Inventing rites and rituals — some lists from the observation journal

I’m planning a post on how rites and rituals show up in short stories, and wanted to refer back to this observation journal page. So I’m posting it earlier than it would otherwise have appeared!

I was thinking about the way rites and rituals — as human an urge as covering surfaces with patterns — can shape a story or be the base for building a world.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on story ideas.

I wanted to play with these ideas and effects without using the most obvious existing rituals, or ones I didn’t fully understand. So I made a little ritual-generator out of two (non-comprehensive!) lists: purpose and subject. You can expand the lists with your own interests and knowledge.

Purpose of rite/ritual/invocation/ceremony/sacrament/etc

evokeencirclehideconfersevertransform
invokefarewellrecognisetransferseparaterenew
summonwelcomeacknowledgesteadyremoveimprove
avertrememberidentifysupporttransitionreform
banishremindpledgeseekpreventreturn
shamemarksacrificerequestbarreset
removeowngiftpetitionacknowledgebless
honourpossessinvestaccompanyprotectheal
securejoinpartakeharmoniseeasespeed
protectdisguiseapproachbeautifyliminalease

Subject

lifecropsjourneyfreedomfutureholy
deathplantspartnershipseasonspastunholy
agesvehiclesmarriagedayspresentphenomena
roleshousesrelationshipstidesmeteorologylegend
humantoolsadoptiontimesdisasterdeities
animalutensilsdisowningcelebrationshopeshealth
birdendeavourroleseventsaspirationsprocesses
fishjobsteachingmemorialsdepartedindustrial
weathercallingrulinghistorychildrenwar
landcommissionservinggovernmenteldersdomestic
businesscontractvowpromisephysicalabstract

The writing/illustration exercise

  • Take one or two items at random from each list and combine them (e.g. gift/legend or renew/own/animal).
  • Then expand them into a rite or ritual, getting more specific (e.g. a generational ritual to pass ownership of a community’s founding legend or an annual rite to renew ownership/stewardship of draught-animals).
    (Note: Keep an eye on where these brush against or trample on rites and rituals actually in use, and on places you might want to push against expectations, use discretion, avoid stereotypes or come down hard on (or redeem) a ceremony you’ve suffered through.)
  • If you know the world in which this story will happen, you can draw details and aesthetics for the ritual from it — weaving it into the substance of the world. Or you can start with the ritual and add details and aesthetics from things you like or notice around you (art deco/modernist!), and discover more about the place and people that way.
  • Then, if you’re using this to build a world or story, ask what could go wrong (or more right than was anticipated!), and follow the implications. (Control, enforceability, cost and benefit are some other interesting if cynical questions to ask — or consider e.g. the evolution and varied iterations of the ritual, and what it means to different people.)
  • Make a quick sketch (written or drawn) of a scene.
  • Bonus round: Note where the story or world started to grow, or where it didn’t. Repeat the process, and see if there’s a pattern, or if there are questions that helped grow it. Is there a echo among the ideas that resonate for you? Are there more entries you’d add to the lists?

More to come when I post about rituals and story structure.

Observation Journal: Swapping characterisations and roles

On this observation journal page, I was playing with more ways to look at a story (written or drawn) with fresh eyes.

It was a process I wanted to use on my own sketches and drafts, but as usual, I tried it out on a fairy tale first.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a strand of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan. Notes swapping characterisations

I used “Little Red Riding Hood”, because I’d just spent a couple pages on it in another context (The Story Behind the Story).

First, I kept the characters in their established roles (Little Red Riding Hood playing herself, the Mother playing the Mother, the Wolf… well, you know). For each, I listed their obvious/easy/common traits. This is easy and fun — leaning into stereotypes and cliches in order to use their strength against them is usually a good time (see e.g. The Caudwell Manoeuvre).

Then I mixed them up.

CharacterUsual personality
LRRinnocent and plucky
Mothersolicitous but hands-off
Wolfwily & ferocious
Grandmotherfrail & vulnerable
Woodcuttertaciturn & pragmatic
Washerwomencheerful and in solidarity
(I like the version with the helpful laundry ladies at the river)

I then moved each characteristic up by one. Now it’s a story about a cool and capable Little Red Riding Hood, sent by her ferocious mother to visit her taciturn, pragmatic grandmother. On the way, she meets a frail, vulnerable wolf…

Next, I pushed things further by keeping the story the same, but having the characters play each others’ roles. Now it’s a tale of a washerwomen sent into the forest by a wolf to visit a child, and on the way they meet a treacherous woodcutter…

You could use either approach to shake up a story for retelling. But I’ve found it useful as a thought exercise when working on projects — drawn or written! I mightn’t ultimately make these changes, but playing through these exercises can highlight where I’ve made easy instead of interesting choices with a character, or identify where my original choice was correct but needs to be done with more deliberateness or flamboyance. And it’s an interesting way to break open someone else’s story in order to analyse it, or to have fun with it.

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story (written or visual). It can be someone else’s or your own.
    • List the characters. Next to each, briefly describe their obvious/default personality. Keep this simple. If it seems stereotypical, that’s fine.
    • Now, swap the characteristics around. Either randomly, or by shifting them all along one space.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Make a table with a list of roles (key characters) from the story. In the next column, put the same characters, but shuffled.
    • Pretend each character now has to play the new role to which you’ve assigned them.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Bonus, for each: Make a note of what worked, and what you liked, and see if you can identify why. Identify where the changes broke the story, or how robust the original idea was.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan.
Bird and man watching plastic leaves get caught in a cafe fan

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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 indicated the stories I’ve already read with a link to my notes about them (and intend to come back and update this post as I read the others).

  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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) (notes)
  • 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) (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)
  • Karen Russell, “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” (Conjunctions:76) (notes)
  • Sofia Samatar, “Three Tales from the Blue Library” (Conjunctions:76)
  • 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)
  • E. Lily Yu, “Small Monsters” (Tor.com) (notes)

Purgatorial stories — hallmarks and patterns

This post is a spin-off of the three-mood short story reading project.

I’d noticed a number of stories (and novels, and shows) with what I could only describe as a particularly purgatorial aesthetic/mood. This post is a first attempt to bring all those notes and thoughts together.

Here are the main sections:

Continue reading

Observation Journal: Notes on Learning Writing

On this observation journal page, I was collecting notes on where I’d learned what I knew (so far) about writing. (If this looks familiar, the page was the basis of for the post Writing — A Short History of Lessons Learned.)

Broadly (in case you want to attempt something similar) I started dropping all the places I could think of having learned anything about writing onto the page (words in circles), and then listed off each the main lessons I’d learned there. Then I looked for patterns.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day. Notes on where/how I learned about writing.

It was not exhaustive — among other things, I did it at 3am — but it was a useful exercise, for several reasons (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • there are always lessons that need to be re-learned, and having them in one place is handy
  • knowing how I learn has made it much easier to deliberately learn
  • there are occasionally minor incidents that turn out to have been quite important, and it’s useful to know what they were and why, the better to seek out similar approaches (and thank people — the mentorship bubble is 75% Angela Slatter)
  • it also made it much easier to give your-mileage-may-vary answers to questions other people asked me about writing
  • there’s an honesty and humility that comes from working out from where (and how late) certain lessons were learned — quite useful when doing any amount of teaching

This page turned into the post Writing — A Short History of Lessons Learned.

Handwritten mind-map style notes on how I learned about writing.

The main patterns, in the order learned (more detail at the earlier post) were:

  • Knowing I wanted to do it.
  • Actually doing it.
  • Finishing it.
  • Getting stylish.
  • Running with others.
  • Learning structure.  

It’s also lovely revisiting this page (and the previous post) now, because I can see I’m still learning, and how, and what — particularly through the process known as “now do it again”, and the structural and style exercises from this journal, and the much more deliberate reading and learning I’m doing as a result. I might need to do this exercise again soon.

Also, I don’t think I’ve done this exercise for illustration yet, for some reason. One to put on the list.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of me standing on a chair wiping down the ceiling
Cleaning the ceiling after a warm can of Coke Zero fell over on the floor and sprayed everywhere

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City Symphony — two days remaining

City Symphony

The official run of City Symphony, a location-based audio experience of Brisbane City, is just about to end.

It includes (among many other works of music and writing) my piece, “Twelve Observations Along George Street”, read by some very cool people.

It is a multilayered place-specific experience of music and words and includes (among many other works) my piece, “Twelve Observations Along George Street”.

Now that I’m back in the country, I’m hoping to go in and hear it this weekend, a sort of poem-as-tour-guide, played at the places where it was written.

The whipstrike of jasmine stitched on a chain link net,
And a hole in the wire where a tree might crawl through,
Where a shoal might slip through.
Look back, turn back! You are watched
By stone cats and curled finials,
Which guard against wildness…

(You can see another extract at my previous post.)

City Symphony — Hear the Hidden Sounds of Brisbane

City Symphony

City Symphony, a location-based audio experience of Brisbane City, is just about to begin!

It includes (among many other works of music and writing) my piece, “Twelve Observations Along George Street”, read by some very cool people…

Basically, from 24 June to 24 July 2022 (if you are in Brisbane) you will be able to wander the streets listening to a multilayered place-specific experience of music and words. Presumably, my portion of it will be situated more or less along George Street.

I wrote most of this while walking, jotting it down in the notes app, recording impressions and descriptions as I walked — rather different than a lot of my writing but similar to Travelogues: processing what I was seeing through words. When I got home, I tidied it up and found some through-lines and built it into a series of views.

Screenshot of scraps of description in the Notes app
some early notes, typed as I stood in each location

If you are in Brisbane in the next four weeks, I hope you can try out City Symphony — and I’d love to know what you think.

For now I’ll just tease the beginning (if you know Brisbane, you might guess the location):

Look out, look over
At the heddle-hipped warp and sway of it,
The cradle-sticked sashay of it.
Drop the egg of the sun in it…

Dickens on plot twists and (mis?)direction and managing reader’s realisations in serialised formats

Dickens, in his afterword to Our Mutual Friend, describes the fine balance (in a serialised novel!) of giving readers enough information to work out what was happening, but little enough that they thought they weren’t meant to. The trick of letting the audience feel smart without thinking the author foolish.

Photo of Postcript to Our Mutual Friend
Redacted in case you have not yet read the (wonderful) novel (although I do often recommend the BBC miniseries as an entry point, not least because it’s so short compared to the novel and therefore difficult to come back to afterwards)

POSTSCRIPT.

IN LIEU OF PREFACE.

When I devised this story, I foresaw the likelihood that a class of readers and commentators would suppose that I was at great pains to conceal exactly what I was at great pains to suggest: namely, that ******, and that ********. Pleasing myself with the idea that the supposition might in part arise out of some ingenuity in the story, and thinking it worth while, in the interests of art, to hint to an audience that an artist (of whatever denomination) may perhaps be trusted to know what he is about in his vocation, if they will concede him a little patience, I was not alarmed by the anticipation.

To keep for a long time unsuspected, yet always working itself out, another purpose originating in that leading incident, and turning it to a pleasant and useful account at last, was at once the most interesting and the most difficult part of my design. Its difficulty was much enhanced by the mode of publication; for, it would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the story-weaver at his loom. Yet, that I hold the advantages of the mode of publication to outweigh its disadvantages, may be easily believed of one who revived it in the Pickwick Papers after long disuse, and has pursued it ever since.

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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Observation Journal: Mapping movements in stories

On these observation journal pages, I was thinking about the way stories interact with the space in which they take place. (This was because of a comment about Travelogues, which is very much about moving through landscape.) But the exercise turned into another way to break apart and consider stories, and find new ways in.

I began by quickly noting down the main locations in some favourite fairy tales, and tracking how characters moved between them (see also: The Usefulness of Template Stories).

Below, you can see Little Red Riding Hood (the version with the river and the washerwomen), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel (the one with later attempted murders), Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White.

Handwritten page with diagrams of locations and movement between them in a series of fairytales

Charting stories like this highlighted some interesting patterns. The shuttling activity of Cinderella, the concentric, narrowing focus of Sleeping Beauty. The increasing distance from home and outward movement of Rapunzel, the ring-road of Little Red Riding Hood.

It also highlighted the places where other locations were implied but not revealed, and the difference between story movement and that of individual characters. For more on that, see Plotted: A Literary Atlas by Andrew DeGraff and Daniel Harmon and Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies by Andrew DeGraff and A. D. Jameson.

Cinderella in particular amused me.

Ballpoint diagram: home and palace, and arrows going there, back, there, back, there, back, back and there

Looked at this way, the focus of the story became the road between home and palace. So a few days later, I took a closer look:

Handwritten notes on movements between locations specified and implied in Cinderella, with some ballpoint and watercolour sketches

There are several nebulous implied locations (where the stepmother and godmother originate from, for example) — they could be expanded, ellided, or conflated.

Ballpoint and watercolour scribbly sketch of a cottage

And while the road is a key location, there is rarely much time spent on it. What would the story look like from the point of view of observers along the way?

Ballpoint and watercolour sketch of farmers leaning on a gate watching a carriage go past, saying "there they go again"

What about the tension between the landscape passing outside the carriage and the anticipation of the person within it? (Tangentially connected post: bored teens in cars.)

Ballpoint and watercolour scribbly sketch of a carriage crossing a bridge and a woman in a pink dress looking out of a carriage

The next day, I was just playing with tiny maps of Cinderella, for fun:

Handwritten notes on locations in Cinderella, with some maps drawn in ballpoint and coloured marker

But while the earlier charts open up the story, the map forces decisions, from aesthetic and style to the details of the world, the number of bridges the carriage should go across, and therefore the waterways and surrounding geography. At least, they do so if you build the world out from the events of the story.

If you fit a story to an existing geography, draping it over a landscape or running it along known roads, it is mostly the story that changes (and, perhaps, the meaning of the landscape). “Gisla and the Three Favours” (published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet last year) began as an exercise in draping the story of Cinderella over a volcanic landscape, and letting the story change. When writing Flyaway, the process involved introducing several fairy-tale elements to an ill-suited climate and watching them shift — but also letting the mythic weight of those stories become a lens through which to view landscape often written about more cruelly. And Travelogues explicitly involved attaching fantastic and fairy-tale imagery to very real geography and journeys.

I’ve also used this approach when planning and editing a current large project. Here’s a slightly redacted chart of the key locations, to see where movement was concentrated, and where the story opened up or was bottled in.

Map of many messy multicoloured loops between various redacted locations

Here is the same for an early version of an house from the story:

Tiny ballpoint house plan with coloured lines tracking various paths through it

Writing/illustration activity

  • Pick a story (a fairy-tale, a movie with mythic weight, something you’re working on — see The Usefulness of Template Stories).
  • From memory, do a quick rough chart of the key locations, and how characters move between them.
  • Notice and consider:
    • If you notice anything new about the story, or a new angle of approach to it, make a quick note of that.
    • If you wanted to open the story up, make it more claustrophobic, more cosmopolitan or focussed on logistics, what changes could you make to its locations?
  • Write or draw:
    • Are there any locations that don’t get a lot of focus? Implied off-page points of origin (or destination) — where was the woodcutter cutting wood? Heavily trafficked but almost unmentioned roads or driveways? Important outbuildings or waterways (did Sleeping Beauty’s castle have a moat, and what water fed it, and what became of it when everything was overgrown)?
    • Do a quick sketch — written or drawn — of a scene set in that place, or viewed from that point of observation.

Some related posts:

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Ballpoint drawing of a small wheeled suitcase fallen over
From one of the observation pages: my suitcase full of art books for a workshop