The Sincerest Form of Flattery

By Amy K. Nichols

Back when I set out to try this writing thing, I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing. I made all of the typical amateur mistakes. I started stories with characters waking up. I started stories with hanging dialogue. I kept essential details hidden from the reader so my story would seem mysterious. You name it, I did it. Like it was some sort of rite of passage I had to complete before I could move just above Level Suck.

Then someone — I think it was Bryn Chancellor, my writing teacher at the time — suggested the following technique for helping me understand how to write:

Imitate the published short stories I enjoyed reading.

Note: She did not suggest plagiarism. She suggested I try writing in the same style, manner, structure as some of the stories that appealed to me. Not the same words. Not the same story.

So I gave it a try.

I wish I could remember the story I first imitated. All I remember now is it was told in first person and it was a ghost story involving the protagonist’s mother.

I read the opening line of the story. I studied it. I looked at the sentence structure, the word choice, the work it performed. Then I wrote my own. My own opening line, my own structure, my own words that mimicked in function the opening line of the published story.

Then I did the same for the second sentence. The third. The fourth.

I read my opening paragraph. I read the published story’s opening paragraph. I made some minor revisions to mine and moved on to the second paragraph.

The third paragraph.

Then something happened around the fourth paragraph. I found myself too caught up in my own story to stop and compare it to the published story. The words flowed. The story gathered speed and I didn’t dare stop despite the finger cramps. I just listened to the voice in my ear and wrote until the last word was down and the story was done.

I sat back and I looked at the notebook pages ripe with blue scrawl and at the collection of short stories pushed aside. I knew I had created something beyond Level Suck.

Later, I went back and revised those opening paragraphs to match the voice that drove the rest of my story. Because when that voice clicked in and my story took off, it wasn’t anything like that published story. It was something all its own.

And later after that, I revised and revised and revised and workshopped and revised that story some more, and it turned into, I think, one of my best short stories so far.

While I don’t really use this exercise anymore, back then it gave me the kick I needed to get beyond amateur to the next level in my writing. “Putting on” another writer’s story got me into the right head space to write my own. It tapped into a voice waiting to be heard. Into words waiting to be written and a story ready to be told.

Even now when I read a great short story, I go back through it to try to understand what the author did to make it great. There are always new levels to reach, and there are always those who’ve reached them before us. Why not learn from them?