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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City Symphony — Hear the Hidden Sounds of Brisbane

City Symphony

City Symphony, a location-based audio experience of Brisbane City, is just about to begin!

It includes (among many other works of music and writing) my piece, “Twelve Observations Along George Street”, read by some very cool people…

Basically, from 24 June to 24 July 2022 (if you are in Brisbane) you will be able to wander the streets listening to a multilayered place-specific experience of music and words. Presumably, my portion of it will be situated more or less along George Street.

I wrote most of this while walking, jotting it down in the notes app, recording impressions and descriptions as I walked — rather different than a lot of my writing but similar to Travelogues: processing what I was seeing through words. When I got home, I tidied it up and found some through-lines and built it into a series of views.

Screenshot of scraps of description in the Notes app
some early notes, typed as I stood in each location

If you are in Brisbane in the next four weeks, I hope you can try out City Symphony — and I’d love to know what you think.

For now I’ll just tease the beginning (if you know Brisbane, you might guess the location):

Look out, look over
At the heddle-hipped warp and sway of it,
The cradle-sticked sashay of it.
Drop the egg of the sun in it…

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.

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Short story reading: a few notes on selection

Screenshot of thumbnail view of spreadsheets
(originally I was keeping the notes in spreadsheets, but things Got Out Of Hand)

Choosing stories

I was recently asked how I choose the short stories I’ve been reading for the short story reading posts. It’s not particularly scientific. But I’m trying very hard not to primarily review each story or reduce comments to whether or not I personally like it. Rather, I’m interested in what a story does, and how.

That’s why I’ve been working through a few recommended / year’s best lists (e.g. Locus and Quick Sips Reviews, among others).

I tell myself the stories have been

  • (a) published by a venue, and
  • (b) additionally selected by someone else,

so there’s no need to add my additional valuation to that. (Counterintuitively, this has also made it a lot easier to just enjoy the stories.)

Beyond that:

  • I’ve chosen to read through some anthologies and collections because I’m interested in the author or editor or theme;
  • sometimes a story just catches my eye, or a recommendation floats past;
  • I’ve been reading Fireside Fiction and The Sunday Morning Transport stories as they arrive in my inbox; and
  • when awards shortlists are announced, I’ve been adding any stories I haven’t read yet to the list.

Noticing patterns

So far, this reading project tends to be most revealing about:

  • an author’s techniques and boundaries and the size of the blocks they build with
  • a magazine’s vibes (these can be extremely distinct — often far more than editorial or authorial flavours)
  • the consensus definition of a theme (in a given group — see e.g. the comments on the Supernatural Noir stories in the February post)
  • the particular interests and tastes of people who collate lists of recommended stories

I need to read more anthologies, as the patterns of editors’ motivations are still a little obscure. There are lots of overlays there — the market or venue’s style, what is submitted, the collective motivation or interpretation or concerns of a particular group of authors in a particular era. I suspect analysing what’s happening at the anthology-construction level, across a number of books by the same editor, would give more of a sense of this.

Notes about individual stories

So far the short story notes are in these posts, but there will be more (tagged short story reading posts):

Dickens on plot twists and (mis?)direction and managing reader’s realisations in serialised formats

Dickens, in his afterword to Our Mutual Friend, describes the fine balance (in a serialised novel!) of giving readers enough information to work out what was happening, but little enough that they thought they weren’t meant to. The trick of letting the audience feel smart without thinking the author foolish.

Photo of Postcript to Our Mutual Friend
Redacted in case you have not yet read the (wonderful) novel (although I do often recommend the BBC miniseries as an entry point, not least because it’s so short compared to the novel and therefore difficult to come back to afterwards)

POSTSCRIPT.

IN LIEU OF PREFACE.

When I devised this story, I foresaw the likelihood that a class of readers and commentators would suppose that I was at great pains to conceal exactly what I was at great pains to suggest: namely, that ******, and that ********. Pleasing myself with the idea that the supposition might in part arise out of some ingenuity in the story, and thinking it worth while, in the interests of art, to hint to an audience that an artist (of whatever denomination) may perhaps be trusted to know what he is about in his vocation, if they will concede him a little patience, I was not alarmed by the anticipation.

To keep for a long time unsuspected, yet always working itself out, another purpose originating in that leading incident, and turning it to a pleasant and useful account at last, was at once the most interesting and the most difficult part of my design. Its difficulty was much enhanced by the mode of publication; for, it would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the story-weaver at his loom. Yet, that I hold the advantages of the mode of publication to outweigh its disadvantages, may be easily believed of one who revived it in the Pickwick Papers after long disuse, and has pursued it ever since.

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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Observation Journal: Mapping movements in stories

On these observation journal pages, I was thinking about the way stories interact with the space in which they take place. (This was because of a comment about Travelogues, which is very much about moving through landscape.) But the exercise turned into another way to break apart and consider stories, and find new ways in.

I began by quickly noting down the main locations in some favourite fairy tales, and tracking how characters moved between them (see also: The Usefulness of Template Stories).

Below, you can see Little Red Riding Hood (the version with the river and the washerwomen), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel (the one with later attempted murders), Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White.

Handwritten page with diagrams of locations and movement between them in a series of fairytales

Charting stories like this highlighted some interesting patterns. The shuttling activity of Cinderella, the concentric, narrowing focus of Sleeping Beauty. The increasing distance from home and outward movement of Rapunzel, the ring-road of Little Red Riding Hood.

It also highlighted the places where other locations were implied but not revealed, and the difference between story movement and that of individual characters. For more on that, see Plotted: A Literary Atlas by Andrew DeGraff and Daniel Harmon and Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies by Andrew DeGraff and A. D. Jameson.

Cinderella in particular amused me.

Ballpoint diagram: home and palace, and arrows going there, back, there, back, there, back, back and there

Looked at this way, the focus of the story became the road between home and palace. So a few days later, I took a closer look:

Handwritten notes on movements between locations specified and implied in Cinderella, with some ballpoint and watercolour sketches

There are several nebulous implied locations (where the stepmother and godmother originate from, for example) — they could be expanded, ellided, or conflated.

Ballpoint and watercolour scribbly sketch of a cottage

And while the road is a key location, there is rarely much time spent on it. What would the story look like from the point of view of observers along the way?

Ballpoint and watercolour sketch of farmers leaning on a gate watching a carriage go past, saying "there they go again"

What about the tension between the landscape passing outside the carriage and the anticipation of the person within it? (Tangentially connected post: bored teens in cars.)

Ballpoint and watercolour scribbly sketch of a carriage crossing a bridge and a woman in a pink dress looking out of a carriage

The next day, I was just playing with tiny maps of Cinderella, for fun:

Handwritten notes on locations in Cinderella, with some maps drawn in ballpoint and coloured marker

But while the earlier charts open up the story, the map forces decisions, from aesthetic and style to the details of the world, the number of bridges the carriage should go across, and therefore the waterways and surrounding geography. At least, they do so if you build the world out from the events of the story.

If you fit a story to an existing geography, draping it over a landscape or running it along known roads, it is mostly the story that changes (and, perhaps, the meaning of the landscape). “Gisla and the Three Favours” (published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet last year) began as an exercise in draping the story of Cinderella over a volcanic landscape, and letting the story change. When writing Flyaway, the process involved introducing several fairy-tale elements to an ill-suited climate and watching them shift — but also letting the mythic weight of those stories become a lens through which to view landscape often written about more cruelly. And Travelogues explicitly involved attaching fantastic and fairy-tale imagery to very real geography and journeys.

I’ve also used this approach when planning and editing a current large project. Here’s a slightly redacted chart of the key locations, to see where movement was concentrated, and where the story opened up or was bottled in.

Map of many messy multicoloured loops between various redacted locations

Here is the same for an early version of an house from the story:

Tiny ballpoint house plan with coloured lines tracking various paths through it

Writing/illustration activity

  • Pick a story (a fairy-tale, a movie with mythic weight, something you’re working on — see The Usefulness of Template Stories).
  • From memory, do a quick rough chart of the key locations, and how characters move between them.
  • Notice and consider:
    • If you notice anything new about the story, or a new angle of approach to it, make a quick note of that.
    • If you wanted to open the story up, make it more claustrophobic, more cosmopolitan or focussed on logistics, what changes could you make to its locations?
  • Write or draw:
    • Are there any locations that don’t get a lot of focus? Implied off-page points of origin (or destination) — where was the woodcutter cutting wood? Heavily trafficked but almost unmentioned roads or driveways? Important outbuildings or waterways (did Sleeping Beauty’s castle have a moat, and what water fed it, and what became of it when everything was overgrown)?
    • Do a quick sketch — written or drawn — of a scene set in that place, or viewed from that point of observation.

Some related posts:

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Ballpoint drawing of a small wheeled suitcase fallen over
From one of the observation pages: my suitcase full of art books for a workshop

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: “Merry in Time”

Beneath Ceaseless Skies cover

My story “Merry in Time” is now out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #352. It’s my first BCS story, but their 750th!

It begins as follows:

Not so very long ago but before you were born, an idle lordling went riding through one of the great forests that sweep across the Isles. You may guess which forest, and which man, but I will not tell you.

He was riding fast and to no clear purpose, for he was young and careless of his responsibilities. None of the stories his mother had told him of men vanished into the wilderness or returned changed beyond recognition could teach him caution. He might even have sung as he went, for his heart was unburdened that day as it never would be again…

You can read the rest at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (along with Jonathan Louis Duckworth’s delightful “Venturing” which, while a very different story in a very different voice, is also about forests and the stories met in them).

I had a lot of fun with this story, from spinning it out of the sorts of tales I grew up loving, to finding out what I could get away with not doing, to discovering a voice for the (not quite neutral) narrator.

It grew from all sorts of gathered fascinations, and particular narrative shapes and patterns, from the world (or the feeling of a world) in a larger story I’m perpetually trying to wrangle, and from reading variant forms of ballads in the Child Ballads.

The first draft, for all its length, unspooled itself quickly and clearly, but not cleanly. Particular thanks go to Aimee Smith, CSE Cooney, Shastra Deo, Madeleine Dale, Sarah Day, James Halford, Angela Slatter and Kim Wilkins for their input at various points in the (somewhat lengthy) process of making it work and sound right, and to Scott H Andrews of Beneath Ceaseless Skies for his thoughtful and educational editorial hand.

Here is a very old illustration which sprang from some of the same fascinations.

String
Scratchboard, 2008(!)

And while there are no swans in the story, there are textiles, so here’s a slightly more recent (but still rather old) fairy-tale fibre-art illustration.

From a 2018 calendar page, but now up as a print on Redbubble