A Writing Exercise

by | April 6, 2022 | General | 1 comment

The following writing exercise is taken from my book: How to Write Short Stories and Get Them Published.


One way to create new and unusual ideas is to write a sentence where each subsequent word begins with the next letter of the alphabet. For instance:

“All big children,” Donald explains, “find great happiness in jumpsuits. Kids like making new outfits popular.”

Quentin recoiled, surprised this uncommon view was…

Admittedly, this makes little sense. But it’s already inspiring me to think about the importance of clothes within the fiction I create. My mind is currently torn between ideas of researching sumptuary laws, and a discussion I had with a student who claimed he was the victim of ‘tracksuit racism’. Perhaps my thoughts might find a way of combining these two ideas.

For those who find it too easy to compile a sentence in alphabetical order, try to continue the sentence (or sentences) by returning to the start of the alphabet and continuing.

A boy child, Derek, encountered fossilised golden Hadrosauruses in Jane’s kitchen. Like many nerds, only practising quantitative rational study, to unequivocally verify wild xenolithic (yellowing) zoological anomalies, brainy clever-clogs Derek expected fame…

Again, I have no idea where this might be going, or where it came from. However, the idea of writing something about palaeontology and the excavation (or reanimation, or revisitation) of dinosaurs is now exciting me. Also, the idea of excavating a dinosaur’s fossilised remains from a kitchen strikes me as something whimsical and potentially workable in a piece of fiction.

A variation on this exercise is to take any single letter of the alphabet and see how long you can continue to write a sentence that makes some level of sense.

The Austrian-American author Walter Abish used this form of constrained-writing exercise to produce the novel Alphabetical Africa. The conceit behind Abish’s novel is that the first chapter contains only words beginning with the letter ‘a’. The second chapter contains only words beginning with ‘a’ or ‘b’ and this trend continues through the first twenty-six chapters of the novel. In the second half of the novel (there are fifty-two chapters in total) words beginning with the letter ‘z’ disappear in Chapter 27, and there are no words beginning with the letter ‘y’ in Chapter 28, etc.

To illustrate this with my own writing, below is an alliterative sentence which I’ve begun with the letter ‘m’.

Mondays make most men (mainly manly, muscular, macho-men) miserable. Maybe Monday-morning mating might make more men merry? Mayhap midday martinis might make Mondays more manageable? Meh! Most Mondays might maintain misery, making millions melancholic.

I’ll be honest and admit I have no idea where this is going (or where it came from). However, on a level of inspiration, I’m already thinking that I need to produce a piece of poetry that uses excessive alliteration for comic effect. The repetition of that ‘m’ sound is so obvious when this is read aloud it comes close to making the whole piece unintelligible.

I also think there’s something very relatable about miserable Monday mornings. Perhaps, as a way of introducing a character in a piece of fiction, I might introduce him or her trying to put on a brave face and cope with the Monday morning blues. Conversely, I might write a story where the villain is someone who smiles and acts obscenely cheerful on Monday morning.

Write an alphabetical sentence. Go on for as long as possible (keeping in mind that the letters X,Y and Z don’t make this exercise easy). If the challenge is not too demanding, work backwards once you’ve completed a sentence.

Alternatively, select a letter of the alphabet at random and see how long you can continue a sentence (or string of sentences) using only words that begin with that letter.

Exercises such as these can sometimes yield fresh and surprising concepts or descriptions. Whatever ideas they inspire, make sure you record them in your notebook so that they can be utilised later.

How to Write Short Stories and Get Them Published is available through all major suppliers.

Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister is a UK author responsible for more than two-dozen erotic novels written under a variety of pseudonyms. His most recent work, a non-fiction book recounting the exploits of UK swingers, is his second title published under his own name: Swingers: Female Confidential by Ashley Lister (Virgin Books; ISBN: 0753513439) Ashley’s non-fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, including Forum, Chapter & Verse and The International Journal of Erotica. Nexus, Chimera and Silver Moon have published his full-length fiction, with shorter stories appearing in anthologies edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Mitzi Szereto. He is very proud to be a regular contributor to ERWA.

1 Comment

  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Fascinating the way a constraint like this can stimulate your imagination!

    Okay, let’s give it a try (totally without preparation!):

    Lisabet loved licking lubricious ladies. Lascivious little lovelies lay lusting, lower lips luring like lewd lanterns.

    Not easy! Hard to write without conjunctions or prepositions!

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