Observation Journal: more swapped descriptions (gilded)

Here’s a recurring observation journal page, with one of my favourite activities: mixing up descriptions. This forces a closer look at ordinary things, from slightly unexpected perspectives. Sometimes it creates miniature poems, at others it builds an image that pulls away into a story. Almost always, it’s an engrossing little mental exercise.

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 on day and a drawing of a bowl. Notes swapping descriptions

On this page, I chose four things from the day, and paired them: picnic bench and youth, chooks and gold leaf (it was Inktober — see below for a related illustration). For each word, I then made a list of descriptions using words and metaphors I associated with the other word in that pair.

Notes swapping descriptions

Picnic bench

  • youthful
  • springing
  • slatted with spring light
  • sifting flowers
  • curled/curved like a fern frond
  • ribbed like a fern
  • slim-legged/nimble-limbed
  • unsteady as a lamb
  • stubborn

I noted a “push to metaphor”. Now, I notice an organic vivacity and lightness.


  • four-square on the earth
  • curved and up-springing
  • youth on which all else rests
  • youth on which age depends
  • barred with strength and air
  • the promise of birds
  • knee-deep in greenery

The note says “sentiment”. But there’s a solidity, here, that the idea of the bench brought to the prettier language I was using before.


  • square and bright as gold leaf
  • metal-tipped
  • ruffled like soft foil
  • scattering/scattered in light
  • in a cloud of glittering dust/insects

“Tricky but ennobling”. I really like these ones — it was more of a reach than the reverse (below), but I think that paid off.

Gold leaf (imitation)

  • fine-feathering
  • soft and enveloping as [illegible]
  • brooding on size
  • nested in corners of container
  • flocked

“Personifying”. I’m struck by how textural these are (very particular to the textures of metal leaf in use), and also that the staticness (brooding and nesting and enveloping) implies some readiness to movement.

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a hen looking at a radio.
For Inktober 2020 prompt “Radio” plus “The cowardly hero deceived the hen.” (This was VERY TINY and also a birthday card for my father and something of a riff on His Master’s Voice.)

Writing/illustration activity (originally posted, at greater length, in Variations on descriptions)

  • Pick two words at random. Concrete nouns — especially ordinary things — tend to be easiest to start with (especially for art).
  • Consider the descriptions/visuals you associate with each. You can lean into cliches and stereotypes here.
  • Describe (or sketch) each word using descriptions that belong more obviously to the other word.
  • Repeat.
  • Bonus: Note any tendencies or difficulties. Can you lean into or pull against or leverage those? Are there any broader patterns in your approaches?

Observation journal: Secrets and preoccupations

On these observation journal pages, I was playing with giving characters and objects a secret or preoccupation. The objects won.

I think this was on my mind because of some conversation with actors or about this approach in acting — not a central, plot-driving desire but some private concern which adds nuance to behaviour and speech.

As usual, I was trying it out on fairy-tales, as handy story-shaped objects. But it felt particularly useful for retellings, adding specificity to elements that have become simplified by time and use.

So I started by listing some stories and characters, adding a secret or preoccupation for each, and considering what that would do to the story.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

E.g. if the miller’s son of “Puss in Boots” wants to be a miller, not a Marquis, then he’s going to spend the story resisting while fate forces his hand. If Cinderella’s father was a Bluebeard figure, it ups the stakes for the stepmother. If Jack’s mother (in Jack and the Beanstalk) is just trying to get her son out of the house, then his continued early returns to it become hilarious.

These could be allowed to change the plot. But they also add a little depth to a basic retelling, and help triangulate descriptions and dialogue.

I then selected a series of “secrets, moods, motives and preoccupations” for Puss in Boots, and used them to reframe the cat’s reassurance to the miller’s son, that if he will only do what the cat says, then all will be well.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

A self-interested cat, a wearily responsible cat, a cat whose sole intention is to acquire a tall building from which to better catch birds, a cat which can talk but prefers not to — all will have this conversation in different ways.

I tried the original process again, listing various characters and objects from “Little Red Riding Hood”, and possible large and small secrets or preoccupations (is the mother trying to get to work? are the washerwomen of one version actually were-plovers? does the woodcutter’s axe have pacifist tendencies?).

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

Big secrets deepen and skew plots and connections, and shift the story into other tracks. Small preoccupations affect character, adding texture, tone, friction, etc.

Giving people secrets and preoccupations added to characterisation and plot. But giving preoccupations and interests to things was a delight, much more fun, and skewing easily into story ideas or texture.

So then I played with the door of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s cottage — giving it an interest in celebrity gossip, in fashion, in piracy, in murder — and seeing what effect that would have on the scene where Little Red Riding Hood arrives.

It added personality to the door, in the case of celebrity gossip (creaking with ill-contained excitement). In the case of fashion, it leaned into personification — a lintel tilted at a superior angle, like raised eyebrows, an appreciation of the gentleman with the nice fur coat. The connection to piracy added a sense of wider worlds and tales — the life the timbers led before, and what will happen to them after, and the place of this story in the scale of things. The interest in murder gave a sense of the world pushing back against the story, of deaths it has seen and perhaps been complicit in.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

Art/writing exercise:

  • The secret lives of objects:
    • Pick a template story (a fairy tale, or tall tale, or urban legend, or classic superhero origin story, etc). List some of the key objects in it — specifically mentioned or strongly implied.
      (If you can’t think of any stories or objects, you can use the sketches below: a camera and tripod at a workshop in a conference room, and a cold-drip coffee set-up on a cafe counter).
    • Choose one object, and list 5 preoccupations or interests it might have. Some might be suggested by the story (what if the glass slippers are interested in sobriety and disapprove of dancing?). But look for some unexpected secrets, too — something people you know have been interested in lately, or one of your recent fascinations, or an interest connected to something you can see (well-engineered roads?).
    • Consider how that object first appears in the original story — jot down a simple sentence or sketch of the scene. Then decide how that scene might change, if the object had each of those preoccupations.
    • Make a quick written or drawn sketch for each.
    • Bonus: Note which secrets/preoccupations/moods tend to pull the story away from the original plot, or change the setting, or deepen the scene. Are there any patterns?
  • The secret lives of characters:
    • As above, but for characters in the story. (Personally, I find this approach useful, but the object exercise is much more fun.)

See also “swapped descriptions and descriptive filters” for a related descriptive exercise.

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Observation Journal: Swapped descriptions and descriptive filters

These two observation journal pages both play with descriptions again. (You should be able to click on the gallery images below to see larger versions.)

The first is the simple swapped descriptions exercise (described previously: Variations on Descriptions).

In this exercise, you describe one thing using words more closely associated with another. Above, I was crossing cars with sofas, and swapping descriptions of air and blankets.

E.g. “air scratchy and heavy as an old car blanket, and with much the same smell”, “limb-tangling air”, “currents and swirls of wool”, “chenille like the lines on a weather chart”.

A few days later in the journal, however, there’s this variation. In these tables, I moved through the elements at the top (from fairy-tales), but described them using the elements down the side (animals) as a key.

Some excerpts.

Little Red Riding HoodCinderella
Foxreds, flash of a cap like a tail, bushy hair, sly and quick, small and fleetwatchful wide eyes and a pointed face, red-cheeked, long gloves, velvet and fur
Fishglimmer and gleam of sun-spangles through leaves, flitted & swam in forest light, short memory, huge eyes, ultimately slipperysequins and refractions of light, [moving through] currents of ballroom, [running along] avenues of fountains, silent and shocked, silver and gold thread and slippery satins
Door (of grandmother’s cottage)Rose garden
Foxred wood, fraying, white raw wood where red paint scratched away, a hitch and a pounce to its stingdevious & winding, wine & amber roses, dens of leaves, a shiver of breeze in leaves like a shiver in a coat of fur
Catcreaks like a meow, whiskery splinters, swings like a cat weaving, cat-warm from the sun, arched windows, cat door in it?curled on itself, thorned paws & waving tails of boughs & roses, purr of bees

Like the first exercise, it’s a way of doing something like scales on an instrument: practising describing things in less automatic ways, feeling for the shapes of worlds and stories. It’s also a good way to sound out an aesthetic and to tonally unify a piece or an element — a way to open up and narrow decisions. It’s also useful for dropping clues as to someone’s or something’s real nature, or at least making the reader worry about it (if you’ve read Flyaway, there are a couple of characters I wrote this way).

Writing/art exercises:

  • Swapped descriptions: See the previous posts (Variations on Descriptions and More Swapped Descriptions) for more detailed activities, but basically: pick two nouns. Then make a list describing (or sketching) one using words (or shapes/textures etc) more obviously associated with the other.
  • Shading descriptions:
    • Pick a couple of elements (characters, key objects) from favourite stories. These could be fairy tales, movies, the last thing you read, etc. List them across the top of a table.
    • Pick a few iconic objects — animals or things you think have mythic value, or three things in your line of sight. List them down the side of your table.
    • Now, for each cell, make a few notes (written or drawn) about how you would describe the story element in ways that evoke the iconic object.
    • Bonus round: Watch how the influences change as you move across and down the table. Which are easy? What happens if you lean into the difficult ones? Where do you want to chase down new vocabulary or visual reference? Do some variations spark your imagination, and if so is there a pattern in why they do (or don’t)?

And, finally, here is a sketch of a bush stone-curlew.


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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:

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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.

Observation Journal — much-used words and symbolism

Usually I post observation journal pages chronologically, which is why I’m still working through last year. These three pages, however, are very current. (I’ll scan them eventually).

I am editing a draft of a story this month. This means I am confronted by words I regularly overuse. Sometimes this is simply because I think they’re neat, or get in a habit. But some words I use because I like them and they mean something to me. When I use the word “green” it’s less about description than about trying to invoke some nebulous, numinous green-ness.

So I finally sat down to work out what I actually *mean* when I use some of my most overused words.

Here is “green”:

This approach is a work-in-progress, but it has already been useful both for edits and for clarifying my thoughts on a story.

For example: Is this person wearing a green coat because I wanted a sense of growth? An engulfing quality? A lichenous texture? Is the sea glinting like bottles or iridescent with decay? Would I even paint the trees as green, or was I trying to capture a bilious or purple effect that belongs to greenness and the wild? Is a hedge dense and velvety with blue shadows? Is it springing with new leaves and sharp with the scents of herbs? Is this very green story about decay or wildness or dissolution or new growth, or several of those things?

This exercise is, of course, partially about specificity. But it’s also about reaching for the meanings behind the word.

Here are “Shadows”:

And it turns out, half the time I’m thinking of shadows as luminous and vermilion-flecked, and almost always as less about concealment than about deeper or distant truth (thanks, Robert Frost and George MacDonald). And so maybe I should occasionally say that.

Here I took it a little sideways, to look more at an object than a word — coats:

I like writing coats more than cloaks, as a general rule. This page is less about breaking up the description of them, and more about looking at the habit: are there symbols I could clarify, or things an audience might not realise I’m using a coat as a shorthand for? And if I know that I’m using a coat as a sort of Swiss-army-knife of a garment, which stands for practicality and adventure and records the story on its surface, could I use (for example) an actual Swiss army knife instead? Or could I play with forcing those roles onto something unexpected, like a spangled scarf?

(I’m going to try this exercise again soon with my most overused word: “and”.)

Writing/illustration Exercises (I’ll probably refine these by the next time I post about it)

  • Choose a word (or for artists: an images/object/colour/treatment) you know you overuse, or suspect you might overuse, or have been scolded about by editors. Even — or perhaps especially — if it’s something you like using, and suspect you keep coming back to for a reason.
  • Start breaking down why and how you use it. You’ll find your symbols and shorthands are different. And even the high-level categories might change. But as a starting point, here are some of the ones I used (for fairly free associations) — once I had these, I started getting into more detail.
    • colour (not just other words for it, but if — for you —it contains other colours, scarlet in shadow and mustard in green; or if the default colour of a coat is green — if you don’t think visually, look at some pictures that feel particularly that colour to you, and see what other colours are in them)
    • temperature
    • texture (actual and what you think it should feel like)
    • actions
    • body language (even if you don’t describe it, what’s your default for character interaction with this thing: frolicking? cowering?)
    • movement
    • smell
    • things
    • sounds
    • opposite of
    • associations/influences (“if your mother mends a coat cut about and tore“)
    • symbolises/means
    • places
    • weight
    • decay (this was specific to green, then I tried it on “shadow” and it was intriguing)
    • conceals (this was shadow-specific but it got into “coat” as well)
    • role (of the object, or of the people associated with it)
    • necessary components (coats, when I write them, need buttons and pockets and linings)
  • Take a scene or sentence in which you use the word, and see if you can use these new lists to adjust and specify the description, or simply strengthen it. (Red hat or jaunty hat or the fragile defiant headgear of someone about to meet a wolf?)
  • Could you give another colour/object/movement the same symbolic meaning? Could you make violet feel like orange, or high-heels or a serving spoon serve the purpose of a fedora?
  • Could you flip the symbolism of that word, and make a leather jacket mean giddy flamboyance or restlessly drumming fingertips mean peace?

Observation Journal: More mixed descriptions

I love this picture because while it is objectively not an accurate drawing of a crow, generally speaking, it absolutely catches the attitude of this specific crow

Here are a few more observation journal pages playing with mismatched metaphors and shaken-up descriptions.

I very much like these exercises — swapping, exchanging, flipping language (and images) and finding unexpected connections is an enjoyable game, but also a way to discover little worlds and the hints of stories, and to stay in the habit of reaching for very specific and carefully callibrated descriptions — training the ear as well as the hand. (Here are some related posts, with exercises: Variations on descriptions, More swapped descriptions, Similes and genre flips.)

This first page is a repeat of picking two things at random from the observation page and making them fit each other (with an occasional genre flip):

Trees lit like caffeination, champagne like metal dye in the veins. A person whose approach to computers is like the wary abandon of the amateur chef. A sense of clammy inevitability, like washing left forgotten in the machine.

In the next, I changed the approach slightly (it’s a combination of the original and the Caudwell approaches). First I made a list of terms I associated with cold weather and hot weather and noted patterns in them (the aloof, brittle, beautiful, festive terms for winter, the physically oppressive and vigorous associations of summer).

Then I swapped these and wrote some descriptions.

So hot weather could be described by way of salt-white light, the shiver you get from the heat, puffing out hot breath, the numbness of warmth. And cold weather could be all brilliance and gold light, green shadows, the humidity of damp clothes indoors, etc.

There are a few lines borrowed from the previous technique: winter like a crow at the window, summer like a pomegranate — and then the question of what would happen if you switched those. The answer is quite a lot, actually. Of course winter is like a pomegranate, it’s a whole thing — and summer is all about getting woken up by the crows on the fence outside.

On a subsequent page, I went back to those twin lists and directly swapped the terms (pale to vivid, biting to either aloof or caressing, greenery to fibre matting, balcony to underhouse).

The “summer” paragraph that resulted was quite similar to the previous one. Winter, however, gained movement and intent — winter with its clicking claws, its smell of old rugs, its cold nose pressed without warning against bare skin…

Here are some previous related posts, some of which have writing/illustration activities.

Sleeping on my sister’s sofa, woken by her dog

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: Drawing from other images

I often use the observation journal to work out ways to vary activities, and swap them between media. (I recommend that as a general creative exercise in itself — picking a task from some other field of creativity and trying to swap it into your own.)

This page was a continuation of the mixed metaphor activities, playing with visual recombinations (see: Variations on descriptions, more swapped descriptions, and similes and genre flips). However, because I didn’t really choose a target object, but just explored combinations of two concepts, it does skew close to simply mixing and matching for new ideas — see: Improbable inventions.) But that’s okay — I was feeling out the edges of the activity.

Basically, I took two items at random from the last few observation (left-side) pages, and considered how they might influence each other in an illustration.

So for example:

  • “ferns + pressure hose” suggested the vigour and angles to use in a drawing of ferns, affecting the composition, and leading to a little bird being driven forward in the general momentum.
  • “startled” and “dog with ball” suggested the use of more exaggerated body language and facial expressions when drawing someone who is startled (or joyfully chasing a ball).
  • “Beads” and a person who “always takes off their jacket in the shade” suggested using shade more deliberately (obscuring details), adding details of beading and missing/fallen beads on a dress, and generally adding extra movement to someone dropping beads.
  • This then turned into a note about a Cinderella who is always dropping things — hairpins, beads, etc. Presumably, this was to make the lost shoe in-character, but the following note says (evidence? Gattaca?).

Writing/art activities
(nb these are mostly variations of previous exercises, so you can find examples of similar approaches at e.g. Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye and variations on descriptions)

  • Stealing descriptions 1
    • Make a three lists of five things from your day: things seen, heard, and done (this part is adapted from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus). Or just look around you.
    • Pick two items at random.
    • Consider how you could use one of those objects to draw the other — do a few sketches. (For writers, consider how would you use one to visually describe the other, and write a short paragraph.) You can be as literal or lateral as you like. The sound of clanging steel could suggest the way light might reflect off an object, for example, or the deepness of velour might incline you to deepen the shadows.
    • Try two or three variations for each pair.
    • If any suggest more of a world or a character, or echo a story you know, pursue the connections and see where you end up.
  • Stealing descriptions 2
    • Choose two objects at random (e.g. a teapot and a cat).
    • Describe or sketch one literally.
    • Then adapt that description (e.g. of the teapot) to the second object (e.g. the cat) changing as little as possible. (For writers, start by just swapping out the nouns).
    • See what possibilities or impossibilities you end up with. Develop the sketch/description further if you like.
  • Borrowing at large
    • Think of another field of creative endeavour (or even non-creative). Quilting? Shearing? Search for some exercises, activities, or tutorials in that field.
    • See how much of that exercise you can adapt into your own writing/art/other medium. Can you follow it literally? Adapt crop rotation principles to a work schedule? Use a traditional patchwork pattern to suggest a story structure or scene composition?

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 — similes and genre flips

This observation journal page is a late-night variation on previous exercises with flipped descriptions.

Like most late-night writing activities, it got a bit silly, but it was fun, and it turns out to have underpinned some more recent explorations.

Two page spread of densely handwritten observation journal. On the left page, five things seen, heard and done, and a drawing of a cat. On the right, the exercise described.

First, I picked items at random from the left-hand page, and tried to work them up into a simile, e.g. clouds like uncurling ribbons. Those comparisons, being drawn from daily life, tended to still be based in it. (I do find this exercise useful for building and describing a vivid world. I’ve elaborated on it in Variations on descriptions and More swapped descriptions.)

Then I reworked each sentence twice: once for a science fiction setting (from a ridiculous old testing-ground of a story) and once as some sort of Regency fairy tale.

So e.g. “steam uncoiling like a galaxy”, further flipped into “a galaxy uncoiling like steam”, and then “ice softening like unstarched lace”.

I wasn’t looking for a 1:1 equivalent, obviously, but something that approximated the original phrase.

(The Xs between the sentences are where I put the sentences into the wrong column, because if you think the phrase “ambulant laser-truncheon” is inconsistent with a strictly Georgian setting, you would be entirely correct.)

Right page of observation journal, with three columns and a variety fo flipped descriptions.

As I said (and as you will see if you try to read my handwriting, which isn’t necessary): a lighthearted little exercise. But it is a fun activity to keep your mental fingers limber (good for car trips and conversations with friends if they are those sorts of friends, i.e. the writer equivalent of theatre kids), and it is an interesting way to practice thinking about the structures and textures of a world, and the differences between genres, and to fine-tune word choice and tone.

Ballpoint drawing of a cat rolling on its back.

Like most creative exercises, the activity seems to translate between writing and illustration.

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick two observations/things around you at random, and work out how they could be similar. Writers, build a simile/metaphor. Illustrators, look for ways you could draw one thing using the shapes, textures, etc, of the other. (For more detail on this, see the activity in Variations on descriptions.)
  • Pick two genres you like (or two distinctive story worlds — your own or someone else’s). It could be clipped noir and bushwalking nonfiction just as much as something fantastic.
  • Consider your original sentence/sketch. How could you create an equivalent effect in those other two genres/worlds. What objects/textures belonging to those settings or aesthetics could you use or invent?
  • Bonus round: Repeat the exercise a few times, from the beginning. See if you notice any patterns in how you approach it, or the world, or the stories you seem to be telling. For example, here I found that the descriptions very quickly began to feel as if they belonged to a larger underlying narrative. That exploration wasn’t the point of this exercise, specifically, but I’ve found those patterns instructive to keep an eye on (as much for identifying strengths and things to explore as for finding habits that should be shaken up).
  • Bonus bonus round: Pick two very close genres (or even two moods in the same setting), and look at the changes needed to shift between those.

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.

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