Observation Journal — reversing the audience

In this instalment of the observation journal, I was playing with ideas of target audiences, and what would happen if you turned them upside down.

Double page of densely handwritten observation journal. The left page has five things seen/heard/done and a drawing. The left is an exercise flipping an ideal user.

Left page: Encroaching shortages, a Schroederingian pause, and the Star Wars theme being practised on a trumpet.

Right page: For the course I was teaching, I wanted an activity that would make us think a bit more usefully about target markets (it was a business-adjacent course), aka audiences, readers, etc.

When I write, I am usually trying to please (or irritate) one particular person (not always me; not infrequently a housemate). But I tried this approach on both a physical project I was designing and on a story I was working on.

Note, this is one of those activities that really stirs up the sediment of stereotypes. I like that, because it brings them out for observation, and repurposes them, and makes them work for their living. (See also: Observation Journal — The Caudwell Manoeuvre). But it isn’t always flattering on the page, and is something to acknowledge/manage/bear in mind if you’re doing this in e.g. a classroom.

The first, businessy approach: Essentially, you make a four column table:

  • In the first column, make a list of categories of characteristics, e.g. age, gender, education, job, level of career, hobbies, physical activity, background, language, etc. You could add in others specific to the broad type of project. This was just my initial late-at-night list.
  • In the second, quickly identify the assumed characteristics of your “ideal user”/main audience, etc. If you write for yourself this will probably just be a description of you at some point in your life. It could also be a hideous stereotype of someone not you. (I’m aware there’s some very lazy categorisation in this version, but I wanted to see how the framework would work with that.)
  • In the third column, flip each characteristic to something roughly opposite. (A job in education vs a job in the trades vs a long-distance truck driver vs…). You can have a bit of fun here, redress balances, etc.
  • In the fourth, make a note of how that would require a change to the Thing You Are Making. For example, in the first set of examples, would it need to be more durable, or have different accessibility, or a less (or more!) mystical application, etc?
  • Finally, make a note of any that are genuinely useful, or could improve or add to the original idea. This exercise wasn’t about changing an idea, but making it stronger.

Densely hand-written page of observation journal, flipping stereotypes of an ideal audience.

The writing approach: In the second round, lower down the page, I tried it out on a story I was editing.

  • The story was written very much at a friend, but also for me — and we are quite similar. Going through the process highlighted a lot of things I take for granted, and ought to be aware of (at least for editing).
  • For example, it brought out the lack of physicality in the manuscript, and the degree to which I assumed anyone reading it would also be familiar with a very specific set of obscure books.
  • While I like the somewhat cerebral context of the story, and thoroughly enjoy allusions, these could easily turn into weaknesses. So when editing the story I want to go back in and look for places where I can anchor the story with a little physical action/description. I also plan to buttress or reinforce the more esoteric allusions with enough information that someone who hasn’t had a particular shared experience can still follow the story. In other places, it was a reminder not to be subtle or aim for plausible deniability, but to be honest about what I was doing and double-down on it.
  • This wasn’t about changing the ultimate “ideal reader”, but about clarifying and streamlining my approach, and creating an immediately useful checklist for when I sat down to edit.
Drawing of a bottle of hand soap.
(soap, not sanitiser)

Writing/art exercise:

Try this on a story you’re editing, or a picture that’s at a fairly advanced sketch stage.

  • Make a list of categories of characteristics.
  • Quickly and lazily note down your assumed ideal audience.
  • Flip those characteristics.
  • Consider how the project might change if it were to be adapted to that person.
  • Find things to clarify/tighten/commit to/adjust, etc, and try them out on the project.

Observation Journal: A sketch, a bear, success

Hand-written page of observation journal, with 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a Zoom meeting.

The activity on the opposite page of this observation journal spread is not shown, because it was a fairly standard “how do you define success”/”how does your field define success” set of questions borrowed from an interview. The interesting points for me, then and in retrospect, were that it underscored that I like having time & freedom to do what I want (which turns out to be writing and drawing). But I don’t like excessive introspection so I won’t inflict that on you.

But I wanted to include this page, because I sketched my very first Zoom meeting. More innocent times.

It was also the day Sue brought around this beautiful polar bear (see: Pursued by a (small) bear!):

Head of a model polar bear.

Mother Thorn — pre-orders!

I am delighted to announce that Juliet Marillier’s new collection Mother Thorn, with silhouette illustrations by me, is now available for pre-orders from Serenity Press.

Walk into a fairy tale world that’s not quite what you might expect.

Lara’s life of lonely drudgery changes when she gains an unlikely friend and learns that acts of kindness can bring their own rewards. High-born Niamh knows the kennel boy is her soulmate, but when she seeks help from the Otherworld, her future takes a surprising turn. Bella runs away from home on a stormy night and finds shelter in a strange old house, where she meets a shy kitchen hand, his autocratic mother, and a mouse. Young soldier Katrin makes her weary way homeward after a terrible defeat. A chance encounter with an old woman plunges Katrin into an adventure involving dogs, treasure and a lost tinder box.

These four tales celebrate courage and kindness. They are about being to true to yourself and recognising the good in others.

Mother Thorn is for readers aged 12+. Adults who love fairy tales should also enjoy this book.

Reversing out, and the story-behind-the-story

I’ve mentioned before that when I finish a project I like to look back and ask what was left out — see Observation Journal: The Opposite of Unicorns. It’s easy for that to sound negative, but it really isn’t.

Sometimes it’s a spur to see how much more I can streamline a project in the future. At other times it’s about lifting away all the other layers of the project to see what’s behind them — if it holds together (Silhouettes or outline view), or if the impression it leaves suggests some new will-o-the-wisp to pursue.

Fireflies and lanterns? Or something else… This is a sneak peek of a project about which I hope to announce more very soon.

I was thinking of this recently, talking to some students taking a creative writing course in a non-creative degree. They were writing short stories suggested by real-life events, and working on their outlines. But the gravitational pull of the source events and the technical context was (understandably) strong.

We ended up stopping and lifting the top off the story: subtracting the technical details and originating elements from the outline and seeing what was left behind. Often relationships or themes or patterns were already emerging, or shifting in glittering potential.

Once they found that story-behind-the-story, they could strengthen that, bringing it up to at least a robust sub-plot. Then they could lightly layer the technical detail back in, but more subtly, and without relying on it to do the heavy lifting. As a discussion and a thought-experiment it was fascinating.

Writing/art exercise:

  • Think of an idea you are working on — something at the sketch/early outline level, ideally. Although you could think about a finished project this way, it’s useful with developing stories where a particularly vigorous element has taken the bit between its teeth, or where an unignorable source element has too great a weight.
  • Identify the main story: An image of Cinderella running down the stairs, the shoe fallen, the prince pursuing? A boy dealing with the consequences of trading away his livelihood?
  • Whatever it is, lift that element out (physically or theoretically) and look at what is left behind — what themes can be strengthened or details of the scene enhanced? What is happening behind the story? What subtler subplots are happening in the shadows. And what happens when you put the main story back in? What happens if you don’t.

Anthology announcement: Bitter Distillations

I’m very excited to have my short story “Not to be Taken” included in the forthcoming Egaeus Press anthology Bitter Distillations, and in very fine company. The story has been described as “very strange”.

And then I saw this lovely reduction linoprint from Bethan Foulkes (bethanfoulkes on Instagram), and clearly it was meant to be mine.

Small reduction linoprint of a green bottle labelled "not to be taken"

Observation Journal: adapting business

On this page of the observation journal: repurposing ideas from other fields, coping with language, and a very strong pink.

Left page: The character failings of possums, a great (and successful!) dice hunt, and a sense of the world getting gradually muted.

Right page: Adapting business tools to creative purposes.

Double-page spread of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a picture. On the left, notes on the Value Proposition Canvas.

I tend to resist business language, which is neither fair (I often have no problem with the underlying concepts) nor useful (particularly when teaching a business-adjacent course). One of the exercises I had my students do was list the language in their field that’s most irritating to them and then find other words to use, at least in their own mind and first drafts, freeing them up to use the underlying ideas, while being able to convert back to business terms in formal contexts.

This can be a useful exercise even with non-irritating technical language — making sure it means something to me a bit more viscerally. A lot of the observation journal is me relearning things that I “knew” in a way that is useful to me.

Densely hand-written notes on the Value Proposition Canvas.

The resources and assessment around which I was developing the tutorials included using the Value Proposition Canvas (VPC), “a tool for marketing experts, product owners, and value creators”. The phrasing is so very businessy, and I wanted to come to terms with it — and its possibilities — before introducing it in class.

Approach to a business tool:

  • In class, we ended up inventing ridiculous ideas (see: Observation Journal — improbable inventions) and then trying them out on the VPC. Using those ideas removed a lot of pressure to use the VPC. Instead, it became a framework for the students to clamber around and learn its possibilities for their approach.
  • For example, I realised filling out the table involves a lot of back-and-forth, details and ideas evolving from answers to other questions, and so I needed to approach it as an exploration rather than a checklist.
  • This also revealed that the VPC was quite a fun way to elaborate on an early idea, like the brief allusion here to an alarm that would wake you by gently questioning you and recording the details of your dream before you fully woke and lost the details.

Adapting it to my purposes:

  • However, for my personal use, the VPC turned out to be an interesting way to look at a project after it was done (in this case, an enamel pin design) as part of a creative post-mortem.
  • It was particularly useful as a way to look for things to strengthen and avenues to develop next time. This isn’t so much a critique/debrief as the obvious next step when my approach to learning things is mostly just to do them. It’s not a “what went wrong” so much as a “let’s do that again!”.
  • Reviewing it now, I want to add some of these points back into the master list of post-mortem questions I eventually developed (more of that as we go, but you can see a recent example in this State Library of Queensland post about illustrating the winners of the Queensland Literary Awards).

Exercise:

  • Make a column and list common/sigh-enducing/annoying jargon/technical terminology/business language in either your area of work (narrative structure? design principles?) or something adjacent you keep wandering into (applications, banks, time management…). This is also useful when developing secret bingo sheets for professional conferences.
  • If you need to work off some irritation, make a second column where you flippantly or cynically translate all the words.
  • But then make a third column where you try to translate the word to a term or phrase that captures the actual underlying meaning or importance of the idea to you. Maybe there’s a genre you like reading but don’t like the label for, or a time-management technique, or… Can you find another word or title that works better for you. For private use, perhaps, or coping in business purposes (not unlike developing strategies for listening to or looking at unfamiliar art), or translating from one field to another.
  • I’ve found this a useful way to capture ideas to chase further — little points where I think, “oh, I didn’t know that that’s what I like about [e.g. country house murders, or time-management]. Even if something I write gets labelled as that for sale, calling it [e.g. tragedy of manners/death-by-architecture, or temporal escape clauses] explains what I want to actually do and learn about.

Travelogues: All the shape of the land

This morning (by my time), C. S. E. Cooney, with the very able conducting services of Carlos Hernandez (together Hernandooney) and Miriam Grill, hosted a Read-a-Thon of the whole of Travelogues, which just came out on Tuesday.

t was a wonderful group of new and old friends — poets, directors, artists, writers, readers —and 14 people were reading aloud. (The screenshot above is from the text Claire marked up for reading).

As a writer, getting to see people play with the words, emphasise and pronounce and laugh in real time, getting to watch readers read (which is what I mean when I say reading is a spectator sport), and have people excerpting their favourite lines in the chat, and discussing their train experiences and reminiscing about certain movements of a carriage, and sending photos of scenes like those described, and discussing the qualities of pigs, was just enchanting.

I’ve included the screenshot above because of this line:

Night, and all the shape of the land is in the shift and wallow of the carriage.

It captured so much of what it turns out I was trying to do with Travelogues: to hold onto scenes and moments in such a way that the reader could get into them and travel inside them, the way a passenger does in a carriage, feeling the landscape through the movement. It’s one of the qualities of what I’ve been calling industrial fabulism — a way not only of expressing the experience of made things, but of experiencing the world through them, and finding enchantment in that.

And then as a writer, to get to follow the reader’s experience — through accents and word choices and meanings — added a fascinating nested quality to this effect, and was an astonishing gift to receive from some very good friends.

We chatted about this after the readings, but I was also thinking of it because of seeing the Mavis Ngallametta exhibition at GOMA last week. Her work is vast and shimmering and affectionate. It’s deeply unlike Ravilious‘s (mentioned in Travelogues) and William Robinson‘s. And yet, like their paintings, Ngallametta’s enormous canvases convey the impression that if only you could get inside them and contort yourself just so (parachute up through the wall for Ngallametta and open your many-lensed eyes; slide through an old train window and fill your lungs for Ravilious; roll down a rainforested mountain for Robinson) you could be in the artist’s world.

(This connects to the discussion because Travelogues was a painterly exercise in many ways — it’s a (written) visual sketchbook, recording physical observations and sorting through pallettes and lines.)

Further thoughts no doubt to follow.

Travelogues is now available to purchase from Brainjar Press directly and the usual online suspects, as print and ebook. Brainjar Press is using local printer options where possible, but given the current state of postal services generally, it’s better to order earlier than later!

“The Present Only Toucheth Thee” reviews

Karen Burnham, reviewing for Locus, said of my little story “The Present Only Toucheth Thee” (Strange Horizons):

In ”The Present Only Toucheth Thee” by Kathleen Jennings, two beings have intertwined fates over the millennia. One seems near immortal, building a book over eons, while the other is continually reincarnated. It’s a beautiful, macabre story that muses on how such a relationship might finally end.

Maria Haskins, for Curious Fictions, wrote:

Oh my goodness, what a gloriously strange tale this is. A book with a magic all its own, tying together two souls and two very long lives. Jennings writes with exquisite style and flair, as we follow two individuals through time and through the world, finding out how chance and/or fate has entwined them through their very long existence (whether in the same bodies, or not). Evocative and beautiful in every part.

And I’ve posted Charles Payseur’s (relatively) long thoughtful review previously.

 It’s a lovely complicating and expansion of the referenced poem through a speculative lens and it’s certainly a story well worth spending some time with. A fine read!

The Present Only Toucheth Thee” is online in Strange Horizons‘ 8 June issue, and is also up as a podcast, read by Anaea Lay and with a rather creepy little postscript.

Observation Journal — things that tell you what they’re doing

This observation journal post was an exploration of a pattern I’d noticed in some things I liked and in recent conversations — looking at where I saw it, and what it did, and what I liked about it, and how I could use it. In this case, it was the question of things that tell you what they’re doing.

Double-spread from the observation journal. Two densely hand-written pages. On the left, a page with five things each that I had seen, heard and done, with a picture. On the right, a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Left-hand page: Writing in a second-hand shop where someone kept gradually increasing the volume on “MMM-bop“.

Right-hand page: I’d been thinking about things (movies, books) that tell you what they’re doing, and show you what they are — also talking to Helen Marshall about “books that teach you how to read them.” So on this page, I simply pursued some of those thoughts, and the patterns and links between them.

In particular, it was prompted by two then-recent trains of thought: I’d written the post Making Things Manifest — mock-ups and outlines that morning, and I’d just seen Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (cinema experience illustrated here). It also tied to earlier thoughts on staginess (Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess).

As is often the case with the observation journal, watching the process itself is often the useful thing. In this case, it confirmed to me that this approach was a useful way to think more about what might otherwise have been fleeting interests. Even if, as here, I didn’t reach some overwhelming conclusion, the process of shuffling through my thoughts was valuable, and it helped me clarify some actual interests, and find intriguing new questions to pursue in future — it also underlined a difference between thinking-as-a-reader and thinking-as-a-writer, something I’m still learning.

Observation journal page, densely hand-written pages with a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Some key points:

  • There’s an honesty and generosity to things that are very frank about what they are doing, even (especially!) if that’s experimental. I can be overly coy with drafts, and don’t particularly like highly signalled plots, so this is a useful course-correction.
  • It honours and unifies books-as-objects (and other physical creative activities-as-objects).
  • Strongly genre-specific books are often very up-front about what they are. This also means that if you’re doing something different, it can pay to be explicit. (In fact, if the common trend is strong enough, people still might not even notice the flags you were waving.) This was a common element in the Australian Gothic books I looked at for my MPhil, and when I was writing Flyaway: a reliably beautiful Gothic aesthetic often leans heavily and explicitly on a robust declaration of that beauty wherever possible. (I’m planning a post about that.) There are many reasons to be subtle, of course, but sometimes it’s simply a function of acting too clever for my own good, which can sometimes be mean.
  • That honesty about boundaries and limitations also gives a really useful structural framework to swing around in.
  • A clearly-stated structure, like a clearly stated aesthetic, has a strong gravitational pull. It attracts story to it.
  • And in fact a vivid aesthetic can get a story a long way, if not the whole way (see e.g. Guillermo del Toro).
  • For me, a strong aesthetic sense is one of the sparks that can bring an idea to life (see Observation Journal — a tremor in the web for the process of working that out). So I pushed a little further in that direction, thinking about structures in terms of their relationship to a clear aesthetic — specifically through Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a movie which is very clear about the sort of movie you will be watching!
    • My first note on it was:
      curiosity/hope –> confirmation –> delivery –> reminder and clincher –> satisfaction = never distracted by expecting it to be some other movie
    • But I realised that this was very much me thinking as a viewer/reader rather than as a writer. I was looking at my reactions/interest rather than why I had those reactions.
    • So I broke it down again, looking at where the story signalled and anchored its (extravagantly gleeful and ridiculous) aesthetic/tone (there’s an overlap between those):
      HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play—EXTRA—business—(after denouement) FLOURISH

I hope to tie this to some current interests. One is how narrative time interacts with space and landscape and time (Intermultiversal interview). Travelogues, being literally vignettes from trains in motion, obviously connects to that. But Travelogues is also very up-front about being explicitly descriptions from trains in motion, with no secret subtexts.

The taking of reference photos

Travelogues!

Travelogues: Vignettes from Trains in Motion is officially published today (and pre-orders are arriving in Munich and Adelaide and New York and…)

It’s available from Brain Jar Press and (listed on the Brain Jar page) most of the usual online suspects.

“Travelogues: Vignettes From Trains in Motion is a poet’s plunge into an oil-slickered, shadow-hung, ivy-clung alternate reality. Jennings’ world is deeply familiar and ultimately alien: a world minutely observed, in fast forward, warped by fairy lenses. Her reflections are relentless, ecstatic, declamatory, are illuminated motion. This whole metaphorical journey-by-rails is a fantasia, a phantasm, at times wistful, at others muscular and machine-like, with the occasional wry aside about the terribleness of the coffee. “Hello, book!” I want to shout. “I know you! And yet, I have never met your like.” Let’s never get to Salisbury. Let this train ride never end.”
– C. S. E. Cooney, World Fantasy Award-winning author of Bone Swans: Stories

Each section is a journey, a description of what I saw, and a working-through of the best words with which to describe it.

Travelogues: Vignettes From Trains in Motion tracks between fairytale forest and human industry, refiguring the railway through the tender wildness of the everyday. Delightfully unexpected in their metaphors, as wrought in sound as in image, these poems embody our attention and our daydreams—casting new light, new shadows. Jennings makes magic of the detail and colour of the quotidian world, where a cluster of rust-wrecked cars are kindred with autumn leaves, where a bare tree twins curves of concrete, where a train is a knife slicing through butter-and-honey light. Nearly there, nearly there. A world at work, remade through window and motion. And further.”
– Shastra Deo, Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize winning author of The Agonist

And in addition, the very wonderful C. S. E. Cooney is hosting an online release event at the end of this week. I’m extremely excited about this — good people! trains! words! travel! poetry-or-things-like-it!.

It will be on Zoom, and in American (NY) time it will be at 7pm EST on Friday October 16 while in Australian (Brisbane) time it will be 9am AEST on Saturday October 17.

You can book through Eventbrite, here: Travelogues Readathon.