It’s Ben Franklin’s idea, supposedly, but I learned about it from Gene Wolfe in his afterword to “The Boy Who Hooked The Sun”:
Find a very short story by a writer you admire. Read it over and over until you understand everything in it. Then read it over a lot more.
Here’s the key part. You must do this. Put it away where you cannot get at it. You will have to find a way to do it that works for you. Mail the story to a friend and ask him to keep it for you, or whatever. I left the story I had studied in my desk on Friday. Having no weekend access to the building in which I worked, I could not get to it until Monday.
When you cannot see it again, write it yourself. You know who the characters are. You know what happens. You write it. Make it as good as you can.
Compare your story to the original, when you have access to the original again. Is your version longer? Shorter? Why? Read both versions out loud. There will be places where you had trouble. Now you can see how the author handled those problems.
Want to try it yourself? With Scrivener, it’s really easy!
I chose James Joyce’s “Araby”, since Dubliners is in the public domain, and the complete text can be found on any number of sites. I printed off a copy and read it several times: once at normal pace, once sounding it out loud in my head, a few more times on the T.
Next, with a red pen, I wrote in the margin next to each paragraph what the point of that paragraph was in one short sentence, two at most. If this were a dry recollection of facts, rather than a story meant to evoke particular thoughts and feelings, what would those facts be?
Here are my notes on the first few paragraphs of “Araby.” You can follow along with the actual text and check my work:
* I lived on a quiet block growing up.
* Our house was a poor one.
* My friends and I made our own fun by playing outside. We were fascinated by Mangan’s sister.
Give the story at least one more read through, then open up Scrivener, start a new Project, and create a new text entry.
Now, type up the short story word for word, transcribing from the copy you’ve been reading. I know this feels silly, but do it. This will both engrave the words deeper into your brain and will start to hint why the writer constructed sentences the way they did. For “Araby,” this took me less than an hour.
Save and close your text entry. Set aside your marked-up copy of the short story. Create a new text entry in the same project. Now, recreate the story as best you can.
You’re not going to be able to re-type the story word for word, especially if the story was written a hundred years ago by a drunk Irishman. This is fine. If you remember the words the author used in a sentence, use those words. If you can’t remember them, but you remember what the sentence was about (Mangan’s sister was standing by the fence, and the light hit her hair a certain way), then approximate the sentence in your own language (“Mangan’s sister was standing by the fence, and the light hit her hair … a certain way” bravo, Perich).
You will forget things. You may get the order of certain details wrong. You may find the lyrical strains of evocative imagery hard and the narrative sequence of events easy, or maybe the poetry will stick in your mind where the literal escapes. Again, all this is fine.
Just keep writing. Don’t stop and, whatever you do, don’t reference the original text. This isn’t like a school project, where you get an A if you reproduce “Araby” from memory and a C- if it’s full of dull phrases like “I was the only person on the train.” If you reference the original text, you’re not even cheating—you’re missing the entire point of the exercise. It’s like setting up a ladder next to a basketball hoop and then climbing it over and over to work on your lay-ups. “Haven’t missed one yet, Coach!”
Finished? Good. Have a drink. Tea’s fine; I prefer whiskey. Water will also do. You probably aren’t drinking enough water anyway.
Open up both the text file with the transcription and the text file with your recreation. Align them side-by-side. In Scrivener, this is easy: click on the button in your toolbar that looks like two vertical windows in parallel.
Note any sentence in your rewrite that’s vastly different in tone and content than the original. If you expressed the same idea in your own words, that’s fine. But be stringently honest with yourself. “I felt like I was losing control” is not the same as “All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled”.
Leave a comment on this sentence, retyping the original sentence—or as much of it as you need to for the gist—in the comment.
Using myself as an example, here’s a paragraph from the original “Araby”
Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.
And here’s my version
On mornings I would draw the blind in our parlor to an inch above the sill, then lie on the floor and watch her door. When she emerged, a figure in swishing brown, I would bolt from our house to catch up with her. I don’t know why; I never exchanged a word with her beyond the usual inane pleasantries. We would walk just a few yards apart until the end of the block, where our paths diverged, and I would increase my pace to be quickly past her.
Now have another drink.
Reviewing your comments on the rewritten version, ask yourself honestly: what tools of the writing craft does the author use that I did not use in my rewrite?
In my case, Joyce is much better at evoking a scene with physical details. This is partly because he lived in the neighborhood he describes and I didn’t, but that’s also something I do need to work on. I need to remember to include one or two striking details to make a scene work.
If you want to soothe your ego, note any things that you wrote more or less as the original author did.
In my example, I was pretty good at picking up on the personal details that evoked a person’s mental state without naming it explicitly—the uncle mumbling to himself and rocking the coatrack (drunk); the boy clinking his small change in his pocket (ashamed).
Now have another drink.