Observation journal exercise: simplifying sketches, mixing them up again

This observation journal exercise is primarily visual, but I’ve included a few ideas to turn it into a writing exercise.

This is a useful exercise for learning the shape of a thing, and then mixing it up. It moves from basics to details to stylisation to caricaturisation, to character design, to playing on other people’s pattern recognition. It’s particularly useful for making an unconventional shape believable, and teaching your hand to make recognisable but idiosyncratic versions of a thing (particularly useful for sketchy art styles). I do a version of this when preparing to draw an unfamiliar animal, or a lot of a half-familiar one.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, drawing of person carrying a sofa. Drawings of chooks broken into and then fit into different shapes and splotches.

You could do this with any thing or creature, but I like chooks — they’re dense but highly variable and I don’t have enough excuses to draw them.

Drawings of chooks broken into and then fit into different shapes and splotches.

Illustration exercise (or writing exercise — if you’re courageous!)

  1. Take your [chook] and break it into the basic shapes from which it is constructed. Try very simple (e.g. the two-eggs approach) and more nuanced. Try considering just types of line-segments that outline it (straight lines? s-curves?).
  2. Take a few examples of [chooks] and work out what the basic overall shape of each is. Is there a shape in common? What are the fewest number of sides that recognisably contain a [chook]? If it has lines (e.g. legs) and you extend them, do they always pass through the same place?  (And if you can, find a video and sketch them in motion, to see the line they follow when they move.)
  3. Choose any basic shape (e.g. circle, square, triangle) and use it to design a [chook]. Fit a [chook] into it entirely. Then use it as the general base for a [chook].
  4. Draw a sequence of irregular, scribbly shapes. Turn each into a [chook]. Lean into the recognisable bits, the bits where the shape suggests a [chook]. Then lean the other way, and force the shape to be a [chook] against its instincts.
  5. Make some ink/paint/coffee blots. What are the minimum details you can add to turn each into a [chook]?

The exercise of turning this into a writing exercise is itself a useful one! But here are a few ways you could adapt it: for refining description; for designing a character; for a more metaphorical approach to the shape of stories (see links below).

sisterhood of the travelling sofa

Here are some related posts, with more detailed compositional variations on this exercise (and one writing exercise):

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Observation journal exercise: 2 images, 3 genres

This observation journal exercise is a variant on some previous examples: mixing and matching / combining two images/preoccupations into a new one (Too many ideas, Tables and other locations), and rolling an idea through a few genres, styles or modes (Random similes and genre flips). It’s an easy exercise to set up, and has a throwaway lightness (and can be useful for generating ideas, either as a project or for other exercises). However, it can also be a noticeable mental workout.

Writing/illustration exercise

Grid mixing and matching images and rolling them through genres
  • Draw a simple table — maybe 3 x 3.
  • Label each column and row with a thing you’ve observed in the day (or a current preoccupation). These could be sounds (a trolley rattling) or movements you saw (cardboard box tipping over; child clinging to a pram like a footman to a carriage) or objects (bag hook, sign forbidding flushing of face masks).
    All these are from things I noticed on the day and recorded on the left page (see below).
  • Pick a cell at random.
  • Combine its two topics (column and row) into a new idea (written or drawn) BUT do this three times, each in a different mode/genre — any you like. Horror, romance, climate fiction, thriller, realist…
    E.g. for “barista with baby” + “trolley rattle” I had (a) gothic: someone longing or willing a ghost into being [the noise must have been ominous on the day!], (b) mystery: a clue — it’s a decoy/not their baby, to distract from trolley-crimes, and (c) romcom?: a barista rescuing a baby from a runaway shopping trolley.
  • Repeat with another cell.
  • Bonus round: Write or sketch a paragraph/image from at least one of the stories.
  • Bonus bonus round: Was it effortless or effortful, and which aspects felt seamless or difficult — where did your imagination catch or trip? Which ideas spark your imagination, are there any common points? Or if they didn’t, what was missing and how could you add that?
Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, drawing of boxes of notebooks on a table, grid remixing images and rolling them through genres

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Little ballpoint sketch of small folding tv-table with box and books
Sorting notebooks, if I recall correctly

Some thoughts on voice

Many many stacked handwritten white words on a black background, illegible but creating a white centre space

This is part of a series of posts teasing out themes from my short story reading:

These are thoughts on voice from my short story reading notes. I will refine them further in future — they are not exhaustive, and I have more observations to make!


A strong voice can frame and structure a story. A strong story frame or conceit can also leverage a distinctive voice (enhance, distill, excuse, focus…).

Outline of what follows:

Continue reading

April 2023 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of handwriting in notebook — extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my April 2023 tweets about short stories. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post (linking to where they are first mentioned). Finishing early this month because I have to prepare for a workshop in Gympie on Friday 28 April and get some PhD paperwork in!

And I should mention, my novella Flyaway, while one story, contains several almost-stand-alone short stories, and comes out in US paperback this month!

"Shirley Jackson Down Under: a brooding, bruising fairy tale about blood and history and sharp-toothed things waiting in the woods. I loved it." - Alix E. Harrow

Fascinations and encroaching interests this month include:

  • Big Ideas vs actual theme
  • Compressing a story shape
  • Innocence and experience (vs story structures)
  • The interrogation of objectivity
  • Stories that trap the protagonist
  • Passivity and flat affect
  • Food and AI
  • Competence

Background and related posts:

And now, the story notes:

Continue reading

Observation Journal — swapping roles

This observation journal activity is closely related to The Caudwell Manoeuvre, an approach I enjoy tremendously, and it’s a nice way to play with patterns I’ve observed (whether they delight or exasperate me), and things in others’ work that I’ve wanted to run off and play with (see e.g. five things to steal). It can also reveal and clarify opinions about the source examples.

Writing/illustration exercise (closely related to The Caudwell Manoeuvre):

  • Choose some characters/roles you’ve seen/read (or written/drawn) frequently. E.g. I’ve been reading a lot of old murder mysteries, so there’ve been many satisfied academic sleuths and desperate suburban housewives hiding a variety of secrets.
  • Pick two. This could be a frequently matched pair (grim loner father figure and recently acquired plucky child for whom they are responsible; talented ingenue and mysterious mentor), or you could choose two at random.
  • For each, make a few dot-points listing their distinguishing characteristics (floral housedress? taciturn? collects fine glassware?).
  • Now, switch the descriptions.
    You can do this a few ways:
    • One is to simply move the dot-points to the other character (the housewife is exceptionally well-read in a narrow field, wears rather shabby tweed, and is on gently-scolding terms with the local teenagers).
    • Another way is to drop the stereotypical person (the actor, as it were) into the opposite role (the wiry physical comedian becomes the hero to the large taciturn sidekick).
      Or try both.
  • Bonus round 1: Sketch (a paragraph or drawing) a scene of one of the new characters in action.
  • Bonus round 2: What happens to the idea and the original roles? Are the new ideas comic, tragic, unchanged (and why)? Which pull into new territory? Which deepen your understanding of something? Which might it be fun to follow into a new story?


Tiny handwritten notes flipping stereotypes/archetypes.

I was thinking about this at the time because of the neat little role reversals in Baby Done. But on this page I was riffing on the “kept woman” and “businessman” roles from The Eye of Love (a book that comes out of the gates playing with expectations), and with Holmes-ish and Watsonian characters. One of the fun reminders from the latter was how much kindness and humanity is in (book) Holmes, vs many later interpretations. Might it be the case that it is Watson who closely observes conventionality and applies it, while in fact it is Holmes who is teaching him about humanity?

There’s also a note there that I wanted to take some elements further, perhaps by adding an interesting voice. Voice is an element that has been coming up again more recently (not least in the short story reading posts), so I will have more to say about it!

Other observations

Here’s the full pages, in case you want to zoom in and see what was happening that day.

This is when I realised I needed blue-tinted not red-tinted sunglasses, if I wanted to continue to derive joy from the world with them on.

Crows bearing gifts

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a crow with a white feather in its beak

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Observation Journal activity: Loving the tools II

It can be easy to stop paying attention to the tools I actually rely on to make art, to fall into habits or not maintain them or not even see them anymore. So here’s a little lighthearted look at them — good for shaking loose calcified habits, refreshing the mind, and just having a good time.

Exercise (for artists or writers)

  • Set out on your desk, or make a list of, the tools you typically use to write (or draw, or paint).
  • Now, being very silly, imagine each is a person (or a relative in an Agatha Christie novel, or a local in a Midsomer Murders episode, or a cat, or a cartoon villain, etc) and jot down a brief and over-the-top description of their personality (or the crimes they’d be likely to commit, the secrets they have, the sort of lair, etc).
  • Bonus round: Now pull back a bit, and read over the list. See if it’s clarified anything for you — why you persist with one, or keep another pristine, or guiltily hide a preference.


This observation journal activity is an early one: see Loving the Tools, where I made myself stop and look at what paints I was had, and why, and finally buy a decent array of the ones that I loved and actually used.

There, I was mostly just gossipy-judgy about the colours, with a few free associations. (“Sounds like a dinosaur”, “red pandas and indigestion”, “sick lemon”, “exactly the same as the other but more formally attired”, “actual magic”, “lip-syncs to Dolly Parton”, etc.)


This time around, I listed all my writing tools (Scrivener, Word, text messages, etc) and pretended they were somewhat stereotypical/archetypal family members in a novel.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes about writing tools.

So Scrivener is “a large and unruly family, with hidden branches, that’s still a unit and can scrub up well in a pinch”, and pencil and (spiral-bound) paper is “possibly a conspiracy theorist, might have been a spy”, while a text message “wakes up in an armchair in the middle of the afternoon with an unintelligible exclamation, and wishes for the romance of the telegram”.

Handwritten list of writing tools (Word, notebook, text message, etc) with opinions on the sort of character they would have if they were a relative

It is very ridiculous, and very much for personal reference and taste, with all sorts of character shorthand, drawing heavily on things I’d been reading recently. But it was surprisingly useful — highlighting what I like about various approaches, and whether it’s the useful part. E.g. index cards “would like to be a conspiracy theorist but can’t quite get it together — wanders off”. Which pretty neatly encapsulates why they haven’t worked well for me on various projects. A simple text file, on the other hand, is clearly a workhorse but also a bit insufferable about it.

At the time, I was working up to rearranging my entire work space, and this exercise also helped focus me on the things I’d actually need ready to hand.

Tiny ballpoint drawing of a seedpod open and some flowers
Seedpods from the observation (left) pages got their own standalone section in a recent big writing project (yet to be announced)

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Observation journal activity: ideas — more mixing and matching

(I’m trialling leading with the exercise in these posts — thoughts?)

Ideas from objects: a writing/illustration exercise

This observation journal exercise is a very slight variation on previous mixing and matching exercises:

  • Make a short list of things you can see and hear (or recall seeing and hearing today). Be a little specific — not just “a box” but “a box of vintage Agatha Christie novels”, “fan creaking” instead of just “fan”.
  • Pick two at random.
  • Now mix up the objects and descriptions: a box of fans? old books creaking? a fan that is a clue in a murder mystery?
  • Repeat with another pair.
  • Bonus round: sketch (written or drawn) a scene with that object. (What other elements/ideas does it pull in with it? do you suddenly have a detective or a library or a second-hand store?)
  • Bonus bonus round: do some of your new ideas seem to belong together? which ones do you most like, and is there a pattern to them? To get them to work as ideas for a project, what more do you need? Are there any intriguing questions to follow? Could you chase those now?
  • Bonusx3: drop one of the ideas into a story-shape (any variety: a type of story you like, a four-panel layout, etc) and follow it out.

This exercise is of course useful as a sort of mental aerobics. But it often turns up fascinating ideas, and even when it doesn’t, noticing which types of ideas do or don’t spark some enthusiam in you yields useful information.

Here is my page — I used the observations from the exercise on the left.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes remixing observations into ideas.

Remixing items from the left (observation) page, to get gingerbread cockroaches, books (instead of ornaments) hung on sidewalk trees, a vibrant trade in chests of chirring, craking insects (and where and how do those ornamental boxes of toy metal crickets travel?), superstitions around insects etc.

A sequence of these started to feel a like they belonged together in a slightly offset world, perhaps illustrated by Michael Sowa. Some of the superstitions called for a little more hint of connection to a world behind them (and then I fell asleep). But the cicada from the April calendar descends from this train of thought.

Pale jade-green cicada amulet/brooch on black background with jewels and white flowers

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Observation Journal: City from a height at night

This observation journal page is one of the simplest observation activities, just looking at a thing and describing it in as many ways as I could think of (and not being precious about it). See previously: 30 Descriptions of a Tree, and Sketching with Words.

(Afterwards you can edit, get creative, swap descriptions and force metaphors, look for colours or through stories or genre lenses, etc.)

It’s a simple and soothing and focussed exercise, but also immediately useful. I’ve used this when researching for Flyaway (which is out in paperback in the USA at the end of April!) and in the litany of descriptions that is Travelogues, and in “Twelve Observations Along George Street”, a piece for voices.

And of course it also trains visual memory and vocabulary. But mostly it’s a pleasant way to make time to stop and stare, and lightly capture a moment.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes about a city at night.

Since my writing is pretty small, here is the list. I was with visiting family in a hotel apartment high up in the Brisbane CBD, trying to describe “little beads of light sliding on paler ways through the darkness”.

  • Board of trouble
  • Playmat
  • Beads
  • Go
  • Isometry
  • Sound bars
  • X-ray
  • CT — contrast dye
  • Stencil of highlights
  • Smouldering sparks
  • Noir poster
  • Flattened
  • Brass rubbings
  • Pneumatic tubes
    (through darkness)
  • Velvet painting
  • Shabby sequins
  • Fraying beading
  • Model
  • Forced perspective
  • Tilt-shift
  • Matte painting
  • Trick photography
  • Mercury in tubes
  • Spirit levels
  • Flasks and tubing
  • Chemistry lab / experiment
  • Those animations projected on a 3d surface
  • Flickering signs
  • Stacked records
  • Milky way

Writing/illustration activity

  • Choose a thing you can see, or use this as an excuse to go and look at something pleasant.
  • List at least twenty other things it looks like. (Or thirty, which I prefer.)
    It’s fine to be obvious and repetitive! That’s why the list is so long. You’ll push past the cliche answers and get to the odder and more interesting ones… but some of the easy ones might turn out to be just right.
  • Bonus: Do you notice any patterns in your list (e.g. games, lit tubing, and somewhat déclassé art, above)? Are there words or concepts almost on the tip of your tongue which you couldn’t quite pin down? (I needed more words around lab equipment)
  • Bonus bonus: Sketch or write a brief scene — a character experiencing the world this way, or a drawing that pulls out (or directly uses) those comparisons.

Tiny ballpoint drawing of alpaca on grass, on gridded paper.
Alpaca, glimpsed on the drive to give a talk at the Capalaba library

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March 2023 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of handwriting in notebook — notes extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my March 2023 tweets about short stories. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post (linking to where they are first mentioned).

(ALSO: My short story collection Kindling is coming out from Small Beer Press soon!)

Continue reading

Observation Journal: bones and flowers (more swapped descriptions)

A frequent favourite observation journal activity: mixing up descriptions (either by trading adjectives or using one word as a simile for the other).

(For related posts and other examples, see variations on descriptions, and other posts under the “descriptions” category.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes swapping descriptions between bones and flowers.

This time I was trading descriptions between bones and flowers. I chose this pair because of things I’d seen during the day (on the left page) but also because of A Project I was working on (which you will hear more about soon). Although, in the end, more of the observation page got into the final text.

Handwritten notes swapping descriptions between bones and flowers.

Bones flecked and spotted like the speckles on a lily, a spine like a spire of foxgloves, the peony-tight cluster of the knee. Flowers bleached and brittle, honeysuckle petals curled like ribs and collar-bone, flowers small as teeth.

Another benefit of this exercise, additional to sheer enjoyment and those advantages I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is that it highlights specific areas of vocabulary I’m excited to study more — botanical terms, or anatomical structures, etc.

(It’s also quite useful for ensuring thematically consistent descriptions, e.g. when attempting to use bird or plantlike descriptions for particular characters, as in Flyaway.)

Writing/illustration activity (similar to those on previous posts)

  • Pick two nouns (flower and bone, or daisy and skull, or cat and mountain…).
  • Use one word to suggest a list of descriptions for (or ways to draw) the other. Three ways to do this:
    • Make a list of ways you would usually describe (or portray) noun A and force them onto noun B. (Osseous, calcified, chalky, porous, smooth, ecru, knuckled…)
    • Find ways in which noun B is like noun A (many of the examples on the page above).
    • Find ways noun A is the same as noun B.
  • Then repeat the exercise in the other direction.
  • Bonus round 1: jot down a paragraph or poem or sketch out an illustration using a cluster of those descriptions.
  • Bonus round 2: Make some notes about what you noticed — which comparisons were easy or hard, which were the most interesting, where did they snap you into a new awareness or understanding of an object, where did your (visual or verbal) vocabulary serve well or where did you suddenly wish you had more resources (and where could you enjoyably get them)
Tiny ballpoint drawing of person carrying pile of boxes
Carrying boxes