A Writing Tip by Karen Rile
SOLVING FOR X
Where did this prompt come from? I’ve used it in my Penn classes for more than twenty years. I’ve personalized and fancied it, but I don’t think the original idea was mine. This week I paged through my personal library of books on writing and teaching and scoured the internet, but I cannot find the author. If you recognize it, drop me a line!
Solving for X creates a detailed and seemingly capricious to-do list that, like all great prompts, frees you from the prison of the empty page. Not quite as daunting as a sestina, but hard enough to keep you interested. The best Solving for X stories make the prompt seem to disappear entirely. The reader becomes so absorbed in your quirky story they don’t notice the successive initial words.
Make it fun, or make it serious. Use it alone, or with your peer writing group, or assign it to your own students.
Solving for X
Write a short story with the following conditions:
1. Your story is exactly 26 sentences long.
2. Each sentences begins with a word which starts with a letter of the alphabet in order. For example: All the excuses had been used. By the time the school doctor saw me he’d heard everything. Coughing, I began to tell him about the lie which I’d hoped would save us all….
3. Your story must include one sentence fragment…
4. …and one sentence should be exactly 100 words long and grammatically sound.
Karen Rile is the author of Winter Music (Little, Brown), a novel set in Philadelphia, and numerous works of fiction and creative nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in literary journals such as The Southern Review, American Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Other Voices, Superstition Review, Tishman Review, and has been shortlisted among The Best American Short Stories. Karen has published articles and essays in The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and others. She is the founding and chief editor of Cleaver and Cleaver Workshops. Karen lives in Philadelphia and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA from Bennington College, a certificate in satire from The Second City, and is a kick-ass certified LYT Method movement instructor. She is also the parent of four adult daughters with more interesting careers than her own: an aerialist, a glass artist, a violist, and a playwright. Follow her on Instagram @whatkindofdog.
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