten million kelvin.  Intentionally writing a sentence that seems unintentionally bad is hard; writing one that suggests an author going for hyperbole and accidentally winding up with woeful understatement is masterful.  Thus, we have our winner.

A couple of runners-up:

“Pfft”—​he knew the silent but deadly whisper of a silenced SIG SG 550 rifle with a 650mm barrel and a 254mm rifling twisting rate.

Chloe W.

On the most basic level, it’s funny that the guy in the story can tell all that from a “pfft”, but what puts this on the medal stand is that there actually are millions of gun fetishists out there who totally get off on this kind of shit.  Imagining a story written in the specs-heavy style of the letters page of Guns & Ammo would be amusing; the fact that this type of thing already constitutes a genre makes this into satire and is therefore funnier.

This is the story of how one woman overcame breast cancer by never ever losing faith in herself.

Victor Gijsbers

Pretty much the same thing here.  This would be a high finisher (and Berman Prize winner, if I were still doing those) just on the basis of the premise and the “never ever”, but the fact that there is a whole industry built on this kind of thing, as skewered by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided, makes the dart sharper.

And then one more I want to single out for special acclaim:

When my homie pulled out his gat, the first thing I said was, “That is very tight!”

Aurelio Ramos

I dunno—​that just makes me laugh every time I see it.  Maybe it’s that I can’t take the slang usage of “tight” seriously after the “Battle of the Bands” chapter of Scary Go Round.  (It also raises the question, “And what was the second thing?”)

Arridey!  On to the honorable mentions.  As those who’ve been following this contest for a while know, a big part of the reason I started it was to see what it could teach me about the fine line between “funny” and “not so much”.  And, as noted at the beginning, one of the big lessons this go-round—​one that took me forever to learn, to the limited extent that I have—​is the value of knowing when to quit.  Here’s the sort of thing I’m talking about:

Cowboy Bret said to Dave (another cowboy), “Now let’s rustle up these cattles.”

George Moomau

The quote could go on from here, and maybe the extra clauses would be funny too, but they’d undermine the impact of “let’s rustle up these cattles”.  So, at least where this contest is concerned, that’s where you stop.  Similarly here:

A wind was blowing from east to west, as if it were the sun, blowing instead of shining.

James Gilker

Specifying that the wind was “blowing instead of shining” is the funny part.  Adding anything else after that would diminish the sentence’s punch, and this is the Lyttle Lytton Contest—​it’s all about punch.

Now, sometimes the effect of an entry has less to do with a single phrase than with an overall tone; but again, once that tone is established, it’s time to get out.  For instance:

I passed the fledgling plastic to the checkout chick.  “Cred?” she said.

Alex Moon

All by itself, this evokes the faux-beatnik, “treat the modern world as cyberpunk” approach of the novel it purports to begin; we don’t need any more of the novel to get the point, so for this contest, this is the place to stop.

And while going on in the same vein damages the immediate impact of an entry, even more damaging is to throw in a different source of comedy altogether.  Consider this honorable mention:

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 blood that was dripping onto the parched floor resembled a Rorschach ink-blot test, invented in 1921 by Hermann Rorschach.

Steve Adamczyk

As it stands, that’s funny because of the inanity of making a simile and immediately launching into a tangent about the origin of the reference.  To add characters with silly names would detract from the effect.

Longtime readers will recognize the old “unnecessary explanation” trick, so I guess it’s time for some more of those; what I like about these three is that they’re all of different types.  You’ve got literal overexplanation:

He, from a physical stature, was short.

Katherine Leisering

Literary overexplanation:

“Caw! Caw!” went the birds as the massacres happened (the birds represent sadness).

Mike Sylvia

Actually, just to contradict myself—​that’s a good example of density, because “‘Caw! Caw!’ went the birds” is also funny.  And then there’s this:

He kissed Abigail sensually, as if to say “I still need you” with his lips.

Bryan Berrey

That one has an interesting mechanism to it, as it takes a familiar figure of speech related to kissing (“he thrilled her with his lips”, “she consoled him with her lips”, etc.), a second familiar figure of speech related to nonverbal communication (“she said it with her eyes”, “he said it with his actions”), and combines them… and in a sense it works, because it’s about nonverbal communication through kissing… but then you look at the phrase “say it with his lips” and you’re like, wait a sec.

Then we have the obligatory “odd wording” group:

“Bring me the light of your love,” Steve purred into my ears.


“My heart medication!” slowly remembered Dwayne, but his lateness was a stark reality.

Roger Strouse

This was the story of a brave man, a freeman, who can’t stop touching society.

Tadashi Narumi

That one has the added bonus of seeming like it’s trying to be a shitty Ayn Rand knockoff.  Whereas I’m not sure quite what to make of the politics here:

“AAHHH” she screamed in horror as her infant rocketed from inside her towards the free world.

Ryan Hix

“Me, I like a girl with a couple extra pounds on her,” said Tom, subtly negging his target.

Mark Whitrock

I think this one works because of a register shift—​“subtly” and “negging” make for an odd pairing.

The spice filled up my taste buds, and was quite lovely.

James Oliver

The phrase “filled up my taste buds” is amusingly wrong, but the daintiness of “quite lovely” is also worth a chuckle.

Mongoose-to-cobra, two serpentine forms, he was my rival; are we fighting in these holes, or are we really making love?

Susie Thai

It seems that there's always one that gets in based on the “…whut?” factor.

Then there’s this:

Princess Amabel brushed her silky golden hair and tried not to think about my breasts.

Hannah Sim

The list of questions this raises could go on indefinitely.  I think my tentative hypothesis would be that we’ve got a smug narrator pleased that her figure makes the princess feel inadequate, but I suppose that it could also be the awkward wedding night of a prince with gynecomastia.

A few genre pieces now; we’ll start with mystery:

The detective could smell the murder on the knife.

Jordan Brown

“NOOOOOOOOOON!” cried Poirot Jr., falling to his knees and rending his fledgling moustaches, “But when will ze killings end?!”

Rich McDowell

Not sure what’s up with the popularity of the word “fledgling” this year.

Sci-fi police procedural:

“You just may be the most beautiful perp I’ve ever laid sensors on,” thought the robot lieutenant as his humanoid partner ate donuts unaware.

Will Nicholes

At a rough guess I’d say these last two are just about as long as these things can be… more than three chunks of information to process and it’s hard to keep a sense of the whole sentence.


This story is about a man and a woman, with lots of things sticking into things.

Ethan Owens

Historical epic:

He lived in a time of stories told by many.

Dan Philips

Teen drama:

Her “parents”, her “boyfriends”—​Angel knew she’d never be truly understood by anyone.

Rita Mathis

The scare quotes make that one.  Maybe what Angel really needs is a mentor who can connect with modern youth—​perhaps this narrator:

Let’s rap about the issues of today.

Jonas Sjöqvist

And to close out this category:

No matter how hard life got, Zade thought, ska would always be there.

Brice Reynolds

Sadly for this character, ska was only there until about 1996.

For 2011 I reopened the old “last sentence” category, which I had tried once before and then didn’t renew; the entries tended to be very samey and not nearly as good as the openers.  The same was true this year, so I suspect this category will be returning to the land of wind and ghosts.  I’ll get to the standout in a moment, but since it’s a found piece, I’ll first post the two originals that seemed to merit an honorable mention:

As I stood there, looking at the ground, I thought to myself, “Was it all worth it?”, but then my train of thought was interrupted by a small, yet angry, cobra.

Ben Thomas

Then she died sobbing.  Except platinum-level members at my website can download an awesome premium ending that has sex instead.

Nick Mathewson

These are both a little gimmicky, but still cute.  But the next one is a tour de force.  As noted, it’s not original to the person who submitted it, and is in fact a piece of deliberate comedy—​i.e., someone did a parody of a bad writer, and someone else forwarded it to me:

Slowly, carefully, and with a lot of understanding, he put his mouth onto her mouth.

Chris Onstad, Achewood, 2009.0630
quoted anonymously

Like the tag says, this is from a comic called Achewood; I know nothing about it, but this strip is about someone trying to write a story, and pretty much every sentence would have been a strong contender to win this contest.  Go read it—​it"s brilliant.  But don’t forget to come back for…

…the Found category!  This is always a little weird, because tends to be divided into a couple of subcategories: bad lines in actual published pieces of fiction, and lines that are amusing to imagine as opening a novel.  In the former category, I have to give the nod to this:

While they had been together after being married, exalting in their love, something had been outside the door, exalting in death.

The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind
quoted by Brian Click

I was unfamiliar with this writer, so I assumed that this had to be tongue-in-cheek… but apparently not.  Yikes.  It’s not only the same sort of unsubtle contrast we saw in the Original category this year, but it doesn’t even actually say what’s happening: presumably “exalting in their love” means sex (as is traditional for those who are “together after being married”), but “exalting in death”… are we talking people being murdered outside the door there, or just some kind of demon thing pumping its eldritch fist and going, “Yeeaaahhhh, death!”?

In the second category, adaptations, the imaginary trophy goes to:

The intruder attempted to break down the reinforced door with his axe, shouting phrases like “We will get our revenge!”, “Revenge!” and “Blood!”

Wikipedia entry on Kurt Westergaard
quoted by Asher Stuhlman

The sequence of shouts there is basically perfect.

Some honorable mentions:

After the firestorm, Sally Quinn entered the concrete meditation labyrinth her husband had built for her on their country estate in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to think.

Evgenia Peretz, Vanity Fair, 2010.07
quoted anonymously

As if Sally Quinn weren’t already America’s answer to Marie Antoinette.

The heating was down, all the toilets closed and there was no way to get something hot to drink.

Reuters, 2010.1217
quoted by Christos Dimitrakakis

This is actually a quote by a woman who declined to give her name to the Reuters reporter, possibly due to what that sequence tells us about her choice of beverages.

Like a present that suddenly arrived, we come into this world.  We come into this world in miniature.

NBC, Today
quoted by Rachel Spitler

I’m not sure that most women in labor would call it all that sudden.  I’m also not sure that the revelation that newborns are smaller than adults merits the anadiplosis.

I want to close with a few weird cases… first, a couple of entries which are remarkable largely for where they were found:

Several billion years ago, that whirling speck of dust known as the Earth, fifth in size among the planets, came into being.

David Kennedy et al., The American Pageant
quoted by Colin Whisler

Taken out of context and imagined as the beginning of a novel, sure, that’s amusingly bad enough to be worth an honorable mention… but as Colin notes: “Keep in mind that this is an American history textbook.”  Aie.  Then there’s this:

Her cheeks were rosy and so was my love—​bursting with fragrance and softness.

Kaplan’s guide to the AP English test
quoted by Jared Wheeler

Again, this sort of florid incoherence (“bursting with softness”?) usually makes it onto the list… except Kaplan is holding it up as a good example of… “imagery”?!  Uh, good luck with that AP test, kids.

Here’s one that I guess I have to put in the Found category because it was not written by the person who submitted it… but apparently it came from a message board thread that was basically “what I would submit to the Lyttle Lytton Contest if I could be bothered to get off this message board”:

“Shame on you,” he scorns at you in anger, “Shame!”

quoted anonymously

And finally, we have a sentence that doesn’t work at all as the beginning of a novel, nor really as the end of one, but which was submitted by so many different people that I guess I have to post it if only so that I won’t receive it another dozen times next year:

“Wow,” said David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton who was not involved in the work.

Dennis Overbye, New York Times, 2010.1110
quoted by a whole bunch of people

And that wraps it up for the 2011 Lyttle Lytton Contest.  I guess this whole Internet thing is really taking off, because the number of entries this contest gets in a given year continues to balloon—​meaning that there are also more entries every year that, on a different day, might well have made it onto the list.  So if you were disappointed not to have your entry included, please try again, and never ever lose faith in yourself.

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