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.


Shenandoah Writers: Oct-Nov Writing Prompts

If you’re in the Harrisonburg area Tuesday, Nov. 3rd, stop by Barnes & Noble for the November Shenandoah Writers meeting.

Here is what we’ll be talking about this month:

I recently picked up Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction, and it strikes me as a fantastic guide in terms of writing prompts for us.  I am just about cracking it open, but we may actually want to read it as well as its companion, The 4 A.M. Breakthrough: Unconventional Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction, as a group and treat each section like a mini workshop.

For the time being, I just chose a few writing prompts I found interesting (see below).  Two are from 3A.M., and one is from Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within (not to intimidate male members–the prompt is gender neutral). 🙂


Pick the one you like best–or do them all, if you’ve got some extra time on your hands, and you’re feeling ambitious.

Prompt #1:

Write a first-person story in which you use the first-person pronoun (I or me or my) only two times–but keep the I somehow important to the narrative you’re constructing.  The point of this exercise is to imagine a narrator who is less interested in himself than in what he is observing.  You can make your narrator someone who sees an interesting event in which he is not necessarily a participant.  Or you can make him self-effacing, yet a major participant in the events related.  It is very important in this exercise to make sure your reader is not surprised, forty or fifty words into the piece, to realize that this is a first-person narration.  Show us quickly who is observing the scene.
600 words
Prompt #2:

Write a fragment of a story that is made up entirely of imperative commands: Do this; do that; contemplate the rear end of the woman who is walking out of your life.  This exercise will be a sort of second-person narration (a you is implied in the imperative).
500 words

Kiteley suggests picking up Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help for guidance.

He also goes on to say:

You might ask yourself, after you’ve finished this exercise, what happens between the commands?  Hidden behind the imperatives are actions offstage–each sentence, in a sense, expresses the desire and the space between each command that contains the inevitably distressing reality, the way we all fall short of our own commands.  They have to be, given the constraints of the method.

One of the unintended consequences of this exercise […] is that students discover countless different and imaginative ways of regulating time in their stories when these barking or plaintive commands take over the narrative.
The effect of a command is to move time forward on the say-so of the commanding voice.

For example: Wake up to your neighbor’s noisy lovemaking after her night shift ends.  Remember the images these sounds evoke when you greet her in the hall as you leave for your job, her shirt buttoned up wrong–or something like this.

You’ll also find yourself struggling to come up with different kinds of commands, unusual ways of beseeching someone to do something or not do something.  This is what you should be doing with your fiction at all times.  These
exercises in constraint should become second nature.  You should become self-conscious as a writer without losing the ability to compose naturally.
Prompt #3:

Describe an activity (a sport, making cookies, polishing shoes), a place (the kitchen, your parents’ bedroom, the school cafeteria), an item (a box of tissues, a purple ceramic pitcher, a bottle of perfume), or a living creature (a cat, a friend, the mail carrier), as though seeing it for the first time through a child’s eyes.

For fifteen minutes, let your writing evoke that child.  Use words a child would use.  Use simple sentences.  Make up metaphors and similes drawing on the images and language of childhood.  How would a child see her own life and the lives of those around her?
(Pen on Fire doesn’t work in words, but in 15-min assignments, so write for 15 minutes.)

If you choose to do any of these, please send them to me at  I’m trying to get an online chapter of Shenandoah Writers going, so chat me up.

Happy writing!