Bainbridge Island writer wins prestigious ‘bad writing’ contest

Elizabeth “Betsy” Dorfman -
Elizabeth “Betsy” Dorfman
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Bainbridge Island scribe Elizabeth “Betsy” Dorfman is a really, really bad writer.

And she has the award to prove it.

“When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered — this had to mean land! — but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.”

Would you read a novel that began with that sentence? It’s a pretty bad way to start a novel, and that’s why it’s a winner.

It’s a winner because that is the sentence that earned Dorfman the grand prize in the 32nd annual San Jose State University Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

The contest challenges entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels, and takes its name from the Victorian novelist George Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who began his novel “Paul Clifford” with the now infamous introduction: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Although Lytton did not originate the line, he exploited its familiarity to begin his novel, as have several other writers who followed him in a kind of literary inside joke.

Dorfman said she was surprised to win the contest, for more reasons than one.

“I never entered the contest before, although I was aware of it for some years,” she said. “I kept a file which I called ‘Bad Sentences,’ and I would add one or a couple of sentences from time to time as fancy took me, and it generally found me at work. The short form was perfect for that scenario. I have since retired, and the bulk of the 60 or so sentences I sent in were written and edited this year.”

Having submitted so many entries for consideration, Dorfman said her first reaction upon learning she had won was to wonder which of her deliberately bad sentences had been the lucky entry.

“When I learned I had won I had no idea which of my entries was the winner,” she explained.

“However, I did like the Captain Walgrove and his hapless ship idea enough to eventually write and submit three different versions of it, so I must have felt that it had potential.

“I am never sure where ideas come from, and suspect that it is different for every writer,” she added. “I am language-driven, so I often start with just a name or a phrase that seems workable. ‘Moose’ is an inherently funny word, so I went with that and Walgrove had a sort of New England whaling captain vibe to it, and the comedy unfolded from there. I didn’t have the ‘confirming moose’ phrase in mind when I began, it just bubbled up from some fount of absurdity and seemed right.”

Of course the fundamental question remains, even for the contest winner, what makes a good bad sentence?

“There are good bad sentences and bad bad sentences,” Dorfman said. “In this case, I could see from past winning entries that the contest rewards humor. Otherwise, you could take flatly bad sentences all day long from, say, IT resumes or certain scholarly journals. The contest is also looking for the opening line of a novel, and many spectacularly bad sentences don’t answer that call.”

Dorfman said she is currently working on a new short story and enjoying her new found free time in retirement.

Contest officials reported that they received “thousands of entries” from many different countries including Canada, Germany, Russia, Japan, Pakistan and Brazil.

They also noted the prize prompted by the grandeur of the competition: “In keeping with the bignitude, high dignity, and general importance of the competition, the grand prize winner receives a pittance (about $150).”

Winners were selected in each of the contest categories including adventure, romance, children’s literature, crime and fantasy in addition to the overall grand prize.

Some category winners included:

"Hard-boiled private dick Harrison Bogart couldn't tell if it was the third big glass of cheap whiskey he'd just finished, or the way the rain-moistened blouse clung so tightly to the perfect figure of the dame who just appeared panting in his office doorway, but he was certain of one thing ... he had the hottest mother-in-law in the world," (Carl Turney, Crime).

"As he strolled among the Kenthellians, through the wide parndamets along the River Elinionenin, thrimbening his tometoria and his Almagister's scrollix, he thought to himself, "Wow, it is sure convenient there's a glossary for made-up fantasy words on page 1048," (Stephen Young, Fantasy).

"It seemed fair to say that her werewolfism was putting a strain on their relationship, the way she had earned the ire of the neighbors by devouring their pets and howling far past the bedtimes of their children, but bring it up to her, and she'd just snarl, "Why do you keep harping on this?" around a mouthful of the Smiths’ cat," (Eva Niessner, Romance).

See the best of the worst, and all of this year’s winners, at


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