It was a Dark and Stormy Night and There Were Gerbils

Seattle author Molly Ringle recently won the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, the literary competition that challenges writers to come up with a really bad opening line to a novel. Ringle is the author of one published and two soon-to-be-published novels. She told the Bulwer-Lytton folks that she writes bad fiction when she fails at good fiction. “She’d rather not say how often this happens,” they write. “She lives in Seattle with her family, and her vices include uncalled-for moments of sarcasm, excessive consumption of Nutella, and an unladylike avidity for the raunchy films of Mel Brooks.”

The winning sentence? For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss–a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.

Ringle says she got the gerbil idea from watching her infant son nurse. “Something about his attitude and posture,” she told The Seattle Times. “It reminded me of those guinea pigs we used to have as kids.”

We asked her a few questions.

As you say in the Seattle Times article, it takes a lot of skill to write that bad. How long did it take you to compose your winning sentence? About half a day, though that was mostly turning it over in my head occasionally while playing with the kids. Since it was romance genre, I did want to set up what looked like a sensual, alluring beginning, then destroy the mood completely at the end with the comparison to a thirsty gerbil. There’s nothing like rodents to ruin a romantic mood.

Are there writers you’d like to credit as influences in writing bad? Naturally I have to credit all the people who have placed in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in past years—-those entries make me laugh on a regular annual basis, and it’s primarily after those that I modeled my own Bulwer sentences. In terms of actual bad writing, there are definitely some mass-market paperback novels I’ve read that had laughably clunky metaphors and annoying characters. But rather than pick on those by name, I should credit others who are excellent at veering into absurdity, and who have influenced me in a positive way when it comes to humor: Mel Brooks, P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Joss Whedon (hey, look at some of the unsung hilarity in his TV shows), Dave Barry, Ellen DeGeneres… Honestly, the list could go on a long time. Comedy takes top honors in my life.

Do you have some drafts that didn’t make the cut that you can send us? I don’t have any other drafts of that winning sentence, but I did send in two other sentences to the contest:

Dale “Gruff” MacCleod knew a storm was coming, not only from the red hue of the clouds in the sunrise over the bay, or his sixty years of sailing experience, but because he had checked the weather report on his iPhone this morning before leaving the cabin.
The sun’s rays spilled over the windowsill, illuminating the bed and the sleeping couple, who lay still and peaceful, Rachel’s arm outstretched and her knuckles resting upon Jacob’s cheek, as if she had been frozen at the precise moment of punching him in the face.

Here’s an opportunity for you to plug your real books in a sentence or so each. How about a sentence you’ve written that you love: Here’s one from The Ghost Downstairs, in which the protagonist gets an upsetting message from her ex-boyfriend: She re-read his email four times, feeling offended and breathless, like he had casually grabbed her head and stuffed it into a pile of wet leaves.

I imagine the metaphor isn’t going to work for everyone, but it amuses me and strikes me as oddly apt. More original than “…like he had casually slapped her,” in any case, which would be the usual cliche in such a scene. Also more fitting to the Pacific Northwest (where the story is set), with our ubiquitous piles of wet leaves.
This one, from Summer Term, is subtler, but I’ve always felt it captured a wet Oregon summer day well: The town was a collage of brilliant green and shiny black—summer leaves and wet asphalt streets—with a stripe of gray sky overhead between the trees.

And for what it’s worth, that sentence does occur in the lead-in to a love scene, so it might end up carrying some sensuality in its own way.

You have two young children. When do you write? In minutes? Hours? Can you set the scene for us? I beg, purchase, or steal time to write, is how I’ve lately thought of it. On a good week I arrange a handful of babysitting hours every couple of days, when I can sit down uninterrupted and get some writing done. And usually on weekends I get an hour or two each day, since my husband’s around to help entertain the kids. Luckily the situation is always evolving, and seemingly for the better. My oldest son (who’s 4) is now willing to sit and watch a Sesame Street DVD quietly while the baby naps, letting me get another hour or so on the average weekday. And I used to think it was hard to find time when I worked a 40-hour week! I never imagined what it would be like working a 24/7 week.

Now, how about setting the scene for an ideal writing day? Ah, it’s fun to daydream about this question. I’m tempted to say I’d open the sliding glass door next to the desk for some fresh air on a warm summer morning, sit down, and type for seven or eight hours with only short breaks for tea and meals. But I think my shoulders and neck would be killing me by the end of that. I’m not used to marathon computer time anymore. So, on an ideal day, it would be 64 and cloudy outside, and I’d start with a brisk walk after breakfast (with or without family) just before the rain moved in, then go home and sit down with a cup of tea or cocoa and write for a few hours while the rain tapped the windows. I’d get up to rejoin the family for lunch and an excursion into downtown Seattle (the rain now tapering off but leaving everything fresh and cool), where we’d go to some upscale stores that make us feel affluent just by being there, and bring home some expensive chocolate. I’d do more writing while the kids watched a DVD during afternoon quiet time, then have dinner together and put the kids to bed. And though I used to write just before going to bed myself, I’ve lately learned it keeps me from falling asleep easily, so that’s when I prefer to settle down and read someone else’s writing.

Will you name a few book or author blogs you frequent?
Author Magazine’s blog is in my bookmarks.
As is the editors’ blog for The Wild Rose Press, one of my publishers
Via Facebook I keep track of the blog of my newest and upcoming publisher, ireadiwrite Publishing
The agent Jennifer Jackson (I don’t have an agent yet myself, which perhaps makes Jackson’s point of view all the more valuable to me).
And some of the many authors well-known and lesser-known who I check in with regularly:

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