List Stories: How they work, what they offer

Tiny handwritten notes listing very general and largely illegible types of lists

This post is about short stories written as/around lists. It is based on notes from my short-story reading posts. (For background on the three-mood story structure, see Story Shapes — Three Mood Stories.)

Outline of this post (it should link to the relevant section):

I hope to write a shorter version one day.

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Observation Journal: 5 Things to Steal from Baby Done

I completed this observation journal page the day I went to see Baby Done with my sister, a 2020 NZ romcom with Rose Matafeo and Matthew Lewis.

Baby Done movie poster

This page is a “Five things to steal…” exercise, where I find some interesting things the movie did, and consider ways to try out those techniques/mechanics in writing or art.

It’s a very useful exercise for late at night (as here!), to quickly record a few key impressions, and to turn up new lines of curiosity to pursue on future journal pages.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on Baby Done
Left page: mostly news about local birds
  • The inversion of “usual” roles for this sort of story.
    • Not in a huge way, but nevertheless pleasing. In fact, possibly pleasing because the swap is in such a small, non-flashy way. Big, hand-waving subversions can be great, but these slight, subtle variations create personality and play with the delight of recognising what you already know but in charming reconfigurations.
    • See also posts on The Caudwell Manoeuvre, and other swapped descriptions
    • I made a note to try this on another now-standard plot later (I’ll post that in a bit)
  • Cutting from one scene directly to the middle of the next key scene, without needing to fill in everything that happens in between.
    • This is something I still am working on remembering to do / letting myself do.
    • There’s a note here, too, about Schitt’s Creek‘s similar willingness to jump. It can give a brisk surprise and jump-laugh to comedy, and keep the pace going, but it’s not at all comedy-specific.
  • Background friends who recur over a story, linking and looping back
  • Brisk, no-nonsense (but kind) nurses who are having none of the main character’s behaviour
    • This is a standard of the genre, but it amuses me.
  • People stepping into parental roles, in situations where they aren’t the parent.
    • I always find this compelling — something about someone not prepared to be responsible for others suddenly having to be, cheerfully or otherwise, and what that does for both the impression of their character and the weight of things that happen in the plot.
  • Specificity of jobs in stories (e.g., as here, tree-lopping).

The main recurring points of interest here were about (un)expected roles — swapping habitual positions, and the slight friction (surprise, delight, amusement, unfamiliarity) this creates.

For more Five Things to Steal posts, see the category Five Things to Steal.

November 2022 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my November 2022 tweets about short stories. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post (that links to where they are first mentioned, but there’s often further discussion).

A short post this month! I was travelling for most of it, and also preparing and giving a writing workshop on short stories at World Fantasy, and an academic paper at the WIP conference at UQ. However, it is still a relatively long post, so the rest is below the cut…

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Observation Journal — Story Behind the Shapes

This observation journal page is a variation on a previous activity.

The week before, I’d been playing with the concept of a story behind a story, as a way to strengthen a draft or unfold an existing story. Here, I was trying to apply that to illustration.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes with sketches on component shapes.

I adapted the activity by instead asking: If I remove the [primary/obvious] purpose, what remains?

Of course, I discovered I’d simply reinvented “breaking an image down into its component shapes”.

But doing that does create a basis for building something back up into new shapes and possibilities, and revealing alternative, less-obvious purposes.

Handwritten notes with tiny sketches of component shapes.

A more directly creative (as in, I made things out of it) activity was: Drawing the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye. But the mental exercise of this approach felt like a (mild) workout, and it was an intriguing way to hold an object in mind and at arm’s length, and look beyond the obvious.

Writing/illustration activity:

  • Choose an object in your line of sight.
  • Identify its main/obvious purpose.
  • Now ignore that purpose. What remains? A collection of shapes? Secondary or tertiary uses?
  • What could you build up with those residual aspects? What type of story might it have come out of (fictional or real)? Could you create something with those shapes and textures, or redesign the object to better fit a less-obvious use?
  • Do a quick sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus round: Repeat a few times. Then notice what was easy or hard, what tactics you defaulted to, what objects or features regularly charmed you.
paint-water jug and candy (dice) jar

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October 2022 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my October 2022 tweets about short stories. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post (that links to where they are first mentioned, but there’s often further discussion). Also, as usual, this post is long, so the rest is below the cut…

(Also, I’ve hurt my arm, so this is even less tidied than usual.)

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Observation journal: make then think

These observation journal pages feature a simple activity: make a small thing, then make notes about making the thing.

The thing I made was a silhouette with imitation gold foil on it — a function of Inktober and Mother Thorn and other silhouette projects and interests at the time.

Page of observation journal with pasted-down silhouette of flowers and leaves, with gold detailing and handwritten notes

A few days later, I played with the same ideas again, this time with a gold leafing pen (Krylon).

Journal page with pasted down silhouette of holly (and left-over paper) with gold detailing and notes

This time, I was more focussed on a particular question (18k gold leafing pen vs imitation gold leaf) — how they handled and what effects they suggested. (See also: loving the tools.)

Observations (true for me):

  • Making something, however tiny, is immediately good — it’s forward motion.
  • A first attempt, even (perhaps especially) if it doesn’t work quite as imagined, unlocks new ideas.
  • Some practicalities can only be practically considered.
  • Getting words on screen or ink on paper is so much more powerful than thinking.
    Or perhaps: it is a much more powerful way of thinking.

See also: Making Little Things; The Tiniest Things; Small Projects and Tiny Unicorns.

These epiphanies are small and frequent. But it’s less important to know them intellectually than to learn them viscerally, and remind myself through my hands.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of parcels

Writing/Illustration/Creating Activity
(if you keep an observation journal, activities like these are a good way to find some personal fascinations and questions to pursue — they’re also a nice way to just calm down and make things)

  1. Make something small. Write a 50 word story or description of something you can see or draw a tiny portrait or try out a new pen or cover the page with fingerprints and draw legs on them or embroider a flower.
    (Bonus: if you’re stuck, try a separate exercise and make a list of at least 20 tiny things you could make. Be silly. Note where your thinking shifts gears. See if there are any patterns you could use to invent more activities, e.g. approaches you obviously like or are clearly avoiding.)
    • Stick it to the page (or if that isn’t feasible, note what it was you did).
    • Consider the thing you made, and how, and why, and what it was like to make and what you ended up with. You’ll have your own interests, but some places you could start are:
      • why this
      • senses (touch, smell, how the light affects it — these can be important for achieving an effect or working comfortably, but also for pursuing things you like)
      • ways you could use or develop it into something further or new
      • ideas it gave you
      • what you liked or resisted
      • is it (or could it be) connected to anything you’re currently interested in
      • is it pleasing (why)
      • is it X enough for you [dreamy, horrific, utilitarian, etc] and how could you make it more so
      • here are some others: Project Review Questions
    • Make a couple extra notes on how the activity as a whole worked for you, or what it revealed about how you work.
  2. Think of a specific creative question you’ve been wanting to answer (or one of the ideas from the step above).
    • Jot down a few subquestions — whether a technique will work at all or suit a particular purpose, how it would compare to a different approach, whether it will create an effect you saw someone else achieve, or be more fun, or change your speed, or any number of specific questions.
    • Make a tiny test-patch experiment, as small as you possibly can make to answer the question (a blurb for an experimental trilogy format; two colours blended; pickling one slice of an unusual vegetable).
    • Paste it in or make a note of what you did.
    • Around it, again, make observations. This time, answer some of those subquestions. But also look at the list of questions for the previous activity, including ideas to try next
Tiny ballpoint sketch of pylons in park
Power pylon with one toe just over the line of the park fence

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Recent… Things

Five things to steal…” is a great observation journal exercise because it is easy to do when tired, flexible in application, captures a few idiosyncratic details, and often suggests new activities and lines of enquiry.

Frequently I use it on books and movies, but it works just as well for e.g. cafes or, as here, as a way to corral various recent observations which didn’t quite compel a page on their own. It’s an indirect way of finding patterns, but also of stirring around mild interests to see what crystallises.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a melting moment (or macaron). Notes on things to "steal" from the day.

As usual, each point is followed with a plan of how to steal it, for writing and for art. (The background on ‘stealing’ is on this post: 5 Things to Steal from Into the Woods.)

Here are these points:

  • Generally well-behaved people see an opportunity and run with it (linking, albeit in very different registers, Season 1 Episode 1 of Air Crash Investigation/Mayday (“Unlocking Disaster”) and Beatrix Potter’s A Tale of Two Bad Mice, and also some regional history to do with moths)
    • heist plan: play with ‘decent’ characters seizing a semi-legal but heroic opportunity; consider the 2-bad-mice poses of giddy guilt
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two figures running away nefariously
giddy guilt
  • Protagonist constantly trying to adapt self to ill-suited environments, but as part of their strength (I wish I could read the reference here — possibly something about a Rogue, but it doesn’t match my recollections of any Regencies)
    • heist plan: either cumulative learning of skills and making alliances pays off, OR use this as a series of melodramatic dangers

  • Person everyone assumes is [rich/elevated/etc] because of aspects of their lifestyle (the reference here is just cryptic — cross-referencing reading lists suggests it was to something in an appendix to The Four Hour Work Week, as I was reading (with degrees of irritation) a lot of creative-work-self-help books for research)
    • heist plan: assumption someone is e.g. a wizard, but person in question doesn’t realise until plot is quite far advanced; aesthetic at odds with reality; someone doing own thing and everyone else visibly judging/whispering
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two people looking at a third walking by
 another reference “An American Girl in Italy” by Ruth Orkin (see previously) — here’s an article about the photo
  • Honour board of closed highschool hanging in senior citizen centre –> archaeology in plain sight / dispersed heritage (seen in my suburb)
    • heist plan: worldbuilding — the history in/of surfaces

  • Two very different characters united in a common character failing when confronted by something external (Schitt’s Creek)
    • heist plan: e.g. two wildly different characters both fall apart when confronted with a spider; cartoony image OR dramatic — two characters interrupted mid-argument, confronting the interruptor

A few of these have recurred in later interests, or prompted project ideas, but the biggest pattern across the list was the joy of gleeful misbehaviour, which definitely escaped into the world in “On the Origin of the Populations of Wakeford“, and a few smaller Patreon pieces.

Short stories: Rites and rituals and structure

Ballpoint drawing of a tawny frogmouth on a wire

As part of this year’s short story reading project, I’ve been noticing the strong structural and structuring pull rite or rituals exert on stories.

Structurally (and that’s how I’m talking about them in this post), rituals can be a way to first summon a story and peel apart a world, and then at the end to stitch through many layers, to mend and make new. And of course ritual brings with it layers of language, formulation, knowledge, history, time, family, the numinous brushing the physical, a way of altering the world or being acknowledged and changed by it, and (rendered bureaucratic) all the ways that can be made soulless.

This post is lengthy… (among other things, after the initial draft I injured myself in a way that made editing very difficult).

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Inventing rites and rituals — some lists from the observation journal

I’m planning a post on how rites and rituals show up in short stories, and wanted to refer back to this observation journal page. So I’m posting it earlier than it would otherwise have appeared! (Edit: the post on rituals and short story structure is now up.)

I was thinking about the way rites and rituals — as human an urge as covering surfaces with patterns — can shape a story or be the base for building a world.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on story ideas.

I wanted to play with these ideas and effects without using the most obvious existing rituals, or ones I didn’t fully understand. So I made a little ritual-generator out of two (non-comprehensive!) lists: purpose and subject. You can expand the lists with your own interests and knowledge.

Purpose of rite/ritual/invocation/ceremony/sacrament/etc




The writing/illustration exercise

  • Take one or two items at random from each list and combine them (e.g. gift/legend or renew/own/animal).
  • Then expand them into a rite or ritual, getting more specific (e.g. a generational ritual to pass ownership of a community’s founding legend or an annual rite to renew ownership/stewardship of draught-animals).
    (Note: Keep an eye on where these brush against or trample on rites and rituals actually in use, and on places you might want to push against expectations, use discretion, avoid stereotypes or come down hard on (or redeem) a ceremony you’ve suffered through.)
  • If you know the world in which this story will happen, you can draw details and aesthetics for the ritual from it — weaving it into the substance of the world. Or you can start with the ritual and add details and aesthetics from things you like or notice around you (art deco/modernist!), and discover more about the place and people that way.
  • Then, if you’re using this to build a world or story, ask what could go wrong (or more right than was anticipated!), and follow the implications. (Control, enforceability, cost and benefit are some other interesting if cynical questions to ask — or consider e.g. the evolution and varied iterations of the ritual, and what it means to different people.)
  • Make a quick sketch (written or drawn) of a scene.
  • Bonus round: Note where the story or world started to grow, or where it didn’t. Repeat the process, and see if there’s a pattern, or if there are questions that helped grow it. Is there a echo among the ideas that resonate for you? Are there more entries you’d add to the lists?

More to come when I post about rituals and story structure. (Edit: it is now up)

September 2022 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of open notebook with handwritten notes on stories (transcribed and expanded below)

This post is a roughly tidied version of my September 2022 tweets about short stories. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post. Also, as usual, this post is long, so the rest is below the cut…

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