January 2022 Big Giant Three-Mood Story Reading Thread

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied/slightly edited version of a Twitter thread I kept, tracking my January 2022 (and late December 2021) short story reading. It is extremely long, and I plan to extract sections of it into more concise posts in the future.

However, for posterity, here it is. Story notes are in regular text, my thoughts are in bold, in case that makes it easier to skip around. Feel free to ask for more detail/clarity. And I’ll edit this with links to related posts from time to time. [Note: I’ve started to drop in some very brief story descriptions to jog my own memory, but it might take a while to complete those, due to the aforementioned memory] [Further note: there is now a full list of stories read at the very end of this post]

It’s based on previous three-moods posts. See Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories for background. The short version:

  • I like breaking short stories into progressions of three moods (rather than beginning-middle-end, etc). I find it more revelatory, intuitive and useful, both for reading stories and for writing them.
  • I use “mood” very broadly.
  • Each dot point is one shape — one way of reading the shape of the story.

Also now up:

Read on if you dare.

This post is taken from a Twitter thread I used for mapping out the three-mood /gesture structures (https://tanaudel.wordpress.com/2021/12/05/story-shapes-three-mood-stories/) of stories (as they seem to me) as a way to read them.

Your mileage may vary, but I’d be fascinated to know what it is.

  • “The Lay of Lilyfinger” — GV Anderson (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021 — travelling musicians, apprenticeships, the long reach of old war)
    • audition — practice — performance
    • gathering — weaving — display
    • meeting — jangling — unrolling
    • pursuit of perfection — threats to perfection — working with imperfection
  • Masquerade Season” — ‘Pemi Aguda (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021 — the wonders that find one, duty, exploitation)
    • beauty — beset — set aside
    • wondrous discovery — hard lessons — protective retreat
    • a gift — a presumption — a postponement
    • wonder — exploitation — loss
    • the sweet — the bitter — the bittersweet

(Multiple takes on each story)

  • “An Easy Job” — Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021 — interstellar tough guys, shared memories, collecting experiences)
    • simple plan — complications — alternative solutions
    • equilibrium — threat to all aspects — keep balance
    • trust — threat to trust — get away with it
  • “Small Monsters” — E Lily Yu (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021 — one monster among many attempts to survive abuse and learn alternatives)
    • oppression — variations — emergence
    • origins — journeys — establishment
    • abuse (parents) — abuse (partner) — mutual support
    • bad situation — incomplete escape — defensible position
    • consumption — destruction — art
  • “The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021 — one person dies across multiple realities)
    • Progression — proliferation — inversion
    • Situation — variations — reflection
    • (Apparent) whole — facets — mirror
    • Obverse — spin — reverse
    • Gentle certainty — gentle despair — gentle joy
    • Okay — cruel — kind
  • “Headlights” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • oddness — deepening peculiarity — inversion
    • bleakness — intensifying strangeness — velocity of approach
    • shock and despair — shock and fear — triumph and grief
  • “Preserves” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • understandable anxiety — laudable but alarming determination — unsettling/horrifying relief human
    • hesitation — dubious actions — inverted situation
    • logical situation — alarming intervention — logical consequences
  • “Butterflies” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • ordinary — ordinary-odd — surreal-distressing
    • complacency — insignificant cruelty — unanticipated implication
    • action (proud affection) to A — action (casual cruelty) to B — literal equation of A & B
    • situation — event — drastic reframing
  • “Mouthful of Birds” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • revulsion — resistance — acceptance
    • reveal — attempt to reform — complicity
    • distance — proximity — involvement
  • “The Digger” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • arrival — adjustment — warning
    • surprise — acceptance — almost a step too far
    • intrigue — discomfort — unsettlement
  • “Irman” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • mundane — grotesque — petty crime
    • odd — concerning — mundane dangers
    • daily — dangerous — trite
    • common desires — fear of being attacked — casually attacking
    • human — inhuman — what is inhumanity
  • “Cocoon” by Atreyee Gupta (Apparition Lit, 2021)
    • processing — processing — processing
    • wonder — acceptance — release
    • haste — slowness — peace

That “processing — processing — processing” progression sounds a bit flippant. The point is that a similar mood in each section can still have the shape of a story. Subtle variations (the pattern modulated by the patterns below) can have a big impact. But the effect of drawing out and prolonging a mood can also alter its effect on the reader. As in horror or comedy, where a situation is drawn out a little too long, and then a little further, and then…

  • “Feudal Superstition” — Yiwen Bu (Apparition Lit, 2021)
    • bad situation — worse — strange hope
    • attempts fail — attempts unclear — a final seedling hope
    • “progress” — vs “superstition” — beyond to a stranger truth
  • “A Home for the Hungry Tide” — Alexandra Singer (Apparition Lit, 2021)
    • unpromising meeting — unlikely connection — grand acceptance
    • abjection — coaxing — glory
    • roles — transformation — new roles
  • “Flock of Words and Wonder” — Marie Croke (Apparition Lit, 2021)
    • insular — escape — return
    • overwhelm — education — maturity
    • apprentice — journeyman — master
    • a dropped mantle — growth to fit it — assuming the mantle
    • abandonment — own feet — responsibility

The moods are just my reactions — your mileage may vary, but I’d be fascinated to know what it is.

I’ve been finding it fascinating to trace some of the patterns in themed or sub-genre-specific collections.

And also useful — e.g. noting how certain people read/write “wonder”, or where the start and finish lines of stories with a similar story-shape are in adventure fantasy vs literary


Distilling the broad vibes of some short fiction subgenres into:

  • And so it goes.
  • But we roll with it, as if it were always so.
  • But as we hoped and held to…
  • But as we feared and try to ignore…
  • But as we gladly fought for…
  • All grand emotions spring from human folly.

And playing with the shapes, seeing which are obviously e.g. Gothic, and how easy it is (or isn’t) to skew others that way.

  • “Toward Happy Civilization” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • in-drawing — rebellion — doubtful escape
    • resistance — leverage — success
    • alone — together — alone together
    • what if — extrapolation — it was always strange
    • mundane over-developed — deepening understanding — tearing free
  • “The Red Mother” — Elizabeth Bear (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • uncertain friendships — complicated bargains — new family
    • kin obligations — friend obligations — guardianship responsibilities
    • obligations of the past — obligations of the present — obligations of the future

The day before Christmas, my father and I were playing with a few stories shapes from e.g. “The Loaded Dog”, “The Gift of the Magi”, “The Ghostly Door”, and dropping images from the day into them: my mother punching down bread-dough, for example.

We invented several tidy horror stories about tiny voices crying out in the rising dough.

But it’s also really interesting digging through my experience of a story to find the patterns in it. Not only because there are always multiple interpretations, but also because it’s a process of narrowing down something I found particularly intriguing/effective about it.

Or a pleasing way of capturing it. Or a way of understanding something I didn’t quite “get” to begin with.

  • “Olingiris” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • distance — approaches — reflection
    • the doers — the done-to — the intermediary
    • the pull — the resistance — the magnet
    • the question — the factors — the answer to a different question
    • distinctions — divisions — similarities
  • “My Brother Walter” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • ascension — excelsior — dizziness
    • apparent imbalance — unexpected dependency — unanticipated fear
    • much to share — golden goose — much to lose
    • complacent affection — benevolent affection — fearful affection

(This was a fascinating one)

  • “Black Leg” — Glen Hirshberg (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • Reluctant interest — misguided pursuit — incomplete escape
    • Rumour — fact — flight
    • Rumour — encounter — fact
    • Boredom — intrigue — terror
    • Disconnection — search — connection or
    • Disaffection — search — affection

Some solid classic Gothic/ghost story-shapes in there

  • “The Merman” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • acceptance of wonder — acceptance by wonder — rejection of wonder
    • hope — joy — resignation
    • vision? — reality? — delusion?
    • view of world confirmed — view of world expanded — view of world contracted
    • a path — a step forward — two back

There are some points of comparison between this and ‘Pemi Aguda’s “Masquerade Season” (see earlier).

  • “Rage of Pestilence” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • tension — equilibrium threatened — implosion
    • in-breathing — held breath — tremendous exhalation
    • unsettlement — enquiry — oversetting
    • unexpected situation — exploration — tremendous shift
    • arrival — intervention — consequences
  • “Blood in the Thread” — Cheri Kamei (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • look over shoulder (of desire) — progression (“) — crisis (“)
    • elegy — threat — breaking-point
    • return to heart — spin out — return to heart
    • edge of loss — history of value — final grace
  • “The Size of Things” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • unsettling arrival — uncomfortable persistence — regrettable departure
    • resistance — hesitation — ineffectiveness
    • grudging — anxious — bewildered
    • oddness — progression — confirmation

(“The Size of Things” is another story I particularly enjoyed from Schweblin’s collection)

  • “Underground” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • the distancing frame — the horror — the frame closes in
    • boredom — interest — rapid exit
    • mundanities — horrors — doors not quite closed
    • the door (series) — the fate(s) — the echo
    • (another classic Gothic/horror shape for this one) idle curiosity — obsession — loop

Underground” plays with patterns I keep revisiting, which makes it both fascinating and difficult to get perspective on. It also echoes VERY neatly Schweblin’s “The Digger” earlier in the collection, which I enjoyed, and which feels more resonant now.

Just read Samanta Schweblin’s “On the Steppe” and may never stop screaming! Not sure what about! But aaaargh! My mother’s going to love it.

  • “On the Steppe” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • quirk — anxiety re flip — probability of worse
    • hard-working hope — off-key — panic
    • intention — suspicion — realisation

Aaaaaargh!

  • “Slowing Down” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • declaration — outcome — consequence
    • slow loss — full loss — deep loss
    • leave-taking — leaving — left (& lesser)
  • “A Great Effort” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • resistance — gradual softening — unfurling
    • a knot — a kneading — a correction
    • alone — at odds — aligned
  • “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • Mundane — surreal — forcible reinvention
    • Numbness — bewilderment — helplessness
    • Acting on — overtaken — acted upon
    • Grim — effort to regain normality — grotesque

“On the Steppe”, “The Size of Things” and “My Brother Walter” (and maybe “The Digger”) struck me most forcibly from Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds.

Also, watching Encanto immediately after reading “My Brother Walter” (above) is a whole mood.

  • “Sand” — Jasmine Kirkbride (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • situation — struggle — incremental improvement
    • so it is — must it be — might it change
    • irritants — aggravation — shine
    • fighting — working — change
  • “Questions Asked in the Belly of the World” — Aliza Greenblatt (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • worry — fear — beyond
    • within — feel edges — getting out
    • fear of loss — attempts to avoid — changes of definition & pursuit
    • sth wrong with world — how world works — break (through/free)

It’s interesting, too, to see where stories have similar patterns and if I react to them in the same way, or how they differ. Also if there are echoes between Or fields of similarity occupied by the stories by an author, or in one subgenre, or in a particular publication.

E.g. at a very cursory glance above, the more literary stories tended to end on an absence of control, and the shorter themed SF on a note of hope. Many of the longer stories ended on a stronger note of new or self- determination, particularly in the strange-world stories.

That’s all based on how I read them: YMMV and this is not comprehensive or anything! More explanation and caveats: Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories.

Also the stories above are a very narrow selection: 1-author collections, themed issues, a market with a distinct voice, etc.

  • “Now We Paint Worlds” — Matthew Kressell (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • revulsion — resistance — reversal
    • discovery (of idea) — rivalry (ditto) — triumph
    • what they know — what you know — truth will out
    • external encounter — internal journey — influence
    • work — despair — hope
      Or
    • enquiry — despair — hope (battered)

Interestingly, this could also map to a classic Gothic shape (door, emergence, residual alarm).

  • “#Spring Love, #Pichal Pairi” — Usman T Malik (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • negotiation — terms — force majeure
    • discovery — coexistence — loss(?)
    • world as wished — reality of wonder — world rushes in
    • meeting — confluence — divergence

[nb for retellings & pandemics]

This was very much a what-if-but-in-THIS-timeline story which while being utterly contemporary also gave it a very old-school urban fantasy vibe. And those story-shapes feel like they could apply equally to eg a Bordertown type of tale: 

The world washes over wonder / wonder exists within the world.

  • “Let All the Children Boogie” — Sam J Miller (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • distinct — allying — united
    • tentative — determined — reassured
    • encounters — reaching out/holding on — promise
    • hints — deepening — suspended note

Some gorgeously physical descriptions of sound, too.

  • “#Selfcare” — Annalee Newitz (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • indirect oppressiveness — resistance — alliance
    • general threat — specific threat — renegotiation
    • antagonisms — friendships — alliances
    • symptoms — diagnosis — lancing
    • problem — details — alternative

Given recent discussions, it’s also been interesting observing the differences between an upbeat (or grimdark) TONE, an upbeat SETTING, upbeat SITUATIONS, and an upbeat ENDING (and degrees thereof).

To take examples from upthread: A lyrical story in a glamorous world with horrible abuses vs a near-future dystopia that ends with tentative friendships.

Personally, I seem to gravitate to some degree of offset. Beautiful tone/unsettling ending; grim setting/delightful characters; or some in-between neutral/ambiguous/bittersweet tunings

(I’d possibly add IDEA to that list, although it does roll into all the others)

Anyway, another useful aspect of this project has been that it makes me focus a lot more on the story and what it’s doing, rather than just whether it appealed to me at the time.

  • “The Far Side of the Universe” — noc (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • job — understanding — fear
    • clinical — inklings — love
    • confidence — explanation — undermining
    • life — death — affection
  • “A Better Way of Saying” — Sarah Pinsker (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • story — official story — real story
    • how we got here — what we did on the way — what remains
    • the world — a small magic — the world rolls on
    • scene — tools — choice
    • education — application — growth
  • “Baby Teeth” — Daniel Polansky (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • encounter — education — regret
    • revelation — grim reality — aftermath
    • ambient loss — grubby horror — wistful
    • stand alone — reach for connection — efface self
    • foreshadow — false hopes — bleak truths
  • “The Future Library” — Peng Shepherd (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • roots — outgrowth — legacy
    • disaster’s eve — disaster’s crest — last effort
    • plans — instead — actually
    • story you know — story we believe — real story
    • love — lose — resist
    • survival — destruction — disclosure

Stories made up of alternative versions are intriguing. The stories-within have their own progressions. However, they are usually deliberately/necessarily unsatisfying (or TOO tidy) on their own.

That gives the sub-stories their own moods, but also means they need the alternative versions to lean against. E.g., the individual progression:

fall in love — happy life — death in knowledge of love

It can definitely be written as a compelling story on its own. But in a lean-to story structure, its function is often primarily to create sentiment/backstory/foundation.

And often the facet-stories feel more like two-mood progressions, anecdotes, something the narrator started to tell before changing their mind (which is also a great mood to end on, but that seems to show up more in more literary modes)

E.g.

  • A job —> an encounter
    or
  • An encounter —> an event

In the story those two partial versions are from, that pairing gets followed by a third full progression: skill — situation — decision. That can still be played very simply, but it leans on the experience of the first two.

Examples above are from Pinsker’s “A Better Way of Saying” (notes here) and Shepherd’s “The Future Library” (notes here).

Anyway, as previously remarked, this is me feeling my way through story structures from the inside out. See also: Breaking down stories — variations.

I also wrote a little story on a side-thread, demonstrating taking an image and applying it to a three-mood story shape. You can find that at this tweet:

  • “Aptitude” — Cooper Shrivastava (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • determination — persistence — alternative
    • grim — nefarious — awe
    • tension — undermining — building
    • schemes — crimes — beauty
    • anxiety — concern/frustration — delight

(I’ve enjoyed all these, but “Aptitude” was a particular delight)

  • “Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels” — Lavie Tidhar (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • question — investigation — conclusion
    • solutions — inadequacy of — explanation
    • misery — discomfort — resignation
    • uncomfortable situation — chaotic rearrangements — inevitable outworkings

I’ve mentioned before that I define “mood” very loosely (Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories). Lately I’ve been more conscious of switching between different tracks when looking for these: the tone taken, my emotions & reactions, the nature of events, the experience of the focus character/s

So, e.g., the first two Judge Dee patterns above are a fairly general mystery shape and a classic variation. “Misery — discomfort — resignation” describes Jonathan’s experience, while the last line follows events that could be described as vampires behaving badly.

Sometimes they’re in harmony, sometimes in tension, sometimes the shape will describe the theme (a number of the stories about creativity seem to do this).

  • “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” — Catherynne M. Valente (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • loving horror — grimness grows — each to own
    • striving — cracks — split paths
    • mythic — mundane extension — mythic consequence
    • consequence of prior act — unfolding consequences — repudiate prior act

That “mythic — mundane extension — mythic consequence” progression is something Valente often plays with. It’s really interesting to compare it to e.g. Schweblin, as well, and certain literary stories which import the mythic into the everyday and then leave it there, vs taking the everyday back into the realm of the mythic.

I enjoy stories in both modes, and both can be about making the mythic grubby or elevating the mundane. But it’s interesting to see where the genre labels tend to fall.

“Literary” seems to have an air of “and so it is”, whereas stories classified as more centrally SFF tend to leave on a note of “and so it was” (fable/romp), “and so it might/could/should be” (hope or warning), or “and so it should not have been” (tragedy).

My guess is that more popular-realist/mainstream short stories tend to those same ending-notes as SFF but for some reason I haven’t read many recent stories in that area.

As ever — these are just my reactions to patterns in a very small pool. Also I haven’t been consciously separating horror out — the final note there is of course often “good grief!” or “argh!”, but that can modulate any of the elements above. “Happily ever after” can be terrifying.

Addendum: obviously SFF also runs the other way, treating the mythic as an everyday/real and staying in that mode.

  • “The Tinder Box” — Kate Elliott (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
    • a plan — a course of action — outcomes
    • past — present — plans
    • beginning — middle — end
    • decay — rot generates heat — conflagration — conflagration
    • spark — tinder — flames
      One more for “The Tinder Box”, as a fairy-tale reframe/sequel:
    • the known tale — the follow-on — the next turn of the wheel

Those first three dot points for “The Tinder Box” were interesting. Most stories haven’t had “beginning — middle — end” as their *moods*, or such a smooth progression of character intention.

But this is a story-behind-the-story story, and to a degree a good-at-your-job story. It makes sense in those that events progress in tension with the original/official/known version, and are drawn along by the pleasantness of watching something work out. Vs eg setbacks, twists, dangers etc.

And that, I think, is the last story I had left to make notes on in the Tor.com “Some of the Best of 2021” table of contents: https://www.tor.com/2021/12/07/announcing-the-table-of-contents-for-some-of-the-best-from-tor-com-2021/.

I want to compare some of the myth & fairy-tale reworkings, too — see e.g the notes on Valente’s story above. (I also recently started reading Veronica Schanoes’ collection Burning Girls and Other Stories, so there are some connections there, with a rather different treatment.)

  • “Glass Bottle Dancer” — Celeste Rita Baker (Lightspeed Magazine, 2020)
    • interest — hard work — unexpected reward
    • alone — observed/assisted — togetherness intensifies
    • general — particular — fantastic
    • focussed — observed — revealed
    • inspiration — dedication — elevation
      *or
    • mundane — whimsical — fantastic
      (and from further notes below)
      • civic-domestic — smaller domestic — expansive civic
      • one set of voices — two sets of voices — all the voices

It’s been really interesting how many stories DON’T map first to a problems/opposition/difficulties structure. Yes, there are very often setbacks and conflicts, but on the level of experiencing the story, they aren’t always the main vibe.

I think that’s why I find a lot of ‘how to write short stories’ structural advice (and more granular story analysis, e.g. Breaking Down Stories — Variations) incredibly useful for *editing*, but far less so for the initial writing and extrapolating and flowing-through of a story.

Whereas, when I use this approach for sketching out stories — so far — the energy required to move between moods seems to automatically pull in a lot of those aspects (impetus, shifts, information).

Of course, it’s also a very simple framework for reading and thinking about other people’s stories.

Anyway, back to “Glass Bottle Dancer” above, it’s another story that is about a plan that works (if in more ways than expected) and about deliberate competence, and I’ve been finding the (apparently) straightforward progression of those fascinating.

  • “Writing You” — Sharang Biswas (Lightspeed Magazine, 2021)
    • a loss — a reckoning with it — a healing
    • broken — considering the wound — remade (if smaller)
    • mundane action — uncommon parallel — comfort of the common
    • domestic — elevated — domestic

The first two are a classic dealing-with-grief story pattern. Loss is written about in many ways, with many patterns, but this shape seems to be a bit like “cracked-open door — intrusion — lingering alarm” is for Gothic tales.

There’s a whole lot more going on in all of these, of course — these are my initial responses as a reader, and often when I think back on a story from a distance, I notice other shapes, like the “civic-domestic — smaller domestic — expansive civic” pattern of “Glass Bottle Dancer” (above). Which also has a rather triumphal choral progression:

  • one set of voices — two sets of voices — all the voices

Which overlaps with POV-structural questions, but is also definitely a set of moods. You could use it equally to progress a fairy-tale retelling, or a story of vengeance, or a delightfully chaotic romance. Or, as here, a story which turns so heavily ON voice — metaphorical or literal — and being seen/heard, and the occasionally startling (but magnificent) consequences.

  • “Among the Thorns” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls and Other Stories, 2021)
    • loss/tragedy — plans/arrangements — vengeance
    • love — vengeance — love
    • innocence — allegiances — adulthood
    • behind the story — deals with numinous — a further story
    • cruelty — tending coals — conflagration
  • “How to Bring Someone Back From the Dead” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls and Other Stories, 2021)
    • possibility — metaphor — impossibility
    • journey — destination — task
    • instructions — observations — attempt
    • determination — grief — denied
    • the one story you know — all the stories you know — actions based on stories
    • how the story is true — all stories are true — or are they
    • descent — finding — waking

It took me a few attempts on that one, because of structure.

  • “Alice: A Fantasia” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls and Other Stories, 2021)
    • real life — fantastic — surreal
    • jealous — unsettling — poetic
    • envy — danger — waking into/out-of
    • envy among innocents — innocence threatened — reality fractured
    • alternative — split perspectives — tangled words
      and after the notes below on individual sections:
    • inevitability — lurking threat — confusion of words

That was an interesting one because, like the last two, it is still a response/reworking, but one that relies *very* heavily on the reader’s knowledge of the source text. “Among the Thorns” (above) tells the base story expressly, while “How to bring…” is heavily allusive but its own tale.

“Alice…” however has a shape that seems *heavily* dependent on the unretold source text — three responses to a source. So I’m curious to see how those patterns work in other contexts. And to break down the three parts, to the extent they could be separate stories (see comment about lean-to stories upstream)

Okay, a quick breakdown on the three parts of “Alice: A Fantasia” by Veronica Schanoes.

  • 1/3: “Ina First”
    • the plain — the beautiful — the pull
    • the deserving — the undeserving — the reason
    • bewilderment — puzzlement — resignation
    • beneath the visible — pull of the visible — inescapability

Those are shapes that follow more of a statement-proof-conclusion format.

  • 2/3: “Alice Has Mirror-Sign Delusion”
    • secret — shared — reassured
    • danger within — dangers without — danger postponed
    • split vision — shared vision — unified vision (for now)
    • door — thing that MIGHT come through it — lingering suspicion only for reader

That last is an interesting riff on a classic Gothic shape.

  • 3/3: “Alice at the Clang Association”
    • enter — journey — leave
    • blended — stirred — broken

That third section is triply referential at least — a lot of “The Windhover” allusions. It’s also tricky because it’s poetry, and surface-of-the-words first (sound > clarity, as flagged in the title). It adds another shape to the whole story: inevitability — lurking threat — confusion of words.

Anyway, it’s interesting, as a triptych and something that feels like you’ve read a story but doesn’t necessarily link the elements. But the different shapes/moods of the sections set up the contrasts needed to *feel* like a single piece.

It wouldn’t be the same if they were all the same note.

I then decided to try the three-mood breakdown on something that felt like a story, although it wasn’t fiction.

Screenshot of linked tweet

A robot vacuum cleaner made a break for freedom after giving staff the slip at a Travelodge hotel.

The automated cleaner failed to stop at the front door of the hotel in Orchard Park in Cambridge on Thursday, and was still on the loose the following day.

Staff said it just kept going and “could be anywhere” while well-wishers on social media hoped the vacuum enjoyed its travels, as “it has no natural predators” in the wild.

It was found under a hedge on Friday.

— BBC News

I based my notes on the screenshotted extract —the full story has a recurring/iterative newspaper structure rather than a story structure.

  • “The escape of the robot vacuum cleaner” — BBC News (2022)
    (these moods depend very much on the point of view from which you read the piece)
    • dramatic escape — triumphal progress — soothing conclusion
    • abrupt break — ardent investment — ignominious end
    • solitary — adored — valued
    • independence — pursuit — defeat
    • patronising personification — performative investment — revolution thwarted
    • thrill — rollercoaster — safety
    • oddity — investment — relief 

Enlarged, it could be Rudolph / Homeward Bound, or The Great Escape / The Hunger Games. 

The less scaffolding in a tiny story, the more ways it can be read, but that very stark final sentence, after the playful emotive lines preceding it, seems designed to make you question the lightness of the tale. And to make you question the goodwill of the well-wishers, by asking how they will respond to this, and what they will do now?

  • “To Make Unending” — Max Gladstone (Sunday Morning Transport, 2022)
    • puzzlement — bewilderment — trust
    • crack — chasm — closed
    • doubt — attempts at understanding — a different understanding
    • age vs children — age vs youth — age alongside newly adult
  • “Legend” — Karen Lord (Sunday Morning Transport, 2022)
    • an end — beginning — the end
    • curiosity — past — now
    • the present — a history — a farewell
    • rejecting curiosity — rejecting tidy answers — rejecting comfort
    • a question of sorts — an answer of sorts — a finale
    • light affection — troubled alliance — deep connection
  • “Walking to Doggerland (1)” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    • uncertainty — history — broken bubble
    • giving — grasping after — letting go
    • choices doubted — ” puzzled over — ” made
    • to past — critique history — form present
    • anticipation — reality — intention
    • submerge — swim — surfacing

This is part of a longer story split into three, so it will be interesting to consider it singly vs as part of a whole. But it’s also SO DIFFERENT to Karen Lord’s “Legend” (above) while also using (from one angle) the same pattern: “the present — a history — a farewell”

The idea, the theme, the point is entirely different, but the ink follows similar paths as it bleeds across the paper. Narrative structure as capillary action.

  • “Open House on Haunted Hill” — John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots, 2020)
    • determination — efforts thwarted — second chance
    • strive — hold on — hope
    • anxious — desperation — restraint
    • less than — fight to change — more with
    • performing – heavy-handed — light touch

All those patterns are very much about the tension between what you want and how you get it.

  • “Phosphorus” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls and Other Stories, 2021)
    • into focus — prolongation — fade from view
    • lit flame — (too?) steady flame — burning down
    • realisation — whatever it takes — what it took
    • into history — what happens to you there — out of history
    • bitterness/hate — action/love — peace

Re. the fourth point, “Phosphorus” is not a time-travel story, but it might be in how it manages the reader’s experience of the past.

Also, while very much about a particular achievement, it’s less about achieving it than just holding on until then. Which gives it some of the smooth inevitable shape of a competency story, but with far less gratification and far more stumbling-over-the-finish-line.

Also I kind of want to compare the shapes of several phosphorus-girl stories, because it’s a history with its own very strong narrative gravity, and I’m curious to see who has done what with it. Brooke Bolander and CSE Cooney spring to mind, in addition to Schanoes — if you have recommendations for other *short* stories about the phosphorus girls, I am interested.

This whole process/project has dramatically enhanced my short story reading (quantity, enjoyment, usefulness). Working out what something does, even within a very small set of parameters, is usually both more enjoyable and more useful than attempting to say whether I like it, or if it’s “good”, or if I get it (and usually helps with the latter anyway).

Hence the werewolf soundtrack game, in which you pretend a song is over the end credits of a werewolf movie, & attempt to reconstruct the film. I’m not great at music. But I can work out the effect it would have in a narrow context. And usually listen more deeply as a result. See: Musical Werewolves — a game for one or more players, and the Jane Austen version: The Emma heist and concert strategies.

Malcolm Devlin’s writing is just a delight, btw. Rich and smooth.

  • “Finisterre” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    • drama — human awkwardness — ordinary
    • incidental encounters — fragile connections — tricky humanity
    • possibility of a great question — hinted evidence — tablecloth pulled away
    • the question of A and B — can there be A without B? — B without A?
      (Where for this story A & B = faith and wonder)

I was so affronted that it *ended* and then the end sort of swam into focus, like a Polaroid.

  • “Ballroom Blitz” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls and Other Stories, 2021)
    • other side of the story — end of the story — after
    • being there — getting out — back again
    • exhaustion — desperation — decision
    • bitterness — love as means — “ as end
    • lack (of control) — grasping — getting
    • nightmare — waking — living
    • consequences — terms — choices

That was another fairytale reworking, and it’s interesting to see where authors pick up those threads, and where they take them. Following on, following exactly, looking behind, before, telling the other side or that everyone was mistaken, or that events are true but the meaning forgotten…

(That went off on its own side-digression, which I’m working up into a separate piece)

  • “Serpents” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls and Other Stories, 2021)
    • [mostly]story 1 — story2 — story1
    • child — progress — adulthood
    • departures — winding path — arrivals
    • wishing — becoming — emerging
    • descents — traverses — ascents
    • following — gathering — teaching
    • no frame of ref — some landmarks — home

Most of those shapes clearly belong to a coming-of-age story (which this is). It also has sparks of one of my favourite sub-varieties, which is where someone striking out on their own rapidly becomes responsible for others.

As a reimagining of existing stories, it’s interesting for how it shifts between two, catching up different threads of each (the jacquard style of retelling?)

  • “We Can Walk it off Come The Morning” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    • enchanted — lost — mired
    • at the edge of something — towards something — on the brink of something
    • faint disappointment — camaraderie — exhaustion
    • neutrality — concern — fear
    • borders — pathways — uncharted land

The endings of the stories in Devlin’s collection are so subtle, and sometimes — if you sit with them — quietly devastating.

  • “Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls and Other Stories, 2021)
    • past — imagined — present/future
    • how to tell the past — a fable — how to rationalise
    • a life — a hope — a living
    • grinding down — reigniting — rolling on
    • ideal v history — history v magic — present v history
    • Never at rest — offered a home — finding one
    • what will be at stake — the risk — what is now at stake

There’s a bit going on in “Emma Goldman…”: It’s a three-part story, a reimagined legend and a reimagined life, and an essay.

Breaking down the three parts:

  • Part 1: “History is a fairy tale”
    • youth — adulthood — age
    • ambition — fire — guttering
    • nature of story — nature of a life — nature of a revolution

That is functional as as a story-shape, but not quite finished, and finishes on a sliding downbeat (mostly).

  • Part 2: “The Fantasy”
    • arrival — conversation — departure
    • weariness — invigoration — reignition
    • exhaustion — offer — rejection
    • a door — a chance — a return
    • seeking — pursued — rejecting

This is much more of a full classic genre story-shape. The other two parts lead to and depend on it for effect. It also has at its centre the pivot around which the story swings.

  • Part 3: “The End, Justifying the Means”
    • (own) youth — a reckoning with history — belief
    • present — future — past
    • hope from the past — fears for the future — lessons for living

That third section carries the essay/didactic structure — the preceding parts give context & narrative.

Re retellings: here, in “Emma Goldman Takes Tea With the Baba Yaga”, the fairy tale is a space outside of time to process & consider time before returning to it (the great fantasy), but also a place that lopes alongside, and that can be perceived in the world. (This tied back to some broader notes I was making, but they’ve spun into their own project — more on that in due course).

Malcolm Devlin’s “We Can Walk it off Come The Morning” (above) teases (in deliberately nebulous fashion) the possibility of a similar use of a fairy-tale: a border-state *within* the visible (if foggy) world, a time-inside-of-time within which things (which?) can be processed, that might be summoned (perhaps?) or stumbled into, and that can be departed (maybe), the rules of which you might have encountered before… That place is not the point of the story, but the shifting, sparsely-furnished space that allows it to happen.

  • “Fruiting Bodies” — Kemi Ashing-Giwa (Tor.com, 2022)
    • apparent truth — inconsistent action — truth
    • farewells — fights — futures
    • world — across it — into it
    • deaths — striving — life
    • oppositions — treacheries — redefinitions
    • bleakness — determination — hope

It’s interesting to hold “Fruiting Bodies” up against Aliza Greenblatt’s “Questions Asked in the Belly of the World” (see notes above), because there are obvious parallels, but the story-shapes are different. They aren’t inconsistent patterns, but in one story we know all the characters do, and in the other we don’t, so the experience of the progression is very different (also intensity, etc).

  • “Rats” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021), being a story with the following three moods:
    • Oh, so you want a “story” — <approaches innocently then squashes it in your face and grinds it in> — <spits on you when you’re down>
  • Take 2: “Rats” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021)
    • sarcasm — disdain — disgust
    • flippancy — sympathy — protectiveness
    • once… — grimmer — cut out heart
    • little cuts — deepening wounds — coup de grâce
    • what are stories — how model fits — life

“Rats” is an interesting retelling. It claims to dismiss the fairy-tale for not fitting reality, while at the same time deepening sympathy for the actual people so much (by telling them through that frame and bending it to fit), that the fairy-tale patterns get redefined accordingly.

But that first shape is so vigorous. I read a bunch of story-shaped memes/posts through the three-mood lens, for reasons, and mostly that’s where I’ve found that sort of energy in a shape (although usually less scornful and more triumphant).

It also highlights how much just *tone of voice* can do to drive a story. And how much of writerly “voice” can be in fact, well, just *voice* — the prose equivalent of using body language and arm gestures and volume and inflection to play upon the reader. Dryly academic or flailing or malicious or insinuating, or joyful or bitterly kind or cracking up at its own jokes so much that you can barely understand it.

It is fun encountering stories that just lean into that — or finding a clear tone to take that unifies a draft. A strong unifying voice doesn’t always modulate hugely over a story, of course. “Rats” moves from sarcasm to intense earnestness to vitriol. Possibly because it’s a narrator-commentator.

On the other hand, Daniel Lavery’s “I am the Horrible Goose That Lives in The Town”, energetic if less weighty, maintains a single triumphant clarion call (although there are mood shifts running beneath that).

  • “Lost in the Supermarket” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021)
    • invisibility — visibility — rage
    • bewilderment — incoherence — focus
    • bread — blood — tequila
    • childlike — adult-like — powers combined
    • skinless — wrong clothes — fighting gear
    • lost — complicit/loops — escape velocity
      Refining further:
    • goblin market — uncomfortable cures — grumpy rescues
    • consume A (artificial) — consume B (visceral) — breathe out C (fire)
    • X won’t save you — Y won’t save you — the spirit of Z will save you
      (where X = your mother, Y = your friends, and Z = punk rock)

I am interested to get to the ends of the Schanoes and Devlin collections and look for patterns across the books/authors.

  • “Swimming” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021)
    • claustrophobia — violence — orbit
    • alarm — intention — momentum
    • horror of (love) — violence of (love) — such is (love)
    • compression — reaction — survival
    • place — person — life

I like the possibilities of those “A — B — manner of coexistence” structures. M. L. Krishnan’s “Knife, Bride, Flaming Horse” (Apparation Lit), a rather different story, had a related shape. I posted about that here: Story Shapes and Extrapolation. Its shape is: awkwardness — proliferation of options — harmony.

  • “Episode 4: The Deflection of Probability” — Premee Mohamed (Escape Pod, 2021)
    • your problem — everybody’s problem — A + B
    • anxiety — panic — action
    • underdog — chaos — very particular skills
    • maintaining cool — no cool — stiff upper lip

A classic structure, for a very particular effect (and a fun story, which runs along its shape smoothly, deploying well-worn adjectives and idioms pointedly).

It’s also really interesting to read “The Deflection of Probability” alongside Cooper Shrivastava’s “Aptitude” (see notes above), which has a similar underdog, classic mundane context + very advanced science setup, but which goes in a rather different direction. (I enjoyed both very much.)

  • “Coiffeur Seven” — Kiran Kaur Saini (Strange Horizons, 2021)
    • inhumanity — sympathy — humanity
    • incompatibility — exposure — synthesis
    • ruling — appeal — granted
    • acting upon — acted upon — purpose
    • end of life — glimpses of life — ongoing life

There’s that A — B — A&B pattern again (in “incompatibility — exposure — synthesis“). A few stories it’s appeared in:

  • a violence inherent in affection
  • peaceful polyamorous cross-plane ménages
  • hair & meanings and artificial intelligence
  • solving problems in quantum physics
  • “Lily Glass” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021)
    • possessed — reaching — can’t quite
    • image — kaleidoscope — shards
    • promise — unexpected — failure
    • makeup — mirror — mess
    • thin — deep — dissolve
    • in this story — in wrong story — centre cannot hold
    • image — kaleidoscope — [new whole / better / broken]

That last is another retelling shape.

  • “Five Conversations with my Daughter (Who Travels in Time)” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    • broken — whole — both
    • cracks — matching pieces — back together different
    • not great (selfishness) — salvaging — better
    • bewildered — patient — enough to be getting on with
  • “The Revenant” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021)
    • what was lost — and how — revenges
    • a musing — a summoning — a waiting
    • making — biding — taking
    • setting the scene — what came of it — what next

The shape is a linear progression, although the structure of the text is not chronological.

And finally, finishing Veronica Schanoes’ collection Burning Girls and Other Stories with the novella “Burning Girls”, which I very much enjoyed and which stretches the edges of this way of reading because it is a novella rather than a short story, and passes the length at which a narrative can be held together by surface tension.

As a result, bigger structures are necessary to support it, and although it is a straightforward story, it’s not as easy to hold the shape in mind, and it’s doing more integral things at once.

I did have a few shots at it.

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below
  • “Burning Girls” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021)
    (considered as if it were a short story)
    • apprentice — journeyman — wisdom
    • danger without — danger within — systemic danger
    • foundations — buildings — insufficiencies
    • baseline — upward struggle — persistence of that through-line
    • old — new — same
    • roots — growths — fruits

It’s still short enough that the trace-shapes of a three-mood structure are there, but the strain shows.

It does reflect other three-part story structures: central three-mood progression that looks like one story; an initial story-shape that *could* stand on it its own but would have unfinished business; a coda/vignette that ties the others off but needs them to have its effect.

But the final events feel as if they can be proportionately shorter here than they’d need to be in a shorter story. The balance is different.

In terms of a retelling, it involves:

  • “Burning Girls” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021)
    (considered as a retelling)
    • building a view of a world — teasing the tale you know (using the rules & characters you now know) — paying off the fairy tale in that world
      or:
    • lifting up the elements of history/splicing in the bits of story you’ll need for the story — twisting them together until they can support the fairy-tale — knotting tale and threads together

And finally a possible three-part consideration, breaking the novella into sections:

  • “Burning Girls” — Veronica Schanoes (Burning Girls, 2021)
    (as three parts)
    • 1. bitterness — efficacy — powerlessness
      (this does not finish on an ending note — it leads on to part 2)
    • 2. hope — danger — rescue
      (this part feels most like a full story, if a simple one)
    • 3. fear — triumph — loss
      (this flows from, pays off, and depends on the central tale)
  • “Walking to Doggerland (2)” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    It’s the second part of a novella, split into 3 across the collection, but considered as a separate piece:
    • brittleness — how arrived at — tentative mending
    • three — one — two
    • friction — choices — simplicity (inevitability?
    • resistance — repression — listening
    • worry — melancholy — joy
  • “Telling the Bees” — Kat Howard (Sunday Morning Transport, 2022)
    • life — predator — contamination
    • simple good — subtle means — strong measures
    • shared secrets — kept secrets — separations
    • build — destroy — mend
    • bright enchanted — encroaching mundane — clouded enchantment
    • establish the myth — threaten the myth — reconfirm at a cost
    • sweet — bitter — bittersweet

“Telling the Bees” is not a retelling as such, but it relies on fairy-tale-adjacent myths, as you can see in the second-last shape listed above (establish the myth — threaten the myth — reconfirm at a cost).

Also, it’s always pleasing to discover a thematically-consistent story-shape (sweet — bitter — bittersweet) — and the more so when the author confirms that was their intention.

The notes on part one are earlier in this post.

The other satisfying thing about finding a good unifying three-mood pattern is how it interacts with the other readings, and can unify them — what is sweetness? What is bitter? (Songs of Innocence and of Experience.)

E.g. how it collates what “Telling the Bees” (above) considers sweet vs bitter vs bittersweet:
SWEET: life, simple goods, shared secrets, building, bright enchantment
BITTER: predators, subtle means, kept secrets, destruction, encroaching mundane BITTERSWEET: contamination, strong measures, separations, mending, clouding enchantment

It’s a useful little way to review what the story does — one of the ways to repurpose an essentially very high-level, simple approach to reading/making notes on a story.

However, while I’d analyse a story that way, I wouldn’t use it as a framework to *build* a story. It’s particular to Kat’s. But I think dropping another idea into the sweet — bitter — bittersweet shape would fill each mood out with the new story’s own meanings of that term.

E.g. haunted coffee machine: if that image falls into the “sweet” mood progression, then “sweetness” might be about desires and needs and community and service.

If the haunted coffee machine image falls into the “bitter” mood of the story, then something that existed (honest & alive & caffeinated) is being twisted and contaminated by the haunting. Or a beautiful machine is wrecked by the organic/supernatural.

But if the image of the haunted machine is “bittersweet”, then perhaps the lingering ghost of the shop that was there before the cafe is the sweet thing (nostalgia, loss, tradition), and the cafe’s initially unhaunted presence the bitter. Or vice versa. But together they go on.

And in any of those cases there’s now a short little story-shaped story to build out and elaborate upon.

And that’s the end of the January 2022 short story reading thread!

Further posts are here:

And here is a list of all the stories read above:

11 thoughts on “January 2022 Big Giant Three-Mood Story Reading Thread

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  11. Pingback: July 2022 Short Story Reading Post | Kathleen Jennings

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