Observation journal — creative post-mortems

Left page: One of the things I particularly enjoy finding, when I flip back through the observation journal pages, is the moments of people playing against stereotype: here, the very sporty boys engaged in a deep discussion of which piece of art to buy. But finding evidence of types is charming, too — the construction worker stopping to analyse the state of a door-jamb. In sum, and as previously noted: observing people makes me like people more.

Right page: I was wanting to record thoughts and discoveries from my own projects, especially as I usually collapse in a fog of exhaustion at the end and never make any notes at all. Later in the observation journal, I tried some more formal project review formats, but while they have some useful prompts they tend to be very narrowing. This freeform approach let me wander off following fascinations and examining aversions.

A double-page hand-written observation journal spread.

The project was a little story I’d done for Patreon — a PDF booklet of lies about spiders.

A drawing of a spider gesturing to a whiteboard.
Spiders like to give long presentations analysing projections.

In this case, most of the useful points turned out to be about patterns I’d noticed in my work: the difficulties and possibilities of locking oneself into a story involving set large-number motifs (spiders, Snow White, and Sleipnir); a love for greyed tones; the potential and problem (if trying to get quickly from idea to finished project) of working very small.

Hand-written analysis, from the observation journal, of how a project labelled "SPIDER STORY" went.

One of my reflections after doing this (visible at the bottom of the full page) was that I wanted to get down more of the ideas I had for other projects while working on this one — I’d noticed, for example, that when working on silhouettes I would often reach a stray corner or complication that made me excited to try a new design, which I’d then forget again. Later in the observation journal, I tried to keep track of those new ideas when doing project post-mortems.

However, on this page, actually recording my frustrations about process (instead of rediscovering them every time) paid off — I finally got InDesign.

Drawing of two black teacup poodles, with writing: "Two tiny black poodles howl-yowling at 2 shaved white maltese who were essentially being dragged along like cats"
“Two tiny black poodles howl-yowling at 2 shaved white maltese who were essentially being dragged along like cats”

Read (not seen) — May 2020

A pen and watercolour sketch, on gridded paper, of a woman reading in an alcove

Read

  • Sisters of the Vast Black — Lina Rather. Nuns! In! Space! and much more earnest and focussed and charming than that sounds. But also: nuns in space!
  • Lord Ashwood Missed Out Tessa Dare. The high glee of Tessa Dare’s romances is very welcome in difficult times.
  • A Lady by Midnight Tessa Dare. See above. I started a list of “unlikely abrupt intense proximities” in lighter-hearted romances at about this point.
  • Delicious — Sherry Thomas. Something about Sherry Thomas’ books always makes me feel like I’ve run into someone who agrees with me about certain decidedly unromantic historical novels. It also prompted me to work out my thoughts about food magic (this will probably show up at some point in the observation journal posts).
  • The Monster of Elendhaven — Jennifer Giesbrecht. Nasssty oily murderous far north industrial gothic fantasy, my precious. Lovely writing.
  • The Tallow-WifeAngela Slatter. Not published yet! But I’ve been illustrating it…
  • You Let Me In — Camilla Bruce. I quite liked the origin of the fae in this one.
  • Chalk — Paul Cornell. Argh! Also it was interesting reading it beside You Let Me In, working out the boundaries of folk horror and my own tastes. Also loved opposing magics (earth vs ad-hoc pop magic).
  • Thus Was Adonis Murdered — Sarah Caudwell. (Reread). The straight-faced flipping of steretypes. The wine. The legal humour. The first line. “Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but Truth.” The beautiful Ragwort…
  • Black Sheep — Georgette Heyer. (Reread). There’s a trick played at the end of this book that I always kind of forget is coming.

Unseen

For obvious reasons, I didn’t get to a cinema in May, and I hadn’t been in the habit of recording other things I watched.

Four pen and watercolour sketches on a gridded journal page: A woman with a book and ominous shadows; A person with a candle looking at an opening chalk-drawn door; A woman in a cloak with a fan; A woman reading in a window embrasure.
Thinking about this month’s reading, and doors, and shadows, and things that ought not to be let in

Flyaway: A real book

Picture from the team at Tor.com

Look at these beautiful books! The US edition (Tor.com) exists (although it officially comes out on the 28th of July). The dust jacket and the foils and the stamp (they’ve already given me a copy of that, in the event I get to actually sign physical books for people).

“It’s a dark & delicate fairytale-infused mystery set in a hot, dry, dingo-howl haunted Australian landscape — such a fresh voice & intriguing tale!”

— Kate Forsyth


The American (Tor.com) and Australian (Picador) editions are both available for preorder through your local bookstore, and further afield.

Observation Journal: Reflections and making things happen

A page from the observation journal, headed "Reflections & Lessons & Patterns", with mind-map style notes on the week's observations.

I’ve continued to find weekly reflection pages the observation journal very useful when I do them, and interesting to look back on. This is from the end of January: the week including Points of habit and resistance, Patterns in days, Reflections and alphabetical order, and The appeal of staginess — there was also a more introspective, prosy page of reflection which I haven’t posted about because, well, turns out that’s not the sort of journal I like to keep.

It’s a different format, and it has fewer birds and dinosaurs than the previous week’s summary, but there are a few continuing and new themes that began to push the journal (and what I was making) in certain directions after this. A few are:

  • The trap of thinking only about creativity/productivity, and not about actually creating and making things (the art of making things manifest, as it were). In retrospect, this was mostly a problem because I was reading so much about creativity at the time, in preparation for teaching, and trying to cast a fairly wide net in the journal, so that it would work as an example. But it led to the next point.
  • The links between IDEA and DOING, between filling a page with ideas and going back and making something with them, the difference between “incubation” and “overthinking”, and the extent to which an idea can be the thing itself (and ongoing personal resistance to collage). This was initially of concern because I wanted to make sure students actually made something in the creativity class, but it immediately fed into my own issues with inertia vs momentum. I began taking time to look at how I got certain ideas to the finish line (and also, eventually, why I chose those particular ideas). This led to the next point.
  • The immediate power of pushing an idea just a bit further — this was scarily effective, and derailed my time planning (such as it was) and I want to post at a bit more length about it. At its most basic, however, it boiled down to this:
    • Once I have an Idea™, take five minutes to do an incredibly high-level, noncommittal outline of what a final version of it might look like.
  • The belief that style might not be everything, but it can get you a long way. This is personal to my taste and the way I work, of course, but is connected to recurring future references to “aesthetic”, as it emerged from the post on staginess.
  • The usefulness of considering patterns across a set of [stories, pictures, etc], rather than just a close critique of one — triangulating elements of interest and craft, and prioritising appreciation over criticism.
  • An emerging concern with surface design, written and visual, which I will post more about eventually when I get to the core pages — it relates to the post Framing devices and stories in the ornaments).

Also, with splendid dramatic irony, the note I don’t want to go out! I want to stay in and make things!

Also: My Australian Gothic book Flyaway is out very soon!

Writing news: A review of Flyaway, and Year’s Best in the mail

GEEKLY, INC REVIEWS FLYAWAY

Flyaway comes out at the end of July (you can preorder it now, though)! And here is a beautiful review of it from Christina Ladd at Geekly, Inc:

Flyaway Review: Exquisite, Exquisite, Exquisite

YEAR’S BEST ARRIVES

I have been buying a lot of books lately (not at all curtailed by a birthday subscription to Slightly Foxed Quarterly — did you know T. H. White published his journals about taking flying lessons?). So it was a delightful surprise to get an unexpected box of books in the mail.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 contains many wonderful short stories — and for once, thanks to judging the World Fantasy Awards, I have already read quite a few and can confirm they are great!

It also has my Tor.com story, “The Heart of Owl Abbas“.

Here’s the table of contents, the better to convince yourself to acquire this anthology:

  • A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies — Alix E. Harrow
  • Intervention — Kelly Robson
  • The Donner Party — Dale Bailey
  • How to Identify an Alien Shark — Beth Goder
  • The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death — Alex Jeffers
  • Carouseling — Rich Larson
  • The Starship and the Temple Cat — Yoon Ha Lee
  • Grace’s Family — James Patrick Kelly
  • The Court Magician — Sarah Pinsker
  • The Persistence of Blood — Juliette Wade
  • Lime and the One Human — S Woodson
  • Bubble and Squeak — David Gerrold & Ctein
  • Sour Milk Girls — Erin Roberts
  • The Unnecessary Parts of the Story — Adam-Troy Castro
  • The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish — Octavia Cade
  • The Gift — Julia Nováková
  • The Buried Giant — Lavie Tidhar
  • Jump — Cadwell Turnbell
  • Umbernight — Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • Today is Today — Rick Wilber
  • The Heart of Owl Abbas — Kathleen Jennings
  • The Spires — Alec Nevala-Lee
  • The House by the Sea — P H Lee
  • Foxy and Tiggs — Justina Robson
  • Beautiful — Juliet Marillier
  • Dayenu — James Sallis
  • Firelight — Ursula K Le Guin

Observation Journal: Points of habit and resistance

Also oh hi! I have an (ornamented!) Australian Gothic book out this month: Flyaway

(A view bits are masked because they relate to projects still in progress — more in due course)

Meanwhile, in the observation journal, it is the 30th of January. I was still recovering from a bad back (as recorded on the left-hand page; I almost got stuck in the freezer in consequence), ladies in the cafe were still hoping to get to a pool in Bali, babies were disconcerting, and I reached a détente with Phthalo Turquoise, although it didn’t extend to learning how to spell it. Incidentally, writers could do worse than look at paint descriptions for a thesaurus of ways to handle colour. (For more about paints: Loving the Tools.)

But on the right-hand page I was working through points of habit and resistance.

Some habits are good. Some habits are style. Some points of resistance are there for a reason — the negative shapes we draw around. But I wanted to be more aware of them, more deliberate in looking for lines or “shapes that please me” (as Peter de Sève put it), and less frequently startled when I look back at something I’ve made with several year’s distance.

The process was simple:

  1. Look back at my work (mostly art, but not solely) and notice patterns.
  2. Work out what the flip-side of those would be.
  3. (Not shown on this page) Deliberately apply those approaches to a piece of work and see what I learned.

For example:

  • The fight against a shrinking delicacy of marks has been long-running, and is why I first started sketching with markers. I still like a sense of lightness, but now I try to make it a chatty communicative lightness instead of pencil that’s so tentative it evaporates off the page like smoke.
  • While I’ve tried drawing more violent and grotesque figures (often with editors pleading with me to “please make it more horrible!”), I know now that’s not what I want to do. However, I have tried to bring more energy and grimness back from that experiment — and discovered the delights of a plunge into the ornamental gothic. I’m almost always happy to add more skulls.
  • On the other hand, I find I like drawing squat figures more than slender ones, although it’s still an effort to adjust the proportions. I’m at the stage of concentrating on not making them too attenuated.
  • When writing, I have to include an editing pass to add emotion in.

Exercise for writers/artists:

[Note: You could also adapt this exercise by using it to look at someone else’s work, as a way to study it closely.]

  1. Look back at your work: the sum total of it, or comments you’ve received, or a piece that you’re working on at the moment.
  2. Look for patterns and habits. If you’re looking at one piece, what are some distinctive features? Lyricism? Vigour? Tiny pen marks? Make a list.
  3. Now flip the list. Think of opposite(s) for each item.
  4. Try applying those approaches to your work — either a new or existing piece, or just as a mental exercise.
  5. Which confirm your choices? Which create dramatic new directions? Which are confronting but intriguing?

Related: When in doubt, make lists (and shuffle them)

“Babies’ eyes are further down their face than one might think”

Peter de Sève on style (or ‘voice’)

 “An artist’s drawing is a catalog of the shapes that he loves. When I’m drawing something, I’m trying to find the shapes that please me. I believe that’s what makes up what people refer to as a style”.

 Peter de Sève, A Sketchy Past: The Art of Peter de Sève

June post round-up

A quick summary of the June blog posts (not including Patreon posts).

The starred posts have variants on art and writing exercises and games I often use (tags: writing exerciseart exercise) art and writing activities (although, since many of the other posts — especially the observation journal posts — are about process anyway, you can use them as the basis for activities).

Flyaway interview — New Books Network

Flyaway is out in less than a month! That means there’s still time to preorder it

In the meantime, here is a podcast interview I did with Gabrielle Mathieu on the New Books Network podcast.

It does have some slight high-level spoilers, so be warned, and it was a lovely conversation, although the time-lag on Skype made it difficult to not talk over each other!

July Calendar: Sew a fine seam

Note: This calendar is supported by patrons, who get it a little bit early, along with other sneak-peeks and behind-the-scenes art: patreon.com/tanaudel, and also by those very kind people who throw a few dollars towards it via the tip jar: paypal.me/tanaudel

For July, here are threads and bobbins and awls and wax, and the daily tools so often adjacent to fairy tales: bodkins for poisoned lacings, winders to hold the thread for clues, needles and pins to choose your path by…

There are no scissors, because I wanted this to tie in to the scissors calendar from November last year. I kept the colour scheme, but added pink (for the clover flowers and other details). And I’ve had a few requests for a repeating pattern for the scissors, so I’ll try to do both at once. I’ll let you know when they’re up. In the meantime, both this design and Scissors are up on Redbubble as prints, masks, cushions, etc.

And here (for personal use) are the printable versions. If you like them and like supporting the arts, you can contribute to the calendar (and get it and other behind-the-scenes things early) at patreon.com/tanaudel (starts at US$1/month!) or through the tip jar at paypal.me/tanaudel.