How to Write Your Best Story Ever with One Epic Exercise

How To Write Your Best Story Ever With One Epic Exercise

 

You want to be a true original. All writers do. But what if you could write like somebody else? Who would you choose?

 

Imagine a writing exercise that could make you write like that person. Well, maybe not exactly like them. But what if this exercise could refine your style, develop your voice, and deepen your grasp of narrative structure?

 

Would you do it?

 

I did. Every morning for one year.

 

Now I want to tell you exactly what happened to my writing as a result. And why you’re going to want to try it. (Spoiler: I ended up writing my best story ever.)


My Morning Writing Routine 

 

First, a quick note on how I came to use this epic exercise. I’d been a morning writer ever since I was a single mom with three kids and a full-time job teaching elementary school. At 5:30am I was seated at my desk, writing absolute crap. But hey, at least it was every morning. I struggled to get better, but didn’t really know how. I felt like I was swimming in mud. One day, I started to worry: what if I never got significantly better?

 

I’d always valued learning through imitation. Maybe it comes from a life of athletics. You watch. You copy. You watch. You copy. Over and over. Until the topspin backhand, the corner kick, the butterfly save is embedded in your muscle memory.

 

I wondered: Could I learn to write the same way? Was there a way to copy writers in order to become a better writer?

 

Centuries ago, apprentice painters would spend years and years copying the work of masters in order to learn advanced techniques. In the Middle Ages, monks copied the Bible by hand to fully understand its contents. Today Buddhist monks still copy sutras by hand. 

 

My research started to uncover writers who also copied. Hunter Thompson copied every page of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

 

Jack London swore by copying. He taught himself how to write by copying every page of Rudyard Kipling’s books in longhand. Why? He truly believed that this copywork would fill his own writing with the same rhythms and vibrant phrases as Kipling’s. After publishing his much-loved novels, London attributed his success to this copywork:

 

As to myself, there is no end of Kipling in my work. I have even quoted him. I would never possibly have written anywhere near the way I did had Kipling never been. True, true, every bit of it.

 

Below, I’m going to show you three alternative copywork exercises used by Robert Louis Stevenson and Benjamin Franklin and Billy Collins, respectively. However, when I started this experiment, I took the simplest approach possible:

 

  1. I picked a book I would have LOVED to have written. I started with the magnificent novel by Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum. My hardcover copy is 521 pages long.
  2. I started each morning by copying Gunter’s novel for 20-30 minutes in handwriting. I used several thick hardcover notebooks.
  3. When time was up, I didn’t reflect on what I’d written, I simply moved onto my own writing for another 2 hours.

 

Write better with copywork

 

What Happened to My Writing (And How Your Writing Will Change Forever, Too)

 

To some of you, the idea of learning to write fiction through imitation might run counter to your notions of creativity. I’ve met writers who refuse to even read fiction while they are trying to create their own stories. They fear they’ll be influenced right out of their own voice. They fear mistaking other writers’ ideas as their own. If you are this type of writer, I don’t have a hope of convincing you to try copywork.

 

But if you’re open to trying copywork, you’re in for some exciting changes to your writing. Here are some of the changes I took note of while copying Gunter Grass’ amazing novel, The Tin Drum:

 

AFTER 2 WEEKS: 

  • My sentence structure started to become more versatile
  • My movement from paragraph to paragraph and scene to scene gained more energy as I engaged in less play-by-play narration
  • I was more keenly aware of the rhythm and cadence of my writing
  • I felt an early sense of increased confidence, particularly in spending the space my narrative moments needed because I saw and felt the space Grass spent in his novel (in other words, I took the time to explore a significant moment on the page, going deeper, rather than feeling anxious that I might bore the reader)

 

AFTER 1 MONTH: 

  • I found myself controlling the dramatic effect of my sentence structure
  • Each moment in my scenes seemed to weld more meaning and emotion, creating more energy overall
  • Many of my bad habits had disappeared (overuse of certain words, overuse of the same type of interior thinking from my characters, tendency to structure scenes the same way, etc.)
  • My story kept a stronger thread of character yearning because I was absorbing all the nuanced ways Gunter Grass demonstrated Oscar’s yearning

 

AFTER 6 MONTHS: 

  • I found myself able to hold more narrative ideas in my head at one time, which was hugely beneficial since I was writing a novel
  • My command of subtext increased, both in my dialogue and in how descriptions mirrored my character’s inner landscape
  • My gut feeling about how to structure my paragraphs and chapters (including when to start and end each one) heightened, just from absorbing Gunter’s narrative rhythms
  • I have a habit of doing a “good sentence” dance at my desk when I write a sentence that expresses something raw and honest from deep within me–these dances became more and more regular!

 

AFTER 1 YEAR: 

  • My voice, my voice, my voice!! I found my voice! Paradoxically, it arose after tediously copying out another writer’s voice
  • My relationship with my manuscript changed dramatically: we went from feeling like awkward acquaintances to feeling like loving dance partners
  • My sense of what the narrative needed had grown acute and almost hyper-perceptive
  • My descriptions, my word choice, my imagery, my turns of phrase–they all seemed to have become more fresh and original than anything I’d written previously
  • My perception of narrative rhythm had moved from the sentence level to the paragraph level to the level of the entire novel–and this perception included technical elements like character arc, plot, etc.

 

Of course, I’ve saved the most awesome sign that my writing changed for the end of this article! Cue the long drumroll…

 

Other Powerful Approaches to Copywork

 

The method described above is the simplest approach to copywork. To me, it’s also the most meditative. Over time, I looked forward to my morning copywork because it became somewhat entrancing. Yet, I was absorbing incredible techniques of craft–in my head and in my heart and in my gut. There are some other powerful approaches to copywork that I’ve started to experiment with, and I thought you might like to try them as well (although I recommend you try the simple approach first).

 

The Robert Louis Stevenson Approach

 

Robert Louis Stevenson’s approach to copywork was similar to my simple approach, except for one key thing: it relied on his memory. Here were his steps:

 

  1. He picked a passage from a writer he admired.
  2. Carefully, he read the passage twice.
  3. Without looking at the passage again, he then try to write it out word for word from his memory.

 

Stevenson was not good at the method when he first started, and he struggled to copy the passages correctly. However, he could eventually copy out long passages from memory. The principle underlying this method is that it made him an incredibly attentive reader, and sure enough, Stevenson became known for his incisive word choice and exquisite turns of phrase.

 

The Benjamin Franklin Approach

 

About this time I met with an odd volume of The Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.

 

With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

 

But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again.

 

I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and complete the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.

 

-The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

 

Benjamin Franklin’s approach to copywork was similar to Stevenson’s, except that he made notes on the piece first:

 

  1. He read an essay.
  2. He made notes for each sentence he read.
  3. He put the essay away and looked only at his notes.
  4. He then tried to replicate the essay in his own words (sometimes he jumbled up his notes to make the exercise more challenging).
  5. He compared his version to the original.

 

I’m just now in the process of trying this approach. If I gain any insights, especially to how it can be tailored to the fiction writing process, I’ll certainly share them with you.

 

So far I have discovered a real benefit to this method.

 

I tried it with an Annie Proulx short story, “The Half-skinned Steer” from her collection, Close Range. The notes I made about each sentence really forced me to think–in terms of craft and narrative function–what exactly each sentence was doing. My notes became a list of attributes and functions that I then had to replicate.

 

I was already familiar with this method from music, in which you listen to a song you like and catalogue its attributes (e.g., 120 bpm, four-on-the-floor drumbeat, harmony in E minor). Then you re-create a new song using the catalogue. You could use this method for writing practice as well, taking your catalogue of attributes and creating a new story with them.

 

As the above quote from his Autobiography indicates, Franklin made his particular form of copywork more interesting with additional challenges: sometimes he turned prose into poetry and back again.

 

I haven’t tried this method yet, but I have at times used Jane Yolen’s idea: you take a passage of your own story and you line up the sentences as if they were a poem. This way, you gain a unique sense of the rhythms and dramatic structure, as well as the imagery.

 

The Billy Collins Approach

 

We’ve probably all had this experience: we read an amazing, masterful writer and get discouraged. “What can I possibly contribute to the world of literature when there are already writers like this?”

 

This is what the poet Billy Collins thought when he read Wallace Stevens.

 

But Collins used the old notion, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. He copied Stevens. He copied his work and then he attempted to write poems in the style of Stevens. He imitated Stevens over and over.

 

As a result, he developed his own powerful voice.

 

This kind of style imitation should, in my opinion, form a part of every writer’s practice. If only for that: practice. Imitating style is a great way to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone.

 

I’ve often found powerful story solutions but rewriting a chapter opening, for example, in the style of another writer. By the time I’m finished revising the passage, it is fully transformed into my own original work and my voice. The imitation exercise acts as a scaffold to help me reach a new elevation.

 

  1. Pick a passage from a writer/story you love. Or, if you’re bold, imitate an entire short story.
  2. Create a new passage or story using your own story ideas, but write it in the style of the other writer. Challenge yourself as if you were an artist trying to pass off your painting as an authentic Rembrandt. See how closely you could get to “fooling” a reader into thinking it was a new story by the writer. (Obviously it’s for your own private practice, though.)

 

Drumroll…

 

That last change to my writing that I mentioned earlier?

 

I got an amazing agent with Westwood Creative Artists, then Douglas & McIntyre published my novel, The Heaviness of Things That Float, which is now a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. It was clearly my best story ever.

 

All this changed during my year of copywork. Coincidence? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

 

My final advice to you is: Start small.

 

Have fun thinking of the novel or short story you would have love to have written yourself. Once you have your book and your notebook ready, start with five or ten minutes a day of copywork.

 

I know it can be hard to make yourself do copywork when you’d perhaps rather be writing your novel, but the rewards are too plentiful and significant to not invest this time.

 

Copywork is also a fantastic way to get back into writing if you’ve been away from it for a while. 

 

I’ve picked Zadie Smith for my next copywork. Who would you pick to copy? Leave me a comment below!

 

Also, if you liked this post, please share it?

I think the writing community is one of the most generous I’ve known for sharing and helping one another. It would me sure help out a lot and I’d appreciate it truly.

 

Some great suggestions:

 

  • Share it to your Facebook page
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It won’t take more than 10 seconds of your time. The share buttons are right here:

 

 

 

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43 comments

  • Hanna Andersson September 13, 2017   Reply →

    After reading your post I feel so inspired and excited about trying this.
    I will start by copying an Alice Munro short story, and then challenge myself with something further away from my style of writing.
    Also, I have to start writing early in the morning. I get most work done during those hours, but it’s hard to leave bed…

    Well done for finishing your novel!
    Xxx

  • Gladys Gross August 23, 2017   Reply →

    Hi Jen,
    Thank you so much for sharing your insights on becoming a better writer. I’ve read about this practice before, but you have solidified my doubts. A couple of days ago I heard a podcast with Malcom Gladwell who said that he copied for years his favorite authors, and he attributes his writing success to this habit. Copying famous writers in order to become a better writer is for me what Gladwell and others consider “deliberate practice.” The more you do it, the better you get. I like your habit of copying first and then doing your own writing. I’ve been struggling about how to do both, and you’ve given me a solution. I do have a couple of questions: I want to write my memoir, and I’ve been copying Joyce Carol Oates “The Beast” because I love Oates’ style. But, should I be copying memoirs and not fiction? I read “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls and loved it, so I could use that book to copy. But, I’ve been thinking of structuring my memoir as vignettes. Do you think it would work if I copy short stories of various authors (Carver, Hemingway, etc.) to help me with my memoir? Thank you again, and I look forward to reading your books.
    Best,
    Gladys

    • Jen Manuel September 5, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Gladys, What a coincidence that you mentioned “deliberate practice” because I’ve been making notes to write a post on other ways us writers can engage in deliberate practice. I just read Anders Ericsson’s book, Peak, which is a seminal book on the concept of deliberate practice, but so much of it targeted musicians as examples. I’m fascinated with how writers and visual artists can practice deliberately. Okay, your question. I think copying fiction while writing a memoir can produce amazing results because you might stretch your memoir writing style in a new direction. Now, arguably the one thing you miss out on by not copying memoir before working on your own is certain narrative elements that are sometimes more associated with memoir. In good memoir, for example, there is often at least a hint of two voices: the “in the moment” voice that experiences the events and the “looking back” voice that considers the event at the time of the writing. That latter voice tends to be the self-aware voice, the one which confesses its blindspots, its biases, etc. By copying memoir, you start to absorb the presence of these two voices and how different memoir writers bring them out on the page. I think if you at least carefully study–that is, read very closely and repeatedly–books like Walls’ in order to grasp those narrative elements more predominant in memoir, while at the same time copying fiction like Oates’, you’ll get a great balance of practice and learning to serve your own memoir writing better. Hope that helps, Gladys!

  • Angie July 17, 2017   Reply →

    Very cool idea. I would love to copy Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy… a big one in every sense. I’m inspired. Thank you.

  • Joy July 12, 2017   Reply →

    Thank you for this helpful post, Jen! I especially appreciate the specific examples you gave of how this habit improved your writing. This makes so much sense, and I look forward to incorporating it in my own daily routine. My own kiddos copy great writers as part of their writing curriculum; why shouldn’t I?? lol
    Happy writing!

  • Coreena McBurnie July 8, 2017   Reply →

    This is such a great idea. I’ve often thought of how artists learn by copying the masters but never thought to apply it to writing. I am anxious to try this, but can’t decide where to begin.

  • Angela appleby July 6, 2017   Reply →

    I will try this of course I will be using my new favorite classic A Moveable feast by Earnest Hemmimgway. The way he describes even the bitter cold of Paris makes u want to experience it for yourself. I am on my last chapter of my Memoir and am a little scared of the next step maybe I will try this out before sending to a publisher.

  • Marti Bell Wright June 9, 2017   Reply →

    I also have never done this, but will do now. You have totally sold me on copying. My Author?–Annie Dillard…anything she has written will do.

  • Hi, Jen!
    I’m so going to try this when my life settles down a bit! I just had to move unexpectedly, so my life is chaos and disorder just now. But by month end I should be settled in and have a new desk to work on. I’m already rarin’ to go!
    I’ve chosen CJ Cherry’s “Pride of Chanur” as my source material. I love her voice, the tightness and intricacy of her stories, and her characterization. I’ve said for years, ‘when I grow up, I want to be CJ Cherryh’ (I just turned 64, LOL!)
    And who better to emulate and learn from than the writer I admire most? I’ve worn out how many copies of her Chanur series now?
    Thanks for posting this and sending it to my inbox – I’d never have thought of doing this!

  • Elizabeth Fiorito May 20, 2017   Reply →

    Thank you. I really needed this. I have been wanting to do this for a long time in the great tradition of classic writers. Your post gave me the final push I needed, mainly because I just finished the first draft of my book and it was the most depressing feeling I’ve experienced in a long while. The self-doubt is mind numbing. When I say it was terrible — I mean to say that it was crawl-under-the-covers-change-your-name-and-hope-no one-ever-finds-you-again — terrible. I’ve chosen Kate Morton’s “House at Riverton” for her bewitching observations on setting. I also find my mind wandering and not internalizing what I am copying but I’m hoping something is happening anyway. My school starts at 7:30. Wish it was later, like your elementary school!

  • Matt Leatherwood May 19, 2017   Reply →

    I’ve selected my book, King Con by the late Stephen J Cannell. This man came up with some of the greatest television shows of the eighties, all of which I watched as a kid.
    I started on your experiment and completed my first chapter when it dawned on me that I was typing and not handwriting. Is this going to diminish the effect of the process? I personally hate my own handwriting (scribbled print) and would much prefer to type.
    Your thoughts? Thank you for bringing this grand idea to my attention via Pinterest.

    Matt

    • Jen Manuel May 20, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Matt, I think that if a person wasn’t physically capable of handwriting, they’d still get a lot of the exercise, but handwriting is a key component. Handwriting has a different effect on the brain than keyboarding. Handwriting stimulates a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, which is responsible for how we process things. There’s some perfect storm that happens when the motor skills of handwriting combine with our focus on what we’re writing. I was really resistant to handwriting when I first started because I could keyboard with greater ease and my handwriting had atrophied over the past few years. But it did make a huge difference. Besides, you never need to go back and read your chicken scratches–it’s that act of writing it the first time that matters. And thanks for sharing who you are copying–I’m going to check him out!

      • Matt June 8, 2017   Reply →

        Well it’s been a week and some change. I’ve adjusted my process like you suggested I do. My penmanship has drastically improved and I’ve begun to notice metaphors and similes that my chosen author used that escaped me when I was reading his work for my leisure.

      • Sharon August 10, 2017   Reply →

        Hi Jen, I was wondering do you recommend using handwriting when writing my own stories? I’m already writing the copy work by hand but I wondered if it woold be more beneficial to write my own stories by hand also? Or would I get the same benefit typing on my computer?

        I’m copying the short stories from A Twist of the Knife by Peter James

        I can’t wait to hear from you! 😁

        • Jen Manuel September 5, 2017   Reply →

          Hi Sharon, I have read a few arguments advocating for the writing of your own stories by hand, and I’ve tried it myself. Definitely I find that it’s good practice for holding a whole sentence and all the ideas contained within that sentence in your head at once. Doing so pushes you to really think carefully, as opposed to quickly typing out a sentence and being able to delete it and manipulate it easily–perhaps sometimes too easily–on the computer. Here’s what I think: one, I’m a big believer in experimenting, so what have you got to lose? Try it! In the Reimagine the Page Course I talk about using a Story Journal. Think of it as the story about the writing of your story. There’s a number of different ways I use this journal, and one of the ways is to reflect on my writing and reimagining process each day. If I try a new method for how I approach the page as I’m working on a story, for example, I make sure I write an entry in my Story Journal about how that method went for me. What did it produce? Did it make my creative process feel different than normal? How big was my Resistance to trying something new? etc. So if you try handwriting one of your own stories, make sure you document your own process (kind of treating it like an experiment!). For me, I’ve discovered that the best approach (for the time being anyhow) is to combine typing and handwriting my own stories. Typing is my usual mode, but whenever I feel stale or stuck, OR whenever it’s a highly emotional moment in the story, I grab a scrap piece of paper and I go freewrite by hand. If you haven’t already, check out the post I did about Three Ways to Use Scrap Paper. I talk a bit about that in that post. I’d love to hear how it goes if you try it, Sharon! Drop me a note if you ever want jenniferlynnmanuel at gmail.com

  • Judith Sears May 1, 2017   Reply →

    Okay, so, a few weeks into the copying, I have a couple of other questions. First, I find that sometimes my mind drifts off when I’m copying. Not unlike meditation – monkey brain won’t calm down. Do you think it’s still working? Also, this past week I was out of town for a couple of days and didn’t do my copying for 2 days. When I came back to it this morning, I found I didn’t have a very strong recall of the story line. This has happened a couple of other times. Is that, I don’t know, normal? I seem to generate these kinds of anxious questions.

    BTW, I picked Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop to copy.

    thanks,
    Judith

    • Jen Manuel May 3, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Judith,
      First, good job sticking to it! Yes, I think like meditation, the more you practice keeping your mind relaxed but focused, the better you get at it. As for missing a few days, I have two beliefs. One, I truly believe a lot of the copywork benefits exist at the subconscious level, so even if your conscious mind has apparently forgotten the story line, there is much learning that remains in the subconscious. Two, copywork is like training for an endurance event or just getting in shape generally. Missing a few days of working out is not what’s important–that is, you don’t lose all that you’ve gained in terms of progress. The real benefit comes from sticking at it over a long period of time.

  • Amy April 24, 2017   Reply →

    I have been doing this since you posted and I love it! I’m already noticing that I’m using fewer words and writing more clearly.

    • Jen Manuel April 25, 2017   Reply →

      That’s so great to hear, Amy! Keep going: you’ll see even more significant changes over time. 🙂

  • norma j hill April 18, 2017   Reply →

    Hi Jen! Awesome to meet you at the Okanagan Valley Writers’ Festival … and learn so much from your presentations. As I mentioned to you, I read your book, “The Heaviness of Things That Float,” 3 times … and have scrawled 50,000 plus words (which included copying certain sections …). I’ve wanted for a long time to do something with the bits and pieces I’ve posted on my haidagwaiibuildingbridges.com site but didn’t know how to put them together. And reading your book … and copying from it … has given me some thoughts on how to proceed. In my teaching days, homeschooling, and now tutoring, I’ve always recommended copy work–but reading this post of yours has gotten me totally inspired to do it myself. I’m not so much of a fiction writer (though I do a fair amount of creative non-fiction) but I love essays. Last summer I read the entire anthology, “The Art of the Personal Essay” (P. Lopate, ed.), and I think that’s where I’ll start with daily copy work, choosing from the writers I especially admired. I will also continue to do copy work from your book 🙂 I’m excited!

    • Jen Manuel April 20, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Norma, awesome to meet you, too! There’s nothing quite like having a reader tell you they’ve read your novel three times! I’ll never forget it! And thank you for sharing your experience with copywork. I think copying essays is every bit the same as fiction in terms of absorbing voice, rhythms, structure, style, etc. The Art of the Personal Essay is a favourite on my shelf. I also really enjoyed The Empathy Exams, a collection of essays by Leslie Jamison. Good luck, Norma! Hope I see you again (maybe at the festival next year, I hope!).

      • Ozioma Egboka May 22, 2017   Reply →

        Thanks for this technique, I am going to adopt it. I am an aspiring writer but each time I start, after a while my mind becomes blank because I’ve run out of ideas. Presently I am at sea as to how to start my own Science fiction. I need help.

  • Karla Hennig April 17, 2017   Reply →

    Oh my .. my favourite writers: Jane Austen, Collette, Donald Westlake, José Saramago, John Irving, E. Annie Proulx. So, so, so many. So I think, “what do I like best about THIS author” … and I think it is about voice. What a great idea, thank you.

    • Jen Manuel April 17, 2017   Reply →

      Thank you for sharing, Karla! Coincidentally, I’m reading Saramago’s The Cave right now.

  • Judith Sears April 12, 2017   Reply →

    Hi Jennifer!
    I think this copy assignment is a great idea. I have a few questions.

    You mentioned short stories or novels. I assume if a person picked a short story that, obvs, the copying goes faster & then you pick another. Would you go with the same writer or a different writer, just go on whatever story you wish you’d written?

    Is there a downside to only copying a short amount, that is, a short story, of something you love as opposed to really digging in with a novel? (you may not be able to answer that – may be too speculative.)

    Thinking about this has embarrassed me a little – don’t feel I’m as well-read as I should be, especially of contemporary literary writers. The first novel that came to mind was anything by Jane Austen and then I thought, but that’s impossible, I can’t be Jane Austen. Do you think it makes sense to copy someone so aspirational you think you can never do that?

    Also, leaving aside the insecurity aspect, I think my vision would be notably different from Jane Austen’s, not to mention the society I live in.

    I guess that will get me started. Any thoughts you have will be appreciated.

    • Jen Manuel April 13, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Judith! Super questions. If you want to fully absorb the style of a particular writer, stick with the same short story writer as you pick subsequent stories (caveat: as you know, some short story writers keep a pretty consistent style across their stories, whereas others, Jim Shepard comes to mind, are chameleons of style). However, you could pick a different writer for each short story and from my experience here’s what I think will happen: you’ll still absorb a lot of nuanced elements including voice, because I believe you become more and more receptive the more you practice copywork; secondly, the more short stories you copy, regardless of moving from one writer to another, you will grasp–deeply over time–the narrative architecture and arc of the short story form. You’ll get a feel for it. You’ll gain a deep understanding of how that architecture and arc varies from story to story, and you’ll sense what is common to those structures at the same time. As for the Jane Austen comment: do not think of it as becoming her, but moving one inch closer to becoming her, and even an inch might mean that you’ve deepened your craft. If you are wanting to write short stories, however, I suggest sticking to short stories rather than a novel (because of the narrative architecture aspect you absorb). Hope that helps!

  • Diane Gallagher April 12, 2017   Reply →

    Amy Tan’s One Hundred Secret Senses. I’m going to have to pick up another copy of it if I’m going to do this, but no hardship there!

    • Jen Manuel April 12, 2017   Reply →

      Oh, Amy Tan will be great for closely observing her finesse with shifting time–at least, that’s what stands out for me from her other work (I’ve not read One Hundred Secret Senses).

  • Lindsay April 12, 2017   Reply →

    Super helpful idea. We did an assignment like this in creative writing class – I picked Kevin Hardcastle’s Debris to imitate. It was fun, and it did result in a story I really love.

    Never thought of copying out whole sections, but I’m going to try it, with Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.

    • Jen Manuel April 12, 2017   Reply →

      Thanks, Lindsay! I really enjoyed Hardcastle’s short story collection, what a great style to imitate. I keep meaning to read more Louise Erdrich. I hope the copywork is a transformative experience!

      • Fran Turner April 12, 2017   Reply →

        Love Medicine was my second choice.

        • Jen Manuel April 13, 2017   Reply →

          Love Medicine mentioned twice: I better read it! 🙂

  • Heather Harbord April 11, 2017   Reply →

    I’ve used Chap 1 of Alan Paton’s “Cry the beloved Country” in a similar way. It’s almost as if he’s writing poetry. Do you think your Reimagine Course would work for non-fiction? I have a book on the back burner where I have tried to meld my experience with my grandfather’s and it doesn’t quite work – at the moment. I adore your “The Heaviness of things that Float.” I have paddled in the Kyuquot area many times and a lot of it sounds familiar. One of my friends was a nurse at Tahsis who worked shifts at the Kyuquot station. I also wrote “Sea Kayak Nootka and Kyuquot Sound.”

    • Jen Manuel April 11, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Heather, small world! I own a copy of Sea Kayak Nootka and Kyuquot Sound. Made great use of it. Did a lot of kayaking when I taught there. Thank you for your kind comment about my novel, I appreciate it greatly. Yes, when I’ve taught smaller face-to-face versions of the Reimagine Course I got a lot of non-fiction writers who found it valuable to their revision process. The only caveat would be that the examples I give are fiction–having said that, you’ll nonetheless be able to apply the tools effectively to your work. In the end, a story is a story, and non-fiction or fiction, we’re all aiming for narrative energy, a rich emotional terrain, an effective narrative distance, etc. etc.

  • HI Jen

    Fantastic sharing, thanks. I read a lot of Gary Paulson’s books as I was working on my first book, Blood of the Ancestors that isn’t published yet, so he would be my choice. I think this is a brilliant idea as emulating others works. I had already printed your Story Revision Starter Kit, so a double thank you from me. My very first writer’s conference this past weekend. Thank you for being there also!

    • Jen Manuel April 11, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Marg, thanks for sharing your author choice. Funny, I was out last night with a couple of writers and we were talking about his books. Wasn’t the conference fantastic? If we’re both there next year, I’d love a chance to chat with you!

  • Fran Turner April 11, 2017   Reply →

    I have chosen my book: Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys. Copied for ten minutes. I also will try to emulate Jen’s example of following the copying with a stretch of time (2 hours?) writing.

    • Jen Manuel April 11, 2017   Reply →

      I also love Helen Humphreys– great pick, Fran. I’d love to hear how it goes. One of the added benefits is that during those times in our lives when we might feel discouraged by our writing and maybe just not feeling up to it for whatever reason, copywork is a simple way to keep the momentum of the writing life going.

  • Carine De Kock April 11, 2017   Reply →

    Hi Jenn,

    I’ve done copy-work before, in writing as well as in painting, and find it the quickest way to understand craft and gain new insights in how a text or painting achieves a certain impact. I’ve never done it as a daily practice – but I will now.
    Thanks for sharing; I always enjoy your writing exercises !

    • Jen Manuel April 11, 2017   Reply →

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Carine! I’m positive it will have an even deeper impact on you if you sustain a daily practice of it!

      • Lisa April 12, 2017   Reply →

        Hi Jen,

        I love this idea, even just to create a routine and reason to write for pleasure. Tough to pick a favourite book. I have always loved Louise Erdrich and found “The Master Butchers Singing Club” still resonates with me many years later. Her characters truly come to life. I have recently discovered Jonathan Tropper who has the gift of humour and tragedy all wrapped in one.

        Warm wishes, Lisa

        • Jen Manuel April 12, 2017   Reply →

          Hi Lisa, I’ve got that Erdrich book unread on my shelf–you’ve motivated me to grab it for my next read, thanks! And you’re right, it’s a great exercise even just for establishing a routine. Plus, when you’re copying a work you absolutely love, it’s like a little shot of inspiration every day.

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