Frequently Asked Questions of The 3 AM Epiphany and The 4 AM Breakthrough

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Look at sample exercises from The 3 AM Epiphany and The 4 AM Breakthrough, the Introduction to the first book, and some reviews


The 3 AM Epiphany is a book of fiction exercises published by Writer's Digest Books.  Here is Amazon's page for the book.  If you are a university teacher, and you wish to order an examination copy of the book, click here.  If you have any other questions about how to use The 3 AM Epiphany or The 4 AM Breakthrough in a classroom or own your own, email me and I'll add your questions and my answers to this page.


Q:  I've been working on a novel for the past two years, but I've managed to come up with only one chapter.  I think I have everything I need for it, such as setting, conflict, cast of characters, and so on, but the problem is finding the beginning and continuing from the beginning.


A:  It sounds like you want your novel to look and feel like a polished and published thing before it's ready to be that yet.  Let go of the notion that it should look pretty and feel whole, for as long as you can.  Another writer about the writing process, Natalie Goldberg, says you should feel free to write the worst prose you can when you're composing, and only when you begin to edit the whole thing should you turn your attention to polishing.  It's actually good to tell yourself to write badly, wildly, freely, before settling down to writing well.  The creative mind needs to be unrestricted and free to fail.

You should also trust yourself to tell the story that wants to be told.  Don't write what you think you should write.  Write what you can write.  Listen to all of the story's possible threads (they sound like whispers a lot of the time).

If that doesn't help, ask yourself (or your book) questions, a lot of questions.  Answer them slowly.  Don't hurry inspiration.  Another very simple trick is to ask yourself one of these questions before falling asleep at night (repeating the question many times in your mind, sort of like counting sheep).  Then in the morning, first thing, before doing anything else (food, tooth-brushing, coffee), give yourself fifteen minutes or half an hour to write.  You may not end up answering this question you asked the night before (you may not even remember it), but I guarantee you'll find very interesting writing at this time of day.


Q:  What direction would you advise taking for Exercise 149, Rules of the Game?  I can't figure out if the character is actually in the game or simply living life by the rules of the game.


A:  I had the notion that a set of characters would be transposed to a game, as if they were "in the game," as you say, rather than "living life by the rules of a game."  I imagined that the author would impose the game on the characters, because that's generally how I think about fiction (although I also believe characters effectively take the reins sometimes, disobeying their "author" in a sense).  But this other option also sounds interesting.  Imagine some character who thinks he's always playing poker with friends and strangers alike, who uses his poker face to bluff even when he's not holding a good hand.

Q:  Do you ask your students to pick any exercise, then bring their response to it to class, and then discuss it next time (the traditional workshop schedule)?


A:  I let the students pick any five (or four) exercises and have them hand the exercises out the class before discussion of the exercises.  Then, on the day of discussion, I choose one or sometimes two exercises to talk about in class (and I tell students to write comments on one of the exercises we did not discuss in class)—they don’t seem to mind this dictatorship, though I do leave some room for talk about exercises we didn’t read closely.  All this means that I can do four students per class, focusing very carefully on two or three pages of prose.  Eventually, the discussion does open up into a larger thing, about the possible stories.  Students like talking about possibilities, about a story that doesn’t exist yet.  The workshop for the second set of exercises often moves very far from the actual writing, into this airy Platonic realm.


Q:  Each student does one exercise from four or five possibilities, or each student does four or five from the 201?


A:  I let them do any of the 201 exercises, even doing the same exercise twice or three times.  I have four students per class—because I always have 16 in the group, so this breaks down to four meetings, and usually four by four during the term (for a total of 16 workshop classes out of the 19 or 20 meetings we have each term—we meet twice a week), with a few extra classes for busywork.


I chose just the best exercise.  It’s a kind of meritocracy, that way, or a way of showing the class and the writer very simply what I think worked best.  The third group of four workshop meetings is devoted to the long story built out of these fragments.  Then the last group of workshops is devoted to exercises triggered by the long story.  I ask students where they think there are gaps, what hasn’t been said, and I ask them to suggest specific exercises (or I do).  This last part of the course isn’t about revision but opening up yet more possibility.  It is about revision in the sense that this is what’s useful for discussion in a workshop, not rereading a revised story but reading two or three other possible versions at crucial spots.


Q:  On page 7 (in the introduction) you talk about "recognizability" in a story (the first section of "The Goal of the Exercises").  This sounds suspiciously like conventionality or familiarity.  Are you supporting either of these two notions in fiction?


A:  I say, "Recognizable writing is notable for its syntactic familiarities, its use of verbs or nouns in a certain way, its characteristic sentence structure."  I don't mean that I'm looking for conventional or traditional writing, although there is nothing wrong with writing within traditions (I do argue for messing with conventions).  I mean that writers should try to find their own unique voices.  Writers struggle over the years to express themselves most clearly as themselves.  This is different than writing in the voice of a character.   I use the example of Beckett, in the introduction, although perhaps not the most recognizable of Beckett's sentences.  Better would have been to use later Beckett, after he'd turned to the French language and purified and simplified his English (in translations back into English).  This is the hardest thing to teach, but it is also the easiest thing to see, in nearly every student writer I have in my classes: the idiolect, the way a writer seems to express herself again and again in the same general patterns.  The key here is to understand these patterns without falling into routines and ruts and self-parody, as Hemingway did.

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