Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest 2020

Zoë Sharp

I am a sucker for opening lines. It’s one of my usual questions whenever I find myself among a group of writers—to ask for the opening line of their latest book or work-in-progress. I find that choosing the best jumping-in point to introduce the reader into the story is almost as interesting as the story itself.


So, I always look forwards to the results of The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC) every year. For some reason, what with the other minor distractions of 2020, I managed to miss the usual late July/early August announcement. Still, better late than never, eh?


The contest, for those of you unaware of it, has been running since 1982, the creation of Scott Rice, Professor of English at San Jose State University, who sponsor the award.

Professor Scott Rice, with his daughter EJ,

who helps runs the BLFC website

Professor Rice originally tried to discover the origin of the line ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ (much beloved of Snoopy, the beagle with literary aspirations in the Peanuts cartoons by Charles M Schulz). Rice found the line used by the Victorian writer, Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton in his novel of 1830, PAUL CLIFFORD:


‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’

Bulwer-Lytton, who was first Baron Lytton and at one point served as Secretary of State for the Colonies, was a successful novelist of his day, apparently outselling Charles Dickens. He is responsible for the phrases ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ in his play ‘Richelieu’, as well as ‘the great unwashed’, which also came from PAUL CLIFFORD.


It would appear that the opening seven words of that novel had been around for some time before Bulwer-Lytton chose them, and then Snoopy shared them with a wider—and perhaps younger—audience. Indeed, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Bargain Lost’, published a year after PAUL CLIFFORD, contains:


‘It was a dark and stormy night. The rain fell in cataracts; and drowsy citizens started, from dreams of the deluge, to gaze upon the boisterous sea, which foamed and bellowed for admittance into the proud towers and marble palaces. Who would have thought of passions so fierce in that calm water that slumbers all day long? At a slight alabaster stand, trembling beneath the ponderous tomes which it supported, sat the hero of our story.’

The idea of the BLFC is to reproduce something of a similar florid nature as the original, and those from 2020 were up—or perhaps that should be down?—to the usual standard. 

2020 Grand Prize

‘Her Dear John missive flapped unambiguously in the windy breeze, hanging like a pizza menu on the doorknob of my mind.’ Lisa Kluber, San Francisco, CA 

Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award

‘As hard-nosed P.I. Dan McKinnon stepped out into the gray gritty dawn, a bone chilling gust of filth-strewn wind wrapped the loose ends of his open trench coat around him like a day-old flour tortilla around a breakfast burrito with hash browns, sausage, and scrambled eggs, hold the pico.’ Lisa Hanks, Euless, TX



“Haul away on those slug guskets, you bilge-scum!" roared the aged captain, leaning wearily against the starboard clog-hutch and watching as the mizzen spittlestoat rose majestically upward until it cuzzled atop the upper spit flukes, and cursing his fate that rum and advancing years compelled him to continually improvise names for the rigging of his own ship but then deciding, with a resigned sigh, that it didn't really matter.” Geoffrey Braden, Seattle, WA


Crime/Detective Winner

‘When she walked into my office on that bleak December day, she was like a breath of fresh air in a coal mine; she made my canary sing.’ Yale Abrams, Santa Rosa, CA

As this is our particular area of interest, I’ve also listed the runners-up in this category.

Crime/Detective Dishonourable Mentions

‘She sauntered into his smoke-filled office with legs that, although they didn’t go quite all the way to heaven, definitely went high enough for him to see that she was a giraffe.’ Jarrett Dement, Eau Claire, WI


‘The first thing I noticed about the detective’s office was how much it reminded me of the baggage claim at a nearby airport: the carpet was half a century out of date, it reeked of cigarettes and cheap booze, and I was moderately certain that my case had been lost.’ Paul Kollas, Orlando, FL


‘“Handless” Harvey Hanker, the sharpest detective in the northern hemisphere, had little regard for fingerprints, but a nose like Karl Malden’s, and he could sniff out clues like a bloodhound with its nose buried in the groin of a fox.’ Pete Zenz, Middleton, WI


‘Handsome French policeman, Andre Poiret, grappled with the puffed-up albino hitman, who was about to shoot the beautiful high-class call girl, Gigi Lamour, who was taking a shower in her apartment, with his big gun.’ Belinda Daly, London, UK


‘The fact that the cantor's body was covered with a lamb shank, salt water and a mysterious concoction called charoseth, led Chief Passover Homicide investigator Ari Ben-Zvi to describe the pattern of murders as “uneven, perhaps unleavened.”’ Leo Gordon, Los Angeles, CA


Dark & Stormy

‘It was a dark and stormy night, explained Moscow weatherman Sergei Ivanovitch Nabokov, or Sergei Invanovich, fondly called Seryozha by some and Seryozhenka by his family, but don’t bother memorizing that as Sergei won’t appear again until the end of this book, when his weather forecast is heard in the background as we learn that the main character, Alexei Dmitriovich Makarov, or Alexei Dmitriovich, also known as Alyosha, Alyoshka, or Alyoshenka (or simply Alexei M.) has shockingly died.’ Frank Bennett, Malvern, PA


Historical Fiction

‘When Sir John of York fought in the crusades, he killed many Saracens with great dispatch, and was likened unto a whirling dervish of steel and Christian might—minus the dizziness from constantly spinning in a circle, and the fact that he was on a horse that couldn't do that.’ Edward Covolo, Menlo Park


Purple Prose

‘The biker gang roared into the parking lot of the bar and grill like a troop of howler monkeys trying to lure mates, the gravel beneath the tires of their well-oiled bikes crunching like the dill pickle spears the place served alongside their famous tuna salad, BLT, and Reuben sandwiches.’ Candy Mosely, Hydro, OK


Vile Puns

‘As the passing of Keith Richards was announced on the evening news, just as had been done with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood before him, Jorge gazed at the television in his Tijuana home and felt a sickening knot form in his stomach, for he realized that finally, after all the albums, concert tours, and era-defining cultural impact, the Rolling Stones would gather no más.’ Aaron Cabe, Hillsboro, OR

I’m sure you have a personal favourite—from this or other years. For the winners of the other categories, and all the Dishonourable Mentions, visit the BLFC website. Alternatively, what opening lines have you read—or written—that you’re particularly fond of?

And for those of you who think you can equal or surpass the efforts illustrated here, the official closing date for the 2021 BLFC is April 15, although the website states that the actual deadline is June 30. See here for the rules on submissions.

This week’s Word of the Week is bibliobibuli, meaning a person who reads too much. From the Greek biblio meaning books, and the Latin bibulous, from bibere meaning to drink. So, to be drunk on books. A phrase coined in 1957 by HL Mencken.



  1. Thanks for sharing all those, Zoë, they're pure inspiration for my perspiration that drenches the hair in my armpits as I sit here trying to think of a comment worthy of typing with my tongue-tied fingers. Alas, the cat's got my tongue-tied fingers all tied up.

    Oh. And who's to judge whether someone is a bibliobuli? I think there should be a companion word for a person who reads too little. Maybe biblidiot?

  2. I was tempted to enter this year's competition Zoë, but feared I might be accused of plagiary by EvKa.:)

  3. I just love the BLFC. I know some real first lines that would be competitive!