The 2020 Winners

Welcome to the twentieth edition of the Lyttle Lytton Contest.  I started this contest back in 2001 as an offshoot of San Jose State University’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which challenges entrants to write an amusingly bad first sentence to an imaginary novel.  It is not an offshoot of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.  But if you were to judge by this year’s batch of entries, you would be forgiven for thinking that it might be.  That there has been a batch of sex-focused entries every year should come as no surprise: sex is a topic that is very difficult to write about well, so if you’re looking to write badly on purpose, mishandling a sex scene is one of the easier ways to do it.  What did surprise me was that after nineteen years with roughly the same proportion of sexual content, there should suddenly be a marked increase in the twentieth.  Here are few of this year’s honorable mentions to serve as the tip of the iceberg:

As I sat there in the warm wetness of the pool, I felt like maybe I knew what it was like to be the shaft seated within the warm wetness of a woman’s tubes.

A. R. Enfield

“Go on, introduce your beloved guest into my lady garden!” I whimper with my ripe talk circle.


All the men were hard, all the women were wet, and at that moment, Brett was thrilled to be bisexual.

Michael Cheong

If you’re thinking, “But I don’t want to read sex scenes that go into anatomical detail! I want that anatomical detail to appear in the service of excruciating puns!”, our next entry has you covered:

Our love could start a war, she Vagrilo Princip and I Glanz Ferdinand.

Eric Shao

A lot of the sex-themed entries were not about actual sexual activity but rather about the sexualization of one or more (female) characters.  This is tricky territory.  Insofar as the perpetuation of the species depends on at least some of us sexually responding to each other, a blanket rejection of all expressions of sexual attraction seems less than entirely tenable.  At the same time, the fact is that there is a long, ugly history of men reducing women to nothing more than objects of sexual interest.  So when you encounter an instance of “sexualization” in a narrative, you have to judge for yourself whether the author is contributing to that history, or satirizing it, or simply setting the story in a world in which people sometimes have horny thoughts.  I get the feeling that the imaginary authors implicitly created by the following entrants fall on the wrong side of some of those lines, adding to the sense that this is bad writing.  But that’s debatable.  Less debatable is that the writing here, despite its use of SI derived units, is head-shakingly crude:

I was on a fast train to Boner-town the picosecond I glimpsed her gazongas.

Jacob Andrews

Or is crude and uses inappropriate century-old slang:

Behold Lucia!  Her delicious tits were the bee’s knees.

Euming Lee

Or is not crude at all, yet is somehow worse for using a tortured technical simile to communicate the same sentiment as the previous two:

Stroking the enviable keyboard with all of their hands, the female hackers’ curvaceous outlines seemed endless: like C-like “for” loops with no second arguments.


But then, yeah, there’s nothing quite so blatantly wrong with the narration in this next one⁠—its badness really does lie in the fact that there’s a whole tradition of stories like these:

Yessica Miller (Arch-Private, newly enlisted) stood naked in the med-scanner while its cold gaze hungrily swept her. “I see we have one of our more fully-figured recruits,” the scanner intoned.

Ethan Strattan

The focus on female beauty starts early:

Like most women, Rose began life as a fetus, not knowing she would bloom into a beautiful, young flower of a girl.

Bryan Potts

And while I hadn’t planned it this way, I guess that the preceding entries do serve as a reasonable segue to the winner of the 2020 Lyttle Lytton Contest:

Marilyn Kingsley, whose nationality could only be described as “vaguely Armenian and about one-third Mesoamerican,” was unfairly rich, not only in Aztec gold but also in Caucasian beauty.

Jacob Franzmeier

Once again we have the focus on beauty, but we also have that focus on “nationality” that was such a hallmark of authors of a certain era⁠—I’m reminded of Philip Wylie describing one of his characters as a “hot dish of Irish-Italian”.  It was also in this era that the word “Caucasian” became as fraught and overloaded as it is today.  Throw in the fact that “Marilyn Kingsley” is an unlikely name for a “vaguely Armenian” character and the fact that her “one-third Mesoamerican” ancestry (a fraction that raises some biological questions) somehow entitles her to “Aztec gold”, and yeah⁠—this is the Lyttle Lytton Contest, and normally I’d be looking for something a little shorter than this as a winning entry, but the amusing badness here is densely packed enough that I think it captures the spirit of the contest.

Here’s one that took many of the principles of the winning entry but took the character in a different direction:

Hannah was quite rich, but unlike the majority of the upper class, she was also rich in kindness.

Alex Prezioso

And here’s one that shares a key word with the winning entry:

Zoseph Misawa gazed into the holo-mirror. He was a dark-haired man who looked Caucasian but wasn’t really because this was the future and races aren’t the same as they are now.

Aimee Lim

As I type this, the U.S. is going through one of its periodic reckonings with the issue of race, another minefield that our hapless fictitious authors navigate with less than perfect aplomb.  They might resort to cobbling a narrative out of slogans and acronyms:

“Your life matters!” I cried in solidarity, tenderly hugging the POC.

Wright Allenson

Or playing hot potato with the audience:

This story is so woke I’m going to let you, dear reader, choose whichever race/ethnicity/etc you want these characters to be.

Graydon Snider

But better to try too hard than to not try hard enough, because otherwise there could be consequences:

Before Brayden even realized it, the racial slur had already escaped his edgy mouth.  The obnoxious child cried at everyone not to “hit report”, but there was no evading this permaban.

Rodrigo Matos

Brayden’s not the only one who might be regretting his actions right about now:

“You’re in trouble, mi amigo,” said the alcalde, which means mayor in Spanish, to the criminal.

Sarah Rosenthal

And now that we’ve moved beyond American borders⁠—hey, remember when having a U.S. passport let you move beyond American borders? Those were the days⁠—here are a couple more entries with an international flair:

Dusk was setting in over Dresden, as Uwe looked up to see a string of star-spangled B-29 bombers rise above the sundown lit horizon.  “Oh no,” he muttered from under his breath in German.

Philip Montnor

She told me “Watashi wa mae ni anata ni atta koto ga arimasen. Anata wa hijō ni hansamudesu” (I haven’t met you before. You are very handsome.), and my face lit up like the sun that is our homeland.

Tobie Brown

International?  Heck, let’s go interplanetary!


Eric Bauer

I know I’ve been referring to the “imaginary authors” of these non-existent novels, but I think we have to take it as a given that this last one’s by Jonathan Hickman, yeah?  Isn’t that how half his X-Men issues start?

One day, Eugene Evans came home from his job at AstroSpace, Inc., and sat down on his chrome living-room couch, munching on a hydrolyzed protein nutrition bar.

Lily Thorn

I like that one a lot⁠—it’s the sort of entry that would have received a Berman Prize back in the early ’00s when I was still doing those.  It doesn’t faceplant as ostentatiously as most entries.  But the couch is chrome.  And the “protein nutrition bar” is hydrolyzed.  And the company is called AstroSpace.  That’s a lot of low-key terrible world-building in a single sentence.  You have to tip your thorium-powered space-hat.

But as long as I’m giving out imaginary prizes, and having randomly dropped the winner into the middle of the list a few entries ago, I suppose it’s as good a time as any to unveil this year’s other finalists:

The chess master at the park was in full combat mode, making his moves faster than even Albert Einstein ever could.

Alexander Frenkel

I don’t know what makes me facepalm more, the lazy shorthand or the misapplication of the transitive property.  I guess this is why the double facepalm was invented.

Cripes! I yelled.  I couldn’t stop saying it.  Cripes!  Cripes!  She was dead.

Günter Berner

I came very close to naming that one this year’s winner.  The “inappropriately muted response to the discovery of a dead body” gimmick has a long tradition here⁠—just ask the Crime Lads⁠—but the word choice here is exquisite.

Speaking of word choice:

In 1706, in the depths of winter, Benjamin Franklin, from his mother, Abiah Folger, was extruded.

Sarah Totton

The main problem with that sentence is that the word “extruded” makes Abiah Folger sound like a Play-Doh Fun Factory®, but the arrangement of phrases calls to mind Mark Twain’s complaints about German sentences that bring up fourteen or fifteen different subjects, after which comes the verb and you finally find out what the author has been talking about.  Here are a couple of other entries that basically amount to “Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of What Did the Author Even Say”:

Megan realised her marriage was dead the year she lost her mother to a long illness, which had ravaged the latter as Megan’s husband had ravaged the former, early in their marriage.

Monica Wang

I feel sad. Out of my amethyst orbs poured the new glass orbs hitting my petite lover’s golden, luscious, beautiful forehead as I weep.


Of course, phrasing doesn’t have to be obscure to be suboptimal:

“Ouch!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, filling the scenery with a scream that I did due to pain.

Miguel Tuyama

She, Annabelle, gave an unreserved wail, “I hate stupid wishing wells and other deception items!”

Kevin Hogg

That last one probably doesn’t even sound that weird if you play enough D & D, but I don’t, so to me it does.  Here’s another dispatch from the same milieu:

Oogor Orkson let out a curdling hell scream and plunged his rigid warpick deep into elven flesh; this was not an Age for soft long-ears, but hard green men.

Zachary Kay

And I guess that having now covered fantasy, I might as well kick off this year’s genre round-up.  I suppose that the shortest jump from fantasy is to the magical world of fairy tales:

Once upon a time, it was 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Melyssa Gresham

And from there we can move to what some would call fairy tales writ large: religion.  Though in the world of our next entry, we may have to count one fewer skeptic!

Richard Dawkins looked on in astonishment as the wine and the bread transsubstantiated.

Victor Gijsbers

I guess this next one also indicates a type of astonishment, though we’re not yet told what has prompted it:

Joan took in the scene before her as her heart took in more blood than usual.

Savannah Hizer

But back to the genre round-up… perhaps martial arts next?

Hiya! Ugh! Keeaih!  These are the sounds that are heard every day in Spike and Blade’s ninja training.  Backflips would be heard too, but for their silence.


And on the flip side (no pun intended) of that silence:

I can’t help but wail as the sirens do; loud.

Arielle Davis

And I guess that wailing means that it’s time for another reminder that crime is everywhere, crime, crime:

My feet ached but my new trainers still looked sharp and so did my murder knife.  Both were red.

Alex Janikowski

(“Trainers” is British for sneakers.  I’m not sure what the wearer is meant to be training for.  Murder, apparently.)

My knife penetrated her flesh again and again and again and again, blood falling to the floor like a heavy flow month without feminine hygiene products.

Michael Remchuk


It was a beautiful sunrise, but Brian was not happy at all.  This morning was a mystery; all of his chickens have disappeared and his rooster was not alive; he did not sing this morning as he used to.

Filip Hallbäck

I can simultaneously give this an honorable mention in a deliberately bad writing contest and find myself getting a little choked up reading that the poor rooster “did not sing this morning as he used to”.  The fact that “sing” isn’t the right word actually adds to the pathos.  Maybe it’s related to the way that I can blithely chatter away about tragedies that have affected me personally, but ask me to give a plot summary of a random issue of Zot! and I will start sobbing.

I guess that’s not a terrible segue to teen drama:

Sarah felt distinctly apart from the other children at her lunch table, silent as they passed their cellphones back and forth, memeing and loling amongst themselves.

Stephen Cardone

Dang, remember back when children could sit together at a lunch table?  Now they have to meme and lol by themselves. 

Moving on to family drama:

They say to write what you know, so this one’s about my mom :)


Lacking a cellphone, poor Sarah probably wouldn’t even recognize the emoticons that are so popular with the youth of today.

He couldn’t choose a favorite child between the apple and orange of his loins.

Caitlin Chung

Whereas the more decisive Fred Trump clearly went with the orange.

Having brought up Trump, I guess I have no choice but to move on to horror:

Inasmuch as I was driven insane by the horrors which follow, my descriptions of them will often devolve into mad cackling (ex. “hahahahaha”).

Chandler Gabel

“One such as you cannot know what grief truly is to a vampyre,” Viktor whispered breathlessly, “but perhaps if I bare my soul you will grasp some piece.”

Noah Brand

They say that before you can produce your first work of publishable quality you have to write a million words.  What I like about this entry is that it’s clearly the work of an imaginary author who’s well into the six digits.  It’s almost good.  But “almost good” can be worse than totally unpracticed writing⁠—recall the old saw, told to total greenhorns, that “at least you don’t have any bad habits!”  It’s easy to imagine this author looking over this sentence and, nodding approvingly, thinking, “‘…perhaps you will grasp some piece.’ Dang, I’m getting good at this!”

Moving from those who have written a million words to those who have written a billion:

This is my story, me telling it before the talented writer Stephen King⁠—writer of the 1996 classic The Regulators⁠—can beat me to it.

Victoria Di Palma

Finally, we turn to the most popular category of all, at least this year: romance.  These entries come in two flavors.  First, tales of heartbreak:

Magical though her school bus may have been, no amount of that selfsame magic could save Ms. Frizzle’s marriage.

Gaius Montáña

This is a reference from after my time, but my Millennial sources assure me that this is funny.  Give me some Electric Company-themed submissions and I won’t have to get a jury ruling!

Speaking of things from after my time: every year there are multiple entries that attempt to cash in on the latest linguistic craze, and this year was no exception.  People entered a bunch of sentences along the following lines, but this was the most straightforward:

This is the tale of a yeeted heart.

Katherine Morayati

True story: there was a heated discussion in my AP Lit class about whether this should be “yeeted” or “yote”.

As he turned his gaze toward the water, he winced⁠—she used to love water.

Matthew Wilson

Let’s not even talk about how much she loved air.

It is the things we love (like oxygen) that kill us (because it corrodes our DNA)⁠—and she was the oxygen I breathe.

Juri Chomé

Stupid oxygen.  This is the sort of thing that makes you wish you were a robot.

Robot.  Steel.  Love.  Tears.  Ronnie (a robot) cried as his master ordered him to kill his love, who was also a robot.


Never mind.  I guess robots have their own problems.

Keith scoffed as he tossed aside another tawdry, dime-a-dozen romance novel. It was clear that none of these so-called authors had ever experienced anything close to actual true love. Not like he had.

Jeremy Hall Spence

Advocates of romance novels point out that they are among the few places in our culture in which men are subjected to the objectifying gaze normally directed at women (as seen near the top of this page).  Let’s conclude by looking at some guys:

Ethan, a full head and shoulders above the gaggle of bridesmaids, bisected the bright sunlight on the sharp angles of his face.

Paul Notley

Is that a good look?  I’m not sure whether Ethan’s angular face is meant to be the bee’s knees.  But clearly, this next sentence is one of the rare entries to deal with the flip side of beauty:

Taron stared at his disgusting eggy bald head in the ovular silver disk on the wall.

Amalia CH

But surely we can find at least one or two entries that dare to depict unreserved attraction?

“Why learn 7th-grade English when I could be looking at Jason Usher’s dark, green mysterious eyes?”


Well, for one, you might learn where the commas go…

Young, nubile Vanessa, having been raised in the church, was proud of her purity.  But she took one look at James and thought, “I think I’m ready to try sex.”

Leigh Miles

And that’s pretty much where we came in, so while Vanessa takes her first timid steps into the world of shafts and tubes, I reckon it’s time to wrap up the 2020 edition of the Lyttle Lytton Contest.  For those wondering where the found division winners are, I’m going to roll this year’s found entries over to 2021⁠—note the new advisory in the rules about that division.  Even with a double-sized list of winners in the original division this year, it was still tough to draw a line between those entries that made it in and those that were left out; I could have triple-sized it and still would have had to make some tough judgment calls.  So, many thanks to all the entrants, as well as to the posters, rebloggers, and retweeters who help to spread the word about this contest.  If you enjoy Lyttle Lytton, please consider supporting it by tossing a few cents at my Patreon account, the proceeds from which pay for my annual spike in hosting fees and allow me to devote at least a few scraps of spare time to this and other projects.  Cripes, would I ever be grateful!

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