Now panic and freak out

Screenshot: "Possible? Just because I'm rolling around panicking about my presentation (part of my process).
Email postponing something else I will panic about later.

I am giving a presentation tomorrow, and am therefore being overwrought about it.

Gif of woman in blue dress flinging herself dramatically onto sofa.
Me, but imagine I have known about this presentation for 13 months

So much time management advice declares The One True And Efficient Way to do things. It’s all very appealing in a sort of model home way, but it rarely plays well with my actual life and brain (no storage space, for one thing). And even when I’m at my most organised, I will still find something to stress about.

Chris Fleming gif, in-character as a woman carrying a vacuum cleaner and saying "Get rid of the couches. We can't let people know we SIT!"

Yes it should be more energy-efficient to never have to panic, but it turns out performative alarm is part of my process. And fighting against that inclination is exhausting.

What has worked best for me: scheduling panicking time. That way I get to both hyperventilate AND check “be dramatic” off my list.

Painting of an amateur opossum actress clutching its chest dramatically.
Halfway through writing this post, Angela Slatter sent me this. The art is “Amateur Opossum Actress” by Rebecca Kriz/TruBluArt, and prints of the painting are available on INPRNT.

Observation Journal: 20 ways with gold foil

Let’s get back to the making things type of Observation Journal page. The first half of this post is about the approach to an exercise, the second half of it is the resulting list of some possibilities to use foil on book covers.

Double spread from observation journal. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a picture of a painting leaning up against a fence. On the right, a list of 20 ways with foil treatments, with accompanying drawings of a silhouette dog.

Twenty Things

I’m a fan of the twenty things exercise, either starting with an object and working out twenty uses for it (my dad used to make us do this on long car trips); or starting with a question and listing twenty answers.

I think it’s fun, and it’s also interesting to watch the process of ideas being pushed through different barriers — for example:

  • with the “twenty uses” version there’s often a point where the obvious gives way to the interesting and then to the ludicrous and then circles back to the intriguing;
  • with the “twenty problems” variant it loosens my grip on the first/obvious choice I imprinted on (even if that turns out to be the final choice, it’s usually stronger for a bit of objectivity).

This is also why I’ve kept the self-reflection panels on the observation journal pages. Not just to do the exercise, but to step back and watch myself doing it, and learn. You’ll see here I noted on the side that “20 really is the magic number. 11 is where I had to look further/do more research.”

“Twenty things” has shown up in the observation journal before, when I was working out the colour treatment for Lauren Dixon’s cover: Observation journal — werewolf conferences and colour treatments.

This page was also for a cover — in this case for Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn, for which we had the opportunity to use foil on the cover of the special edition (out in April). But I hadn’t designed specifically for foil combined with a silhouette before. So I made this list of 20 WAYS WITH FOIL TREATMENTS. (The activity is also great for tricking yourself into working on something.)

Handwritten observation journal page: a list of 20 ways with foil treatments, with accompanying drawings of a silhouette dog.

Here’s the list (excluding the running commentary to myself alongside). It’s project-specific and non-exhaustive:

  1. GOLD on BLACK (or colour)
  2. BLACK on GOLD
  3. Gold-limned silhouette on coloured ground (almost calligraphic)
  4. Gold base/border on coloured ground
  5. Foil highlights in silhouette design
  6. Above plus gold background (2)
  7. 5 plus flyaway bits in foils
  8. Fine foil pattern supporting coloured silhouettes
  9. Black on colour, gold lettering
  10. Gold support/background for lettering
  11. Colourised/textured silhouette with foil ornament bits
  12. 1 but with many cut-out details
  13. Multi-silhouettes, different foils
  14. Silhouette (black on colour) surrounded by drawn foil pattern
  15. Gold effect on blue texture
  16. Gold silhouettes, deeper-coloured shadow
  17. Black on colour. Only important details picked out in foil (e.g. figures, coins, birds).
  18. Border in one foil, title in another
  19. Foil silhouette on coloured ground with overlapping white title square
  20. Spot gloss blacks with foil lettering background

You’ll see that my terminology here is not particularly technical! That’s one reason for accompanying it with sketches. Ballpoint drawings aren’t hugely informative for foil/colour treatments but did help me to think through the practicalities, and whether an idea reminded me of something I’ve seen elsewhere, or made me feel (to quote) “ugh”, at least for this project.

The next step (square box on the side) was to do a test version, to run through a few of these.

6 variations of a silhouette illustration of a girl sitting in a tree, receiving mail from a dog on the ground and delivering it to a bird in the air. Some are coloured, some have gold elements.

The final cover used approach C, which was a combination of 11 and 5, although there was briefly a 19 in the running.

Writing/art exercises

  • 20 Things: Pick a handy object (or something you’ve seen today). Come up with twenty uses for it.
    • This could be as light-hearted as 20 Uses for a Plastic Fork.
    • It’s good for car trips and working out how your friends think, but it’s also good practice for just thinking sideways.
    • Afterwards, it can be useful to note where the ideas got more difficult, or sillier, or if you know where some of them came from. This is interesting, but you
    • It can also be useful for turning objects in a story into plot (or other things).
    • It could even become a project on its own.
  • 20 Ways: Think of an aspect of a project that you are stuck on, or something you’d like to play with but haven’t quite managed to, and list 20 Ways To Deal With It.
    • I find this more useful when the initial problem is narrower — 20 Ways to Tell A Short Story is fine, but I can get past 100 without breaking a sweat. 20 Ways to Tell A Short Story In An 8-Page Accordion Booklet forces more invention. (These examples are from current pages of the observation journal, and I’ll get to them in time!)
    • Like Ten Terrible Things, I find this lets me have fun exploring options without feeling like I have to commit to any of them, or abandon my early ideas. The list is the point.
    • Sometimes your first instinct will still have been right, but you’ll be more certain of it (and have stress-tested it, and maybe come up with some new ideas for future projects), and you’ll have released your stranglehold on it a little, too.

2020 reading

Sketches from January

I finished approximately 79 books, not including manuscripts for illustration (or at least, the ones I couldn’t talk about yet). You’ll see I got through a lot of 2020 on midcentury murder and Regency and adjacent romance. 15 books were rereads, and many of those were Heyers. It doesn’t include a lot of art books, although I do want to sit down and read them more traditionally more often.

I wrote about some of the patterns in what I was reading — particularly the “romance (and tragedy) of the navigable world” over on Meanjin: What I’m Reading — Kathleen Jennings.

I was trying to do sketches or fanart for each book, but that thinned to a single broadly thematic image over the year. I still like the idea of doing it, but we shall see.

Here’s the list, including links to the individual “Read and Seen” posts, some of which include fanart and occasionally some thoughts on the books (they also show up in Observation Journal posts from time to time).

The *asterisks are for books which did something (style or trope or idea) I’m still thinking about.

Motivational quotes

- Angle Grinding
- Bed of Nails
- Fire Acts (Excludes pyro as defined by state or federal laws)
- Sword Swallowing
- Own Body Piercing

I keep this screenshot (from a list of exclusions on my insurer’s website) to look at whenever I start feeling like the book life might be a little bit risky.

(The version below is less snappy, but it’s funnier because of the cooking.)

Workshops and teaching are automatically covered for all insured performing activities except:  Aerial Performer, Sword Swallowing, Angle Grinding, Parkour, Cooking Demonstrations, Bed of Nails, Fire Acts, Own Body Piercing, Roller Skating / Skateboarding.

(Source: Duck for Cover)

Beautiful Australian Gothic Books

Gouache painting in pinks, purples, blues, and greens, of standing boulders, grass, birds flying against clouds
Painting by me, after a trip to Hanging Rock, while working on Flyaway — more on those illustrations at Illustrating Flyaway (who published Flyaway) asked me for a post for their Five Books About… series. I promptly forgot how to count, so here are:

Six Stories for Fans of Beautiful Australian Gothic

Observation journal — space and time and small epiphanies

One of the unexpected results of the observation journal project was that it provided a thread through 2020 — something colourful holding it together, and occasionally a way to work out what was happening.

I’ve mentioned several times that the journal helped me to clarify (and work around the fact) that I don’t enjoy extended introspection (see e.g. Observation journal: flirting with contagion, and soothing with reflection and the links there). But from time to time the journal was a usefully contained place to work out why I felt a certain way (instead of analysing stories and motifs about which I felt strongly, which was more fun).

These two pages were a week apart. The context was April 2020.

On the first, I was trying to work out 10 WAYS TO ACTUALLY STOP AND NOT FRITTER:

Scan of two handwritten journal pages. On the left are five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a slug trail. On the right is a list of thoughts about how not to fritter away time.

My go-to emergency relaxation/circuit breaker is going to the movies. (It’s air conditioned and you can’t wander off and do something else around the house and sometimes there are large explosions). Making a list of other available (and actually relaxing) options was… not helpful, in that most of my go-tos had vanished. There was no-one to sketch, and the cafes were closed, and I couldn’t meander on errands, and most other options either ran up against or turned into actual work at some point.

It was illuminating, though. I never quite worked out better alternatives (my housemate and I did watch a lot of Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple). But it made me realise that although I thought I was already working from home, I really wasn’t.

This led to the page below, in which I was TRYING TO FIX WORKSPACE.

Scan of two handwritten journal pages. On the left are five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of Lindt chocolate rabbit. On the right are several tables breaking down work time and space.

I had worked from home, yes, but actually from two desks, both sofas, both ends of the kitchen table, bed, and (for various purposes) the spare room and store room. I’d also been working from my desk at uni, other people’s offices, several classrooms, two campus cafes, two local cafes, etc, etc, and quite often those each served a different project. (The eagle-eyed will also spot at least 11 categories of project, and conclude that might be TOO MANY, but it took me a bit longer to work that out.)

But I’d also been living alone for a couple years. In January my new housemate moved in, and then of course everything outside shut down and my housemate also suddenly had to work from home (none of this is a complaint — we’ve had a great year). So my working space was compressed to one desk, one sofa, one end of the table, and bed. Which is quite a lot of room, really, if I’d noticed what was happening. But I didn’t, and all the projects began crowding each other, mentally and physically.

Just realising this — sketching it out on one page and going oh — helped a lot. My mind was a bit cacophonous in April 2020.

The best practical/physical changes turned out to be as follows:

  • I took everything that wasn’t a computer off my desk. This created the illusion of elbow room.
  • My housemate and I both bought some rolling caddies (a la the RÅSKOG, and off-brand equivalents).
  • Each trolley was assigned a broad project category (i.e. general art supplies/admin/teaching).
  • The trolleys were herded out of the way at night. By day, the relevant trolley would be dragged alongside the relevant space, creating the illusion of a dedicated workspace.
  • We also bought a TV (my first for about 8 years!) and a rolling stand, so it could be trundled into place for Evening, and back out of the way for work.

Flight — to be published by PS Publishing

Illustration in pen and ink with digital colour of a girl in a pink gown walking into a thicket of improbable roses, watched by a fox. A castle is in the background.

Some exciting news about a project that’s been a rumour for a while now. Angela Slatter‘s story Flight, with illustrations by me, is being published by PS Publishing UK, and is currently in layout and design mode.

More on that as it becomes available! In the meantime, PS Publishing have published Angela’s The Heart is a Mirror for Sinners and other stories, with cover art by Danielle Serra and an introduction by Kim Newman.

Observation Journal: The consequences of current events

Scan of a double page of the observation journal, handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture of a tree. On the right, a tree diagram of "5 current things that would have had a big effect on the project".

This observation journal page is an activity I was planning to set my students. The steps were as follows:

  • consider the project they were working on for class (or come up with a ridiculous idea: see Observation Journal — Improbable Inventions);
  • look in the news and find 5 current events;
  • consider the sort of effect those events might have on the project/idea; and
  • come up with at least 3 possible variations to the idea in consequence of that impact.

So, for example, you might be planning a cocktail bar. The big local news, however, is about an unprecedented rise in the crocodile population in the area! So you might make sure your bar is crocodile-proofed, and offer crocodile-trained security escorts to and from the carpark, and/or build a viewing platform and sell crocodile-themed cocktails. And silly as that is, it does prompt lines of thought about safety and aesthetics and marketing.

However this was at the end of March 2020, so current events (postal delays and lockdowns and the economy) seemed more all-encompassing than they had been used to. That made the activity feel very earnest, and therefore (in my opinion) inclined to be a little wearying. (The project I was trying it out on was a deck of creative prompts, and the silliest/best lockdown idea was to use the cards as exercise prompts.) I still think it’s a useful exercise/stress-test. But crocodiles would have been more fun.

A lesson I learned from doing the activity, unrelated to the point of the activity itself, was to not rule out listing duplicate ideas. I’d initially tried to make them all original ideas, but that bogged everything down.

Allowing myself to list duplicate ideas/consequences made it easier to:

  • come up with more original ideas later, by getting the obvious out of the way and out of my head — otherwise those ideas just keep floating around and getting in the way of new ones (this is part of the usefulness of the twenty-things approach to ideas, too);
  • collect groups of ideas that had elements in common;
  • notice patterns in my own thoughts; and
  • find solutions that might solve more than one problem.

After that, I started letting myself repeat ideas and state the obvious, as long as I later pushed on to include three new solutions for each problem, in addition to any duplicates.

Tiny pen drawing of a little stand of trees

The drawing above directly contributed to the June Calendar: Ominous Little Groves.

(And a few pages working through how to work in distracting times are here: Observation Journal — creative superstitions and working in distracting times).

Mother Thorn — book trailer

From A Licence to Quill comes this book trailer for Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn, and other tales of courage and kindness, illustrated by me.

The Serenity Press hardcover special edition is out now, and the trade release of the linen cover is in April 2021. More on that as the date approaches!

Read and seen — December 2020

A photo of a hand holding a cut-paper silhouette of a woman dressed in a moth-costume.

A strong commonality among the December books was a twinned sense of costuming on the one hand, and becoming more who you are on the other. How that turned into a moth girl I’m not entirely sure, but that was where the associations started.


  • Borrowed Dreams — May McGoldrick (romance, villainy, benevolent interference)
  • A Skinful of Shadows — Frances Hardinge (ghosts! the English civil war!)
  • Powder and Patch — Georgette Heyer (Georgian makeover montage — I always thought this was a silly book, and it is, but I liked it so much more on the reread)
  • Reading Like a Writer — Francine Prose (appreciating sentences)
  • Every Tool’s a Hammer — Adam Savage (this was about more than just fitting your studio space to the way you work instead of the other way around, but that was the main revelation for me)
Screenshot from the ebook of Every Tool's A Hammer with the following highlighted: "you don't want to just store stuff, you eventually want to retrieve and use it as well."
From Every Tool’s A Hammer: an epiphany


  • The Happiest Season
  • Darren Hanlon’s Regional Xmas Tour — The Majestic Theatre, Pomona