Observation Journal: Tinkering with story engines

Around this point in the observation journal, I spent quite a few pages tinkering with how ideas worked — which ones appealed to me, and where they might come from, and if I could deliberately recreate the process. I wasn’t so much trying to write a story as watching myself work, looking for the little epiphanies that make a story emerge, and tricks I could use if I got stuck on something I was writing.

However, some of these exercises led directly to projects which aren’t finished (or aren’t published) yet, so I haven’t posted the pages. Others, like the blue page below, led to stories which have evolved into something unrecognisable. And some (like the pink page) didn’t work, for reasons which were also interesting.

This first page combined several previous exercises, and revealed a bit more about the aspects that were useful (for me) and the ones which didn’t work the way I do.

Here are all the stages/exercises, with links to some related posts (I’ll add more if I find them):

  • Idea: First, I picked three things at random from preceding observation pages (here: arcane symbols, working blocks, using a laundry rack as a laptop stand — pic). Then I used those three to come up with a base concept (using household objects for arcane [vibes?]).
  • Aesthetic: I then picked an aesthetic. The three objects themselves suggested a down-at-heel contemporary tone, which I wasn’t feeling. So I flipped that into something smokier and Victorian. (On the second page, I chose both a colour key and a place-aesthetic.)
  • Swapped stereotypes and cliches: Next, I chose some of the obvious stereotype pairings (mundane/magical and wizard/housewife), listed some associated words, and swapped them. So the housewife becomes mysterious, aloof, and robed in velvet and the house is a site of arcane ritual and (apparently) carpets, while the wizard is cheerful and stout with a clean apron and magic is associated with domestic work.
  • Contrasts and impetus: Then I started feeling for where the pressures behind the story might be — where the points of tension and conflict come from. In this case velvet-draped darkness and sunny good-humour seemed an amusing contrast at least — perhaps one hires the other and must deal with the unexpected consequences. A cheerful wizard takes on a morose relative as housekeeper, or a Gothic housewife hires an inappropriately upbeat necromancer to reanimate someone who died.
  • More flipping: I also tried looking at what they might want and what could stop them — picking the obvious goals and obstacles and inverting them. This was fun but the standard question of a character’s goals and motivations has never felt instinctive for me (and generally aggravates me) — I’ve tinkered more with that question since.
  • Structure: It wasn’t quite shaping into a story yet — there are some notes there reaching toward story-shapes and styles of humour that might match the idea. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Enchanted April and Lolly Willowes. On the second page I more deliberately chose (at random) a sequence of story moods and used it to suggest how a story might take shape, which helped a lot, and when I came back to expand the (unrecognisably altered) version of this idea, I used that approach to expand it.
  • Finally, the point of this exercise was not to write a story but to watch how I work. (See e.g. the questions at A tremor in the web.) So I made a few notes on where the idea sparked or why perhaps it didn’t. The main lessons were:
    • I continue to enjoy mixing/matching/flipping in order to come up with an idea. This remains consistent, and fun for roadtrips.
    • An idea isn’t enough without a story shape to flow into.
    • The aesthetic has to appeal to me (or be made to appeal).
    • An idea, story shape, and attractive aesthetic aren’t enough (without e.g. extreme outside pressure) if it isn’t a type of story/genre I care to write. This was in relation to the second page, which turned into more of an experimental romcom idea.

Observation Journal — time vs floors and ceilings

It’s all a bit Alice-in-Wonderland

As well as an excuse to draw Alice in Wonderland (see previously), this page of the observation journal was an opportunity to think about me vs time. Specifically, it’s a musing on the pleasant and horrible aspects of treating a deadline as a ceiling vs the present as a floor.

The well-known meteorological classifications “high little many clouds, & lower puffy ones”

I have always been a deadline-motivated person, as well as very good at procrastinating (I don’t know which is the cause and which the effect). But some combination of 2020 and too many deadlines were breaking that system. The really useful aspects of deadlines (motivation, eventually, and productive procrastination) were suffering.

Changing my approach and treating now as a place to begin seemed promising. But it’s a skill I only learned very recently (at the beginning of my MPhil, in fact) and it is not yet innate.

Time vs me is, I suspect, an ongoing process rather than a work in progress. And these approaches are less in opposition than part of a continuum. A setting I need to constantly, consciously slide and adjust according to circumstances — ideally before but certainly when (as recently) cracks open and things fall into them. (Apologies.)

Potplant vs ceiling

Some previous Alice, also available on Redbubble and Spoonflower.

March-2017-Calendar-Detail5.jpg

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 — project reviews (calendar art)

On this observation journal page I was continuing to work out an approach to project reviews that felt useful for me.

Left page: the soft sounds of water, a macrame fitting, how much can fit into two hours

This review is for the July 2020 calendar art (below) — a pattern of sewing implements sprouting flowers.

An illustration on a blue background of various sewing implements sprouting cover flowers and daisy chains

This review focussed on three main things:

  • What worked/what I was happy with (e.g. the usefulness of parameters; specificity and responses to it — I was delighted by how many people were pleased by the mere presence of the tatting shuttle)
  • What could have been better (e.g. planning colour placement at the sketch page instead of being surprised by the massive pinkness of strawberry pincushions)
  • What I wanted to try next time (e.g. more specifics, specifically of the fantastic-industrial type).

This approach didn’t cover everything I wanted a review to cover — the time the project took, for example, and people’s responses as a separate area to think about, what made a project “click”, and why I did things the way I did. That last would get into the process again as a distinct question the following week. In particular, I wanted the project review pages to catch ideas I wanted to pursue, rather than just coldly tinkering with the process.

But the page did lead to a little chain of thoughts on industrial fabulism (here: “fabulist-practical and the industrial-fantastic”), already something I knew I was interested in, and which seemed to appear in previous projects (aspects of “The Heart of Owl Abbas” and “Kindling”, for example). It’s not directly connected to steampunk per se, and isn’t so much the part where I added magic to real tools in this picture. It’s the parts where unexpected beauty was hidden in them — the wax-rose, and the glass beads on the lace bobbins, and the existence of bird-clamps (hemming birds). It’s in the specificity of technical drawings and practical diagrams and the more lyrical type of article in motor magazines (there’s a note there to buy a book with some of my favourite farming illustrations in it).

I’ve mentioned industrial fabulism previously, in relation to Travelogues, but this is where it first began to show up in the journals — I’ll post more thoughts on that soon.

Observation Journal: Drawing from other images

I often use the observation journal to work out ways to vary activities, and swap them between media. (I recommend that as a general creative exercise in itself — picking a task from some other field of creativity and trying to swap it into your own.)

This page was a continuation of the mixed metaphor activities, playing with visual recombinations (see: Variations on descriptions, more swapped descriptions, and similes and genre flips). However, because I didn’t really choose a target object, but just explored combinations of two concepts, it does skew close to simply mixing and matching for new ideas — see: Improbable inventions.) But that’s okay — I was feeling out the edges of the activity.

Basically, I took two items at random from the last few observation (left-side) pages, and considered how they might influence each other in an illustration.

So for example:

  • “ferns + pressure hose” suggested the vigour and angles to use in a drawing of ferns, affecting the composition, and leading to a little bird being driven forward in the general momentum.
  • “startled” and “dog with ball” suggested the use of more exaggerated body language and facial expressions when drawing someone who is startled (or joyfully chasing a ball).
  • “Beads” and a person who “always takes off their jacket in the shade” suggested using shade more deliberately (obscuring details), adding details of beading and missing/fallen beads on a dress, and generally adding extra movement to someone dropping beads.
  • This then turned into a note about a Cinderella who is always dropping things — hairpins, beads, etc. Presumably, this was to make the lost shoe in-character, but the following note says (evidence? Gattaca?).

Writing/art activities
(nb these are mostly variations of previous exercises, so you can find examples of similar approaches at e.g. Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye and variations on descriptions)

  • Stealing descriptions 1
    • Make a three lists of five things from your day: things seen, heard, and done (this part is adapted from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus). Or just look around you.
    • Pick two items at random.
    • Consider how you could use one of those objects to draw the other — do a few sketches. (For writers, consider how would you use one to visually describe the other, and write a short paragraph.) You can be as literal or lateral as you like. The sound of clanging steel could suggest the way light might reflect off an object, for example, or the deepness of velour might incline you to deepen the shadows.
    • Try two or three variations for each pair.
    • If any suggest more of a world or a character, or echo a story you know, pursue the connections and see where you end up.
  • Stealing descriptions 2
    • Choose two objects at random (e.g. a teapot and a cat).
    • Describe or sketch one literally.
    • Then adapt that description (e.g. of the teapot) to the second object (e.g. the cat) changing as little as possible. (For writers, start by just swapping out the nouns).
    • See what possibilities or impossibilities you end up with. Develop the sketch/description further if you like.
  • Borrowing at large
    • Think of another field of creative endeavour (or even non-creative). Quilting? Shearing? Search for some exercises, activities, or tutorials in that field.
    • See how much of that exercise you can adapt into your own writing/art/other medium. Can you follow it literally? Adapt crop rotation principles to a work schedule? Use a traditional patchwork pattern to suggest a story structure or scene composition?

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 — a sequence of week-in-review pages

Here is a series of end-of-week summary pages from the observation journal. (I wrote about the structure of the summary pages here: reflections and summaries.)

It’s useful having these pages, both to catch big ideas at the end of each week and to look back on them much later, following the little growing fascinations, the recurring epiphanies, the big and little moods, the lessons I did learn and the ones I won’t.

For example, this time I notice that apparently I like these shades of green. (Previously on colours.)

The same goes for the “Things to Do” page: it’s more a list of possibilities than actual tasks, so there are items that are carried forward week to week until they suddenly turn into a project (I did finally order the foil cards), and ones that get set aside, or are written off but suddenly roar back into my field of vision a year later, or are just there as a reminder to keep in mind.

So below is a five-week run of summary pages, with some of the points that now seem most interesting to me extracted.

Week-in-review c 25 April 2020
  • 2020 effectively squashed most of my domestic urges.
  • While the journal is great for writing blog posts, this blog is also one of the things that keeps me reviewing the journal.
  • The (useful, if I act on it) frustration of not making things, whether because of admin commitments or because I’m just splashing around coming up with ideas.
Week-in-review c 2 May 2020
  • I like colour! I do so much linework I need to remind myself of this. It also makes the journal more of a pleasing object to keep and review.
  • The playful aspects of the journal do get into more formal projects.
  • The power of unlikely abrupt intense proximities for creating stories.
  • The joy of being silly when classifying things.
  • The charm of specificity.
Week-in-review c 9 May 2020
  • How much easier everything is if I (am legally allowed to) leave the house for some portion of the day.
  • The effect of a shape on a story.
  • Relatedly, making space for a thing to happen makes it more likely to happen.
  • Flipping and hypothetically remixing a story (my own or others’) is a way to take charge of an idea.
  • How characterisation works when it is done by creating sympathy for a character off the page. (Related, or at least I should link the ideas: Sympathy for characters)
Week-in-review c 16 May 2020
  • Going outside is nice but I have enormous difficulties achieving escape velocity. (My whole family does. I used to have volcano-and-bushfire nightmares in which we kept having to rush back into the house to get things we’d forgotten… thanks Children’s World Book Encyclopaedia and assorted Ash Wednesday bushfire novels.)
  • The charm of playing something (even the magical/unlikely) very straight and low-key. (I think this was prompted by murder mysteries.)
  • I’m more likely to get editing done if I just keep tinkering my way into the story than if I start with some strategic plan.
  • Key ideas (this reference-story, that painting as a visual key) are very useful for narrowing editing choices.
  • Doing something, and keeping on doing it, even in small ways, reduces later bars to entry.
  • The extreme usefulness of tentative mock-solutions. (Not closely related, but not unrelated: ten terrible things.)
Week-in-review c 23 May 2020
  • Changing ONE thing in an idea (varying one character in a story, picking one colour note to commit to), and then following the consequences, is sometimes more interesting than flipping everything.
  • The power of definiteness in first lines. (Staring at sentences; First sentences.)
  • Reading is a necessary and relevant part of the job!
  • The pull that a strong aesthetic exerts both on the story being written and on the reader, to pull them into it. (If the reader is me: aesthetic posts).
  • Perhaps not unrelated to the above: how many of my favourite first lines highlight a setting more than a 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 — or I will once we get out of lockdown again!).

A few more uses for the observation journal

Just a few pages

The original purpose of the observation journal was to demonstrate a feasible approach for students who’d been set observation journals for assessment (the early days). It turned into a place to consider, reflect on, adjust, tinker with and riff on written and drawn stories, and other aspects of how I work. (NB: Words in bold throughout are a list of journal uses, so that I can easily find them again.)

From there it became a source of ideas for articles and material for blog posts. It’s served as a very handy set of tools for fixing problems on other big projects. Something I continue to like about this approach is how it evolves and adjusts to my needs and interests at any point in time.

Over the last few weeks I’ve given a number of workshops to writers and illustrators (at the Queensland Writers Centre), to art teachers (at the Queensland Art Teachers Association conference), and to English and art students (from grades 4 to 11 at Concordia Lutheran College). I’ll post more about those soon.

A few of the workshops

The observation journal has been invaluable for preparing all of those workshops.

Indirectly, it has been the place I worked out how to explain my own techniques and working theories. More directly, exercises I refined for my own uses have turned into workshop activities (see writing/art — either tag will bring up most of the same posts).

Other pages have taught me what sort of questions to ask after doing an activity — a little mental stockpile of approaches and variations. And the physical pages themselves have become a voluminous stock of material to serve as references, examples, illustrations, and ornaments for slides.

This wasn’t particularly planned. Largely, it’s a demonstration of the (occasionally unexpected) usefulness of simply tinkering away at something, adding to it little by little and bit by bit. One of the other benefits of small things.

But I’ve learned, now, that (a) keeping on learning and thinking about how I work and (b) remembering to go back and sift through those thoughts for material, is a very useful way to develop workshops that are on topics I want to talk about!

Observation Journal — story patterns

This observation journal page continues a previous activity, playing with story structures.

I read through a few more short stories and made notes of the big segment-moods through which the stories moved. I was trying to think of these shapes separate from those stories, but I do wish I’d made a note of what stories they were! One of them was an M.R. James.

Double handwritten page of observation journal. On left page, 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a toy rabbit. On the right, notes on story structures.
Rosettes of lichen, ants in an apple.
(The page number at the top right should refer to p115 instead of 111 — this system is useful but not infallible).

If this approach to thinking about stories (written or drawn!) resonates with you, I encourage you to make your own list based on short stories you like. But for completeness, here are all the short story shapes from this page and the previous one:

  • Ordinary — inkling — confirmation
  • Reluctance — engagement — deepening
  • Humorous sketch — elements clash/conflagration — fall-out
  • Inkling — build — reveal-behind-the-story
  • World — deeper — dissolve into it
  • Unsettlement — deepening horror — the cusp of annihilation.
  • Ominous — compounded — twist (of plot or knife)
  • Formation of goal — quiet progression towards goal — achieves goal
  • Inkling — red herring — solution
  • Foreshadow doom — Proceed towards doom — [evade] doom
  • Meet cute — complication — HEA (happily ever after)
  • Fragments — facets — whole
  • Situation — failures — successes
  • Door — something through — pushed back
  • Metaphor — metaphor — metaphor
  • Suspicion — Peel back — truth & consequences

They fit short stories, and while each trio could fit in a single illustration, they also work nicely for sequences of at least three (at the risk of feeling like an instructive Victorian cartoon).

After making the list, I again remixed and rearranged the orders, to see what sort of stories each new grouping suggested to me. For example, “Ordinary — deeper — fall-out” suggested the horror behind the mundane, or a secret history. “Dissolve into the world — conflagration — inkling” could fit a ‘getting of wisdom’ plot. “Confirmation — build — unsettlement” might be about discovering someone or something has feet of clay.

This process is not about reinventing the wheel of story structure. It was about learning what the shapes of stories mean to me. The thinking-through is the point. That said, now that I have the list, it sometimes comes in useful for quickly giving shape to an idea (written or drawn!). I’ll post some examples of that soon.

(If you’d like an art or writing activity, there’s one based on this in the previous story structure post.)

Observation Journal — more swapped descriptions

I wrote last month about using the observation journal to play with descriptions, for pleasure and observation, texture and worldbuilding (see: Variations on descriptions).

Pen sketch of cut apple and knife

Here’s another example of that first iteration: choosing two terms and swapping the descriptive approaches.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a honeyeater. On the right, swapped descriptions.
Left page: Distant thumping, and forgetting to move when doing art.

So, for example, this time I described sound as light (peals like light on a ruffled lake; a clean cold sound, warm as a slate grey dawn) and light as sound (light heavy and flat as a muffled bell; gold midday like a swarm of bees). Then I switched to describing foliage as animals (a lean and muscular forest, still and wary; leaves that hissed and slithered over each other) and animals as foliage (a horse’s mane and tail streaming like grass in a river).

The next day I took a different approach.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a honeyeater. On the right, a list of similes.
Left page: billowing deck chairs and muttering pigeons, and getting overexcited about being outdoors.

In this case, I took two items fairly randomly from the left-side observation pages, and used one as a metaphor or simile for the other. As a result, it’s more directed than the first approach, and requires more specific thought, but is just as much fun. The trick here is finding the similarities — what makes a bush turkey like an etched glass, or balloons like cold cocoa?

There are a few that I like for their own sakes:

  • Cats glinting & flickering through striations of sunlight, as ever-present and ungraspable as the humming buzz of the powerlines.
  • A reclusive neighbour disappearing, like the statue of Mary, into the brilliant autumn overgrowth.
  • The embarrassment lingered, interminable as a distant freight train.

But generally, this version has more of a parlour-game feeling to it, and is less about the sound of words than about concepts and observation and argument (all also good things).

And it also emphasises how drawing a comparison from within a world (whether the world of a Brisbane suburban winter, or a more dramatic and fictional place) helps build a sense of the world and how things fit into and push against it.

Pen sketch of a honeyeater
Patterns on a honeyeater

Writing/art activity:

Similart to the previous one, except this time:

  • Make a list of things you’ve seen recently.
  • Pick two at random.
  • Then:
    • For writers: Describe Thing 1 as being obviously like Thing 2 — at length.
    • For artists: Draw Thing 1 by calling on all its similarities to Thing 2 — you can distort the image, if necessary, but finding subtle parallels and forcing them into prominence is particularly effective (here are some fast sketches of household items as people).
Watercolour sketch of reclining woman, based on a milk jug.
A small jug

Do Panic

Amateur Opossum Actress by Rebecca Kriz

I bought a print of “Amateur Opossum Actress” by Rebecca Kriz, because this is basically my approach to any endeavour with a deadline or other degree of commitment/external expectation.

At this point, it helps to acknowledge that behaving like this is simply my process. It takes a lot less energy to plan for dramatics than to try and avoid them.

(I also schedule panicking time for some projects, so when I’m hyperventilating and people check up on me I can say ‘No, this is fine, this is what I’m meant to be doing!’)

If you, too, are an amateur opossum actress, I highly recommend buying a print from Rebecca Kriz!

(The other illustration is an original Belinda Jane Morris painting for my story “Skull & Hyssop” — the story was in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #31, the painting was a last commission from the days of being a lawyer. The cross-stitch is Rapunzel, designed & stitched by me even longer ago.)

Observation Journal — variations on descriptions

This observation journal page has what is now one of my favourite observation journal activities. It’s a chance to be poetic and/or silly, a splendid vocabulary workout, and also intellectually soothing enough to do late at night.

Variations keep emerging, but this is one of the first I tried (and is particularly useful for exploring variations on a central theme). It was preceded by “One of these things is quite like the other ones” — an arguing game (see the end of The Emma Heist).

Observation journal spread, densely handwritten, pink watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a rock grown into a tree. On the right, lists of swapped descriptions.
Unicorn piñatas and bougainvillea-shrouded statues, glittering cats, finger limes, and a rock grown into the fork of a tree.

The basic idea is to pick (at least) three nouns. One noun is “it”. Next, describe that noun using descriptions more commonly used for (or words more commonly associated with) each of the other nouns. I try to get at least 10 descriptions for each of those two reference words.

So on this page, I wanted to write some descriptions of light. But I keyed the descriptions to the way I might ordinarily describe (a) water and (b) tin cans.

Handwritten page using terms associated with water and tin cans to describe light.

So, for example, describing light using terms I associate with water, I get:

  • light rivered and pooled
  • sunlight that eddies around your ankles
  • buildings an archipelago of shadows in the swift, bright tide of autumn
  • tepid, stagnant light in the parlour
  • a chill trickle of moonlight

And for “tin cans” there is:

  • a hard enamel of light
  • jagged edges of light
  • corrugated and smoke-rippled autumn air
  • the light had a clean, crimped quality, as if the town had been sealed against contamination
  • a chill bright day kicked ringing like a can along the street

It is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise, but also surprising. It pulls out unexpected metaphors and similes, it forces me to look with new eyes at the reference terms (how many thoughts do I associate with tin cans?). It tunes aesthetics (industrial beauty? aquatic moods?) and begins to build little worlds (how does light work in this place, and how do people interact with it?). And changing my perspective on the first term (light) in two different directions sets up echoes and comparisons and resonances.

Related posts and writing:

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick three nouns at random — common ones you can see around you, or try a random word generator.
  • The first noun is the one you will have to describe (or illustrate).
  • But first, look at the other two nouns. Think of their characteristics, and things you associate with them. It could be words or cliches, myths and moods. Or it could be shapes, textures, colours, weight and movement.
  • Now look back at your first noun:
    • Writers: Make a list of descriptions, metaphors, similes, etc describing the first noun, but using those associations from the other ones. (I like to try to do 10 descriptions for each of the reference nouns).
    • Illustrators: Try to draw the first noun using the (textures, colours, associations etc) of the reference nouns (one at a time).
      (NB. If you’re using more conceptual nouns, you might have to get particularly creative — but feel free to limit yourself to visible, concrete nouns. Drawing a fox using textures (for example) more associated with a staircase and velvet is a rather different artistic proposition to illustrating the idea of a program using imagery you associate more with hope and intellect — although both are quite possible.)
  • Take a step back and notice how the activity went. Where were the surprising resonances, the difficult mismatches, the things you began to notice about any of the nouns? Where did you push against your default settings? How are the two different directions different, and what did they reveal about the core idea with which you began?

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).