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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Observation Journal — rearranging scenes

On these observation journal pages, I was playing again with “Cinderella” — see previously: Mapping movements in stories.

(Noting the observations on the right: it was a windy, glinting-winged spring week, and my first copies of Travelogues had arrived.)

I was giving feedback on and marking creative writing assignments for a creative writing subject in the UQ Doctor of Medicine program (such a great subject) so I was sitting in on the lectures. Charlotte Nash gave a lecture on classic story structures (beginning/middle/end) — more or less the classic three-act structure.

I’ve mentioned before that while I find this sort of approach to structure very useful for editing — especially for diagnosing problems I suspect exist — I don’t find it particularly intuitive or organic. So I wanted to play around with this structure on a story I knew well (see: the usefulness of template stories).

First, I fitted that structure onto “Cinderella” — more or less the version with three nights of dancing, and the birds attacking the sisters at the wedding.

Next, I scrambled the scenes, and forced them to fit that structure in their new order.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

I wanted to see how the scenes would need to change if they appeared in a different position — not necessarily in the internal chronology of the story, but in the order in which they were told. E.g., if the story opened on the delight of the prince rediscovering Cinderella, what introductory work would that scene need to do?

Here’s the randomised list of scenes, with the turning points between the acts (beginning, middle, end) marked.

delight of discovery — godmother’s appearance — to the ball — [gear change — story really gets going] mystery of identity after the second ball — the shoe — the wedding — the search — the mystery of identity after the first ball — [central tipping point] final revenge on step-sisters — the third ball — Cinderella reveals herself — attempts by the step-sisters to mislead the prince — [gear change — end becomes inevitable] the first dance — the early mistreatment of Cinderella — happily ever after — the second ball — Cinderella’s initial bereavement

But it was also interesting to see how it changed the emphasis of the story itself — in this case, a concentration on vengeance and/or filling a loss.

Ballpoint drawing with pastel marker colours of women in elaborate cloaks and hats.

I repeated the exercise a week later.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

Here is how the scenes fell out this time:

dance #1 — misleading by step-sisters — dance #3 — turning point: initial mistreatment — you shall go to the ball — wedding — reveal identity — mystery after second dance — [central tipping point — happy ever after — initial loss — the prince’s search — dance #2 — turning point: delight of being found — revenge — appearance of godmother — shoe! — mystery after first dance.

Breaking “Cinderella” down this way suggested a story that went: joy! –> oh no! bad things behind it –> sense good things in the future –> fight for good things (in knowledge will get them) –> gentler fairy-tale business to wrap it all up.

That is, a story told in the confidence that evil will overcome, but in the knowledge that goodness must still fight in the meantime.

Breaking the story down this way highlighted a clearer separation between the character‘s journey and the reader’s journey — whether the two experiences run in harness, and where they play off each other.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours of two people dancing over bones, and a girl in a ballgown rubbing a sore foot

I also kept a little sketched list of events and lines that occurred to me as a result of the exercise, for a story, if not for this one.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours, of a person clutching a monster with "who transforms" and a fairy-tale wedding with "that's the story we'll tell them"

It was a very interesting exercise for:

  • Understanding classic structures a bit better.
  • Thinking through what scenes do and can do.
  • Approaching a retelling.
  • Shaking up my understanding of a story, even after I’ve put it back into order.
  • Coming up with little stray ideas.

Writing/illustration exercise:

  1. Choose a story you know well (fairy tales are usually quite useful and relatively short). List the scenes.
  2. Pick a common narrative or dramatic structure you want to play with (three-act structure and Freytag’s pyramid get talked about a lot, but if you’ve taken any writing courses, including in school, or read books on narrative, you’ll have been exposed to some version in detail).
  3. Line the structure up against the story. You might have to force it to fit in places. It’s interesting to note what might need to change in the story to make an Official Structure fit neatly, and what lets the story work in spite of not fitting some classic mould.
  4. Now, mix up your scenes randomly — cut them out and shuffle them, or roll a dice, or close your eyes and point.
  5. Again, line the structure up against the new order of scenes. Note what new work some scenes might do, and whether the new order suggests new meanings for the story.
  6. Pick the new first or final scene. Do a quick written or drawn sketch of it, letting it take on the new emphases, and making it do that new work of e.g. opening up the world or introducing characters or closing off the narrative and themes.

Ballpoint sketch of two women — one sitting, one standing — throwing food to a magpie.
Housemates and magpie

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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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Breaking down stories — variations

I’ve been reading stories and posting three-mood story breakdowns in a long thread over on Twitter. As I work out what I’m saying, it will make its way into blog posts, but you can find the thread (with typo) here: https://mobile.twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1475244655033798661

Lauren Bajek asked if I ever play with a different number than three.

The answer is definitely yes. The three-mood approach feels like just the right size for general and high-level purposes (encountering, extrapolating). It’s also very portable — easy to remember and adapt, just long enough to give a sweep of movement, a sketch of the ride the story takes the reader on.

However, for particular purposes, or to really get to grips with a specific story, or to splint a draft onto a fairy tale when fixing it, I also like to break stories down further.

So e.g. if I’m looking for a story to map a draft onto, I’ll list out a few fairytales and look for ones which roughly echo what I’ve done, and then list their various big moods/events/stages (then look for places where I could adjust mine).

Here are some examples from a recent project, where I was seeking (a) a fairy tale that echoed something I’d already written, and (b) the places where the fairy tale and my story didn’t match.

Breakdowns of Toads & Diamonds; Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest

In this case, it’s not about adapting a pre-existing story. It’s about finding a story that successfully did the thing I was trying to do, and looking at how it wears its socks, and then pulling my story’s socks up.

For example, if I had a story with a guest arriving, staying, and being accepted with polite passivity, that might work just fine. But if it wasn’t sparking, and I compared it to The Doubtful Guest, then I could see that making the guest somewhat chaotic (as well as unexpected) would increase the tension on the other parts.

Breakdowns of “The Princess and the Pea”, the story of Daphne, the (various) bone harp stories, and Goldilocks.

These examples focus more on interactions than moods, but that was what I was examining. If I was looking more at, e.g, family patterns, or settings, I’d break them down differently.

For example, take Goldilocks. Above, focusing on broad interactions, I broke down the key events as:

  • Family goes out
  • Goldilocks sneaks in
  • Goldilocks destroys things
  • Goldilocks makes herself at home
  • Family returns
  • Goldilocks flees

If I was working on a story about a family under attack, I might look at something different. Perhaps (and this will vary according to how sympathetic the characters are intended to be):

  • Family unified & secure
  • Individual leaves own people
  • Individual intrudes into family space
  • Lone individual forces a place for itself
  • Lone individual undermines family
  • Family consults among itself
  • Family evicts lone individual

Or if it was about setting, I might pick out the way the world outside is a blank, a nebulous mist from and into which bears and children periodically (de)materialise.

  • Group departs lit stage
  • Individual arrives on stage
  • Individual ricochets off walls / engages with set
  • Group returns to stage and exclaims
  • Individual flees stage (pursued as appropriate)

Or you could do it focussing on domestic activities, or morality, or…

If I were doing the three-moods on it (depending on the telling, where most of the heavy lifting is done), it might be any of the following (or other takes):

  • discovery — investigation — catastrophe
  • presumption — destruction — comeuppance
  • intrusion — violation — vengeance
  • unbearable inquisitiveness — unsatisfied desire — giddy flight
  • security — consumption — dismay

You can read more about the three-mood breakdowns here: Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories. And there are a couple of other posts about mixing and matching that are related: Observation journal — mix and match, and Observation Journal: Mixing and matching stories and imagery.

And the running thread of short story takes starts over on Twitter, here: https://twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1475244655033798661

Story shapes and extrapolation

Recently, I’ve been revisiting this three-mood approach to story patterns (last posted about here Observation Journal — Story Patterns). I will probably continue to do so. [And later edits are indicated with a note and/or italics.]

Current thoughts are that breaking a short story into three big moods has proved useful in several ways. These include:

  • Recording my impression of a short story I’ve read.
  • [Edited to add:] Understanding story structure.
  • Borrowing a cage to trap a story idea, or a frame to train the story to grow on.
  • Guided extrapolation.

I’ve outlined these more below:

(A caveat, as ever, that I use “moodvery broadly, to include mood, texture, tone, trope, attitude, posture, allusion, reaction…)

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