Observation Journal: Things that might make her do the thing

These two observation journal pages are a follow-up to some previous pages (see: Why has she not done the thing), and feature solutions to problems. In one case, a portfolio of fixes for the future, in the other, a direction that did work.

The first digs deeper into my issues with framing, packing and posting art (or anything, really). Specifically, I’d realised that I should look at what had worked in the past, on this and similar problems, instead of just dwelling on my resistance.

At the time, it didn’t feel like I’d reached an overwhelming conclusion. There was no epiphany, or one unbelievable trick. But it has proved to be a very useful list of things to plan for and around when I do need to post things. It’s also an array of solutions to try when I do get stuck.

The other question (“why has she not done the thing yet good grief why”) hadn’t been finished because I thought the unadorned skeleton of the questions I needed to ask myself was hilarious, if damning. Here it is again: I’m going to stick a copy of this next to my desk.

But I did revisit it. The problem involved writing several pitches, and I was wrapping myself thoroughly around the axle. In this case, dwelling on the points of resistance helped, because they weren’t as physical/practical as with packing-and-posting. And leaning on those points meant just sitting with the project for a while, and slowly tinkering things together.

Other key solutions:

  • find what was exciting about it
  • ridiculous fast first drafts feel as if they have no weight
  • you can just make stuff up?
  • talking it through with someone
  • sitting and staring at the problem for a period of time, even if I don’t do anything
  • making a playlist (a way of gently leaning on the idea)

As it turned out, in this case half the problem was simply allowing molehills to expand unchecked (with a healthy dose of self-doubt and fear of inability to read other people’s minds). And in such cases, setting a timer for half an hour and just staring at the task usually breaks through. (A watched molehill doesn’t grow?)

Finally, my housemate tricked me into watching The Morning Show aka The Morning Wars and I found it, like much (prestige?) drama, extremely stressful. This is how I watched most of it:

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.

Also, I’ve just started a mailing list. It’s not a newsletter — it’s just going to be the occasional email with any major updates (publication announcements, exhibitions, etc) and semi-regular heads-up of things you might not want to miss. If that’s for you, the (extremely early version of) the sign-up page is here:

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Observation Journal: 30 descriptions of a tree

This observation journal activity is one I’ve mentioned before (see: Sketching with words) — looking at one thing and finding ten or twenty ways to describe that particular object. It’s good for long drives, and also for sitting still, and for breaking open the world a little bit. (And for very famous poems.)

In this case, I’d gone down to the creek at the bottom of my street in the late afternoon. I’d been too twitchy to simply sit (this must have been after a deadline), but it was a lovely way to look long and deep at just one tree, and relax, and play with words.

And it didn’t matter if the descriptions wouldn’t work for a given context, or felt overwrought. That was part of the game.

Thirty descriptions of a eucalypt, late afternoon

  1. A tower with many windows
  2. A ticker-tape parade
  3. Stands of people cheering
  4. A spun stick of cotton-candy
  5. A rattle
  6. Soft-bodied, sharp-boned sky scraper
  7. Clusters of a thousand long eyes
  8. “An army with banners”
  9. Tamborinists, fluttering ribbons
  10. A dream of washing lines
  11. A map pinned with a thousand flags
  12. A paintbrush, gold-dipped
  13. A duster, web-spun
  14. A distant cumulus
  15. A fire hoop for birds to leap through
  16. A height chart, thick with measurements
  17. A river delta, fanning out into the currents of air
  18. Clustering tributaries, pouring down towards the earth
  19. A tide of leaves
  20. A gown of soft-clattering spangles
  21. A rococo candelabra, silver rubbing off the brass
  22. A net cast, unfurling
  23. A spray of fish scales
  24. A sheet snapped against the wind
  25. Largesse, upflung
  26. A rise of streamers
  27. A branching lung
  28. A conspiracy [of leaves]
  29. A cloud of witness
  30. Thick-clustered tinsel

(And, added a few days later, 31. A lagerphone)

balancing act

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Go sit somewhere and look at an object (or pick something you drive past).
  • List 5, or 10, or 20 ways you could describe it. You could:
  • Bonus round: Note if any descriptions stand out, or were very unexpected (and when they start to become so), and whether any particularly spark your interest (and if so, can you explain why?)

As mentioned in the post Sketching with words, I used this approach in working out some of the descriptions in Flyaway (available through Tor.com (US), Picador (Aus), and through all good bookstores).

But if you like even less narrative, and particularly if you like poetry that is lists of descriptions, my Travelogues: Vignettes from Trains in Motion (available from Brain Jar Press and other good book places) is just such a visual sketchbook:

Also, I’ve just started setting up a mailing list. It won’t be a newsletter — only the occasional email for any major updates (publication announcements, exhibitions, etc) and rare round-ups of things you might not want to have missed. If that’s for you, the (extremely early version of) the sign-up page is here:

Mailing List Sign-Up

I’ve only just set it up, so definitely please let me know if anything goes wrong!

Breaking down stories — variations

I’ve been reading stories and posting three-mood story breakdowns in a long thread over on Twitter. As I work out what I’m saying, it will make its way into blog posts, but you can find the thread (with typo) here: https://mobile.twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1475244655033798661

Lauren Bajek asked if I ever play with a different number than three.

The answer is definitely yes. The three-mood approach feels like just the right size for general and high-level purposes (encountering, extrapolating). It’s also very portable — easy to remember and adapt, just long enough to give a sweep of movement, a sketch of the ride the story takes the reader on.

However, for particular purposes, or to really get to grips with a specific story, or to splint a draft onto a fairy tale when fixing it, I also like to break stories down further.

So e.g. if I’m looking for a story to map a draft onto, I’ll list out a few fairytales and look for ones which roughly echo what I’ve done, and then list their various big moods/events/stages (then look for places where I could adjust mine).

Here are some examples from a recent project, where I was seeking (a) a fairy tale that echoed something I’d already written, and (b) the places where the fairy tale and my story didn’t match.

Breakdowns of Toads & Diamonds; Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest

In this case, it’s not about adapting a pre-existing story. It’s about finding a story that successfully did the thing I was trying to do, and looking at how it wears its socks, and then pulling my story’s socks up.

For example, if I had a story with a guest arriving, staying, and being accepted with polite passivity, that might work just fine. But if it wasn’t sparking, and I compared it to The Doubtful Guest, then I could see that making the guest somewhat chaotic (as well as unexpected) would increase the tension on the other parts.

Breakdowns of “The Princess and the Pea”, the story of Daphne, the (various) bone harp stories, and Goldilocks.

These examples focus more on interactions than moods, but that was what I was examining. If I was looking more at, e.g, family patterns, or settings, I’d break them down differently.

For example, take Goldilocks. Above, focusing on broad interactions, I broke down the key events as:

  • Family goes out
  • Goldilocks sneaks in
  • Goldilocks destroys things
  • Goldilocks makes herself at home
  • Family returns
  • Goldilocks flees

If I was working on a story about a family under attack, I might look at something different. Perhaps (and this will vary according to how sympathetic the characters are intended to be):

  • Family unified & secure
  • Individual leaves own people
  • Individual intrudes into family space
  • Lone individual forces a place for itself
  • Lone individual undermines family
  • Family consults among itself
  • Family evicts lone individual

Or if it was about setting, I might pick out the way the world outside is a blank, a nebulous mist from and into which bears and children periodically (de)materialise.

  • Group departs lit stage
  • Individual arrives on stage
  • Individual ricochets off walls / engages with set
  • Group returns to stage and exclaims
  • Individual flees stage (pursued as appropriate)

Or you could do it focussing on domestic activities, or morality, or…

If I were doing the three-moods on it (depending on the telling, where most of the heavy lifting is done), it might be any of the following (or other takes):

  • discovery — investigation — catastrophe
  • presumption — destruction — comeuppance
  • intrusion — violation — vengeance
  • unbearable inquisitiveness — unsatisfied desire — giddy flight
  • security — consumption — dismay

You can read more about the three-mood breakdowns here: Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories. And there are a couple of other posts about mixing and matching that are related: Observation journal — mix and match, and Observation Journal: Mixing and matching stories and imagery.

And the running thread of short story takes starts over on Twitter, here: https://twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1475244655033798661

Observation Journal — more Caudwelling

On this observation journal page, I revisited the Caudwell Manoeuvre. The first time, I deliberately picked opposites. This time, I played with pairs.

Flowers falling / falling into flowers

For each word, I wrote down the first/obvious/cliched association — or my current association with it. Then I swapped those associations, and tried to write new descriptions accordingly.

So, for example, watercolour seems thin, erratic, unforgiving. Whereas oil paint is thick, has a strong smell, and is forgiving. If I swap those associations, I need to describe them as follows:

  • watercolour: describe unwieldy, heavily-pigmented applications of watercolour, concentrating on all the smells of water (and paper and pigment).
  • oil paint: describe the slippery, staining, spreading, ineradicable nature of it.

Or bread and water in the classic dungeon sense; bread dry, tough and coarse; water dank and green. Swapped:

  • bread: dank green bread, dark and mould-tinted.
  • water: dusty, muscular and gritty.

Or sense, all calm, practical, dependable, self-abnegating, vs sensibility that’s flowery, effusive, impulsive, melodic. Flipped:

  • sense: dramatically pragmatic, theatrically logical
  • sensibility: calm, quotidian sentimentality, a self-effacing sensitivity

(What I like about that example is that it goes from being Elinor and Marianne Dashwood to Mrs Bennett and Jane Bennett).

Fruitbat hanging head-down in blossoms

You can use this to come up with ideas, of course. But it’s also a fun way to shake up the obvious view of something, and find surprising but no less true ways to look at it (the crispiness of old, much-washed socks).

Writing/illustrating exercise (as per the Caudwell Manoeuvre post)

  • Write down things that occur in pairs — either in the wild or in your mind. Dungeons and dragons? Meat pies and tomato sauce?
  • Pick a pair. For each item, write down some brief obvious descriptions and associations (including texture, colour, lines etc — this works for illustration as well as writing).
  • Now swap those notes. Use that list and work out how to describe (or illustrate) the other half of the pair in those terms. (Weirdly lumpy and chewy tomato sauce, with the dried bits around the top of the bottle flaking off? A stone-and-moss, cavern-dwelling dragon with a voice like the echoes of dripping water? Or, more literally, a dragon full of unfortunate individuals and a few skeletons?).
  • Try leaning into it to varying degrees — seeking a new thing that blends the old, or seeking new ways to see the old.

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.

The mythic weight of cities

The picture above is the beginning of an observation journal page, which I’ll post about in due course.

I was playing with myths, e.g. how do I give a caterpillar the same mythic weight as a pierced stone, or a persuade the reader a milk jug has a similar symbolic function to a horse, or give a lesser-known city a similar mythic weight to New York.

I.e.: How to build in what is otherwise assumed to be assumed.

I was thinking about this because of cities — the mythic weight that e.g. New York and Paris and London gather around them, where an author (or a movie) can flash up a sign and the audience is expected to just *get* it. Which can be a useful shorthand (if the audience does get it), because in that context name-checking tends to drag a whole train of associations with it: Montmartre or The Village, etc. (This obviously skates over a whole lot of interesting representations.)

But occasionally stories set in less well-known settings feel as if place names have just been swapped into a story, without considering the weight they might or do or could or should have for the reader. And it can feel like walking around a stage before the set goes in.

Some books, of course, are written in a way that *creates* that mythic weight, that cloud of significance, and drags the reader into it. (And occasionally a story set in a Famous City treats some aspect of it as worthy of being given its own weight, separate from assumption and expectation, or leans into and reinvents the whole mythos).

So I’m interested in how mythic weight (at all or a specific quality) can be given to something that isn’t broadly assumed to already have it. (Also, those moments where you go to a place that was described once, or rarely, and KNOW it because of how a particular author dealt with it…)

Personally, when I do set something in a place I know, it’s easiest to leave out or invent place names (even if I plan to change them back), just to make sure I put in that supporting framework —otherwise I fall back on what those place names mean to me, forgetting that Coronation Drive has automatic significance to far fewer people than, say, Broadway does.

(Flyaway, for example, is not quite set in a real place, but it’s heavily based on a few, and part of the fun (and riddle) of writing it was to create the FEELING of being in those places without just expecting the reader to know because I name-checked them).

Writers being mostly trained by reading, it’s interesting to pull back and look not just at how settings are described, but how different TYPES of settings are successfully described, and for whom, and to what effect.

(If this post looks familiar, it began as a Twitter thread.)

a too-tiny city

Observation journal — plans and deliberateness

On this observation journal page, a reminder to myself regarding “doing it wrong” vs “doing it my way”.

This was the day my copies of Flyaway arrived! I also went to the hairdresser’s, to feel like a proper author.

Useful reflection

I don’t love being introspective. Particularly not in long-form prose. When I do have a problem to grapple with, I find it most useful to start sorting it into patterns of thought, however roughly. This way I usually end up with either an answer, the raw materials for one, or at least a better question.

Some usually useful approaches to vague concerns:

  • X vs Y (as here), to start finding boundaries and tipping points.
  • A list, to get a worry out of my head and be able to look for patterns.
  • A table, if I want to compare multiple events/projects
  • A mind map, if I sense some general areas of enquiry.

This is a ratty little page because I was sad and sleepy and it was late. But it was still helpful.

I think this page was prompted mostly by worries I wasn’t “properly” celebrating Flyaway‘s publication. A minor crisis, but representative (it turned out I was sick — spent the actual publication date being horribly ill, which certainly relieved any residual guilt).

This page in particular

In the first part, I collected my thoughts on (the fear) of doing it wrong vs doing it my way.

In the second part, I rounded up thoughts on not-partying — things people kept asking, why it wasn’t happening, what I though ought to happen. And the same on possibilities: I had champagne. I could at least acknowledge the release, and appreciate it, and tidy the house, and be aware.

Last, I started collecting more general thoughts on what I felt I should be doing vs what I always seem to do and actually enjoy doing. This section was more about some new smaller projects I had to work on, but it was a good reminder and one I’ve had to come back to more than once:

  • Pressuring myself to be/write: clever, witty, slipstream, literary, Australian Gothic, not too obvious, not too fantasy, not boring!, but consistent.
  • Things I actually (and like to) do/be/write: odd, strange, compact, multiple, fast, pleasant, following a story, chasing things that are intriguing-to-me.

At Stefan’s, with tea and hair foils

Observation Journal: Questions for project reviews

Project reviews have been a useful aspect of the observation journal. These aren’t productivity/time-management types of reviews. They are about going back over the patterns in my own work, picking up threads I want to follow in the future, recording the epiphanies I always have and quickly forget. (See also previous project review posts for how they’ve evolved.)

I had by now done enough of these reviews that I knew the questions which worked best for me. Yours may vary, but here is the tidied-up version of mine. I’ve printed them out and keep them at the back of my notebook.

Questions for project review:

  • The common questions:
    • Things that worked / things I was happy with
    • Things I disliked / could do better
    • Difficulties
    • Things to try in future / ideas I had while doing the project
    • Why did I choose this? What alternatives didn’t I pursue?
    • What did I leave out / evade / avoid?
    • Tendencies I noticed / things I resisted
  • The occasional questions:
    • How did I get it started/finished
    • What was the process I followed
    • Specific lessons I learned
    • How did people respond?
    • If I did this exact project again, what would I do differently?
    • If I never do a project like this again, which aspects would I try to find/use in other projects?
    • Could I have streamlined a difficult/unlikeable part, or found someone else to do it?

Here are three examples:

The first is a review of the August 2020 Wildflower calendar art.

It was useful to record the process because I do these calendar pages so often, and yet I’m always startled by how long certain aspects (getting started, colour flats) take me. It also let me identify a couple of techniques that I wanted to learn.

The next was for a tiny story I had written for a few patrons, “Shadowmill”.

It was good, here, to work out why this story caught my interest (promise, episodic, aesthetic), and what appealed and didn’t about a less-usual way of working: the unpredictability of it, and the potential of the elongated shape.

The next page was a review of the drawings I did in the window at Avid Reader to promote Flyaway.

Drawing on a window was a new technique for me. Much of this, therefore, was to record some very practical (and often, in retrospect, obvious) lessons about cleaning glass first, etc.

A couple of the big ones:

  • Keeping plans flexible and drawing freehand was a very good idea when I’m familiar with the style/subject matter but not the exact space I could use or the materials— I was less stressed and able to change things on the fly.
  • Drawing is physical and large drawings more so.
  • Make sure someone else is getting photos.
  • When drawing (especially drawing large) in public:
    • have someone delegated to update social media as you go, because people got really into it; and
    • have a sign telling people who is drawing and why.

You can see previous project-review posts under the category project review.

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.

Observation Journal — 5 things from WorldCon 2020 (mostly)

It’s about this point in the observation journal that I began adapting the “5 Things to Steal” model to catch aspects of broader events and conversations, or even just of a day. (See also: other 5 Things to Steal posts and more about using Austin Kleon‘s approach to ‘stealing’ in Bookmarks and Remarks.)

The approach: Sometimes there’s an overwhelming amount to report on, sometimes the details are vague. Either way, choosing 5 big things (and maybe an extra, as a treat) has become a good way to both record anything and make sure it is useful. I also made tiny notes about ways to try out/adapt the ideas.

These notes are from a day online for Worldcon 2020. The unifying interests had to do with textures and delicately-observed sensibilities.

  • Asking people about new projects/directions they’re excited for people to look at (or what lights them up about something they’re discussing) is a useful question for panels, conversations, etc.
  • Holly Black and Kelly Link discussed using tonal or textural overlays to guide decisions in a narrative/when writing. This is one of my favourite ways to approach writing and art (as you might have noticed) and such a concise way of expressing it. (Edit: it’s a bit like Variations on Descriptions / More Swapped Descriptions / More Mixed Descriptions, but at the story/scene level)
  • Holly and Kelly also discussed having a safety-net/backup ending in mind (when writing) in case of not being able to think of a cleverer one. (This amuses & delights me.)
  • Alyssa Winans’ compositions, especially illustrations with a central sublime glowing cloud, or a sense of rising scale and wonder. That was something I wanted to try more. Also the use of almost line-art surface textures in painterly works. (John Jude Palencar does this, too, and when I realised that it tripped something in my brain that resisted thinking in a painterly way.)
  • How the movie The Old Guard conveyed a sensitivity and affection in its characters that was not diminished by time or age. The default of many stories I’d encountered lately had been to make experience and age (especially long age) turn characters cynical. Seeing the opposite was powerfully pleasant. (Recently I’ve been talking about how much I enjoy stories where good people happen to bad things, instead of the other way around, and this is connected.)

(Part of the reason for posting these pages in retrospect is that I get to review them with the benefit of time, and also realise that what I liked about The Old Guard is what I enjoyed about Ted Lasso.)

Observation journal — getting meta with story structures #2

The observation journal has been well-suited to testing and revising theories and approaches (as well as coming up with ideas, practising scales, etc). This is another reason the reflection/conclusion panel at the bottom of these journal pages is so useful!

This page was a continuation of a previous exercise — using story structures as ideas (see: Getting meta with story structures).

I looked at frame stories (e.g. having characters explicitly move between different levels of story; frames that call stories into existence), 3(+) act structures (e.g. an explicit staginess/interaction with the format of a play), and turning points/gear changes (stories about velocity, etc).

Experiments which don’t go as planned are still informative. Things I realised:

  • Deliberateness is really the thing.
  • I found it easier to literalise principles (as previously) than specific structures (as here).
  • However, it’s an AWFUL lot easier to literalise structures in art than writing: frames and triptychs, sequential art, etc.
  • A while ago, I used to like reading Rules of Story Shapes, strict principles of narrative structure, etc, probably trying to find a shortcut. Now, those structures feel too static and rigid as a guide to writing. They feel more like splints (and perhaps training wheels) than organic structures. That might be why I find it difficult to literalise them into stories. (This is personal! Lots of writers I know plan to a structure and do so very effectively.)
  • Nowadays, broad principles feel more natural. They are flexible: guidelines to steer by, the voice of experience, the instinct that shapes a story. (This is why I like three-mood story shapes.) And they’re usually more metaphorical. This is perhaps why it’s easier to make them into literal aspects of stories. (Diana Wynne Jones does this brilliantly, especially in her more Gothic stories, such as Aunt Maria and The Time of the Ghost.)

Art/writing exercises (there are several activities at the end of the previous post on getting meta)

  • Find an interesting narrative structure outside the field you’re working in. E.g. if you’re a writer, find an intriguing painting; if you’re an illustrator, ask around for a book with an unconventional approach.
  • Then sketch out a story/picture that translates that approach. Can you take a narrative framing device or peculiar approach to time and create that effect in an illustration? How would you structure a story in a way analogous to a Renaissance altarpiece?

Finally, here is Lulu (not mine). She is an Irish terrier, and you might be familiar with her from Angela Slatter‘s Instagram.

Observation Journal — Why has she not done the thing?

I don’t like being introspective — one of the advantages of the observation journal is that I worked that out quickly and was able to sidestep it thereafter. However, the journal is sometimes useful for unpicking specific problems. [Edit: there’s now a follow-up post to this — Things that might make her do the thing]

For example: My intense avoidance of packaging and posting things. I can make myself slightly feverish, now, just by starting to think about preparing art to send to a show.

I always have to look up tabebuia online — the pink ones blossom like crepe-paper pomanders in winter

The important approach on this page was to:

  • follow each high-level answer down through several levels (what types of stress, and which physical parts, and what’s causing that…)
  • highlight key elements as I went (otherwise these pages are unintelligible when I revisit them.

The most useful question to ask for this type of page turned out to be: has [the problem] ever worked out okay, and why/how. In this case, the tricks for getting me to package and post things effectively/at all have been:

  • Clearing space
  • Dedicating time
  • Recruiting a second pair of hands (or passing it over to someone else entirely — there are people out there who apparently LOVE and are GOOD AT putting rectangles into other rectangles, and I need you all to know you are important and valued)
  • Having a tested technique AND checking if there are better approaches out there
  • Information/checklists

Two days later I started to investigate something else I was avoiding, but when I put down the key questions I thought they were (a) self-answering and (b) funnier left unanswered.

The moral of the story is: stress can be repurposed for entertainment. And sometimes laughing at myself is what is needed to get a project moving.

“could she in fact be doing the thing right now instead of writing this?”

UPDATE: I addressed these points further — and completed the template page! — on this post: Things that might make her do the thing.