Tanya Menezes, a senior at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, took a sweet scene of a youthful affection and drove it right off a creepy cliff. And that effort won her the grand prize in this yearÕs Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, the annual competition that celebrates the very best worst opening line for a novel.
At 17 years old, Menezes is the youngest grand prize winner in the contestÕs history and sheÕs also the first from San Jose. She learned about the contest from a creative writing club she joined her freshman year and that was actually when she first wrote the convoluted sentence, occasionally refining it until it went from just bad to truly awful.
HereÕs the entry that won her the crown (and a $250 prize): "Cassie smiled as she clenched JohnÕs hand on the edge of an abandoned pier while the sun set gracefully over the water, and as the final rays of light disappeared into a star-filled sky she knew that there was only one thing left to do to finish off this wonderful evening, which was to throw his severed appendage into the oceanÕs depths so it could never be found again — and maybe get some custard after."
Menezes said she knew how she wanted the scene to end but didnÕt know how to get there at first. "IÕd come back to it and make it worse," she said. "ThereÕs a lot of unnecessary adverbs." One thing that never changed was the choice of dessert after disposing of the severed hand. "ThereÕs nothing more appropriate than custard," she said.
The contest, started in 1982 by retired San Jose State English Professor Scott Rice, is named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the 19th century English writer whose claim to infamy is the oft-mocked opening sentence to his
novel, "Paul Clifford," a florid sentence that opens with "It was a dark and stormy night."
Rice said MenezesÕ entry stood out. "We liked the way her sentence pulls the rug out from under the readerÕs expectations," he said. ! "It starts out as a syrupy account of a presumably young womanÕs stroll with the person who makes her heart go pitty pat then, wham, she is discarding a severed hand and off to have some custard. You have to ask yourself, do you want to spend 300 pages with this ghoulish child?"
The contest draws thousands of entries from around the world, with winners and "dishonorable mentions" in more than a dozen categories from historical fiction to childrenÕs literature. You can read the best of the worst at www.bulwer-lytton.com.
SAL PIZARRO, MERCURY NEWS COLUMNIST