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It’s official! I’ve been crowned one of the worst writers in America. No, I’m not talking about the number of rejection letters piling up, but my recent success (or failure) in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Am I proud? Yes, and disturbingly so.

Now in its 26th year, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest seeks to find the worst opening line to a novel. I have received the dubious distinction of penning a sentence so vile, it received a barely-coveted 2008 “Dishonorable Mention.”

Rudy’s feline senses tingled as he watched Minerva pour a glass of milk, thrusting his tongue outward involuntarily, urging him to inexplicably lick his hand and smooth his cowlick, but he could not let Minerva know about the vampire kitten that had sucked his neck–attacking him with a feral ferocity that belied its adorable whiskered face–and how the meowing and purring that had become an integral part of their lovemaking was really just an injection of half-dead Calico.

And yet, I don’t think this was the most wretched of my submissions! For your reading displeasure…

Zander surreptitiously slid closer to the woman whose figure resembled an upside-down butternut squash as he envisioned himself splitting open her rough, dimpled skin to scoop out the pulpy innards of her flesh and devour them raw, ravenously, a primal desire that could only be unleashed during Oktoberfest.

 

Even the lettuce dripped with anticipation, its romaine surface glistening like Roger’s sweaty brow as he stabbed into his Caesar, pricking it with the tines the way Phyllis had poked holes in his heart; he wanted to confess how no waitress had ever affected him so deeply, defiantly pouring dressing over the top, drowning the croutons and his soul, rather than serving it on the side as he had requested.

 

The mountainous mountains loomed large and omnipotent before him, precipitous precipices too gnarled and scraggy to pass, so he endeavored and lamented, heaved himself prodigiously and collapsed in anguish, for he would never scale the bed linens to reunite with his beloved binky.

 

Immediately upon laying his eyes upon the four day-old stubble upon her sturdy legs, he longed to canoodle with her like two cautious porcupines (for he had a bristly, dishevelled beard to match), but due to professional obligations, Dr. Lovelace would unfortunately have to settle for just administering her annual pap smear.

 

The contortionist sulked backstage and tears zig-zagged down his cheeks like the legs twisted behind his head; his limber limbs had been catawampus and askew, jammed into awkward angles and improbable positions, only to be upstaged by a clown doling out balloon animals.

 

Devon’s nemesis recoiled in fear and trepidation, intimidated by the glistening edge of the enemy’s knife and the deftness with which Devon wielded its herculean power and lunged forward upon the mighty blow of the referee’s whistle, commencing a slicing and dicing the vigorous likes of which had never before been seen at the Auxiliary Women’s League annual bake-off.

 

The blizzard winds howled like an alpha-female wolf in heat—a she-wolf ready to mate, not heat as in temperature hot, for our story begins in the frigid north, and therefore a wolf cannot be hot, although one could argue that a wolf’s short, thick undercoat keeps them warm in winter, but certainly not hot—sniveling longingly across the bitter prairie.
Think your opening lines are as shockingly repellent?  Then start submitting! The 2009 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is already underway. You, too, can be one of the worst writers in America. (Just don’t mention it in your query letters. I doubt Random House will be impressed.)

Employers spend an average of just 30 seconds scanning each job resumé.  If you don’t make an immediate positive impression, you won’t get called in for an interview.

The same half-minute scan holds true for your fiction.  One page is all you have to hook an agent or editor and entice them to keep reading.  Without a strong voice, a compelling hook and sharp writing, you’re doomed for a swim with the slushies.

It therefore makes sense to attend a first page critique.  The neighborhood kids may giggle over your tale, your friends might deem it wonderful, and your critique partners may even bless it as ready for submission.  But a professional opinion is your best literary litmus test.

A professional first page critique can answer these questions:

  • Is your writing appropriate for the genre?  Does the voice match the target age range?  Is your picture book too wordy; is your young adult novel too simple?
  • Do you have a truly unique premise?  Certain subjects—like fairies and witches—may be popular at the moment, but that also means the market could be saturated.  If you’re writing about fairies or witches, your idea should really stand out from the books already on the shelves.
  • Have you left enough questions for the reader to want to continue?  Or do you leave the reader too confused instead?
  • If you’re writing in rhyme, does it have a consistent scheme?  Does it move the story along or bog it down?
  • Does your dialogue sound authentic?
  • Are you telling the tale in the most appropriate point of view?
  • Can a child relate to the story?
  • Does the reader get an immediate sense of who/what/when/where?  Can the reader imagine herself in the book’s setting?
  • Are you beginning the tale at the right place?

Wow!  All this just from a first page?  Absolutely!

Professional editors and agents know the latest trends in the literary marketplace and they see hundreds—if not thousands—of first pages every month.  The highly competitive book publishing business dictates that they weed out undesirable stories as quickly as possible in order to get to the good ones.

Thirty seconds is all you have.  Make them work for you.

While writing for children is my passion, I occasionally dabble in short stories for adults.  Today my work appears in book form for the first time with the release of Six Sentences: Volume I.  Check it out:

Many thanks to my friend Robin Mizell, a brilliant, insightful editor who helped me to polish and select the stories for submission.

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