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STC 3: Short and Long

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

The result:

They march him ever downward. The cuffs bite and the men holler. Lights hum and flicker overhead. There’s a fried chicken smell. He’s inside himself but outside, too. He checks each part, head to toe. There are his ears, ringing. There are his feet, plodding. And there’s him: clear, cold, and empty. His body moves forward. But his mind whispers East.

They stop. The cell is dark, smells of urine. Cheers erupt from the surrounding cells. Cages rattle. “Welcome to Little Sing-Sing.” They push him inside.

His eyes take a moment to adjust. Then he sees him. The other man shuffles and slides. His bare feet scrape across the floor. A reek looms: sweat and mildewed sheets. He stumbles into the pale violet light. There’s a pumpkin head, a goblin mouth. Stringy hair hangs moss-like over giant ears. He beams; rubbery lips expose yellow teeth.


“You get it now?” someone asks. “This is Singer. Get it? Sing-Sing? Singer?”

“Everybody spends their first week with him.” He hears laughter now outside the bars. “Good luck.”


First, I cheated with “moss-like.” Other than that, I like to think I did well. I would have preferred different arrangement of sentences, though. It’s hard for me to make my sentences anything other than declaratives, both in exercises like this and in other prose writing.

Second, I didn’t count dialogue under the “complete sentence” rule. That’s another kind of cheating.

One thing I love about this exercise is that it forces one to reconsider the strength of verbs. There’s still a disappointing amount of “to be” in here, but I was proud of every other verb. In sentences with only seven words or less, each verb should (ideally) evoke a distinct sentiment. LeGuin reminds us in this chapter that books are made of paragraphs, and paragraphs are made of sentences, and sentences are made of words. You start slow and build speed. But you must remain aware of how each word, each sentence, each paragraph, carries the plot forward. I’m far too self-indulgent as a writer, and so this is a lesson I have to learn over and over. (It’s not surprising that when I first wrote an entire story composed solely of seven-words-or-fewer sentences, I wrote it about both BDSM and anorexia. The exercise emanates an aura of self-denial.)

Another thing I like about this exercise is that it teaches something that I think poets have an instinctive grasp of, which is the development of an internal word- and syllable-counter. At several points I had to go back and re-count my words, because I had inserted a word with “too many” syllables. I felt a bit like a blind person counting the steps from the kitchen to the front door. It’s that kind of educated hypersensitivity that I really enjoy about this particular challenge.

Also, Singer looks like Richard James’ final iteration in this video:

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  • Madeline Ashby… a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity,, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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