Working out

If you’re anything like me, you added “work out more often” to your New Year’s resolutions. And if you’re like me, that means doing writing exercises to further hone your craft.  (If you were thinking I meant stuff like running and doing sit-ups, I should direct you to Sandra Wickham’s blog–I build my physique by lifting progressively heavier coffee cups.)

Now if you are groaning or rolling your eyes, stop. You are never too good to stop doing writing exercises. For one thing, they can help loosen up your writing muscles at the beginning of a writing period.  They can also stimulate your brain into new directions, handy when switching between projects, like moving from editing a short story to drafting pages on your novel.  And what the hell–you never know when you could learn something new.

A number of us Inkpunks own the book Steering the Craft, a collection of writing exercises created by the remarkable (and fellow Oregonian!) Ursula K. LeGuin. We decided to do an exercise and share our results. If you have the book, it is Exercise #3, called “Short and Long.” It’s designed to help you play with your sentence lengths.  Here’s the assignment:

Part One:
Write a paragraph of narrative, 100-150 words, in sentences of seven or fewer words. No sentence fragments! Each word must have a subject and a verb.

Part Two:
Write a half-page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, which is all one sentence.

Here’s what Jaym wrote:

Part 1:

They left me with so much grief. Once, my people loved me. I was a hero, wise and strong. I searched for the beginning of everything. From east to west, I wandered, silent. If I spoke, my geas would fall. I didn’t dare stop, or think. Great Mother Sea taught me her song. The Wind gave me his tears. The trees told me stories of war. Fire made love to me. Earth folded me in her arms. They were mine. I was theirs. Safe in their hands, I wandered endlessly. I wandered endlessly and I dreamed. And in dreams, the future was born.

Part 2:

I saw many wonderous places on my journeys, places now known only to the Lost Book: proud golden Babylon, with her hanging gardens and labyrinths filled with genetically-altered monsters; white and red Atlantis, built from the bed of the sea itself; Troy, thick and brown and absolutely god-ridden; silver Camelot and her holy knights, El Dorado, with her emerald spires and diamond windows, her birds made of clever gears and bright jewels; unnamed mountains and plains with creatures and half-formed spirits who would later become the gods of those who did not step outside of history and reality.

Reading the short sentences passage, I could help but notice how Jaym used punctuation–the lowly comma!–to make those short sentences breathe. There’s no rush here, which is something you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

Here’s what Morgan wrote:

Part 1:

The new moon kept Wawel in shadows. It kept Nika in shadows. The guards’ candlelight chased her into alleyways. The walled city was a drowsy quiet. No alarms went up. No shrill screams sounded in the night. Nika smiled, and let her body relax. She sighed, her breath ghost-white. Her hands stirred, small, controlled motions. A blood-soaked rag dropped to the cobblestone. Her blade was freshly clean. Another job well done. Flawlessly done, if she said so. Marek certainly would have no complaint. He never did. Cyryl would complain. But Cyryl *always* complained. Well, then, he should brave the cold.

Part 2:

She kept her eyes forward as long as she could, as she had been instructed by so many, as Baba Jaga herself had warned to do, she forced herself not to blink, to keep her eyes open just one moment longer and prove herself strong and worthy, but her mind bent, her body bent with it, and she dropped to the ground, still battling with what she had seen: a man, but a snake, both at once, with a hundred thousand faces, one for every grain of rich soil, for every milk-heavy cow, for every soul he had taken by the hand and led to another world, glowing warm like a banked fire, embers low, beautiful and warm and dangerous and terrifying, and she gripped the moist earth beneath her hands, leaving her ears open to his hollow laughter and his placid question, and though the response rattled in her brain, her mouth could not form the simple words, to say no, she had never seen a god before.

On the other hand, here in the long sentence passage, Morgan uses long lyrical words with fairly simple punctuation to create the feeling of overwhelming stimulation. Both Jaym and Morgan do amazing  jobs keeping that long sentence clear and easy to follow.

I struggled with the first part of this exercise. Why? Because I love, love, love, LOVE fragments. When I hear short, I hear fragments. I could write 27 pages entirely of fragments. Making sentences, however, challenged me. (This was obviously a good exercise for me!)

This was my rather meager attempt:

Pt 1:

The crickets sang their songs. We had run out of chit chat. His elbow pressed on mine. I thought about grabbing his hand.  But I just sat. Creaking, the porch swing arced along. My feet shushed along the floor. Even my toes trembled. He kissed my cheek.

I had less trouble with the long sentence, because I immediately jumped into mind of a long-winded character who might  need her own short story.

Pt 2

There have been trying times in my life, brief painful moments like the day of my father’s heart attack–terrifying in its suddenness, a man in perfect health and so full of his own energy he could silence me with just the power of his eyes–that horrible rending tear in the fabric of my family’s pleasant existence; times, too, that stretched my coping powers over a vast stretch of days, like my college years with their loneliness and endless confusion and all of it unbearable, all lumped solely upon my own bowed shoulders: in all their variety, I have duly noted the difficult periods of my life and tried to learn from them and take some measure of comfort from the knowledge I’ve gained from their study–but upon reflection I can find nothing sensible, nothing edifying, and nothing comforting in the aftermath of the latest zombie attack.

What I liked best about this exercise is that is exposed me to the natural rhythms of my own brain, and reminded me (forcibly!) how those rhythms are changed by the characters who break into my brain and take it over.  The rhythm of writing is one of the most magical and mysterious parts of the craft.  Ms. LeGuin quotes Virginia Woolf on the subject:

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. […] Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

I can’t help but think this explains why poetry can affect us so powerfully, and why certain stories resonate on and on within our minds.

So go ahead.  Challenge your inner rhythms.  And please:  share your results! We’re hoping to collect your thoughts here–if you try the exercises, let us know how they worked for you!  And if you write anything you’d like to share, post them, too!

Just consider us your personal trainers in the realm of literary fitness.

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  1. Erika Holt
    03/02/2011 at 1:56 am Permalink

    Wow! Great stuff! I will definitely give more thought to rhythm and sentence structure in future…

  2. Matthew Sanborn Smith
    03/02/2011 at 5:21 am Permalink

    Okay, here’s my thing.

    I liked her, that much was true. I’d see her dancing on Friday nights. I bolted to her during slow songs. I’d catch her in the parking lot. Her hair glowed in the street light. Her bare shoulders shone with sweat. She would flash a smile. We’d eye each other over small talk. She didn’t tease me like the others. She was serious with me. Our friends would wander off. Her eyes would lock onto mine. She’d speak. Those words pounded in my chest. For a few minutes, we had something. It felt stronger than sex. It could carry me for a week. I went back every Friday night.

    And here’s my other thing:

    Jesus, when Freddy sang, man, the roof would threaten to tear off the building, and there was thumpin’ and the sharp snare poppin’, hard guitar crunchin’, and the bass . . . well, nobody gave a shit about the bass, really, because Jimmy, the bass player, he was fuckin’ the sound guy’s ex-girlfriend, so you could never hear no bass most of the time, but their rhythm guitarist, Manfred, I think his name was — yeah, I know, like, what kinda name was Manfred, right — but anyway, he knew what was going on, so he’d play down low on the neck cause he knew the songs needed that bottom end and Jimmy wasn’t gonna fight over it cause he was stoned half the time and the only reason he was even in the band in the first place was cause he was hot for the sound guy’s girlfriend, but back to what I was saying, these guys’d get the crowd going, man, I mean like they were roaring, like the right word from Freddy and they’d go march on the town and tear the place to pieces, cause the thing you gotta understand is that he moved people, man, and when you got that and you got a drum that gets your blood pumpin’ and then this guitar comes outta nowhere with a screech that’ll shatter your teeth, and you’d be ready to like, I don’t know, eat a baby or somethin’, you know what I mean, man, even with your shattered teeth, you’d just be like, OM NOM NOM NOM on your baby, you know what I’m sayin, like, that was it, ya know, what I’m sayin’ is, . . . what I’m sayin’ is . . . they were just fuckin’ awesome, man.

  3. Wendy Wagner, Inkpunk
    03/02/2011 at 5:47 am Permalink

    I really like both the voices you created in these exercises–hot writing, Matt!

  4. Matthew Sanborn Smith
    03/02/2011 at 5:49 am Permalink


  5. Don
    03/02/2011 at 6:48 pm Permalink

    I have Steering the Craft, too, and love it. Though my go-to exercise has always been “I Am García Márquez.” I owe whatever (minuscule, barely-perceptible) progress I’ve made with the development of my voice to that exercise.


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