Observation journal: patterns and textures

This observation journal page is an actual observation page.

On a recent page, I’d made a note to look more closely at noisy miners in future (see: more swapped descriptions). They are very common, and I’d fallen into a habit of thinking of them as drab grey birds.

Pen sketch of a honeyeater
Patterns on a honeyeater, from a previous page

They are not.

Handwritten double page spread. On the left, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture. On the right, sketches and notes of patterns and textures.
Left page: Fried chicken and gravy and cornbread.

I made two quick drawn studies of some of the patterns I could see: first on the bird, then on the sofa.

Then I repeated the exercise, this time making written descriptions of the surfaces I could feel — both texture and temperature. The cool smooth varnished floorboards, with a faint impression of the grain, the slight rib(?) of buttons of close-set nails. The chalky-dry matt-satin of turquoise beads.

Sketch of a noisy miner and some cushions on a sofa, and handwritten notes on pattern and texture.

It’s a pleasantly meditative little exercise, just touching the surface of the desk and thinking carefully of words to to describe it.

It also complemented previous thoughts on the importance and possibilities of surfaces written and illustrated (see: Surfaces and Variations on Habits).

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Look closely at some of the surfaces around you (look up and under as well as around). Sketch or briefly describe any repeated patterns (decorative or otherwise). (If you can, repeat the exercise both inside and outdoors — I found it much easier outside, and with live subjects.)
  • Touch a few of the surfaces (using common sense). What textures are there, and what temperatures? Try to sketch those, or capture them accurately in words.
  • Bonus rounds:
    • Look at a favourite painting or photograph. Try to imagine and describe/sketch some of the textures in it.
    • Pick a scene you are writing or drawing. See if you can put some of those textures/patterns into 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).

Observation Journal — sympathy for characters

These two sets of observation journal pages are considering why I find some characters sympathetic.

Short version:

These are three ways for creating sympathetic characters that I found particularly interesting:

  • Authorial kindness for (although not necessarily to) characters.
  • Characters who value each other. (This demonstrates why the reader might care, but also creates something new to protect.)
  • Villains on their worst days. (Unwilling sympathy.)
Three pen drawings of a moustachioed villain, one with an arm-cast, one in pouring rain.
Moustache-twirling villain on (a) moustache twirling and (b) and (c) on bad days

Long version:

I’ve broken down the notes in more detail below (and there’s an art-or-writing exercise at the end).

Continue reading

Observation Journal: Twenty purposes for a short story

On this observation journal page I wanted to pull back a bit from the structure and engines of stories and make a list of twenty purposes for a short story. (For the artists: I’ve found this list works pretty well for one stand-alone illustration/vignette or a several linked smallish images.)

As with all the observation journal activities, the aim was to work out which purposes occurred (and appealed) to me. It is a personal and subjective list, and specific to quite short stories. It is also a list that might change if I was thinking about a particular genre or mood.

But it has been very useful for concentrating my attention on several projects. This is one of the pages that has gone into my master list of Lists To Refer To When Stuck.

Densely handwritten double page of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a gecko on top of a door. On the right, notes on story purposes.
Left page: A note to self to consider planning projects forward from the starting date instead of back from the due date. This is an ongoing area for personal development.

This is a personal list, and I do recommend making your own (as usual with the observation journal, making the list and noticing what mattered to me — here, beauty and puzzles — was the point). However, for completeness, here is the list:

TWENTY PURPOSES FOR A SHORT STORY

  • To fit a novel’s-worth of feeling into one place
  • Like Barrie’s pixies, to be completely full of one thought/emotion with no room for others
  • To try out an Idea(TM)
  • To frame a scene
  • To experiment with structure
  • To experiment on the reader
  • To be a jewelled delight or thrill or horror that fits neatly in the palm of the hand
  • To be all imagery
  • To be stones in the foundation of a world
  • To create a mythos
  • To be a beautiful object
  • To catch the feeling of one piece of art/illustration
  • To conceal a secret
  • To pay
  • To be a gift for a particular person/reader
  • To wreak vengeance on a particular person/reader
  • To see if I can solve a puzzle [I do not, as a reader, like being set puzzles]
  • To entertain
  • To be a door into a wilderness/let a mysterious breeze through
  • To call the edges of reality into doubt — to be a haunting in the wallpaper, a shadow in the glass

Activity for artists/writers:

  1. What is a thing you frequently make (or would like to make)? Short stories? Poems? Illuminated vignettes?
  2. Make a list of at least twenty possible purposes for that thing.
  3. If there are any patterns, or reasons which excite you more than others, make a note of that.
  4. Choose a purpose from the list at random. Think of a project you are working on or an idea you have. If that purpose was the primary reason for you to make this thing, how might you change what you do? Write a few lines or do a quick sketch of the altered/concentrated idea. If it’s clearly the wrong fit, what project might that purpose suit?
    Edit to add some examples:
    1. For example, a story about a haunted chimney that exists to “create a mythos” would be very focussed on the sort of wider world to which this haunted chimney belongs, while if it were to “be a jewelled delight” my concern would be to get really into the rich details of chimney architecture.
    2. Similarly, if this illustration about a haunted chimney were to “torment a particular friend”, the ghost would be painfully handsome, and there’d be lots of mythology hinted at in the carvings around the fireplace. But if it were to call the edges of reality into doubt, there’d be other ghosts lurking in the corners of the room.

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).

Observation Journal — story patterns

This observation journal page continues a previous activity, playing with story structures.

I read through a few more short stories and made notes of the big segment-moods through which the stories moved. I was trying to think of these shapes separate from those stories, but I do wish I’d made a note of what stories they were! One of them was an M.R. James.

Double handwritten page of observation journal. On left page, 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a toy rabbit. On the right, notes on story structures.
Rosettes of lichen, ants in an apple.
(The page number at the top right should refer to p115 instead of 111 — this system is useful but not infallible).

If this approach to thinking about stories (written or drawn!) resonates with you, I encourage you to make your own list based on short stories you like. But for completeness, here are all the short story shapes from this page and the previous one:

  • Ordinary — inkling — confirmation
  • Reluctance — engagement — deepening
  • Humorous sketch — elements clash/conflagration — fall-out
  • Inkling — build — reveal-behind-the-story
  • World — deeper — dissolve into it
  • Unsettlement — deepening horror — the cusp of annihilation.
  • Ominous — compounded — twist (of plot or knife)
  • Formation of goal — quiet progression towards goal — achieves goal
  • Inkling — red herring — solution
  • Foreshadow doom — Proceed towards doom — [evade] doom
  • Meet cute — complication — HEA (happily ever after)
  • Fragments — facets — whole
  • Situation — failures — successes
  • Door — something through — pushed back
  • Metaphor — metaphor — metaphor
  • Suspicion — Peel back — truth & consequences

They fit short stories, and while each trio could fit in a single illustration, they also work nicely for sequences of at least three (at the risk of feeling like an instructive Victorian cartoon).

After making the list, I again remixed and rearranged the orders, to see what sort of stories each new grouping suggested to me. For example, “Ordinary — deeper — fall-out” suggested the horror behind the mundane, or a secret history. “Dissolve into the world — conflagration — inkling” could fit a ‘getting of wisdom’ plot. “Confirmation — build — unsettlement” might be about discovering someone or something has feet of clay.

This process is not about reinventing the wheel of story structure. It was about learning what the shapes of stories mean to me. The thinking-through is the point. That said, now that I have the list, it sometimes comes in useful for quickly giving shape to an idea (written or drawn!). I’ll post some examples of that soon.

(If you’d like an art or writing activity, there’s one based on this in the previous story structure post.)

Observation Journal — more swapped descriptions

I wrote last month about using the observation journal to play with descriptions, for pleasure and observation, texture and worldbuilding (see: Variations on descriptions).

Pen sketch of cut apple and knife

Here’s another example of that first iteration: choosing two terms and swapping the descriptive approaches.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a honeyeater. On the right, swapped descriptions.
Left page: Distant thumping, and forgetting to move when doing art.

So, for example, this time I described sound as light (peals like light on a ruffled lake; a clean cold sound, warm as a slate grey dawn) and light as sound (light heavy and flat as a muffled bell; gold midday like a swarm of bees). Then I switched to describing foliage as animals (a lean and muscular forest, still and wary; leaves that hissed and slithered over each other) and animals as foliage (a horse’s mane and tail streaming like grass in a river).

The next day I took a different approach.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a honeyeater. On the right, a list of similes.
Left page: billowing deck chairs and muttering pigeons, and getting overexcited about being outdoors.

In this case, I took two items fairly randomly from the left-side observation pages, and used one as a metaphor or simile for the other. As a result, it’s more directed than the first approach, and requires more specific thought, but is just as much fun. The trick here is finding the similarities — what makes a bush turkey like an etched glass, or balloons like cold cocoa?

There are a few that I like for their own sakes:

  • Cats glinting & flickering through striations of sunlight, as ever-present and ungraspable as the humming buzz of the powerlines.
  • A reclusive neighbour disappearing, like the statue of Mary, into the brilliant autumn overgrowth.
  • The embarrassment lingered, interminable as a distant freight train.

But generally, this version has more of a parlour-game feeling to it, and is less about the sound of words than about concepts and observation and argument (all also good things).

And it also emphasises how drawing a comparison from within a world (whether the world of a Brisbane suburban winter, or a more dramatic and fictional place) helps build a sense of the world and how things fit into and push against it.

Pen sketch of a honeyeater
Patterns on a honeyeater

Writing/art activity:

Similart to the previous one, except this time:

  • Make a list of things you’ve seen recently.
  • Pick two at random.
  • Then:
    • For writers: Describe Thing 1 as being obviously like Thing 2 — at length.
    • For artists: Draw Thing 1 by calling on all its similarities to Thing 2 — you can distort the image, if necessary, but finding subtle parallels and forcing them into prominence is particularly effective (here are some fast sketches of household items as people).
Watercolour sketch of reclining woman, based on a milk jug.
A small jug

Observation Journal: Lessons for presentations and conferences

One of the purposes and benefits of the observation journal, apart from tinkering with my ideas of story and image and coming up with schemes, is taking the opportunity to watch myself at work. This includes the process leading up to a project — working out which ideas strike a spark, and maybe why, so that I can aim for those in the future. And after I finish something, it’s been valuable to turn it inside out and see how it held together, and how I felt about it.

So here’s a little run of connected pages from June last year, when I was drafting and giving the keynote at the Australian Fairy Tale Society‘s convention. (Here’s my original post reporting on the conference.) I’ve indicated a couple of the main lessons about writing speeches and being on panels — with the note that they are lessons for me, but might be useful for others.

(Also, the AFTS fairytale anthology is launching a little over an hour after this post comes out.)

More below…

Engraved mirror in gold watch case, reading "Once upon a time" in reflection.
A magic mirror from Spike Deane — you can read more about it here
Continue reading

Observation Journal — variations on descriptions

This observation journal page has what is now one of my favourite observation journal activities. It’s a chance to be poetic and/or silly, a splendid vocabulary workout, and also intellectually soothing enough to do late at night.

Variations keep emerging, but this is one of the first I tried (and is particularly useful for exploring variations on a central theme). It was preceded by “One of these things is quite like the other ones” — an arguing game (see the end of The Emma Heist).

Observation journal spread, densely handwritten, pink watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a rock grown into a tree. On the right, lists of swapped descriptions.
Unicorn piñatas and bougainvillea-shrouded statues, glittering cats, finger limes, and a rock grown into the fork of a tree.

The basic idea is to pick (at least) three nouns. One noun is “it”. Next, describe that noun using descriptions more commonly used for (or words more commonly associated with) each of the other nouns. I try to get at least 10 descriptions for each of those two reference words.

So on this page, I wanted to write some descriptions of light. But I keyed the descriptions to the way I might ordinarily describe (a) water and (b) tin cans.

Handwritten page using terms associated with water and tin cans to describe light.

So, for example, describing light using terms I associate with water, I get:

  • light rivered and pooled
  • sunlight that eddies around your ankles
  • buildings an archipelago of shadows in the swift, bright tide of autumn
  • tepid, stagnant light in the parlour
  • a chill trickle of moonlight

And for “tin cans” there is:

  • a hard enamel of light
  • jagged edges of light
  • corrugated and smoke-rippled autumn air
  • the light had a clean, crimped quality, as if the town had been sealed against contamination
  • a chill bright day kicked ringing like a can along the street

It is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise, but also surprising. It pulls out unexpected metaphors and similes, it forces me to look with new eyes at the reference terms (how many thoughts do I associate with tin cans?). It tunes aesthetics (industrial beauty? aquatic moods?) and begins to build little worlds (how does light work in this place, and how do people interact with it?). And changing my perspective on the first term (light) in two different directions sets up echoes and comparisons and resonances.

Related posts and writing:

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick three nouns at random — common ones you can see around you, or try a random word generator.
  • The first noun is the one you will have to describe (or illustrate).
  • But first, look at the other two nouns. Think of their characteristics, and things you associate with them. It could be words or cliches, myths and moods. Or it could be shapes, textures, colours, weight and movement.
  • Now look back at your first noun:
    • Writers: Make a list of descriptions, metaphors, similes, etc describing the first noun, but using those associations from the other ones. (I like to try to do 10 descriptions for each of the reference nouns).
    • Illustrators: Try to draw the first noun using the (textures, colours, associations etc) of the reference nouns (one at a time).
      (NB. If you’re using more conceptual nouns, you might have to get particularly creative — but feel free to limit yourself to visible, concrete nouns. Drawing a fox using textures (for example) more associated with a staircase and velvet is a rather different artistic proposition to illustrating the idea of a program using imagery you associate more with hope and intellect — although both are quite possible.)
  • Take a step back and notice how the activity went. Where were the surprising resonances, the difficult mismatches, the things you began to notice about any of the nouns? Where did you push against your default settings? How are the two different directions different, and what did they reveal about the core idea with which you began?

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).

Observation Journal — First Sentences

On this observation journal page, I was taking some more time on another favourite first sentence (following on from my earlier attempt to batch-process first lines).

Double-page spread of observation journal: On the left page, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture; On the right, thoughts on first lines.
Left page: “Greengrocer’s glowing with oranges, lemons, apples, melons, tomatoes”; also, I forgot how to draw a shopping trolley

Really, it was just an excuse to spend some time in the first line of Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered:

Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but Truth.

Handwritten thoughts on the first line of Thus Was Adonis Murdered.

I love this first sentence. There’s no reference to persons, places, or events. There is, however, a very clear narrator: portentous, comically formal with fits of frank informality, weighty and oblique but perhaps (perhaps) not as complex as they perceive themselves to be.

And there’s already, here, a note of the relief and resignation on which the narrator (though not the plot) will end the book — ultimately, the narrator (Hilary Tamar) is more concerned about their own overlooked brilliance than the guilt or innocence of the accused Julia.

It’s punchy and funny and a little startling, and a definite Mood. There’s no action, but there is a tension — between the latinate and English words; elevated diction vs brevity; lofty principles vs grumpy relief; that very brevity vs the irony and doubled negatives. Why “thank God”? What has happened, what due was not given, who would express themselves this way? (If you’ve read the books, you’ll know this is a question that is immediately, constantly, yet also never answered.)

I then did a couple of replacement exercises (from Stanley Fish, see also previously: bodysnatching). I switched out each element (without particular attention to elegance of phrasing) to get, e.g. “Breakfast seeks, thank the cook, no pinnacle save omelette” and “The star requests, thank agents, no special treatment save a sedan chair.”

What this brought out (for me) was the personification, the irony, the echoes of Pride & Prejudice in the dubious veracity of a broad statement, and how difficult it is not to be sarcastic when using this particular sentence structure.

It’s also just a great book.

A previous take on Caudwell: The Caudwell Manoeuvre.

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).

Observation Journal — Little Groves

This observation journal page was an exploration of what I like about “little woods and wildernesses” in art and stories and life, and as art and stories.

I’d found one on a walk — a stand of she-oaks in a flood reserve, dense and insular — which led to this page and the June 2020 calendar: Ominous Groves.

Double-page spread of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a cake server. On the right, thoughts on groves.
On the left, an exercise in describing the day’s clouds: furled, fogged, shirred, ruched, rippled, and the crescent moon diffuse through them.

So I went in pursuit of the idea, in search of no grand conclusions (at this point) but trying, I suppose, to find the way in.

The right page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on small forests.

Their origins (for me): CS Lewis and Robert Frost and Frances Hodgson Burnett, Jane Austen and Susan Coolidge and Midsomer Murders, T. H. White, ballads and fairy-tales and home and backyards and parks and childhood. Not Tolkien, whose sense of forests is vast, but Baynes’ illustrations for Tolkien.

Four ink drawing coloured in greeny-blue. A ruined castle behind trees. Two women circling a stand of trees. A statue carrying a jar and a statue of a dancing faun among trees. A skull below and a ghost within a canopy of trees.
My favourites (now more muted) from the June 2020 Calendar

A few points:

  • The pocket-sized-ness of them, and the way they fit into unexpected pockets of the world. (And their ornamental possibilities).
  • Their closely-bound contradictions — pretty but wilderness, ornamental but feral, good but not tame, small but eternal, tiny but encompassing.
  • The existence of an enclosed world, contained, self-possessed and possess-able, cut off from other concerns and yet full of its own rustling existence. Set apart from the outer world, in terms of light and shade, temperature and inhabitants and sound. Different from the staginess of more flamboyant settings, with which a grove might seem to have more in common.
  • The necessity of finding a gate into them, and that they are (after all) bigger on the inside.
  • Their function as a gate to other worlds — forest as psychopomp.
  • Their opacity — their threats and secrets and how they function (small as they are) as a weighted point on the world.
  • What they mean to time — separated from it, bending it, a place where time might be lost, or a treasury of lost time.
  • What is beneath them — from what soil they grow, and what happens among their roots, and how they pin layers of time and worlds together.
  • That they can function as a shorthand for stories (I realise this isn’t a novel idea, but I need to stumble into thoughts for myself) — their function and structure, metaphorically, but mostly their enchantment.

At the time I felt I hadn’t got very far with this look at groves (although the calendar is not nothing!). But in retrospect, particularly in the light of some projects I’m working on now, revisiting this page has brought several ideas (for and about stories) into focus.

And I do like them!

Observation Journal — story structures

An observation journal page from my birthday last year, in which — while very full of cake — I attempted to think about the shapes of short stories (written and drawn).

Two-page observation journal spread. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a sketch of a birthday balloon in a bathroom sink. On the right, densely handwritten short story thoughts.
I do rather like those scribbly bird frames on the left

All that needs to be written about story structure probably has been. Personally I suspect that, as with art composition, “be deliberate” does a lot of the heavy lifting. (That said, Kim Wilkins (through the University of Queensland and the Novelist’s Bootcamp) and Angela Slatter have taught me most of the practical side of structure, and I recommend both).

But (to the despair of friends and mentors) I understand things best by thinking/blundering my way into them, and sometimes the act of reinventing of the wheel is more valuable than the individual wheel itself. This page began a series of exercises tinkering with how stories work in my head.

First, I applied observations to a structure:

  • I drew a table of the second-most basic story outline: Beginning — Middle — End.
  • Next I filled each cell randomly with observations from some of the left-side journal pages.
  • Then I thought about which ones felt like a story, and what sort of moods/actions were happening in the sections.

Then I made a list of those moods/actions. Some were suggested by the table above (e.g. a beginning in which something is squeaking in the breeze felt a bit ominous). Some I’d observed in other favourite short stories. Here’s the (non-comprehensive) list:

  • Ominous
  • Formation of goal
  • Inkling
  • Foreshadow doom
  • Meet-cute
  • Fragments
  • Situation
  • Door
  • Metaphor
  • Suspicion
  • Compounded
  • Quiet progression towards goal
  • Red herring
  • Proceed towards doom
  • Complication
  • Facets
  • Failures
  • Something [gets] through
  • Peel back
  • Twist (of plot or knife)
  • Achieves goal
  • Solution
  • [Evade] doom
  • HEA [Happily Ever After]
  • Whole
  • Success
  • Pushed back
  • Truth & consequence

Finally, I rearranged those elements into a story outline: Beginning — Middle — End. I made notes on what stories (existing or otherwise) those evoked. For example, “Foreshadowed doom — Facets — HEA” suggested a sort of Sliding Doors / Run Lola Run situation.

This page has been useful for a number of reasons:

  • It kicked off an occasional series of thoughts on plots I like (more to come on this).
  • It’s been helpful for teasing initial ideas out into more of a story shape.
  • It’s been useful for adjusting and restructuring ideas.
  • It’s a reminder of the importance of movement, because at the very least the story has to get from one mood to the next.
  • It gives me a working framework that I understand from the inside out.
  • It’s helped me get a lot better at reading stories and noticing what the author is doing, and talking about it.

WRITING/ART EXERCISE

  • Pick a few stories (written or drawn or a single very narrative illustration) you like, or have encountered lately.
  • Think of how they start, continue, and finish. With a lot of illustrations and some very short stories, some of those aspects are implied.
  • Jot down a list of the big mood/effect/movement of each section.
    For example, I’m looking at the cover of Dungeon Critters right now, and you could say that it starts in ominous shadow and proceeds through vigorous confusion into overwhelming luminousness. Or perhaps it begins in a cavern and proceeds through a fight through brambles to threatening reward. There isn’t a correct answer — it’s a matter of how you see stories.
  • Now pick three entries from your list (or mine above) and assign them to “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”. (You can read anything as a metaphor.)
  • Consider whether you know any other stories/images that would fit that model?
  • Could you invent a story that would suit that shape? If you’re stuck for ideas, pick something innocuous you’ve seen today (a deliveryman? someone making toast?) and apply it to the story. Do a quick sketch (written or drawn) of the idea.

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).