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.

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Observation Journal — rearranging scenes

On these observation journal pages, I was playing again with “Cinderella” — see previously: Mapping movements in stories.

(Noting the observations on the right: it was a windy, glinting-winged spring week, and my first copies of Travelogues had arrived.)

I was giving feedback on and marking creative writing assignments for a creative writing subject in the UQ Doctor of Medicine program (such a great subject) so I was sitting in on the lectures. Charlotte Nash gave a lecture on classic story structures (beginning/middle/end) — more or less the classic three-act structure.

I’ve mentioned before that while I find this sort of approach to structure very useful for editing — especially for diagnosing problems I suspect exist — I don’t find it particularly intuitive or organic. So I wanted to play around with this structure on a story I knew well (see: the usefulness of template stories).

First, I fitted that structure onto “Cinderella” — more or less the version with three nights of dancing, and the birds attacking the sisters at the wedding.

Next, I scrambled the scenes, and forced them to fit that structure in their new order.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

I wanted to see how the scenes would need to change if they appeared in a different position — not necessarily in the internal chronology of the story, but in the order in which they were told. E.g., if the story opened on the delight of the prince rediscovering Cinderella, what introductory work would that scene need to do?

Here’s the randomised list of scenes, with the turning points between the acts (beginning, middle, end) marked.

delight of discovery — godmother’s appearance — to the ball — [gear change — story really gets going] mystery of identity after the second ball — the shoe — the wedding — the search — the mystery of identity after the first ball — [central tipping point] final revenge on step-sisters — the third ball — Cinderella reveals herself — attempts by the step-sisters to mislead the prince — [gear change — end becomes inevitable] the first dance — the early mistreatment of Cinderella — happily ever after — the second ball — Cinderella’s initial bereavement

But it was also interesting to see how it changed the emphasis of the story itself — in this case, a concentration on vengeance and/or filling a loss.

Ballpoint drawing with pastel marker colours of women in elaborate cloaks and hats.

I repeated the exercise a week later.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

Here is how the scenes fell out this time:

dance #1 — misleading by step-sisters — dance #3 — turning point: initial mistreatment — you shall go to the ball — wedding — reveal identity — mystery after second dance — [central tipping point — happy ever after — initial loss — the prince’s search — dance #2 — turning point: delight of being found — revenge — appearance of godmother — shoe! — mystery after first dance.

Breaking “Cinderella” down this way suggested a story that went: joy! –> oh no! bad things behind it –> sense good things in the future –> fight for good things (in knowledge will get them) –> gentler fairy-tale business to wrap it all up.

That is, a story told in the confidence that evil will overcome, but in the knowledge that goodness must still fight in the meantime.

Breaking the story down this way highlighted a clearer separation between the character‘s journey and the reader’s journey — whether the two experiences run in harness, and where they play off each other.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours of two people dancing over bones, and a girl in a ballgown rubbing a sore foot

I also kept a little sketched list of events and lines that occurred to me as a result of the exercise, for a story, if not for this one.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours, of a person clutching a monster with "who transforms" and a fairy-tale wedding with "that's the story we'll tell them"

It was a very interesting exercise for:

  • Understanding classic structures a bit better.
  • Thinking through what scenes do and can do.
  • Approaching a retelling.
  • Shaking up my understanding of a story, even after I’ve put it back into order.
  • Coming up with little stray ideas.

Writing/illustration exercise:

  1. Choose a story you know well (fairy tales are usually quite useful and relatively short). List the scenes.
  2. Pick a common narrative or dramatic structure you want to play with (three-act structure and Freytag’s pyramid get talked about a lot, but if you’ve taken any writing courses, including in school, or read books on narrative, you’ll have been exposed to some version in detail).
  3. Line the structure up against the story. You might have to force it to fit in places. It’s interesting to note what might need to change in the story to make an Official Structure fit neatly, and what lets the story work in spite of not fitting some classic mould.
  4. Now, mix up your scenes randomly — cut them out and shuffle them, or roll a dice, or close your eyes and point.
  5. Again, line the structure up against the new order of scenes. Note what new work some scenes might do, and whether the new order suggests new meanings for the story.
  6. Pick the new first or final scene. Do a quick written or drawn sketch of it, letting it take on the new emphases, and making it do that new work of e.g. opening up the world or introducing characters or closing off the narrative and themes.

Ballpoint sketch of two women — one sitting, one standing — throwing food to a magpie.
Housemates and magpie

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March short story reading post

Photo of notebook with handwritten story notes

This post is a roughly tidied version of my March 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s extremely 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.

Parts will very likely end up in other posts in the future. There are ideas coalescing, including thoughts on e.g. stories of revolution, loss, communication, witness, and the metaphorical weight of birds — and thoughts on the emphases and accents of speculative fiction, and the evolution of stories on given themes.

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New Story out now: On the Origins of the Population of Wakeford

My short story “On the Origins of the Population of Wakeford” has now been published in The Sunday Morning Transport.

Screenshot of opening lines: Greenfall Guesthouse (as it is now called) has rested on a hill above Wakeford almost as long as that town has existed—we do not, in fact, know which was founded first. Ever since the house’s upper windows were first set into the walls, years before we knew ourselves, we have crowded against the uneven glass and sensed the thin-curled smoke of the little town, the fool’s-gold glitter of the Wake running below it. When the...

It is a fantasia in hauntings and vocabularies and the speed of time, but the bones of the landscape and the animals in it are real, and it is one of those stories for which I can trace the inspirations.

Here, for example, are the blowsy ginger hens — and the hounds in the wing-backed armchair in the warm kitchen were true, too.

Sketch of two orange and one grey hen dustbathing

And some of the lighting and energy began with the movement in this illustration by Masako Kubo (an illustration I loved even before I knew it was for The Blue Castle). It reminded me of an evening sitting with a friend in the dark of a natural amphitheatre near an arts centre in England, light spilling distantly and owls in the deep blue night.

Masako Kubo illustration of two figures running from a lit doorway
Masako Kubo — see more of Masako’s Blue Castle images here: https://www.masakokubo.com/work/thebluecastle/

From those images, I wrote something that would eventually become the final line (here’s the blog post about that process: Observation journal — picture to story idea). That connected with some ideas I’d been playing with previously about the mechanics of hauntings, and I wrote a few paragraphs, and then let it… sit there.

The trouble was, the idea didn’t quite have a story-shape to it yet. When I revisited my notes, though, I knew wanted it to be a story with a sense of wonder, although lately the things I’d been writing were leaning into grimmer Gothic territory.

So I sat down and thought of stories I liked that felt wondrous, and very quickly jotted down their shapes, using the three-mood structure. I wish I’d kept a list of the stories (although I can guess at a few — I think there are some Eva Ibbotsons, and ML Krishnan’s “Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse” (previous notes on that are here: Story shapes and extrapolation), and Dirk Flinthart’s “The Ballad of Farther-On Jones”).

But this was less about analysis than looking for any common patterns — I’d responded to all these stories with a sense of wonder as a reader, and this was a chance to find out what was making me feel that way. I was working how to intuitively feel the shape of this sort of story, and how to flow the images into something wondrous instead of horrifying.

Handwritten list of three-mood story structures

I don’t recall if I chose any one particular story structure. But those overarching patterns (instability — change — a leaning into something grand and harmonious) helped me to pull the existing story draft into shape.

And at a certain point, as you’ll notice if you read the story, the sound of the words took over. And from there the story began to put on layers and momentum and vocabulary.

Thanks go to Liz McKewin and CSE Cooney for their enthusiastic and thoughtful feedback.

On the Origins of the Population of Wakeford” is available for subscribers to The Sunday Morning Transport (and for that you get a weekly story, by a wide range of interesting people). I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the Sunday Morning Transport stories, and recommend subscribing. The first few stories on the site, and the first story each month, are free, in case you want to check it out first.

The usefulness of template stories

In a lot of the writing exercises and art exercises on here, I recommend trying techniques out on someone else’s existing story, rather than only on your own ideas and works in progress. (Note, those writing and art links go to almost exactly the same posts, because most exercises work for both).

This is for a few reasons. For example:

  • Using an existing story saves time. I don’t have to construct a new one before I can try the exercise, and I know that this story already works as a story.
  • It lets me play in a style I know I enjoy (or, occasionally, one I detest).
  • Using someone else’s story can be freeing. If I use an idea I’m working on or wedded to, sometimes I’m worried about breaking the idea, or else the idea is so strong it doesn’t let me go wild with the exercise.
  • Transforming a classic story is a good way to create retellings, and new ideas in conversation with existing stories.
  • It makes use of the things I already know, that otherwise are just rattling around in the back of my brain.
  • If I need to come up with a new idea in a hurry, reskinning the basic structure of a story I know well is a shortcut (the whole three-moods project is related to this).
  • Changing something in an existing story makes it very clear what the ripple effects of that change are. It can reveal all sorts of things about structure and style and choices, whether about that story (if you’re interested in analysing it) or about narratives generally.
  • Consciously using a template story can sometimes reveal and shake up my default stories — habits I have and structures I lean on.

Here are some of the types of template stories I like to use (and it is nice to use a variety for variation and for different purposes):

  • Fairy tales. This is partly because I personally like working with them, and partly because of the mythic weight (see below). But a lot of fairy tales exist in versions that have been heavily condensed and pared back and boiled down to parts that can be used as archetypes or armatures for all sorts of purposes — shifted in time, dressed up in different costumes, etc, etc. Or you can pinch their ornaments and textures and put them onto something else. I like having a few in rotation; you’ve probably noticed I use Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood pretty heavily, at least in examples.
  • Stories with mythic weight. When I get people to choose these template/reference stories in workshops, this is what I tell people to look for. By “mythic” I mean personally mythic — stories that loom large in your life, that you know well, that you recommend to others, that you refer back to. It could be Jurassic Park or a historical event or a memorable sports story. The only real rule is that it has to be a story, not a theme. You can’t say “death” but you can say “Hades & Persephone”.
  • Classics. Either stories culturally well-known, or ones I personally know well. (If you’re doing an exercise to share in public, e.g. as an example or in a workshop, the former is useful.) I’ve read Pride & Prejudice a lot, usually out loud to my dad, and it’s also pretty well known, so it shows up a lot, along with Jane Eyre.
  • Works with cultural resonance. Some of these are classics, others are familiar in certain circles — even the idea of a movie I’ve seen too many previews for but have no wish to watch can be the base of an exercise.
  • Stories I actively want to mess with. Sometimes it’s less about the exercise than the template story — maybe I want to see how I could fix something that irritated me, or work out what made me like it so much by changing elements until I identify the key components. (For a lot of people, these are also source urges for fan fiction and fan art.)
  • “Testing ground” stories. I do have a couple stories of my own I use as test cases. They are old manuscripts based on ideas that never quite worked, from long ago, and have been so handled and worn out and outgrown that I don’t mind doing terrible things to the base material.
  • Images. Illustrators can use all the stories above exactly as for writing. But sometimes there’ll be a single image or classic illustration that you can use in the same way as a template story.

I’ve posted a lot of writing and art exercises on here. (Note: exercises are usually at the end of the relevant posts — follow either the writing exercise or art exercise link, as almost all exercises work for both.) But it’s also worth trying other exercises you encounter out on a template story. Or try making your own exercises.

Here are some uses for a template story, as a starting point:

  • Playing around:
    • Doing scales
    • Aesthetic tests
    • Fanfiction
    • Messing around and having fun.
    • Test driving concepts
    • Distraction and procrastination
    • Play-writing
  • Working though:
    • Examples and demonstrations of concepts (e.g. for workshops)
    • Watching what happens to a story when you make a dramatic shift
    • Feeling for the levers and gears of a story
    • Tweaking visuals
    • Understanding what an existing story is doing, and how (in order to better understand that story, or the technique)
    • Learning to read as a writer/look at stories as an illustrator
  • Mythic palette:
    • Borrowing powerful narrative structures and approaches
    • Leaning on metaphor
    • Guiding choices in an unrelated story/image (e.g., using the characters in a fairytale to suggest the character and placement of chimneys on a skyline, or using words from Rapunzel to describe vines)
    • Lifting aesthetics and imagery
    • Ransacking for material/inspirations
    • Retelling
    • Using to strengthen or provide a point of comparison to another story

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February short story reading thread

This post is a roughly tidied/slightly edited version of a Twitter thread I’ve been keeping, tracking my February 2022 short story reading. It is extremely long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. Parts will very likely end up in other posts in the future. And at the very end of this post is a list of all the stories read.

Read on…

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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.

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Observation Journal — picture to story idea

This little observation journal investigation kept me occupied for a week (you should be able to click on the gallery images below to see larger versions).

I wanted to watch myself come up with ideas, and try to isolate what made gears catch and started a story moving forward (and the continuing usefulness of moods/tones, whether to shape a story or as a point to aim for).

Getting ideas from pictures isn’t a new process — the point was watching myself do it. However, these pages did turn out some very effective ideas. A number of the notes here have got into finished projects in variously unrecognisable forms. However, several stories did emerge almost fully-formed — I’ve redacted some sections until the corresponding projects are published.

The experiment began with a selection of images. I chose a handful of pictures I knew felt story-ish to me (they’re on a Pinterest board called “stories for other pictures” if you want to see — I didn’t upload them, and tracing copyright through Pinterest can either be a delight (if links to the source are correctly made) or a wild Google Image ride — be aware).

Then for each image, I made a note of a possible last line for a story, an aesthetic the image suggested, and any additional ideas/notes that sprang from the picture.

I chose “last line” rather than “first”, because it gives a point upon which possibilities can converge.

So for example:

Last lineAestheticOther notes
“There is, of course, a reason the girls in the photograph are looking up as if they’ve just seen you.”Old tinted photographs, 1920s and uncanny valley, knowing and unsettling.Dangers of exploring abandoned buildings.
“I don’t believe she’s dead, but it will take her a long time to crawl home.”Green mossy, tarry mud, wet grave-clothes.Someone resigned to endlessly re-killing their enemy.
“But in the summer house, if you sleep, you’ll dream of looking up through green water to the splayed palms of lilies.”Translucent, emerald, dank & stagnant & sunlit & green. A clarity.A failure to escape. The promise of a ghost story.

Then I collected some more three-mood story shapes, and tried a few of those images against them.

Here are the three-mood story shapes. They were from stories dimly recalled, and I strongly suspect it includes at least one O. Henry and one M. R. James. Maybe a Henry Lawson? I’m trying to get better about recording the stories! (Currently, via the December 2021/January 2022 thread on Twitter.)

appearancepersistancedismissal (from unexpected quarter)
a nefarious planthe consequences of successan attempt to undo
a careless additionan eerie consequencea lingering discomfort
initial distressincreasing stress reveals worldbrief interaction sealing humanity
odd affectiondual-track distressstrange discomfort

Then I dropped the image into one or more of the story-shapes, to see how it would change as it flowed through.

Finally, I decided to see how the ideas would change if I added a particular character or viewpoint (see By Whom and To Whom and Some Less Common Points of View).

Those two pages above all follow the single image of a boat sunk in a lily-pond, and the question (which emerged on previous pages) of whether the people to whom it belonged actually ever left: “you, the reader”, “boarding school student”, “robust but secretly romantic governess”, “elusive horticulturalist”, etc.

For each, I made a few notes on how the story would might grow to suit it — “you” listening to the story being whispered through a locked door, the stern governess ridding the house of enchantment but secretly grieving its departure, someone who thinks of themself as adventurous but fails to notice what’s going on and leaves before the mystery is solved.

Writing/illustration activites

  • Finale
    • Choose a selection of images — randomly or (for preference) some that feel like stories to you. Public Domain Review usually has some interesting images going on. If your taste is like mine, feel free to consult stories for pictures but note that Pinterest can be pretty rickety in relation to ease of tracking back the original rights holder (some pictures will link to the source, though, and when that works it’s great). Be aware of copyright, etc.
    • For each image, make three notes. What final line (or event) might suit such a story? What aesthetic does it suggest to you (written or visual)? Any other story events that might be needed to get from the image to the story’s end?
    • Sketch out (in words or images) one or two additional scenes for the story, in your chosen style/aesthetic.
  • Three Moods
    • Take one of the images suggested above, choose a three-mood story pattern, and see how the story would flow out to fit that.
    • Sketch an outline in words, or a progression of three images that together might tell a story. (For more story shapes and elaborations on this activity, see: Story Shapes: Three Moods).
  • Points of view
    • Make a list of characters suggested by this image/story. People in it? Characters implied by the topic or the aesthetic? Inanimate objects? (There’s a starter list at the end of the post By Whom and To Whom and a few more in Some Less Common Points of View.)
    • Consider how each would tell/perceive the events above. Make a few notes/sketches depicting the scene from their point of view — not forgetting physical viewpoints: see Viewpoints.
  • Bonus round: Throughout, notice where (or if) stories seem to catch fire for you. Do they? Is there a common spark? Are there bits of the process you’d tinker with? Are there similarities among the images you chose, or the directions you took? What happens if you flip some aspect of that?

Finally, while I tend to use more atmospheric images for inspiration, here are a few sketches from the observation pages above.

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Breaking down stories — variations

I’ve been reading stories and posting three-mood story breakdowns in a long thread over on Twitter. As I work out what I’m saying, it will make its way into blog posts, but you can find the thread (with typo) here: https://mobile.twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1475244655033798661

Lauren Bajek asked if I ever play with a different number than three.

The answer is definitely yes. The three-mood approach feels like just the right size for general and high-level purposes (encountering, extrapolating). It’s also very portable — easy to remember and adapt, just long enough to give a sweep of movement, a sketch of the ride the story takes the reader on.

However, for particular purposes, or to really get to grips with a specific story, or to splint a draft onto a fairy tale when fixing it, I also like to break stories down further.

So e.g. if I’m looking for a story to map a draft onto, I’ll list out a few fairytales and look for ones which roughly echo what I’ve done, and then list their various big moods/events/stages (then look for places where I could adjust mine).

Here are some examples from a recent project, where I was seeking (a) a fairy tale that echoed something I’d already written, and (b) the places where the fairy tale and my story didn’t match.

Breakdowns of Toads & Diamonds; Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest

In this case, it’s not about adapting a pre-existing story. It’s about finding a story that successfully did the thing I was trying to do, and looking at how it wears its socks, and then pulling my story’s socks up.

For example, if I had a story with a guest arriving, staying, and being accepted with polite passivity, that might work just fine. But if it wasn’t sparking, and I compared it to The Doubtful Guest, then I could see that making the guest somewhat chaotic (as well as unexpected) would increase the tension on the other parts.

Breakdowns of “The Princess and the Pea”, the story of Daphne, the (various) bone harp stories, and Goldilocks.

These examples focus more on interactions than moods, but that was what I was examining. If I was looking more at, e.g, family patterns, or settings, I’d break them down differently.

For example, take Goldilocks. Above, focusing on broad interactions, I broke down the key events as:

  • Family goes out
  • Goldilocks sneaks in
  • Goldilocks destroys things
  • Goldilocks makes herself at home
  • Family returns
  • Goldilocks flees

If I was working on a story about a family under attack, I might look at something different. Perhaps (and this will vary according to how sympathetic the characters are intended to be):

  • Family unified & secure
  • Individual leaves own people
  • Individual intrudes into family space
  • Lone individual forces a place for itself
  • Lone individual undermines family
  • Family consults among itself
  • Family evicts lone individual

Or if it was about setting, I might pick out the way the world outside is a blank, a nebulous mist from and into which bears and children periodically (de)materialise.

  • Group departs lit stage
  • Individual arrives on stage
  • Individual ricochets off walls / engages with set
  • Group returns to stage and exclaims
  • Individual flees stage (pursued as appropriate)

Or you could do it focussing on domestic activities, or morality, or…

If I were doing the three-moods on it (depending on the telling, where most of the heavy lifting is done), it might be any of the following (or other takes):

  • discovery — investigation — catastrophe
  • presumption — destruction — comeuppance
  • intrusion — violation — vengeance
  • unbearable inquisitiveness — unsatisfied desire — giddy flight
  • security — consumption — dismay

You can read more about the three-mood breakdowns here: Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories. And there are a couple of other posts about mixing and matching that are related: Observation journal — mix and match, and Observation Journal: Mixing and matching stories and imagery.

And the running thread of short story takes starts over on Twitter, here: https://twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1475244655033798661

Observation journal — getting meta with story structures #2

The observation journal has been well-suited to testing and revising theories and approaches (as well as coming up with ideas, practising scales, etc). This is another reason the reflection/conclusion panel at the bottom of these journal pages is so useful!

This page was a continuation of a previous exercise — using story structures as ideas (see: Getting meta with story structures).

I looked at frame stories (e.g. having characters explicitly move between different levels of story; frames that call stories into existence), 3(+) act structures (e.g. an explicit staginess/interaction with the format of a play), and turning points/gear changes (stories about velocity, etc).

Experiments which don’t go as planned are still informative. Things I realised:

  • Deliberateness is really the thing.
  • I found it easier to literalise principles (as previously) than specific structures (as here).
  • However, it’s an AWFUL lot easier to literalise structures in art than writing: frames and triptychs, sequential art, etc.
  • A while ago, I used to like reading Rules of Story Shapes, strict principles of narrative structure, etc, probably trying to find a shortcut. Now, those structures feel too static and rigid as a guide to writing. They feel more like splints (and perhaps training wheels) than organic structures. That might be why I find it difficult to literalise them into stories. (This is personal! Lots of writers I know plan to a structure and do so very effectively.)
  • Nowadays, broad principles feel more natural. They are flexible: guidelines to steer by, the voice of experience, the instinct that shapes a story. (This is why I like three-mood story shapes.) And they’re usually more metaphorical. This is perhaps why it’s easier to make them into literal aspects of stories. (Diana Wynne Jones does this brilliantly, especially in her more Gothic stories, such as Aunt Maria and The Time of the Ghost.)

Art/writing exercises (there are several activities at the end of the previous post on getting meta)

  • Find an interesting narrative structure outside the field you’re working in. E.g. if you’re a writer, find an intriguing painting; if you’re an illustrator, ask around for a book with an unconventional approach.
  • Then sketch out a story/picture that translates that approach. Can you take a narrative framing device or peculiar approach to time and create that effect in an illustration? How would you structure a story in a way analogous to a Renaissance altarpiece?

Finally, here is Lulu (not mine). She is an Irish terrier, and you might be familiar with her from Angela Slatter‘s Instagram.