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.

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?”

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: Industrial Fabulism

On this observation journal page l was looking at the idea of industrial fabulism.

A few weeks before this, I noted I was interested in the “fabulist-practical and the industrial-fantastic”. This is something that appears in articles in car magazines at mechanics’ offices (often very romantically written) and in some of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, in collections of rural inventions and the science columns in 19th-century periodicals and in Cold Comfort Farm, in Longitude and Apollo 13 and Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange.

It was also a choice I had to actively make in Flyaway, choosing to underline the reliability of beauty by describing aspects of even mechanical detritus as worthy of notice. And it runs throughout Travelogues, much of which involved processing an industrial landscape through the language of enchantment. I touched a little on that in the post All the shape of the land: “a way not only of expressing the experience of made things, but of experiencing the world through them, and finding enchantment in that.”

Extract from Travelogues

So on this journal page, I was identifying that particular aesthetic and its appeal. Some points:

  • It is more of a mode/style/setting than a genre.
  • It relies on and seeks out beauty in machinery:
    • It is realism in service of fabulism.
    • There’s a conscious effort to enchant.
    • Lyricism is used to deal with industrial objects and surroundings.
    • It’s an innate aesthetic — not adding a gloss of beauty to the mechanical/industrial, or bolting ornaments on, but seeking it in the objects themselves. The industrial can even be what adds beauty to the fantastic.
    • It represents a society without a division between the technical/technological and the fantastic.
  • It is not the same as clockpunk/steampunk/dieselpunk.
    • There can be overlap, but there is an effort to distinguish itself from the usual genre markers (e.g. going for a blue tint instead of sepia).
    • It leans on machinery more than the fantastic.
    • It often avoids the obvious supernatural/fantastic altogether.
  • Its appeal for me includes:
    • It is anchored in the real. The enchantment is integrated into reality/realism, OR the fairy-tale is anchored by the industrial element.
    • As mentioned above, it’s an integrated/innate aesthetic.
    • It’s designed to be actively attractive.
    • The cliches and stereotypes of the industrial (especially as opposed to the fantastic) are well established, so I need to consciously choose to use the mode, which can make writing in it a pleasing puzzle. (Swapped descriptions, e.g. light vs tin cans, and switched stereotypes are useful for this.)

Observation Journal — a sequence of week-in-review pages

Here is a series of end-of-week summary pages from the observation journal. (I wrote about the structure of the summary pages here: reflections and summaries.)

It’s useful having these pages, both to catch big ideas at the end of each week and to look back on them much later, following the little growing fascinations, the recurring epiphanies, the big and little moods, the lessons I did learn and the ones I won’t.

For example, this time I notice that apparently I like these shades of green. (Previously on colours.)

The same goes for the “Things to Do” page: it’s more a list of possibilities than actual tasks, so there are items that are carried forward week to week until they suddenly turn into a project (I did finally order the foil cards), and ones that get set aside, or are written off but suddenly roar back into my field of vision a year later, or are just there as a reminder to keep in mind.

So below is a five-week run of summary pages, with some of the points that now seem most interesting to me extracted.

Week-in-review c 25 April 2020
  • 2020 effectively squashed most of my domestic urges.
  • While the journal is great for writing blog posts, this blog is also one of the things that keeps me reviewing the journal.
  • The (useful, if I act on it) frustration of not making things, whether because of admin commitments or because I’m just splashing around coming up with ideas.
Week-in-review c 2 May 2020
  • I like colour! I do so much linework I need to remind myself of this. It also makes the journal more of a pleasing object to keep and review.
  • The playful aspects of the journal do get into more formal projects.
  • The power of unlikely abrupt intense proximities for creating stories.
  • The joy of being silly when classifying things.
  • The charm of specificity.
Week-in-review c 9 May 2020
  • How much easier everything is if I (am legally allowed to) leave the house for some portion of the day.
  • The effect of a shape on a story.
  • Relatedly, making space for a thing to happen makes it more likely to happen.
  • Flipping and hypothetically remixing a story (my own or others’) is a way to take charge of an idea.
  • How characterisation works when it is done by creating sympathy for a character off the page. (Related, or at least I should link the ideas: Sympathy for characters)
Week-in-review c 16 May 2020
  • Going outside is nice but I have enormous difficulties achieving escape velocity. (My whole family does. I used to have volcano-and-bushfire nightmares in which we kept having to rush back into the house to get things we’d forgotten… thanks Children’s World Book Encyclopaedia and assorted Ash Wednesday bushfire novels.)
  • The charm of playing something (even the magical/unlikely) very straight and low-key. (I think this was prompted by murder mysteries.)
  • I’m more likely to get editing done if I just keep tinkering my way into the story than if I start with some strategic plan.
  • Key ideas (this reference-story, that painting as a visual key) are very useful for narrowing editing choices.
  • Doing something, and keeping on doing it, even in small ways, reduces later bars to entry.
  • The extreme usefulness of tentative mock-solutions. (Not closely related, but not unrelated: ten terrible things.)
Week-in-review c 23 May 2020
  • Changing ONE thing in an idea (varying one character in a story, picking one colour note to commit to), and then following the consequences, is sometimes more interesting than flipping everything.
  • The power of definiteness in first lines. (Staring at sentences; First sentences.)
  • Reading is a necessary and relevant part of the job!
  • The pull that a strong aesthetic exerts both on the story being written and on the reader, to pull them into it. (If the reader is me: aesthetic posts).
  • Perhaps not unrelated to the above: how many of my favourite first lines highlight a setting more than a character.

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 — or I will once we get out of lockdown again!).

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 — 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).

Observation Journal — staring at sentences

On these observation journal pages, I got further into first sentences — specifically other people’s (previously I’d been playing with hypothetical ones of my own).

It is difficult to say what makes a good first line, since I suspect the answer is that it is followed by a good book. So this exercise was, first, one of readerly appreciation (and a very enjoyable and soothing one — I highly recommend it).

But I think (or hope) the closer you read something the more the patterns of it get into your bones and thoughts.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a drawing board. On the right, densely handwritten notes analysing sentences.

So here I was breaking down some of my favourite first lines to see what I liked about them.

It looks complicated, but that’s because it’s crowded. The process itself (adapted from a style analysis exercise in a grammar course I used to tutor) was simple:

Continue reading

Observation Journal — on editing

This week of the observation journal featured a few reflections on editing (I’d like to think I was on a roll, but I had submission and uni deadlines). See previously: notes on editing “Not to be Taken” in Observation Journal — Application to a Story, and editing checklist.

Double page of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and one, and a drawing of a mug with a dinosaur on it. On the right, "Some 2am editing observations".

I know that some people hate writing and love editing. I don’t understand this. You get to just make things up when you’re writing, and there’s trackable progress and a definite end point! I find editing hard work (with too-infrequent flashes of gold), and I have to keep reminding myself that I can still just… make things up. This page wasn’t an attempt to solve that problem, but I wanted to at least record how these editing passes got done, in hopes I could find some patterns later — a sort of prelude to a project review, or a fragment of one.

Key editing lessons (from these stories):

  • Efficiency is not the same as efficacy.
  • If there’s a worse and more urgent task on my desk, I will in fact choose to edit. Deadlines help, but they aren’t fun.
  • When I’m reading over a draft, I often write questions to myself in the margin. This is rarely helpful. What is helpful is to force myself to write an answer to the question then and there — or at least to write the question and then give myself three mock solutions/phrasing (even if they’re bad ones). I can change my mind later! But at least there’s something to work with.
  • I need to start in order to let things begin being done. 
  • It seems smart to deal with issues in batches! But I won’t. Starting at the beginning and nibbling through is excruciating, but I will do it. (See efficiency vs efficacy, above).
  • The necessity of rolling slowly through.
  • The (eventual and occasional) magic of momentum.

These two projects predated the journal and these were interim edits. One project is out on submission now, though. The other is a story within the novel I’m working on for uni, so… one day.

(You can also see I made these notes at 2am and on the wrong page, which is where numbering the pages for cross references comes in handy.)

Tiny biro drawing of a mug with a dinosaur on it
Tea Rex mug (it’s the General Eclectic one)