Writing while holding one’s breath

Issa Dioume has treated us to another exercise in style training from Ursula K. Le Guin. This one is to write a half page to a page of unbroken prose, one long sentence. Issa wrote 350 words. I managed 367 before I decided I really needed that full stop.

I can see the point of this exercise, and it’s a subtle one. It puts me in mind of what we were told in junior school about writing stories—no ‘and then’s. It doesn’t sound good and it’s lazy. In this exercise we purposely write uninterrupted prose, and we could do it by sticking ‘and then’ at every point where we would normally have a full stop, which rather defeats the object of the exercise.

I think the idea is to write a long chunk without the reader being aware that there hasn’t been a full stop for a while. To be able to do that is the mark of a skillful writer. If the reader lost the thread about ten lines back, it hasn’t worked. This is what I produced, and I admit, it’s not great literature and I won’t be going back to polish it up.


Slowly the tide creeps up the shore, the froth of foam dying higher and higher with each wave, the sucking backwash repeatedly repulsed by the next incoming roller that starts out in the depths, deep and dark, a swell like the movement of great arms or a massive chest heaving with the force of the ocean, to vanquish the shore and tear at the cliff face behind until the friable stone crumbles beneath the battering and slips back into the water, to be ground by the currents and the undersea pebbles into grains of sand again, while I wait, entranced and bound—entranced by the sight of the vastness of an element I had no knowledge of before I was captured and brought here, and bound, literally, to a wooden stake driven deep into the sand below the high water mark, to wait as the water laps my toes until it inevitably creeps higher and higher, to fill my mouth with the sea so that I cannot even scream for help, although I doubt that anyone would come at my call, not now that I have been made the scapegoat of the miserable savages of this godforsaken hole of a village, the sacrificial appeaser to whom each has given his sins to bear: tatty bits of cloth, beads, shells, dried flowers tied with straw for string; so I am engarlanded like an ox at the spring sacrifice of the city from where I come, burdened with all their fears and their nasty crimes, for the great sea beast that terrorises their existences to wash away, to purify the foul souls of these half-witted pagans with the death of their scapegoat, that in this case happens to be me, the unfortunate who thought to avoid their miserable rat’s nest of a village by taking the track that carries sensible folk in a wide arc away from the sea and through the forest, but where the wily devils, crafty as a bag of weasels, had dug a pit trap and covered it carefully with green branches, to catch this unwary traveller for their iniquitous ends, which as the waves lap ever higher up my chest, I feel creeping closer and closer.

Writing exercise: Tension

Issa Dioume is passing on some of Ursula Le Guin’s writing advice in the form of exercises. This one is to write a short scene of less than 150 words using whole, grammatical sentences of no more than seven words. This is a condensed scene from my WIP.

The watch slams the door closed again. Will she come? The message surely won’t leave her indifferent. Énna is her favourite brother. Minutes pass, and the postern gate opens. Aoife stands there, two gallowglasses behind her. Her eyes widen in surprise.

“You? Why has Énna sent you?”

Art’s eyes shift to the gallowglasses. Their hands grip sword hilts. He fumbles for something in his cloak.


He reaches out a hand. Aoife steps forward to take the message. His empty hand grabs her arm. He pulls her outside; a gallowglass lunges. One by one, Art can take them. His sword slices across the Ostman’s throat. The return stroke catches the man behind. Art whistles for his horse, turning.

“You are coming with me.”

The words die in his throat. Aoife faces him, drawn sword in hand. Her eyes flash in fury.