Observation Journal — do it for the aesthetic #3

This page of the observation journal is an further follow-up to the previous two pages playing the impact of an aesthetic on a story idea ( Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic and Do it for the aesthetic #2).

Double page spread with purple borders. Small handwriting. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a mailbox). On the right, the aesthetic exercise described in the post.

Left page: Frying ham, apparently, which seems out of character. Also the eternal feeling of futility that arises when there is so much to do other than making things (to be fair, it was April 2020, but of course Brisbane is going into another short sharp lockdown today).

On the right page, I was (literally) mixing things up a bit. First I made a table with four columns

  1. AESTHETIC — I created these by choosing three elements at random from the observation pages (the left side pages).
  2. GENRE (some favourites)
  3. MOOD (the first ones that sprang to mind)
  4. CHARACTER (again, chosen from the observation pages — they are very useful for these sorts of exercises!)

The game was then to choose one at random from each column, and work out how it could be made to work, and notice how each element pulled against the story. Some examples: “high fantasy in a brooding suburban utopia” starring “walking girls”; “an elegiac junior sound & fury” featuring a radio announcer; and “a mystical Gothic of wildlife and, incidentally, murder” about an officious clerk.

Things I learned:

  • This was quite fun, as with all recombining. At the time, I was beginning to feel tense about not actually making anything with some of ideas. However as I revisit them, especially in light of other journal activities, I find there are many sparks of interest and possibility there, and a couple of ideas I want to pursue. And of course, just having fun is nice, too.
  • But as I review these pages I’ve also noticed some of these elements have got — indirectly — into other projects (a few of the crime/gothic aesthetic bits of this are definitely in something I’m working on at the moment. And the lessons of this page — the vigour of some of these elements, and the degree to which I have to wrestle a story to an aesthetic — are also ones I’ve been consciously using on a current comic project (of which more in the fulness of time).
Right-hand page of observation journal with very small handwritten version of table described in this post.

Art/writing exercise: (This is really quite short! You can just read the bold bits. Everything else is elaboration and alternatives).

  1. Make your table, with a column each for Aesthetic, Genre, Mood, Character. Try to put at least 10 entries in each column, if you’re going to use it a few times. Below are some notes on ways to fill each column:
    1. Inventing aesthetics:
      1. If you want to do it exactly the same way, start by making a list of 5 things you’ve seen, heard, and done today. Choose three things at random from that and use them to create an aesthetic. E.g., from last Friday I could choose “Red striped umbrella by work ute”, “wide low small planes” and “Zoomed into confirmation meeting” which might give me “moiré-print airline graphic design”, which I swear is a thing (stripes + video = moiré; moiré + planes = flashbacks to airline blanket patterns).
      2. An alternative way: Look around you and pick random things around you — I can see a judgemental porcelain figurine, a waterbottle and a crime novel, which gives me, let’s see… Tudor riverside Gothic. (Or if you don’t want to do the full word-association process, just hyphenate two things in your field of vision, e.g. folk-art robotics). You can be ridiculous here — a great many things have the potential to be a vivid aesthetic. (Folk-art robotics! Outsider-art AI!)
    2. List genres. Pick ones that you find interesting or likeable, and maybe the opposites of some of those. Or search online. If you only work in one genre, that’s cool — consider these all hyphenated subgenres of that one.
    3. List moods, as above.
    4. List characters. These are really just types, or people-who-do-x.
      1. You can find or invent them from a list of observations — last Friday, for example, gives me “Middle-aged man on scooter with go-pro on helmet”.
      2. Or you can mix and match in the same way as for the aesthetic: “carbon paper” + “once you’re there, you’re locked in” give me a greyed-out office worker, while feathers without a bird and people pulling faces after an uncomfortable experience give me enchanted swan-girls who do NOT enjoy the transformation experience.
      3. Alternatively, you can list the great stock characters of your favourite genres (miserly uncle; brave governess; dashing cavalry officer, etc).
  2. Pick one at random from each column and make a sketch (drawn or written) of a key scene from this hypothetical story.
    1. If you’re stuck for a key scene, it’s okay to rely on cliches.
      1. Ask yourself what sorts of scenes does that genre almost always have (or get ridiculed for having?). Is it the equivalent of a chase-to-the-airport scene in a rom-com, or a “Fools! I’ll show them all!” from a pulpy science fiction novel, or even a bored-in-the-car opening sequence from the start of a YA fantasy? Take that, and apply mood, character, and aesthetic.
      2. Or do the same with a character (judgemental barista? elusive bird-girl?) or mood (does “elegaic” suggest someone standing on a balcony staring sadly into the rain? does philosophical suggest someone smoking a pipe?) and go from there.
  3. Notice what is happening as you try to make the elements work together:
    1. Can you make the elements work together? Why or not? What gives? What — for you — exercises the strongest pull on a story? (It’s the aesthetic, for me, followed by the genre.)
    2. If you do this a few times, what patterns emerge?
    1. Try swapping out just one element. What shifts?
    2. If any of the stories spark into a bigger idea, can you identify what made that spark?
    3. Which individual elements do you like (or loathe!), and want to use (or avoid) in future?

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Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic

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.

Two densely handwritten pages of the observation journal, with a green watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a bottle. On the right, thoughts on stories and aesthetics.

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:

In this post, I wanted to dig in a bit deeper.

The right page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on stories and aesthetics.

The process:

  1. Selecting elements:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    1. 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.
  2. Mixing a plot:
    1. 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:
      1. Main Idea (someone who frames enchanted portraits)
      2. Point of View (flamboyant detective)
      3. Turning Point 1 (detective compromised)
      4. Turning Point 2 (trap sprung by unexpected person)
      5. End (twist)
  3. Identifying possible set-pieces:
    1. 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).
    2. 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.
Tiny pen drawings of women in late Victorian evening gowns near a fern, a woman in a travelling outfit by a gladstone bag, an Oscar-Wilde-ish gentleman, and a collection of clocks and broken ornaments.
Some sketches made the following day


  • 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?

Observation Journal — things that tell you what they’re doing

This observation journal post was an exploration of a pattern I’d noticed in some things I liked and in recent conversations — looking at where I saw it, and what it did, and what I liked about it, and how I could use it. In this case, it was the question of things that tell you what they’re doing.

Double-spread from the observation journal. Two densely hand-written pages. On the left, a page with five things each that I had seen, heard and done, with a picture. On the right, a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Left-hand page: Writing in a second-hand shop where someone kept gradually increasing the volume on “MMM-bop“.

Right-hand page: I’d been thinking about things (movies, books) that tell you what they’re doing, and show you what they are — also talking to Helen Marshall about “books that teach you how to read them.” So on this page, I simply pursued some of those thoughts, and the patterns and links between them.

In particular, it was prompted by two then-recent trains of thought: I’d written the post Making Things Manifest — mock-ups and outlines that morning, and I’d just seen Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (cinema experience illustrated here). It also tied to earlier thoughts on staginess (Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess).

As is often the case with the observation journal, watching the process itself is often the useful thing. In this case, it confirmed to me that this approach was a useful way to think more about what might otherwise have been fleeting interests. Even if, as here, I didn’t reach some overwhelming conclusion, the process of shuffling through my thoughts was valuable, and it helped me clarify some actual interests, and find intriguing new questions to pursue in future — it also underlined a difference between thinking-as-a-reader and thinking-as-a-writer, something I’m still learning.

Observation journal page, densely hand-written pages with a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Some key points:

  • There’s an honesty and generosity to things that are very frank about what they are doing, even (especially!) if that’s experimental. I can be overly coy with drafts, and don’t particularly like highly signalled plots, so this is a useful course-correction.
  • It honours and unifies books-as-objects (and other physical creative activities-as-objects).
  • Strongly genre-specific books are often very up-front about what they are. This also means that if you’re doing something different, it can pay to be explicit. (In fact, if the common trend is strong enough, people still might not even notice the flags you were waving.) This was a common element in the Australian Gothic books I looked at for my MPhil, and when I was writing Flyaway: a reliably beautiful Gothic aesthetic often leans heavily and explicitly on a robust declaration of that beauty wherever possible. (I’m planning a post about that.) There are many reasons to be subtle, of course, but sometimes it’s simply a function of acting too clever for my own good, which can sometimes be mean.
  • That honesty about boundaries and limitations also gives a really useful structural framework to swing around in.
  • A clearly-stated structure, like a clearly stated aesthetic, has a strong gravitational pull. It attracts story to it.
  • And in fact a vivid aesthetic can get a story a long way, if not the whole way (see e.g. Guillermo del Toro).
  • For me, a strong aesthetic sense is one of the sparks that can bring an idea to life (see Observation Journal — a tremor in the web for the process of working that out). So I pushed a little further in that direction, thinking about structures in terms of their relationship to a clear aesthetic — specifically through Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a movie which is very clear about the sort of movie you will be watching!
    • My first note on it was:
      curiosity/hope –> confirmation –> delivery –> reminder and clincher –> satisfaction = never distracted by expecting it to be some other movie
    • But I realised that this was very much me thinking as a viewer/reader rather than as a writer. I was looking at my reactions/interest rather than why I had those reactions.
    • So I broke it down again, looking at where the story signalled and anchored its (extravagantly gleeful and ridiculous) aesthetic/tone (there’s an overlap between those):
      HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play—EXTRA—business—(after denouement) FLOURISH

I hope to tie this to some current interests. One is how narrative time interacts with space and landscape and time (Intermultiversal interview). Travelogues, being literally vignettes from trains in motion, obviously connects to that. But Travelogues is also very up-front about being explicitly descriptions from trains in motion, with no secret subtexts.

The taking of reference photos

Sketches and notes: their purpose


I was going back through photos and found this unused sketch from Kij Johnson’s The River Bank.

This stage of a project is very charming — the snapshots of moments, the hint of movement (or, as here, stillness) and expression. They are usually just notes for myself, but a lot of the work involved in finishing a more formal final illustration is about trying to capture that lightness. (Although when I’m making sketches that will be the final illustrations, there’s a lot of unseen work involved in trying to teach my hand the shapes of what I’ll be drawing).



Sketches in progress for Angela Slatter’s The Tallow-Wife


Something I’m gradually learning with writing is to treat the early stages in a similar way: quick notes on an aesthetic, lists of “lush language” (per Kim Wilkins), just sketching the best bits (including sketching with words) so that the heart and movement is there.


And if you are looking for a pleasant, gentle, sunlit story, with nothing more nefarious than foxes and stoats, written with a deft touch and a loving eye, I highly recommend The River Bank.