Some thoughts on voice

Many many stacked handwritten white words on a black background, illegible but creating a white centre space

This is part of a series of posts teasing out themes from my short story reading:

These are thoughts on voice from my short story reading notes. I will refine them further in future — they are not exhaustive, and I have more observations to make!


A strong voice can frame and structure a story. A strong story frame or conceit can also leverage a distinctive voice (enhance, distill, excuse, focus…).

Outline of what follows:

Continue reading

Observation Journal — swapping roles

This observation journal activity is closely related to The Caudwell Manoeuvre, an approach I enjoy tremendously, and it’s a nice way to play with patterns I’ve observed (whether they delight or exasperate me), and things in others’ work that I’ve wanted to run off and play with (see e.g. five things to steal). It can also reveal and clarify opinions about the source examples.

Writing/illustration exercise (closely related to The Caudwell Manoeuvre):

  • Choose some characters/roles you’ve seen/read (or written/drawn) frequently. E.g. I’ve been reading a lot of old murder mysteries, so there’ve been many satisfied academic sleuths and desperate suburban housewives hiding a variety of secrets.
  • Pick two. This could be a frequently matched pair (grim loner father figure and recently acquired plucky child for whom they are responsible; talented ingenue and mysterious mentor), or you could choose two at random.
  • For each, make a few dot-points listing their distinguishing characteristics (floral housedress? taciturn? collects fine glassware?).
  • Now, switch the descriptions.
    You can do this a few ways:
    • One is to simply move the dot-points to the other character (the housewife is exceptionally well-read in a narrow field, wears rather shabby tweed, and is on gently-scolding terms with the local teenagers).
    • Another way is to drop the stereotypical person (the actor, as it were) into the opposite role (the wiry physical comedian becomes the hero to the large taciturn sidekick).
      Or try both.
  • Bonus round 1: Sketch (a paragraph or drawing) a scene of one of the new characters in action.
  • Bonus round 2: What happens to the idea and the original roles? Are the new ideas comic, tragic, unchanged (and why)? Which pull into new territory? Which deepen your understanding of something? Which might it be fun to follow into a new story?


Tiny handwritten notes flipping stereotypes/archetypes.

I was thinking about this at the time because of the neat little role reversals in Baby Done. But on this page I was riffing on the “kept woman” and “businessman” roles from The Eye of Love (a book that comes out of the gates playing with expectations), and with Holmes-ish and Watsonian characters. One of the fun reminders from the latter was how much kindness and humanity is in (book) Holmes, vs many later interpretations. Might it be the case that it is Watson who closely observes conventionality and applies it, while in fact it is Holmes who is teaching him about humanity?

There’s also a note there that I wanted to take some elements further, perhaps by adding an interesting voice. Voice is an element that has been coming up again more recently (not least in the short story reading posts), so I will have more to say about it!

Other observations

Here’s the full pages, in case you want to zoom in and see what was happening that day.

This is when I realised I needed blue-tinted not red-tinted sunglasses, if I wanted to continue to derive joy from the world with them on.

Crows bearing gifts

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a crow with a white feather in its beak

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Observation Journal activity: Loving the tools II

It can be easy to stop paying attention to the tools I actually rely on to make art, to fall into habits or not maintain them or not even see them anymore. So here’s a little lighthearted look at them — good for shaking loose calcified habits, refreshing the mind, and just having a good time.

Exercise (for artists or writers)

  • Set out on your desk, or make a list of, the tools you typically use to write (or draw, or paint).
  • Now, being very silly, imagine each is a person (or a relative in an Agatha Christie novel, or a local in a Midsomer Murders episode, or a cat, or a cartoon villain, etc) and jot down a brief and over-the-top description of their personality (or the crimes they’d be likely to commit, the secrets they have, the sort of lair, etc).
  • Bonus round: Now pull back a bit, and read over the list. See if it’s clarified anything for you — why you persist with one, or keep another pristine, or guiltily hide a preference.


This observation journal activity is an early one: see Loving the Tools, where I made myself stop and look at what paints I was had, and why, and finally buy a decent array of the ones that I loved and actually used.

There, I was mostly just gossipy-judgy about the colours, with a few free associations. (“Sounds like a dinosaur”, “red pandas and indigestion”, “sick lemon”, “exactly the same as the other but more formally attired”, “actual magic”, “lip-syncs to Dolly Parton”, etc.)


This time around, I listed all my writing tools (Scrivener, Word, text messages, etc) and pretended they were somewhat stereotypical/archetypal family members in a novel.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes about writing tools.

So Scrivener is “a large and unruly family, with hidden branches, that’s still a unit and can scrub up well in a pinch”, and pencil and (spiral-bound) paper is “possibly a conspiracy theorist, might have been a spy”, while a text message “wakes up in an armchair in the middle of the afternoon with an unintelligible exclamation, and wishes for the romance of the telegram”.

Handwritten list of writing tools (Word, notebook, text message, etc) with opinions on the sort of character they would have if they were a relative

It is very ridiculous, and very much for personal reference and taste, with all sorts of character shorthand, drawing heavily on things I’d been reading recently. But it was surprisingly useful — highlighting what I like about various approaches, and whether it’s the useful part. E.g. index cards “would like to be a conspiracy theorist but can’t quite get it together — wanders off”. Which pretty neatly encapsulates why they haven’t worked well for me on various projects. A simple text file, on the other hand, is clearly a workhorse but also a bit insufferable about it.

At the time, I was working up to rearranging my entire work space, and this exercise also helped focus me on the things I’d actually need ready to hand.

Tiny ballpoint drawing of a seedpod open and some flowers
Seedpods from the observation (left) pages got their own standalone section in a recent big writing project (yet to be announced)

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Observation journal activity: ideas — more mixing and matching

(I’m trialling leading with the exercise in these posts — thoughts?)

Ideas from objects: a writing/illustration exercise

This observation journal exercise is a very slight variation on previous mixing and matching exercises:

  • Make a short list of things you can see and hear (or recall seeing and hearing today). Be a little specific — not just “a box” but “a box of vintage Agatha Christie novels”, “fan creaking” instead of just “fan”.
  • Pick two at random.
  • Now mix up the objects and descriptions: a box of fans? old books creaking? a fan that is a clue in a murder mystery?
  • Repeat with another pair.
  • Bonus round: sketch (written or drawn) a scene with that object. (What other elements/ideas does it pull in with it? do you suddenly have a detective or a library or a second-hand store?)
  • Bonus bonus round: do some of your new ideas seem to belong together? which ones do you most like, and is there a pattern to them? To get them to work as ideas for a project, what more do you need? Are there any intriguing questions to follow? Could you chase those now?
  • Bonusx3: drop one of the ideas into a story-shape (any variety: a type of story you like, a four-panel layout, etc) and follow it out.

This exercise is of course useful as a sort of mental aerobics. But it often turns up fascinating ideas, and even when it doesn’t, noticing which types of ideas do or don’t spark some enthusiam in you yields useful information.

Here is my page — I used the observations from the exercise on the left.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes remixing observations into ideas.

Remixing items from the left (observation) page, to get gingerbread cockroaches, books (instead of ornaments) hung on sidewalk trees, a vibrant trade in chests of chirring, craking insects (and where and how do those ornamental boxes of toy metal crickets travel?), superstitions around insects etc.

A sequence of these started to feel a like they belonged together in a slightly offset world, perhaps illustrated by Michael Sowa. Some of the superstitions called for a little more hint of connection to a world behind them (and then I fell asleep). But the cicada from the April calendar descends from this train of thought.

Pale jade-green cicada amulet/brooch on black background with jewels and white flowers

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Observation Journal: City from a height at night

This observation journal page is one of the simplest observation activities, just looking at a thing and describing it in as many ways as I could think of (and not being precious about it). See previously: 30 Descriptions of a Tree, and Sketching with Words.

(Afterwards you can edit, get creative, swap descriptions and force metaphors, look for colours or through stories or genre lenses, etc.)

It’s a simple and soothing and focussed exercise, but also immediately useful. I’ve used this when researching for Flyaway (which is out in paperback in the USA at the end of April!) and in the litany of descriptions that is Travelogues, and in “Twelve Observations Along George Street”, a piece for voices.

And of course it also trains visual memory and vocabulary. But mostly it’s a pleasant way to make time to stop and stare, and lightly capture a moment.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes about a city at night.

Since my writing is pretty small, here is the list. I was with visiting family in a hotel apartment high up in the Brisbane CBD, trying to describe “little beads of light sliding on paler ways through the darkness”.

  • Board of trouble
  • Playmat
  • Beads
  • Go
  • Isometry
  • Sound bars
  • X-ray
  • CT — contrast dye
  • Stencil of highlights
  • Smouldering sparks
  • Noir poster
  • Flattened
  • Brass rubbings
  • Pneumatic tubes
    (through darkness)
  • Velvet painting
  • Shabby sequins
  • Fraying beading
  • Model
  • Forced perspective
  • Tilt-shift
  • Matte painting
  • Trick photography
  • Mercury in tubes
  • Spirit levels
  • Flasks and tubing
  • Chemistry lab / experiment
  • Those animations projected on a 3d surface
  • Flickering signs
  • Stacked records
  • Milky way

Writing/illustration activity

  • Choose a thing you can see, or use this as an excuse to go and look at something pleasant.
  • List at least twenty other things it looks like. (Or thirty, which I prefer.)
    It’s fine to be obvious and repetitive! That’s why the list is so long. You’ll push past the cliche answers and get to the odder and more interesting ones… but some of the easy ones might turn out to be just right.
  • Bonus: Do you notice any patterns in your list (e.g. games, lit tubing, and somewhat déclassé art, above)? Are there words or concepts almost on the tip of your tongue which you couldn’t quite pin down? (I needed more words around lab equipment)
  • Bonus bonus: Sketch or write a brief scene — a character experiencing the world this way, or a drawing that pulls out (or directly uses) those comparisons.

Tiny ballpoint drawing of alpaca on grass, on gridded paper.
Alpaca, glimpsed on the drive to give a talk at the Capalaba library

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Observation Journal: bones and flowers (more swapped descriptions)

A frequent favourite observation journal activity: mixing up descriptions (either by trading adjectives or using one word as a simile for the other).

(For related posts and other examples, see variations on descriptions, and other posts under the “descriptions” category.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes swapping descriptions between bones and flowers.

This time I was trading descriptions between bones and flowers. I chose this pair because of things I’d seen during the day (on the left page) but also because of A Project I was working on (which you will hear more about soon). Although, in the end, more of the observation page got into the final text.

Handwritten notes swapping descriptions between bones and flowers.

Bones flecked and spotted like the speckles on a lily, a spine like a spire of foxgloves, the peony-tight cluster of the knee. Flowers bleached and brittle, honeysuckle petals curled like ribs and collar-bone, flowers small as teeth.

Another benefit of this exercise, additional to sheer enjoyment and those advantages I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is that it highlights specific areas of vocabulary I’m excited to study more — botanical terms, or anatomical structures, etc.

(It’s also quite useful for ensuring thematically consistent descriptions, e.g. when attempting to use bird or plantlike descriptions for particular characters, as in Flyaway.)

Writing/illustration activity (similar to those on previous posts)

  • Pick two nouns (flower and bone, or daisy and skull, or cat and mountain…).
  • Use one word to suggest a list of descriptions for (or ways to draw) the other. Three ways to do this:
    • Make a list of ways you would usually describe (or portray) noun A and force them onto noun B. (Osseous, calcified, chalky, porous, smooth, ecru, knuckled…)
    • Find ways in which noun B is like noun A (many of the examples on the page above).
    • Find ways noun A is the same as noun B.
  • Then repeat the exercise in the other direction.
  • Bonus round 1: jot down a paragraph or poem or sketch out an illustration using a cluster of those descriptions.
  • Bonus round 2: Make some notes about what you noticed — which comparisons were easy or hard, which were the most interesting, where did they snap you into a new awareness or understanding of an object, where did your (visual or verbal) vocabulary serve well or where did you suddenly wish you had more resources (and where could you enjoyably get them)
Tiny ballpoint drawing of person carrying pile of boxes
Carrying boxes

Observation Journal: Structuring Secrets

This page of the observation journal carries on from some previous posts about characters’ secrets and occupations. But this page — although about fairy tales — was prompted by watching a whole string of Agatha Christie adaptations.

The exercise highlighted something I like in that style of mystery — the way that, in answering the main mystery, the inner workings and closely held secrets of a contained world are exposed. It’s like when a log is lifted up, all the jealously guarded nests and paths beneath are revealed. The secret processes that make a world work.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on Rapunzel

I looked at Rapunzel through the lens of possible secrets.

I listed characters and potential characters (inanimate objects included) and started thinking of secrets for each to keep (the desert might hide the dust of kings; the prince’s horse once killed a man, etc).

Then I started pulling out questions that might be fun for structuring a retelling (who was really the witch, who preserved the plant cuttings from Sleeping Beauty’s briars?).

This created a fun tension between secrets to structure and secrets to keep, much like in the sort of murder mystery I enjoy. In answering the first, the story unearths and unravels and entangles the second.

So, for example, this exercise suggested biosecurity officers investigating the illegal briar trade uncovering a network of witches preserving their own culture…

Handwritten notes on Rapunzel

Writing exercise (illustrators: you could also use this as a story prompt for an illustration)
(see also the exercises in the previous preoccupations post).

  • Choose a fairy tale (or other template story you want to play with retelling).
  • List the major characters and a few key animals, objects, etc.
  • For each, jot down one or two secrets they might be keeping, within the world of the story.
  • Then pull back and choose one or two that might be big enough to be plot-structuring, story-inciting mysteries. (Or which would make the silliest mystery, or be the biggest puzzle for you to make work, etc.)
  • Now consider how and when some (or all!) of the other secrets might come out in the course of answering the big question.
  • Bonus: turn this into a quick story outline, or follow the questions out further to create the world, or try flipping all the characters and roles you’ve assigned.
Small ballpoint drawing of a leaning tree

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List Stories: How they work, what they offer

Tiny handwritten notes listing very general and largely illegible types of lists

This post is about short stories written as/around lists. It is based on notes from my short-story reading posts. (For background on the three-mood story structure, see Story Shapes — Three Mood Stories.)

Outline of this post (it should link to the relevant section):

I hope to write a shorter version one day.

Continue reading

Observation Journal — Story Behind the Shapes

This observation journal page is a variation on a previous activity.

The week before, I’d been playing with the concept of a story behind a story, as a way to strengthen a draft or unfold an existing story. Here, I was trying to apply that to illustration.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes with sketches on component shapes.

I adapted the activity by instead asking: If I remove the [primary/obvious] purpose, what remains?

Of course, I discovered I’d simply reinvented “breaking an image down into its component shapes”.

But doing that does create a basis for building something back up into new shapes and possibilities, and revealing alternative, less-obvious purposes.

Handwritten notes with tiny sketches of component shapes.

A more directly creative (as in, I made things out of it) activity was: Drawing the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye. But the mental exercise of this approach felt like a (mild) workout, and it was an intriguing way to hold an object in mind and at arm’s length, and look beyond the obvious.

Writing/illustration activity:

  • Choose an object in your line of sight.
  • Identify its main/obvious purpose.
  • Now ignore that purpose. What remains? A collection of shapes? Secondary or tertiary uses?
  • What could you build up with those residual aspects? What type of story might it have come out of (fictional or real)? Could you create something with those shapes and textures, or redesign the object to better fit a less-obvious use?
  • Do a quick sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus round: Repeat a few times. Then notice what was easy or hard, what tactics you defaulted to, what objects or features regularly charmed you.
paint-water jug and candy (dice) jar

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Observation journal: make then think

These observation journal pages feature a simple activity: make a small thing, then make notes about making the thing.

The thing I made was a silhouette with imitation gold foil on it — a function of Inktober and Mother Thorn and other silhouette projects and interests at the time.

Page of observation journal with pasted-down silhouette of flowers and leaves, with gold detailing and handwritten notes

A few days later, I played with the same ideas again, this time with a gold leafing pen (Krylon).

Journal page with pasted down silhouette of holly (and left-over paper) with gold detailing and notes

This time, I was more focussed on a particular question (18k gold leafing pen vs imitation gold leaf) — how they handled and what effects they suggested. (See also: loving the tools.)

Observations (true for me):

  • Making something, however tiny, is immediately good — it’s forward motion.
  • A first attempt, even (perhaps especially) if it doesn’t work quite as imagined, unlocks new ideas.
  • Some practicalities can only be practically considered.
  • Getting words on screen or ink on paper is so much more powerful than thinking.
    Or perhaps: it is a much more powerful way of thinking.

See also: Making Little Things; The Tiniest Things; Small Projects and Tiny Unicorns.

These epiphanies are small and frequent. But it’s less important to know them intellectually than to learn them viscerally, and remind myself through my hands.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of parcels

Writing/Illustration/Creating Activity
(if you keep an observation journal, activities like these are a good way to find some personal fascinations and questions to pursue — they’re also a nice way to just calm down and make things)

  1. Make something small. Write a 50 word story or description of something you can see or draw a tiny portrait or try out a new pen or cover the page with fingerprints and draw legs on them or embroider a flower.
    (Bonus: if you’re stuck, try a separate exercise and make a list of at least 20 tiny things you could make. Be silly. Note where your thinking shifts gears. See if there are any patterns you could use to invent more activities, e.g. approaches you obviously like or are clearly avoiding.)
    • Stick it to the page (or if that isn’t feasible, note what it was you did).
    • Consider the thing you made, and how, and why, and what it was like to make and what you ended up with. You’ll have your own interests, but some places you could start are:
      • why this
      • senses (touch, smell, how the light affects it — these can be important for achieving an effect or working comfortably, but also for pursuing things you like)
      • ways you could use or develop it into something further or new
      • ideas it gave you
      • what you liked or resisted
      • is it (or could it be) connected to anything you’re currently interested in
      • is it pleasing (why)
      • is it X enough for you [dreamy, horrific, utilitarian, etc] and how could you make it more so
      • here are some others: Project Review Questions
    • Make a couple extra notes on how the activity as a whole worked for you, or what it revealed about how you work.
  2. Think of a specific creative question you’ve been wanting to answer (or one of the ideas from the step above).
    • Jot down a few subquestions — whether a technique will work at all or suit a particular purpose, how it would compare to a different approach, whether it will create an effect you saw someone else achieve, or be more fun, or change your speed, or any number of specific questions.
    • Make a tiny test-patch experiment, as small as you possibly can make to answer the question (a blurb for an experimental trilogy format; two colours blended; pickling one slice of an unusual vegetable).
    • Paste it in or make a note of what you did.
    • Around it, again, make observations. This time, answer some of those subquestions. But also look at the list of questions for the previous activity, including ideas to try next
Tiny ballpoint sketch of pylons in park
Power pylon with one toe just over the line of the park fence

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