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Exercise: Do your worst

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: April 3, 2004
Reposted on: February 21, 2005
Reposted on: February 26, 2006

This week, we’ll try a different approach to learning about writing.

Most of the time, of course, we try to do things well. However, in order to do things better, it can help to look at what makes things wrong. Finding out what not to do is just as important as finding out what to do.

(There’s also room in all this for having fun!)

Perhaps more than any other, one phrase has come to symbolize bad writing: "It was a dark and stormy night". This is part of the opening of the novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The full opening sentence actually reads:

   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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame
   of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

I am actually reading this novel; it's not a bad book overall, but it is very overwritten by today's standards. For example, sheep are not sheep but "that pastoral animal which changes its name into mutton after its decease" or "the white flocks, - those most peaceful of God's creatures, - that in fleecy clusters stud the ascent". The host of a party is never referred to as the host, but as "the master of the ceremonies", "the monarch of the rooms", "the man of balls", "the tutelary spirit of the place", or "the Lycurgus of the rooms".

To put this in perspective, Bulwer-Lytton was a contemporary of Charles Dickens; in fact the two were friends and admired each other's work. And let's keep in mind that Dickens was hardly terse himself. The opening to A Tale of Two Cities is not simply the famous "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", but actually goes on and on:

   It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of
   wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was
   the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of
   Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had
   everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct
   to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period
   was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest
   authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the
   superlative degree of comparison only.

So care should be taken in judging Bulwer-Lytton by current standards.

So famous is the "dark and stormy night" opening that it has spawned a bad writing contest to "compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels". (Check out the contest and its winners at http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/. Not only funny, but if we look at what makes those opening sentences bad, maybe we can learn something about avoiding bad writing. (Note also the categories for different genres - keep this in mind for the exercise.)

Which brings me to this week's exercise.

In the spirit of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, write one to three bad opening sentences, with a suggested maximum length of 50 words per sentence.

That's it.

When critiquing, try to pinpoint what makes each sentence bad. Suggest ways to make it worse, and also how to "correct" it (so the critiquing portion of the exercise also involves a writing exercise.)

At the end of the week, I encourage all posters to submit their efforts to the contest.

Have fun!

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: April 24, 2004

I thought this exercise would be fun, and it was. What horrible prose we saw! Non-sequiturs, big buildups for tiny effects, absurd metaphors. There are as many ways - and probably more - to be bad as to be good.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the submissions where the critiques said: actually, this isn't bad, I would keep reading this. My first thought was: ouch, it must hurt to fail at being bad! But I thought about it some more. Perhaps the lesson we can learn from those "failed" attempts at being bad is that sometimes, we do need to take risks, to tackle the absurd, to let the creative juices flow without restraint. So this was the lesson I learned: too often, we are too restrained, too unwilling to stretch ourselves and our writing. If we are too afraid of being bad, we may not take the leap to being really good!

Alright now, how many of you have submitted your efforts to the Bulwer-Lytton contest? What are you waiting for? Reread your submissions, think about the comments you received, revise as necessary, and send it off! (See the contest rules at http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/#The%20rules) I hope to look at the winners and honourable mentions later this year, and see a number of familiar names there.


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.