Bad writing rewarded in fiction contest

Bulwer-Lytton competition named for 'dark and stormy night' author

— With a putrid passage about a relationship gone bad, a word-puzzle creator who also crafts witty sayings for lapel buttons won the 21st annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for horrible writing.

Former copy editor Rephah Berg of Oakland triumphed Monday over thousands of entrants from around the world with the following sentence:

"On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained."

The judges at San Jose State University liked how her composition "was a combination of something atrocious and appropriate," said Scott Rice, the professor who began the contest in 1982.

The contest, which seeks the worst beginning to an imaginary novel, is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a British writer whose 1830 book "Paul Clifford" begins with the oft-mocked, and now cliche, sentence, "It was a dark and stormy night ..."

"There are literary contests on campuses, and they're often deadly serious and end up producing some terrible writing," Rice said. "I thought, why not be up front and honest about it and ask for bad writing from the get-go?"

Berg, who won in the detective category last year, wrote 10 entries this year.

She said she could not recall her inspiration for the winner, but noted that it follows a pattern commonly found in successful Bulwer-Lytton entries.

"There's a sudden change in diction, a drop in tone," she said. "From academic prose, the style suddenly plunges into a mundane image, almost a slang tone."

Berg said she has been a copy editor for 25 years and began her career with a company that sells notes on lectures at the University of California, Berkeley.

She now creates word games (though not crosswords or word searches, she insists) for puzzle magazines and books.

She also occasionally sells slogans to makers of buttons and refrigerator magnets.

She said her creations include: "Another 12-step program and I still can't dance"; "I'll try being nicer if you'll try being smarter"; and "Martha Stewart doesn't (expletive) live here, OK?"

Berg's winning effort will bring her $250.

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