I often flag phrases or pictures that I like, and then never come back to them. Lately, I’ve been trying to make a note of them somewhere and then to occasionally break down what I like about them. I figure that this way I’m more likely to (a) look at them again and (b) retain useful information even if I don’t.
I do this sometimes in the observation journal, but occasionally the passage is too long for the page, and also I took a deliberate journal break for a few weeks, so lately I’ve been musing aloud on Twitter.
This example is from Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern, which I enjoyed more than I expected to (I’ve always been very aware of the series, but I’d somehow managed not to read any within recent memory). The *style* of the writing was so brusque and particular and charming. Some things don’t age well but the 60s-ish-ness and the wry interior decorators and the personalities at the office, and the fact people have jobs to do… The cats were also rather marvellously written, especially as cats that are really just cats, but whose (owner? caretaker?) is convinced of their intellectual superiority. That’s another little humorous tension I’d love to play around with in something.
But on to the passage!
A few reasons I like it (note, this isn’t a detailed analysis — it’s things that appealed to me, and why I think they worked):
- Brevity & briskness. [This adds to a sort of laconic noir/gumshoe effect — Renee Patrick’s Design for Dying does an interesting mix of sentence lengths; short wry sentences for 1930s Hollywood dialogue, longer flowing modern phrasing in the descriptions.]
- Brevity & briskness are created by KEEPING neat phrasings, telling details, useful repetition, etc, and leaving everything ELSE out. A kind of kill everything but your darlings approach.
- It just skips to the next thing the author thinks it’s necessary for the reader to know.
- The generic specificity of the description, describing a group by the groups with in it. [A way to deal with crowd scenes.]
- The contrast/linking effect of only describing one element of each group’s appearance.
- The pleasing way hats/aprons etc falls into the repetition of cuffs/cuffs/cufflinks.
- A glimpse of the offset/keyhole approach to dialogue, showing bits of what are apparently different conversations (sometimes, although not here, between two people you might expect to be having the same conversation), skipping ahead, showing just a line and breezing on.
There’s another chapter where character A is trying to communicate with character B about art pieces, but B is talking to and about a cat; then later A is talking to C about something else and B re-enters the conversation with a detailed & knowledgeable reply about the art. And it worked well because it kept that sort of quick-fire, jazzy, distracted tone, and was amusing, and frustrated the main character’s immediate aim, and then suddenly whipped back around to show a humorous character as both human and smart (and presumably good at their job).
Art/writing/observation journal exercise:
- Next time you see a picture or read a passage you notice yourself liking, stop a minute. Make a note of it (pin it, or take a photo, or flag it).
- See if you can find 5 (or three, if it’s very short) reasons it appeals to you. Alternatively, just find one thing you find that works for you in each of a series of things you like.
I like doing this online, or otherwise in public, because it means I get to show off something I like, and sometimes people will have more ideas (or recommendations). Also, oddly, when I do it just for myself it makes it feel very serious and worthy — telling other people why I like something takes the pressure off. Your experience may vary.
- Make a note of why you think those aspects work for you.
- See if you can work (or rework) one of those into a short passage or sketch.