It Was a Dark and Stormy Conversation

(A Short Story)

“Harder was climbing out of a deep, dark well toward a distant, insistent ringing when his hand slipped under the pillow for his snub-nose 38 and he blasted the alarm clock, which was a replacement for the replacement for the replacement for the replacement for the replacement for the one given him by his grandfather Jeremias, into kingdom come.” 

The recitation was greeted by a stony silence.

“What do you think?” John Smyth asked.

His wife Ruby considered. “Definitely not your best work.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s repetitive and, well, silly.”

“I think I’m a better judge of writing than you are. After all, I’m the professional writer.”

“You’re not a professional writer. You’re just the editor of Grace magazine.”

“Still a professional.”

“And I’m a reader, I have common sense, and what you wrote doesn’t have much.”

“It’s supposed to be silly. It’s my entry for the contest,” John explained.

“What contest?”

“The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.”


“The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. It’s named after the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In 1830 he published novel called Paul Clifford, which has the famous opening line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’”

“I always thought that was a great opening line.”

“It would have been if he had stopped there. But he didn’t. The full sentence is ‘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.’”


“Precisely. A classic example of not knowing when to quit.”

“There seems to be a lot of that going on.”

John scowled. “The point is that in 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University started a contest to see who could write the worst first line for a novel. The first year there were only three entries, but now they get thousands of entries every year.”

“So you were trying to write badly so you could enter the contest?”


“Well, you succeeded.”


“What’s that?” Ruby asked.

“It’s a notification from the English Department at San Jose State University about the winning entry in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.”


“Here’s the winning entry: ‘Hoping to render the suspect unarmed but unharmed, Hermione pointed her pistol—given to her by her grandmother, for whom she had been named, on the grounds that “a girl should always be prepared for anything,” referring to the pistol, not the name—at the suspect, but found her hand was shaking, possibly due to an old volleyball injury, when the gun accidentally discharged a high-caliber round into the suspect’s shoulder and she saw, to her horror, that she had rendered him disarmed rather than unarmed and uttered a mild expletive: “Oops!”’”

“Yippee!” Ruby shouted. “I won!”

Disclaimer and Clarification: John Smyth is the protagonist in James R. Coggins’s four murder mysteries: Who’s Grace, Desolation Highway, Mountaintop Drive, and Springtime in Winnipeg. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is real. John Smyth and his wife Ruby are not. They are fictional characters, and therefore they could not enter, let alone win, the contest.

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is
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