I’m newly arrived back in Brisbane (just in time for a snap lockdown!) after a wonderful but intensive week as artist/writer-in-residence at Concordia Lutheran College in Toowoomba — my old boarding school.
I’ll post more about it when I’ve organised my thoughts and have some photos from the school that I can share. However it was a wonderful week of workshops with grades 5-11 (and incredibly supportive librarians and teachers) on writing, ideas, the illustration process, using drawings to write and narrative structure to draw, and industrial fabulism, and the Gothic, and the Australian Gothic, and Australian Gothic Birds. The students went all-in, and developed ideas for some fascinating (and not infrequently horrifying) work.
I am now going to sleep very thoroughly. But to keep you awake, here’s a quick sketch I did based on one of the ideas the Grade 5s had, of a ghost with a clock where its face should be.
This observation journal post was an exploration of a pattern I’d noticed in some things I liked and in recent conversations — looking at where I saw it, and what it did, and what I liked about it, and how I could use it. In this case, it was the question of things that tell you what they’re doing.
Left-hand page: Writing in a second-hand shop where someone kept gradually increasing the volume on “MMM-bop“.
Right-hand page: I’d been thinking about things (movies, books) that tell you what they’re doing, and show you what they are — also talking to Helen Marshall about “books that teach you how to read them.” So on this page, I simply pursued some of those thoughts, and the patterns and links between them.
As is often the case with the observation journal, watching the process itself is often the useful thing. In this case, it confirmed to me that this approach was a useful way to think more about what might otherwise have been fleeting interests. Even if, as here, I didn’t reach some overwhelming conclusion, the process of shuffling through my thoughts was valuable, and it helped me clarify some actual interests, and find intriguing new questions to pursue in future — it also underlined a difference between thinking-as-a-reader and thinking-as-a-writer, something I’m still learning.
Some key points:
There’s an honesty and generosity to things that are very frank about what they are doing, even (especially!) if that’s experimental. I can be overly coy with drafts, and don’t particularly like highly signalled plots, so this is a useful course-correction.
It honours and unifies books-as-objects (and other physical creative activities-as-objects).
Strongly genre-specific books are often very up-front about what they are. This also means that if you’re doing something different, it can pay to be explicit. (In fact, if the common trend is strong enough, people still might not even notice the flags you were waving.) This was a common element in the Australian Gothic books I looked at for my MPhil, and when I was writing Flyaway: a reliably beautiful Gothic aesthetic often leans heavily and explicitly on a robust declaration of that beauty wherever possible. (I’m planning a post about that.) There are many reasons to be subtle, of course, but sometimes it’s simply a function of acting too clever for my own good, which can sometimes be mean.
That honesty about boundaries and limitations also gives a really useful structural framework to swing around in.
A clearly-stated structure, like a clearly stated aesthetic, has a strong gravitational pull. It attracts story to it.
And in fact a vivid aesthetic can get a story a long way, if not the whole way (see e.g. Guillermo del Toro).
For me, a strong aesthetic sense is one of the sparks that can bring an idea to life (see Observation Journal — a tremor in the web for the process of working that out). So I pushed a little further in that direction, thinking about structures in terms of their relationship to a clear aesthetic — specifically through Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a movie which is very clear about the sort of movie you will be watching!
My first note on it was: curiosity/hope –> confirmation –> delivery –> reminder and clincher –> satisfaction = never distracted by expecting it to be some other movie
But I realised that this was very much me thinking as a viewer/reader rather than as a writer. I was looking at my reactions/interest rather than why I had those reactions.
So I broke it down again, looking at where the story signalled and anchored its (extravagantly gleeful and ridiculous) aesthetic/tone (there’s an overlap between those): HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play—EXTRA—business—(after denouement) FLOURISH
I hope to tie this to some current interests. One is how narrative time interacts with space and landscape and time (Intermultiversal interview). Travelogues, being literally vignettes from trains in motion, obviously connects to that. But Travelogues is also very up-front about being explicitly descriptions from trains in motion, with no secret subtexts.
The setting was inspired by a decaying set of sawmill buildings on a sliver of land that would have once belonged to the corner of our property (I did confirm I could go out there!).
I drove back out that way when I was editing Flyaway — checking my memories and taking notes. I found the overgrown gate and climbed over and walked through the trees the same way “Jack” returns in the book.
It was both far closer than I remembered and much, much further.
The day was bright and the dry grass cracked. There was no phone reception and the buildings had… changed. The old detritus had been cleared out. There were a few boxes there with things left over from other people’s lives. A few chairs, although they could not be sat in, were arranged on the porches as if someone had been sitting there a few moments before.
And of course in the years since I’d last been there, I had written the story that became that chapter of Flyaway. I was alone in the loud bush, and while my memories of the sawmill were of adventure and the treasure to be found in stored boxes, my adrenaline response had been pretty well appropriated by my imagination.
It didn’t even need to be dark.
Horror that describes horrible things in great detail (or with just enough to let your imagination do the work) is of course dreadfully effective. But for uncanny horror, I’ve found the process strongest (on the writer, if not the reader) if I begin with something towards which I feel affection, and ask but what if it were fearful? It adds an extra layer, the sense of something you love turning to show a face you don’t know, the feeling of a dog’s head beneath your hand but instead of a welcoming movement an “absolute stillness”.
The sawmill, a garden, a friend; good manners, a gate, a line of poetry. And then: but what if this were not all it seems, what if it were used for ill, what if there were something else sharing that space, or beneath it, or in its eyes, or watching from the trees…
Edit: Edited to fix the link to M. R. James’ “The Diary of Mr Poynter”. James does this sort of thing extremely well, and his stories have left me looking suspiciously at things like leather bags and bedsheets.
A series of inkblots. Created a little while ago, in the midst of other deadlines, in a fit of desperation to make-and-finish something, anything. Even so the accordion set did not please me. The textures on the larger pages were interesting (Winsor & Newton Indian Ink, dropped or swirled or spattered into patches of water).
A parrot. The eternal game of finding patterns in ink and kettles and clouds.
A story. Another game, of finding a tale in the structure created by something else — in this case, something to connect ten inkblot drawings (it turned into a little story for patrons).
Another of the four-panel story experiments (see previously: Handsome and Clever). I continue to be fascinated by how stories fall so easily into the four panels — and into other set formats, too. Like cats.
A trial silhouette sun-print (cyanotype) from an ongoing fascination with metamorphosis in fairytales.
I was trying to get different degrees of exposure on a cyanotype, in this case by using two silhouettes, one cut out of black paper (the bird) and the other out of glassine (the person). At the sides you can see the bulldog clips and the way light refracted through the edge of the clear acrylic sheet keeping it all from blowing away in the sun.
Some of this fascination got out intovarious things I have written, of course, and in the meantime there’s always the ongoing extremely long Twitter thread (tbc) on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which starts here and continues with gifs.
I'm reading Ovid's Metamorphoses, and so far my favourite part is where Jupiter makes a werewolf and basically says, "Welp! Let's nuke it from orbit."
So here, for Halloween (and with the very excellent support of my patrons) is a collection of specific and general fairy-tale hands: spindle-pricked, scissor wielding, changed to silver, unlocking doors… (I’m including a non-blue-handed version, for those less spookily inclined, but the black-and-blue really does look rather like the colour schemes in Edmund Dulac’s fairy tale illustrations).
I also really like the underlay-colours here. Still want to work up a design like this without lines, but I keep getting distracted by detail. I should start with silhouettes.
I’ve also created a repeating pattern of this design, and it is now up on Redbubble on notebooks, dresses, etc (as part of my Halloween and Fairytale collections) (and if you like fabric by the yard, I’m waiting for test prints from Spoonflower). Incidentally, Girls Running From Houses (from last October) is now a repeating pattern and is on there too.
Edit to add: I’ve added the blue background (pink hand) version to Redbubble, too: Take My Hands.
The files below are for personal use and — as I mentioned — are done with the help of my wonderful supporters on Patreon (who also get sneak-peeks, variant colours, stationery, new Daleks, etc). If you’d like to join as a patron (from $1!) or otherwise throw a few coins in the tip jar to help the calendar keep happening, that would be very welcome — the calendar is fun, but takes a lot of time.
Note re links: I’m experimenting with affiliate links, which means I might get paid a small commission if someone buys something after clicking a link on my site. This is my first attempt, so I’m really just testing out the program links at this point!