On silhouettes and further points of connection

This follows on from yesterday’s post about the structural role of triangles in editing and silhouettes. It’s about the points that connect and strengthen fragile pieces of a design (or, if you wish to extend the metaphor in yesterday’s post, of a piece of writing).

This image is my cover design for Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins‘ Aurealis-Award-winning collection of linked stories, The Silver Well (Ticonderoga Publications, 2017).

The Silver Well

It’s originally a cut paper silhouette that I then used to make a cyanotype print.

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The physical silhouette is delicate (see yesterday’s post for some examples of scale). While structural requirements of cut-paper silhouettes don’t technically matter for a printed cover, they do for the original art (and I enjoy the constraints it gives me to push against, and the physical possibilities and effects they open up for the illustration).

In this case, there were competing requirements. The silhouette needed to look open, airy, and leafy — not like a complete net. But it also needed to be robust enough to (a) withstand the cutting-out of neighbouring tiny pieces, (b) tolerate being picked up, turned over, scanned, printed with, etc, and (c) hold up when framed, and not tear or sag under its own slight but not insignificant weight.

I dealt with this by tiny overlaps and glancing tangents. These can be a problem in some styles of art, but they’re largely invisible in silhouettes — and need to be, to help with the illusion of twigs and leaves waving free in the wind.

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Red circles showing points of connection

These points mean that the tiny twigs support each other in space. They lock together to create a larger rigid areas. I’ve highlighted those areas below.

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Green areas are the strongest, red areas are more isolated

The strongest areas are the ones in green  — roughly triangular, they’re joined to the larger design along one whole edge, which makes them very stable. The red areas are stable in themselves, but they only connect to the larger design at one point, which means they can still shift about, and that all their weight pulls on that one narrow connection.

In that case, I’d usually at least pay some extra attention to that one point — flaring or thickening it slightly. But I could also have locked the design down further by joining it at least at the yellow circles shown below.

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Yellow circles show likely connection points that would add physical strength

Joining it there would have created a much larger rigid area, as shaded in yellow below. But it might also have made the design that bit too dense and self-enclosed for an illustrated branch, more suited to, e.g., a lace edging.  But it is an illustration, and some parts have to be given their freedom.

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The extra connection points would have created this larger area

When I begin a silhouette design, I don’t sit down and count up the connections. The process itself, born of experience and accident and a bit of lacemaking at one point — feels more organic.

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Thumbnail sketches for the cover of The Silver Well

The designs starts with looping scribbles and works its way towards a final arrangement that pleases me. And yet the points where those sketched loops cross over each other have power, and by the final stage those points of connection come into play, tying it all together.

To link it back to writing and editing: those points of connection are often the ones that need to be tightened during editing — little clarifying comments, ambiguous foreshadowing, word choices that resonate across apparently unrelated sections.

Here, by the way, is the final cover — the Aurealis-Award-winning book (which is lovely, and has internal illustrations too) is available from Ticonderoga Publications.

The Silver Well

Art & editing: three points

I mentioned the “rule of three” in my post about keeping editing checklists (aka lessons repeatedly instilled in me by Angela Slatter).

It’s a principle I work with when cutting out silhouettes. Paper is fragile, particularly when cut this fine, and although it’s light, it still has enough weight to tear itself.

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There are variations and opinions on the the idea of the “rule of three”. But tradition and culture and habit aside, it’s in the editing checklist less for its fairy-tale echoes and more for its properties as a physical structural corrective to floppy story elements.

One of the few practical constructions skills I remember from helping (helping?) my dad around the property (apart from the fact a Cobb & Co hitch is often one of the strongest elements of a building), is the importance of a brace — the beam or pole or cross-limb that creates a rigid triangle and stops objects leaning slowly sideways. Think of the planks that make the diagonals of the “Z” on the stereotypical barn door.

That inherent structural stability of triangles is the reason that finally made the idea of three references or repetitions of a clue, background element, etc, make sense to me.

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One reference (or hint, or point of contact) can be fine, if the material is sturdy enough — which paper isn’t. Lots of references can be stylistically fun, if not unwieldy — in a silhouette, they can create confusion, until you only have a field of light and shadow with no sense to it.

But in case of doubt, three little anchor points can be enough to create a stable field within the story, and enough of those form a spiderweb that can hold together quite a fragile lace.

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Four linked covers for Corella Press

 

Editing checklists

A little while ago I posted about my art checklist, which also doubled for writing reference — but for writing, those elements were mostly general storytelling principles and/or diagnostic tools for stories I could tell had some internal failure.

This is my current actual high-level general editing checklist.

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I usually maintain a list at the bottom of a story of things to go back and deal with once I get to the end — known problems, and so forth. And there are others I generally notice when I’m reading through a piece. But this list is — well, to be frank, it’s the things about which Angela Slatter, who does exceedingly thorough critiques, has most frequently scolded me.

Not all of these are necessarily problems at the draft stage — some are useful tricks to get a draft on the page. But I definitely need to remember to take down that scaffolding again when I’m done, and without a list I invariably forget.

Your list may vary! But, speaking as both a writer and someone who marks writing assignments, I highly recommend keeping one.

  • Repetition: I’m not great at noticing overused words, but I’m very fond of using them. They are usually in a draft because I’m going for a particular aesthetic, and the words (in the latest story, “bright” and “glass”) are useful shorthand. But I do need to go back and add some strength and subtlety in the draft.
  • Long sentences: They flow out so nicely! But what’s nice for the writer isn’t always intelligible to the reader. Occasionally they’re justified, but they’re more often a place where I haven’t clarified my thoughts yet.
  • Emotions: I tend to leave emotions out on early drafts, and either assume readers will work them out, or that it will be more efficient to add them in once I’ve locked down the plot. In the second case, I need to be reminded to put them in. In the first case, it’s a disconnect between how I experienced things as a reader of my favourite books, and what the writers actually did to create that effect.
  • Ands: One of the culprits behind long sentences. I can usually drop about 4% of a word count by replacing a judicious number with full stops.
  • Page numbers/headers: Formatting changes sometimes strip these out, and it also reminds me to tidy up the rest of the manuscript formatting.
  • Helicopter descriptions of locations instead of white rooms: This, again, is the disconnect between how I experience things as a reader, and how I need to set up that experience as a writer.
  • “Green”, “pale”, etc: A subset of repetition, but in this case specific words I will almost always overuse, whatever the aesthetic: green, pale, dim, dull, etc. I just like them.
  • I need to add in a few more: “rule of three”, in terms of setting reveals up adequately; “em-dashes”, because they proliferate; and “italics” because even if I don’t describe emotions, that doesn’t mean characters aren’t melodramatic.

If you get the chance to do a workshop with Angela Slatter, or have her critique your story, I thoroughly recommend it.

And the story I used this version of the list on has been accepted and should be coming out late this year or early next! More on that in due course.

Silhouettes, or: Outline View

Occasionally when I talk about silhouettes, I don’t mean silhouettes-as-finished-art but silhouettes-as-part-of-the-process. See, for example Art Checklist (and writing) and the activities in Party Portrait.

Liking silhouettes as I do, I enjoy hiding line and colour layers occasionally, just to see what’s underneath them. But it’s also a useful way to assess the clarity of a design. Most of these unicorns (from this month’s calendar) are fairly self-explanatory, for example. But the one scratching itself needs a little more effort/horse experience to parse: not itself a bad thing, sometimes a silhouette can function as a gestural sketch, and compact designs are appealing.

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Just seeing them in silhouette can also help show up anatomical or perspective vagaries — not always a problem, depending on style, but it’s nice if they’re deliberate (or at least plausibly deniable).

They’re also useful for assessing whether a certain mood is conveyed (this is from March’s Giants).

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They’re also useful for assessing whether I’m happy with how the space is filled — whether it needs more variation, or pollen-dots to fill in vacuums (this one is from October’s “Cold Hands“).

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I’ve been marking essays and commenting on scene cards, for uni, so I suppose the writing application for all this is — as for illustration — really an editing one. The effect can be replicated by writing an outline after the draft is finished, in order to see the clean shape or if any rowdy elements need to be pulled into line.

Art Checklist (and writing)

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I wanted a bookmark-sized list of things to remember when working on an illustration — or, more to the point, of things I know but sometimes forget to do.

Most of the techniques have a parallel for writing (or at least editing).

This checklist is tailored to my own forgetfulness, and is a work in progress. There are already a few more to add, including “emotional key” and “texture”.

  • Give sketches room — Personal. I tend to crowd-out the page.
    Writing: Probably related to legible handwriting and developing ideas a bit more.
  • Movement — Push everything a little further off-balance, like King Pellinore and Sir Grummore jousting.
    Writing: Stories, like sharks, die if they don’t keep moving.
  • Flip it! — Literally why am showing things in this order? What if I force the eye to travel bottom right to top left?
    Writing: Why am I telling things in this order?
  • Mirror — I keep an old bakelite-framed mirror to hold up to art and see if e.g. eyes match. It’s an old art technique.
    Writing: This is the same as looking at things with fresh eyes when editing — leaving it for a time, changing the font, printing it out, etc.
  • Posture — A subtler version of “movement”: what does pose say about thought/personality/tension, etc.
    WritingI actually made this note after listening to David Suchet talk about how he tried to capture Poirot’s posture as Agatha Christie wrote it, so I think it’s the same thing.
  • Exaggeration — Related to movement and posture, but more general: emphasise the telling/important details, make them bigger, abstract until things are meaningful.
    Writing: Same same.
  • Caricature — More personality-based version of the above. Clearly it’s a point I need to come back to.
    Writing: The principles of caricature are useful for descriptions — catching the key/memorable/meaningful elements of a person’s appearance and mannerisms and using them as a touchstone.
  • (Silhouette) — I think this is in parentheses because I mean it two ways: first, does it read clearly in silhouette (a composition question, but also one of character design); second, could I be doing this as an actual silhouette.
    Writing: The first principle is useful for thinking about structure in more physical terms. The second is more idiosyncratic, but sometimes there are stylised structures I’ve forgotten I wanted to play with, and which end up solving all the problems (e.g. for “Kindling” I realised part-way through I wanted to tell it in two points of view from two directions in time, and for Flyaway I was stuck at one stage of the edits until someone suggested one story be embedded within another and I had the epiphany that that’s mostly how I write long things anyway). Strict structural requirements (and silhouettes have those!) often force a story to tell itself.
  • Angle/POV — Worm’s eye? Bird’s eye? Whose eye? Whose distant city? I default to a straight-on eye-level view. Changing it up, even if I revert to habit, can at least reveal new things about the world.
    Writing: The same. What if I describe this room from floor-level? What if it’s told by the maid? Even as a mental exercise, it helps crystallise a scene.
  • Why this scene? Lean into it — Ask the scene to justify itself, and then strengthen (or stylishly misdirect the viewer’s eye from) those reasons.
    Writing: same.
  • Swap or flip or lean into stereotypes — What if the cats in this picture are loyal and foolish and the dogs are aloof and independent? Whenever I play with this I remember so many dogs and cats (or whatever the subject of the stereotype is) who are left out of usual pictures. On the other hand, you can lean so hard on a stereotype it comes around again to being an archetype.
    Writing: I learned this from Sarah Caudwell and Charles Dickens.
  • What is left out? — This is a reminder to myself to use negative space as part of the design, to feature it. Midcentury commercial art is fabulous at this, but I think I was thinking of Evaline Ness when I wrote it. But it’s also a reminder to think of which/whose stories aren’t being told — whatever I do with that thought.
    Writing: There’s negative space in books, too, and stories that are avoided or hinted at. Sometimes consciously and melodramatically leaving a gap is more honest than trying to paper it over. Plus the whole unreliable narrator thing.
  • De-elongate/squash it — I tend to attenuate my figures. This is a personal reminder.
    Writing: This would be like keeping a list of overused words to go back and deal with (in my case, this includes replacing up to 10% of the “and”s with full stops).
  • [Emotional key] — Pick one word or emotion and use it to key an entire scene, to inflect the composition and colour choices. This was a tip from Winona Nelson at 2012 Illuxcon.
    Writing: This tip works very well for editing, too — picking a word or emotion and adjusting sentence length, word choice, etc, to evoke it.
  • [Texture] — Add it, take it into account, don’t keep everything smooth.
    Writing: Primarily descriptive, it’s a reminder to take into account the surfaces of things. One of the patterns I noticed in researching the MPhil dissertation was that (particularly in a genre where things are often not what they seem) paying attention to the surface and texture of beautiful things made them seem truer and more reliable.

Books read, things seen: March 2016

Books

March Books

  • How to Edit a Novel – Charlotte Nash: (full disclosure, I was given a review copy and am friends with Charlotte) A very plain, step-by-step, mechanical approach to editing which is VERY USEFUL as it is easy to get caught up in high-concept flights of editorial lyricism. I’ve been editing a manuscript and used a lot of her pointers, which successfully calmed me down and got the new draft quickly finished.
  • Hellboy: The Chained Coffin, and others – Mike Mignola: I loved this so much. How have I managed not to actually read Hellboy before? It is laconic and wry and yet with a kindness, for all the bloody myths and tales. And the art which is so simple and weighty and full-mouthed.
  • The Rabbits – John Marsden and Shaun Tan (illustrator): This book! The art is so rich. It glows, it looks flat as a mosaic and then the shapes resolve into sails and landscapes, the regimented patterns move with meaning, there are more stories in the tiny details. It has less than 250 words, and they are the high, clear bells chiming out a fine melody over Tan’s orchestral compositions.
  • Edward Grey, Witchfinder, Vol. 1: In the Service of Angels – Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck (illustrator): I enjoyed it, and would read more, but it suffered by following immediately on the heels of Hellboy and being so earnest.
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay: This is such a good book, still, and I don’t know how? I thought it got away with not solving the mystery by not being about the mystery but about the people left behind, and yet on a reread she keeps pulling it back to the investigation as well? It’s a book about the ripples caused by an unsolved mystery, and about the little things that change lives as well as the big things, the weight of something vast and inexplicable on the world. It’s also a reimagining of The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, and beautiful and dreadful. It’s also made me think that the very end of The Lovely Bones weakened that book’s impact.
Picnic at Hanging Rock sketches

Picnic at Hanging Rock sketches

  • The Elusive Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy: C.S. Pacat and I stumbled upon a bookstore which was full of sequels we’d never heard of to very famous books. Now, the Pimpernel sequels are certainly generally known to exist, but this was the first I’ve read. It was a much smaller story than the first, really a battle between two wills, which is something I appreciate in sequels (instead of just making the antagonising forces bigger and badder). Also my personal theory is that Marguerite is the opposite of the cleverest woman in Europe, and in her Paris days people only called her that as a joke BUT Chauvelin, who was in love with her then, thought they were serious, and because he keeps so drastically overestimating her, the Blakeneys continue to triumph.

Seen

March Movies

  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (movie): Twice. We had so much fun. It was silly, but smartly so (new lines frequently taken from other Austen writing), and the production values were solid. I want to watch the outtakes just for more Bennett sisters as a team. I love Pride and Prejudice and many of its revisions, and a couple of these castings and scenes were extremely gratifying additions to the mythology.
  • From Dusk till Dawn (movie): Rooftop cinema. I still don’t know how this movie manages to form a coherent whole.
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (play: Malthouse Theature): For such a visual book, it was fascinating to watch it staged with familiar descriptions but a minimalist, slate-grey set and almost none of the familiar imagery. The night-on-the-rock sequence was fabulously suspenseful, and Amber McMahon’s turn as Michael Fitzhubert was mesmerising.
Amber McMahon

My rough sketch from memory, and Amber McMahon (photo by Pia Johnson from ECU Daily).

  • The Rabbits (opera: QPAC): Affecting and gloriously textured interpretation of the book (see above).
  • London has Fallen (movie): Exactly what I expected, having seen Olympus has Fallen.
  • Zootopia (movie): Another fun movie, surprising, endearing, quotable and honestly the most convincing integration of mobile phones I’ve seen.
  • Hail Caesar (movie): Odd, though frequently gratifyingly so, and less a story than a ‘day in the life of’. I wanted more but also more of this. Peter M. Ball wrote up his thoughts: Would that it were so simple?

 

The Large Amorphous Manuscript

Sketchy characters

Occasionally, I weep elsewhere about the Large Amorphous Manuscript. It is not a novel. It is, perhaps, an outline that is twice the length of what the final story should be. It is a tangled mass of threads, the back of an embroidery, knotted and tangled. And yet there are some shining colours there, in a dozen sentences of describing trees one will stand waving its branches. It is a dense, rough sketch which must be refined, have its composition straightened out, details lost and added, lines inked darker or faded out, textures flooded in.

Illustration is easier.

Sometimes I draw plot points.