HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play (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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Mixing a plot:
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:
Main Idea (someone who frames enchanted portraits)
Point of View (flamboyant detective)
Turning Point 1 (detective compromised)
Turning Point 2 (trap sprung by unexpected person)
Identifying possible set-pieces:
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).
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.
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?
In this observation journal page: a dramatic day in my suburb, and some thoughts on training montages.
(Also, I had a wonderful day on this Sunday just past, giving a workshop on the journals to SCBWI Qld. Preparing it helped me clarify some of the approaches and categories, so I do have plans to tighten descriptions of those up).
Left page: Dramatic events — carjackings and crashes.
I was a class tutor for WRIT2050: Writing Genre Fiction at UQ, for which Helen Marshall is now the lecturer/coordinator. When classes went online last year, she ran a weekly two-hour drop-in session on Zoom. It turned into a combination of craft discussions and writing sprints, which was really lovely. In one, the topic of training montages came up, and how they might be dealt with in prose with the same energy. Helen particularly noted the recounted montage in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (the novel, specifically).
I thoroughly enjoy training montages and makeover sequences in film (I watched quite a few rankings of both on YouTube after writing this page). And of course the soundtracks are excellent for doing chores to (if you use Spotify, this playlist is effective — 80s Training Montage).
But while I was thinking about the subject, I wanted to make a quick note of some of the key elements and differences, so that I could play with them in future.
The key difference for me was that the training montages are usually driven by the trainee’s emotions (arrogant, resistant, determined, worn down, etc), while makeover montages tend to be inflicted on the character.
Occasionally, the two are combined. The examples here are Mirror, Mirror(fighting wardrobe) and The Princess Diaries (inflicted deportment — I need to revisit the novel to see how it was dealt with there). Together, the effect is an enhanced coolness. See also Georgette Heyer’s Powder & Patch (in which Philip becomes more fully himself, as well as extremely fashionable), which is more of a makeover plot without nearly enough montage (although what there is is hilarious).
In the writing sprint part of the class meeting, I tried writing a training montage. Obviously it’s harder to get the full effect of a compelling soundtrack in prose, but I found the most difficult element to translate from movie-montage to prose was the timing. The snap and pull and rollick and occasional weariness of it. (Ages ago I wrote an article for WQ about reading a comic aloud and having to essentially novelise it — working out a way to replicate the timing of panels was a big part of that.)
I am still interested in finding other examples of training and makeover montages in prose and comics, and playing more with those timing elements.
Pick a favourite type of scene in a medium you don’t use (e.g. sweeping cinematic opening credits, or those graphic novel pages in which images spill from one panel to the next, or giant retro spaceship-and-galaxy paintings).
Make a quick list of the things it does that you think are neat (e.g. atmosphere, bird’s eye pov, bleeding edges…), and/or why you think that’s cool.
Do a quick sketch (written or drawn) to work out how you could replicate the effect in your medium (e.g. prose, illustration, knitting).
Make a quick note of what worked, and what was difficult, and if there was anything you learned about the work (yours or the inspiration).
BIO: Socar Myles is a Vancouver-based former illustrator and full-time ghostwriter, whose illustration work can be found at www.gorblimey.com.
KJ: Socar Myles and I first met years ago through the old Elfwood notice boards, and Socar gave me a great deal of thoughtful, professional advice on my early efforts. Her art enchanted me — ethereal creatures, and strange, soft, dense, spooky imagery with hints of Beardsley and Klimt and sly laughter — and recently she made a remark on Twitter that suggested she was writing seriously, only I couldn’t find anything under her name or any open pseudonym! So I sent her a message to find out more, which turned into this interview.
KJ: You’re known more as an illustrator, but you’ve moved into ghostwriting and I am fascinated. How did you get from illustration to writing full-time?
Socar: Many years ago, I wrote and illustrated a short comic, “The Zombie Ball,” which appeared in the Fleshrot Hallowe’en special. I posted an excerpt on my blog, and a book packager reached out and asked if I’d be interested in writing middle-grade fiction. I thought writing middle-grade fiction could be a quick route to children’s illustration gigs, so I said yes.
As it turned out, I never wrote any middle-grade fiction (or illustrated any). I didn’t understand the market at all. Instead, I spent years writing “for fans of” books (something popular would come out, and I’d dash off something in the same vein). It wasn’t glamorous work, but it taught me to write fast in a variety of genres, and to identify what would sell.
As my illustration career took off, I focused mainly on that, and let the writing fall by the wayside. But when my vision failed, I decided to pursue ghostwriting more seriously. By that time, my original publisher had gone out of business, and I wasn’t sure how to break back in. I Googled “ghostwriting jobs,” which led nowhere—mostly, I found Upwork gigs and content mills paying pennies a word. Then, I researched book packagers, and found a few that felt right.
At the moment, I’m doing contract work for two packagers, one of which produces mainly romance, the other YA fiction.
KJ: How does being, or having been, an illustrator feed into your writing?
In this case, I had already thought of a few key elements of the idea I wanted to analyse, so I went directly to thinking more closely about each of those. It’s a different approach to the central mind map and detailed tables I used previously, and was more useful for collating things I already wanted to say. You’ll see the note in the reflection area at the bottom says I’m still looking for a structure for these notes.
The purpose of these sorts of notes is to try to look under the hood of something I like (pictures or stories), and see what makes it work. And to find mechanisms and tools I can use to build or fix my own work.
But on to the question, which was — what is the appeal of romantic comedies set in an alternate version of Washington DC?
Context: It was April 2020 and I was in Brisbane, Australia. I was thinking of Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue, and Meg Cabot’s All American Girl, and the movie Dave (which I think I meant to write there instead of West Wing), and other fantasies of Washington DC. I was looking at reasons they appealed to me, and how they managed to feel “giddy, hopeful, charming”. And also, seen from outside the USA, these are a very strange genre. Finally, this wasn’t a critique of the genre (and clearly there is a lot more to be said!)— I was specifically looking for the elements which seemed to make it work.
Main points: There were six main elements that these stories seemed to share.
Power combined with equality
There is a fantasy of power
But also the stated aim of equality (even if there is also hypocrisy)
The characters in a relationship often hold some power, which makes them potentially equal, even if that power is knowledge or secrets
The story can play with ideas of power
A utopia, but with shadows
There tends to be a shining setting and a buoyant mood
There is a fantasy of the right thing having the potential to happen
But this state of affairs requires constant maintenance (which creates conflict without necessarily requiring an antagonist)
Privilege paired with obligation
This exists in tension with the first point (power + equality)
It permits fantasies of nobility and noblesse oblige in an American context
All the thrill of access and secrets and a sort of White House Gothic
The privilege is potentially fragile (not just birth, one hopes)
Useful for the genre (meet-cutes, etc)
Characters are thrown together
There are many different interests in one place
Unlikely proximity is a function of the place as a constant, and a heightened mood, etc
It allows some small-town qualities without necessarily being weary of it
Rulers, the rich and famous pass through
Rarefied air and a small stage gives a city-state effect (and relates to privilege+obligation)
Beauty and brains
Attraction and attractiveness, yes, because of the genre
But brains & competence & high achievers because of the setting
And this means that wit and banter can become effectively action scenes
[I’m also intrigued, lately, by books which create a milieu where the physical or intellectual attractiveness of the characters is explained by the setting rather than by coincidence/the fact that they are main characters]
Learning curve and expertise
People are not (necessarily) born to this. There is always a learning/coming of age.
“Movement — country/America as a verb, not a noun” — I don’t remember what this means!
The learning curve contributes to the speed of the story and its arc
4 years at a time, not generations [note: obviously there are dynasties, etc — this was in the context of the books]
It’s quite interesting to see which of these elements are shared with (for example) Regency romance, which these books occasionally remind me of (I did get into “unlikely proximities” on a later page). These alternative-DCs are the contemporary settings which most often feel to me like a Regency (but I have strange ideas about those). From a romance/rom-com perspective, it would be interesting to go back and look at the differences between this and Regency, and to see which other subgenres share the similarities. And it would of course be worth looking at the dangers, or what isn’t shown, and where books shift out of this genre when the fantasy of Washington starts to crumble, and how the genre itself changes.
(Left page: “over-caffeinated, guilty and disconnected” — it was early April 2020)
On the right page, I was working through an idea I was developing for an illustrated story. I wanted to shake loose the possible shape of it. In the end I scripted and thumbnailed the idea as a comic — an approach that isn’t even on this list, although thinking through the list contributed to that shape. (The current status of the project is In The Queue.)
The 24th idea is where I started looking around my bookshelves for inspiration. And again, I’ve found this approach more useful with a very specific question. In this case, it was still a little diffuse. But it was a useful way to sort through both the possibilities of the story, what I did and didn’t know about it or want for it, and match that with my mental library of ways stories like this could be told.
Here’s the list. Note: It’s obviously personal to my interests and not comprehensive! The idea was a theatre-based ghost story — if you use this list for ideas, replace “ghost”, “theatre” etc with appropriate nouns.
Riso prints (there was a residency I was looking into)
This paragraph is from Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! (1937), in which a much-awaited performance of Hamlet at the ducal mansion of Scamnum Court is disrupted by a murder. This scene is still a little before the discovery of the murder and the arrival on the scene of the Inspector John Appleby.
“Aged royalty, perhaps with royalty’s instinct for keeping clear of anything a trifle odd, had decided not to come after all. So decorations had been put away; young ladies, hearing the news when half-way to the drawing room, had scurried back to their rooms to change into more intriguing frocks; Bagot had had a busy half-hour putting away the plate which Scamnum produces only for members of a Reigning House. And now in the hall the Dowager Duchess was sitting in the front row in solitary state, on her right hand the two empty chairs that had been destined for the ‘real’ Duchess and the ‘real’ Duchess’s lady. The Dowager was formidable enough in herself and Gott received with relief Noel’s report that the old lady seemed disposed to take out most of the play in sleep. It was a quite unexpurgated Hamlet.
I liked this paragraph immensely. It felt funny and compact and yet all-embracing.
It’s such a fascinating little way of showing things happening. Innes conveys a great deal of information, but not by description or omission or neat crowd-management (although space is kept here for a crowd, in the personification of Scamnum Court as a stand-in for its staff, and in the plurality of young ladies).
Rather, most of the information is conveyed by showing reactions to a reversal.
This is 70 pages into the book, and we’ve not been told much about the preparations for aged royalty (although they have been a small part of the atmosphere of anticipation at Scamnum Court). This change itself is comparatively minor, in terms of plot. But at the same time this little hitch, which doesn’t bother anyone much (although it foreshadows larger concerns), peels back a corner of the beautiful world of Scamnun Court and shows the thoughts and concerns and scurrying business under it.
Not, “royalty were coming so XYZ was done,” but “royalty WEREN’T coming, so people did these other things instead”, which reveals at least twice as much about everyone (not least the rather presciently absent royalty). The “more intriguing frocks” implies, after all, not only less intriguing frocks, but different standards of behaviour, and the sorts of people who know what to wear for certain circumstances, and to come prepared for both, and that intrigue (of various sorts) is properly part of this world.
Additionally, by showing reactions, it keeps everyone in action. And more importantly, it’s this tiny gear change, a slight shift, an extra hum of activity, just before what’s about to be a BIG gear shift.
If you read (or have read) the book, you’ll notice the passage occurs just before a pivotal moment, but it also contains a number of aspects of the book in microcosm (and some other foreshadowing).
For example, something striking about the book is the sheer quantity of doubles. (You can already see it in this passage, with the duchesses and the two empty chairs). There’s the theatre and actors and roles, obviously, and people playing parts, and the folly that looks like a chapel but is a cowshed. There’s a set of twins. And instead of one “young lady” character, or even just the twins, there are two young English ladies and two young American ones and two awkwardly pursued youthful love affairs, a managing mother with two different approaches suitable to the differences in her daughters, more than one older romance, several rumoured vengeances, mirrors and doubled curtains, two novelists AND a publisher, several academics (two specialising in Shakespeare), another who looks a lot like the main detective and is himself a detective of sorts, three significantly active detectives, two solutions/endings, quite a few people independently resolving a mystery, several active crimes in progress, two approaches to psychology, two doctors…
Arguably not all of these are necessary (or defensible) but occasionally the effect is fascinating. Characters may play roles, but that does not mean they are the role. No one, by virtue of being the only one of their kind, is by default cast in the role of professor or writer or young lady. Which might mean that if someone is behaving stereotypically, they are choosing to do so…
There’s some splendid omniscient moments in Hamlet, Revenge! (and moments of a sort of roving consciousness). I’d been wanting to reread this book because it opens on a high-level view of Scamnum Court from a nearby hill, and creates this impression of a Fabergé egg of a world which you don’t want ruined by murder (often country house murder mysteries create the opposite effect), and it’s all from an omniscient point of view. I’d like to go back again and look at how Innes manages point of view. One of his books starts in what appears to be either third person or omniscient, and lets you get comfortable with that before revealing it wasn’t quite the case…
I often flag phrases or pictures that I like, and then never come back to them. Lately, I’ve been trying to make a note of them somewhere and then to occasionally break down what I like about them. I figure that this way I’m more likely to (a) look at them again and (b) retain useful information even if I don’t.
I do this sometimes in the observation journal, but occasionally the passage is too long for the page, and also I took a deliberate journal break for a few weeks, so lately I’ve been musing aloud on Twitter.
This example is from Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern, which I enjoyed more than I expected to (I’ve always been very aware of the series, but I’d somehow managed not to read any within recent memory). The *style* of the writing was so brusque and particular and charming. Some things don’t age well but the 60s-ish-ness and the wry interior decorators and the personalities at the office, and the fact people have jobs to do… The cats were also rather marvellously written, especially as cats that are really just cats, but whose (owner? caretaker?) is convinced of their intellectual superiority. That’s another little humorous tension I’d love to play around with in something.
But on to the passage!
A few reasons I like it (note, this isn’t a detailed analysis — it’s things that appealed to me, and why I think they worked):
Brevity & briskness. [This adds to a sort of laconic noir/gumshoe effect — Renee Patrick’s Design for Dying does an interesting mix of sentence lengths; short wry sentences for 1930s Hollywood dialogue, longer flowing modern phrasing in the descriptions.]
Brevity & briskness are created by KEEPING neat phrasings, telling details, useful repetition, etc, and leaving everything ELSE out. A kind of kill everything but your darlings approach.
It just skips to the next thing the author thinks it’s necessary for the reader to know.
The generic specificity of the description, describing a group by the groups with in it. [A way to deal with crowd scenes.]
The contrast/linking effect of only describing one element of each group’s appearance.
The pleasing way hats/aprons etc falls into the repetition of cuffs/cuffs/cufflinks.
A glimpse of the offset/keyhole approach to dialogue, showing bits of what are apparently different conversations (sometimes, although not here, between two people you might expect to be having the same conversation), skipping ahead, showing just a line and breezing on.
There’s another chapter where character A is trying to communicate with character B about art pieces, but B is talking to and about a cat; then later A is talking to C about something else and B re-enters the conversation with a detailed & knowledgeable reply about the art. And it worked well because it kept that sort of quick-fire, jazzy, distracted tone, and was amusing, and frustrated the main character’s immediate aim, and then suddenly whipped back around to show a humorous character as both human and smart (and presumably good at their job).
(I also often do this, very quickly, with art on Twitter — just retweeting it pointing out a specific thing I like, the shadow or a softness of distance).
Next time you see a picture or read a passage you notice yourself liking, stop a minute. Make a note of it (pin it, or take a photo, or flag it).
See if you can find 5 (or three, if it’s very short) reasons it appeals to you. Alternatively, just find one thing you find that works for you in each of a series of things you like. I like doing this online, or otherwise in public, because it means I get to show off something I like, and sometimes people will have more ideas (or recommendations). Also, oddly, when I do it just for myself it makes it feel very serious and worthy — telling other people why I like something takes the pressure off. Your experience may vary.
Make a note of why you think those aspects work for you.
See if you can work (or rework) one of those into a short passage or sketch.
One of my main memories of Toronto is a pair of beautiful Italian boots that definitely did not fit, and the shoe salesman who was determined to make them.
Which is to say: there is some very good advice out there, and wise friends who give it to me. But while I can intellectually appreciate it, and sort of clomp around in it, the advice — like shoes — often needs either wearing in, or to be reworked into a shape that fits the way I think. It took me a while (and some frustrated friends) to work that out.
That is what this little series of theories has been about.
One of the uses of the observation journal has been working out how to make advice fit, or how to wriggle into it. But more of that soon — there was a missing week in the middle that I’ve just scanned and processed.
But sometimes first drafts are like a game of hopscotch. I know a scene I want to get to, and when I reach it, I can pick a new point towards which to aim. Much like tossing a pebble ahead, and then hopping to that square.