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 — story patterns

This observation journal page continues a previous activity, playing with story structures.

I read through a few more short stories and made notes of the big segment-moods through which the stories moved. I was trying to think of these shapes separate from those stories, but I do wish I’d made a note of what stories they were! One of them was an M.R. James.

Double handwritten page of observation journal. On left page, 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a toy rabbit. On the right, notes on story structures.
Rosettes of lichen, ants in an apple.
(The page number at the top right should refer to p115 instead of 111 — this system is useful but not infallible).

If this approach to thinking about stories (written or drawn!) resonates with you, I encourage you to make your own list based on short stories you like. But for completeness, here are all the short story shapes from this page and the previous one:

  • Ordinary — inkling — confirmation
  • Reluctance — engagement — deepening
  • Humorous sketch — elements clash/conflagration — fall-out
  • Inkling — build — reveal-behind-the-story
  • World — deeper — dissolve into it
  • Unsettlement — deepening horror — the cusp of annihilation.
  • Ominous — compounded — twist (of plot or knife)
  • Formation of goal — quiet progression towards goal — achieves goal
  • Inkling — red herring — solution
  • Foreshadow doom — Proceed towards doom — [evade] doom
  • Meet cute — complication — HEA (happily ever after)
  • Fragments — facets — whole
  • Situation — failures — successes
  • Door — something through — pushed back
  • Metaphor — metaphor — metaphor
  • Suspicion — Peel back — truth & consequences

They fit short stories, and while each trio could fit in a single illustration, they also work nicely for sequences of at least three (at the risk of feeling like an instructive Victorian cartoon).

After making the list, I again remixed and rearranged the orders, to see what sort of stories each new grouping suggested to me. For example, “Ordinary — deeper — fall-out” suggested the horror behind the mundane, or a secret history. “Dissolve into the world — conflagration — inkling” could fit a ‘getting of wisdom’ plot. “Confirmation — build — unsettlement” might be about discovering someone or something has feet of clay.

This process is not about reinventing the wheel of story structure. It was about learning what the shapes of stories mean to me. The thinking-through is the point. That said, now that I have the list, it sometimes comes in useful for quickly giving shape to an idea (written or drawn!). I’ll post some examples of that soon.

(If you’d like an art or writing activity, there’s one based on this in the previous story structure post.)

Observation Journal — more swapped descriptions

I wrote last month about using the observation journal to play with descriptions, for pleasure and observation, texture and worldbuilding (see: Variations on descriptions).

Pen sketch of cut apple and knife

Here’s another example of that first iteration: choosing two terms and swapping the descriptive approaches.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a honeyeater. On the right, swapped descriptions.
Left page: Distant thumping, and forgetting to move when doing art.

So, for example, this time I described sound as light (peals like light on a ruffled lake; a clean cold sound, warm as a slate grey dawn) and light as sound (light heavy and flat as a muffled bell; gold midday like a swarm of bees). Then I switched to describing foliage as animals (a lean and muscular forest, still and wary; leaves that hissed and slithered over each other) and animals as foliage (a horse’s mane and tail streaming like grass in a river).

The next day I took a different approach.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a honeyeater. On the right, a list of similes.
Left page: billowing deck chairs and muttering pigeons, and getting overexcited about being outdoors.

In this case, I took two items fairly randomly from the left-side observation pages, and used one as a metaphor or simile for the other. As a result, it’s more directed than the first approach, and requires more specific thought, but is just as much fun. The trick here is finding the similarities — what makes a bush turkey like an etched glass, or balloons like cold cocoa?

There are a few that I like for their own sakes:

  • Cats glinting & flickering through striations of sunlight, as ever-present and ungraspable as the humming buzz of the powerlines.
  • A reclusive neighbour disappearing, like the statue of Mary, into the brilliant autumn overgrowth.
  • The embarrassment lingered, interminable as a distant freight train.

But generally, this version has more of a parlour-game feeling to it, and is less about the sound of words than about concepts and observation and argument (all also good things).

And it also emphasises how drawing a comparison from within a world (whether the world of a Brisbane suburban winter, or a more dramatic and fictional place) helps build a sense of the world and how things fit into and push against it.

Pen sketch of a honeyeater
Patterns on a honeyeater

Writing/art activity:

Similart to the previous one, except this time:

  • Make a list of things you’ve seen recently.
  • Pick two at random.
  • Then:
    • For writers: Describe Thing 1 as being obviously like Thing 2 — at length.
    • For artists: Draw Thing 1 by calling on all its similarities to Thing 2 — you can distort the image, if necessary, but finding subtle parallels and forcing them into prominence is particularly effective (here are some fast sketches of household items as people).
Watercolour sketch of reclining woman, based on a milk jug.
A small jug

Observation Journal: Lessons for presentations and conferences

One of the purposes and benefits of the observation journal, apart from tinkering with my ideas of story and image and coming up with schemes, is taking the opportunity to watch myself at work. This includes the process leading up to a project — working out which ideas strike a spark, and maybe why, so that I can aim for those in the future. And after I finish something, it’s been valuable to turn it inside out and see how it held together, and how I felt about it.

So here’s a little run of connected pages from June last year, when I was drafting and giving the keynote at the Australian Fairy Tale Society‘s convention. (Here’s my original post reporting on the conference.) I’ve indicated a couple of the main lessons about writing speeches and being on panels — with the note that they are lessons for me, but might be useful for others.

(Also, the AFTS fairytale anthology is launching a little over an hour after this post comes out.)

More below…

Engraved mirror in gold watch case, reading "Once upon a time" in reflection.
A magic mirror from Spike Deane — you can read more about it here
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Publication: “Gisla and the Three Favours”

My short story “Gisla and the Three Favours” is now out in issue #43 of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (available in print and e-formats).

Cover monkey by Catherine Byun, who has WONDERFUL work — soft, dense, bright, and toothy

The story is about promises and gambles and memorable dresses. It began as a landscape illustration experiment for Light Grey Art Lab, and then turned back into a fairy tale (for clarity: this story is not illustrated in the magazine!).

As Gisla’s mother lay dying, she called her daughter to her.

“When you were only a hope and a happiness, Gisla, I begged three favours of three ladies. I have not lived to repay them. This you must do for me, else when I die, Gisla, my soul will fly up out of my body, as all souls do, and it will beat against the windows of heaven, but it will not get in…”

Here is the full table of contents of the issue, which is available from Small Beer Press:

  • fiction
    • Alisa Alering, “The Night Farmers’ Museum”
    • Erica Clashe, “The Shine of Green Floors”
    • Leah Bobet, “The Mysteries”
    • Joanne Rixon, “Wires from the Same Spool”
    • Quinn Ramsay , “The House of the Gutter-Prince”
    • Jim Marino, “Acting Tips for Remaining Unknown”
    • Zack Moss, “If You Had Been Me Then What Would I Have Been?”
    • Kathleen Jennings, “Gisla and the Three Favours”
    • Gillian Daniels, “King Moon’s Tithe to Hell”
    • poetry
    • Anne Sheldon, “Three Poems”
    • Jessy Randall, “Four Poems”
  • nonfiction
    • Ayşe Papatya Bucak, “Half-Papatya”
    • Nicole Kimberling, “Time Travel Self-Care System”
  • cover
A watercolour painting, framing a page: stylised sun, moon and stars at top, a girl with a shepherd's crook standing across a stream from three mysterious ladies — one floating in a white gown, one hunched in a mossy shawl, one half-seal and in the water.
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars — pencil and watercolour (this is actually part of a draft of the story — the final is all in words)

Observation Journal — variations on descriptions

This observation journal page has what is now one of my favourite observation journal activities. It’s a chance to be poetic and/or silly, a splendid vocabulary workout, and also intellectually soothing enough to do late at night.

Variations keep emerging, but this is one of the first I tried (and is particularly useful for exploring variations on a central theme). It was preceded by “One of these things is quite like the other ones” — an arguing game (see the end of The Emma Heist).

Observation journal spread, densely handwritten, pink watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a rock grown into a tree. On the right, lists of swapped descriptions.
Unicorn piñatas and bougainvillea-shrouded statues, glittering cats, finger limes, and a rock grown into the fork of a tree.

The basic idea is to pick (at least) three nouns. One noun is “it”. Next, describe that noun using descriptions more commonly used for (or words more commonly associated with) each of the other nouns. I try to get at least 10 descriptions for each of those two reference words.

So on this page, I wanted to write some descriptions of light. But I keyed the descriptions to the way I might ordinarily describe (a) water and (b) tin cans.

Handwritten page using terms associated with water and tin cans to describe light.

So, for example, describing light using terms I associate with water, I get:

  • light rivered and pooled
  • sunlight that eddies around your ankles
  • buildings an archipelago of shadows in the swift, bright tide of autumn
  • tepid, stagnant light in the parlour
  • a chill trickle of moonlight

And for “tin cans” there is:

  • a hard enamel of light
  • jagged edges of light
  • corrugated and smoke-rippled autumn air
  • the light had a clean, crimped quality, as if the town had been sealed against contamination
  • a chill bright day kicked ringing like a can along the street

It is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise, but also surprising. It pulls out unexpected metaphors and similes, it forces me to look with new eyes at the reference terms (how many thoughts do I associate with tin cans?). It tunes aesthetics (industrial beauty? aquatic moods?) and begins to build little worlds (how does light work in this place, and how do people interact with it?). And changing my perspective on the first term (light) in two different directions sets up echoes and comparisons and resonances.

Related posts and writing:

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick three nouns at random — common ones you can see around you, or try a random word generator.
  • The first noun is the one you will have to describe (or illustrate).
  • But first, look at the other two nouns. Think of their characteristics, and things you associate with them. It could be words or cliches, myths and moods. Or it could be shapes, textures, colours, weight and movement.
  • Now look back at your first noun:
    • Writers: Make a list of descriptions, metaphors, similes, etc describing the first noun, but using those associations from the other ones. (I like to try to do 10 descriptions for each of the reference nouns).
    • Illustrators: Try to draw the first noun using the (textures, colours, associations etc) of the reference nouns (one at a time).
      (NB. If you’re using more conceptual nouns, you might have to get particularly creative — but feel free to limit yourself to visible, concrete nouns. Drawing a fox using textures (for example) more associated with a staircase and velvet is a rather different artistic proposition to illustrating the idea of a program using imagery you associate more with hope and intellect — although both are quite possible.)
  • Take a step back and notice how the activity went. Where were the surprising resonances, the difficult mismatches, the things you began to notice about any of the nouns? Where did you push against your default settings? How are the two different directions different, and what did they reveal about the core idea with which you began?

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 — First Sentences

On this observation journal page, I was taking some more time on another favourite first sentence (following on from my earlier attempt to batch-process first lines).

Double-page spread of observation journal: On the left page, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture; On the right, thoughts on first lines.
Left page: “Greengrocer’s glowing with oranges, lemons, apples, melons, tomatoes”; also, I forgot how to draw a shopping trolley

Really, it was just an excuse to spend some time in the first line of Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered:

Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but Truth.

Handwritten thoughts on the first line of Thus Was Adonis Murdered.

I love this first sentence. There’s no reference to persons, places, or events. There is, however, a very clear narrator: portentous, comically formal with fits of frank informality, weighty and oblique but perhaps (perhaps) not as complex as they perceive themselves to be.

And there’s already, here, a note of the relief and resignation on which the narrator (though not the plot) will end the book — ultimately, the narrator (Hilary Tamar) is more concerned about their own overlooked brilliance than the guilt or innocence of the accused Julia.

It’s punchy and funny and a little startling, and a definite Mood. There’s no action, but there is a tension — between the latinate and English words; elevated diction vs brevity; lofty principles vs grumpy relief; that very brevity vs the irony and doubled negatives. Why “thank God”? What has happened, what due was not given, who would express themselves this way? (If you’ve read the books, you’ll know this is a question that is immediately, constantly, yet also never answered.)

I then did a couple of replacement exercises (from Stanley Fish, see also previously: bodysnatching). I switched out each element (without particular attention to elegance of phrasing) to get, e.g. “Breakfast seeks, thank the cook, no pinnacle save omelette” and “The star requests, thank agents, no special treatment save a sedan chair.”

What this brought out (for me) was the personification, the irony, the echoes of Pride & Prejudice in the dubious veracity of a broad statement, and how difficult it is not to be sarcastic when using this particular sentence structure.

It’s also just a great book.

A previous take on Caudwell: The Caudwell Manoeuvre.

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 — 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: playing with first lines

This observation journal page was a continuation of the ridiculous titles activity, and also the start of a few pages staring very hard at favourite first sentences.

Two pages of densely handwritten observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a drawing of a person putting bags into the back of a car. On the right, playing with first lines.
“very beautiful, many things”

I picked three of the titles (“These Are Not Hounds that Shift with the Sun”, “False Gifts, the Moon Brings”, and “The Dachshund of Moonfold”). Then, for each, I wrote two possible first sentences. I also made a note of what I liked about each — the oddity of a rooftop sunflower garden for a crime scene (based on a combination of the top of the Hachette UK office building and the sunflower garden in Changi airport); the aesthetic of the silver and black colour scheme prevalent at the death of an eminent interior decorator; the contrast between a brocaded waistcoat and a blighted hedge.

As I’d noticed before (see: application to a story), having fun with possible first sentences is an effective way to quickly isolate a tone and come up with characters — here, a beleaguered inspector, a perennially-broke (and potentially ill-fated) interior designer, and a disgraced estate agent.

But of course first sentences only get you so far. The real trick is in the (n+1)st sentence.

Occasionally I remember that. On this Saturday just past, I finally just sat down and sketched out the whole shape of a story that started with “A Fretted Folding Folly“. (Also illustrating the importance of revisiting these pages). And of course “The Heart of Owl Abbas” began as a challenge to write one sentence on the first day of a month, and two on the second, and so forth.

A French bulldog