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Le Guin Writing Exercises #3 - Sentence Length

*I have been reading Ursula Le Guin's book Steering the Craft and completing the exercises here to give myself some accountability.

Ursula Le Guin's Third Exercise - Sentence Length Practice

In this exercise, the writer is asked to write one paragraph with many small sentences (no longer than seven words, no sentence fragments), and one paragraph made up entirely of one sentence. Different versions of the exercise are offered including:

1. Using the same topic for both pieces.
2. Using different topics for each piece.
3. Using topics meant to be fast paced for both short and long sentences and seeing what changes.
4. Using topics meant to be slow paced for both short and long sentences and seeing what changes.

I plan on using the same topic. The topic I will use is from @anndeecandy's Instagram account giving memoir prompts. I will turn my memoir prompt into a fiction prompt and use it for this exercise. This particular prompt asks the writer to address the idea of growing up too quickly.


It happened quickly. There was a spurt upward. There was a filling out in her chest. She had long fingers, not stubby ones. It happened inside as well. There used to be clouds there. She used to see cloud-pictures of dreams. They were the cliché ones. She’d seen bunnies. She’d seen unicorns. She’d seen pirate ships, with mermaids trailing. Those clouds went away. Instead, she saw a lot of dark corners. They had cobwebs reaching out to her. They had questions that wouldn’t be answered. And the silence wasn’t because adventure called. The silence was because answers didn’t exist. She lay on her bed. The sound of summer stood just outside. She couldn’t reach it. Summer was from before. Summer was from childhood.

The biggest difficulty for me here was not using sentence fragments. I like sentence fragments a little too much. I like the attention they bring to details. I had to go back and edit my sentence fragments out, and I was annoyed because it changed what I was saying, and how it sounded. But I like the final version with no sentence fragments, so I suppose it's good to step outside of your box.


She supposed there had been nothing she could have done about it – at least that’s how it felt to her when she pushed back, back, back into the darkest crevasses of her memory and pulled at the pieces of it, all of them turning and turning around her, stretching this way and that, splintering away from her with all their reasons and excuses; all the reasons and excuses she wanted to pull into her hands and throttle, as though to make them take it back, as though to make them take back the fact that they’d stolen the way she used to run into the fields: hands trailing beside her, small cuts from grasses reminding her she lived, insects buzzing in her face and sometimes even into her nose – so small, and yet so choking, and yet so easy to cough out – none of them like the things that happened now – those insects of her life, the ones that took every cubic centimeter of her breath away and never allowed her to breath it in again – no nothing like that; but she couldn’t have changed it, she couldn’t have walked away, she couldn’t have made it un-happen, because her life had grabbed onto her shoulders and yanked her forward, tilting her head downward into a stream of running water that never stopped rushing and bubbling its way to some other destination that she couldn’t see at all, couldn’t smell at all, couldn’t imagine at all – though she knew it waited for her, just beyond the edge of all she saw, demanding she live inside that time, instead of the time before - and, oh, how she wanted to tell it no, but she couldn't, she couldn't at all... she could only try to swim.

This one was much more difficult for me. I guess I do really like sentence fragments, and so it was hard to just keep going and going and going. Also, I don't think I'm good enough at my punctuation to know exactly what to do to keep the words flowing without them making no sense. I know where the pauses need to be, but not necessarily how to make them. Man, I wish we still learned grammar the way it used to be taught, especially since I know my kids are going to be even worse of than me.


So, the next question is, what changes in these pieces based on their sentence length? What feels different? I feel like I'm further away from the first character than the second. I feel almost just as rushed in both of the pieces because the second paragraph has all those errant thoughts tumbling around. I'm wondering if it would be different if I were writing about an event rather than an emotional moment? I'm betting that it would. 

For instance:

The wedding sucked. The cake had tipped over. The flowers were wilted. The canopy had gotten caught in the trees. Many of the guests were drunk. No one started a memorable flash dance. Instead, they sat around and growled. 


The trailing canopy had come unhinged from where it should have hung, pressed by an errant branch that had maneuvered its way between fabric and rigging, as though to point out just how awfully the event had been both planned and carried out.

That last one sounds so melancholy, the first one is full of irritation. 

When I write long sentences I guess I start thinking more, instead of just pointing out what's happened. I start editorializing, I guess? I start describing more? It's definitely fun to try, and to see what happens. I think it might be good for unwieldy sections of a book to just mess with sentence length and see if a door to a better process might be opened.

And that, my friends it that.

Or, to put it down with less words:

The End.


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