The next time you read a story that is astonishing and brilliant, train yourself to pause before you turn the page or close the book. Go back to the beginning. Ask yourself: how did that just happen?
It’s not enough to read a story once. You need to find out how the author did it. I don’t mean Googling her to find out how long it took her to write it, or what school she attended. I mean that you must read the story again, as a writer.
Writers write, so take notes. Read the story again, and write down what you learn. Write thoughtfully, as though you have been asked to explain the mechanics of this story to someone else.
You’re not focusing on content, here. For instance, imagine you just read this amazing story called The Blue Egg. It made you cry (or laugh, or kept you up at night, etc). The big blue egg might symbolize new life in the story, or it might represent another planet, or it might stand for the intuition of the narrator. Who cares. Leave that to the English classes. What the blue egg means doesn’t matter.
What matters to you, as a writer, is: does the blue egg feel true?
Then you can go even further, and ask yourself:
If I were to write a few paragraphs of my own story in the style of this writer, where would I start? What decisions would I make about point of view, dialogue, scene, exposition, or detail?
ps. For an excellent and inspiring book on this subject, try Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose (available in my aStore).