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Reviews of The 3 A.M. Epiphany and The 4 A.M. Breakthrough

If you are a teacher, and you want to order an examination copy of the book, click here.  And here's a site in Britain to order the book.

T. J. Gerlach in Puerto del Sol:


For all of its abundant quirkiness, The 3 A.M. Epiphany tends to center more on traditional craft elements; things like character, point of view, and structure are at its core.  It is a wonderful collection of exercises with innovative angles that breathe new life into these staples of fiction.  The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, though, as a whole, pushes into deeper terrain.  It is more philosophical, psychological, even more political than its predecessor.


Many of the exercises in The 4 A.M. Breakthrough are intensely OuLiPo-ian in the wonderful perversity of their restrictions.  Take Exercise #5, “The Letter A,” with its startling first line “Write a story about an ox or a cow,” followed by its no-less-startling suggestion that the entire piece be centered around words beginning with the letter A.  The logic behind this combination is that the Phoenicians began their alphabet with a symbol derived from the head of an ox--the main figure in their agricultural and economic system.  But of course it is the more decidedly arbitrary element of this exercise in a contemporary context that opens up its creative possibilities.


And this exercise is by no means alone in its playful idiosyncrasy.  Exercise #53, “Country Noises,” asks you to write a story that makes use of visual representations of sound—such as ######### for the sound of a leaf blower.  Another, #164, urges you to mine the “found poetry” in a press conference by Donald Rumsfield.  I’ll allow exercise #73, “Buzzing Blooming Confusion,” and its first line “Try to capture the true confusion of reality in a very short space” to speak for itself.


Yet alongside these seemingly cerebral exercises are ones that aim for the heart.  Many of the exercises are based on books and artists Kiteley has a deep affection for--“Watch My Neighbor Totoro twice” Kiteley pleads in an eponymous exercise, “even if you’ve already seen it several times.”  And the description of exercise #194, “Lobster Bisque,” is a moving little piece of creative non-fiction all in itself.


But then this separation between head and heart is always a false one.  Georges Perec, who is probably the most famous writing-as-puzzle-making writer, saw his exercises in restriction as deeply personal, even Freudian explorations of his inner self.  And while his fellow OuLiPo member, Italo Calvino, may be known for some of the most achingly beautiful works of the second half of the twentieth century, Calvino approached his craft from his first discipline, mathematics, and used restrictions that were no less arduous than those of Perec.  Kiteley’s exercises play the line between these two poles beautifully—in them the head is never far away from the heart, or the heart from the head.


Anah Crow, (


Brian Kiteley has done something particularly interesting in this book [The 3 A.M. Epiphany].  He has partitioned both writing and life into categories and then into even smaller subjects in each category.  Instead of telling you all about how to write or why to write or what to look for in life to make you a good writer, he’s included a little discussion of each subject at the beginning of each chapter and then leapt into the business at hand: assigning carefully scripted writing prompts in association with further discussion of why this particular prompt works and what it’s meant to develop in your writing.


I find The 3 A.M. Epiphany particularly useful because, with my attention-deficit issues, I struggle at times to focus on both writing and reading.  This book is one I use with a handful of RPG dice that I roll to pick the exercise I’m going to do when I’m feeling scattered.  They’re helpfully numbered, making it even easier. Even if you don’t read the whole thing—ever—each little exercise is a foray into understanding your own writing process and learning to draw out certain tools deliberately instead of hoping for them to come to hand as you write.


If you are going to use The 3 A.M. Epiphany as a larger resource, the chapters are divided so as to address issues that I’ve often found as common flaws in otherwise competent fiction.  To me, this is another reason to buy this book.  It’s so hard to identify what area of a piece of fiction is weak in a way that one can effectively communicate, and sometimes harder still to know how to make repairs or how to guide them.  Issues like handling the passage of time, building a sense of history, or the art of description by omission are abstract and teaching them can be elusive.  Kiteley’s blend of explanation, example, and exercise makes grasping—and learning to feel—those concepts a possibility.


I have to emphasize how effective and engaging and challenging I find Kiteley’s exercises.  They are not long, with the suggested word-count being under 1000 words and sometimes under 500 words, but they are pointed.  The 3 A.M. Epiphany is an excellent way not to waste your time if you are writing in addition to maintaining your alter-egos as SuperParent and Employee-of-the-Month.  Learning to complete the task in the words allotted is just another way that using this book will improve your writing.


Heather Grove, Burning Void Reviews:


Books of writing exercises mainly aim to inspire creativity in the writer.  Usually the idea goes like this: by putting a constraint on the writer (a particular topic, a set of words to use, etc.) and often a word limit or time limit, the writer will come up with new material she wouldn't have thought of if she'd simply set pen to paper and said, "what comes next?"  It can help to alleviate the terror of confronting the blank page that many writers face now and then.  Brian Kiteley's The 3 A.M. Epiphany is a little bit different, in several ways.  For one, most of the books I've read use time limits, whereas this book uses word limits, pushing you to come up with small gems rather than reams of material to sift through.  The exercises also have an additional dimension to them that most don't.  Each one is carefully constructed to help you explore a certain aspect of your writing.  These aren't meant to be "merely" inspirationalthey're designed to teach technique, as well, without reading like a dry instructional book.


I truly love the way Mr. Kiteley approaches writers' exercises, and he starts off the book with some wonderful suggestions for integrating them into the wider realm of your writing practice:

The suggestions in this book are stretching exercises, warm-ups, and experiments in form and style that allow you to test the various possibilities of the craft of fiction. Some of the exercises may turn out to be building blocks for a longer piece of fiction. You can also use them as instructions for parts of longer pieces of prose you're already working on.

There are types of exercises in here I really haven't seen anywhere else, particularly in the sections on "Internal Structure" and "Exercises for Stories in Progress," and I think you'll find them inspiring in ways that other books aren't.  They'll make you think, work and write in whole new directions.

I did occasionally have mild difficulty figuring out what the instructions in a given exercise truly meant I should do.  However, there's always a section right after each paragraph of instructions that delves further into the point of the exercise, and I found that this material pretty much always cleared up any confusions I had.  There are some discussions of techniques and trends in writing that you might not get the most out of if you haven't taken college-level writing classes, but I do not believe these will in any way interfere with your ability to do the exercises and get a great deal out of them.  In fact, if you want to take college creative writing classes and can't for whatever reason, this book would be a wonderful resource for you.  There are a great many wonderful, inspiring exercises in here, and I highly recommend them for any writer.


Lance Olsen, on


Besides my Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Writing Fiction, and, say, Oulipo’s and the surrealists’ offerings, there are virtually no fiction-writing textbooks out there that take as their premise that it’s essential, as Kiteley says in his excellent collection of uncommon exercises and advice, to “search for material that challenges and changes you as a writer,” and to “be ambitious—take on a complex intellectual, political, and philosophical problems” in your work, thereby at least making a sincere effort to avoid the most damning criticism of workshops: “that they promote mere competence.”  Clear, exciting, and energizing—The 3 A.M. Epiphany is the sort of book that makes you want to go out and write, try new things, push narrative’s limits.


Erika Dreifus, The Practicing Writer:

I first learned about fiction writer and teacher Brian Kiteley some years ago when I discovered his name in my research on writing historical fiction.  Then I found a set of writing exercises he’d posted online, and I was impressed once again.  So while I have yet to meet or work with Kiteley in person, I was familiar enough with his background to know that when Writer's Digest Books released his latest—The 3 A.M. Epiphany—I’d want a copy.  It’s probably too early to say that my fiction has been “transformed” by using this book, but it’s not too soon to recognize that it’s an excellent text, one I’ll continue to turn to as I struggle with my own pages and one I expect to use in my teaching, too.  Kiteley … encourages experimentation while offering guidance.  For instance, he suggests that you might take “an old story of yours that you hate or love, apply four or five exercises to its subject, and you may find that another story lurks within its rumpled covers.”  On the other hand, you might simply “sit down and do seven of these exercises, quickly, no editor on the shoulder, under the gun.”  And then what?  What next?  As Kiteley notes:  “That’s the point.  You should ask yourself, what next at every important point in the writing process.”  Throughout, Kiteley’s own prose is clear, concise, and engaging.  The book’s voice is personal: you’ll hear frequently about Kiteley’s family members, especially his wife and his late brother, and about the exotic places he has visited.  Overall you’ll begin to have the sense that you are working with Kiteley, the writing teacher, yourself.  He frequently refers to the work of other writers to illustrate his points, so you’ll likely pick up a few reading suggestions along the way, too (I already have).  Just how “transformed” your work will be I can’t say, but it’s hard to imagine you won’t benefit from this book.


Bradley Olin, Amazon.Com:


This book is brimming with exercises that will sharpen your mind and help you unlock your own inherent skills.  It's amazing how similar our writing can be to others.  Yet were taught to seek out individuality.  It is this disparity that often forces us to strive too hard to be unique.  In mimicking or embracing the style and work of others, our voices can still emerge.  Mr. Kiteley is very astute in recognizing this and the exercises encourage the adaptive reuse and combination of disparate styles and ideas.  This book is both a teaching tool, and a mind opener.  Some of the exercises are a bit more challenging than I might be up for at 3:00AM, but honestly, there's value in each and every one.  I feel like even after only a few exercises, I have a better understanding of my own limitations and thought processes, and have grown as a writer.  Not to mention the fun.  Ive taken a few of these exercises and shared them with friends in our own mini-workshops, and it makes for some great storytelling and idea sharing.  Give this a shotit will help you, even if only slightly.  That alone justifies the 10 bucks it costs.


From a blog called Writer's Blocks, March 2008:

Writing exercises and prompts are one of my favorite parts of books on writing.  So on my last quest for a new writing book, I looked for a book that was meant to be used rather than simply read.  Brian Kiteley gave me a solution.  In The 3 A.M. Epiphany, Kiteley has given me a gold mine.  The book is composed of over 200 exercises on a range of subjects, from point of view and images to humor and travel.  For me, they differ from what you might find in other how-to books because the exercises themselves are meant to be the teacher.  Frequently, the prompts and exercises are located at the ends of chapters to reinforce the lesson that was just given. This book teaches by allowing you to write.  For people who learn best by doing something and not just reading about it, it may be exactly what you need!

I am working my way through this book one exercise at a time.  Each day I move on to the next one, so it will take me almost seven months to finish the book!  However, I consider it a warm up for my day.  I begin with a writing exercise, which rarely takes more than fifteen minutes, and then move on to my work-in-progress (WIP), an article, or a blog post.  My favorite exercise thus far is number 48, which asks the reader to write 600 words using cookery "as a way of understanding a man and a woman's relationship to each other."  As a full-time cook, I love the idea of using food related scenes to help in my character development! Everyone has a favorite story to tell on the subject.

You may wish to work through the exercises in a more random fashion, jumping to a topic that you need work on or just to an arbitrary page.  If you are stuck on a particular WIP, try checking out the last dozen selections.  They are devoted to just that problem, and range from writing quickly about a particular character to try and "outrun" your internal critic to using a tape recorder to tell the story of a scene that is giving you trouble.  Kiteley has challenged me to look more deeply at my own writing thanks to The 3 A.M. Epiphany.  After I complete one exercise, the next one might ask me to do something completely opposite.  It is a unique way of helping me grow and develop my writer's toolkit!


Austin Kleon, from, January 2006:


For a while now, I’ve been interested in bringing a mathematical method to storytelling: charting stories as graphs, using patterns, symmetry, proportion, and number sequences to build and analyze structure, etc.  I want to make writing fun for me again: I want to think of writing as building or shaping—something you do with your hands, something concrete.  Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany, a book of fiction exercises, has been helping me along this week.  Kiteley’s approach to teaching is to make the creative writing workshop a workshop in the sense of an artist or carpenter: “a light, airy room full of tools and raw materials where most of the work is hands-on.”  Many of the exercises are constrained in the sense that you have to fit your writing into a predetermined form or structure, and many of these come from Oulipo: a group of mathematicians and storytellers founded in 1960 (Italo Calvino was a member) who seek to create fiction with constrained techniques (writing without the letter “e” for instance, or only using anagrams).


Thomas Hunt,


I was, to say the least, skeptical when I bought this book.  I have read many books designed to spark ideas and motivate you to write, through various plans and exercises.  But I came to this book anyway, hopeful.  To imagine a book being a spark to the writing via the “uncommon writing exercises” it promises is saying quite a thing.  Hard to live up to that hype.  But Kiteley does it, and does it with such skill that you wonder what it must be like to sit in on one of his lectures.  I read this book and simply envied his students. Creative approaches to writing are commonplace (often not that creative on second thought, and sometimes not even helpful), but “uncommon” approaches, as this book offers, are a wonderful thing to a writer wondering where to go next.  If you are a writer satisfied with the present state of your craft, pleased that you've found a genre you like, and want nothing more than to write at the level you currently do, you don't need this book.  But I feel sorry for your lack of adventure.  If, on the other hand, you are a writer looking for a challenge, or a writer mired in the regular grind, take this book and study it carefully.  The ideas in it are incredible new ways of seeing things that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.  Not every exercise will spark you.  Fine.  There are many, and every day is a new chance for an exercise that didn't interest you to change your mind.  If you are serious about exploring the craft and not just skating along the surface of it, this book will reward you.




Without doubt, the best way to learn to write is to write.  But write what?  Many of us like to have a little structure to our writing practice, which is a big reason why so many writers go on courses.  Another route is to work with The 3 A.M. Epiphany (a title inspired by the idea that it is never too early in the day to start) which sets 200 writing exercises.  Some of these exercises are simple enough: one, for example, suggests that you take an old story of yours that was written in the third person, and rewrite it in the first person. The exercise in the book is a little more complex than that, but its aim is to enable you to see the narrative in neutral terms.  Many of the exercises are about idea forming: you are asked, for example, to draw a map of a place or even a house, and then to write a story that could only make sense if accompanied by the map.  Others are about revision and rewriting, and yet others are about finding and developing characters.  It is a book to dip into at random: choose an exercise and give it a try.  It will be excellent writing practice.


It is a dark and stormy night.  You have been staring at a blank screen for four hours.  Nothing is passing from your head to your fingers, frozen in place on the keyboard.  Suddenly that sixth cup of coffee kicks in and you are inspired to take up Kiteley’s (creative writing, University of Denver) book.  There you find “God,” which turns out to be the name of one of his 201 exercises.  Along with the thought-provoking and inspirational exercises, which tend to rely on combining memoir with imagination,  Kiteley provides commentary about the act and art of writing and gives practical as well as creative ideas about getting that book done, critiquing your own and others’ work and writing fresh fiction with less anxiety of the dark and stormy night variety.


Julie Jordan Scott,


I know sometimes books want to niche themselves to get better sales....but as a predominantly Creative Non Fiction Writer my main question is Why?  I actually used the exercise Kiteley describes as the one his students get the best results with each time (for the Fiction Writer, it is for stories-in-progress and useful for Character Development).  It worked marvelously as a warm up for working on a bit of life writing today.  I also plan on using the same exercise for the actors who are working in a play I am Directing...  The exercises are superb warm-ups or block breakers.  It may be exactly what you need for your next "a-ha" moment or "time of epiphany."




Written by the director of the University of Denver’s writing program, this book’s introduction is worth having on the would-be writer’s shelf.  Based on years of developing exercises, Brian Kiteley presents them to challenge the writer’s preconceived ideas of what stories should be.  The intro is so concise in its presentation that the reader will find him/herself stopping to ponder the freshness of the thoughts.

One of the ideas presented in these early pages is the idea of using combinations of these exercises to challenge yourself and your writing without falling into the temptation to stop the free flowing of ideas.  In other words, don't let the logical side of the brain interrupt the creative side.  For those familiar with writing books and the exercises contained within, they often feel repetitive or stale.  In contrast, these exercises have the feel of someone tapping on your shoulder over and over or a kid in the backseat saying, “How much longer until we get there?”  They are meant to get under your skin as it were, but it seems to make sense.  How would characters that aren't you react or behave?   The real test will be if it compels me to write. But it certainly has given me some new things to consider.


Amanda Rea, a former student of mine, in The Lighthouse newsletter:


I didn’t know what to make of Kiteley’s workshops at first.  He wanted us to do writing exercises, like writing a story backwards, and writing a story without using the letter e.  Often, he didn’t want us to write stories at all, but to compose scenes that didn’t cohere.  It often seemed that we were working backwards, aiming not for a polished story but grubby fragments.  And indeed, we were.  As Kiteley says in his new book, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction: “I use exercises in my workshops to derange student stories, to find new possibilities, and foster strangeness, irregularity and nonlinearity…”  For this reason, his workshops are not likely to result in the kind of “cookie-cutter” fiction that writing workshops are accused of propagating.  In fact, you may begin an exercise (as I did) in which you must write about a person using only letters contained in that person’s name, and soon find that this fragment about your cousin (who you chose because of his lengthy German surname) may turn into a story about an elderly veteran of the Civil War—a subject you never thought you’d write about.  These surprises, which are the thrill and beauty of writing, are sometimes easier to come by when we write under imposed limitations.


This kind of experimentation is at the heart of Kiteley’s philosophy.  He disagrees with what many workshops assume—that creativity can’t be taught.  Instead of simply evaluating writing once it’s been written, his workshops seek to find stories.  “Leaving the writer to do everything seems cold and unhelpful,” he told me. “I think we can do a lot more to help them.” 


The exercises collected in 3 A.M. Epiphany also attempt to “lighten the burden of a typical writing day—to cajole a writer into playfulness and useful accident.”  This is a welcome objective, considering that so many books on writing seem intent on making the load heavier, with their insistence on writing first thing in the morning, before using the restroom or taking a sip of coffee, for forty consecutive minutes.  Others, like Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer admonish us to “succeed or stop writing.”  So it’s nice to come across a book that is more interested in the act of writing than the writing life, and seems to welcome even the most occasional writer.

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