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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Observation Journal: Swapping characterisations and roles

On this observation journal page, I was playing with more ways to look at a story (written or drawn) with fresh eyes.

It was a process I wanted to use on my own sketches and drafts, but as usual, I tried it out on a fairy tale first.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a strand of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan. Notes swapping characterisations

I used “Little Red Riding Hood”, because I’d just spent a couple pages on it in another context (The Story Behind the Story).

First, I kept the characters in their established roles (Little Red Riding Hood playing herself, the Mother playing the Mother, the Wolf… well, you know). For each, I listed their obvious/easy/common traits. This is easy and fun — leaning into stereotypes and cliches in order to use their strength against them is usually a good time (see e.g. The Caudwell Manoeuvre).

Then I mixed them up.

CharacterUsual personality
LRRinnocent and plucky
Mothersolicitous but hands-off
Wolfwily & ferocious
Grandmotherfrail & vulnerable
Woodcuttertaciturn & pragmatic
Washerwomencheerful and in solidarity
(I like the version with the helpful laundry ladies at the river)

I then moved each characteristic up by one. Now it’s a story about a cool and capable Little Red Riding Hood, sent by her ferocious mother to visit her taciturn, pragmatic grandmother. On the way, she meets a frail, vulnerable wolf…

Next, I pushed things further by keeping the story the same, but having the characters play each others’ roles. Now it’s a tale of a washerwomen sent into the forest by a wolf to visit a child, and on the way they meet a treacherous woodcutter…

You could use either approach to shake up a story for retelling. But I’ve found it useful as a thought exercise when working on projects — drawn or written! I mightn’t ultimately make these changes, but playing through these exercises can highlight where I’ve made easy instead of interesting choices with a character, or identify where my original choice was correct but needs to be done with more deliberateness or flamboyance. And it’s an interesting way to break open someone else’s story in order to analyse it, or to have fun with it.

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story (written or visual). It can be someone else’s or your own.
    • List the characters. Next to each, briefly describe their obvious/default personality. Keep this simple. If it seems stereotypical, that’s fine.
    • Now, swap the characteristics around. Either randomly, or by shifting them all along one space.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Make a table with a list of roles (key characters) from the story. In the next column, put the same characters, but shuffled.
    • Pretend each character now has to play the new role to which you’ve assigned them.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Bonus, for each: Make a note of what worked, and what you liked, and see if you can identify why. Identify where the changes broke the story, or how robust the original idea was.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan.
Bird and man watching plastic leaves get caught in a cafe fan

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The Year’s Best Fantasy Vol. 1

My copy of The Year’s Best Fantasy Vol. 1 (2021), edited by Paula Guran, has arrived! It includes my short story “Gisla and the Three Favours”, first published last year in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #43.

Cover of The Year's Best Fantasy Vol. 1

Here’s the table of contents. I’ve indicated the stories I’ve already read with a link to my notes about them (and intend to come back and update this post as I read the others).

  • Marika Bailey, “The White Road; Or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River” (Fiyah #18) (notes)
  • Elizabeth Bear, “The Red Mother” (Tor.com) (notes)
  • Tobias Buckell, “Brickomancer” (Shoggoths in Traffic and Other Stories)
  • P. Djèlí Clark, “If the Martians Have Magic” (Uncanny #42) (notes)
  • Roshani Chokshi, “Passing Fair and Young” (Sword Table Stone: Old Legend, New Voices) (notes)
  • Varsha Dinesh, “The Demon Sage’s Daughter” (Strange Horizons 2/8/21) (notes)
  • Andrew Dykstal, “Quintessence” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #324)
  • James Enge, “Drunkard’s Walk (F&SF 5-6)
  • Karen Joy Fowler, “The Piper” (F&SF 1-2)
  • Carlos Hernandez & C. S. E. Cooney, “A Minnow, or Perhaps a Colossal Squid (Mermaids Monthly, April) (notes)
  • Kathleen Jennings, “Gisla and the Three Favors” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #43)
  • Allison King, “Breath of the Dragon King” (Fantasy #72)
  • PH Lee, “Frost’s Boy” (Lightspeed #128) (notes)
  • Yukimi Ogawa, “Her Garden the Size of Her Palm (F&SF 7-8) (notes)
  • Tobi Ogundiran, “The Tale of Jaja and Canti” (Lightspeed #135) (notes)
  • Richard Parks. “The Fox’s Daughter (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #344)
  • Karen Russell, “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” (Conjunctions:76) (notes)
  • Sofia Samatar, “Three Tales from the Blue Library” (Conjunctions:76)
  • Catherynne Valente, “L’Esprit de Escalier” (Tor.com) (notes)
  • Fran Wilde, “Unseelie Bros, Ltd.” (Uncanny #40) (notes)
  • Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts” (Apex #121) (notes)
  • Isabel Yap,“A Spell for Foolish Hearts” (Never Have I Ever)
  • E. Lily Yu, “Small Monsters” (Tor.com) (notes)

Observation Journal: The Story Behind The Story

On these pages of the observation journal, I unpacked some feedback I kept giving students on their stories: to look at the story behind the story.

On the first page, I tried it out on a couple of projects I’d been working on — a short story that has never quite got off the ground, and a very old draft that’s since become a place for testing ideas (see The Usefulness of Template Stories).

The idea is, you mentally remove the plot, and see what’s left behind — the world and the currents and relationships that support the story (or fail to). What would we know about the world, and who would the characters be if the plot weren’t happening?

Handwritten notes on stories behind stories

The exercise stirs up sediment, creates currents, pans gold dust — or, to shift metaphors, it creates sudden changes of lenses and focus.

The process certainly paid off indirectly: I can trace several elements and epiphanies about my current manuscript to some notes on this page — and observations on the facing page.

The following week, I tried the exercise again, this time on “Little Red Riding Hood”. I listed major characters/presences, and pulled back to ask what would be there if the story weren’t happening — the sorts of people who live in the woods, the natures of these wolves, how the grandmother came to live where she lives, etc.

Handwritten notes on stories behind stories

If I pulled on these strands, I ended up with a soberer story than usual, and a sequel to previous stories — a brother and sister grown old and still living in the forest, a witch they destroyed who has returned as a wolf and is trying to become human again…

The process forced logic and loops and links, as well as pulling in other recent thoughts and preoccupations. It turns out to be a useful way to expand a fairy-tale plot.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a rose

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story — a fairy tale, or a story you like, or one you’re working on or with (see Template Stories).
  • Make a list of at least five key characters, elements, locations, or motifs that exist in the story.
  • Mentally, remove the main plot. What information or questions are you left with about those key characters/elements? What do we know about them, in the absence of Plot happening? Who would they be, if not caught up in the story?
  • How might you fill in those details? Can you link those questions and answers to suggest the fabric of the world behind the story? Or even to find some larger stories behind it?
  • Sketch out (words or pictures) a key scene from the original story, adding that new information in as names, textures, interactions, details…
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a woman holding a Siamese cat
Alex and Obi

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August 2022 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my August 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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July 2022 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my July 2022 tweets about short stories. It was curtailed by travel, but is still 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.

Also a warning: I was either in transit or badly jetlagged for a lot of this. Coherency may vary.

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Little silhouette process pictures: Tiny places for stories to happen

Photo of hand holding tiny cut-paper forest

I’m still charmed by this little forest I cut out. There are areas I’d tidy and balance and things I’d add, if I do something similar again, but it’s such a satisfyingly complete little grove (for the advantages of that, see Little Groves).

It was for a tiny illustrated story for the small (wonderful) tier of patrons who receive them in allegedly monthly emails (on average it works out that way). I’m collecting a pile of little tales in the hopes of doing something with them, although I’m not sure exactly what yet — their dimensions and styles are very various. Some are one line, some are several hundred words, some are poems, some are instructions.

Photo of titles "Reputation", "The Tiger... Once, when there was still virtue in seeming...", "The Girls in the House", "Effigies & Sea Breezes"

But they are a wonderful place to just play.

Purgatorial stories — hallmarks and patterns

This post is a spin-off of the three-mood short story reading project.

I’d noticed a number of stories (and novels, and shows) with what I could only describe as a particularly purgatorial aesthetic/mood. This post is a first attempt to bring all those notes and thoughts together.

Here are the main sections:

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Observation Journal: Notes on Learning Writing

On this observation journal page, I was collecting notes on where I’d learned what I knew (so far) about writing. (If this looks familiar, the page was the basis of for the post Writing — A Short History of Lessons Learned.)

Broadly (in case you want to attempt something similar) I started dropping all the places I could think of having learned anything about writing onto the page (words in circles), and then listed off each the main lessons I’d learned there. Then I looked for patterns.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day. Notes on where/how I learned about writing.

It was not exhaustive — among other things, I did it at 3am — but it was a useful exercise, for several reasons (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • there are always lessons that need to be re-learned, and having them in one place is handy
  • knowing how I learn has made it much easier to deliberately learn
  • there are occasionally minor incidents that turn out to have been quite important, and it’s useful to know what they were and why, the better to seek out similar approaches (and thank people — the mentorship bubble is 75% Angela Slatter)
  • it also made it much easier to give your-mileage-may-vary answers to questions other people asked me about writing
  • there’s an honesty and humility that comes from working out from where (and how late) certain lessons were learned — quite useful when doing any amount of teaching

This page turned into the post Writing — A Short History of Lessons Learned.

Handwritten mind-map style notes on how I learned about writing.

The main patterns, in the order learned (more detail at the earlier post) were:

  • Knowing I wanted to do it.
  • Actually doing it.
  • Finishing it.
  • Getting stylish.
  • Running with others.
  • Learning structure.  

It’s also lovely revisiting this page (and the previous post) now, because I can see I’m still learning, and how, and what — particularly through the process known as “now do it again”, and the structural and style exercises from this journal, and the much more deliberate reading and learning I’m doing as a result. I might need to do this exercise again soon.

Also, I don’t think I’ve done this exercise for illustration yet, for some reason. One to put on the list.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of me standing on a chair wiping down the ceiling
Cleaning the ceiling after a warm can of Coke Zero fell over on the floor and sprayed everywhere

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City Symphony — two days remaining

City Symphony

The official run of City Symphony, a location-based audio experience of Brisbane City, is just about to end.

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

It is a multilayered place-specific experience of music and words and includes (among many other works) my piece, “Twelve Observations Along George Street”.

Now that I’m back in the country, I’m hoping to go in and hear it this weekend, a sort of poem-as-tour-guide, played at the places where it was written.

The whipstrike of jasmine stitched on a chain link net,
And a hole in the wire where a tree might crawl through,
Where a shoal might slip through.
Look back, turn back! You are watched
By stone cats and curled finials,
Which guard against wildness…

(You can see another extract at my previous post.)