The first book I will be reviewing here is Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany. The book includes 201 exercises, plus a great deal of extra material in the chapter introductions, exercise explanations, and appendices of articles. The chapters cover storytelling topics (such as POV, time, description), language topics (your own sentences, other writers’ sentences), and content topics (childhood, work, travel).
Kiteley’s background is in teaching and the exercises were originally directed at his students at the University of Denver. Some of the material in here is very, very literary. By that, I mean that it is focused on the artistry of language more than plot, on internal states more than external action. I am normally far more concerned with which words I need to get the plot out than with which ones will sound prettiest.
The first exercise I am going to do is from the POV chapter and it is called “Imperative.” It calls for a short “fragment” of a story, composed entirely of command forms: (you) do something.
When I was in college, my first short story class read one of Lorrie Moore’s stories– referenced in 3 AM— and I wrote an imitation of it then as well. At the time, I found it difficult to make it a true imperative. I kept slipping into a present tense, second person narrative (you go here and there, even if I did not command it), which isn’t really the same. Despite the difficulty, I found it a strangely satisfying exercise then; there was more emotional depth than I expected from a frivolous, diet book sort of style. Neil Gaiman has a poem in Fragile Things, “Instructions,” that uses the same idea.
For exercises in style, rather than subject, my difficulty always lies is choosing a topic. Writers are, at their core, incredibly bossy people. We make our living ordering around fictional people– their unwillingness to go along with us notwithstanding. But we temper this with ideas about motivation and consequences and theme, as though we have no direct hand in what actions they undertake. And outside of writing, ordering people about tends to be frowned on. This exercise, then, is distinctly uncomfortable for me. Who may I order around? What may I force others to do?
Well, I’ll admit, it may be uncomfortable, but it’s also pleasurable. With fairytales in mind from Gaiman’s poem, I think I will order around Sleeping Beauty or a similar princess-in-trouble.
When the village priest tells your parents you were born under an unlucky star, do not despair. Grow up: pretty, but never beautiful; clever, but never genius; hard-working, but never adept. Your parents will try to keep you inside, where it is safe. Do not let them.
When you are four, play in the little pond behind the house. Though you fall in, you will not drown. When you are six, befriend a stray dog. Though it growls, you will not be bitten. When you are eight, walk to the village square alone. Though you get lost, you will come to no harm.
When you are ten, try to sneak outside before supper. Get caught. Your nanny will give you a biscuit and tell you to be a good girl. Do not listen. Try again.
When you are outside, do not follow the fence– they are looking for you. Walk down the hill instead. Follow the field mouse into the forest. When you catch him, do not harm him. If he speaks to you– I have no doubt he will– offer him the biscuit. He will show you somewhere warm and dry to sleep. Though you are hungry, do not go home.
In the morning, search for something to eat. Find a wildcat instead. Do not scream! When she tells you that she serves the lady of the wood, ask to go with her to the lady’s house. You will not find it otherwise. It lies in deeper forests than any man living has seen or even heard of.
Thank the wildcat. Let her enter first. Do not show her your back.
Ask the witch– for the lady is a witch, make no mistake– to teach you her craft. Ask three times. Do not leave when she refuses. If she needs the jar just out of reach, hand it to her. If she needs water from the well, fetch it for her. If she hands you a mortar full of woody herbs, smelling of pepper and pine, grind them for her. When night falls, take supper with her at the scarred and bleached table. Sleep by the fire, wrapped in the blanket she sets out for no one in particular. Never ask her why she let you stay.
Work harder than you ever imagined it was possible to work. You have only yourself to rely on. Study the witch’s ancient books. Talk to oak and ash trees and listen to their secret tree-words, the shish-shish and plushaplush of wind in leaves and sap in trunks. Hibernate for a winter to understand bear magic and sleep magic and death magic. Get news from passing starlings. Learn the movements of planets and the patterns of stars. Cast your own star chart and see what the village priest saw when you were born.
Go outside on a cold and cloudless night. Climb to the roof of the witch’s house and look up through the trees. Find the star that spells your doom– white and red and yellow against thick purple. Fall asleep. Watch it in your dreams.
Wake up cold and stiff. Look out into the forest from your high perch. Spy a man. It will perhaps be your sixteenth birthday, for strange things happen on such a day. He will be lost. Cursed, too. Show him the way out of the forest. Fall in love, just a little, when he tells you he seeks to break his curse, no matter the danger. Do not forget him.
From a flock of starlings and the field mice and the skulking raccoon, discover that a great calamity threatens your family and your village. Tell the witch you are leaving. She may give you a charm or a weapon or a farewell kiss. Leave the forest. Return to the village. Be a stranger.
Seek out your parents, grown sallow and old with sorrow in your absence. They will not know you but they will let you lodge with them. Watch them grow lively again. Give them what comfort you can spare.
Speak to the village priest: it is a star which falls towards the village. It is your doom star, the eye of your constellation, which breaks loose of the sky. Find the cursed man there as well. He seeks the priest’s guidance, but will receive none while the star still hangs its fire over the heads of the villagers.
When the star falls, catch it. It takes no magic. It takes much more. You must have the suppleness of saplings. You must know how to die without dying, as a bear does. You must know that a star burns without flame and travels without movement. You must know what you are capable of.
Catch it. Save yourself. Live under a no-star, a fateless sky, a cheated doom.
Leave the village behind. Go home. Let the cursed man follow you as far as the forest. Say nothing. Refuse to teach him when he asks. If he still follows, take him home. Teach him. Let him save himself.
Whew. I went well over the suggested word count (500), but I wanted a complete arc of narrative to make up for the weirdness of the exercise. Once again, I found this to be a delight to write. I ran into the same problem as the first time I did this, slipping into second person present. I tried to combat it by making it into a future tense instead. It seemed to mesh with the commands better by sort of ordering around possible events. I tried, as much as possible while remaining coherent, to just write commands. I sketched out the plot I wanted to have before I tried to write. Of course, this was composed of smaller commands (go into forest, learn magic, and so on), so I really did the exercise twice.
What I found most interesting was the way that command forms created a sort of plot outline for me. I could see the shape of a larger story as I created it in miniature. I am quite tempted to try the exercise the next time I need to work out the plot for a larger project. I could run each of my main characters through it, sketching out their personal plot arcs. Because while the result can have details and lyrical moments– can be a finished product in itself– it is largely comprised of broad strokes and covers as much ground as possible in a small space.
An imperative piece is largely an oddity. No one would read a novel written entirely in this form (no one I have met, at any rate). But it does such interesting things to the brain and makes you think of plot in a unique and excellent way.
It is a common problem for writers, myself very much included, to let things happen to your characters. In the desire to heap problems on them and have nice juicy conflict, it is tempting to let them just sit back and be buffeted by this sea of troubles. No good. This exercise can only work if the “you” in question becomes the agent of actions. (Well, you could cheat and just use forms of to be. Be kidnapped. Be sad. Be a helpless twit.) This makes for delicious, consequence-riddled fiction. I really recommend trying it.