HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play (this is kind of the middle half of the book, keeping the aesthetic in play)—EXTRA (this is round about the big crisis)—business—(after the main ending) FLOURISH
I drew a timeline and jotted down a few notes for each of those stages, e.g. “eccentric/museum overdecorated, perfumed, scented smoke, etc”. Then I began sketching little settings and scenes and people, along with additional notes — everything from detail it was hard to draw (“illuminated corsage” — a real thing from the era), to bits of dialogue (“this requires a clocksmith”).
I’ve noted that I’d like to develop the idea of this structure a bit further. But simply sketching out an idea — getting it on paper at all and (for me) especially as pictures — helped develop new ideas, and much more specific ideas. “Blossoming velvet” and “cloying” becomes a picture of a particular ornamental birdcage, the silhouette of dresses evolves, facial hair is acquired, hairstyles rise and fall, poses are struck. But throughout, having a clear aesthetic made me stay on track.
After this, I did keep playing with questions of a key aesthetic (more in due course), but lately the drawing-a-prose-idea has also been an interesting line of enquiry.
On this page of the observation journal, I was playing more with the question of whether (and how far) an aesthetic (in the pop-culture sense of a distinct style/mood/mode) can drive a story.
Left page: Butterflies, neighbours, and forgetfulness.
What I was elaborating on:
I’d been using the observation journal to think through why certain ideas appealed to me, and why certain projects seemed to just work, while others dragged. A point that kept emerging was the sense of the heavy lifting a really clear aesthetic or style could do. Here are a few posts about that:
I chose three elements from the habits and resistance exercise (e.g. “vivid”, “emphasise less obvious part”, novelise picture”). I was just using these as guides to suggest an idea.
Then I picked an aesthetic. In the first case, it was a brilliantly-coloured feverish Victorian setting (the second one was nautical-piratical). I define aesthetic pretty broadly.
I also picked a literary key — something to tune the idea to. In each case I picked a main or obvious reference (e.g. Dorian Gray) and a secondary reference that was either less obvious or contrasted intriguingly (e.g. a line from Milton, “they also serve who only stand and wait”). I wasn’t trying to be wildly original here — the intention was just to ride along with the aesthetic and see how far that got the idea.
Mixing a plot:
Using those elements for the base idea, I outlined a very rough possible plot. (Note: This is almost always faster with a brand new idea I haven’t committed to yet.) I just outlined a few points:
Main Idea (someone who frames enchanted portraits)
Point of View (flamboyant detective)
Turning Point 1 (detective compromised)
Turning Point 2 (trap sprung by unexpected person)
Identifying possible set-pieces:
Rather than (necessarily) scenes, I made a quick list of visual situations and motifs that caught the right aesthetic. (e.g. poetry salon, gilt and glass and velvet frame shop, hothouse of tropical flowers).
I included a contrasting note — e.g. against the overwrought decadence, one “knife-sharp and bare rooftop” scene.
What I learned
This aesthetic framework is a useful way for me to think about stories. It’s also a lens that lets me try out and understand other people’s thoughts about story structure better.
The observation journal continues to be a very useful way for me to chip away at little questions and concerns, and find my way into them.
As with most mix-and-match games, this was both fun and quite fast, but could have used more space (in fact, I tried it again the next day, with more art — I’ll post that soon).
I could feel how the aesthetic picked up the idea and set certain story-gears turning and catching. I’d like to trace more clearly where that happens, but it needed a bigger page.
Having that contrasting secondary aesthetic, like a note of a contrasting colour in a painting, was appealing. I wasn’t sure how much it added to the feeling of the story, but it definitely added to the creation of ideas. Setting up the opposition of an overheated drawing room and a cold roof automatically teases out things that could happen to bridge the space between those settings.
I think I could use this to start working out a story (as here). But even just doing it as a game now and then has made me a lot more aware of what I am doing with the aesthetics in other projects, and which ones I like, and how to use them to come up with or deepen ideas.
Make a list of aesthetics you like, or hate, or have seen recently, or found in a list online, or can invent by hyphenating two things in your field of vision — Regency Romance, Nordic noir, 1970s beachside, Horse & Hound, midcentury Elvish (I’ve seen this in a nightclub), a particular Instagram filter…
Pick two that are fairly different.
Sketch (words or pictures) a quick setting that suits each (a room, a poolside, an arrangement of scenery). You can be obvious, and even cliched, as long as you really commit.
Consider the sort of story which might let you move from one set to the other. What moments or characters or actions emerge to fill that space? What happens if or when trailing elements of one aesthetic brush up against the other?
BIO: Socar Myles is a Vancouver-based former illustrator and full-time ghostwriter, whose illustration work can be found at www.gorblimey.com.
KJ: Socar Myles and I first met years ago through the old Elfwood notice boards, and Socar gave me a great deal of thoughtful, professional advice on my early efforts. Her art enchanted me — ethereal creatures, and strange, soft, dense, spooky imagery with hints of Beardsley and Klimt and sly laughter — and recently she made a remark on Twitter that suggested she was writing seriously, only I couldn’t find anything under her name or any open pseudonym! So I sent her a message to find out more, which turned into this interview.
KJ: You’re known more as an illustrator, but you’ve moved into ghostwriting and I am fascinated. How did you get from illustration to writing full-time?
Socar: Many years ago, I wrote and illustrated a short comic, “The Zombie Ball,” which appeared in the Fleshrot Hallowe’en special. I posted an excerpt on my blog, and a book packager reached out and asked if I’d be interested in writing middle-grade fiction. I thought writing middle-grade fiction could be a quick route to children’s illustration gigs, so I said yes.
As it turned out, I never wrote any middle-grade fiction (or illustrated any). I didn’t understand the market at all. Instead, I spent years writing “for fans of” books (something popular would come out, and I’d dash off something in the same vein). It wasn’t glamorous work, but it taught me to write fast in a variety of genres, and to identify what would sell.
As my illustration career took off, I focused mainly on that, and let the writing fall by the wayside. But when my vision failed, I decided to pursue ghostwriting more seriously. By that time, my original publisher had gone out of business, and I wasn’t sure how to break back in. I Googled “ghostwriting jobs,” which led nowhere—mostly, I found Upwork gigs and content mills paying pennies a word. Then, I researched book packagers, and found a few that felt right.
At the moment, I’m doing contract work for two packagers, one of which produces mainly romance, the other YA fiction.
KJ: How does being, or having been, an illustrator feed into your writing?
This paragraph is from Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! (1937), in which a much-awaited performance of Hamlet at the ducal mansion of Scamnum Court is disrupted by a murder. This scene is still a little before the discovery of the murder and the arrival on the scene of the Inspector John Appleby.
“Aged royalty, perhaps with royalty’s instinct for keeping clear of anything a trifle odd, had decided not to come after all. So decorations had been put away; young ladies, hearing the news when half-way to the drawing room, had scurried back to their rooms to change into more intriguing frocks; Bagot had had a busy half-hour putting away the plate which Scamnum produces only for members of a Reigning House. And now in the hall the Dowager Duchess was sitting in the front row in solitary state, on her right hand the two empty chairs that had been destined for the ‘real’ Duchess and the ‘real’ Duchess’s lady. The Dowager was formidable enough in herself and Gott received with relief Noel’s report that the old lady seemed disposed to take out most of the play in sleep. It was a quite unexpurgated Hamlet.
I liked this paragraph immensely. It felt funny and compact and yet all-embracing.
It’s such a fascinating little way of showing things happening. Innes conveys a great deal of information, but not by description or omission or neat crowd-management (although space is kept here for a crowd, in the personification of Scamnum Court as a stand-in for its staff, and in the plurality of young ladies).
Rather, most of the information is conveyed by showing reactions to a reversal.
This is 70 pages into the book, and we’ve not been told much about the preparations for aged royalty (although they have been a small part of the atmosphere of anticipation at Scamnum Court). This change itself is comparatively minor, in terms of plot. But at the same time this little hitch, which doesn’t bother anyone much (although it foreshadows larger concerns), peels back a corner of the beautiful world of Scamnun Court and shows the thoughts and concerns and scurrying business under it.
Not, “royalty were coming so XYZ was done,” but “royalty WEREN’T coming, so people did these other things instead”, which reveals at least twice as much about everyone (not least the rather presciently absent royalty). The “more intriguing frocks” implies, after all, not only less intriguing frocks, but different standards of behaviour, and the sorts of people who know what to wear for certain circumstances, and to come prepared for both, and that intrigue (of various sorts) is properly part of this world.
Additionally, by showing reactions, it keeps everyone in action. And more importantly, it’s this tiny gear change, a slight shift, an extra hum of activity, just before what’s about to be a BIG gear shift.
If you read (or have read) the book, you’ll notice the passage occurs just before a pivotal moment, but it also contains a number of aspects of the book in microcosm (and some other foreshadowing).
For example, something striking about the book is the sheer quantity of doubles. (You can already see it in this passage, with the duchesses and the two empty chairs). There’s the theatre and actors and roles, obviously, and people playing parts, and the folly that looks like a chapel but is a cowshed. There’s a set of twins. And instead of one “young lady” character, or even just the twins, there are two young English ladies and two young American ones and two awkwardly pursued youthful love affairs, a managing mother with two different approaches suitable to the differences in her daughters, more than one older romance, several rumoured vengeances, mirrors and doubled curtains, two novelists AND a publisher, several academics (two specialising in Shakespeare), another who looks a lot like the main detective and is himself a detective of sorts, three significantly active detectives, two solutions/endings, quite a few people independently resolving a mystery, several active crimes in progress, two approaches to psychology, two doctors…
Arguably not all of these are necessary (or defensible) but occasionally the effect is fascinating. Characters may play roles, but that does not mean they are the role. No one, by virtue of being the only one of their kind, is by default cast in the role of professor or writer or young lady. Which might mean that if someone is behaving stereotypically, they are choosing to do so…
There’s some splendid omniscient moments in Hamlet, Revenge! (and moments of a sort of roving consciousness). I’d been wanting to reread this book because it opens on a high-level view of Scamnum Court from a nearby hill, and creates this impression of a Fabergé egg of a world which you don’t want ruined by murder (often country house murder mysteries create the opposite effect), and it’s all from an omniscient point of view. I’d like to go back again and look at how Innes manages point of view. One of his books starts in what appears to be either third person or omniscient, and lets you get comfortable with that before revealing it wasn’t quite the case…
I often flag phrases or pictures that I like, and then never come back to them. Lately, I’ve been trying to make a note of them somewhere and then to occasionally break down what I like about them. I figure that this way I’m more likely to (a) look at them again and (b) retain useful information even if I don’t.
I do this sometimes in the observation journal, but occasionally the passage is too long for the page, and also I took a deliberate journal break for a few weeks, so lately I’ve been musing aloud on Twitter.
This example is from Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern, which I enjoyed more than I expected to (I’ve always been very aware of the series, but I’d somehow managed not to read any within recent memory). The *style* of the writing was so brusque and particular and charming. Some things don’t age well but the 60s-ish-ness and the wry interior decorators and the personalities at the office, and the fact people have jobs to do… The cats were also rather marvellously written, especially as cats that are really just cats, but whose (owner? caretaker?) is convinced of their intellectual superiority. That’s another little humorous tension I’d love to play around with in something.
But on to the passage!
A few reasons I like it (note, this isn’t a detailed analysis — it’s things that appealed to me, and why I think they worked):
Brevity & briskness. [This adds to a sort of laconic noir/gumshoe effect — Renee Patrick’s Design for Dying does an interesting mix of sentence lengths; short wry sentences for 1930s Hollywood dialogue, longer flowing modern phrasing in the descriptions.]
Brevity & briskness are created by KEEPING neat phrasings, telling details, useful repetition, etc, and leaving everything ELSE out. A kind of kill everything but your darlings approach.
It just skips to the next thing the author thinks it’s necessary for the reader to know.
The generic specificity of the description, describing a group by the groups with in it. [A way to deal with crowd scenes.]
The contrast/linking effect of only describing one element of each group’s appearance.
The pleasing way hats/aprons etc falls into the repetition of cuffs/cuffs/cufflinks.
A glimpse of the offset/keyhole approach to dialogue, showing bits of what are apparently different conversations (sometimes, although not here, between two people you might expect to be having the same conversation), skipping ahead, showing just a line and breezing on.
There’s another chapter where character A is trying to communicate with character B about art pieces, but B is talking to and about a cat; then later A is talking to C about something else and B re-enters the conversation with a detailed & knowledgeable reply about the art. And it worked well because it kept that sort of quick-fire, jazzy, distracted tone, and was amusing, and frustrated the main character’s immediate aim, and then suddenly whipped back around to show a humorous character as both human and smart (and presumably good at their job).
(I also often do this, very quickly, with art on Twitter — just retweeting it pointing out a specific thing I like, the shadow or a softness of distance).
Next time you see a picture or read a passage you notice yourself liking, stop a minute. Make a note of it (pin it, or take a photo, or flag it).
See if you can find 5 (or three, if it’s very short) reasons it appeals to you. Alternatively, just find one thing you find that works for you in each of a series of things you like. I like doing this online, or otherwise in public, because it means I get to show off something I like, and sometimes people will have more ideas (or recommendations). Also, oddly, when I do it just for myself it makes it feel very serious and worthy — telling other people why I like something takes the pressure off. Your experience may vary.
Make a note of why you think those aspects work for you.
See if you can work (or rework) one of those into a short passage or sketch.
One of my main memories of Toronto is a pair of beautiful Italian boots that definitely did not fit, and the shoe salesman who was determined to make them.
Which is to say: there is some very good advice out there, and wise friends who give it to me. But while I can intellectually appreciate it, and sort of clomp around in it, the advice — like shoes — often needs either wearing in, or to be reworked into a shape that fits the way I think. It took me a while (and some frustrated friends) to work that out.
That is what this little series of theories has been about.
One of the uses of the observation journal has been working out how to make advice fit, or how to wriggle into it. But more of that soon — there was a missing week in the middle that I’ve just scanned and processed.
2020 was the year of people saying, “I didn’t know you wrote!”. But I do! And now my mother has books to prove it.
Flyaway, my Australian Gothic… novella or short novel, depending on how you count, was published this year. It was my very first book all of my own, and close to my heart because it was about the places I loved when I was small, and how I learned to see them through stories. And secrets and murder and bone-horses too, of course. It was published by Tor.com in the US and Picador in Australia (and I’ve written about it a fair bit on here), and illustrated by me, and there is an audiobook (read by Felicity Jurd, whom I interviewed here).
Tor.com reprinted my story “Undine Love“, a tale of broken promises and bagpipes first published in Andromeda Spaceways in 2011. It’s related to Flyaway, and I made new illustrations for it, in keeping with the illustrations for Flyaway.
Strange Horizons published my (actually short) story “The Present Only Toucheth Thee“, which is either about soul mates or serial killing, depending on how you look at it. They also published an audio version of it, which was the first audio I’d had done of one of my stories.
And on December 5, Egaeus Press brought out a very limited edition anthology of poison stories, Bitter Distillations, including my story “Not To Be Taken”.
In addition, I sold three stories which are to be published next year: “On Pepper Creek”, “The Wonderful Stag, or: The Courtship of Red Elsie”, and “Gisla and the Three Favours.” More on those in due course!
In a more academic vein, my paper “Contracts and Calcifer, or “In Which A Contract Is Concluded Before Witnesses”: the transactional structure of Howl’s Moving Castle” was printed in The Proceedings of the Diana Wynne Jones Conference, Bristol 2019. Another paper was accepted for publication in February 2021: “Heyer… in Space! The Influence of Georgette Heyer on Science Fiction”, Georgette Heyer, History, and Historical Fiction, ed. Samantha Rayner and Kim Wilkins, UCL Press.
I’d also been wanting to post more here (prompted in part by Austin Kleon’s reasoning, which held true for me). I posted 274 times here, and 124 times on patreon.com/tanaudel. And quite a few of the posts on here were about the observation journal, which I think counts as one of this year’s writing achievements — I kept it from mid-January through to the week before Christmas, and am now taking a deliberate holiday for a couple of weeks (but I miss it).
Editing is like combing knots out of hair, starting at the very tip and gradually working the tangles out, then going a little further, and coaxing those snarls down to the ends, applying conditioner and picking with a fine tooth comb at the worst tangles. And occasionally finding bits of glue or gum and giving up, getting out the scissors, and just cutting out a whole hank of strands.
By this analogy, the first draft is like driving a fast car with the top down, your hair whipping in the wind.
Generally, the “five thoughts on…” exercise was a good reminder of he little push than an (even arbitrary) structure gives (a) at all, (b) to dig deeper, and (c) to begin forming coherent ideas.
The thoughts, part of an ongoing preoccupation:
People Decorate Surfaces. It appears (with often-self-conscious exceptions) to be a fairly basic human urge. Decorating surfaces in a picture (written or drawn) therefore helps create a sense of humanity, and that a place is lived in by humans. This is something I have to remind myself of fairly often. Museums are excellent for this.
Leaving out surface texture and decoration can make the storyteller’s job harder. Even thoughtful texture helps objects to do/explain more (see: movie effects documentaries generally). Ornament takes it further.
Ornament = personality, context, worldbuilding, culture, backstory, stories within stories, foreshadowing, etc, a sense of pattern and therefore law/lore built into the structure of the world.
Cheating. Texture and ornament conceal wobbly lines, hide problems with perspective, can overrule detailed linework, etc. Opposition between texture and structure can create interesting effects (I admire this but struggle with it).
Unifying aesthetic. An overlay of textures, patterns, and/or ornaments can have a structural/thematic role. Connections and echoes and tinting.
(bonus) Care & detail & depth. High production quality can help create the impression of overall quality — this effect is often temporary. However, seeing that someone else has taken care over making a thing can sometimes make a viewer realise it might be worth taking the time to look/read/watch that thing.
Think of a story-scene in a place built or occupied by people.
It can be from a project you are working on, or from a story you like.
If nothing springs to mind, pick a fairy-tale scene: perhaps the main room of the bears’ cottage from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.
Sketch the setting quickly (using words or pictures).
Perhaps it’s a small room, thick plastered walls, low beams in the ceiling, a wooden table with three chairs, a pot-bellied stove, a windowseat. (Or it could be the economy cabin of a plane, or a cave used by climbers, or…)
Now walk around the setting. Consider each surface. How might the people who use this place (or have used it) have decorated or textured each of those surfaces?
For example, the top of the table is probably deeply fluted and grooved by being scrubbed, its legs have been scuffed by kicking claws, and the low stairs are dipped from heavy use. The beam in the low doorway has a cushion nailed to it because bears sometimes forget to duck. The cushion is a less-washed version of the ones in the window-seat: brightly but clumsily embroidered. Someone has scratched stick-figures into the plaster, close to the floor. There are geraniums in the window, obviously (it’s a cliche for a reason), and the curtain is a tacked-up piece of… hmm, what shall it be? Samples of rich cloth a salesman carried? (And what happened to the salesman?) The shelves in the corner are lined with newspaper, some of which gives glimpses of alarmist reporting about human children rampaging in the forest. On the sides of the kitchen cabinet is painted a history of how the bears came to live in this place, and on a cheerful checkered cloth on the table is a half-whittled spoon, with “just right” worked into its twisted handle…
Look for places where the story starts to grab hold of the textures, or vice-versa.
Above, the clumsy embroidery gave me a feeling of personalities, and the vanished salesman suggested a little background mystery, which could both threaten and explain the unattended child about to feature in the story.
Look for places where you could make the details do double-work.
Could a pattern foreshadow or link to a later part of the story? Could an ornament or texture hint at a detail about the broader world? What fabric pattern or graffiti or stamped grip or commercial label could make the unfolding story better or worse for the reader, whether through secrets or deepened affection or a deeper awareness of the meaning and consequences of the actions?
Bonus: Look at your setting again and start changing aspects of the surfaces.
See how each element changes the possibilities for the story, and where they begin to force changes to other elements.
Or pick a different emotion/aesthetic/genre and see how you could change the textures to reflect that.
For example, perhaps the furniture is of highly-polished dark wood, upholstered with stiff green velvet (worn but carefully mended), lichened with antimacassars and starched doilies, and the walls whitewashed so that the low sun casts every little dimple in the plaster into long shadows, and only useful herbs grow in the window box, and there is a painstaking and pious sampler on the wall, and a single book on civilised housekeeping, and a portrait of the sort done by travelling painters in which extreme care (if mediocre talent) has been applied to try and make three bears look like three very stiff and sober humans.
Finally: In a finished project, a little can go a long way. There are other artistic considerations than how to treat the surfaces, and too much detail can be overwhelming (and sometimes none is needed at all). But the exercise of thinking through the surfaces of a scene can bring its people and possibilities to life.
The activity on this observation journal spread started with a prompt Kim Wilkins uses in her writing classes and workshops: finding the beautiful words that create the feeling of what you want to do. I adapted it here to physical projects/business proposals: I was putting together a worksheet for my creativity students, which they could use to put together later business documents, and I wondered if I could adapt Kim’s activity for these projects.
I started out by just making a list of key words for aesthetics I wanted to evoke when describing the project. The initial pull of the exercise was very practical and businessy, which was NOT what I wanted to achieve. (It was a useful lesson for me, though, because I knew I’d have to talk the students through that barrier.)
So I pulled down a few books of poetry and flipped through them until I found some pages that had the right feeling, and collected vocabulary from those — or used their vocabulary as a starting point for word-associations. “Specifically textured poems (Arnold & Bishop)” and “Attraction = v. physical words”, I’ve written here. (I should have noted the poems, but this definitely involved Elizabeth Bishop’s “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”).
The next step would be to change and refine these into phrases I wanted to use to describe the project in question, since the aim was to use the poems just as inspiration (but it was very late at night and I stopped here).
Writing/illustration/other exercise (with acknowledgement to Kim Wilkins, on whose “lush language” activity this is based)
Look at a piece of art or writing that you love, and pull all the adjectives (or other striking words) from it that appeal to you. They can be words contained in the piece, or ways you would describe the piece. Riff on those a bit further — do they suggest other appealing phrases. (Jaunty and dashing, well-sprung yet chaotic? Muted and mysterious, distant yet intimate? Spun-sugar and a foam of lace, with just a drop of acid? Crystalline, brittle, and weighty?)
Then do a quick sketch (written or drawn) that feels that way (try to avoid using the words themselves, especially if that could verge on actually stealing them)*. Alternatively, you could rework a previous sketch — this sort of approach can have an interesting unifying effect.
(Bonus note in case the answer is intriguing or useful: what sorts of words did you find appealed to you, and why?)