Observation Journal — Little Groves

This observation journal page was an exploration of what I like about “little woods and wildernesses” in art and stories and life, and as art and stories.

I’d found one on a walk — a stand of she-oaks in a flood reserve, dense and insular — which led to this page and the June 2020 calendar: Ominous Groves.

Double-page spread of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a cake server. On the right, thoughts on groves.
On the left, an exercise in describing the day’s clouds: furled, fogged, shirred, ruched, rippled, and the crescent moon diffuse through them.

So I went in pursuit of the idea, in search of no grand conclusions (at this point) but trying, I suppose, to find the way in.

The right page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on small forests.

Their origins (for me): CS Lewis and Robert Frost and Frances Hodgson Burnett, Jane Austen and Susan Coolidge and Midsomer Murders, T. H. White, ballads and fairy-tales and home and backyards and parks and childhood. Not Tolkien, whose sense of forests is vast, but Baynes’ illustrations for Tolkien.

Four ink drawing coloured in greeny-blue. A ruined castle behind trees. Two women circling a stand of trees. A statue carrying a jar and a statue of a dancing faun among trees. A skull below and a ghost within a canopy of trees.
My favourites (now more muted) from the June 2020 Calendar

A few points:

  • The pocket-sized-ness of them, and the way they fit into unexpected pockets of the world. (And their ornamental possibilities).
  • Their closely-bound contradictions — pretty but wilderness, ornamental but feral, good but not tame, small but eternal, tiny but encompassing.
  • The existence of an enclosed world, contained, self-possessed and possess-able, cut off from other concerns and yet full of its own rustling existence. Set apart from the outer world, in terms of light and shade, temperature and inhabitants and sound. Different from the staginess of more flamboyant settings, with which a grove might seem to have more in common.
  • The necessity of finding a gate into them, and that they are (after all) bigger on the inside.
  • Their function as a gate to other worlds — forest as psychopomp.
  • Their opacity — their threats and secrets and how they function (small as they are) as a weighted point on the world.
  • What they mean to time — separated from it, bending it, a place where time might be lost, or a treasury of lost time.
  • What is beneath them — from what soil they grow, and what happens among their roots, and how they pin layers of time and worlds together.
  • That they can function as a shorthand for stories (I realise this isn’t a novel idea, but I need to stumble into thoughts for myself) — their function and structure, metaphorically, but mostly their enchantment.

At the time I felt I hadn’t got very far with this look at groves (although the calendar is not nothing!). But in retrospect, particularly in the light of some projects I’m working on now, revisiting this page has brought several ideas (for and about stories) into focus.

And I do like them!

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 — written sketches and samplers

On this observation journal page, I was trying to use the journal in the same way I use my sketchbooks.

Double page of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a fat pigeon.
On the right, a dot point list of ways people held their hands at a cafe.

There are three approaches here.

Left page: casual sketches (written and drawn)

The left page often functions as a sort of sketchbook, anyway — little notes on the day, attempts to capture a sound or a movement or a glimpse (as here: pigeon shadows sliding up a roof to meet their pigeons). Some of these would work as drawings, but might need more work to capture what I wanted to remember (as compared to, say, a sketch of a single puffed-up topknot pigeon).

On this day, I took the observation journal with me on a walk, which is a sure way to fill the page up up far too quickly, and also to walk extremely slowly. But it creates a lovely lyrical impression of the day.

I’ve used this approach for some space/place-based projects — one is forthcoming, but of course Travelogues was written that way, and I’ve talked before (see: Sketching with words) about using this approach when writing Flyaway.

Left page: ROYGBIV

I also did a variant of the ROYGBIV exercise here (see: Observation Exercises). I was looking for colours from the spectrum (in order) in plants that I passed. This is complicated by my limited botanical knowledge, but it creates both a lovely structure for looking at the world and — as a result — a framework for an image of a place and time (Oxley at the end of autumn). Here’s the list:

Bottle-brush/poinsettia; duranta/grevillea; banksia candles/jacaranda leaves; new leaves on various/olive-honeyeater; eyes on ditto/spear on bird-of-paradise flowers; ditto/shadows in rolled tiger-tree bark in cleft; lavender-y patches of bark ditto; purply-pink berries (?); periwinkles; tips & edges of succulents.

Right page: A themed sketch / sampler

When sketching in my sketchbook, I will often pick a single topic to sketch (see sketchbook posts generally). These are frequently (but not exclusively) hands — hands in cafes, hands on books, hands on guitars…

Sketching thematically is useful for several reasons:

  • It’s a great way to pass time.
  • It makes me look closely at something obvious, and find the variety and personality in it.
  • It creates a framework for capturing an aspect of a setting (or moment or demographic).
  • It creates a useful thesaurus or sampler — even if I don’t refer back to the sketchbook, these poses are somewhere now in my hands or mind (see also: On making samplers of various kinds).
  • It can turn into a piece of art on its own (October calendar: Cold hands).

So this observation journal exercise was the same activity, but written.

Dot point list of ways people held their hands

It is a list of the ways people were holding their hands in a cafe.

They are loosely sorted into phone-holders (“Hand holding laptop & notebook, one finger extended to wrap phone & clasp against book”), coffee-holders (“Fingers tucked under saucers, thumbs on edges, fingers supporting sides (of saucers)”); and other (“One hand loosely clasping cardigan closed, other towing dog”). 

I was surprised at the variety (although I shouldn’t have been) — perhaps because when I draw hands it’s just a matter of arranging lines and shadow — I use the same lines, the same shadows. But when I write these notes, I suddenly need to use a whole vocabulary of words for movements (flexed? extended? crooked?) that I don’t usually default to.

Pen drawing of fat topknot pigeon

Writing/art activity

  • Take up a position from which you can observe life. I’m a fan of cafes because the life is in motion so no-one knows if I recorded it accurately or not. Socially-distanced vaccine queues are an option. Livestreams and documentary footage and birds out the window also work.
  • Pick a common/obvious detail of life: how people hold their hands in a cafe, or what they do with their feet in a supermarket queue, or what they do with their faces when listening on Zoom, or how dogs wait…
  • Fill a page with sketches (written or drawn) of just that detail — all the versions you can notice, the commonalities, the slight variations, the personalities that come through.
  • Switch — if you’re a writer, try sketching a couple poses (they can be diagrams); if you’re an artist, see what words you need to capture them.
  • If you want, do a quick (written or drawn) sketch of a scene in your preferred genre or from a favourite drawing, and see if you can incorporate that detail — a dragon waiting the way you saw a dog sprawled in the middle of a thoroughfare, a royal advisor holding a goblet the unexpectedly complicated way someone held a glass in a cafe, a detective scuffing their shoe childishly while thinking… See what it does to the scene or the character.

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: 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

Observation Journal — Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

I’d been using the observation journal to think through the patterns in all the Regency reading I’d been doing in early 2020 (see the previous post on Ridiculous (but charming!) situations).

Over the following weeks I pursued it further — first, simply making a quick list of things I personally did and did not like, and then having far too much fun listing Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities.

1. Likes and dislikes

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, with a picture of someone walking; A list of likes and dislikes.
Crows really do fly like hand shadows

Some of these are quite picky, and many are indefensible.

  • A set way of writing love scenes vs a bit of variety and personality. (But I prefer fade-to-black.)
  • Implausible/unexplained perfumes vs scents that reflect the character’s life and something of their character.
  • Silliness and slapstick vs characters who are very earnest and unaware of the ludicrousness of their situations.
  • Satin and ruffles vs muslin and gauze.
  • Unconvincing stock characters vs absolute commitment to a stock character.
  • Unnecessary angst in the face of obvious love vs love followed by complications vs late epiphanies but without angst.

And of course, all the versions I don’t like can work for me if they’re doing it with absolute defiance and/or doing two things at once.

There’s also a note there, semi-related, from when I ran into Lou on a walk that day and we discussed bathroom breaks in books and where, for example, (as in Diana Wynne Jones) they can highlight relative wealth, etc.

As with the unsubstantiated manifesto, I like making lists of opinions without having to justify them. It’s fun, but it’s also a good way of finding things to play with, either in the observation journal or to see what I can do with them in a picture or a story (how would I describe satin in a way that doesn’t offend my sensibilities?). It’s also interesting to see where my limits are on tropes I broadly like (e.g. descriptions of clothes) — this topic comes up again later in the journals.

2. Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, and a photo of a camera tripod setup, and a list of unlikely abrupt intense proximities
The Home Ice Cream Van gave form to our days

Back in the Ridiculous (but charming!) situations post, I realised all the situations I listed shared “a degree of unlikelihood combined with abrupt intense proximity”. So on this page I just made a list of some of my favourite abrupt intense proximities from romances and rom-coms. Occasionally these are a meet-cute, occasionally they’re a whole subgenre — and they’re not exclusive to romance, of course. Most also work for buddy and odd-couple drama/comedies and for horror stories.

  • Trapped by a storm
  • Locked in a cupboard
  • One bed 
  • Everyone thinks we’re [whatever]
  • Blackmail you to help me
  • Responsible for your safety
  • Joint responsibility for someone else
  • Unwilling guest/host
  • Parties to an arrangement
  • Civility does not permit me to depart
  • You have foisted yourself onto me and now I am not sure how to get rid of you
  • Injury compels me to stay here
  • It is efficient to pursue our parallel interests together
  • Hired to provide a professional service
  • Arrangement of convenience
  • Sibling/ward/friend’s friend
  • Mistaken identities
  • Mistaken personalities
  • Vehicular accident/transport issues
  • Task to complete together
  • Only doing this as a favour for someone else

After that I played around with a few elements, to see what happened to them as they turned into a story. I flipped expectations (see The Caudwell Manoeuvre), ending up with a rough uncivilised Beauty and an elegant, modest Beast, and tried picking an aesthetic or a setting, e.g. a bed and breakfast, or folk horror (why not both?). I’d already been playing with those approaches, of course, but adding a situation kicked the process forward a few steps.

Art/writing exercise

  1. Think of a classic type of situation in your favourite genre (the discovery of the body? the re-emergence of the monster? the race to the airport?) and make a list of some versions of that situation you’ve seen. (Or use the list above).
  2. Then make a list of settings — genre-feasible or not, as you prefer!
  3. Pick one of each at random and sketch (words or pictures) how that situation would work. How would a “chase to the airport” scene work (or what would perform the same function) if you were setting the story on a steamboat? How would the “discovery of the body” work in a bridal fabric store?
  4. See what you learn about what makes those types of situations work for you, and/or about the setting.
  5. Variations: Try it in different genres, or pick the standard characters involved in the situation and flip their descriptions (an aloof, intelligent witness and and an emotionally-overwrought detective?).

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 — application to a story

I’ve put these three pages of the observation journal together because they all relate to the same project — my short story “Not to be Taken” in the poison-themed Egaeus Press anthology Bitter Distillations.

Butterfly on a wine glass

The story began in the journal — I’ve posted indirectly about it before, from the pages where I was first trying to sort out my ideas. It forms the third row from the bottom in (Too) Many Ideas (several elements appear in the final story) and was the subject of the alphabetical list in Reflections and Alphabetical Order (of all those ideas, the final story was closest to “R”, but only if you unfocus your eyes).

By this stage, however, I had written the story and was suffering through the editing process, which I only seem to be able to get through by being dramatic about it (I’ve accepted this as part of my method). So it seemed an obvious subject for journal exercises.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a painted rock). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: A crow shining sky-blue, my housemate trying out her rollerskates, and a new pie shop.

The first was an exercise from Helen Marshall, which has appeared before (10 Terrible Things). It is simply a list of ways I could rework the story to make it definitely worse.

This was a lot of fun and silliness, but in the end it was helpful. Shifting the idea to be about minor characters or flipping all the roles, or changing everyone into birds, made me think more about whether I wanted to keep certain elements, and be more deliberate about the ones I did keep. It also made me check that I was actually liking the story — there are a couple notes there about things that usually help me:

  • aesthetic
  • emotional spine
  • genre
  • character emotions (this is a tricky one but I’m starting to remember to think about it).

The story did not change hugely as a result of this. But it did make me more assured about it. You’ll see the notes there are about tightening the draft and remembering to TAKE CHARGE of my own projects, which is a lesson prompted by a few things last year.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a laptop balanced on a drying rack). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: Hatbush city limits, and arcane symbols

The next page features another activity I’d heard most recently from Helen Marshall (in a subject she was running and I was tutoring): 5 terrible opening sentences. The first example is for “Not to be Taken” (the actual first sentence for which ended up being “Lucinda collected poison bottles”). It didn’t shake up the draft as much — the 10 terrible takes (above) were much more effective for that.

But I also tried it on a non-existent story, and the exercise was very effective for that. Writing bad opening sentences was a very fun way to find a path into an idea, and to quickly develop a cast of characters along the way. Trying exercises out until I work out what they do suit is another good use of the journal.

It was also particularly interesting to note what appealed about each (terrible) sentence, and why — frankness, restrained humour, fun with stock characters (see also: The Caudwell Manoeuvre), and so on.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a butterfly on a wine glass). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: A butterfly breeze, and cobweb weather.

By the next week, I’d actually managed to finish editing the story (and had sent it to Angela Slatter for comment). This page is a simple breakdown of what I actually did (the editing checklist started here), and what worked, and lessons I learned, which included the following:

  • The painfulness of editing is not an indicator that anything is wrong with the process.It will take the time it takes.
  • That will be more time than I want it to be.
  • But faster than avoiding it.
  • Some distraction/inhibition-removal helps.
  • Aesthetic & theme are useful for making decisions.
  • Rule of threes (and thoughts on the stability of triangles — this led to two blog posts: Three Points and Silhouettes and Further Points). 
  • Doggedness & commitment.
  • Dissatisfaction with “predictability” may be a function of reading it 17 times. What’s satisfying for a reader is different for the writer.
Laptop balanced on a drying rack in the carport

Observation Journal — unsubstantiated manifesto

This observation journal page features strong but deliberately not particularly thought-through opinions — and also a council employee dancing dramatically with a whippersnipper.

Double-page spread of observation journal. Left page contains lists of five things seen, read, and done, and a tiny pen drawing of a box with flowers on the sides. The right page is a manifesto described below.

The exercise is from Elizabeth McCracken, who tweeted:

"I gave a new assignment to my workshop: write a short manifesto of things you absolutely believe about fiction without caring if they're wrong or apply to anybody else's work."

I enjoyed this type of manifesto much more than some introspective ones (see: Manifestos (ugh)). It’s rather fun being unreflectively and unsupportedly opinionated. Here’s the list as it stood then (with some commentary):

  • Art should be just absolutely infested with so-subtle-its-invisible allusions & references & foreshadowing. [I don’t like doing puzzles, so I kind of hate this as a viewer, but as long as I don’t expect anyone else to pick up on them, it’s an excellent way to add texture.]
  • Movement trumps accuracy. [I went to the She-Oak and Sunlight exhibition and just sighed a lot at hurrying flecks of people busying themselves across canvases in one or two smears of paint.]
  • Expression ditto.
  • Aesthetic is king. [Guillermo del Toro makes movies for illustrators]
  • Keep it chatty. [An excuse or a philosophy?]
  • Space should be filled with a network of bits.
  • Tinier is easier (it isn’t).
  • With enough SIZE or REPETITION anything can become fine art.
  • The soul of most composition is just this: be deliberate.
  • Why realism, though?
  • Texture and colour like icing is a heaven closed to me. [I write so I can be painterly — there are passages in Flyaway that are deliberately me using e.g. Tom Roberts’ palette and light.]

Revisiting this after almost a year, I don’t think my feelings have changed significantly (although some are being tested, though not threatened, by recent projects). However I’ve been thinking more about them, ever since writing them down. Some have turned into exercises and workshops; some have helped me make clearer decisions; some are lessons I never learn.

Here is another element that emerged from the journal! It’s a tiny note on which jagged leaf shapes were most fun to draw (at least in ballpoint pen).

Cropped section of the left page of the observation journal, with tiny jagged drawn leaves loosely coloured in green water and a note that says "Discovered [picture of loopy jagged leaf] is more fun (& easier) to draw than [long sawtooth leaf] or [rounder jagged leaf]"

Together with some ornaments from a summary page, these leaves made it into the May 2020 calendar (also demonstrating repetition, small drawing, and filling up space with bits).

A pattern of unicorns, stars, and vines with small jagged leaves, on a twilight green-blue background
The design is available on Redbubble on cushions, throws, clothes, etc, and on Spoonflower as fabric and wallpaper.

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: abbreviations and omissions

The observation journal doesn’t always go to plan.

I try to do it every week day — I enjoy it, and it feels like an achievement (reviewing, and using it for class, and posting about it all add impetus, of course), and I wanted to prove something — and also it is possible to complete it in under 10 minutes, although I rarely do. I also have a few go-to activities for when I’m finishing it very late at night — they haven’t appeared yet, but they’ll start showing up soon.

I don’t keep it on weekends, although it makes me feel as if wonderful things are passing me by. But originally I wanted to set a reasonable example for the students who had to keep a journal for assessment, and it’s nicer to be wishing I was doing the journal than resenting it, and also to have a couple of days to reset and review and be eager again! (Life lessons…)

Double page observation journal spread. Each is divided into four boxes, containing respectively 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture (one of me standing on one leg pulling my hair, the other of a hot water bottle).

But very occasionally I’ve simplified the situation and just completed the observation pages (as above, when I had a procedure during the week — it was only moderately urgent, and I think the specialist was just happy to have a procedure he was allowed to do in that early lockdown).

And once or twice I slept through it.

Double page spread of gridded paper across which is written "Somehow I actually, for the first time, fell asleep w/o doing this. But = first time!"

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?

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 — do it for the aesthetic #2

This page of the observation journal is an immediate follow-up to/variation on the previous page (see Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic).

Double page spread of observation journal, handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture (of biscuits). On the right, a chart of a story structure with drawn and handwritten notes of people in Victorian settings.

I’d wanted to try the exercise (tracking through a story from set-piece to set-piece) from the previous page, but with more elbow-room.

The aesthetic/thematic structure I was using here was from my notes on Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears and other things that tell you what they’re doing.

HINT (before inciting incident)—playESTABLISHplay (this is kind of the middle half of the book, keeping the aesthetic in play)—EXTRA (this is round about the big crisis)—business—(after the main ending) FLOURISH

Densely hand-written page with a chart of a story structure with drawn and handwritten notes of people in Victorian settings.

I drew a timeline and jotted down a few notes for each of those stages, e.g. “eccentric/museum overdecorated, perfumed, scented smoke, etc”. Then I began sketching little settings and scenes and people, along with additional notes — everything from detail it was hard to draw (“illuminated corsage” — a real thing from the era), to bits of dialogue (“this requires a clocksmith”).

I’ve noted that I’d like to develop the idea of this structure a bit further. But simply sketching out an idea — getting it on paper at all and (for me) especially as pictures — helped develop new ideas, and much more specific ideas. “Blossoming velvet” and “cloying” becomes a picture of a particular ornamental birdcage, the silhouette of dresses evolves, facial hair is acquired, hairstyles rise and fall, poses are struck. But throughout, having a clear aesthetic made me stay on track.

After this, I did keep playing with questions of a key aesthetic (more in due course), but lately the drawing-a-prose-idea has also been an interesting line of enquiry.