Short stories: Rites and rituals and structure

Ballpoint drawing of a tawny frogmouth on a wire

As part of this year’s short story reading project, I’ve been noticing the strong structural and structuring pull rite or rituals exert on stories.

Structurally (and that’s how I’m talking about them in this post), rituals can be a way to first summon a story and peel apart a world, and then at the end to stitch through many layers, to mend and make new. And of course ritual brings with it layers of language, formulation, knowledge, history, time, family, the numinous brushing the physical, a way of altering the world or being acknowledged and changed by it, and (rendered bureaucratic) all the ways that can be made soulless.

This post is lengthy… (among other things, after the initial draft I injured myself in a way that made editing very difficult).

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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 linked to my notes on each story (except for my own).

  • 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) (notes)
  • 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) (notes)
  • James Enge, “Drunkard’s Walk (F&SF 5-6) (notes)
  • Karen Joy Fowler, “The Piper” (F&SF 1-2) (notes)
  • 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) (notes)
  • 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) (notes)
  • Karen Russell, “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” (Conjunctions:76) (notes)
  • Sofia Samatar, “Three Tales from the Blue Library” (Conjunctions:76) (notes)
  • 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) (notes)
  • E. Lily Yu, “Small Monsters” (Tor.com) (notes)

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):

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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“Gisla and the Three Favours” in Year’s Best Fantasy Vol. 1

My short story “Gisla and the Three Favours”, first published last year in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #43, has been selected for THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY, VOLUME ONE, edited by Paula Guran (Pyr Books). It will be published later this year.

Here is the table of contents, from Paula Guran’s announcement — keep an eye out for subsequent (and previous!) volumes over on paulaguran.com:

• Marika Bailey, “The White Road; Or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River” (Fiyah #18)
• Elizabeth Bear, “The Red Mother” (Tor.com)
• Tobias Buckell, “Brickomancer (Shoggoths in Traffic and Other Stories)
• P. Djèlí Clark, “If the Martians Have Magic” (Uncanny #42)
• Roshani Chokshi, “Passing Fair and Young” (Sword Table Stone: Old Legend, New Voices)
• Varsha Dinesh, “The Demon Sage’s Daughter” (Strange Horizons 2/8/21)
• 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)
• 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)
• Yukimi Ogawa, “Her Garden the Size of Her Palm (F&SF 7-8)
• Tobi Ogundiran, “The Tale of Jaja and Canti” (Lightspeed #135)
• Richard Parks. “The Fox’s Daughter (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #344)
• Karen Russell, “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” (Conjunctions:76)
• Sofia Samatar, “Three Tales from the Blue Library” (Conjunctions:76)
• Catherynne Valente, “L’Esprit de Escalier” (Tor.com)
• Fran Wilde, “Unseelie Bros, Ltd.” (Uncanny #40)
• Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts” (Apex #121)
• Isabel Yap,“A Spell for Foolish Hearts” (Never Have I Ever)
• E. Lily Yu, “Small Monsters” (Tor.com)

A watercolour painting, framing a page: stylised sun, moon and stars at top, a girl with a shepherd's crook standing across a stream from three mysterious ladies — one floating in a white gown, one hunched in a mossy shawl, one half-seal and in the water.
“The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars”

New story: The Wonderful Stag…

Once, not so long ago, a marvellous stag lived in the forest at the foot of our mountain, on the other side of the little bridge you must still cross when you leave our village…

My (very) short story “The Wonderful Stag, or The Courtship of Red Elsie” has just been published on Tor.com — with this gorgeous and luminous illustration by John Jude Palencar.

Art by John Jude Palencar

That lit crescent of its antlers! The strange wise oddity of its face! The texture of its fur! The ears!

A fun fact about this story is that it actually began as an illustration — one of the earliest of the ink-and-gold Inktober fairytale illustrations I did in 2019.

A silhouette of a man in medieval garments offering a gold ring to a stag with rings on its antlers.

The story I imagined behind this illustration was a little different (although it survived as one of the narrator’s asides about possible origins). It was prompted by a @fairytaletext tweet “Before long, the suitor fell in love with a mischievous stag.”

A silhouette of a stag with gold rings on its antlers leaping

I couldn’t shake the image of a stag running through the forest, hung with rings with which it had made off. When I sat down to write that, however, the consequences became rather deeper-reaching, and George-the-Wolf emerged to listen to the rumours, and Red Elsie flickered into being, and all the courtship arrangements of the isolated village…

But you can read all about that here: https://www.tor.com/2021/09/01/the-wonderful-stag-or-the-courtship-of-red-elsie-kathleen-jennings/

“The Heart of Owl Abbas” reviews

Here are two reviews I missed for my (Eugie Foster Memorial Award-shortlisted) short story “The Heart of Owl Abbas” (and an excuse to post Audrey Benjaminsen‘s beautiful illustration for it again).

art by Audrey Benjaminsen (I love it)

Charles Payseur: Quick Sips – Tor dot com April 2018

“Framed as a bit of history, part anecdote and part fairy tale or myth, the piece is quietly moving and archetypal, sweeping and sweet and dark all at once…. It’s a piece that looks very much at the almost accidental power of small good things.”

Iseult Murphy: The Heart of Owl Abbas by Kathleen Jennings

“not only does it produce a literary treasure, it’s also a story very much about music, and she somehow manages to incorporate its movement and emotional resonance into the narrative as well.”

You can read the story for free on Tor.com, or buy it as an ebook at the usual online locations.

Undine Love: Reprint, new art

A big week for writing news! In addition to the new piece, my short story “Undine Love” has just been reprinted on Tor.com!

It’s a story of promises and hospitality, set in Australia (or something like it), and I’m still rather fond of its heroine and her not-entirely-absent family.

Ever since doing the cover for The Border Keeper I keep thinking it would be a great idea to cut out strands of wire.

This is the first publication of Undine Love since it appeared in ASIM in 2011, and although Tor.com doesn’t usually illustrate reprints, I wanted to do a fresh set in the style of the silhouettes in Flyaway.

But you’ll need to go to https://www.tor.com/2020/06/11/undine-love-kathleen-jennings/ to see more…

Writing news: story to Strange Horizons

2020-03-08-KJenningsLinoMouse

My quite short story “The Present Only Toucheth Thee” has been bought by Strange Horizons!

It will come out in a few months and I will definitely tell you about it again then. (What I can tell you now is that I had to include a caveat in the cover letters for this story that it’s not in faux-Elizabethan! The title is an allusion.)

This will be my first publication by Strange Horizons as a writer, and I’m thrilled. They’ve brought out some lovely pieces, and I recommend checking out their text and audio issues: Strange Horizons.