reading like a writer–part 3: questions to ask

In an essay entitled “Artful Stealing” by Steven Schwartz in the current issue of “The Writer’s Chronicle,” he writes, “…you break into your own material by finding the key to someone else’s.” Each time I take a story apart, I’m adding to my knowledge of the possible ways to put a story together.

Here are the first questions I ask myself:

  1. What type of beginning is it?
  2. What type of ending is it?
  3. What type of story is it?
  4. What is its structure?

I answer these questions the best I can, using names that have meaning for me. The naming seems to makes the writer’s choice a concrete one, giving it shape, and making it visible. Other than that, there’s no magic to it. There’s just doing it. And I’m doing it so that the next time I sit down to consider my beginning or my ending, I’ll think what are my choices?

At the AWP Conference in Atlanta in 2007, there was a panel discussion on endings. To give you an idea of some of the names you can use as you take a story apart, here are some of the ones they used to describe endings: the barely there ending, the epilogue ending, the turns-on-an-event ending, the weird ending (seems to have nothing to do with the story yet actually reinforces the themes), and the Keystone cops ending.

There are, of course, a million more questions to ask. Here are some of the ones Douglas Glover mentioned in his lecture: (5)How many pages is the story? (6)How many sections does it have? (7) What does the white space signify? (8)What is the point of view? (9)What is repeated? (10)How many times is it repeated?

Each story may suggest slightly different questions, but I’m working on a list and/or a form to start with for each story. I hope to eventually have a notebook full of options. What was really important for me was to realize that this is a physical exercise.

It’s numbering the sections and seeing (11)when the characters are introduced, (12)when backstory is used, (13)when the story is moving forward.

The more I got into the story–the nuts and bolts–the more I learned something. And this surprised me. I thought I was getting it with some underlining and some circles and a few notes in the margins.

Learning how to write well is a process. I’m sure there are many ways to read like a writer. But “seeing how they did it,” as James Salter put it, is a way I can teach myself how to be a better writer.

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart


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16 thoughts on “reading like a writer–part 3: questions to ask

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Cindy! I ordered Salter’s book (and a few others – hehe) – can’t wait to read it! Did you read the article about Chekov and the short story in the Writer’s Chronicle? I don’t know if it was this issue or the previous one, but it’s a great article, discussing the origins of the short story. I was so excited I got a book of his stories from the library today! Not that you need anything else to add to your list, but the article is great!

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    • Light Years may be my all-time favorite book. I can’t wait to see how you like it.

      I did read that article on “Chekhovian” stories by Rick Reiken in the last issue (Vol 42 #3) of the Writer’s Chronicle. I made a copy of it and just quickly glancing back at it, I see that in addition to discussing Chekhov’s endings, he also refers to the “O. Henry twist ending.” Annie, I’m so glad you thought to mention this!

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      • Cool! I thought the Chekhovian idea was really neat . . . checked out some O. Henry Prize stories today. Looking forward to seeing how they compare to the _Best American_ series. I’m particularly interested in Diaz and Danticat. I’ll be reading them both for a class later this semester, but can’t help but take a look at their short stories. Also, did you know Toni Morrison has a short story? (I didn’t – but am looking forward to reading it . . . and presenting on it.)

        Oh, and also, because I think I’m going to pursue short stories (in particular the craft aspect of intercultural stories) I went looking for the Boyd essay that Reiken referenced in the Chekhov article. Maybe you’ve already read it, but I’m headed for it right now. Here’s the link, just in case:

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/oct/02/featuresreviews.guardianreview38/print

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  2. What a fabulous post. And the two preceding parts, too. Except for the structure, I usually ask myself the same questions. I would say that whenever I’ve written anything, more often a short piece, the dialogue or a phrase will appear first. This phrase stayed with me:

    ‘you break into your own material by finding the key to someone else’s’

    Never thought of it and it is so true.

    Many thanks for these voyages through the rich realm of writing.

    Greetings from London.

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    • A Cuban in London, I appreciate your kind words. I’m still developing my writing process, but I think this matter of choices will probably come into play for me at the revision stage–after I’ve gotten to the heart of the story–until it becomes more organic.

      The Schwartz article takes a somewhat more advanced approach to taking stories apart with a close look at James Joyce’s “The Dead” and an interesting 6-step approach.

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  3. I’m really enjoying this series, Cynthia. I admire how you get your lessons across succinctly and eloquently.

    I’m in the midst of revising a MS. Going back and looking at how other novelists solved similar problems provides inspiration.

    It’s nice to see that you’ve connected with A Cuban in London too.

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  4. I love the series! and I’m trying to figure out one book that I would like to “read like a writer!”

    P.S :The question and answers (it’s Genius!) makes the reading like a writer process so much simpler! (though it’s not- hehe)

    Take care

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  5. Slowly catching up with blogs/blogging now — this looks like a really useful exercise. I just finished Herzog so I’m going to try your questions out on that before reading the next post. Looking forward to it!

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    • Hi Guy-What I’m finding as I take apart more stories is that each story poses its own questions. For example, in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” there are no sections. The building blocks of the story instead are scenes.

      These questions seem to get me off to a good start every time. Let me know how they work for you.

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