Observation Journal: Sharks Eating Stormtroopers, myths and the difficulties of artistic ritual

Note: I’ve put together a draft introduction to the observation journal here: Observation Journal. Comments and further questions are welcome.

Second note: I’ve mentioned Flyaway (which you can buy now), but my next book Travelogues is now available for pre-order! It’s essentially an observation journal, recording a sequence of train journeys, and is out in October.

This page (and the next) of the observation journal are a little introspective, which I’ve said before I prefer to avoid, but the process and stage of the year are interesting.

So, early March was a tense time. I was coming off various painkillers, teaching had started, the PhD was something I was meant to be doing, The Whole 2020 Situation was really kicking off locally, and this incredible last-minute art residency opportunity had come along and people who should have told me “No” were enabling me (spoiler: I monkeys-pawed my way out of that one).

However, as recorded on the left-hand page, there were earrings of sharks eating stormtroopers, and there were apprentices to listen to — I really enjoy this, as quite apart from how nice it is to listen to other people working, it’s fascinating watching people be taught both a trade and the corresponding professionalism. It’s good as a novel.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, handwritten answers to questions about creativity.

On the right-hand page, I was trying out one of the optional journal activities I was giving my students — lifting questions from the interviews with various creative-industries people they’d been set to watch and answering those for themselves. (A useful way to get questions for a journal.)

The questions (set by Associate Professor Kim Wilkins for HUMN3700 — Creativity: Myths, Methods & Impact at UQ) were various, but the ones I used here were as follows. (I’ve included my answers, but they are very particular to me!)

  • How do you define creativity?
    • “A Sudden Wild Magic” [both literally and as a reference to Diana Wynne Jones]
    • Unexpected manifestations
    • Causing things to exist in the world [see also Making Things Manifest]
  • What creative myths are part of your process? (I made a list and then worked out which helped and which hindered)
    • That shouldn’t have any [unsure whether help or hindrance]
    • Bang any two things together & sparks will fly [helps with ideas, less with follow-through]
    • I need uninterrupted swathes of time [mostly a hindrance, except as a reminder to preserve them when they exist]
    • Vague beliefs re When I Work Best [hindrance, although it’s useful to know when there are waves that can be caught]
    • Pavlovian responses [helpful if I remember to implement them]
    • Deadlines are vital [not healthy but also, well, vital]
  • Have you ever had to be fiercely individualistic in your creativity?
    • I tend to go more for plausible deniability or obstructive vagueness. [NB: useful to remember to edit out at the end, but very useful in the early stages, and frankly quite useful in fixing tricky structural problems in creative projects that don’t need to bear literal weight — there’s more leeway to just make things up in a short story than when building bridges]
    • Bit I do like the challenge of pleasing everyone — including myself. In editing Flyaway, for example I was steering between editorial comments to use more emotion, to keep the emotionlessness, and my own preference for buttoned-down characters who feel a lot. It made what could have been sweeping editorial decisions a very pleasing word game.
  • What myths (about creativity) have you come across?
    • Some that appeal, but I don’t really use — ritual, floating-ideas-seeking-manifestation mnemonic [that’s from Big Magic which I initially resisted and then found had some awfully charming methods for tricking oneself — it’s a divisive book among my pragmatic friends but I find it can be read very practically ]
    • Some that aggravate me: “talent” vs hard work especially re draughtsmanship, some aspects of vocation/calling, probably because I can also see the appeal, at least, in some regards. [I can’t quite parse that sentence, in retrospect. Something about thoroughly enjoying the idea of wild romantic creativity as a fantasy while being very prosaic about it in practice. Here’s a great book about vocation that reads like four modern novellas: Ann-Marie Priest’s A Free Flame: Australian Women Writers and Vocation in the Twentieth Century.
    • But correspondingly, “apply-seat-to-chair” omits some steps.
    • And, importantly: Most myths don’t consider admin.

Structurally, the main lesson of this page was:

  • Introspection is (marginally) more palatable to me in dot-points.

Personally, for all my resistance, there were a few good points to come out of this that I’ve continued to pursue in the observation journal:

  • My continuing interest in how to get from idea to thing.
  • The fun of making a game of pleasing/misdirecting everybody.
  • That myths can be very useful, but when I try to use them I get irritatingly pragmatic and evasive.
  • That I really like the idea of High Artistic Ritual but honestly can only manage plausible bohemianism on structured days off.
Makeshift filming set-up involving a reading lamp, a GorillaPod, a drafting chair, a phone and a laptop.

Cover reveal: The Spellcoats

2020-05-09-Spellcoats

A new cover! This one is for the Utz Books edition of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel The Spellcoats (part of the Dalemark Quartet).

The style is to match that of my previous cover for Utz Books’ The Power of Three (which in turn was to match the style of other Utz covers for Jones’s books). The process post for that is here: The Power of Three.

Gili Bar Hillel (of Utz Books) gave a fascinating presentation at the Bristol conference about the process of translating Jones’ novels — you can read that in the published conference proceedings (more information in this post: Howl’s Moving Contracts).

Read and Seen — March 2020

March was… certainly a month, so I didn’t get drawings done, much read, or this post up at the end of it.

But over the last few months I did seem to read quite a bit (entirely, or partially) about time and lives and disguises and occasional plot-incidental cats, so here is a sketch:

March-sketches1

It is said you can’t bring anything through that wasn’t yours to begin with… but that doesn’t stop them following.

Books:

Movies

  • Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (I am very glad this was my last movie at the cinema — it was also interesting for the clarity with which it stated, affirmed, and stuck the landing of its genre/aesthetic choices)

Several of these show up again in my Notes on Books in the observation journal, so I might have more to say later

March-sketches2

Thule Quacks

2020-02-25-ThuleQuacks

Some pencil-and-watercolour sketches of the Road to Babylon, and the very large and intelligent Thule quacks, from Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret.

Deep Secret is one of my favourite Diana Wynne Jones novels — funny and shifting and faceted. It’s also at the foundation of much of my career: it taught me that there were such things as science fiction conventions, and convinced me to go to Canberra for my first Conflux, where I hid in corners drawing. It brought me friends who proof-read things in emergencies (these were thank-yous for that). It brought me to the Diana Wynne Jones fan email list, which is where I met many wonderful people, not least Emma Falconer (whose Fire & Hemlock print is all over my house on wall and mugs) and Gili Bar Hillel, for whose Utz Books I was, incredibly, able to illustrate a book cover for Diana’s The Power of Three. It took me to Bristol last year for the Diana Wynne Jones conference (and a paper that ties to my PhD topic).

And of course in Bristol we went to the Clifton Suspension Bridge and danced a witchy dance, to the profound indifference of the ghost of Isembard Kingdom Brunel.

2020-02-25-ThuleQuacks2

Howl’s Moving Contracts

Electronic-Howl-low-res

Last year I went to the Diana Wynne Jones: Bristol 2019 conference in, obviously, Bristol, and had a wonderful time. Fannish academic conventions(? academic-ish fan conventions?) are wonderful fun, and we made new friends whose tastes we already approved of, and after the convention was over several of us tramped all over, and danced the witchy dance at Clifton Suspension Bridge, and rode a carousel, and tried to find the 21st-century equivalent of Janine’s boutique (some of these references are to Deep Secret which had a formative effect on my career).

Also, although I was between degrees, I gave a paper on:

“Contracts and Calcifer, or “In Which A Contract Is Concluded Before Witnesses”: the Transactional Structure of Howl’s Moving Castle.”

No regrets were had.

And the conference ebook is now available, for £10 : The Proceedings of the Diana Wynne Jones Conference, Bristol 2019.

Table of Contents

  • Diana Wynne Jones Conference E-book – Introduction
  • 1. Everything I learned about running a convention I learned from Deep Secret
  • The Pleasures and Challenges (Expected and Unexpected) of Teaching Diana Wynne Jones in the College Classroom 
  • 2. Teaching Fire and Hemlock and Charmed Life
  • 3. “Not One Hobbit Have I Seen!”: Generic Conventions and Teaching Diana Wynne Jones’ Work
  • 4. Teaching Howl’s Moving Castle
  • 5. Diana Wynne Jones’ Stories for Young Readers: “How Do Young Readers Like Them?”
  • Families and How to Survive Them
  • 6. The Tough Guide to Growing Up: Diana Wynne Jones’ Lessons on Coming of Age
  • 7. Family in the Works of Diana Wynne Jones
  • 8. Step-parents in The Ogre Downstairs and Howl’s Moving Castle
  • 9. Diana Wynne Jones and Cats
  • Wiles and Wisdom
  • 10. Mini, Millie, Magid: Unconventional Women in the Works of Diana Wynne Jones
  • 11. “Drowning in Bleach”: Guilt and Shame in Diana Wynne Jones
  • Under the Influence
  • 12. What Did They Teach Her in Those Schools? Or “Damn It! I’m Turning into C.S. Lewis”: Diana Wynne Jones and C.S. Lewis
  • 13. Where She Got It From: Diana Wynne Jones, Other Towns, and Piers Plowman
  • 14. Invisible and Visible Influence: Diana Wynne Jones, E. Nesbit, and Children Who Are Not Seen
  • 15. Keynote: Living a Charmed Life
  • Concealment and Revelation
  • 16. “Do We Know Each Other?”: Hidden Identities, Referential Characters, and Narrative Possibilities in Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood
  • 17. Concealment and Revelation: Reading Diana Wynne Jones’ Magic through Western Esoteric Traditions
  • 18. Buried Alive: The Arthur/Merlin Motif in the Novels of Diana Wynne Jones
  • Built Environments
  • 19. Contracts and Calcifer, or “In Which A Contract Is Concluded Before Witnesses”: the Transactional Structure of Howl’s Moving Castle
  • 20. Jones and Quantum Foam
  • 21. Making Sense of Settings: How Sensory Description Builds Dalemark
  • 22. Diana Wynne Jones’ Contemporary Medievalism
  • Into the Woods
  • 23. Ideologies of Power in Hexwood
  • 24. Fractured Humanity/Fragments of Humanity in Hexwood
  • 25. Time in Diana Wynne Jones
  • 26. There’s Nothing Magic About Words: Translating Diana Wynne Jones into Hebrew
  • Wizarding Worlds
  • 27. “So Would You Mind Telling Me Where I Am? It’s a Stately Home of Some Kind, Isn’t It?” (Charmed Life)
  • 28. Walled Gardens, Lonely Attics and Public Schools: the Romance, the Canon and Constructions of Englishness in the Chrestomanci Series
  • 29. It Takes a Wizard: Exploring the Role of Wizards within their Communities in Howl’s Moving Castle, Frogkisser! and The Evil Wizard Smallbone
  • 30. The Wizard of a Thousand Faces: Pinning Down the Trickster Wizard in The Howl Trilogy
  • Power and the Corporations
  • 31. A Remedy, or, the Meaning of the Goon’s Small Head
  • 32. “Want Television!”: the “Drama of Screens” in Archer’s Goon (BBC, 1992)
  • 33. “We Need to Make the Place Pay Somehow”: Magical Universities and Money in Year of the Griffin
  • Nationality and Borders
  • 34. Deconstructing Dalemark: an Alternate History of Northern Europe
  • 35. Bounds, Homes and Riding away: An Exploration of Border Representation and National Identity within the Novels of Diana Wynne Jones
  • 36. In Short, the Map is Useless: Cartography and Maps in Diana Wynne Jones’ Books and Stories
  • 37. Diana: My Sister’s Imagination
  • Primary Bibliography: Works by Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Contributors
  • Kickstarter supporters
  • Index of Chapters Discussing Jones’ Books
  • Poems, by Diana Wynne Jones.

The Power of Three

Power of Three - cover⁩

Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favourite (and formative) authors, and it was such a delight to be able to do this cover for her novel The Power of Three, for Utz Books.

Here are some of the preliminary sketches: reading the book again (a lovely twisty, funny, mystical plot, with that sliding-through of perspectives DWJ does so well), getting details right, working out how I wanted to draw aspects.

KJennings-PowerOfThree-WebSketches.jpg

Then narrowing down the cover treatment — the format had to match other cover designs, which is both a challenging and liberating consideration.

KJenningsPowerOfThreeSketchesForWeb

Finally, developing and refining this cover and a treatment and style that would fit the other covers (similar textures, etc).

KJenningsPencilsAndTestForWeb

Illustration Friday: Electronic

Electronic-Howl-low-res

The Illustration Friday topic this week was “electronic”, and since I’ve been regretting my (unavoidable) inability to enter the Folio Society illustration competition, my thoughts were on Diana Wynne Jones’s books, and the unexpected co-appearances of magic and more contemporary technologies.

So here is a Howl, of Howl’s Moving Castle, as loosely suggested by a scene that is in the book, but not the movie!

And here is the original piece, with my hand for scale.

Electronic-Howl-WIP-low-res

Books read, things seen: February 2016

Murder! Heists! Creativity! Secrets!

Continue reading

Paper Daleks (and Urban Fantasy)

Paper Daleks

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Ekaterina Sedia’s anthology of urban fantasy, “Paper Cities”.

It’s an intriguing collection, partly because of its brilliant collection of authors, but also because of Sedia’s definition of urban fantasy as fantasy that takes place within cities, and is about urban life. That sounds like a simple and obvious definition, but it creates a collection which at times seems to have very little in common with either the newer definitions or the older categories to which the title of “urban fantasy” has been applied.

The collection is all the more surprising and unsettling for it, and covers a category which perhaps is outside Gardner Dozois’s subcategorisation of “urban fantasy” into “Mythic Fiction”, “Paranormal Romance” and “Noir Fantasy”, or perhaps is another sort of genre altogether: properly described as fantasy about cities but not falling within the historical genre and its branches which are usually known as “urban fantasy”. I suppose it is like old romance (which may not have love in it at all), “romantic” fiction, fiction with romantic interludes and capital-R Romance.

I am (with a few exceptions) generally in favour of descriptive vs prescriptive approaches to e.g. linguistics and fashion, so I am not going to take arms against any particular definition. I do miss the days when this particular label was pretty much just used to describe Dozois’ “Mythic Fiction”, only because it made it easier to (a) find what I wanted to read and (b) describe what I like to write. Now I tend to just say “contemporary fantasy” because that takes in rural settings, but of course it leaves out fantasy set in this world (or something like it) in other eras.

An aside on Noir Fantasy – at Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” writing workshop, she mentioned that she likes seeing stories which show people in their work, behind-the-scenes, and I have been wondering whether that is part of the appeal of Noir Fantasy (and detective novels in general): that it is one of the few genres (distinct or cross-over) which habitually shows people at work. Not just as a glimpse, but caught up with the whole plot and point of the book.

Of course, even where the job of characters involves another specialisation (i.e. not detection), job-plots frequently turn into some sort of mystery/detection or crime/pursuit story – take John Grisham and Dick Francis, for instance. Or, back to fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret, in which the main characters are a magid/computer programmer and a vet student who still end up trying to untangle a variety of mysteries and murders.

In fact, off the top of my head, the only professions which don’t habitually turn into noir/mystery plots are the creative ones, and in those – if the story is about career – the ability itself turns out to have a magical quality (whether this is in fact the nature of creative professions or a hang-up of writers I do not venture an opinion). Musicians, say, and painters (Charles de Lint, as a general example). Not to say there aren’t stories in which people have regular day jobs, relevant to the plot, which don’t stray into these areas, but it’s an observation.

So, some current favourite examples:

  • Archer’s Goon, Diana Wynne Jones: this meets Sedia’s description, and two of Dozois’, and is about how cities work, how a family in a city copes when the magic behinds it all starts to make itself known, a really awful little sister and how to get a bus in an emergency.
  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman: The descent into London Beneath – the London of the people and places who have fallen through the cracks, where all the odd names are real. This is a very wonderful book, but I confess I love it primarily for the Marquis de Carabas and the Gap (as in: mind the).
  • An Older Kind of Magic, Patricia Wrightson: what happens to the magic as a city gets built up, and what happens to a city when comet light touches it. Also, Sydney in the ’70s.
  • Charles de Lint generally, of course: a city, the magic in it, how the people grow and change over the years, how the city changes, how technological progress is first shunned then cautiously accepted then becomes a magic in its own right…
  • The Etched City, K. J. Bishop: this is closer to Sedia’s selection, and has such a beautifully-built city – this and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station remind me of each other, but Bishop is less harrowing – I’m still intellectually & emotionally bruised after Mieville. However I would describe both as stories in fantastic cities rather than fantastic stories in cities or stories about fantastic cities, although that may split hairs. I would give them as examples, first, of worlds: Mieville’s claustrophobic detail and Bishop’s rather more sparing (but effective) approach.
  • Death Most Definite, Trent Jamieson: because it is my city (also, previously a Dalek).
  • Dark City, The City of Lost Children and Matrix (do you know when it was released?), for movies.

The Dalek Downstairs

The Dalek Downstairs

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Diana Wynne Jones’ The Ogre Downstairs. This was the last of her books which I read, and one of her earliest novels – it has the feel of slightly older British fantasy, with a strong dash of E. Nesbit in the awkwardness of real magic and the particular disasters which unfold, but a great deal of Diana Wynne Jones’ peculiar brand of oddity as well (the tragedy of the sentient toffee bars…) and some typically present and inconvenient parents.

I am ambivalent about strict rules of magic. I don’t like it being too explicable, and I enjoy the freewheeling invention of the magic in (for example) Harry Potter. I think it is better when it is slightly inconsistent. Otherwise it isn’t magic. But I do enjoy the rules of magic working against people – not so much the price of it as the price of not thinking it through. This is one of the few of DWJ’s novels which I remember for concentrating on it. I think Edward Eager may have used it in his novels, Enid Blyton certainly did, C. S. Lewis nodded to it (the trouble with rings and bells in The Magician’s Nephew), J. K. Rowling generally restrains her use of it to the experiments of enthusiastic adult wizards (with the odd flying car or humorous interlude), T. H. White hinted at the difficulties of power in Mistress Masham’s Repose, but E. Nesbit is one of the masters. Her novels are comedies of cumulative magical disasters, whether from actual magic (a magical ring of variable properties in The Enchanted Castle, the wishes granted by the sand-fairy in Five Children and It, an ill-considered application of a fairy godmother’s gift in “Melisande, or Long and Short Division”) or magic found in the everyday (the railway of The Railway Children, the get-rich-quick schemes of The Story of the Treasure Seekers).  They aren’t warnings about magic (it often, indirectly, leads to good things) but they are very vivid illustrations of the necessity of thinking through the consequences of one’s actions!

And I adore how these stories feed into and off each other, often deliberately: the consequences of power of flight or of careless handling of dragon teeth (Five Children and It and The Wouldbegoods) are both echoed in The Ogre Downstairs, the Bastables of The Story of the Treasure Seekers are name-checked in The Magician’s Nephew, which echoes the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, and all of them borrow from other, older stories.

In other news: I have posted a Peter Pan illustration. It is very late, but I have finished a set of illustrations and it isn’t yet midnight and the Dalek is up while it is still Wednesday, and I found a cafe for breakfast which didn’t make me bargain for scrambled eggs, and had a delightful lunch in a French bistro with a friend and a lively law-and-literary discussion with another after work over ale and liqueur coffee,  and had an idea which bodes well for the second story in a triptych. So I can’t complain too much, although I have discovered a taste for plain silken tofu, to no-one’s surprise as much as my own.