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"