First draft theory: Traps

The first half of the first draft is often about setting traps.

Drawing of a person crouched in grass, holding a string attached to a forked stick holding up a cardboard box trap.

The second half is about springing them.

Drawing of a person caught in a net trap.

Ideally the traps are sprung by the characters, not by me, but we work with what we have.

Observation Journal — reversing the audience

In this instalment of the observation journal, I was playing with ideas of target audiences, and what would happen if you turned them upside down.

Double page of densely handwritten observation journal. The left page has five things seen/heard/done and a drawing. The left is an exercise flipping an ideal user.

Left page: Encroaching shortages, a Schroederingian pause, and the Star Wars theme being practised on a trumpet.

Right page: For the course I was teaching, I wanted an activity that would make us think a bit more usefully about target markets (it was a business-adjacent course), aka audiences, readers, etc.

When I write, I am usually trying to please (or irritate) one particular person (not always me; not infrequently a housemate). But I tried this approach on both a physical project I was designing and on a story I was working on.

Note, this is one of those activities that really stirs up the sediment of stereotypes. I like that, because it brings them out for observation, and repurposes them, and makes them work for their living. (See also: Observation Journal — The Caudwell Manoeuvre). But it isn’t always flattering on the page, and is something to acknowledge/manage/bear in mind if you’re doing this in e.g. a classroom.

The first, businessy approach: Essentially, you make a four column table:

  • In the first column, make a list of categories of characteristics, e.g. age, gender, education, job, level of career, hobbies, physical activity, background, language, etc. You could add in others specific to the broad type of project. This was just my initial late-at-night list.
  • In the second, quickly identify the assumed characteristics of your “ideal user”/main audience, etc. If you write for yourself this will probably just be a description of you at some point in your life. It could also be a hideous stereotype of someone not you. (I’m aware there’s some very lazy categorisation in this version, but I wanted to see how the framework would work with that.)
  • In the third column, flip each characteristic to something roughly opposite. (A job in education vs a job in the trades vs a long-distance truck driver vs…). You can have a bit of fun here, redress balances, etc.
  • In the fourth, make a note of how that would require a change to the Thing You Are Making. For example, in the first set of examples, would it need to be more durable, or have different accessibility, or a less (or more!) mystical application, etc?
  • Finally, make a note of any that are genuinely useful, or could improve or add to the original idea. This exercise wasn’t about changing an idea, but making it stronger.

Densely hand-written page of observation journal, flipping stereotypes of an ideal audience.

The writing approach: In the second round, lower down the page, I tried it out on a story I was editing.

  • The story was written very much at a friend, but also for me — and we are quite similar. Going through the process highlighted a lot of things I take for granted, and ought to be aware of (at least for editing).
  • For example, it brought out the lack of physicality in the manuscript, and the degree to which I assumed anyone reading it would also be familiar with a very specific set of obscure books.
  • While I like the somewhat cerebral context of the story, and thoroughly enjoy allusions, these could easily turn into weaknesses. So when editing the story I want to go back in and look for places where I can anchor the story with a little physical action/description. I also plan to buttress or reinforce the more esoteric allusions with enough information that someone who hasn’t had a particular shared experience can still follow the story. In other places, it was a reminder not to be subtle or aim for plausible deniability, but to be honest about what I was doing and double-down on it.
  • This wasn’t about changing the ultimate “ideal reader”, but about clarifying and streamlining my approach, and creating an immediately useful checklist for when I sat down to edit.
Drawing of a bottle of hand soap.
(soap, not sanitiser)

Writing/art exercise:

Try this on a story you’re editing, or a picture that’s at a fairly advanced sketch stage.

  • Make a list of categories of characteristics.
  • Quickly and lazily note down your assumed ideal audience.
  • Flip those characteristics.
  • Consider how the project might change if it were to be adapted to that person.
  • Find things to clarify/tighten/commit to/adjust, etc, and try them out on the project.

Travelogues: All the shape of the land

This morning (by my time), C. S. E. Cooney, with the very able conducting services of Carlos Hernandez (together Hernandooney) and Miriam Grill, hosted a Read-a-Thon of the whole of Travelogues, which just came out on Tuesday.

t was a wonderful group of new and old friends — poets, directors, artists, writers, readers —and 14 people were reading aloud. (The screenshot above is from the text Claire marked up for reading).

As a writer, getting to see people play with the words, emphasise and pronounce and laugh in real time, getting to watch readers read (which is what I mean when I say reading is a spectator sport), and have people excerpting their favourite lines in the chat, and discussing their train experiences and reminiscing about certain movements of a carriage, and sending photos of scenes like those described, and discussing the qualities of pigs, was just enchanting.

I’ve included the screenshot above because of this line:

Night, and all the shape of the land is in the shift and wallow of the carriage.

It captured so much of what it turns out I was trying to do with Travelogues: to hold onto scenes and moments in such a way that the reader could get into them and travel inside them, the way a passenger does in a carriage, feeling the landscape through the movement. It’s one of the qualities of what I’ve been calling industrial fabulism — a way not only of expressing the experience of made things, but of experiencing the world through them, and finding enchantment in that.

And then as a writer, to get to follow the reader’s experience — through accents and word choices and meanings — added a fascinating nested quality to this effect, and was an astonishing gift to receive from some very good friends.

We chatted about this after the readings, but I was also thinking of it because of seeing the Mavis Ngallametta exhibition at GOMA last week. Her work is vast and shimmering and affectionate. It’s deeply unlike Ravilious‘s (mentioned in Travelogues) and William Robinson‘s. And yet, like their paintings, Ngallametta’s enormous canvases convey the impression that if only you could get inside them and contort yourself just so (parachute up through the wall for Ngallametta and open your many-lensed eyes; slide through an old train window and fill your lungs for Ravilious; roll down a rainforested mountain for Robinson) you could be in the artist’s world.

(This connects to the discussion because Travelogues was a painterly exercise in many ways — it’s a (written) visual sketchbook, recording physical observations and sorting through pallettes and lines.)

Further thoughts no doubt to follow.

Travelogues is now available to purchase from Brainjar Press directly and the usual online suspects, as print and ebook. Brainjar Press is using local printer options where possible, but given the current state of postal services generally, it’s better to order earlier than later!

Observation Journal — things that tell you what they’re doing

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.

Double-spread from the observation journal. Two densely hand-written pages. On the left, a page with five things each that I had seen, heard and done, with a picture. On the right, a mind-map thinking through projects 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.

In particular, it was prompted by two then-recent trains of thought: I’d written the post Making Things Manifest — mock-ups and outlines that morning, and I’d just seen Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (cinema experience illustrated here). It also tied to earlier thoughts on staginess (Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess).

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.

Observation journal page, densely hand-written pages with a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

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 taking of reference photos

Sketch before story

Just a few tiny sketches for various projects.

Sketches for illustrations for “Undine Love”

I enjoy the relative simplicity and speed of this style of sketch — whether as a way to plan a final illustration, or as a finished picture, or as an element to play around with when developing stories, or even just an idea to hold in the mind, which could turn into any number of things when it’s eventually pinned down in words.

I am gradually (eternally) relearning that sometimes it’s simplest to put down in sketches (visual or written) the known images I want to work with, shuffle them into order, and then work out the story.

Notes for a presentation for the Australian Fairy Tale Society

I also need to remember this approach when planning an image-heavy presentation. The temptation is to write a detailed talk and then track down all the images mentioned in it and put them in order. But dropping all the art into place first and then jotting down the talking points is faster, more fun, and allows for more chatty spontaneity.

Art/writing exercise

  • When working on a story (written or drawn) resist any drive to get the story nailed down immediately.
  • Instead, concentrate on the key images you feel should be in the story (visual or at least with a distinct aesthetic).
  • Sketch them very quickly on cards or sticky notes. Keep it loose — I like to concentrate on movement in drawn sketches, and colour/texture/aesthetic quality in written ones. (So, for example, for a Cinderella story I might use sketches like the ones from Viewpoints, while a written note would be something like “someone watching from amidst the deep marine-blue night/shrubbery in the palace garden, star-flecked, a sweep of descending balustrades backlit by distant candlelight, and the hint of a silhouette of a girl descending them — mystery.”)
  • Try to get down at least 5 moments that feel like they could be key to something. I like to push until I feel there are enough points to balance a story on, and for the little stories I do for Patreon 5 is often a nice number. (Alternatively, draw 5 images from something like Dixit.)
  • If the order isn’t clear (and even if it is), rearrange the cards until they make sense for the spine of a story — the set-pieces.
  • Then outline the rest of the (written or drawn) story in dot points, aiming to get very quickly from one key scene to the next.
  • This can be the framework for a larger project (see Illustrating Flyaway). But if you can distill the notes to just a few telling sentences, it can also be the basis for a very short story.

Observation Journal: Sparks and navigable worlds

Something I enjoy about the observation journal is revisiting different approaches and digging into what does and doesn’t work for me, and why, and what I can do with that knowledge.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, a collage of vintage fashion photos with the words: 

Here are the Notorious smiling Women 
What terrific clothes they wear
THEY combine into a sophisticated fashion Code.
the notorious smiling women

On the left-hand page: disconcerting bathrooms and a “definite autumnal feeling”.

On the right-hand page: Every so often I wonder if collage is a thing I can do, and every time I realise that it definitely isn’t. I love the meditative aspect of it, and the recombining of elements, but I prefer that to happen at the front end of the creative process rather than being the final stage. For me it’s the spark that kicks off making a new thing — the making of it is something different. This continues not to diminish my enjoyment of other people’s collage — the reservations are about my enjoyment of various aspects of the process of making things. But while I find my collage hilariously bad, I definitely want to know more about the nefarious but fashionable adventures of the notorious smiling women.

And I wanted to note the summary page for this week, too, because it touches on a few points that have continued to echo through the observation journal.

  • The pleasure of watching other people learn to be competent in their chosen field. In this week, it was prompted by apprentices in the ceiling, but it also resonates with low-drama cooking shows, and stories where a character is not yet a master of their profession, but is taking practical steps towards becoming one. It’s a wonderful place for stories to draw forward motion from, without necessarily having antagonists or obvious conflict. And it ties into staginess and contained worlds, because the “romance of competence” (or fantasy of competence) relies the contained and navigable worlds of genres-of-manners, to which I keep returning (Heyer… in space!)
  • Another is that I’m much happier if there are systems or other people in place to say no to things without my direct intervention — or at least, without me feeling like I’m the one disappointing everyone including the ideal version on myself. I’m still working on what to do about this, or how to frame it so that it works for me. Although I might have just had a breakthrough on this thanks to an understanding reply to a difficult email! Stay tuned.
  • Time and persistence, vs a spark, vs a bright enough spark. Impetus vs the grind. This is an ongoing balance, and when I get it right, everything is wonderful. It relates to the first point on the right-hand page: to push ideas further immediately. I keep forgetting this lesson, because it always leads to SO MANY PROJECTS, and then deadlines and admin and despair, and rediscovery. So, not exactly balance. One of the benefits of this series of posts is that I have a reason to re-review these pages.

Observation Journal: Mix and Match

The length of the observation journal pages got thoroughly out of hand in mid-February.

Two densely handwritten pages from the observation journal. The first has notes on things seen, heard, and done on 10 February 2020. The second mixes and matches elements of Pride and Prejudice and Little Red Riding Hood.

Left page: Magpies and the doppler effect of lawn mowers, and how memory is stored in places.

A drawing of a man trying to mow very long grass.

Right page: Most ways I have of breaking things open and/or finding ideas involve knocking two stories (or other things) together until something interesting falls out. In this case, I was trying to formalise that approach. It spilled over into another double-page spread, and the conclusion that this is a process that works better in motion.

A close-up of the Pride & Prejudice and Little Red Riding Hood page.

The basic idea is to mix and match two stories. There are a few ways to do this, including:

  • Looking for resonances (intriguing and useful, but particularly for express reworkings of a story);
  • Randomising or forcibly mismatching all the elements (interesting but hard work if I don’t want to default to a mash-up/repurposing, which isn’t my favourite thing);
  • Picking one pair of elements that aren’t an obvious match, pairing them up, and then following the consequences.

The last one is my favourite, and it’s useful for drawing and choosing textures, doing close readings, and playing with stories. For instance, making Mary Bennett from Pride and Prejudice the Little Red Riding Hood of a story forces a careful consideration of her relationships to other characters — and she doesn’t have many. (I like to use a version of Little Red Riding Hood that involves her getting away from the wolf and running over a river on sheets stretched by washerwomen, but in the case of Pride & Prejudice the best thing for Mary is (explicitly) finally being away from her sisters.)

Making Rochester of Jane Eyre a Little Red Riding Hood and committing to that misreading once turned into a whole story (“The Wolves of Thornfield Hall, variations on a theme”,  Eleven Eleven Journal #19, 2015). There’s a lot of material to work with.

Here’s the first half of the second double-page spread (the last page turned into a story outline which is still in progress).

A handwritten page matching up elements of Twelve Dancing Princesses with aspects of Little Women.

In this case, I was listing the elements of the key story (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), looking for a corresponding element in the target story (“Little Women”), then finding echoes, and looking for imagery to enhance on that basis. This has a bit less character exploration in it, and isn’t as useful academically as an outright misreading, but it is really useful for playing up thematic and visual elements, choosing metaphors, and getting a source of coherent and consistent vocabulary and tone — more on this in future pages (or it’ll be familiar if you’ve done a narrative imagery workshop with me).

But codifying the ideas, while a useful distraction from… whatever I was meant to be doing, or possibly just from mid-February, isn’t as exciting as picking up the thread of an idea, the first interesting element, and running with it — pulling it until it unravels, or wandering off into other paths entirely, and following dancing princesses to see where they go in search of new adventures.

A drawing of a demure princess in a high-waisted dress.

Art/writing exercise

This exercise is fun for practising close-reading, spurious argument, and description. But allow yourself at the least provacation to bound away chasing some new and marvellous idea:

  1. Pick two rather different stories. For example:
    • pick two unrelated stories you’re familiar with (perhaps a favourite novel and the last fairy tale you saw referenced)
    • or try, for example, something like choosing the first and last movies you remember seeing in a cinema — for me this would be The Hunt for Red October and Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears and I have no regrets,
    • or take a story you love but that isn’t like the genre you work in, and a story you are currently trying to write or draw.
      In the example on the page above I had just watched the new Little Women and picked “Twelve Dancing Princesses” as the second story in an effort to tear myself away from using “Little Red Riding Hood”.
  2. Jot down the key characters (or places, or objects) from the first story.
  3. Match them up with elements in the second (randomly, or use less-obvious matches).
    E.g., here, I made Marmee stand in for Princesses 2-11.
  4. Work out what the resonances between those elements are or could be (even if it’s a bit of a stretch — this is the fun part).
    E.g., with Marmee (as with the intermediate princesses) she’s there and part of the story, but not obviously instigating or obviously primary to the narrative, but also manages to create a sense of abundance.
  5. Consider how you could describe or paint those characters (or places, or objects) in the second story to bring out those resonances — using, for example, observations or language or textures from the first story).
    E.g., I’ve just written “treasured, ornamented” here, because I was being seized with an Idea

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.


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).


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“).


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.

Sketches and notes: their purpose


I was going back through photos and found this unused sketch from Kij Johnson’s The River Bank.

This stage of a project is very charming — the snapshots of moments, the hint of movement (or, as here, stillness) and expression. They are usually just notes for myself, but a lot of the work involved in finishing a more formal final illustration is about trying to capture that lightness. (Although when I’m making sketches that will be the final illustrations, there’s a lot of unseen work involved in trying to teach my hand the shapes of what I’ll be drawing).



Sketches in progress for Angela Slatter’s The Tallow-Wife


Something I’m gradually learning with writing is to treat the early stages in a similar way: quick notes on an aesthetic, lists of “lush language” (per Kim Wilkins), just sketching the best bits (including sketching with words) so that the heart and movement is there.


And if you are looking for a pleasant, gentle, sunlit story, with nothing more nefarious than foxes and stoats, written with a deft touch and a loving eye, I highly recommend The River Bank.

The Key to All Mythologies (or: cultivating spurious links)

A common thread between a lot of my favourite ways of collecting and getting and stress-testing ideas is, well, looking for common threads. Finding a strand in the tapestry of stories I like, or want to tell, or know relatively well, and pulling it to see what comes with it.


The scratchboard underpinnings of Scarlet

You can use the results to construct a theory (however spurious: quite useful for coming up with ideas for academic proposals and short stories), a conspiracy (also useful for plotting, per Tim Powers), a subplot, a thematic patterning, a deeper resonance to a simple image. It’s an excellent way to shuffle through your mental library for fun and profit, and to try out connections. And if you enjoy reasoning and arguing, or want to get better at them, it’s good practice.

Plus, it’s fun, and an excellent way to vary many games if you’re more into parlour games than more formal board/card games.


  • Game variations: Draw a card from Dixit, or three from Once Upon a Time, or one from Machine of Death, or a line from Masquerade, and see how many stories you can think of that (you can argue) they describe. You can get metaphorical/esoteric, as long as you’re prepared to back up your claims.
  • Writing/illustration: Think of a favourite story, and then choose a favourite/key element from it (for example, if you choose Cinderella it might be clocks, or glass, or lizards). Then start a list of other stories you know fairly well that also rely heavily on that element (Apollo 13? Snow White? Jurassic Park?). Try to get to ten.
    – Then step back and think about hidden connections that might exist — is there a trade in enchanted glass objects?
    – Maybe there are strong enough echoes that you could blend stories (could Cinderella be written to be about an astronaut?).
    – Or there might be textures and themes you could drag from one story into another (what if, when illustrating Cinderella, you make the enchanted lizards terrifying? or if, when riffing on stories about velociraptors, you make them beautiful?).
  • Or choose an object close to hand, and do the same.


(Also up now as a print on Redbubble)