Jane Cooper is one of my best friends and a dear writing buddy. She is one of those warm, thoughtful, creative people who make life for those who know her just that little bit better. She is a teacher of English and Creative Writing. She’s written eight textbooks for use in Scottish Schools, and is the author of 365 Ways To Get You Writing. In this exercise, Jane gets us to explore what it means to write well, by doing just the opposite.
Over to Jane:
What makes this exercise work?
Sometimes the best way to do something good is to know what bad would look like and then stay well away from it. This is a great exercise to do either alone or with a class or a group, particularly with one that hasn’t been together long. Because everyone has been told to write badly, no one minds being laughed at or taking criticism, and it breaks the ice for “real” feedback in future.
The Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote one of the most famous opening lines in literature, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Sadly, he spoiled it by not stopping there. Lytton’s opening sentence went on for another 51 tortured words. “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.” Try reading the whole sentence out: it’s almost impossible to do so without gasping for breath. Although it is actually grammatically correct, it’s a dreadful piece of writing.
In his honour, the annual Bulwer Lytton first line competition invites participants to make up and send in terrible opening sentences for novels. One winner, Sue Fondrie, wrote this: “Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”
5 minutes – don’t spend too long on this, just write the first sentence that comes to mind in response to each prompt.
These tasks will get you to write your own bad beginnings. Each sentence you write must be the possible first one of a novel or short story. Each must be grammatically correct and linguistically perfect. Each one should be deliberately and gloriously terrible.