When in doubt, make lists (and shuffle them)


A “Mr Fox” reference, not an inspirational quote (except to the extent &c…)

Making lists (or decks, or the idea of a deck, or self-shuffling Excel documents) of common elements is a very soothing procrastination activity.


I’ve made them of favourite lines, key tropes, patterns I’ve noticed in my own working habits, images I return to, favourite stories I like to use as narrative myths/templates, art styles — even just parallels between a set of books recently read (here, boarding school mysteries).


They’re a pleasant way to test what you already know, and to analyse what you love.


In case you were interested, the source texts were primarily: Murder Most UnladylikeRobin Stevens; Cat Among the Pigeons — Agatha Christie; The Hippopotamus Takes Wing: A Farrago — Simon Oke; and Picnic at Hanging Rock — Joan Lindsay.

They are also useful for all sorts of games and ways of knocking ideas against each other until they give off sparks.

Below is an experiment where I used a list for quite another purpose from its original intention. The list was a set of notes I’d made on things to strengthen in my own writing. But instead, I used the items as parameters for a quick set of repeating pattern ideas — and of course those turned into yet another set of card ideas (among other things).


You can of course buy or repurpose pre-made kits (story dice, Dixit cards, Tom Gauld’s plot generators, etc). But sometimes just the making is the illuminating part of the exercise.

Writing/art activities:

  • See also the activities on the post: This is not a deck of cards (tropes and process).
  • Make a list (slips of paper, spreadsheet, etc) of any of the following that appeal (try to make it a good long list — at least 10):
    • Tropes you particularly enjoy (today)
    • Favourite styles
    • Common elements in your favourite books/illustrations
    • Your favourite stories/stories that most resonate with you (that you keep recommending, or coming back with, or playing in your own work)
    • Media or subgenres you work in (or would like to)
    • Favourite poems
    • Favourite adjectives
  • Draw three items from your list at random, and (alone, or with friends if you enjoy argumentative conversations) apply them to:
    • A project (a short story? an illustration?) you’d like to do
    • Someone else’s story or illustration (can you reinterpret it through the lens of those cards, or make a mashup or adaptation?)
    • Something completely unrelated, e.g. what you should have for dinner (actual conversation: “we can’t go out for sushi because…. apparently there’s a high chance we’ll be intercepted by time-travelling ninja pirates”), how to rearrange the bookcases, etc.

This is not a deck of cards (tropes and process)

You might have already seen my post for Tor.com on the process of illustrating Flyaway (Illustrating Flyaway: Kathleen Jennings on Creating Art and Prose Together), but there wasn’t room for all the possible sketches I had for it.

Here’s another, from early in my development of the project. At this point, I was thinking through all my favourite (and least favourite, and most obvious, and subtlest, and possible) tropes and common elements of Australian Gothic writing (and also influenced by Ninepin Press’ The Family Arcana).


Sometimes I’ll make a list of favourites from a current type of story, and then mix and match at random until the right feeling or setting or plot for a picture (or something I’m writing) emerges. Sometimes I draw up cards and turn it into a game.

Sometimes, just thinking about the possibility of that, and the sort of things I might play with is enough — the drawing of a game. This is not the first time I’ve taken this shortcut: Behold, direct from… a really really long time ago (please interpret accordingly!), An Encyclopaedia of Improbable Games.

But you can see much more about the art behind Flyaway on Tor.

Drawing/writing activities and a parlour game (also good in cafes, if you have cafes):

  • (Adapted from a combination of workshop activities by Kelly Link, Kim Wilkins, and Anne Gracie): Think of something you are (or want to be — or should be!) working on.
    – What type of story does it belong to? (Suburban gothic? High fantasy? Secret-baby romance?)
    – Make a list of your favourite elements in that sort of story, and another list of your least favourite (try and get at least ten of each).
    – This is useful as a diagnostic (are you writing about anything you actually enjoy as a reader? are you only drawing the least appealing parts of this scene?), for strengthening an image or story (clearly it needs a floating cat, and do you have at least the emotional equivalent of a race-to-the-airport-scene? are there small spirits living in the pot plants, or did you forget to leave out the ominous wall decorations?), and for combining to come up with new ideas.
  • When with friends, tear up paper into cards — seven or so for each person. Pick a genre (or even just a favourite story world — we’ve done this with fairy tales, but also with Doctor Who).
    – Everyone sketches their favourite elements onto their cards (one element per card). Shuffle all the cards together.
    – Go around the table and tell the story (a fairy tale, and episode of Doctor Who), taking turns to play a card and incorporate that into the story.
    – Or each person picks three and draws (or writes/tells) a scene suggested by that combination.
    – (If you want a card game along these lines, I really like Atlas Game’s Once Upon a Time).