Shenandoah Writers: January Writing Prompt

This series is for everyone following along with us while we read Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction.

This month in 3 A.M., Brian Kiteley discusses characters and ways of seeing.

For those of you following along with the group, please either do Exercise 25 or 26or both, if you want to see the contrast. (I think I do!)

Since the actual written assignment calls for half the usual word count, it might not be that terrible to do both—but there is a little bit of leg work for each.

Basically, both exercises are kind of like anagramming…and kind of like the game Boggle.

See for yourself:


Take the full name (including middle name) of someone you love.  Write down as many words from this name as you can.  You can repeat letters from the name as many times as you wish.  Treat the letters of this name as the only letters in a new alphabet.  You cannot use any worlds containing letters that do not exist in this name.  Because this is so difficult, you’ll probably be able to come up with only about 200 words for this exercise—that’s okay.  When you have built a sufficient list of words (maybe breaking the list down into nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc.), write a fragment of fiction that has to do with a fictionalized situation this person, or someone like this person, would be involved in.

300 words

Kiteley goes on to say:

As an example, for Geoffrey James Kiteley (my brother, who died of AIDS on Christmas Eve, 1993), you could come up with the following list of words: frog, klieg, a, fray, make, mar, leek, jag, fog, kilter, legal, illegal, glee, flag, fay, gay, jail, fillet, oyster, aioli, fritters, fry, gel, jelly, oft, soft, satay, etc.  You may notice, as you’re creating this list, a pattern develops that relates to characteristics of this person you’re making words out of: In my brother’s case, frog and leek relate to both his career as a cook and his love of things French.  Because he was gay, you can see other relationships to the words.

If you have built up a strong relationship with a fictional character in your long story, you may simply use that character’s full name in place of someone you love.  But it would better to use someone you love, because this exercise can otherwise be a little bland without the added spice fo affection for the words themselves.  This exercise often yields unexpected results if you are patient.  I discovered this once myslf.  I worked very hard at the exercise over a few weeks and then gave up, happy for the difficulty and the experience but convinced I’d failed at a proper piece of fiction.  I put the very brief story in a file and it stayed unmolested in my computer for several years.  I rediscovered it one day and printed it out to look at it. To my surprise, it was much easier to revise a couple of years after its original composition (whereas when I first wrote it, the writing felt unnatural and impossible to mold into anything like narrative).  Be patient with this exercise.  Let it gestate in a quiet file of drawer.  You might find a voice in which you never thought you were capable of speaking.

This is a variation on an Oulipo exercise by Harry Mathews, author of Cigarettes and The Conversions.  Oulipo stands for Ouvroir pour litterature potentielle (workshop for potential literature), a group of writers and mathematicians who have been meeting for over forty years in Paris to dream up demanding and sometimes impossible restraints for writing.  Members who have gained fame include Harry Mathews, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and one of the founders, Raymond Queneau, who described Oulipians as rats who build the maze from which they plan to escape.

Here is Exercise 26, should you choose to do this instead of or in addition to the previous one:


An alternative to the previous exercise would be to use the letters of the first names of four or five ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends as your only alphabet for a very short story.  The effect of this change, when I tried just the list of words (not the exercise) myself was electric.  See if you can look back to earlier failed relationships with something like affection—or at least some balance.

300 words

In Names (Exercise 25), you play with an Oulipo exercise that could be a bit chilly without the instructions to use the name of someone you love as the source of your new alphabet and language.  This exercise turns an affectionate search for words into a possibly bitter quest.  But, despite my suggestion you try to be mature and balanced, you should also let your emotional response to these names (and the words you create from the) carry you as far as autobiographical situations, something we make up whole cloth, and yet it strikes a chord.  This exercise may allow you to write a parallel universe history of these failed relationships.

Nerd as I am, I am SO excited about these prompts!  In addition to anagramming and Boggle, they are also taking me back to certain games girls played at recess, where you write out the full names of people, somehow convert them to numbers, do the same with your own name, and determine the percentage of a chance that you’ll date them.  Anyone else do that in sixth or seventh grade?  No?  Okay…


If you choose to do any of these, please send them to me at – OR – if you are a member of Shenandoah Writers Online, please post them there.

Incidentally, if you *aren’t* a member of Shenandoah Writers Online, why not??  In short, we are a brand-new online community of writers—from all over the country—on Ning.  Click the above link or e-mail me for more information.


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