Observation Journal: 30 descriptions of a tree

This observation journal activity is one I’ve mentioned before (see: Sketching with words) — looking at one thing and finding ten or twenty ways to describe that particular object. It’s good for long drives, and also for sitting still, and for breaking open the world a little bit. (And for very famous poems.)

In this case, I’d gone down to the creek at the bottom of my street in the late afternoon. I’d been too twitchy to simply sit (this must have been after a deadline), but it was a lovely way to look long and deep at just one tree, and relax, and play with words.

And it didn’t matter if the descriptions wouldn’t work for a given context, or felt overwrought. That was part of the game.

Thirty descriptions of a eucalypt, late afternoon

  1. A tower with many windows
  2. A ticker-tape parade
  3. Stands of people cheering
  4. A spun stick of cotton-candy
  5. A rattle
  6. Soft-bodied, sharp-boned sky scraper
  7. Clusters of a thousand long eyes
  8. “An army with banners”
  9. Tamborinists, fluttering ribbons
  10. A dream of washing lines
  11. A map pinned with a thousand flags
  12. A paintbrush, gold-dipped
  13. A duster, web-spun
  14. A distant cumulus
  15. A fire hoop for birds to leap through
  16. A height chart, thick with measurements
  17. A river delta, fanning out into the currents of air
  18. Clustering tributaries, pouring down towards the earth
  19. A tide of leaves
  20. A gown of soft-clattering spangles
  21. A rococo candelabra, silver rubbing off the brass
  22. A net cast, unfurling
  23. A spray of fish scales
  24. A sheet snapped against the wind
  25. Largesse, upflung
  26. A rise of streamers
  27. A branching lung
  28. A conspiracy [of leaves]
  29. A cloud of witness
  30. Thick-clustered tinsel

(And, added a few days later, 31. A lagerphone)

balancing act

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Go sit somewhere and look at an object (or pick something you drive past).
  • List 5, or 10, or 20 ways you could describe it. You could:
  • Bonus round: Note if any descriptions stand out, or were very unexpected (and when they start to become so), and whether any particularly spark your interest (and if so, can you explain why?)

As mentioned in the post Sketching with words, I used this approach in working out some of the descriptions in Flyaway (available through Tor.com (US), Picador (Aus), and through all good bookstores).

But if you like even less narrative, and particularly if you like poetry that is lists of descriptions, my Travelogues: Vignettes from Trains in Motion (available from Brain Jar Press and other good book places) is just such a visual sketchbook:

Also, I’ve just started setting up a mailing list. It won’t be a newsletter — only the occasional email for any major updates (publication announcements, exhibitions, etc) and rare round-ups of things you might not want to have missed. If that’s for you, the (extremely early version of) the sign-up page is here:

Mailing List Sign-Up

I’ve only just set it up, so definitely please let me know if anything goes wrong!

Breaking down stories — variations

I’ve been reading stories and posting three-mood story breakdowns in a long thread over on Twitter. As I work out what I’m saying, it will make its way into blog posts, but you can find the thread (with typo) here: https://mobile.twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1475244655033798661

Lauren Bajek asked if I ever play with a different number than three.

The answer is definitely yes. The three-mood approach feels like just the right size for general and high-level purposes (encountering, extrapolating). It’s also very portable — easy to remember and adapt, just long enough to give a sweep of movement, a sketch of the ride the story takes the reader on.

However, for particular purposes, or to really get to grips with a specific story, or to splint a draft onto a fairy tale when fixing it, I also like to break stories down further.

So e.g. if I’m looking for a story to map a draft onto, I’ll list out a few fairytales and look for ones which roughly echo what I’ve done, and then list their various big moods/events/stages (then look for places where I could adjust mine).

Here are some examples from a recent project, where I was seeking (a) a fairy tale that echoed something I’d already written, and (b) the places where the fairy tale and my story didn’t match.

Breakdowns of Toads & Diamonds; Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest

In this case, it’s not about adapting a pre-existing story. It’s about finding a story that successfully did the thing I was trying to do, and looking at how it wears its socks, and then pulling my story’s socks up.

For example, if I had a story with a guest arriving, staying, and being accepted with polite passivity, that might work just fine. But if it wasn’t sparking, and I compared it to The Doubtful Guest, then I could see that making the guest somewhat chaotic (as well as unexpected) would increase the tension on the other parts.

Breakdowns of “The Princess and the Pea”, the story of Daphne, the (various) bone harp stories, and Goldilocks.

These examples focus more on interactions than moods, but that was what I was examining. If I was looking more at, e.g, family patterns, or settings, I’d break them down differently.

For example, take Goldilocks. Above, focusing on broad interactions, I broke down the key events as:

  • Family goes out
  • Goldilocks sneaks in
  • Goldilocks destroys things
  • Goldilocks makes herself at home
  • Family returns
  • Goldilocks flees

If I was working on a story about a family under attack, I might look at something different. Perhaps (and this will vary according to how sympathetic the characters are intended to be):

  • Family unified & secure
  • Individual leaves own people
  • Individual intrudes into family space
  • Lone individual forces a place for itself
  • Lone individual undermines family
  • Family consults among itself
  • Family evicts lone individual

Or if it was about setting, I might pick out the way the world outside is a blank, a nebulous mist from and into which bears and children periodically (de)materialise.

  • Group departs lit stage
  • Individual arrives on stage
  • Individual ricochets off walls / engages with set
  • Group returns to stage and exclaims
  • Individual flees stage (pursued as appropriate)

Or you could do it focussing on domestic activities, or morality, or…

If I were doing the three-moods on it (depending on the telling, where most of the heavy lifting is done), it might be any of the following (or other takes):

  • discovery — investigation — catastrophe
  • presumption — destruction — comeuppance
  • intrusion — violation — vengeance
  • unbearable inquisitiveness — unsatisfied desire — giddy flight
  • security — consumption — dismay

You can read more about the three-mood breakdowns here: Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories. And there are a couple of other posts about mixing and matching that are related: Observation journal — mix and match, and Observation Journal: Mixing and matching stories and imagery.

And the running thread of short story takes starts over on Twitter, here: https://twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1475244655033798661

“Gisla and the Three Favours” in Year’s Best Fantasy Vol. 1

My short story “Gisla and the Three Favours”, first published last year in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #43, has been selected for THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY, VOLUME ONE, edited by Paula Guran (Pyr Books). It will be published later this year.

Here is the table of contents, from Paula Guran’s announcement — keep an eye out for subsequent (and previous!) volumes over on paulaguran.com:

• Marika Bailey, “The White Road; Or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River” (Fiyah #18)
• Elizabeth Bear, “The Red Mother” (Tor.com)
• Tobias Buckell, “Brickomancer (Shoggoths in Traffic and Other Stories)
• P. Djèlí Clark, “If the Martians Have Magic” (Uncanny #42)
• Roshani Chokshi, “Passing Fair and Young” (Sword Table Stone: Old Legend, New Voices)
• Varsha Dinesh, “The Demon Sage’s Daughter” (Strange Horizons 2/8/21)
• Andrew Dykstal, “Quintessence” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #324)
• James Enge, “Drunkard’s Walk (F&SF 5-6)
• Karen Joy Fowler, “The Piper” (F&SF 1-2)
• Carlos Hernandez & C. S. E. Cooney, “A Minnow, or Perhaps a Colossal Squid (Mermaids Monthly, April)
• Kathleen Jennings, “Gisla and the Three Favors” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #43)
• Allison King, “Breath of the Dragon King” (Fantasy #72)
• PH Lee, “Frost’s Boy” (Lightspeed #128)
• Yukimi Ogawa, “Her Garden the Size of Her Palm (F&SF 7-8)
• Tobi Ogundiran, “The Tale of Jaja and Canti” (Lightspeed #135)
• Richard Parks. “The Fox’s Daughter (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #344)
• Karen Russell, “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” (Conjunctions:76)
• Sofia Samatar, “Three Tales from the Blue Library” (Conjunctions:76)
• Catherynne Valente, “L’Esprit de Escalier” (Tor.com)
• Fran Wilde, “Unseelie Bros, Ltd.” (Uncanny #40)
• Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts” (Apex #121)
• Isabel Yap,“A Spell for Foolish Hearts” (Never Have I Ever)
• E. Lily Yu, “Small Monsters” (Tor.com)

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”

The mythic weight of cities

The picture above is the beginning of an observation journal page, which I’ll post about in due course.

I was playing with myths, e.g. how do I give a caterpillar the same mythic weight as a pierced stone, or a persuade the reader a milk jug has a similar symbolic function to a horse, or give a lesser-known city a similar mythic weight to New York.

I.e.: How to build in what is otherwise assumed to be assumed.

I was thinking about this because of cities — the mythic weight that e.g. New York and Paris and London gather around them, where an author (or a movie) can flash up a sign and the audience is expected to just *get* it. Which can be a useful shorthand (if the audience does get it), because in that context name-checking tends to drag a whole train of associations with it: Montmartre or The Village, etc. (This obviously skates over a whole lot of interesting representations.)

But occasionally stories set in less well-known settings feel as if place names have just been swapped into a story, without considering the weight they might or do or could or should have for the reader. And it can feel like walking around a stage before the set goes in.

Some books, of course, are written in a way that *creates* that mythic weight, that cloud of significance, and drags the reader into it. (And occasionally a story set in a Famous City treats some aspect of it as worthy of being given its own weight, separate from assumption and expectation, or leans into and reinvents the whole mythos).

So I’m interested in how mythic weight (at all or a specific quality) can be given to something that isn’t broadly assumed to already have it. (Also, those moments where you go to a place that was described once, or rarely, and KNOW it because of how a particular author dealt with it…)

Personally, when I do set something in a place I know, it’s easiest to leave out or invent place names (even if I plan to change them back), just to make sure I put in that supporting framework —otherwise I fall back on what those place names mean to me, forgetting that Coronation Drive has automatic significance to far fewer people than, say, Broadway does.

(Flyaway, for example, is not quite set in a real place, but it’s heavily based on a few, and part of the fun (and riddle) of writing it was to create the FEELING of being in those places without just expecting the reader to know because I name-checked them).

Writers being mostly trained by reading, it’s interesting to pull back and look not just at how settings are described, but how different TYPES of settings are successfully described, and for whom, and to what effect.

(If this post looks familiar, it began as a Twitter thread.)

a too-tiny city

Girls Running From Houses

Here’s a project I started over the holidays! I made Girls Running From Houses (@girlfleeshouse) using cheapbotsdonequick.com, and haven’t stopped tinkering with it yet.

It does relate to some ongoing things I’m working on, but it was also a place to put all the ideas I was having but couldn’t act on because of existing obligations.

It is full of running girls and brooding houses and Gothic situations, and if you are into that sort of thing, I very much hope you will enjoy it.

At the moment, it posts hourly, with occasional more frequent flurries posted by me when I’m tinkering with the code.

Previously on this theme: Girls Running From Houses calendar art (also on Redbubble as prints, dresses etc: Girls Running From Houses.)

October-Calendar-Art-Lowres

2021 writing update

Non-fiction:

Fiction:

Blog:

Work in progress:

  • I’m working on another book! This has taken up the majority of this year’s writing time. I’m endeavouring to get the third draft done before Christmas. It’s a Gothic suburban tale.
  • As ever, I’m trying to shape a voluminous manuscript into something approximating a novel, and researching for my PhD project.
  • I’ve written several short stories of varying length, a few of which will be out next year (one is a prequel to the PhD novel).
  • I’ve been learning how to adapt someone else’s book for another project…
  • The observation journal is still going strong. I’d hazard it’s at approximately 235 entries for the year, which will evolve into blog posts, workshops, articles, stories, art, etc.

Shortlistings and awards

  • Flyaway won a 2021 British Fantasy Award (Sydney J Bounds Award) for best newcomer, and a 2021 Ditmar Award for best novella.
    It was also shortlisted for the 2021 World Fantasy Award (best novella) and The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award. It was a finalist for the 2020 Australian Shadows Award finalist and the 2020 Crawford Award.
  • “Contracts and Calcifer, or “In Which A Contract Is Concluded Before Witnesses”: the Transactional Structure of Howl’s Moving Castle“ (published in 2020 in the The Proceedings of the Diana Wynne Jones Conference, Bristol 2019) was shortlisted for the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review.

“The Wonderful Stag” in Tor.com’s Some of the Best

Tor.com have announced the table of contents for their 2021 “Some of the Best” anthology, including my quite short story “The Wonderful Stag, or The Courtship of Red Elsie”.

The ebook will be available in late January 2022 (but you can also read the stories on Tor.com now).

Story shapes — three-mood stories

This post is a running list of three-mood (or three-note) short story shapes I’ve found interesting (for writing and art). I’m gathering the list here for future reference and extension.

I will update & refine this from time to time. There are further explanations at the bottom of the post, along with links to related and previous posts. Let me know if you have any questions.

ordinaryinklingconfirmation
reluctanceengagementdeepening
humorous sketchelements clash/conflagrationfall out
inklingbuildreveal-behind-the-story
worlddeeperdissolve into it
unsettlementdeepening horrorthe cusp of annihilation
ominouscompoundedtwist (of plot or knife)
formation of goalquiet progression towards goalachievement of goal
inklingred herringsolution
foreshadow doomproceed towards doom[evade] doom
meet cutecomplicationhappily ever after/for now
fragmentsfacetswhole
situationfailuressuccesses
doorsomething throughpushed back
metaphormetaphormetaphor
suspicionpeel backtruth & consequences
awkwardnessproliferation of optionsharmony
placerescuereverse-rescue
exposurematuringacknowledgement
discoverygrowing up[vigorous/defiant?] acceptance
horrordeteriorationexpectation
awarenessdecadenceacceptance/resignation
problemattemptssolution
petitionsolutionsresolution
consequencescausesremedy

More information and ways to use this

Background/caveats: I find “beginning — middle — end”, three-act structures, etc, more useful as a diagnostic tool than as a starting point for storytelling. Your mileage may vary — I’m used to thinking about stories through stories, and biting my way out of them from the inside. This three-mood approach to understanding stories is better suited to how I think and it’s helped me understand structures better. But it might not be for you!

Couldn’t this be distilled down to One True Story Shape? Sure? I enjoy looking for the Key to All Mythologies as much as anyone, but I don’t personally find it particularly helpful for making new stories. You do you. (Also problem — attempts — solution is commonly cited as a standard story-shape, but I’ve turned it up very rarely in this exercise).

Novels? Short stories. (I mean, go for it — so far I’ve only used this in reading, writing and drawing small stories, and trying to understand how they function as discrete objects.)

What does “mood” mean? Anything I want it to. Mood/note/vibe/point/aesthetic/gesture. But broadly, I mean the feeling of that section of the story, which carries the story along and changes into the next mood. Decadence flowing inevitably into resignation, or an appreciation of a world leading someone to dig deeper (perhaps too deep). That implied movement from one mood to the next is vitally important, but also fairly self-evident.

Are there only three moods in a story? No. You could granulate it even further. But three is easy to hold in the mind, and tends to make room for most of the short stories I’ve tried it on, and implies enough transition of some sort (of action, emotion, experience, etc.) to create movement through a short story.

Here are a few ways to use this approach for writing and illustrating (and possibly other shortish forms of storytelling):

  • Analyse a story: After reading a short story, try to distil it into three big moods. These will be subjective, and you could quite easily do more than one version. It’s a useful way to compress both the story and your personal reaction to it into something you can examine.
    • Sometimes this is easier a little while after you’ve read the story, when the details have softened with distance.
  • Make your own list: Keep repeating the step above. This way, you’ll also have a deeper understanding of what you mean by the moods (and why), and why you like particular story-shapes.
  • Develop an idea: Take an idea (or image/object/aesthetic). Pick a story-progression you like.
    • Drop the idea into one of the three slots. See what ideas that suggests for the other two slots.
      • E.g. say you choose “fragments — facets — whole” and your idea is a bicycle courier on a penny-farthing bicycle.
        • Does that idea feel like a fragment? In that case, what else is going on in the world — other anachronisms? And then why — what’s the whole story? Time travel? These are the last bicycles built to last? This is likely to be a world-building story, widening out from a glimpse of an individual.
        • Or is the anachronistic (but jaunty) bicycle courier a larger facet of the story? What are the original glimpses which are made sense of by this magnificent personage? And how does their world fit them? This is less character-focussed, and personally it’s the idea that attracts me least.
        • Or if the solution and reward of the story is the realisation of the reality of this tweed-clad courier, then the first two sections might be about building up the puzzle, the oddities and idiosyncrasies of this person (an ever so slightly jarring day-in-the-life), before letting the reader know what they’re actually riding. This is more of a twist ending.
        • (This approach work equally for an illustration — either a three-panel story or a way to choose a scene to illustrate).
    • Once you have images to match those three moods, you’ll probably need to consider the links and impetus, how each connects and moves on to the next. This is fun and fairly self-explanatory.
  • Strengthen a story: Think of a story you are working on. Look for a story-shape that appeals to you and/or resonates with the draft. See where you could strengthen the story by enhancing (or being more deliberate about) some of those moods.
    • Note: Some of these story shapes are more common in certain genres. You can pick a shape that obviously suits the type of story you’re working with. “Door – something through it — pushed back (with lingering knowledge)” is a very common old-school ghost story structure (it fits most of my favourite M.R. James stories).
    • But you don’t need to find an ‘appropriate’ shape — it’s fun to work against the grain. You could, for example, tell/illustrate a fairy-tale romance with a mood of gathering horror.
  • Reinterpret/riff on a story: Pick an existing story (or one you’re illustrating) and choose the WRONG mood progression, and retell/illustrate it according to that.
  • Remix: Randomly select three moods and find a story-shape you want to play with (resolution — horror — meet cute?). Or randomly select three images to drop into a particular story-shape, and try to make them work as a story.
  • Shortcuts: This has been useful for getting people who aren’t used to thinking in terms of narrative structure to quickly develop a story.

Which short stories are these based on? I haven’t included the reference-stories in this post because some of these progressions are spoilers and a few are very vague memories, and some of them are extremely subjective interpretations — my personal reactions to a story I knew was intended to create a different effect, but had an unintended but intriguing impact on me. Further, many shapes are distilled from or common to a genre or style. I’m trying to keep a better list — if you’re interested in seeing more of a specific breakdown, let me know.

Some related posts:

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Observation Journal — ways of walking

This observation journal page is about how characters walk.

Earlier in the year I heard David Suchet talking about the importance of voice and walk when creating/conveying a character (see Act Like It). On this page, I wanted to play around with that in writing and drawing, vs acting. (Incidentally, I’ve been listening to a lot of Make It Then Tell Everybody, on which cartoonists and graphic novelists frequently discuss working on the on-page acting of their characters.)

Left page: Laundry in need of being done but remaining undone

I started with some stick figures, mocking up a few silly walks. Then I elaborated them into a character. (Putting a specific costume onto an idea is generally a quick way to create the feeling of a personality.)

Then I jotted down a written description of each hypothetical walker — led by the hips, flouncing and sauntering, setting each foot down smartly as if stamping a particular bug, trailing sullenly away, etc.

Finally, I wrote a sentence describing how each would move in a hurry: borne on a tide of consequence, leaping off the second-last step and landing with both shoes together, and so on.

It was an interesting little exercise, and a good way to think through and condense/amplify aspects of physicality. (Related: observing hands in cafes.) It’s also good for exercising related vocabulary.

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Jot down some stick figures with exaggerated walking styles OR pick a few letters of the alphabet and imagine how they would walk.
  • For the artists: Sketch that letter/stick figure as a character. I like to do this by picking a favourite era/style of clothing, putting it on the person, and going from there.
  • Try describing the style of walk — dot points of good adjectives and verbs are fine. (Z with a slashing sashay, D leaning slightly back to support their magnificent weight, etc).
  • Pick one of the following (or another mood). Consider the walking style you’ve just described. How would that person move in this situation:
    • haste
    • showing off
    • swooningly romantic
    • sneaking
    • trying to outpace someone else to a goal
    • with extreme distaste and reluctance
  • For the artists: Now sketch that scene.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Science Write Now #5: Illustration and Illumination

Science Write Now have republished several of my observation journal essays in their latest issue on Illustration and Illumination.

art by Kaylah Del Simone

You can see the full issue of essays, reviews, memoir, fiction and poetry over on Science Write Now. Here is the table of contents, to tempt you:

  • ESSAYS, REVIEWS, CRAFT AND MEMOIR
    • Beyond Sight: A Personal History of Imaging by Verity Borthwick
    • The Visual Art of Writing or Krissy Kneen Carves out a Book by Krissy Kneen
    • Observation Journal: Introduction by Kathleen Jennings
    • Observation Journal: Surfaces by Kathleen Jennings
    • Observation Journal: Variations on Descriptions by Kathleen Jennings
    • Double Space: Creating Optical Image System Artworks across Art and STEM by Deirdre Feeney
    • Review of The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Melanie Myers
  • FICTION
    • Eclipse by Amanda Niehaus
    • Excerpt from The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley
  • POETRY
    • Spectrum by Bronwyn Lovell
    • Resolution by Kathryn Fry
    • Collisions by J.M. Donellan
    • Daggered and Typed by H.E. Riddleton
    • mind-bending by Tom Hennemann
    • The last of this red hour by Willo Drummond
    • Orion Nebula by Alicia Sometimes
    • Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation by Alicia Sometimes
    • Anticipation of Light by Alicia Sometimes
    • Midnight Calls by Nicholas Bennett and illustrated by Tina Wilson

Science Write Now has also started a podcast which you can see here: Conversations. Edit: And my episode, being interviewed by Amanda Niehaus, is now up.