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: More mixed descriptions

I love this picture because while it is objectively not an accurate drawing of a crow, generally speaking, it absolutely catches the attitude of this specific crow

Here are a few more observation journal pages playing with mismatched metaphors and shaken-up descriptions.

I very much like these exercises — swapping, exchanging, flipping language (and images) and finding unexpected connections is an enjoyable game, but also a way to discover little worlds and the hints of stories, and to stay in the habit of reaching for very specific and carefully callibrated descriptions — training the ear as well as the hand. (Here are some related posts, with exercises: Variations on descriptions, More swapped descriptions, Similes and genre flips.)

This first page is a repeat of picking two things at random from the observation page and making them fit each other (with an occasional genre flip):

Trees lit like caffeination, champagne like metal dye in the veins. A person whose approach to computers is like the wary abandon of the amateur chef. A sense of clammy inevitability, like washing left forgotten in the machine.

In the next, I changed the approach slightly (it’s a combination of the original and the Caudwell approaches). First I made a list of terms I associated with cold weather and hot weather and noted patterns in them (the aloof, brittle, beautiful, festive terms for winter, the physically oppressive and vigorous associations of summer).

Then I swapped these and wrote some descriptions.

So hot weather could be described by way of salt-white light, the shiver you get from the heat, puffing out hot breath, the numbness of warmth. And cold weather could be all brilliance and gold light, green shadows, the humidity of damp clothes indoors, etc.

There are a few lines borrowed from the previous technique: winter like a crow at the window, summer like a pomegranate — and then the question of what would happen if you switched those. The answer is quite a lot, actually. Of course winter is like a pomegranate, it’s a whole thing — and summer is all about getting woken up by the crows on the fence outside.

On a subsequent page, I went back to those twin lists and directly swapped the terms (pale to vivid, biting to either aloof or caressing, greenery to fibre matting, balcony to underhouse).

The “summer” paragraph that resulted was quite similar to the previous one. Winter, however, gained movement and intent — winter with its clicking claws, its smell of old rugs, its cold nose pressed without warning against bare skin…

Here are some previous related posts, some of which have writing/illustration activities.

Sleeping on my sister’s sofa, woken by her dog

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: The evolving review, art process, sparks

These three observation journal pages are all a review of the same two art projects, and hammering out more of the best way for me to review projects.

The first was my illustration for “On Pepper Creek”, which is now out (with its accompanying story, also by me) in the South of the Sun anthology of Australian fairy tales from the Australian Fairy Tale Society and Serenity Press). I’ve posted about the art process for that illustration here: “On Pepper Creek” — illustration process.

Pencil drawings of trees and waves and creatures with long tails.
Process sketches

The second was a scratchboard illustration for the World Roulette art exhibition and book (from Light Grey Art Lab). I’ll post more about that once the parcel of books arrives.

A snipped of the illustration

The first page was a quick exploration of the difficulties of not having an art director, and therefore having to make decisions myself. I realised that in this situation I frequently take two designs to quite an advanced stage before committing (or letting the deadline commit me). See also this small discarded skull.

Left page: Two men carrying a chair, crossing a flood plain

I then followed up with a few thoughts about why I chose the final image, and what I liked about it.

  • In one case, I chose the simplest idea so that I would still have time to do my second choice if it didn’t work (in fact, I drew several final versions of the first image, getting it to look as simple as I wanted it to be).
  • For the other, I chose the design I most wanted to spend the materials on, but ended up using the most complicated technique.

The main things I learned were:

  • On the day: Overcomplication is part of how I get things done, and so to leave room for it, within reason. (Efficacy > efficiency.)
  • In retrospect: I need to more consciously seize the reins of projects without the voice of a strong art director. I learned this more thoroughly later, but the beginnings of the realisation are here.

The next day, I decided to review other aspects of the projects, realising (although not learning) that one page was not enough for two projects.

Left page: Uber Eats’ “Your orders” symbol looks like the ghost of Ned Kelly

Here I looked at likes, alternative concepts, difficulties, dislikes, and things to try. A few themes are the ongoing pull towards denser folkloric designs, the desire for movement, the value to a piece of committing to a strong style for that piece, and the use of space.

I also wanted to leave more room to think about “why this one”, i.e. why this design. So I added it on the next page, the following day.

Left page: “Your name on rice”

As suspected, this was an illuminating question. As when I looked for the sparks in writing ideas, it has the potential to speed up the process (I’m sure I’ve posted about this, but maybe it’s still on the way). But completing this page also gave me some guidance around choosing projects when working under pressure.

A few highlights:

  • Playing with the space on a page, and/or filling the space pleasingly.
  • Fluidity/movement AND a sense of ornament.
  • A strong stylistic choice.
  • The pleasures of the material.
  • Limits on what I needed to think about.

Writing/drawing exercise:

  • Look back over a selection of your drawings/writing/other creative projects.
  • Jot down a few notes about what appealed to you about that idea: what made it spark, why did you choose it, what about it made you keep going?
  • Are there any patterns to those reasons?
  • Choose a few of the strong or common reasons. See if you can retro-engineer an idea that meets those requirements. (Here, for example, a strongly narrative wallpaper design would meet my criteria above, and is in fact a thing I often stumble into playing with — and I’ve finally signed up for some actual lessons about classic pattern design). Do a quick sketch of it (in words or writing.)
  • Bonus: Flip those criteria and repeat the exercise above. (For my criteria, that would result in a sort of overcrowded and deliberate ugliness.) Can you do it? Do you hate it, or are there things in it you’d like to try? Does it define the edges of why you mean by those criteria (for example, the point where a detailed all-over design becomes crowded)?

For posts on finding the spark in a project, see also: Sparks and navigable worlds, Do it for the aesthetic #3, Giving ideas a push, and A tremor in the web,

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 — 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.


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: By whom and to whom

On this observation journal page, I was thinking about by whom and to whom stories are told (whether in words or pictures).

(A quick note: The examples in this are pretty light: just me riffing on fairy tales. The exercise does, however, also lend itself to thinking more deeply about who gets to tell a story and who listens — and to remixing that.)

The page
(I’ve transcribed the lists — see the bottom of this post)

I’d been thinking, recently, about points of view, and the voices of slightly unexpected narrators. This was mostly because I had been reading Kim Scott’s Taboo and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (a really interesting pair of books to read against each other). I’d also just reached the section about narration in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

First, I made a list of 20 people who could be telling or listening to a story (keeping it fairly general, but with a fairy-tale retelling in mind). As usual this got out of hand and escalated to 45. Then I made two story-specific lists, for Little Red RIding Hood and Rapunzel.

After that, I mixed and matched entries from those lists to end up with, for example, “What the washerwomen at the ford told Little Red RIding Hood’s mother” (my favourite LRR is where she runs over the river on sheets held by washerwomen), or “What the kitchen told the prince” (which would turn the extended attempted-murders version of Rapunzel into a crime scene investigation).

The typed versions of the list are right down at the bottom of the post.


It was a lot of fun doing this, both seeing the potential immediate impact on story and purpose, but also how well it worked for editing — suddenly contracting and clarifying a story, suggesting a form it should take or a hidden (or overt) agenda. Even if I don’t change the narrator, referring back to this exercise is useful for strengthening my commitment to what I have written or sketched. (Tangentially related: reversing the (ideal) audience). The exercise has also made me more aware generally of the possibilities and ramifications of considering point of view and purpose. And it’s remained a useful exercise for new and ongoing projects, even (or perhaps especially) where I want the narrator to remain largely behind the curtain but still have a bias, either for subtle drama or my own amusement.

Art application

All this applies to illustration, equally. There are obvious art/point of view overlaps, of course, but there are also deeper narrative impacts: Consider the focuses in the stories told by the ” nurse” of Hokusai’s “100 poems explained by the nurse.” And see also previous posts on Viewpoints and Thinking About Points of View.

Narrators and observers

I’ve typed up the full lists at the bottom of the post, but as with most of these activities, making the list is one of the most useful parts of the exercise.

Art/writing exercise

  • Version 1: Generalities
    • Consider (broadly) the general type of stories you like to work with/read.
    • Make a list of types of possible narrators and audiences (keeping them all in one list is more exciting). Push for 20, but keep adding more if you like. (Or use my list below.)
    • Pick a scene of a story you are working with/enjoy, or choose a fairy tale you might retell/illustrate..
    • Choose two items from the list at random. They are now the teller and the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 2: Specifics
    • Choose a fairy-tale you might wish to retell/illustrate (or another story idea you are working with). (If you’re in a hurry, use one of my stories and lists below.)
    • List the characters in the story — include main, secondary, and background/implied.
      • Bonus: Expand the list by adding other significant/necessary/implied/intriguing settings and objects from the story. (Animals can go into either list, as appropriate.)
    • Choose two entries from the list(s) above at random. The first is the storyteller, the second is the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 3: Silliness
    • As for version 2, but use a list from a different fairy tale.
  • Bonus
    • Note how the story might shift or change, what secrets and agendas come into play or become possible, what parts of the story drop out of view or become important. What changed about actual physical viewpoint, or mood, or tone? Does it deepen or shift understanding of details of the world of the story?
    • Follow some of those changes through the rest of the story, and consider what larger consequences they might have.
    • If you tried both versions (general and specific), which approach was easiest to work with? Which more vigorously changed how you presented the story?

Birds-eye view of a pigeon

Below are the (personal to me, and not comprehensive) lists of potential tellers and audiences.

Continue reading

Observation Journal — similes and genre flips

This observation journal page is a late-night variation on previous exercises with flipped descriptions.

Like most late-night writing activities, it got a bit silly, but it was fun, and it turns out to have underpinned some more recent explorations.

Two page spread of densely handwritten observation journal. On the left page, five things seen, heard and done, and a drawing of a cat. On the right, the exercise described.

First, I picked items at random from the left-hand page, and tried to work them up into a simile, e.g. clouds like uncurling ribbons. Those comparisons, being drawn from daily life, tended to still be based in it. (I do find this exercise useful for building and describing a vivid world. I’ve elaborated on it in Variations on descriptions and More swapped descriptions.)

Then I reworked each sentence twice: once for a science fiction setting (from a ridiculous old testing-ground of a story) and once as some sort of Regency fairy tale.

So e.g. “steam uncoiling like a galaxy”, further flipped into “a galaxy uncoiling like steam”, and then “ice softening like unstarched lace”.

I wasn’t looking for a 1:1 equivalent, obviously, but something that approximated the original phrase.

(The Xs between the sentences are where I put the sentences into the wrong column, because if you think the phrase “ambulant laser-truncheon” is inconsistent with a strictly Georgian setting, you would be entirely correct.)

Right page of observation journal, with three columns and a variety fo flipped descriptions.

As I said (and as you will see if you try to read my handwriting, which isn’t necessary): a lighthearted little exercise. But it is a fun activity to keep your mental fingers limber (good for car trips and conversations with friends if they are those sorts of friends, i.e. the writer equivalent of theatre kids), and it is an interesting way to practice thinking about the structures and textures of a world, and the differences between genres, and to fine-tune word choice and tone.

Ballpoint drawing of a cat rolling on its back.

Like most creative exercises, the activity seems to translate between writing and illustration.

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick two observations/things around you at random, and work out how they could be similar. Writers, build a simile/metaphor. Illustrators, look for ways you could draw one thing using the shapes, textures, etc, of the other. (For more detail on this, see the activity in Variations on descriptions.)
  • Pick two genres you like (or two distinctive story worlds — your own or someone else’s). It could be clipped noir and bushwalking nonfiction just as much as something fantastic.
  • Consider your original sentence/sketch. How could you create an equivalent effect in those other two genres/worlds. What objects/textures belonging to those settings or aesthetics could you use or invent?
  • Bonus round: Repeat the exercise a few times, from the beginning. See if you notice any patterns in how you approach it, or the world, or the stories you seem to be telling. For example, here I found that the descriptions very quickly began to feel as if they belonged to a larger underlying narrative. That exploration wasn’t the point of this exercise, specifically, but I’ve found those patterns instructive to keep an eye on (as much for identifying strengths and things to explore as for finding habits that should be shaken up).
  • Bonus bonus round: Pick two very close genres (or even two moods in the same setting), and look at the changes needed to shift between those.

QATA workshops — a brief account

The Queensland Art Teachers Association invited me to give a workshop on my observation journal at their 2021 conference — an exciting invitation to receive, and great fun on the day. It was an honour to be able to sit in a few talks and watch over the shoulders of teachers developing their craft, and also to demonstrate to them how I approach my observation journal, and learn a little about how they approach teaching art (very useful, in fact, for a later set of workshops).

I gave two 2-and-a-quarter-hour workshops, running through how I structure and use the journal, with plenty of activities and a focus on art rather than writing. I based it on the original presentation I gave for SCBWI Qld early in the year, but that was for a mix of writers and illustrators. Illustration and writing are fairly interchangeable in how I approach them, but given this was a presentation for art teachers, it was good to be able to swap in a lot more (and new) journal pages with plenty of pictures, and shift the focus.

Observation journal pages yet to be posted about in detail

Here’s the fancy description:

This workshop will introduce participants to an observation journal technique. It’s an easily adaptable approach I have been using and teaching to record and reflect on the world and my creative process and practice(s) — not only to catch those thoughts, but to build on them to develop process, materials, techniques, theories, ideas, resources, and more. It is designed to be manageable, personal, practical, adaptable, entertaining, and useful.

An actual studio space at South Bank TAFE, and my own sign

All the participants were wonderful — interested, interesting, willing to try anything, full of practical questions and feedback (so very useful when giving a presentation to people in a field adjacent to your own!), and so very open and various in their approaches to the activities and art. Also, after keeping us on track by neatly avoiding a clear speculative fiction distraction, I instead accidentally brought all the Midsomer Murders fans to the surface.

I was there as an illustrator demonstrating how I work, but beyond that, I had two main aims with the workshop:

  • to demonstrate how the journal works as a set of tools for people who want to keep thinking creatively about their own art — i.e., for creative teachers; and
  • to show its use in ongoing learning, theorising and explaining of artistic work — i.e., for students.

But I also wanted to make sure everyone was drawing from the start, and tangling with the activities (because the journal is really more about working out how you prefer to work than about adhering to strict rules). I’m hoping someone has photos of those exercises that I can share at some point, but I was too busy bounding around the room.

Observation journal pages yet to be posted about in detail

After I introduced myself and covered some of the context and origin of the journal, I explained the journal structure as I use it (observation; activity; review), and possible further uses of the pages, as well as some of the practical results of having kept the journal.

We then looked in more detail at some of the categories of reflection and exercises — general and targeted observations, ways to make notes that are creatively useful, the many applications of lists, the uses of favourite things, mixing and matching for ideas, examining finished work, learning from your own process, acquainting yourself with your materials…

The observation journal involves a lot of gradual building-up of activities, thoughts, and approaches, so it’s interesting to try and convey that in a workshop using short activities. But there were plenty of those, which included:

  • Bad birds.
  • Tools.
  • Observing.
  • Planning a heist.
  • Lists!
  • Deconstructing your favourites.
  • Terrible remixes.
  • Scurrilous aspersions.

Edit: some of these appear in some form on the blog, or will in the future. The ones I’ve written up AS exercises are under the writing exercises/art exercises tags (they should lead to almost exactly the same group of posts, so choose whichever link you like). Others are adaptations of general (and/or forthcoming) observation journal posts, the introduction to which is here.

Here I am, looking ridiculously excited to be at an actual conference again. I had to get a COVID test the next day but it turned out all I had was a case of having talked for five hours.

Thanks again to QATA — and, to give further credit where it’s due, here some of the books which helped build aspects of the journal, as recommended in the workshop:

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.

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