As writers, we know reading is a fundamental part of our practice. We’re encouraged to expose ourselves to new writers, texts, words, and ideas. But do you ever find yourself reading something and wondering, “What am I looking for? How can I learn from this writer?”
Writing practice is at the heart of everything we do here at The Write Practice. Every week, we share new fifteen-minute fiction writing exercises to help you practice and grow as a writer.
But what if you could build your own fiction writing exercises? What if you could find something you love in a story someone else has written, and then practice how to recreate that yourself? What if you could take the lead in your own growth as a writer and learn from your favorite stories and authors?
You can! Here are three steps to help you analyze any text to learn its secrets and apply its lessons.
First, Choose a Book to Study
Developing writers often love to read, but they don’t know how to move beyond the reader experience of a text to analyze how a writer is creating an effect.
Not every text begs analysis, of course. When I’m after a quick pleasure read at the beach or a fast-paced thriller to help me escape the mundane, I don’t want to slow down to unpack a writer’s method.
But when I am trying to get better as a writer, I need to choose some texts that can teach me. Depending on your goals, you might choose a writer you admire, a reader-favorite in a genre, or a classic novel. I think it helps if you’ve read the text through at least once, so you aren’t trying to grasp the basic premise of the scene or section.
3 Steps to Learn From a Book
Once you’ve chosen a text, try these three steps to help you learn a text’s secrets and apply them to your own writing with fiction writing exercises.
1. Describe what you see
First, narrow your focus. If you want to get better at dialogue, choose a dialogue-heavy scene. If you want to improve your ability to write suspense, choose a chapter or scene that had you captivated until the end.
Read the scene or chapter slowly, pencil in hand. You can record your notes in the margins or in a notebook. Read a paragraph, section, or page and then stop and describe what you see related to your area of focus.
For example, in a fast-paced scene, do you notice how the dialogue is clipped? Are the sentences short?
See if you can describe the various parts of the scene. What are the characters doing before and after they speak? When does the scene begin? Where does it end?
2. Ask why and how questions
Once you have a good list describing what you noticed, ask why and how.
If you noticed the dialogue sentences are clipped and short, even fragments in places, ask yourself why, My guess is that those short sentences speed the pace to keep the reader engaged. But maybe they reflect how the character speaks differently under pressure, revealing insecurity.
There are no wrong answers—only defensible ones. Try to come up with multiple reasons for how a writer is creating the effect or why they are crafting a scene this way.
Also, here’s a shortcut for this step: ask yourself what the story’s genre is.
Genre dictates a number of choices for writers. A thriller will almost always have someone racing against a literal or metaphorical clock. A mystery will have a dead body or puzzle, usually in the first quarter of the book.
Notice the patterns you see related to the genre and ask yourself how they propel the story forward.
3. Apply the lesson
Now that you have a good list of description and some great questions or observations about how and why a scene is developed, it’s your turn. Choose one of the sections you analyzed. It might be a paragraph, a page, or a scene.
Practice recreating the effect in your own style and voice. You can create a character composite or swap in a character from your work in progress. If your analysis revealed short, clipped dialogue, write short sentences. If your analysis showed a clever technique for character description, try it out using your own details.
There’s no wrong way to do it. All developing writers mimic the greats as they find their own voices. Don’t be afraid to learn from authors you love, using their work as a model.
Practice Is Key
It’s one thing to read books you love. It’s another thing entirely to write books you love, books that can hold their own on the shelf next to your favorite authors.
But if you study your favorite books and create fiction writing exercises to practice the techniques they use to capture your imagination, you can recreate those experiences for yourself. Better yet, you can build on them to create something new and innovative, something readers can’t put down.
Pull a book off your shelf, study it, and create a way to practice what that author’s done. How will their skill weave its way into your writing?
Have you used a similar process to learn from other authors? What helps you learn from the books you read? Share your ideas in the comments.
Set the timer for fifteen minutes. Choose a paragraph or short section of a book or story you love (you could even choose a short exchange on a tv show or film!). Not sure what to pick? Read the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice here.
Then, describe what you see as you read or view it. Ask and answer those how and why questions:
- What makes it work?
- Why does the author choose these details?
- How did she speed up or slow down the pace here?
If there’s any time left on your timer, try writing something in a similar style or using the same techniques.
It may feel clunky or uncomfortable at first, but play with it and have fun. Share the story you chose and the observations you made (and your own application of the technique, if you have time to write!) in the comments below.
Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers! In fact, why not try practicing one of the techniques they share?