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Originally published Sunday, August 24, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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File of ‘Bad Sentences’ leads to a real winner

Bainbridge Island resident Betsy Dorfman has won the 2014 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Award for the best bad opening to an imaginary novel. She is the third Seattle-area winner of the prize, named for the author of “It was a dark and stormy night.”


Seattle Times book editor

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Lit Life

Your Lit Life correspondent takes pleasure in posting news of awards bestowed on local literary luminaries, and here is a doozy. Bainbridge Island resident Betsy Dorfman has won the 2014 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Award for the best bad opening to an imaginary novel.

A little background — the prize is named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, otherwise known as Lord Lytton, author of “The Last Days of Pompeii” and other Victorian-era barnburners. He began his 1830 novel “Paul Clifford” with the immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night,” either one of the best or one of the worst openings of a novel ever, depending on your point of view.

You could say it caught on. Cartoonist Charles Schulz put the words into the mouth of Snoopy, the beagle/aspiring novelist in the “Peanuts” comic strip. Madeleine L’Engle used it as the first phrase of her mind-bending 1962 novel “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Eventually Scott Rice, a graduate student who became a professor at San Jose State University, verified that Bulwer-Lytton was the originator. A contest was born. Dorfman is the third Seattle-area writer to win the prize.

In an email, Dorfman said she came up with her winning entry by stashing samples of purple prose in a file called “Bad Sentences,” an endeavor that went on for several years. “This was more fun than online pin ball,” she wrote, “and less noisy.”

Once she retired, she edited them to the required 50-60 word limit. Eventually, she submitted her winning sentence, and here it is:

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.

My two cents: eminently deserving of the Bulwer-Lytton Prize.

Dorfman has described herself as a former screenwriter and retired arts business owner, as well as “a fan of good writing, skeeball, Nordic Tug trawlers, tofu, Maine coon cats, granddaughters, hoppy beer, hiking boots and black jelly beans, among other things. “

But what about the moose? Dorfman says she and her husband were married at a moose hunting and fishing lodge in Maine. Also, moose are “large and not terribly bright.” As for Captain Walgrove — could there be a series in the works? Stay tuned.

Terrific translators: Seattle translators have won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts to support translation projects. Wendy Call was awarded $12,500 to support the translation from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec editions of “Nostalgia Doesn’t Flow Away Like Riverwater,” Mexican indigenous poet Irma Pineda’s third collection of poetry. Bruce Fulton, in collaboration with Ju-Chan Fulton, won $12,500 to support the translation from Korean of a compilation of multigenre literary works by Ch’ae Man-shik. The Fultons will discuss another of their translation projects, the book “How in Heaven’s Name: A Novel of World War Two” by Cho Chŏngnae, at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, at the Montlake Branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Mark your calendars: After a couple of off-and-on years, the Seattle Public Library’s Fall Book Sale appears to have found its sea legs again (sorry, I seem to be in a Captain Walgrove frame of mind). It will be the weekend of Sept. 12-14 at Magnuson Park. For more information, go to friendsofspl.org and click on “book sales.”

Farther on the horizon: The eighth annual LitFuse Poets Workshop takes place the weekend of Sept. 26-28 in Tieton, a picturesque town near Yakima that has become something of a haven for creative types. For registration and information go to www.litfuse.us. Information on Tieton: www.mightytieton.com.

Living history: Author Kirby Larson’s forthcoming book, “Dash” (Scholastic, ages 8-12), is based on the true story of Bellevue High School graduate Mitsue Shiraishi, who had to leave her dog behind when her Japanese-American family was sent to an internment camp during World War II. Larson will appear at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Bainbridge Island Exclusion Memorial, and will give a reading from “Dash” at 7 p.m. that day at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island. Proceeds from books purchased that day will go toward building a visitors center at the memorial.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma



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