June 2022 short story reading thread

Photo of handwritten short story notes

This post is a roughly tidied version of my June 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s quite long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

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Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From The Art Gallery

This page of the observation journal is a reflection (nefarious) on a visit to QAGOMA (the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art).

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a running lizard, notes on things seen at the gallery

The Five Things To Steal exercise is a useful way to quickly make notes on and tease inspiration from specific books, movies, etc. But I’ve also found it a lovely way to approach a broader experience — in this case, an art gallery.

It’s a good way to capture a substantial (but not overwhelming) handful of impressions, and speculate on what to do with them.

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Handwritten notes on 5 Things To Steal From QAGOMA
  • The sense of being parachuted into someone else’s visual memory: a sense of slowly descending into a landscape belonging to a particular artistic vocabulary.
    • This was in relation to a Mavis Ngallametta exhibition — I’d seen the paintings in small reproductions, but that was nothing like the experience of simultaneously looking up at and floating down into their enormousness. And simultaneously being reshaped to fit into them.
    • I wrote a bit more about this vs writing in my post about Travelogues: All the shapes of the land.
    • It’s also something that I’ve been thinking about again more recently — it seems like it should relate very much to map illustration, but I love it as an example of lowering readers into a world.
  • The scrolling effect of the repetition of a long cabinet full of ceramic forms like water plants and coral and fungi.
    • This is for the reminder to use repetition, but also the appeal of long decorative bands.
    • (Like the notes on the camp dogs, below, this fascination continues to get into the calendar patterns.)
  • The mundane writ large, gaining weight and honour and importance.
    • This is about the value of the everyday, yes, but also of the contribution detail and texture and focus have to making something feel mythic.
  • Sunken garden, mirror pool, bronze figures, water dragons — a particular enchanted aesthetic.
    • (This is a description of the gallery cafe.)
    • I’ve noted it as a potential aesthetic for a large project I’m just now editing. It managed to completely flow off the back of that story, but I’m hoping it will pool in the next project.
  • The Aurukun camp dog sculptures, for a large number of repetitions that are entirely individual and have very distinct personalities. (And I mean, look at them.)

I enjoy looking back at these five-things-to-steal posts, finding my way back into an experience of something, turning over fascinations to see how they’ve grown or what’s grown under them.

I also like this little list of things seen on the same day (from the left-hand observation page — that structure is based on a Lynda Barry exercise, see more on this page: observation journal).

Handwritten list of things seen during the day, including wildlife and art exhibitions

I like the specificity of it, the way that makes the everyday remarkable, the way the list of disparate things forms into an impression of a day, the weight of wistfulness of the absence of jacaranda flowers under the painting where they are sometimes scattered.

Illustration/writing exercise:

  • Go to an exhibition or art gallery (in person or virtual). Roam around it idly.
  • Then think of five things you would like to pinch from it.
  • Then ask yourself why — what about that artwork or approach to curation or unexpected lighting appealed to you?
  • Then make your heist plan: how would you steal each of those effects for your own art/writing?
  • Do a little written or drawn sketch of a way you might incorporate that aspect.

Terrible tiny ballpoint sketch of running lizard
terrible lizard sketch, water dragons do not look very like this

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Observation journal: Building stories out of moods

On this pair of observation journal pages, I was still thinking through the three-moods approach to short fiction. That’s described in more detail here: Story shapes — three-mood stories, and has spun off into its own series of very large short-story reading posts and quite a few short stories (mostly rolled into some larger projects, such as Patreon stories and sub-stories in a current manuscript).

These pages helped me by:

  • clarifying the usefulness of a three-mood structure in:
    • coming up with a story-shape
    • coming up with and developing ideas
  • reminding me of the usefulness of having a clear final note towards which to aim (see also e.g. picture to story idea)
  • confirming the power of adjectives (somewhat flippant but I do like them)

There is (as usual) an exercise at the end of this post, if you want to try it out yourself.

On earlier pages, I’d been breaking down existing stories into broad moods/vibes. See e.g. story structures and story patterns.

Here, I started trying to build up a story shape in the other direction. First I made a list of emotions. Then I picked three at random and looked at what sort of story that progression would suggest.

Handwritten notes on moods and stories and an illustration of one idea.

Here’s the initial list of moods (non-exhaustive):

surpriseinstigationseething
horrormomentumaggression
suspiciondoubtantagonism
anticipationfearactive
dreadterrorrevulsion
delightbewildermentrepentance
desireknowledgeemotive
greednaïvetémelodramatic
affectionplaciditysupportive
incorrigibleirrepressiblebereft
jaunty

After picking three at random, I looked for the sort of story which that progression of moods might suggest. For example:

  • greed — doubt — aggression
    –> acquisitiveness and wanting leads to falsity and the fear of potential failure which then leads to destruction (of self? of the object of desires? indiscriminate?) in that pursuit
  • naïveté — desire — placidity
    –> ignorance/innocence being swept up in honest pursuit of its desire, and then achieving its happily ever after having successfully learned no lesson.
    (I’d already written an earlier draft of “Merry in Time at this point, but it was a structure I wanted to lean into on those edits. Arguably lessons ARE learnt in that story, but not — I hope — the obvious ones for that shape of story.)

These clearly suggested story-shapes. I also liked the way that, taken together, the moods definitely implied an end state — a final note towards which to aim.

Here’s a little sketch of an idea:

Tiny ballpoint drawing of a shed labelled "surprise: secret door" then (inside) "horror: skeletons", then "suspicion: cemetery-like garden beds"
SURPRISE (secret door) —> HORROR (skeletons!) —> SUSPICION (cemetery-like garden beds)

Parts of this one (although not quite identifiable) have 100% got into parts of a subsequent large project (yet to be announced). The idea also contains concerns taken up in”Not To Be Taken” (in Bitter Distillations).

On the next page, I tried combining two moods (at random) for added nuance.

Handwritten notes on moods and stories.

For example:

  • suspicious bewilderment –> seething greed –> surprised revulsion
    be careful what you wish for / dreams of avarice
  • affectionate instigation –> knowledgeable horror –> doubtful anticipation
    succeeding too well
  • melodramatic delight –> greedy fear –> antagonistically supportive
    lives(?) for the drama

I also tried rearranging positions of the moods to see what would happen.

The main additional lesson from this page was the power of adjectives, and how much they modulate the expression of a mood.

A tiny ballpoint drawing of a tented arrangement of sticks
Minimalist cubby down by the creek — this has also appeared in another project

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Make a list of Big Moods (emotions/vibes/driving concerns). Try for at least 10, although 20 is usually more profitable. Think of moods you like from stories, emotions you’ve felt recently, etc. Or use the list earlier in this post.
  • Pick three at random.
  • Imagine they form the beginning, middle and end of a story. Make some notes as to what sort of story they suggest.
    • For example, if I chose “delight –> bewilderment –> repentance”, that might suggest an “all that glitters is not gold” story.
  • Think of a possible situation and character for that story — if nothing comes quickly to mind, pick a character and setting from a fairy tale or other template story, or just someone/thing you’ve seen today.
    • E.g. if I used the stick cubby picture above with “delight –> bewilderment –> repentance”, that could become a story about someone finding a cubby in the trees, and being charmed by it, and getting inside it, and then… well, all is not as it seems (and you’re in season 1 of Stranger Things).
  • Sketch out (in words or pictures) a tiny scene or moment for that possible story, capturing part of that vibe. If you’re having trouble choosing, consider what the final scene might be.
    • E.g. a kid scrambling delightedly into an ominous hiding place — or scrabbling desperately to get out.
  • Bonus: Repeat this a few times. Notice anything that particularly works for you — or doesn’t. Are there story-shapes or ideas that particularly spark? Moods that resonate for you, or which you have to struggle to like or capture? Story types or genres you tend towards? Make a note — that’s all useful information for things to try (or evade) in future.
A tiny ballpoint drawing of a beagle sleeping on a square cushion
sleeping beagle

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May 2022 short story reading post

Photo of notebook with handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my May 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s quite long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

Continue reading

Observation journal: Turning observations into (silly) ideas

A very quick look at four pages of the observation journal, all with the same activity (although with rather different slices of life on the left-hand, observation page).

I’ve written a bit about this activity in the past, see e.g. Improbable Inventions.

The left page in these journals is based on an exercise from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus — 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture or diagram of something from the day. (I’ve added a fifth box for overarching observations about what I was/wasn’t noticing, etc).

The game

For each exercise, I picked three observations at random from an observation page. (Sometimes from the page I was on, sometimes from a day earlier in the week.) Then I made myself combine them into three new ideas. Usually the ideas are for a story or image, but sometimes they are just for ridiculous innovations.

For example:

  • a boat covered with an old vinyl ad instead of a tarp + hairdryers + feeling sad in the grocery store became, by degrees: a pitch for bush mechanics but in space.
  • chalk thanks + a floor shifting + ordering Thai takeaway became: chalk-drawing powers/generates $ to buy food — kinetic, feet create or complete circuits
  • handbell + marking assignments +shifting a heavy table became: an exploration of a way to outsource assignment marking to the afterlife

But more usually they are for story ideas.

For example a cat bell + lightning + mulberries became:

  • belling the lightning –> lightning as cats or cats playing with lightning –> lightning sets all the mulberries ringing [and then a note that ridiculous as this sounds, you can take mulberries + big wild cats all the way back to Pyramus & Thisbe]
  • trees harvest lightning/storm energy to bake fruit on the branch [with a note to compare this to something in Gulliver’s Travels, although I might also have been thinking of the Big Rock Candy Mountains]
  • electric-purple lightning ringing around the bell of the world
  • and finally a note that asks the very reasonable question: What mice?

(And then I made a few notes teasing out possible connections to other recent fascinations.)

And a fainting couch + the shadow of a man on the roof + machinery roaring like the sea became, among other things:

  • A sickly lady sees the shadows of an angel cast on the lawn from a roof and hears the roar of the absent sea.
  • Someone on bed rest is entertained by a haunted magic lantern that gathers up and spools back.

At the time, I was looking for a next step — something to do to tease out the ideas that sparked. This was before I’d really leant into the three moods approach for quickly outlining and storing ideas until I could grow them into a picture or story.

Revisiting these pages, however, I’m amused to find that some of these did get into stories, occasionally much altered. Aspects of the roar of the sea certainly got into Girl Flees House, and from there into some short story projects. These particular mulberries became a key scene in a large draft I’m editing — they’re currently at risk of getting edited out again, but they did contribute.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a cat with lightning marks, shining and pouncing.

Purpose & usefulness

I do find this game a way to generate story ideas. But it’s more about the practice, the fun, the silliness, the sifting through the events of the day to turn the mundane into lightning-cats or baby-bouncer powered randomisation engines. And while it’s fun to mash-up any two observations into an idea, adding a third stretches the imagination in different ways.

From experience, it’s also an effective way to get a class (or myself) to come up with an original but ludicrous idea upon which to practice serious techniques. It loosens their (my) hold on my precious concept and lets me learn instead. See also Improbable Inventions.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a bouquet of flowers

Writing/illustration/invention activity

  • Make a quick list of things you’ve seen, heard and done today — or that you can see and hear right now.
  • Choose three at random.
  • Try to combine all three into a new idea for a story (or a movie or an invention — choosing only one category actually tends to help).
    Then come up with at least two more ideas, using that same combination of prompts. (This takes the pressure off and lets you try different angles of approach.)
  • Choose another three observations and repeat.
  • Bonus 1: What did you notice about how you combined the prompts into an idea? Did you try different methods each time? Did you try to hang them on some fascination or story-shape you like? Did any of the ideas spark, or seem so ridiculous they became sublime? Can you identify where they lifted off?
  • Bonus 2: If there’s a technique (writing or art, etc) you’ve been wanting to try on one of your own projects (or an intriguing exercise you’ve seen somewhere), try it out on one of these ideas first instead.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a teacup.

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Porco Rosso

This page of the observation journal features five things to steal from that delightful Studio Ghibli film Porco Rosso, which at the time of these notes Grace Dugan and I had just been to see again.

Porco Rosso poster — pig with goggles, scarf, flight suit in a red plane, giving a thumbs-up

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of crow on a McDonalds sign. On the right, notes on Porco Rosso.
everything lit golden, then frosted with blue light

I made these notes the day after the Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders post, so you might notice recurring characters.

Tiny handwritten notes on Porco Rosso.
  • Reliance on/use of very particular visual language to carry weight of story forward, while story is doing finer work.
    • (Language of Casablanca, etc, here — and I compared this to Sunshine on Leith which lets expected cliches do a lot of quick lifting for characterisation.)
    • I really liked the idea of making a choice of a very distinct aesthetic pay its way, and also to use it as misdirection to conceal a secondary story which is happening in the clues.
    • I made a note to practice writing scenes from different aesthetics (which I was already doing — see posts on aesthetics).
Tiny ballpoint sketch of feet in heeled shoes walking away from a wine glass on the floor, and a mouse running past it with a coin
Adding an era and setting aesthetic to the previous page’s mouse
  • A story that subtly passes a baton — the role of main character gets passed over and someone else ends the story.
    • Here it’s Fio, who was always the narrator — and it’s worth comparing to Nevil Shute’s No Highway (filmed with James Stewart as No Highway in the Sky), which ends with the narrator’s attention already being turned to new safety complications, and taken away from the winding-up of the main story.
    • I like the potential for combining this with an apprentice/journeyman/master transition (as noted on the previous page).
    • And also a connection to stories where a minor character gradually increases in importance, with a note to play with that in pictures.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two people fighting with "somewhere they still..." written above.
somewhere, they still…
  • At some point, heroes and villains being rolled together to be allied in gentle nostalgia, and bundled away together into the past as time accelerates.
    • There’s a note here about the passage of a time/dream being the plot rather than the characters.
    • The trick of playing with this is not to be too easily merely sentimental.
    • That sense of the focus of a camera receding on (ex-) main characters.
    • And then the eternal charm of an entirely isolated independent hotel/island/refuge. The last homely house, little groves
Tiny ballpoint sketch of (possibly) a shadow among trees on a tiny isalnd.
  • A character exists who is, incidentally, probably something significant (e.g. a spy), and that is never addressed by the plot.
    • Such a good trope.
  • Two characters from separate strands of plot who only meet at the very end of a plot, and become instant friends.
    • (Or instant-ish, with respect to Oscar Wilde.)
    • Another variation: where their later relationship has been hinted (allusions, or the story is in flashback), but because they still only meet at the very end you never get to see any of that later connection.

At the bottom of the page, you can see I’ve made a little list of ways to explore some of those fascinations further.

Art/writing exercises

For general five-things exercises, see the end of the previous Five Things to Steal post.

Here is one way to turn a fascination into an activity of your own — basically a situation generator or a make-your-own Mad Libs:

  • Pick a story mechanic you find fascinating/a trope you like. (I find it easiest to limit myself to a certain genre).
    E.g. here, the baton-passing between two characters.
  • Identify the variables.
    Here, two characters/roles and a metaphorical baton.
  • Make a short list of possibilities for each variable. I usually try for at least five of each, often limiting it to the genre, but not always.
    With the example above, it would be two sets of five character roles/jobs (apprentice, journeyman, journalist, head of guild, patron, etc), and then five ‘batons’, which could be e.g. pursuit of justice, delivering a message, investigating a mystery, etc…
  • Mix and match.
    By the end of this story, a wealthy patron who has been investigating a mystery eventually passes responsibility for that to an apprentice cabinetmaker. Or vice versa.
  • Make a few notes (drawn or written) of characters or scenes this suggests.
  • Rinse and repeat.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a crow sitting on one arch of a McDonalds sign.
Crow at McDonald’s

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders

This page of the observation journal features five things to steal from Midsomer Murders. (The show has shown up in this category before — see Five Things to Steal: Cosy Crime Edition.)

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist; also Midsomer Murders TV sketches)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a person listening at the door. On the right page, notes on Midsomer Murders, with some sketches.

(Also a continuation of vaguely Minoan-inspired border design.)

As ever, this exercise was both useful and soothing. And also as ever, I enjoy murder mysteries for the narrative hijinks they permit far more than for either the murder or the mystery.

Handwritten notes on Midsomer Murders, with some sketches.

The sense of someone being gradually taught (and learning) the next stage of their profession, and being somewhat supervised but also getting to be clever occasionally. Why? The charm of the learning-of-a-craft and the romance of the acquisition of competence. (Related: The Romance and Horror of the Navigable World.) (There’s a note here that says “nb also ducklings” and I’m not sure what the context of that was.) This was also connected to previous notes on the charm of listening to apprentices inserted into the ceiling of my house: Sparks and Navigable Worlds and Improbable Inventions.

Ballpoint drawing of man in coat demonstrating magic to short apprentice while woman with apron looks on assessingly
master & apprentice stories vs journeyman & apprentice stories — with magic

Endlessly stable central family never entirely uninvolved. I’d already been thinking about this more broadly (see Favourite Tropes About Families) and it would show up again.

ballpoint sketch of people at a table, formless figures looming in background
a family calm in the heart of chaos and/or ghosts

Good Guys defeat main Bad Guys but minor Morally Questionable Guys get away with a small windfall easily overlooked by the other parties. E.g. Sackville-Bagginses.

Ballpoint sketch of mouse carrying coin and "secondary story in details of image gets richer over course)
a tale of one bad mouse

Someone whose tall stories/colourful background turns out to have been completely true. (Less Big Fish and more flashmob society funeral). The opposite of secrets — the truth not believed/credited.

Everyone has a secret and not all is murder. I’d also recently read Kate Milford’s Greenglass House, so it’s cited here.

As usual, most of these include notes on how to adapt/adopt an idea. The “why” dot-point in the first entry was worth doing, and I’d like to do it more. And several points of fascination would show up in other entries.

Art/writing exercise

Basically, this is a way to take contained, useful notes about something you’ve seen/heard/watched/read. But it’s also an excellent way to identify fascinations, activities, and creative puzzles that you want to pursue (and to always have something to say about a topic).

  1. Think of something you’ve seen/heard/watched/attended/read etc. You don’t have to have liked it.
  2. Think of five things you could steal (i.e. learn, adopt, adapt, try, not plagiarise) from it.
  3. For each, if you want, dig a little deeper. Why this?
  4. Then for each, make a note on how you’d ‘steal’ it — how you’d adapt it into your work or life or a particular project. You don’t have to follow through on it, as the thought exercise alone is quite useful. But you might!
Ballpoint sketch of person listening at a door
Listening? In my living room, anyway

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Observation journal: remixing good art

On this observation journal page, I used previous notes on my creative habits in order to remix an image.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a birds nest in a tree.
I’m still amused by the little seen/heard/did icons on the left (observation) page

In a previous post — Points of Habit and Resistance — I did an activity where I listed some of my creative patterns and habits (good and bad) and then flipped them. (See also Paired Points, for more on that).

So e.g. “whimsy” flips to “violence” or “grotesque”.

The aim was to not correct habits, but to be aware of them and see where I wanted to adjust them and where I wanted to double-down.

I’ve been working that list up into a larger project, about which more soon!

On this page, I just wanted to play with some of those prompts.

For the purposes of trying them out, I chose an image I already liked — in this case, Ryo Takemasa‘s Water Lily illustration (see it here on Ryo’s portfolio or buy prints on Society6).

Screenshot of Ryo Takemasa art print of waterlilies in shades of blue-green on black water with a crescent moon above
Those blue-greens, the DEPTH they give the darkness, the shimmery yellow fingernail moon…

(A few other water lily images I’d been looking at recently also got into these ideas.)

Trying an exercise with someone else’s picture is a great way to:

  1. study how and why that picture works for me,
  2. know I’m working with something I already like (I’m sometimes too close to my own work), and
  3. relieve any pressure I feel to make something out of the exercise — this is Ryo Takemasa’s picture! I’m just conducting an exercise.

I then ran that image through a number of my prompts, and made quick drawn and written sketches of how they might change the scene.

A set of smaller sketches varying a drawing of lilypads.

It was interesting to note which gave rise to new ideas, and which suggested a treatment for a related topic.

There are close-ups of the exercises below:

Continue reading

April short story reading post

Photo of double-page of notebook with some handwritten notes on stories (elaborated below)

This post is a roughly tidied version of my April 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s quite long (although the month’s reading was abbreviated by Covid), so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

Continue reading

Observation Journal: Fitting pictures into shapes

This observation journal page is the art-exercise counterpart to a previous post on fitting stories into spaces.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of sanded semicircles lowering the edge of a concrete footpath. On the right, sketches fitting a man and dog, ibis, and sanitiser bottle into set shapes.

This time, instead of getting an (illustrated) story to fit into a panel progression, I was forcing images from the past few days (a tree, a person with a dog, an ibis, a bottle of hand sanitiser) to fit into a simple shape. (I’d done something similar in the post Sketching the People Glimpsed From the Corner of Your Eye).

Ballpoint sketches (coloured with blue marker) fitting sketches of a man and dog, ibis, and sanitiser bottle into set shapes.

Lessons learned:

  • This sort of exercise can be useful for developing an illustration. Choosing a strict framework for a composition both narrows the available options available and makes me be creative in designing new ones. It can also compress an image and make it iconic.
  • It’s also good practice for fitting art to unusual surfaces, e.g. a tureen.
  • A standardised shape for a set of illustrations can unify a set of disparate ideas. E.g., the illustrations for the main story-chapters in Flyaway all fit into a square. You can see some of those here: Illustrating Flyaway.
  • But squashing something into a strict shape which doesn’t necessarily suit it can teach a lot about that containing shape, too. That was the point of the exercise in the Rearranging Scenes post earlier this week, just with plot structure instead of e.g. triangles.
  • Those realisations aren’t revolutionary. A triangle, off-balance, creates an unbalanced composition. A triangle tends to be less organic, and movement runs into/up against the frame, but feels as if it lends itself more to narrative or character-in-action. A circle lends itself to organic shapes, and is more balanced and contained and iconic, but creates peculiar interaction with artificial/less-organic elements.
  • But in an exercise like this, the process of reinventing the wheel is the important thing — learning by doing instead of by being told, or understanding why what I’ve been told is so.

Illustration exercise (for writing exercises, try the ones in Fitting Stories into Spaces or Rearranging Scenes)

  • Basic exercise:
    • Pick three things you’ve seen today (objects or interactions).
    • Pick three basic shapes (circle, rectangle, square, pentagon, triangle, etc).
    • On a sheet of paper, draw each of those shapes three times.
    • Now, try to sketch each of your subjects (scenes/objects) once into each shape, as pleasingly as possible.
  • Bonus: Make a note of which combinations were easy, and which resisted. Did certain shapes fit certain types of subjects better? How did your approach to sketching a subject change as you repeated it through different shapes?
  • Bonus bonus: Pick a scene from a favourite story or movie or artwork (tip: consider viewpoints). Sketch it into several different shapes. Notice which weaken and strengthen the scene, and what you learn about both the shape and the scene.
  • Variation: See sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye.
2020-04-05-Sketch02KJennings

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