Red Lemonade Gymnasium - Forty Sentences Challenge [40sent]
40 Sentences Challenge Overview
Once a year for the past several years, I have taken a few weeks break from other creative projects to write a "Forty Sentences Challenge" ("40sent"). What initially began as an urgent, frustrated note to myself to "Write forty goddamn decent sentences that don't make me vomit" scrawled at the top of a legal pad has evolved a bit over the years as I continue to fold in other friends and colleagues into the challenge, and take their feedback.
The basic structure for 40sent is as follows. A writer is tasked to write forty brand new sentences with the only requirement that each sentence must be from a different project/story/character/voice. It is the large number of sentences that provide the difficulty, and the value, to the exercise -- it should be enough to get beyond any at-hand material and force the writer to stretch a bit to make the count. A sentence is finished when the writer feels it is finished.
Then the writer (with a little help from fellow participants and other editorial suggestions) selects twenty of these sentences to extend into "bites" -- a small bite size portion of sentences the length of a paragraph that give each of the selected sentences a context, a first glimpse into the shape of the developing project. Twenty "bites" then become ten one page stories ("One-pagers"), and then five of the "One-pagers" are built out into five to ten page short stories. At the end of the exercise, five separate, brand new, unplanned stories now exist.
Now, there are many, many writing exercises floating around from MFA curriculum to writers workshops to sidebars in writing magazines, and this is at heart just another one of those. However, where this activity differs a bit from writing exercises I have participated in previously rests somewhere between its barebones, unobtrusive structure and the unexpected results that other participants and I have seen: new stories emerging from an attentiveness to language rather than an attempt to build a story from character, plot or conceit. The new stories might have devious, intricate plots, fleshed out characters, and clear messages, but the rudder directing the writer is to be located somewhere there in the teasing out of language, phrasing, word choice rather than any pre-existing plan for the story.
Not to raise anyone's expectations too high, but to date everyone who has participated has come back from 40sent with something lively and worth following up, which is a pretty good batting average for a writing exercise. You might slip your stories into the drawer at the end of the process, but I have a feeling you will come away at the very least creatively re-invigorated as I do each year. That is, after all, one of the primary reasons for participating.
How to Participate
Participating in 40sent is less a stunt-writing sprint (such as NaNoWriMo or 1k 1hr), and more like joining a jogging group for writers to take a couple of laps along a well-worn running path. In truth, you set your own pace, roll your own rules, and deliver when you are done: the goal of jogging is to jog, the goal of 40sent is to get the stages written.
To participate, you need to request to become a writer at Red Lemonade if you aren't one already. Then create a first chapter with the 40sent description below, starting with Part One, and a declaration of your deadlines. Include the marker [40sent] in your title so that other writers can recognize what sort of project you are starting -- this will invite them to check out your work! Then create a new chapter with your 40 Sentences.
I will be creating a new "book" here at Red Lemonade for my 40sent challenge, with the following chapters:
- Chapter 1: 40sent Challenge description / Declaration of Deadlines
- Chapter 2: 40 Sentences
- Chapter 3: 20 Bites
- Chapter 4: 10 One-Pagers
- Chapter 5: First Story
- Chapter 6: Second Story
- Chapter 7: Third Story
- Chapter 8: Fourth Story
- Chapter 9: Fifth Story
- Chapter 10: Wrap Up
I have been wanting to bring this activity to Red Lemonade for a while now -- I feel its mix of challenging the individual to complete each stage and inviting feedback/encouragement from other participants and observers as to which threads to follow is a perfect match for how things work here, and I very much look forward to seeing what experiences others have here as well as participating myself.
It helps with this exercise to announce the deadlines before you start. Here's the schedule I intend to follow:
- Week 1: 40 Sentences
- Week 2-5: 20 Bites (one per weekday)
- Week 6-7: 10 One-Pagers (one per weekday)
- Week 8: 5 Stories - First story
- Week 9: Second story
- Week 10: Third story
- Week 11: Fourth
- Week 12: Fifth story
My old schedule for accompishing each stage in just one week demands rigorous 4 hours a day -- not possible for all of us who have demanding jobs or other project deadlines. My new twelve week schedule allows me to fit this in with limited time to commit, around other writing projects. Race through that first 40 sentences within one week and then divide the part two into 1 bite per day until you are done (four weeks) and part three into 1 one-pager per day (2 weeks). If you are just stumbling on this now and want to give 40sent a go yourself, set a schedule and get started at the beginning.
Part One: Forty Sentences
Write forty sentences (sentence pairs permitted) each for "separate stories" (however you interpret this). They can range broadly in style/purpose, but in each case the writer attends to phrasing, word choice, and structure of languge as means to suggest an unexplored potential narrative space.
These are not "first sentences"; these are not "last sentences"; these need not be "turns" in the narrative. The more important condition in each case must be: judging by your own ear, is each sentence as long/short, concise/expansive, elevated/plainspoken as suits the new story that it initiates? What is vigorous, lively writing to you? My original name for this stage was, simply, “write forty goddamn decent sentences that don’t make me vomit.”
Hint One: start with #40 and count down. Half of the difficulty of the activity is in completing it. Remember that sentences that at first glance appear “unsuccessful” may open up to you upon consideration between this stage and the next. Keep going.
Hint Two: If forty sentences doesn’t exhaust you creatively, then you may be writing them too slowly or too quickly. If this description applies to you, your Stage One challenge is eighty sentences. (And if eighty sentences is too easy….) Cut your double (quadruple) list back down to forty before moving on to the next stage.
Moving to the second round, the writer chooses twenty of the original forty sentences to re-work as "bites." (I'll get to what that means below.) While the selection of sentences to carry forward to the next stage rests with the writer, those editorially inclined (including writers building their own 40sent project) are encouraged to participate by commenting on the posted forty sentence list and indicating personal favorites. What sentences are grabbing your ear? Which suggest a narrative that you want to hear out of this writer?
Part Two: Twenty Bites
By "bites" I refer to the smallest digestible unit of a piece of writing. Could be longer or shorter than a paragraph, and typically the writer has a sense of where to stop without formal guidelines. (Gertrude Stein: "A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is”.)
Why not say paragraph and be done with it? Well, think of that portion of paragraph that emerges from that sentence from the first stage -- and stabs out in a single direction suggesting the world of the story. The key thing is being forced to go from the initial sentence (which can be pretty abstract) to the suggestion of something more explicit and tangible: narrative or character, for example.
Hint One: Think about that portion that you swallow after chewing a bite of food. More, and you might choke, less and peristalsis fails to pipe the food to your stomach. Another way to think of this: a riff, the cluster of musical gestures heading off in a direction.
Hint Two: these are the units for a single moment/idea, rather than how the final text will be integrated into larger context of the story. In actual usage, you would likely join another image to this one or interrupt it with another element (dialogue, description, thought, etc.). These are the basic tiles might require scoring and breaking to fit the available space in the overall design.
Part Three: Ten One-Pagers
Choose the “most promising” (or at worst, chosen by chance) ten of the bites generated by the previous stage. The task is now to expand/revise each selected bite into a “one-pager” length story/fragment (roughly 300w-450w). The writer may attempt to complete the story within one page or break the story at an arbitrary word length.
Hint One: Unlike the Bites stage, these pieces are to be written much closer in shape to their intended use. This is also the opportunity for you to suggest the larger context of the potential story that will include this page, open lots of doors and windows.
Hint Two: If writing ten one-pagers doesn’t leave you sweating, write one-pagers for each of the twenty bites. Or else write an alternative to each of the ten selected thought parcels that departs as radically as possible from the previous use of the text. Cull your list down to the best ten before moving on to the next stage.
Part Four: Five Stories
Choose five of the one-pagers. I suggest you choose the ones that would please you the most to write — writing five stories is challenging enough as it is, no additional “stunts” should be necessary. Make it happen. It is your contract with those who have read along with you to get you here that you continue this project to its end.
These are five new stories originating from felicitous sentences: little gifts from the strangeness that is the human imagination, crystalized into form by the activity of language.
Hint: Do your best to wrap up the narrative as fast as possible. I suggest you try to wrap them up in five to ten pages each before chasing any of the narratives into major projects, but if you are really on a roll, heaven forbid I try to stop you! If you take more than a week for each story, you are probably reducing the chances that you will complete all five.