Observation Journal: Twenty purposes for a short story

On this observation journal page I wanted to pull back a bit from the structure and engines of stories and make a list of twenty purposes for a short story. (For the artists: I’ve found this list works pretty well for one stand-alone illustration/vignette or a several linked smallish images.)

As with all the observation journal activities, the aim was to work out which purposes occurred (and appealed) to me. It is a personal and subjective list, and specific to quite short stories. It is also a list that might change if I was thinking about a particular genre or mood.

But it has been very useful for concentrating my attention on several projects. This is one of the pages that has gone into my master list of Lists To Refer To When Stuck.

Densely handwritten double page of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a gecko on top of a door. On the right, notes on story purposes.
Left page: A note to self to consider planning projects forward from the starting date instead of back from the due date. This is an ongoing area for personal development.

This is a personal list, and I do recommend making your own (as usual with the observation journal, making the list and noticing what mattered to me — here, beauty and puzzles — was the point). However, for completeness, here is the list:

TWENTY PURPOSES FOR A SHORT STORY

  • To fit a novel’s-worth of feeling into one place
  • Like Barrie’s pixies, to be completely full of one thought/emotion with no room for others
  • To try out an Idea(TM)
  • To frame a scene
  • To experiment with structure
  • To experiment on the reader
  • To be a jewelled delight or thrill or horror that fits neatly in the palm of the hand
  • To be all imagery
  • To be stones in the foundation of a world
  • To create a mythos
  • To be a beautiful object
  • To catch the feeling of one piece of art/illustration
  • To conceal a secret
  • To pay
  • To be a gift for a particular person/reader
  • To wreak vengeance on a particular person/reader
  • To see if I can solve a puzzle [I do not, as a reader, like being set puzzles]
  • To entertain
  • To be a door into a wilderness/let a mysterious breeze through
  • To call the edges of reality into doubt — to be a haunting in the wallpaper, a shadow in the glass

Activity for artists/writers:

  1. What is a thing you frequently make (or would like to make)? Short stories? Poems? Illuminated vignettes?
  2. Make a list of at least twenty possible purposes for that thing.
  3. If there are any patterns, or reasons which excite you more than others, make a note of that.
  4. Choose a purpose from the list at random. Think of a project you are working on or an idea you have. If that purpose was the primary reason for you to make this thing, how might you change what you do? Write a few lines or do a quick sketch of the altered/concentrated idea. If it’s clearly the wrong fit, what project might that purpose suit?
    Edit to add some examples:
    1. For example, a story about a haunted chimney that exists to “create a mythos” would be very focussed on the sort of wider world to which this haunted chimney belongs, while if it were to “be a jewelled delight” my concern would be to get really into the rich details of chimney architecture.
    2. Similarly, if this illustration about a haunted chimney were to “torment a particular friend”, the ghost would be painfully handsome, and there’d be lots of mythology hinted at in the carvings around the fireplace. But if it were to call the edges of reality into doubt, there’d be other ghosts lurking in the corners of the room.

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 — story patterns

This observation journal page continues a previous activity, playing with story structures.

I read through a few more short stories and made notes of the big segment-moods through which the stories moved. I was trying to think of these shapes separate from those stories, but I do wish I’d made a note of what stories they were! One of them was an M.R. James.

Double handwritten page of observation journal. On left page, 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a toy rabbit. On the right, notes on story structures.
Rosettes of lichen, ants in an apple.
(The page number at the top right should refer to p115 instead of 111 — this system is useful but not infallible).

If this approach to thinking about stories (written or drawn!) resonates with you, I encourage you to make your own list based on short stories you like. But for completeness, here are all the short story shapes from this page and the previous one:

  • Ordinary — inkling — confirmation
  • Reluctance — engagement — deepening
  • Humorous sketch — elements clash/conflagration — fall-out
  • Inkling — build — reveal-behind-the-story
  • World — deeper — dissolve into it
  • Unsettlement — deepening horror — the cusp of annihilation.
  • Ominous — compounded — twist (of plot or knife)
  • Formation of goal — quiet progression towards goal — achieves goal
  • Inkling — red herring — solution
  • Foreshadow doom — Proceed towards doom — [evade] doom
  • Meet cute — complication — HEA (happily ever after)
  • Fragments — facets — whole
  • Situation — failures — successes
  • Door — something through — pushed back
  • Metaphor — metaphor — metaphor
  • Suspicion — Peel back — truth & consequences

They fit short stories, and while each trio could fit in a single illustration, they also work nicely for sequences of at least three (at the risk of feeling like an instructive Victorian cartoon).

After making the list, I again remixed and rearranged the orders, to see what sort of stories each new grouping suggested to me. For example, “Ordinary — deeper — fall-out” suggested the horror behind the mundane, or a secret history. “Dissolve into the world — conflagration — inkling” could fit a ‘getting of wisdom’ plot. “Confirmation — build — unsettlement” might be about discovering someone or something has feet of clay.

This process is not about reinventing the wheel of story structure. It was about learning what the shapes of stories mean to me. The thinking-through is the point. That said, now that I have the list, it sometimes comes in useful for quickly giving shape to an idea (written or drawn!). I’ll post some examples of that soon.

(If you’d like an art or writing activity, there’s one based on this in the previous story structure post.)

Observation Journal — more swapped descriptions

I wrote last month about using the observation journal to play with descriptions, for pleasure and observation, texture and worldbuilding (see: Variations on descriptions).

Pen sketch of cut apple and knife

Here’s another example of that first iteration: choosing two terms and swapping the descriptive approaches.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a honeyeater. On the right, swapped descriptions.
Left page: Distant thumping, and forgetting to move when doing art.

So, for example, this time I described sound as light (peals like light on a ruffled lake; a clean cold sound, warm as a slate grey dawn) and light as sound (light heavy and flat as a muffled bell; gold midday like a swarm of bees). Then I switched to describing foliage as animals (a lean and muscular forest, still and wary; leaves that hissed and slithered over each other) and animals as foliage (a horse’s mane and tail streaming like grass in a river).

The next day I took a different approach.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a honeyeater. On the right, a list of similes.
Left page: billowing deck chairs and muttering pigeons, and getting overexcited about being outdoors.

In this case, I took two items fairly randomly from the left-side observation pages, and used one as a metaphor or simile for the other. As a result, it’s more directed than the first approach, and requires more specific thought, but is just as much fun. The trick here is finding the similarities — what makes a bush turkey like an etched glass, or balloons like cold cocoa?

There are a few that I like for their own sakes:

  • Cats glinting & flickering through striations of sunlight, as ever-present and ungraspable as the humming buzz of the powerlines.
  • A reclusive neighbour disappearing, like the statue of Mary, into the brilliant autumn overgrowth.
  • The embarrassment lingered, interminable as a distant freight train.

But generally, this version has more of a parlour-game feeling to it, and is less about the sound of words than about concepts and observation and argument (all also good things).

And it also emphasises how drawing a comparison from within a world (whether the world of a Brisbane suburban winter, or a more dramatic and fictional place) helps build a sense of the world and how things fit into and push against it.

Pen sketch of a honeyeater
Patterns on a honeyeater

Writing/art activity:

Similart to the previous one, except this time:

  • Make a list of things you’ve seen recently.
  • Pick two at random.
  • Then:
    • For writers: Describe Thing 1 as being obviously like Thing 2 — at length.
    • For artists: Draw Thing 1 by calling on all its similarities to Thing 2 — you can distort the image, if necessary, but finding subtle parallels and forcing them into prominence is particularly effective (here are some fast sketches of household items as people).
Watercolour sketch of reclining woman, based on a milk jug.
A small jug

Publication: “Gisla and the Three Favours”

My short story “Gisla and the Three Favours” is now out in issue #43 of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (available in print and e-formats).

Cover monkey by Catherine Byun, who has WONDERFUL work — soft, dense, bright, and toothy

The story is about promises and gambles and memorable dresses. It began as a landscape illustration experiment for Light Grey Art Lab, and then turned back into a fairy tale (for clarity: this story is not illustrated in the magazine!).

As Gisla’s mother lay dying, she called her daughter to her.

“When you were only a hope and a happiness, Gisla, I begged three favours of three ladies. I have not lived to repay them. This you must do for me, else when I die, Gisla, my soul will fly up out of my body, as all souls do, and it will beat against the windows of heaven, but it will not get in…”

Here is the full table of contents of the issue, which is available from Small Beer Press:

  • fiction
    • Alisa Alering, “The Night Farmers’ Museum”
    • Erica Clashe, “The Shine of Green Floors”
    • Leah Bobet, “The Mysteries”
    • Joanne Rixon, “Wires from the Same Spool”
    • Quinn Ramsay , “The House of the Gutter-Prince”
    • Jim Marino, “Acting Tips for Remaining Unknown”
    • Zack Moss, “If You Had Been Me Then What Would I Have Been?”
    • Kathleen Jennings, “Gisla and the Three Favours”
    • Gillian Daniels, “King Moon’s Tithe to Hell”
    • poetry
    • Anne Sheldon, “Three Poems”
    • Jessy Randall, “Four Poems”
  • nonfiction
    • Ayşe Papatya Bucak, “Half-Papatya”
    • Nicole Kimberling, “Time Travel Self-Care System”
  • cover
A watercolour painting, framing a page: stylised sun, moon and stars at top, a girl with a shepherd's crook standing across a stream from three mysterious ladies — one floating in a white gown, one hunched in a mossy shawl, one half-seal and in the water.
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars — pencil and watercolour (this is actually part of a draft of the story — the final is all in words)

Observation Journal — variations on descriptions

This observation journal page has what is now one of my favourite observation journal activities. It’s a chance to be poetic and/or silly, a splendid vocabulary workout, and also intellectually soothing enough to do late at night.

Variations keep emerging, but this is one of the first I tried (and is particularly useful for exploring variations on a central theme). It was preceded by “One of these things is quite like the other ones” — an arguing game (see the end of The Emma Heist).

Observation journal spread, densely handwritten, pink watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a rock grown into a tree. On the right, lists of swapped descriptions.
Unicorn piñatas and bougainvillea-shrouded statues, glittering cats, finger limes, and a rock grown into the fork of a tree.

The basic idea is to pick (at least) three nouns. One noun is “it”. Next, describe that noun using descriptions more commonly used for (or words more commonly associated with) each of the other nouns. I try to get at least 10 descriptions for each of those two reference words.

So on this page, I wanted to write some descriptions of light. But I keyed the descriptions to the way I might ordinarily describe (a) water and (b) tin cans.

Handwritten page using terms associated with water and tin cans to describe light.

So, for example, describing light using terms I associate with water, I get:

  • light rivered and pooled
  • sunlight that eddies around your ankles
  • buildings an archipelago of shadows in the swift, bright tide of autumn
  • tepid, stagnant light in the parlour
  • a chill trickle of moonlight

And for “tin cans” there is:

  • a hard enamel of light
  • jagged edges of light
  • corrugated and smoke-rippled autumn air
  • the light had a clean, crimped quality, as if the town had been sealed against contamination
  • a chill bright day kicked ringing like a can along the street

It is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise, but also surprising. It pulls out unexpected metaphors and similes, it forces me to look with new eyes at the reference terms (how many thoughts do I associate with tin cans?). It tunes aesthetics (industrial beauty? aquatic moods?) and begins to build little worlds (how does light work in this place, and how do people interact with it?). And changing my perspective on the first term (light) in two different directions sets up echoes and comparisons and resonances.

Related posts and writing:

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick three nouns at random — common ones you can see around you, or try a random word generator.
  • The first noun is the one you will have to describe (or illustrate).
  • But first, look at the other two nouns. Think of their characteristics, and things you associate with them. It could be words or cliches, myths and moods. Or it could be shapes, textures, colours, weight and movement.
  • Now look back at your first noun:
    • Writers: Make a list of descriptions, metaphors, similes, etc describing the first noun, but using those associations from the other ones. (I like to try to do 10 descriptions for each of the reference nouns).
    • Illustrators: Try to draw the first noun using the (textures, colours, associations etc) of the reference nouns (one at a time).
      (NB. If you’re using more conceptual nouns, you might have to get particularly creative — but feel free to limit yourself to visible, concrete nouns. Drawing a fox using textures (for example) more associated with a staircase and velvet is a rather different artistic proposition to illustrating the idea of a program using imagery you associate more with hope and intellect — although both are quite possible.)
  • Take a step back and notice how the activity went. Where were the surprising resonances, the difficult mismatches, the things you began to notice about any of the nouns? Where did you push against your default settings? How are the two different directions different, and what did they reveal about the core idea with which you began?

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 — First Sentences

On this observation journal page, I was taking some more time on another favourite first sentence (following on from my earlier attempt to batch-process first lines).

Double-page spread of observation journal: On the left page, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture; On the right, thoughts on first lines.
Left page: “Greengrocer’s glowing with oranges, lemons, apples, melons, tomatoes”; also, I forgot how to draw a shopping trolley

Really, it was just an excuse to spend some time in the first line of Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered:

Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but Truth.

Handwritten thoughts on the first line of Thus Was Adonis Murdered.

I love this first sentence. There’s no reference to persons, places, or events. There is, however, a very clear narrator: portentous, comically formal with fits of frank informality, weighty and oblique but perhaps (perhaps) not as complex as they perceive themselves to be.

And there’s already, here, a note of the relief and resignation on which the narrator (though not the plot) will end the book — ultimately, the narrator (Hilary Tamar) is more concerned about their own overlooked brilliance than the guilt or innocence of the accused Julia.

It’s punchy and funny and a little startling, and a definite Mood. There’s no action, but there is a tension — between the latinate and English words; elevated diction vs brevity; lofty principles vs grumpy relief; that very brevity vs the irony and doubled negatives. Why “thank God”? What has happened, what due was not given, who would express themselves this way? (If you’ve read the books, you’ll know this is a question that is immediately, constantly, yet also never answered.)

I then did a couple of replacement exercises (from Stanley Fish, see also previously: bodysnatching). I switched out each element (without particular attention to elegance of phrasing) to get, e.g. “Breakfast seeks, thank the cook, no pinnacle save omelette” and “The star requests, thank agents, no special treatment save a sedan chair.”

What this brought out (for me) was the personification, the irony, the echoes of Pride & Prejudice in the dubious veracity of a broad statement, and how difficult it is not to be sarcastic when using this particular sentence structure.

It’s also just a great book.

A previous take on Caudwell: The Caudwell Manoeuvre.

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 — Little Groves

This observation journal page was an exploration of what I like about “little woods and wildernesses” in art and stories and life, and as art and stories.

I’d found one on a walk — a stand of she-oaks in a flood reserve, dense and insular — which led to this page and the June 2020 calendar: Ominous Groves.

Double-page spread of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a cake server. On the right, thoughts on groves.
On the left, an exercise in describing the day’s clouds: furled, fogged, shirred, ruched, rippled, and the crescent moon diffuse through them.

So I went in pursuit of the idea, in search of no grand conclusions (at this point) but trying, I suppose, to find the way in.

The right page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on small forests.

Their origins (for me): CS Lewis and Robert Frost and Frances Hodgson Burnett, Jane Austen and Susan Coolidge and Midsomer Murders, T. H. White, ballads and fairy-tales and home and backyards and parks and childhood. Not Tolkien, whose sense of forests is vast, but Baynes’ illustrations for Tolkien.

Four ink drawing coloured in greeny-blue. A ruined castle behind trees. Two women circling a stand of trees. A statue carrying a jar and a statue of a dancing faun among trees. A skull below and a ghost within a canopy of trees.
My favourites (now more muted) from the June 2020 Calendar

A few points:

  • The pocket-sized-ness of them, and the way they fit into unexpected pockets of the world. (And their ornamental possibilities).
  • Their closely-bound contradictions — pretty but wilderness, ornamental but feral, good but not tame, small but eternal, tiny but encompassing.
  • The existence of an enclosed world, contained, self-possessed and possess-able, cut off from other concerns and yet full of its own rustling existence. Set apart from the outer world, in terms of light and shade, temperature and inhabitants and sound. Different from the staginess of more flamboyant settings, with which a grove might seem to have more in common.
  • The necessity of finding a gate into them, and that they are (after all) bigger on the inside.
  • Their function as a gate to other worlds — forest as psychopomp.
  • Their opacity — their threats and secrets and how they function (small as they are) as a weighted point on the world.
  • What they mean to time — separated from it, bending it, a place where time might be lost, or a treasury of lost time.
  • What is beneath them — from what soil they grow, and what happens among their roots, and how they pin layers of time and worlds together.
  • That they can function as a shorthand for stories (I realise this isn’t a novel idea, but I need to stumble into thoughts for myself) — their function and structure, metaphorically, but mostly their enchantment.

At the time I felt I hadn’t got very far with this look at groves (although the calendar is not nothing!). But in retrospect, particularly in the light of some projects I’m working on now, revisiting this page has brought several ideas (for and about stories) into focus.

And I do like them!

Observation Journal — story structures

An observation journal page from my birthday last year, in which — while very full of cake — I attempted to think about the shapes of short stories (written and drawn).

Two-page observation journal spread. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a sketch of a birthday balloon in a bathroom sink. On the right, densely handwritten short story thoughts.
I do rather like those scribbly bird frames on the left

All that needs to be written about story structure probably has been. Personally I suspect that, as with art composition, “be deliberate” does a lot of the heavy lifting. (That said, Kim Wilkins (through the University of Queensland and the Novelist’s Bootcamp) and Angela Slatter have taught me most of the practical side of structure, and I recommend both).

But (to the despair of friends and mentors) I understand things best by thinking/blundering my way into them, and sometimes the act of reinventing of the wheel is more valuable than the individual wheel itself. This page began a series of exercises tinkering with how stories work in my head.

First, I applied observations to a structure:

  • I drew a table of the second-most basic story outline: Beginning — Middle — End.
  • Next I filled each cell randomly with observations from some of the left-side journal pages.
  • Then I thought about which ones felt like a story, and what sort of moods/actions were happening in the sections.

Then I made a list of those moods/actions. Some were suggested by the table above (e.g. a beginning in which something is squeaking in the breeze felt a bit ominous). Some I’d observed in other favourite short stories. Here’s the (non-comprehensive) list:

  • Ominous
  • Formation of goal
  • Inkling
  • Foreshadow doom
  • Meet-cute
  • Fragments
  • Situation
  • Door
  • Metaphor
  • Suspicion
  • Compounded
  • Quiet progression towards goal
  • Red herring
  • Proceed towards doom
  • Complication
  • Facets
  • Failures
  • Something [gets] through
  • Peel back
  • Twist (of plot or knife)
  • Achieves goal
  • Solution
  • [Evade] doom
  • HEA [Happily Ever After]
  • Whole
  • Success
  • Pushed back
  • Truth & consequence

Finally, I rearranged those elements into a story outline: Beginning — Middle — End. I made notes on what stories (existing or otherwise) those evoked. For example, “Foreshadowed doom — Facets — HEA” suggested a sort of Sliding Doors / Run Lola Run situation.

This page has been useful for a number of reasons:

  • It kicked off an occasional series of thoughts on plots I like (more to come on this).
  • It’s been helpful for teasing initial ideas out into more of a story shape.
  • It’s been useful for adjusting and restructuring ideas.
  • It’s a reminder of the importance of movement, because at the very least the story has to get from one mood to the next.
  • It gives me a working framework that I understand from the inside out.
  • It’s helped me get a lot better at reading stories and noticing what the author is doing, and talking about it.

WRITING/ART EXERCISE

  • Pick a few stories (written or drawn or a single very narrative illustration) you like, or have encountered lately.
  • Think of how they start, continue, and finish. With a lot of illustrations and some very short stories, some of those aspects are implied.
  • Jot down a list of the big mood/effect/movement of each section.
    For example, I’m looking at the cover of Dungeon Critters right now, and you could say that it starts in ominous shadow and proceeds through vigorous confusion into overwhelming luminousness. Or perhaps it begins in a cavern and proceeds through a fight through brambles to threatening reward. There isn’t a correct answer — it’s a matter of how you see stories.
  • Now pick three entries from your list (or mine above) and assign them to “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”. (You can read anything as a metaphor.)
  • Consider whether you know any other stories/images that would fit that model?
  • Could you invent a story that would suit that shape? If you’re stuck for ideas, pick something innocuous you’ve seen today (a deliveryman? someone making toast?) and apply it to the story. Do a quick sketch (written or drawn) of the idea.

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 — written sketches and samplers

On this observation journal page, I was trying to use the journal in the same way I use my sketchbooks.

Double page of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a fat pigeon.
On the right, a dot point list of ways people held their hands at a cafe.

There are three approaches here.

Left page: casual sketches (written and drawn)

The left page often functions as a sort of sketchbook, anyway — little notes on the day, attempts to capture a sound or a movement or a glimpse (as here: pigeon shadows sliding up a roof to meet their pigeons). Some of these would work as drawings, but might need more work to capture what I wanted to remember (as compared to, say, a sketch of a single puffed-up topknot pigeon).

On this day, I took the observation journal with me on a walk, which is a sure way to fill the page up up far too quickly, and also to walk extremely slowly. But it creates a lovely lyrical impression of the day.

I’ve used this approach for some space/place-based projects — one is forthcoming, but of course Travelogues was written that way, and I’ve talked before (see: Sketching with words) about using this approach when writing Flyaway.

Left page: ROYGBIV

I also did a variant of the ROYGBIV exercise here (see: Observation Exercises). I was looking for colours from the spectrum (in order) in plants that I passed. This is complicated by my limited botanical knowledge, but it creates both a lovely structure for looking at the world and — as a result — a framework for an image of a place and time (Oxley at the end of autumn). Here’s the list:

Bottle-brush/poinsettia; duranta/grevillea; banksia candles/jacaranda leaves; new leaves on various/olive-honeyeater; eyes on ditto/spear on bird-of-paradise flowers; ditto/shadows in rolled tiger-tree bark in cleft; lavender-y patches of bark ditto; purply-pink berries (?); periwinkles; tips & edges of succulents.

Right page: A themed sketch / sampler

When sketching in my sketchbook, I will often pick a single topic to sketch (see sketchbook posts generally). These are frequently (but not exclusively) hands — hands in cafes, hands on books, hands on guitars…

Sketching thematically is useful for several reasons:

  • It’s a great way to pass time.
  • It makes me look closely at something obvious, and find the variety and personality in it.
  • It creates a framework for capturing an aspect of a setting (or moment or demographic).
  • It creates a useful thesaurus or sampler — even if I don’t refer back to the sketchbook, these poses are somewhere now in my hands or mind (see also: On making samplers of various kinds).
  • It can turn into a piece of art on its own (October calendar: Cold hands).

So this observation journal exercise was the same activity, but written.

Dot point list of ways people held their hands

It is a list of the ways people were holding their hands in a cafe.

They are loosely sorted into phone-holders (“Hand holding laptop & notebook, one finger extended to wrap phone & clasp against book”), coffee-holders (“Fingers tucked under saucers, thumbs on edges, fingers supporting sides (of saucers)”); and other (“One hand loosely clasping cardigan closed, other towing dog”). 

I was surprised at the variety (although I shouldn’t have been) — perhaps because when I draw hands it’s just a matter of arranging lines and shadow — I use the same lines, the same shadows. But when I write these notes, I suddenly need to use a whole vocabulary of words for movements (flexed? extended? crooked?) that I don’t usually default to.

Pen drawing of fat topknot pigeon

Writing/art activity

  • Take up a position from which you can observe life. I’m a fan of cafes because the life is in motion so no-one knows if I recorded it accurately or not. Socially-distanced vaccine queues are an option. Livestreams and documentary footage and birds out the window also work.
  • Pick a common/obvious detail of life: how people hold their hands in a cafe, or what they do with their feet in a supermarket queue, or what they do with their faces when listening on Zoom, or how dogs wait…
  • Fill a page with sketches (written or drawn) of just that detail — all the versions you can notice, the commonalities, the slight variations, the personalities that come through.
  • Switch — if you’re a writer, try sketching a couple poses (they can be diagrams); if you’re an artist, see what words you need to capture them.
  • If you want, do a quick (written or drawn) sketch of a scene in your preferred genre or from a favourite drawing, and see if you can incorporate that detail — a dragon waiting the way you saw a dog sprawled in the middle of a thoroughfare, a royal advisor holding a goblet the unexpectedly complicated way someone held a glass in a cafe, a detective scuffing their shoe childishly while thinking… See what it does to the scene or the character.

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Observation Journal — staring at sentences

On these observation journal pages, I got further into first sentences — specifically other people’s (previously I’d been playing with hypothetical ones of my own).

It is difficult to say what makes a good first line, since I suspect the answer is that it is followed by a good book. So this exercise was, first, one of readerly appreciation (and a very enjoyable and soothing one — I highly recommend it).

But I think (or hope) the closer you read something the more the patterns of it get into your bones and thoughts.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a drawing board. On the right, densely handwritten notes analysing sentences.

So here I was breaking down some of my favourite first lines to see what I liked about them.

It looks complicated, but that’s because it’s crowded. The process itself (adapted from a style analysis exercise in a grammar course I used to tutor) was simple:

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