Observation Journal: Tinkering with story engines

Around this point in the observation journal, I spent quite a few pages tinkering with how ideas worked — which ones appealed to me, and where they might come from, and if I could deliberately recreate the process. I wasn’t so much trying to write a story as watching myself work, looking for the little epiphanies that make a story emerge, and tricks I could use if I got stuck on something I was writing.

However, some of these exercises led directly to projects which aren’t finished (or aren’t published) yet, so I haven’t posted the pages. Others, like the blue page below, led to stories which have evolved into something unrecognisable. And some (like the pink page) didn’t work, for reasons which were also interesting.

This first page combined several previous exercises, and revealed a bit more about the aspects that were useful (for me) and the ones which didn’t work the way I do.

Here are all the stages/exercises, with links to some related posts (I’ll add more if I find them):

  • Idea: First, I picked three things at random from preceding observation pages (here: arcane symbols, working blocks, using a laundry rack as a laptop stand — pic). Then I used those three to come up with a base concept (using household objects for arcane [vibes?]).
  • Aesthetic: I then picked an aesthetic. The three objects themselves suggested a down-at-heel contemporary tone, which I wasn’t feeling. So I flipped that into something smokier and Victorian. (On the second page, I chose both a colour key and a place-aesthetic.)
  • Swapped stereotypes and cliches: Next, I chose some of the obvious stereotype pairings (mundane/magical and wizard/housewife), listed some associated words, and swapped them. So the housewife becomes mysterious, aloof, and robed in velvet and the house is a site of arcane ritual and (apparently) carpets, while the wizard is cheerful and stout with a clean apron and magic is associated with domestic work.
  • Contrasts and impetus: Then I started feeling for where the pressures behind the story might be — where the points of tension and conflict come from. In this case velvet-draped darkness and sunny good-humour seemed an amusing contrast at least — perhaps one hires the other and must deal with the unexpected consequences. A cheerful wizard takes on a morose relative as housekeeper, or a Gothic housewife hires an inappropriately upbeat necromancer to reanimate someone who died.
  • More flipping: I also tried looking at what they might want and what could stop them — picking the obvious goals and obstacles and inverting them. This was fun but the standard question of a character’s goals and motivations has never felt instinctive for me (and generally aggravates me) — I’ve tinkered more with that question since.
  • Structure: It wasn’t quite shaping into a story yet — there are some notes there reaching toward story-shapes and styles of humour that might match the idea. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Enchanted April and Lolly Willowes. On the second page I more deliberately chose (at random) a sequence of story moods and used it to suggest how a story might take shape, which helped a lot, and when I came back to expand the (unrecognisably altered) version of this idea, I used that approach to expand it.
  • Finally, the point of this exercise was not to write a story but to watch how I work. (See e.g. the questions at A tremor in the web.) So I made a few notes on where the idea sparked or why perhaps it didn’t. The main lessons were:
    • I continue to enjoy mixing/matching/flipping in order to come up with an idea. This remains consistent, and fun for roadtrips.
    • An idea isn’t enough without a story shape to flow into.
    • The aesthetic has to appeal to me (or be made to appeal).
    • An idea, story shape, and attractive aesthetic aren’t enough (without e.g. extreme outside pressure) if it isn’t a type of story/genre I care to write. This was in relation to the second page, which turned into more of an experimental romcom idea.

School sketches — Concordia

My week as artist in residence at Concordia Lutheran College was wonderful (lively, inventive, intense), but without much time for drawing. So, since I finished just before lunch on the Friday, I sat out in the quadrangle and did some very quick sketches.

The uniforms have changed since I was there (ours were brown, white and yellow). (Also I hardly ever sat in the quadrangle when I was there — I mostly spent lunch hours in the library).

I don’t draw groups as often as I’d like to, but it’s always worthwhile — the different attitudes and interaction, the necessary speed.

The flocking which happens in any group of people with overlapping interests, but concentrated, like birds wheeling on the sound of a bell.

Observation Journal: More mixed descriptions

I love this picture because while it is objectively not an accurate drawing of a crow, generally speaking, it absolutely catches the attitude of this specific crow

Here are a few more observation journal pages playing with mismatched metaphors and shaken-up descriptions.

I very much like these exercises — swapping, exchanging, flipping language (and images) and finding unexpected connections is an enjoyable game, but also a way to discover little worlds and the hints of stories, and to stay in the habit of reaching for very specific and carefully callibrated descriptions — training the ear as well as the hand. (Here are some related posts, with exercises: Variations on descriptions, More swapped descriptions, Similes and genre flips.)

This first page is a repeat of picking two things at random from the observation page and making them fit each other (with an occasional genre flip):

Trees lit like caffeination, champagne like metal dye in the veins. A person whose approach to computers is like the wary abandon of the amateur chef. A sense of clammy inevitability, like washing left forgotten in the machine.

In the next, I changed the approach slightly (it’s a combination of the original and the Caudwell approaches). First I made a list of terms I associated with cold weather and hot weather and noted patterns in them (the aloof, brittle, beautiful, festive terms for winter, the physically oppressive and vigorous associations of summer).

Then I swapped these and wrote some descriptions.

So hot weather could be described by way of salt-white light, the shiver you get from the heat, puffing out hot breath, the numbness of warmth. And cold weather could be all brilliance and gold light, green shadows, the humidity of damp clothes indoors, etc.

There are a few lines borrowed from the previous technique: winter like a crow at the window, summer like a pomegranate — and then the question of what would happen if you switched those. The answer is quite a lot, actually. Of course winter is like a pomegranate, it’s a whole thing — and summer is all about getting woken up by the crows on the fence outside.

On a subsequent page, I went back to those twin lists and directly swapped the terms (pale to vivid, biting to either aloof or caressing, greenery to fibre matting, balcony to underhouse).

The “summer” paragraph that resulted was quite similar to the previous one. Winter, however, gained movement and intent — winter with its clicking claws, its smell of old rugs, its cold nose pressed without warning against bare skin…

Here are some previous related posts, some of which have writing/illustration activities.

Sleeping on my sister’s sofa, woken by her dog

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

New Corella Press title on approach — From Shadow Land and Other Ghost Stories

From Shadow Land and Other Ghost Stories, the latest book from Corella Press, is coming soon…

As well as the image used on the cover, I was delighted to write the foreword for this volume (the fourth and last of the linked cover designs I put together when Corella was just starting).

Observation Journal: The evolving review, art process, sparks

These three observation journal pages are all a review of the same two art projects, and hammering out more of the best way for me to review projects.

The first was my illustration for “On Pepper Creek”, which is now out (with its accompanying story, also by me) in the South of the Sun anthology of Australian fairy tales from the Australian Fairy Tale Society and Serenity Press). I’ve posted about the art process for that illustration here: “On Pepper Creek” — illustration process.

Pencil drawings of trees and waves and creatures with long tails.
Process sketches

The second was a scratchboard illustration for the World Roulette art exhibition and book (from Light Grey Art Lab). I’ll post more about that once the parcel of books arrives.

A snipped of the illustration

The first page was a quick exploration of the difficulties of not having an art director, and therefore having to make decisions myself. I realised that in this situation I frequently take two designs to quite an advanced stage before committing (or letting the deadline commit me). See also this small discarded skull.

Left page: Two men carrying a chair, crossing a flood plain

I then followed up with a few thoughts about why I chose the final image, and what I liked about it.

  • In one case, I chose the simplest idea so that I would still have time to do my second choice if it didn’t work (in fact, I drew several final versions of the first image, getting it to look as simple as I wanted it to be).
  • For the other, I chose the design I most wanted to spend the materials on, but ended up using the most complicated technique.

The main things I learned were:

  • On the day: Overcomplication is part of how I get things done, and so to leave room for it, within reason. (Efficacy > efficiency.)
  • In retrospect: I need to more consciously seize the reins of projects without the voice of a strong art director. I learned this more thoroughly later, but the beginnings of the realisation are here.

The next day, I decided to review other aspects of the projects, realising (although not learning) that one page was not enough for two projects.

Left page: Uber Eats’ “Your orders” symbol looks like the ghost of Ned Kelly

Here I looked at likes, alternative concepts, difficulties, dislikes, and things to try. A few themes are the ongoing pull towards denser folkloric designs, the desire for movement, the value to a piece of committing to a strong style for that piece, and the use of space.

I also wanted to leave more room to think about “why this one”, i.e. why this design. So I added it on the next page, the following day.

Left page: “Your name on rice”

As suspected, this was an illuminating question. As when I looked for the sparks in writing ideas, it has the potential to speed up the process (I’m sure I’ve posted about this, but maybe it’s still on the way). But completing this page also gave me some guidance around choosing projects when working under pressure.

A few highlights:

  • Playing with the space on a page, and/or filling the space pleasingly.
  • Fluidity/movement AND a sense of ornament.
  • A strong stylistic choice.
  • The pleasures of the material.
  • Limits on what I needed to think about.

Writing/drawing exercise:

  • Look back over a selection of your drawings/writing/other creative projects.
  • Jot down a few notes about what appealed to you about that idea: what made it spark, why did you choose it, what about it made you keep going?
  • Are there any patterns to those reasons?
  • Choose a few of the strong or common reasons. See if you can retro-engineer an idea that meets those requirements. (Here, for example, a strongly narrative wallpaper design would meet my criteria above, and is in fact a thing I often stumble into playing with — and I’ve finally signed up for some actual lessons about classic pattern design). Do a quick sketch of it (in words or writing.)
  • Bonus: Flip those criteria and repeat the exercise above. (For my criteria, that would result in a sort of overcrowded and deliberate ugliness.) Can you do it? Do you hate it, or are there things in it you’d like to try? Does it define the edges of why you mean by those criteria (for example, the point where a detailed all-over design becomes crowded)?

For posts on finding the spark in a project, see also: Sparks and navigable worlds, Do it for the aesthetic #3, Giving ideas a push, and A tremor in the web,

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Musical werewolves — a game for one or more players

Recently I was driving while feeling disappointed in a werewolf movie, and tried to distract myself by imagining every song on the radio was over the end credits of a better werewolf movie, and attempting to reconstruct it from there.

This works with almost any song. I’ve played it with friends in cafes with a Korean jazz playlist, and again alone today, reading Terri WIndling’s Tunes for a Monday Morning over on Myth & Moor, and later listening to Triple-J in the car.

So, for example, Martha Tilston’s “The Sadness of the Sea“.

This would be an elegaic story, in which the werewolf families sadly assume wolf forms permanently and retreat into the receding wilderness.

Declan McKenna’s “Beautiful Faces“, however, would clearly suit a story in which a group of youngish monster hunters, after some high-key-colour adventures, patch themselves up and head out for a dangerous/glamorous night on the town.

I find the game works best if you only listen to (and don’t watch) the videos, and is the most fun if you choose the songs at random.

Observation Journal — time vs floors and ceilings

It’s all a bit Alice-in-Wonderland

As well as an excuse to draw Alice in Wonderland (see previously), this page of the observation journal was an opportunity to think about me vs time. Specifically, it’s a musing on the pleasant and horrible aspects of treating a deadline as a ceiling vs the present as a floor.

The well-known meteorological classifications “high little many clouds, & lower puffy ones”

I have always been a deadline-motivated person, as well as very good at procrastinating (I don’t know which is the cause and which the effect). But some combination of 2020 and too many deadlines were breaking that system. The really useful aspects of deadlines (motivation, eventually, and productive procrastination) were suffering.

Changing my approach and treating now as a place to begin seemed promising. But it’s a skill I only learned very recently (at the beginning of my MPhil, in fact) and it is not yet innate.

Time vs me is, I suspect, an ongoing process rather than a work in progress. And these approaches are less in opposition than part of a continuum. A setting I need to constantly, consciously slide and adjust according to circumstances — ideally before but certainly when (as recently) cracks open and things fall into them. (Apologies.)

Potplant vs ceiling

Some previous Alice, also available on Redbubble and Spoonflower.


Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee). And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

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…)

Continue reading

Observation Journal — project reviews (calendar art)

On this observation journal page I was continuing to work out an approach to project reviews that felt useful for me.

Left page: the soft sounds of water, a macrame fitting, how much can fit into two hours

This review is for the July 2020 calendar art (below) — a pattern of sewing implements sprouting flowers.

An illustration on a blue background of various sewing implements sprouting cover flowers and daisy chains

This review focussed on three main things:

  • What worked/what I was happy with (e.g. the usefulness of parameters; specificity and responses to it — I was delighted by how many people were pleased by the mere presence of the tatting shuttle)
  • What could have been better (e.g. planning colour placement at the sketch page instead of being surprised by the massive pinkness of strawberry pincushions)
  • What I wanted to try next time (e.g. more specifics, specifically of the fantastic-industrial type).

This approach didn’t cover everything I wanted a review to cover — the time the project took, for example, and people’s responses as a separate area to think about, what made a project “click”, and why I did things the way I did. That last would get into the process again as a distinct question the following week. In particular, I wanted the project review pages to catch ideas I wanted to pursue, rather than just coldly tinkering with the process.

But the page did lead to a little chain of thoughts on industrial fabulism (here: “fabulist-practical and the industrial-fantastic”), already something I knew I was interested in, and which seemed to appear in previous projects (aspects of “The Heart of Owl Abbas” and “Kindling”, for example). It’s not directly connected to steampunk per se, and isn’t so much the part where I added magic to real tools in this picture. It’s the parts where unexpected beauty was hidden in them — the wax-rose, and the glass beads on the lace bobbins, and the existence of bird-clamps (hemming birds). It’s in the specificity of technical drawings and practical diagrams and the more lyrical type of article in motor magazines (there’s a note there to buy a book with some of my favourite farming illustrations in it).

I’ve mentioned industrial fabulism previously, in relation to Travelogues, but this is where it first began to show up in the journals — I’ll post more thoughts on that soon.

Bird’s-Eye View

I’ve been scanning in some sketchbooks and found this page. I was in a queue by an upstairs window, so I passed the time drawing people passing along the street outside, below, in the morning sun.

I often need to remind myself not to draw (or write) the obvious, eye-level view of things. When I actually do this, new details (the location of parts in hair or the structural role of boat-neck tops) abruptly become important. Sometimes the part of the sketch doing the heavy lifting (explaining where things are in space, hinting at movement, orienting the viewer) shifts from the figure to the shadow.

Some previous thoughts on viewpoints (and points of view):