Observation Journal — Food as Magic and other quibbles

In this observation journal spread, I was working out some recent feelings about food as magic (vs food in magic).

Two pages of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of me reading on the couch. On the right, a chart of thoughts about food.
Made a new multi-ribbon bookmark for the journals

Food thoughts

I can’t remember specifically why, but magical food had been bothering me. I must have read a rash of enchanted-food stories around about then. Some of which were great! if you wrote one of them I would probably loved it! But there were some patterns which didn’t appeal to me personally.

For some reason, while I love food in stories about magic, I’m extremely picky about food-as-magic, food-magic, literalisation of Proust, etc. It’s weirdly personal and unhygienic, and intimate, and extremely decadent, and in a romance it competes with other elements with the same issues.

Also it makes me feel inadequate and afraid for cakes. I’m still stressed about that episode of Tremontaine, in which food was not magic (good!) but was elaborately-constructed and in peril (I can’t handle it! I can’t watch cake decorating shows where they have to deliver the cake!).

But I do like food IN fantasy, and books generally — good plain food and comically bad food and food as simple decadence and food as care and competence, and food fights, and knowing the cake will survive to be eaten. (I can even forgive cake destruction if it’s early and an inciting incident and heavily flagged). “Lots of food and lots of fighting” as someone (Norman Lindsay? the internet is not helping) said of children’s books.

One of the funnier things to me, looking back through this, is the clear formative fingerprints of various stories. Good plain food is certainly a reference to Narnia and other post-WWII children’s books (although in that regard can I draw your attention to the existence of this Anthony-Bourdain-in-Narnia fan fiction?) — and indeed earlier books, with bland nursery food and the Bastables stabbing a pudding to death with their forks. “Why am I so annoyed by men who make omelettes?” is traced back to Sabrina (the 1995 movie). And lovely as Chocolat is, the food fight in Hook for some reason filled the spot in my heart the subtly-magical chocolate might have taken. (Inconsistently, I am quite okay with magic food in Alice in Wonderland and The Magic Faraway Tree but I suspect that’s because the food isn’t any weirder than anything else that’s going on).

Almost-immediate edit: I am now thinking of all the magical food I do like. I think there’s some similarity to how I feel about historical settings and very-near-future astronaut stories, which is that the non-magical version is already so interesting that my tastes incline towards it, unless the context or writing is doing the work to pull me away. Maybe.

Observation journal thoughts

This is one of those journal pages looking for patterns in things that had been interesting or bothering me. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for here, so it’s a very loose collection of thoughts. You can see me finding the boundaries of my likes and objections as I work through them — noting a dislike of a certain type of decadence, and then realising I liked other ways of showing decadence, which started up a list of things I do like.

However, recently, I’ve started reading a few books that I ought to like, but which manage to land just outside what I do like. So I’ve been more deliberately feeling for the boundaries of tropes and motifs in this way, and trying to find out if there’s any common features to that dividing line.

It’s an interesting exercise. It’s useful to know what I like, so that I can steer towards it, and I enjoy refining those definitions. But finding out what I don’t like is useful too — not just for avoiding it, but for the challenge of working out how I could (for example) write food as magic in other ways, and trick myself into liking it.

Trying to write on the sofa with a bad back.

Writing/Art exercise

  1. Think of your favourite genre, and five things you love in it (tropes or images or motifs or poses — written or drawn). Maybe it’s magical food and books about writers with writers block, and enchanted portals that get closed forever, and the erosion of once-beautiful buildings, and the inner lives of serial killers — you do you.
  2. Pick one of those. What are some versions you have seen and love? What are the important aspects? Are there any patterns to what you like about it?
  3. Are there examples of it that haven’t worked for you, or can you imagine an example that wouldn’t work for you?
    – For example, I like food in fantasy, and I like books about hilariously horrible writers, and magical portals, and beautiful buildings, and crimes being solved — but it takes a lot to make me like the versions listed in paragraph 1 above!
    – For artists: Later in the journal I try this with images, too. It’s a little easy to mock women on cliffs wearing shawls and staring into the distance, but if they can see something approaching, or there’s a sense of urgency, like she’s just run up the cliff, or she’s doing more than just clutching her shawl mournfully, I will happily plunge back into that particular angst.
  4. Just feeling out the edges of things you like can be useful. But if you want to go further, pick one of those versions you don’t like, and see if you could push it further, and how far you would have to go to make it charm you again.
    – For example, I like flamboyant over-the-top caricatures of writers. I tend not to like books about writers with writers block. I might like a book about a writer with writers block, looking for their muse, if they were only pretending to be a blocked writer and were just trying to infiltrate a literary festival in order to commit dreadful crimes. Or even better, if they were actually an undercover detective infiltrating bohemian society in order to thwart a murderer!
    – And while I now quite want to read or write this, I’ve also learned (or emphasised) that I like characters being consciously and flamboyantly unlikeable for Reasons, and ridiculous secrets, and exposes of literary foibles, and unlikely Rube-Goldberg detective plots, if the characters are sufficiently outrageous.
  5. Do a quick paragraph or pencil sketch, to catch the idea, and so that, if necessary, you can say you did write or draw something today.

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 — Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

I’d been using the observation journal to think through the patterns in all the Regency reading I’d been doing in early 2020 (see the previous post on Ridiculous (but charming!) situations).

Over the following weeks I pursued it further — first, simply making a quick list of things I personally did and did not like, and then having far too much fun listing Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities.

1. Likes and dislikes

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, with a picture of someone walking; A list of likes and dislikes.
Crows really do fly like hand shadows

Some of these are quite picky, and many are indefensible.

  • A set way of writing love scenes vs a bit of variety and personality. (But I prefer fade-to-black.)
  • Implausible/unexplained perfumes vs scents that reflect the character’s life and something of their character.
  • Silliness and slapstick vs characters who are very earnest and unaware of the ludicrousness of their situations.
  • Satin and ruffles vs muslin and gauze.
  • Unconvincing stock characters vs absolute commitment to a stock character.
  • Unnecessary angst in the face of obvious love vs love followed by complications vs late epiphanies but without angst.

And of course, all the versions I don’t like can work for me if they’re doing it with absolute defiance and/or doing two things at once.

There’s also a note there, semi-related, from when I ran into Lou on a walk that day and we discussed bathroom breaks in books and where, for example, (as in Diana Wynne Jones) they can highlight relative wealth, etc.

As with the unsubstantiated manifesto, I like making lists of opinions without having to justify them. It’s fun, but it’s also a good way of finding things to play with, either in the observation journal or to see what I can do with them in a picture or a story (how would I describe satin in a way that doesn’t offend my sensibilities?). It’s also interesting to see where my limits are on tropes I broadly like (e.g. descriptions of clothes) — this topic comes up again later in the journals.

2. Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, and a photo of a camera tripod setup, and a list of unlikely abrupt intense proximities
The Home Ice Cream Van gave form to our days

Back in the Ridiculous (but charming!) situations post, I realised all the situations I listed shared “a degree of unlikelihood combined with abrupt intense proximity”. So on this page I just made a list of some of my favourite abrupt intense proximities from romances and rom-coms. Occasionally these are a meet-cute, occasionally they’re a whole subgenre — and they’re not exclusive to romance, of course. Most also work for buddy and odd-couple drama/comedies and for horror stories.

  • Trapped by a storm
  • Locked in a cupboard
  • One bed 
  • Everyone thinks we’re [whatever]
  • Blackmail you to help me
  • Responsible for your safety
  • Joint responsibility for someone else
  • Unwilling guest/host
  • Parties to an arrangement
  • Civility does not permit me to depart
  • You have foisted yourself onto me and now I am not sure how to get rid of you
  • Injury compels me to stay here
  • It is efficient to pursue our parallel interests together
  • Hired to provide a professional service
  • Arrangement of convenience
  • Sibling/ward/friend’s friend
  • Mistaken identities
  • Mistaken personalities
  • Vehicular accident/transport issues
  • Task to complete together
  • Only doing this as a favour for someone else

After that I played around with a few elements, to see what happened to them as they turned into a story. I flipped expectations (see The Caudwell Manoeuvre), ending up with a rough uncivilised Beauty and an elegant, modest Beast, and tried picking an aesthetic or a setting, e.g. a bed and breakfast, or folk horror (why not both?). I’d already been playing with those approaches, of course, but adding a situation kicked the process forward a few steps.

Art/writing exercise

  1. Think of a classic type of situation in your favourite genre (the discovery of the body? the re-emergence of the monster? the race to the airport?) and make a list of some versions of that situation you’ve seen. (Or use the list above).
  2. Then make a list of settings — genre-feasible or not, as you prefer!
  3. Pick one of each at random and sketch (words or pictures) how that situation would work. How would a “chase to the airport” scene work (or what would perform the same function) if you were setting the story on a steamboat? How would the “discovery of the body” work in a bridal fabric store?
  4. See what you learn about what makes those types of situations work for you, and/or about the setting.
  5. Variations: Try it in different genres, or pick the standard characters involved in the situation and flip their descriptions (an aloof, intelligent witness and and an emotionally-overwrought detective?).

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 — application to a story

I’ve put these three pages of the observation journal together because they all relate to the same project — my short story “Not to be Taken” in the poison-themed Egaeus Press anthology Bitter Distillations.

Butterfly on a wine glass

The story began in the journal — I’ve posted indirectly about it before, from the pages where I was first trying to sort out my ideas. It forms the third row from the bottom in (Too) Many Ideas (several elements appear in the final story) and was the subject of the alphabetical list in Reflections and Alphabetical Order (of all those ideas, the final story was closest to “R”, but only if you unfocus your eyes).

By this stage, however, I had written the story and was suffering through the editing process, which I only seem to be able to get through by being dramatic about it (I’ve accepted this as part of my method). So it seemed an obvious subject for journal exercises.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a painted rock). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: A crow shining sky-blue, my housemate trying out her rollerskates, and a new pie shop.

The first was an exercise from Helen Marshall, which has appeared before (10 Terrible Things). It is simply a list of ways I could rework the story to make it definitely worse.

This was a lot of fun and silliness, but in the end it was helpful. Shifting the idea to be about minor characters or flipping all the roles, or changing everyone into birds, made me think more about whether I wanted to keep certain elements, and be more deliberate about the ones I did keep. It also made me check that I was actually liking the story — there are a couple notes there about things that usually help me:

  • aesthetic
  • emotional spine
  • genre
  • character emotions (this is a tricky one but I’m starting to remember to think about it).

The story did not change hugely as a result of this. But it did make me more assured about it. You’ll see the notes there are about tightening the draft and remembering to TAKE CHARGE of my own projects, which is a lesson prompted by a few things last year.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a laptop balanced on a drying rack). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: Hatbush city limits, and arcane symbols

The next page features another activity I’d heard most recently from Helen Marshall (in a subject she was running and I was tutoring): 5 terrible opening sentences. The first example is for “Not to be Taken” (the actual first sentence for which ended up being “Lucinda collected poison bottles”). It didn’t shake up the draft as much — the 10 terrible takes (above) were much more effective for that.

But I also tried it on a non-existent story, and the exercise was very effective for that. Writing bad opening sentences was a very fun way to find a path into an idea, and to quickly develop a cast of characters along the way. Trying exercises out until I work out what they do suit is another good use of the journal.

It was also particularly interesting to note what appealed about each (terrible) sentence, and why — frankness, restrained humour, fun with stock characters (see also: The Caudwell Manoeuvre), and so on.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a butterfly on a wine glass). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: A butterfly breeze, and cobweb weather.

By the next week, I’d actually managed to finish editing the story (and had sent it to Angela Slatter for comment). This page is a simple breakdown of what I actually did (the editing checklist started here), and what worked, and lessons I learned, which included the following:

  • The painfulness of editing is not an indicator that anything is wrong with the process.It will take the time it takes.
  • That will be more time than I want it to be.
  • But faster than avoiding it.
  • Some distraction/inhibition-removal helps.
  • Aesthetic & theme are useful for making decisions.
  • Rule of threes (and thoughts on the stability of triangles — this led to two blog posts: Three Points and Silhouettes and Further Points). 
  • Doggedness & commitment.
  • Dissatisfaction with “predictability” may be a function of reading it 17 times. What’s satisfying for a reader is different for the writer.
Laptop balanced on a drying rack in the carport

Observation Journal — Stories into spaces

On these consecutive pages of the observation journal, I was playing with stories and shapes — how a container not only calls a story into existence (see Narrative Theory #1) but how a story changes to fit the container.

On the first day, I played with an existing story, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of “The Wild Swans“. I treated it more as an idea, subject to change, rather than a rigid existing story. (It would be fun to try this process again as a way of representing/analysing an existing story, though.)

Page with tiny pen scribbles filling groups of 4, 3 and 5 boxes, with various images of nettle-spinning and bird transformation, and notes about e.g. "After the nettles & briars, The thorns & the pyre, Could you feel kindness when you met it again, Or did you cease to sit & spin", all in very tiny and largely illegible handwriting

I drew up some three, four, and five panel arrangements. At the time I wasn’t thinking in terms of comics panels — they were just dividing the story up into Big Moments. I dropped the story into them (by sketching it).

Tiny pen scribbles of person putting on clothes and turning into berd with words "At last she finished the garment, pulled it on, & — becoming a swan — flew away."

All the time I watched what happened, and which bits of the story took over (transformation, the scarcities of kindness), and how the story changed itself.

Tiny pen scribbles of people talking to birds, transforming, being married.

This was a way of shaping this story, rather than analysing story shapes generally (although I did that later elsewhere, running several stories through the same shape).

The next day I tried the same exercise, but on an idea drawn from elements of an observation journal page (page 198, which you can see in a previous post) — something to do with the ghosts of animals, a much more nebulous concept than the Hans Christian Andersen story above.

Page with groups of 4, 3, and 6 boxes, with little scribbled drawings in them.

And again, the different numbers of panels created a different shape for the story to fill, pulling the ideas away from each other.

Tiny pen scribbles of a person who sees a ghost cat, glimpses it in their bedroom, and falls asleep with it curled up on the end of their bed.
Here is someone followed home by a ghost cat.

Art/writing exercise

  • Take a story idea (or a loose concept, or an existing story).
  • Draw up a series of boxes in groups of two, three, four, five (or one, for a challenge or a very tiny story).
  • For each group of boxes, consider how you could fit that story into just those boxes. Which key scenes or moments could best sum up that story? Sketch or briefly write each scene into the corresponding box. Then try a different arrangement, or a different approach, or think of the worst scenes to sum up the story and find out what happens if you only keep those.
  • Make a note of how the story changes. Which visuals take over, which themes seem to survive the winnowing? Which new ideas emerge? Does it change the original concept or your understanding of the story? Which groupings seem too thin, too complex, just right for the story or for the way you think?

Observation Journal — unsubstantiated manifesto

This observation journal page features strong but deliberately not particularly thought-through opinions — and also a council employee dancing dramatically with a whippersnipper.

Double-page spread of observation journal. Left page contains lists of five things seen, read, and done, and a tiny pen drawing of a box with flowers on the sides. The right page is a manifesto described below.

The exercise is from Elizabeth McCracken, who tweeted:

"I gave a new assignment to my workshop: write a short manifesto of things you absolutely believe about fiction without caring if they're wrong or apply to anybody else's work."

I enjoyed this type of manifesto much more than some introspective ones (see: Manifestos (ugh)). It’s rather fun being unreflectively and unsupportedly opinionated. Here’s the list as it stood then (with some commentary):

  • Art should be just absolutely infested with so-subtle-its-invisible allusions & references & foreshadowing. [I don’t like doing puzzles, so I kind of hate this as a viewer, but as long as I don’t expect anyone else to pick up on them, it’s an excellent way to add texture.]
  • Movement trumps accuracy. [I went to the She-Oak and Sunlight exhibition and just sighed a lot at hurrying flecks of people busying themselves across canvases in one or two smears of paint.]
  • Expression ditto.
  • Aesthetic is king. [Guillermo del Toro makes movies for illustrators]
  • Keep it chatty. [An excuse or a philosophy?]
  • Space should be filled with a network of bits.
  • Tinier is easier (it isn’t).
  • With enough SIZE or REPETITION anything can become fine art.
  • The soul of most composition is just this: be deliberate.
  • Why realism, though?
  • Texture and colour like icing is a heaven closed to me. [I write so I can be painterly — there are passages in Flyaway that are deliberately me using e.g. Tom Roberts’ palette and light.]

Revisiting this after almost a year, I don’t think my feelings have changed significantly (although some are being tested, though not threatened, by recent projects). However I’ve been thinking more about them, ever since writing them down. Some have turned into exercises and workshops; some have helped me make clearer decisions; some are lessons I never learn.

Here is another element that emerged from the journal! It’s a tiny note on which jagged leaf shapes were most fun to draw (at least in ballpoint pen).

Cropped section of the left page of the observation journal, with tiny jagged drawn leaves loosely coloured in green water and a note that says "Discovered [picture of loopy jagged leaf] is more fun (& easier) to draw than [long sawtooth leaf] or [rounder jagged leaf]"

Together with some ornaments from a summary page, these leaves made it into the May 2020 calendar (also demonstrating repetition, small drawing, and filling up space with bits).

A pattern of unicorns, stars, and vines with small jagged leaves, on a twilight green-blue background
The design is available on Redbubble on cushions, throws, clothes, etc, and on Spoonflower as fabric and wallpaper.

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: abbreviations and omissions

The observation journal doesn’t always go to plan.

I try to do it every week day — I enjoy it, and it feels like an achievement (reviewing, and using it for class, and posting about it all add impetus, of course), and I wanted to prove something — and also it is possible to complete it in under 10 minutes, although I rarely do. I also have a few go-to activities for when I’m finishing it very late at night — they haven’t appeared yet, but they’ll start showing up soon.

I don’t keep it on weekends, although it makes me feel as if wonderful things are passing me by. But originally I wanted to set a reasonable example for the students who had to keep a journal for assessment, and it’s nicer to be wishing I was doing the journal than resenting it, and also to have a couple of days to reset and review and be eager again! (Life lessons…)

Double page observation journal spread. Each is divided into four boxes, containing respectively 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture (one of me standing on one leg pulling my hair, the other of a hot water bottle).

But very occasionally I’ve simplified the situation and just completed the observation pages (as above, when I had a procedure during the week — it was only moderately urgent, and I think the specialist was just happy to have a procedure he was allowed to do in that early lockdown).

And once or twice I slept through it.

Double page spread of gridded paper across which is written "Somehow I actually, for the first time, fell asleep w/o doing this. But = first time!"

Observation Journal: Ridiculous (but charming!) situations

This page of the observation journal is the result of reading Regency romance novellas and discovering a pattern of things that amused me far too much.

Double page of densely handwritten observation journal. On left, five things seen, heard and done, and a bad pen drawing of a kookaburra with "how do kookaburras" written under it. On the right, a list of romance situations.

Left page: Forgetting how to draw a kookaburra in spite of having just seen one, and making my housemate watch The Ship Song Project video. Also a note about the “charm of specificity”. That day, it was in relation to seeing a piano removal van, but it applies to most very particular things — shops that only sell sale signs, or industrial sheds advertising billiard table resurfacing. I think it’s one of the reasons the Caudwell manoeuvre works.

Right page: This is another take on finding out why I feel a way about a thing (see also: YA road trips; staginess; alt-DC rom-coms). 

For reasons involving April 2020 and a hospital procedure, I’d been on a strict reading diet of very light romantic comedies and Regency romance novellas. To begin, I simply listed ridiculous situations which kept showing up and which, for all their wild improbability, thoroughly delighted me every time they appeared on the page. starting with the classic “Oh no! I am trapped in a wardrobe with you, my enemy!”

I then listed what seemed to be the necessary elements of each (e.g., attractive enemy, unaware protagonist, potential for antagonist to discover them, wardrobe, reason to be in it).

Once I had those lists, patterns started to emerge. For example, all the situations shared a degree of unlikelihood combined with abrupt intense proximity [Edit — I developed this further in “Unlikely Intense Proximities”]. On the other hand, there were two distinct orders of things: situations which moved characters from passion to love, and those which tended to move them from love to passion. There’s also a note there which says “for difference between romance and Gothic, consider each as it appears in Jane Eyre”, which I’m not sure is entirely substantiated, but is entertaining to consider.

Handwritten analysis of romance situations.

Here’s the full list (I developed it further later in the journal, but if you like tropes, I also tweet about them occasionally). A note: these are the patterns in the books I’d just read, not requirements — there are of course other variants.

  1. “Oh no! I am trapped in a wardrobe with you, my enemy!”
    1. attractive enemy
    2. unaware protagonist
    3. antagonist to potentially discover them
    4. wardrobe
    5. reason to be in it
  2. “I, a sensual — but repressed and terminally honourable — person am trapped in an isolated manor with you, a dangerously attractive (but terminally honourable) stranger! Oh no!”
    1. Sensuous, unusual, but trapped-by-circumstances innocent
    2. Stormy, unusual, but honourable (ish) second party
    3. Isolated location and weather
    4. Locals who could discover them
  3. “I have had a crush on a person for a long time, but now that it is about to be reciprocated I have matured enough to realise that it is you, stormy acquaintance, whom I really love. (Oh no.)”
    1. Innocent
    2. Object of attraction (unworthy but obvious)
    3. Object of affection (unconventional but harbours [own?] crush
    4. Time pressure
    5. A knowing and affectionate parental figure
  4. “In an unlikely turn of events I, an unassuming but fervent individual, am betrothed to the unsuspecting object of my affections, whose would-be-true-love is determined to part us. Oh no!” 
    1. Unassuming, passionate innocent, undervalued
    2. Societally valued object of their affection, apparently oblivious to value of protagonist
    3. Reason for Marriage of Convenience (class/$/reputation)
    4. Dashing rival (a close connection or sibling of protagonist) [not necessarily, see e.g. Heyer, but in all the ones I’d just read]
    5. A calm and functional marriage
    6. Bluff loyal supporter (optional)

Observation journal lessons:

  • Being silly when listing or classifying something generally pays off (see this list of paint personalities).
  • It makes it easier just to get a list onto the page for later analysis (and not worry about what form that analysis should take) — and often reveals patterns of how I feel about things.
  • It also catches the glee (or other emotion) I associate with those things, which makes it easier to use them for my own projects later.
  • Apparently I use the term “Cabot-ish” instead of “rom-com”.

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 — do it for the aesthetic #3

This page of the observation journal is an further follow-up to the previous two pages playing the impact of an aesthetic on a story idea ( Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic and Do it for the aesthetic #2).

Double page spread with purple borders. Small handwriting. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a mailbox). On the right, the aesthetic exercise described in the post.

Left page: Frying ham, apparently, which seems out of character. Also the eternal feeling of futility that arises when there is so much to do other than making things (to be fair, it was April 2020, but of course Brisbane is going into another short sharp lockdown today).

On the right page, I was (literally) mixing things up a bit. First I made a table with four columns

  1. AESTHETIC — I created these by choosing three elements at random from the observation pages (the left side pages).
  2. GENRE (some favourites)
  3. MOOD (the first ones that sprang to mind)
  4. CHARACTER (again, chosen from the observation pages — they are very useful for these sorts of exercises!)

The game was then to choose one at random from each column, and work out how it could be made to work, and notice how each element pulled against the story. Some examples: “high fantasy in a brooding suburban utopia” starring “walking girls”; “an elegiac junior sound & fury” featuring a radio announcer; and “a mystical Gothic of wildlife and, incidentally, murder” about an officious clerk.

Things I learned:

  • This was quite fun, as with all recombining. At the time, I was beginning to feel tense about not actually making anything with some of ideas. However as I revisit them, especially in light of other journal activities, I find there are many sparks of interest and possibility there, and a couple of ideas I want to pursue. And of course, just having fun is nice, too.
  • But as I review these pages I’ve also noticed some of these elements have got — indirectly — into other projects (a few of the crime/gothic aesthetic bits of this are definitely in something I’m working on at the moment. And the lessons of this page — the vigour of some of these elements, and the degree to which I have to wrestle a story to an aesthetic — are also ones I’ve been consciously using on a current comic project (of which more in the fulness of time).
Right-hand page of observation journal with very small handwritten version of table described in this post.

Art/writing exercise: (This is really quite short! You can just read the bold bits. Everything else is elaboration and alternatives).

  1. Make your table, with a column each for Aesthetic, Genre, Mood, Character. Try to put at least 10 entries in each column, if you’re going to use it a few times. Below are some notes on ways to fill each column:
    1. Inventing aesthetics:
      1. If you want to do it exactly the same way, start by making a list of 5 things you’ve seen, heard, and done today. Choose three things at random from that and use them to create an aesthetic. E.g., from last Friday I could choose “Red striped umbrella by work ute”, “wide low small planes” and “Zoomed into confirmation meeting” which might give me “moiré-print airline graphic design”, which I swear is a thing (stripes + video = moiré; moiré + planes = flashbacks to airline blanket patterns).
      2. An alternative way: Look around you and pick random things around you — I can see a judgemental porcelain figurine, a waterbottle and a crime novel, which gives me, let’s see… Tudor riverside Gothic. (Or if you don’t want to do the full word-association process, just hyphenate two things in your field of vision, e.g. folk-art robotics). You can be ridiculous here — a great many things have the potential to be a vivid aesthetic. (Folk-art robotics! Outsider-art AI!)
    2. List genres. Pick ones that you find interesting or likeable, and maybe the opposites of some of those. Or search online. If you only work in one genre, that’s cool — consider these all hyphenated subgenres of that one.
    3. List moods, as above.
    4. List characters. These are really just types, or people-who-do-x.
      1. You can find or invent them from a list of observations — last Friday, for example, gives me “Middle-aged man on scooter with go-pro on helmet”.
      2. Or you can mix and match in the same way as for the aesthetic: “carbon paper” + “once you’re there, you’re locked in” give me a greyed-out office worker, while feathers without a bird and people pulling faces after an uncomfortable experience give me enchanted swan-girls who do NOT enjoy the transformation experience.
      3. Alternatively, you can list the great stock characters of your favourite genres (miserly uncle; brave governess; dashing cavalry officer, etc).
  2. Pick one at random from each column and make a sketch (drawn or written) of a key scene from this hypothetical story.
    1. If you’re stuck for a key scene, it’s okay to rely on cliches.
      1. Ask yourself what sorts of scenes does that genre almost always have (or get ridiculed for having?). Is it the equivalent of a chase-to-the-airport scene in a rom-com, or a “Fools! I’ll show them all!” from a pulpy science fiction novel, or even a bored-in-the-car opening sequence from the start of a YA fantasy? Take that, and apply mood, character, and aesthetic.
      2. Or do the same with a character (judgemental barista? elusive bird-girl?) or mood (does “elegaic” suggest someone standing on a balcony staring sadly into the rain? does philosophical suggest someone smoking a pipe?) and go from there.
  3. Notice what is happening as you try to make the elements work together:
    1. Can you make the elements work together? Why or not? What gives? What — for you — exercises the strongest pull on a story? (It’s the aesthetic, for me, followed by the genre.)
    2. If you do this a few times, what patterns emerge?
    1. Try swapping out just one element. What shifts?
    2. If any of the stories spark into a bigger idea, can you identify what made that spark?
    3. Which individual elements do you like (or loathe!), and want to use (or avoid) in future?

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Observation Journal — do it for the aesthetic #2

This page of the observation journal is an immediate follow-up to/variation on the previous page (see Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic).

Double page spread of observation journal, handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture (of biscuits). On the right, a chart of a story structure with drawn and handwritten notes of people in Victorian settings.

I’d wanted to try the exercise (tracking through a story from set-piece to set-piece) from the previous page, but with more elbow-room.

The aesthetic/thematic structure I was using here was from my notes on Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears and other things that tell you what they’re doing.

HINT (before inciting incident)—playESTABLISHplay (this is kind of the middle half of the book, keeping the aesthetic in play)—EXTRA (this is round about the big crisis)—business—(after the main ending) FLOURISH

Densely hand-written page with a chart of a story structure with drawn and handwritten notes of people in Victorian settings.

I drew a timeline and jotted down a few notes for each of those stages, e.g. “eccentric/museum overdecorated, perfumed, scented smoke, etc”. Then I began sketching little settings and scenes and people, along with additional notes — everything from detail it was hard to draw (“illuminated corsage” — a real thing from the era), to bits of dialogue (“this requires a clocksmith”).

I’ve noted that I’d like to develop the idea of this structure a bit further. But simply sketching out an idea — getting it on paper at all and (for me) especially as pictures — helped develop new ideas, and much more specific ideas. “Blossoming velvet” and “cloying” becomes a picture of a particular ornamental birdcage, the silhouette of dresses evolves, facial hair is acquired, hairstyles rise and fall, poses are struck. But throughout, having a clear aesthetic made me stay on track.

After this, I did keep playing with questions of a key aesthetic (more in due course), but lately the drawing-a-prose-idea has also been an interesting line of enquiry.

Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic

On this page of the observation journal, I was playing more with the question of whether (and how far) an aesthetic (in the pop-culture sense of a distinct style/mood/mode) can drive a story.

Two densely handwritten pages of the observation journal, with a green watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a bottle. On the right, thoughts on stories and aesthetics.

Left page: Butterflies, neighbours, and forgetfulness.

What I was elaborating on:

I’d been using the observation journal to think through why certain ideas appealed to me, and why certain projects seemed to just work, while others dragged. A point that kept emerging was the sense of the heavy lifting a really clear aesthetic or style could do. Here are a few posts about that:

In this post, I wanted to dig in a bit deeper.

The right page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on stories and aesthetics.

The process:

  1. Selecting elements:
    1. I chose three elements from the habits and resistance exercise (e.g. “vivid”, “emphasise less obvious part”, novelise picture”). I was just using these as guides to suggest an idea.
    2. Then I picked an aesthetic. In the first case, it was a brilliantly-coloured feverish Victorian setting (the second one was nautical-piratical). I define aesthetic pretty broadly.
    1. I also picked a literary key — something to tune the idea to. In each case I picked a main or obvious reference (e.g. Dorian Gray) and a secondary reference that was either less obvious or contrasted intriguingly (e.g. a line from Milton, “they also serve who only stand and wait”). I wasn’t trying to be wildly original here — the intention was just to ride along with the aesthetic and see how far that got the idea.
  2. Mixing a plot:
    1. Using those elements for the base idea, I outlined a very rough possible plot. (Note: This is almost always faster with a brand new idea I haven’t committed to yet.) I just outlined a few points:
      1. Main Idea (someone who frames enchanted portraits)
      2. Point of View (flamboyant detective)
      3. Turning Point 1 (detective compromised)
      4. Turning Point 2 (trap sprung by unexpected person)
      5. End (twist)
  3. Identifying possible set-pieces:
    1. Rather than (necessarily) scenes, I made a quick list of visual situations and motifs that caught the right aesthetic. (e.g. poetry salon, gilt and glass and velvet frame shop, hothouse of tropical flowers).
    2. I included a contrasting note — e.g. against the overwrought decadence, one “knife-sharp and bare rooftop” scene.

What I learned

  • This aesthetic framework is a useful way for me to think about stories. It’s also a lens that lets me try out and understand other people’s thoughts about story structure better.
  • The observation journal continues to be a very useful way for me to chip away at little questions and concerns, and find my way into them.
  • As with most mix-and-match games, this was both fun and quite fast, but could have used more space (in fact, I tried it again the next day, with more art — I’ll post that soon).
  • I could feel how the aesthetic picked up the idea and set certain story-gears turning and catching. I’d like to trace more clearly where that happens, but it needed a bigger page.
  • Having that contrasting secondary aesthetic, like a note of a contrasting colour in a painting, was appealing. I wasn’t sure how much it added to the feeling of the story, but it definitely added to the creation of ideas. Setting up the opposition of an overheated drawing room and a cold roof automatically teases out things that could happen to bridge the space between those settings.
  • I think I could use this to start working out a story (as here). But even just doing it as a game now and then has made me a lot more aware of what I am doing with the aesthetics in other projects, and which ones I like, and how to use them to come up with or deepen ideas.
Tiny pen drawings of women in late Victorian evening gowns near a fern, a woman in a travelling outfit by a gladstone bag, an Oscar-Wilde-ish gentleman, and a collection of clocks and broken ornaments.
Some sketches made the following day

Activity/exercise

  • Make a list of aesthetics you like, or hate, or have seen recently, or found in a list online, or can invent by hyphenating two things in your field of vision — Regency Romance, Nordic noir, 1970s beachside, Horse & Hound, midcentury Elvish (I’ve seen this in a nightclub), a particular Instagram filter…
  • Pick two that are fairly different.
  • Sketch (words or pictures) a quick setting that suits each (a room, a poolside, an arrangement of scenery). You can be obvious, and even cliched, as long as you really commit.
  • Consider the sort of story which might let you move from one set to the other. What moments or characters or actions emerge to fill that space? What happens if or when trailing elements of one aesthetic brush up against the other?