I have been buying a lot of books lately (not at all curtailed by a birthday subscription to Slightly FoxedQuarterly — did you know T. H. White published his journals about taking flying lessons?). So it was a delightful surprise to get an unexpected box of books in the mail.
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 contains many wonderful short stories — and for once, thanks to judging the World Fantasy Awards, I have already read quite a few and can confirm they are great!
“An artist’s drawing is a catalog of the shapes that he loves. When I’m drawing something, I’m trying to find the shapes that please me. I believe that’s what makes up what people refer to as a style”.
I love layers, and piles of projects. The accidental colour schemes and unexpected patterns, the repeating motifs, the undesigned aptness of placements of birds and frames. The hundred-mattress promise of them, as if there’s a secret hidden below, if only you’ll take the time to feel for it. The way when you put absent-minded notes end to end you end up with something like the rough shape of a book.
My only clear memory of reading Tirra Lirra By The River as an undergrad is of a scene where a character following the narrator up a staircase observes her new haircut:
It lingered. One reason is because it is so true and keenly observed, and every time I see a friend with freshly bobbed hair I think of this line. But I think it also stayed with me because it was such a wonderful example of viewpoint.
In writing, “point of view” usually refers to whether a story is told in first/second/third/omniscient point of view (“I”/”you”/”third”/godlike). But here I was thinking more about viewpoint in the artistic/perspective sense — literally where the viewer (whoever they might be) is physically standing, and what they can see from there.
For writers, in a broad sense, it can apply to temporal points of view, too (past? present? future? “The Present Only Toucheth Thee” was kind of all about that).
But to keep it simple: If I’m describing (or drawing) a person climbing a staircase, I can describe the scene several ways, including:
From their eyes, travelling with them: how the wallpaper gleams olive in lamplight, and where the carpet on the stairs is faded, which stairs creak, what is lurking on the landing.
From the top of the staircase: seeing their shadow climbing ahead of them, their eyes flicking from stair to stair, their expression as they get breathless, the way the buttons on their cardigan pull, the point at which their feet come into view.
From the foot of the stairs: the scuffs at the back of their shoes, the way their calves disappear in curved shadows under the hem of a skirt, the marks on the back of the cardigan, over the shoulderblades, where they leaned against a dusty wall, the way the lamplight pulls away from them as they ascend into darkness.
It’s easy to get into habits of describing things all one way, or from the most obvious viewpoint. I try to consciously play with this when I’m sketching, even sometimes building a reference piece that I can move around (e.g. the model library in this post). I do it when writing, too. Occasionally I will write out a scene from the other side of a room, or the level of the ceiling fan. Quite often the original viewpoint was sound (and style and purpose create their own restrictions), but seeing it briefly from another viewpoint will tell me more about the setting, and sometimes the character: Is there dust on the ceiling fan? What’s stored behind the door that was just flung open?
Pick a scene (written or drawn). If you don’t have one in mind, choose a classic (for example, here, Cinderella running down the stairs) and do a super-quick stick figure or dot point sketch of it, as it first leaps to mind.
Identify where your viewer (the “person” describing the scene or holding the metaphorical camera) is located. In the sketch, they’re at the bottom of the stairs, or perhaps even driving her carriage.
Then consider some other potential vantage points — obvious or surprising.
Sketch those out quickly (words or drawings), and see what you find out about the scene.
The lower picture is from inside the palace, over the prince’s shoulder. Now the scene (and Cinderella) is running away from the viewer. There outside is dark, inside here is bright. Shadows stream away, opulence is everywhere, perhaps there is startled laughter nearby, or the clinking of glasses in the sudden silence of the orchestra.
The upper image is from the shrubbery below a curve of the staircase (might someone be lurking there?). Cinderella is obscured by balustrades — their design would now become important (a specific architectural era? carved with past legends of the realm?), as would the design of the gardens (ominous groves? brightly lit topiaries?). It also provides a particular staging: at least three distinct and separated levels of picture plane, story, and society.
I don’t keep observation journal pages on a Saturday, as a rule. This is because I started it as an example for students, and was trying to keep it to a reasonable workload (allowing for me putting ten times the detail I required of them). But I saw wonderful things that day — orange mushrooms and flame-tree twigs and belligerent rainbow lorikeets.
On the right-hand page, I wanted to record a few things smelt and felt, to see whether I should include them in daily observations.
It’s oddly personal and visceral, recording these, far more than noting things heard or done (or even tasted). This is why I didn’t include these categories in the suggested/required layout.
But it’s a useful reflection for writing, when I’m trying to capture (or avoid) a sense of intimacy with a character! And just occasionally writing down smells and feelings is good practice. There are certain physical sensations I’m inclined to overuse as shorthand (the pull of fabric at the back of shoulders, water moving over wrists, the harshness of bark), and I need to remember others exist.
(I’m not being flippant about avoiding a sense of intimacy, either — sometimes it’s a necessary effect, sometimes it’s a matter of taste or style or register.)
These two pages were also where I began to notice how the observation pages capture the feeling of a day, however indirectly — and then to play with taking one element from each category to create the sense of very particular time and place.
For example, each of these selections suggests a rather different setting and story, even though they are from the same day in the same life:
Lorikeets screeching, the smell of boiling potatoes, fuzzy seed-heads, a silky table-top, buying new street numbers for a mailbox.
Triple-J Hottest 100 countdown, the dank smell of an air-conditioner switched to fan, pens in wild disarray at Officeworks, a watch shifting on a wrist, and rubbing toes tender in cheap new shoes.
These ideas developed in another direction later — but more on that as those ideas crystallise.
Make notes of five things you can see/hear/smell/feel (or have done today) — mundane as you like. Choose one at random from each category — what sort of a world or story does it suggest? What colour scheme or composition? (I’ve used this a few times to kick off a story/art idea, and to create a quick world to drop an existing idea into — you can easily adjust some specifics for genre).
Choose one smell. What are five ways to describe it? What are five ways you could suggest it in a picture? (Smells are tricky in visual media, but they still impact & suggest visuals).
It’s a story of promises and hospitality, set in Australia (or something like it), and I’m still rather fond of its heroine and her not-entirely-absent family.
This is the first publication of Undine Love since it appeared in ASIM in 2011, and although Tor.com doesn’t usually illustrate reprints, I wanted to do a fresh set in the style of the silhouettes in Flyaway.
And there’s also a podcast of it, read by Anaea Lay and with a rather creepy little postscript, which I think is the first audio publication of one of my stories.
For the title, “The Present Only Toucheth Thee”, I had to send the cover letter with a warning that it was not, in fact, in faux-Elizabethan, but that the title was an allusion. But I really like the allusion and titles are tricky.
“For some of that time you were an eagle, clear-eyed…”
It’s an odd little story about a rather sprawling idea. I had in fact started an unwieldy series of pieces playing with the general concept from a point-in-time point of view of the addressee of this story. Looking back at those drafts, there’s still something there I’d like to revisit. But it was heavy going at the time, and I couldn’t pin down what I was trying for. But this swapped perspective flowed swiftly and concisely, and (bearing in mind that there was extensive preparatory work) felt like it was almost building itself up out of the page.
Thanks on this one go especially to C.S.E. Cooney and Aimee Smith for cheerleading and (ongoing & generally, as ever) to Angela Slatter for mentorship, education, and high expectations.