List Stories: How they work, what they offer

Tiny handwritten notes listing very general and largely illegible types of lists

This post is about short stories written as/around lists. It is based on notes from my short-story reading posts. (For background on the three-mood story structure, see Story Shapes — Three Mood Stories.)

Outline of this post (it should link to the relevant section):

I hope to write a shorter version one day.

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Text Journal publication — Retelling Tales

Screenshot of start of linked article

My short piece “Some Ways to Retell a Fairy Tale” has been published in TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses!

It began as a series of observations about retellings that I’d encountered in the short-story reading project, but quickly grew into its own… direction? reference guide? invocation? invitation? litany?

En Route — notes from a train

Photo of Amtrak Viewliner carriage at New Orleans

Some trips are easier to communicate from than others, and as previously expressed, I find it very difficult to work on trains.

Last week, I rode from New Orleans to NYC, a two-day trip (in a roomette!). I stared out the window almost the entire time, and made these notes.

Screenshot of first few tweets in linked thread

They form two lengthy (linked) threads on Twitter, but I will edit them for elegance soon.

However, if you prefer a little more brevity, Travelogues contains 9 substantially shorter train journeys:

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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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! (Edit: the post on rituals and short story structure is now up.)

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. (Edit: it is now up)

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 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)

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:

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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.)