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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Observation journal: Building stories out of moods

On this pair of observation journal pages, I was still thinking through the three-moods approach to short fiction. That’s described in more detail here: Story shapes — three-mood stories, and has spun off into its own series of very large short-story reading posts and quite a few short stories (mostly rolled into some larger projects, such as Patreon stories and sub-stories in a current manuscript).

These pages helped me by:

  • clarifying the usefulness of a three-mood structure in:
    • coming up with a story-shape
    • coming up with and developing ideas
  • reminding me of the usefulness of having a clear final note towards which to aim (see also e.g. picture to story idea)
  • confirming the power of adjectives (somewhat flippant but I do like them)

There is (as usual) an exercise at the end of this post, if you want to try it out yourself.

On earlier pages, I’d been breaking down existing stories into broad moods/vibes. See e.g. story structures and story patterns.

Here, I started trying to build up a story shape in the other direction. First I made a list of emotions. Then I picked three at random and looked at what sort of story that progression would suggest.

Handwritten notes on moods and stories and an illustration of one idea.

Here’s the initial list of moods (non-exhaustive):

surpriseinstigationseething
horrormomentumaggression
suspiciondoubtantagonism
anticipationfearactive
dreadterrorrevulsion
delightbewildermentrepentance
desireknowledgeemotive
greednaïvetémelodramatic
affectionplaciditysupportive
incorrigibleirrepressiblebereft
jaunty

After picking three at random, I looked for the sort of story which that progression of moods might suggest. For example:

  • greed — doubt — aggression
    –> acquisitiveness and wanting leads to falsity and the fear of potential failure which then leads to destruction (of self? of the object of desires? indiscriminate?) in that pursuit
  • naïveté — desire — placidity
    –> ignorance/innocence being swept up in honest pursuit of its desire, and then achieving its happily ever after having successfully learned no lesson.
    (I’d already written an earlier draft of “Merry in Time at this point, but it was a structure I wanted to lean into on those edits. Arguably lessons ARE learnt in that story, but not — I hope — the obvious ones for that shape of story.)

These clearly suggested story-shapes. I also liked the way that, taken together, the moods definitely implied an end state — a final note towards which to aim.

Here’s a little sketch of an idea:

Tiny ballpoint drawing of a shed labelled "surprise: secret door" then (inside) "horror: skeletons", then "suspicion: cemetery-like garden beds"
SURPRISE (secret door) —> HORROR (skeletons!) —> SUSPICION (cemetery-like garden beds)

Parts of this one (although not quite identifiable) have 100% got into parts of a subsequent large project (yet to be announced). The idea also contains concerns taken up in”Not To Be Taken” (in Bitter Distillations).

On the next page, I tried combining two moods (at random) for added nuance.

Handwritten notes on moods and stories.

For example:

  • suspicious bewilderment –> seething greed –> surprised revulsion
    be careful what you wish for / dreams of avarice
  • affectionate instigation –> knowledgeable horror –> doubtful anticipation
    succeeding too well
  • melodramatic delight –> greedy fear –> antagonistically supportive
    lives(?) for the drama

I also tried rearranging positions of the moods to see what would happen.

The main additional lesson from this page was the power of adjectives, and how much they modulate the expression of a mood.

A tiny ballpoint drawing of a tented arrangement of sticks
Minimalist cubby down by the creek — this has also appeared in another project

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Make a list of Big Moods (emotions/vibes/driving concerns). Try for at least 10, although 20 is usually more profitable. Think of moods you like from stories, emotions you’ve felt recently, etc. Or use the list earlier in this post.
  • Pick three at random.
  • Imagine they form the beginning, middle and end of a story. Make some notes as to what sort of story they suggest.
    • For example, if I chose “delight –> bewilderment –> repentance”, that might suggest an “all that glitters is not gold” story.
  • Think of a possible situation and character for that story — if nothing comes quickly to mind, pick a character and setting from a fairy tale or other template story, or just someone/thing you’ve seen today.
    • E.g. if I used the stick cubby picture above with “delight –> bewilderment –> repentance”, that could become a story about someone finding a cubby in the trees, and being charmed by it, and getting inside it, and then… well, all is not as it seems (and you’re in season 1 of Stranger Things).
  • Sketch out (in words or pictures) a tiny scene or moment for that possible story, capturing part of that vibe. If you’re having trouble choosing, consider what the final scene might be.
    • E.g. a kid scrambling delightedly into an ominous hiding place — or scrabbling desperately to get out.
  • Bonus: Repeat this a few times. Notice anything that particularly works for you — or doesn’t. Are there story-shapes or ideas that particularly spark? Moods that resonate for you, or which you have to struggle to like or capture? Story types or genres you tend towards? Make a note — that’s all useful information for things to try (or evade) in future.
A tiny ballpoint drawing of a beagle sleeping on a square cushion
sleeping beagle

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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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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: Twenty purposes for a short story

On this observation journal page I wanted to pull back a bit from the structure and engines of stories and make a list of twenty purposes for a short story. (For the artists: I’ve found this list works pretty well for one stand-alone illustration/vignette or a several linked smallish images.)

As with all the observation journal activities, the aim was to work out which purposes occurred (and appealed) to me. It is a personal and subjective list, and specific to quite short stories. It is also a list that might change if I was thinking about a particular genre or mood.

But it has been very useful for concentrating my attention on several projects. This is one of the pages that has gone into my master list of Lists To Refer To When Stuck.

Densely handwritten double page of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a gecko on top of a door. On the right, notes on story purposes.
Left page: A note to self to consider planning projects forward from the starting date instead of back from the due date. This is an ongoing area for personal development.

This is a personal list, and I do recommend making your own (as usual with the observation journal, making the list and noticing what mattered to me — here, beauty and puzzles — was the point). However, for completeness, here is the list:

TWENTY PURPOSES FOR A SHORT STORY

  • To fit a novel’s-worth of feeling into one place
  • Like Barrie’s pixies, to be completely full of one thought/emotion with no room for others
  • To try out an Idea(TM)
  • To frame a scene
  • To experiment with structure
  • To experiment on the reader
  • To be a jewelled delight or thrill or horror that fits neatly in the palm of the hand
  • To be all imagery
  • To be stones in the foundation of a world
  • To create a mythos
  • To be a beautiful object
  • To catch the feeling of one piece of art/illustration
  • To conceal a secret
  • To pay
  • To be a gift for a particular person/reader
  • To wreak vengeance on a particular person/reader
  • To see if I can solve a puzzle [I do not, as a reader, like being set puzzles]
  • To entertain
  • To be a door into a wilderness/let a mysterious breeze through
  • To call the edges of reality into doubt — to be a haunting in the wallpaper, a shadow in the glass

Activity for artists/writers:

  1. What is a thing you frequently make (or would like to make)? Short stories? Poems? Illuminated vignettes?
  2. Make a list of at least twenty possible purposes for that thing.
  3. If there are any patterns, or reasons which excite you more than others, make a note of that.
  4. Choose a purpose from the list at random. Think of a project you are working on or an idea you have. If that purpose was the primary reason for you to make this thing, how might you change what you do? Write a few lines or do a quick sketch of the altered/concentrated idea. If it’s clearly the wrong fit, what project might that purpose suit?
    Edit to add some examples:
    1. For example, a story about a haunted chimney that exists to “create a mythos” would be very focussed on the sort of wider world to which this haunted chimney belongs, while if it were to “be a jewelled delight” my concern would be to get really into the rich details of chimney architecture.
    2. Similarly, if this illustration about a haunted chimney were to “torment a particular friend”, the ghost would be painfully handsome, and there’d be lots of mythology hinted at in the carvings around the fireplace. But if it were to call the edges of reality into doubt, there’d be other ghosts lurking in the corners of the room.

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Story: The Present Only Toucheth Thee

“I, also, have a rare soul, and an old one.”

My short story “The Present Only Toucheth Thee” has been published in Strange Horizons‘ 8 June issue!

And there’s also a podcast of it, read by Anaea Lay and with a rather creepy little postscript, which I think is the first audio publication of one of my stories.

For the title, “The Present Only Toucheth Thee”, I had to send the cover letter with a warning that it was not, in fact, in faux-Elizabethan, but that the title was an allusion. But I really like the allusion and titles are tricky.

“For some of that time you were an eagle, clear-eyed…”

It’s an odd little story about a rather sprawling idea. I had in fact started an unwieldy series of pieces playing with the general concept from a point-in-time point of view of the addressee of this story. Looking back at those drafts, there’s still something there I’d like to revisit. But it was heavy going at the time, and I couldn’t pin down what I was trying for. But this swapped perspective flowed swiftly and concisely, and (bearing in mind that there was extensive preparatory work) felt like it was almost building itself up out of the page.

Thanks on this one go especially to C.S.E. Cooney and Aimee Smith for cheerleading and (ongoing & generally, as ever) to Angela Slatter for mentorship, education, and high expectations.

Also: Strange Horizons is having its annual fund drive! They do great work and publish very excellent stories, so please do consider supporting them, either through the fund drive on Kickstarter or their ongoing donations page. And of course — check out their stories.

“If there are others like either of us, they are too knotted in their own stories, their own repeating secrets, for me to find them.”

Stories that lingered

Prompted by a question on Facebook, this is a list of short stories which have lingered, i.e. which occur to me off the top of my head. They aren’t value judgements, in fact I am certain there are stories that don’t occur to me because they fit so perfectly into the whole of their collection or anthology. But they’ve stuck, and that probably says more about me than them.

  • Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” (in the book of the same title, but also online here) because it was wonderfully strange and folded and caught something true and should have been real.
  • Dirk Flinthart’s “The Ballad of Farther-on-Jones” (in Striking Fire), because it was lyrical and hopeful and contained all it needed to.
  • Shaun Tan’s “No Other Country” (in Tales from Outer Suburbia), because it, like the whole book, is achingly gorgeous. The serious undertones of some of its neighbouring stories enhance the jewel-like quality of this one and its art.
  • Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Dark” (in What I Didn’t See – the paperback has a really nice cover;), because it keeps inserting itself into my memory of other collections, and because terrible things happen but people do good things too.
  • M R James’ “The Diary of Mr Poynter” because of one particular moment of the mundane becoming unsettled. Almost all his ghost stories do this but this one was particularly low-key. And I like the design element in the plot.
  • Dorothy Sayers’ “The Haunted Policeman” (in Striding Folly, but I read it first in the Folio Society’s Crime Stories from the Strand) because it is a miniature painting, and a lovely little puzzle. It was also my first introduction to Peter and Harriet.
  • Henry Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog” (warning for some animal deaths) and/or “We Called Him “Allie” for Short, because of Lawson’s laid-back, tongue-in-cheek tone and, in the case of “The Loaded Dog”, the rolling, rollicking, dangerous inevitability of the plot.
  • Angela Slatter’s “The Badger Bride” (in The Bitterwood Bible – and by the way, the limited edition hardbacks of this are nearly sold out) because it is a small, perfectly formed legend curled into an angle of the interlocked stories of the collection.
  • E Nesbit’s “Melisande, or: Long and Short Division“, because of the knock-on effect of the plot, and the charm, and there being no real villain as such except for consequences (not unusual in E Nesbit’s stories), and because the silliness is played out soberly. Also maths.

Eclipse Online illustrations – December 2012

With another two brilliant stories to appear in Eclipse Online in December 2012, Jonathan Strahan and I ironed out some of the formatting for the illustrations. I had been leaning towards the all-over texture with which I was comfortable, but because the layout of the site was to be quite simple, Jonathan preferred a self-framing image, which made sense!

The first story was Christopher Barzak’s restrained “Invisible Men”, an alternate perspective of a classic. It never did what I expected it to, and reminded me more of Wyndham than Wells, using one of my favourite styles of narrator – tangentially involved, observant, apart.

The first image was a darling of mine – a combination of linework and solid texture, with one scan of the endpapers of my great-grandfather’s autograph album, and another of mysterious stains.

"Invisible Men"

Below it (above) is the final, which I do like  (although it is quirkier than the first) because I love drawing floating things. I should reread the story and see if the change of illustration style changes how I read it. I’m looking at the picture again now as I edit this post, and it amuses me.

The next story was Lavie Tidhar’s fragmenting, decades-encompassing social media biography “The Memcordist”. I had just met Lavie at World Fantasy (he won a World Fantasy Award for his novel Osama). It was at this late stage I realised Jonathan had tricked me into illustrating science fiction!

I tried to avoid the inevitable by dwelling on the memory of basil – my housemate had bought some and so I was able to directly reference it, and then eat it while adding colour on the computer. But it was a (deserving) victim of the decision to go for a self-contained style.

"The Memcordist"

And so here is a robot. Metal is an interesting surface to render, but reflections depend on their surroundings and in this case the illustration was in a white void. Adventures in drawing! Science fiction illustration is traditionally about brilliant sleek schematic black and whites, perfect reflections with a highlight of pale gouache, hard lines, bright lights… Occasionally I find a way into it which lets me have fun with lines instead of rulers, and fluid movement instead of angles. At this point I’m still exploring.

Eclipse Online illustrations – October and November 2012

In 2012, Jonathan Strahan relaunched his anthology series Eclipse as an online publication, Eclipse Online (through Nightshade Books), showcasing two original short stories each month. He asked if I’d like to be involved and I said yes (possibly with more vehemence than that implies!).

So, since October, I have been drawing two spot illustrations a month, for stories I am very lucky to be reading. I do so much reading for illustration that I don’t always get to read stories I’m not illustrating. The two, I am happy to say, overlap surprisingly often, but I don’t always know in advance that they are going to! And these are stories I’m so glad I haven’t missed out on reading.

October

The first was “The Contrary Gardener” by Christopher Rowe (fellow Steampunk! contributor, a story of a high-tech agricultural future with an ending which was not what I had come to expect from stories in such worlds. I sent Jonathan a selection – we went with the last. I like the bounding white clouds, but I still cherish a fondness for the brussel-sprout styled balloon.

"The Contrary Gardener"

Next followed the elusive KJ Parker, with “One Little Room an Everywhere”, a title with which I fell in love. The voice, the pragmatism, the gold leaf and icons – an enchanting story, and although it is a cautionary tale as much as a fantasy of magic and buildings, neither the main character nor the story itself are at all unlikable (a common failing of stories of ill-advised behaviour).

This illustration, too, is pen and ink with colour and texture added digitally. I do like this picture – it captures a little of what I enjoyed in the story.

"One Little Room an Everywhere"

November

The first story for November was Eleanor Arnason’s “Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery”, a detective story of translation, admiration, secrets and art photography, and one for which I struggled to choose a representative image because the alienness (or otherwise) of the Hwarhath was not for me the main point of the story – but could override an illustration of one of the more active or landscape images.

"Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery"

And last for November 2012 and this post, Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Firebugs”, a tale of joint and several individuality, arson and belonging.

With this story, I was trying not to be all Midwich Cuckoos and went for a more symbolic image. Because of the formatting of the site for Eclipse Online, the all-over background of this image and the last one would be discarded for future stories in favour of self-contained spot images.

"Firebugs"