Observation Journal — giving ideas a push

Left page: Rainy day walking.

Right page: I mentioned previously that at this point in the observation journal I was thinking about to how to get more quickly from an idea to a thing (Observation Journal: Reflections and making things happen — and also Making Things Manifest, a much shorter post that was based on this journal page). I suffer from a combination of inertia and many fascinations, and it’s very easy to either lose or never get momentum on a project.

On this page I began to look at this in more detail — breaking down:

  • what had worked for me in various fields (art, writing, etc);
  • what those approaches might look like in other fields (the written equivalent of a sketch, for example); and
  • patterns that were emerging.

At its most basic, the simple answer is to rely on the immediate power of pushing an idea just a bit further. This boils down to:

  • once I have an idea, however nebulous, take five minutes to do an incredibly high-level, noncommittal outline of what a final version of it might look like; and
  • if possible, do this in a format that can be repurposed as a final object (i.e. leave enough spaces between sketches to scan and use them as-is, rough out an outline that could be a pitch, or a script for an illustrated story).

Some examples

  • Art:
    • immediately do a sketch/rough
    • do a sketchfold ASAP (shorthand for the little accordion-fold sketchbook segments I use when developing projects. I haven’t made a tag for them, alas, but they show up in a lot of process posts, including this set for The Tallow-Wife.)
    • leave space between sketches to scan them and use as-is
    • wash in some colour/tone ASAP (to flesh out the sketches, but also to be eye-catching when I look for it again — you can see an example of this at the end of the Reflections and making things happen post)
    • write a treatment/storyboard/etc of the overall shape
    • remember to pick a style I actually want to use (this is more of a pitfall-avoidance technique)
  • Writing
    • Super-fast and utterly made up proposal (this was from a series of non-fiction expressions of interest)
    • Write notes on other books in own words (this is more of a non-fiction technique, but it’s useful when adapting ideas as well)
    • Immediately jot down a three-point outline (primarily non-fiction again) — this page became the basis for the much shorter Making Things Manifest post.
    • Write a quick one-paragraph treatment or, even better, three quick treatments (this takes the pressure off any one of them — I did this for an illustrated project around this time and it worked very well: initial tinted sketches, then a handful of plot treatments, fidgeting with style, then a high-level, rapid script and colour-script.
    • Immediately push the idea out into some plot template. Any plot template, really, as long as it makes me be deliberate about story shape. I use fairy tales a lot for this, but I’ve found Susan Dennard’s one page synopsis useful for pinning down short story ideas, and storing them until I can get back to them. The final might change wildly, but at least enough bits are written down that I can remember what the idea felt like.
    • Run at it and keep running. (This is one reason why I personally enjoy challenges, from writing sprints with friends to NaNoWriMo — “The Heart of Owl Abbas” started from a writing group game where we wrote one sentence of the story on the first day of the month, two sentences on the second, etc).


Very few of these actually finish the project. But they do considerably increase its chances. They create a skeleton with nothing weighing it down — a framework for memory and future work. Something with a full set of parts — to be swapped out, perhaps, and maybe I’ll think of a better composition or more thrilling ending, but if I don’t, at least it already has one. And they catch the first gleam or excitement of an idea — the spark that made me want to write it.

All of these points make it easier to store a project, to share it with other people who might make it happen, to find it again in a file, to remember what I meant by it, and to choose to work on it when time is short. And if I can recapture the initial thrill (a resonance, an aesthetic), I’m much more likely to find the momentum to finish the project.

Trying it out

The illegible scrawl at the very bottom of the page was me trialling a demonstration of getting a sketched outline down fast. The original idea was something about gumboot shortages and storm-initiating butterflies (there was a butterfly bloom this summer, and it was raining that day). I got much of the idea down, but then it took off on its own and ended up turning into a full tiny rhyming accordion picture book (a glimpse of which I posted in Making Things Manifest — Mock-Ups and Outlines).

And writing this up has just reminded me that I need to add some of these steps to a few stalled projects currently causing me distress.

Magpie under a beehive

Writing/art exercise

  1. Think of a project you’ve kind-of, sort-of been wanting to do for some time — or a recent idea that just occurred to you. (If you’re stuck, X-meets-Y is quite useful: “weather-butterfly meets gumboot shortage”; “Cinderella meets Wicker Man“; “Jaws but make it Pre-Raphaelite”).
  2. Really quickly (set a timer for 10min if necessary) rough out:
    1. three written treatments (make sure they have a beginning, middle, and end — if it’s a project you’ve been thinking about for a while, try and make them wildly different), or
    2. 5 thumbnail sketches (imagine it’s for a standard 6×9 book page (or the usual dimensions you work in), draw a rectangle, and make sure you fill in the background, too).
  3. Pick one of those options and very quickly (10 min timer again!) develop it further, making sure to spend equal time on all the elements — this is about wiring together a skeleton, not building up the detail. And you’re not committing to it! This is about beating the clock. Make either:
    1. a written outline (use dot points under headings (going all the way to The End!), or your favourite story structure or that one-page synopsis), or
    2. or a larger, detailed sketch.
  4. Congratulations, you have an outline for something you either want to do or really don’t want to do (the process of elimination is valuable too). Now stop and make a few notes on the process — why did you choose or discard certain aspects, what bits made you want to pursue them, where did you just not want to deal with something (endings, for me) and how did you deal with it (writing down multiple options often helps me — or picking an emotional note to end on).

9 thoughts on “Observation Journal — giving ideas a push

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