Observation Journal: Industrial Fabulism

On this observation journal page l was looking at the idea of industrial fabulism.

A few weeks before this, I noted I was interested in the “fabulist-practical and the industrial-fantastic”. This is something that appears in articles in car magazines at mechanics’ offices (often very romantically written) and in some of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, in collections of rural inventions and the science columns in 19th-century periodicals and in Cold Comfort Farm, in Longitude and Apollo 13 and Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange.

It was also a choice I had to actively make in Flyaway, choosing to underline the reliability of beauty by describing aspects of even mechanical detritus as worthy of notice. And it runs throughout Travelogues, much of which involved processing an industrial landscape through the language of enchantment. I touched a little on that in the post All the shape of the land: “a way not only of expressing the experience of made things, but of experiencing the world through them, and finding enchantment in that.”

Extract from Travelogues

So on this journal page, I was identifying that particular aesthetic and its appeal. Some points:

  • It is more of a mode/style/setting than a genre.
  • It relies on and seeks out beauty in machinery:
    • It is realism in service of fabulism.
    • There’s a conscious effort to enchant.
    • Lyricism is used to deal with industrial objects and surroundings.
    • It’s an innate aesthetic — not adding a gloss of beauty to the mechanical/industrial, or bolting ornaments on, but seeking it in the objects themselves. The industrial can even be what adds beauty to the fantastic.
    • It represents a society without a division between the technical/technological and the fantastic.
  • It is not the same as clockpunk/steampunk/dieselpunk.
    • There can be overlap, but there is an effort to distinguish itself from the usual genre markers (e.g. going for a blue tint instead of sepia).
    • It leans on machinery more than the fantastic.
    • It often avoids the obvious supernatural/fantastic altogether.
  • Its appeal for me includes:
    • It is anchored in the real. The enchantment is integrated into reality/realism, OR the fairy-tale is anchored by the industrial element.
    • As mentioned above, it’s an integrated/innate aesthetic.
    • It’s designed to be actively attractive.
    • The cliches and stereotypes of the industrial (especially as opposed to the fantastic) are well established, so I need to consciously choose to use the mode, which can make writing in it a pleasing puzzle. (Swapped descriptions, e.g. light vs tin cans, and switched stereotypes are useful for this.)

Observation Journal — Getting meta with story shapes

On this observation journal page I had intended to play more with previous thoughts on story structure, treating them literally as the story. The idea becoming the thing.

It’s not uncommon, of course — consider the Discworld’s Narrativium — but I suspect I had been thinking in particular about how Diana Wynne Jones occasionally literalises some aspects of genre her books (see e.g. aspects of the Gothic in Time of the Ghost and Aunt Maria, and of course the mythosphere in The Game).

Left page: “A scrabbling in the ceiling”. Also, the diffuser has fallen off the bathroom skylight, so sometimes on full moon nights it projects a perfect circle of moonlight onto the bathroom floor.

That was the plan.

Instead I got distracted by some theories of narrative that were working for me, and wondering what they would look like AS a narrative.

It has similarities to the pick-three-pictures-and-match-them-to-a-movie game (for a more involved version of that see: The Deal with Dixit). It’s a way to shuffle stories I already know into new configurations, as well as to draw out directions I’d like to pursue.

So:

  • Story takes shape of its container” becomes… well, at it’s mildest it’s just “grow to fit circumstances”, but actually it becomes several VERY GOOD books I have read since writing this page. But I can’t tell you what they are because this would be a spoiler. Impressionable things that become good (or feared) because of who took them in, and all the violence and generosity and assumptions involved.

The main lesson: Nearly anything can be a story-shape if you’re deliberate enough about it.

Writing/art exercises: Made-up rules

  1. Theory into story: If you’re familiar with theories and guidelines in your field, pick one theory of writing or art composition that you often work with (the rule of thirds? the rule of threes?).
    • Alternatively, pick some personal beliefs about what makes a good story/picture (velvety moss? forward motion? girls with swords?) and rephrase it “all stories/pictures should do XYZ”.
    • Treat that theory TOO literally. To what extent can you make it become the story? Does alluding to something three times have an actual magical power known to people in your story? Is this a painting of a world in which all girls MUST have swords, whether they want to or not?
    • Do a quick written/drawn sketch.
  2. Found theories: Or instead, pick an object lying nearby A bowl of receipts? A fork?
    • Convert that into your new theory of story/composition. “All stories/books should be like a bowl of receipts”. “A good painting should comply with the Fork Theory of composition.”
    • Now see if you can (a) work out what that might mean and (b) sketch out a story/image adhering to that theory. (An ornamental framing device for a found-text piece?)
    • (NB I think it’s Loomis’ Creative Illustration that deals with randomised compositions.)
  3. Bonus:
    • Did you think of any existing stories/pictures that fit that theory?
    • Make a few notes on what went hilariously wrong, and if anything worked unexpectedly — to what extent do formal guidelines vs freedom vs deliberateness suit you?

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.

Story shapes and extrapolation

Recently, I’ve been revisiting this three-mood approach to story patterns (last posted about here Observation Journal — Story Patterns). I will probably continue to do so. [And later edits are indicated with a note and/or italics.]

Current thoughts are that breaking a short story into three big moods has proved useful in several ways. These include:

  • Recording my impression of a short story I’ve read.
  • [Edited to add:] Understanding story structure.
  • Borrowing a cage to trap a story idea, or a frame to train the story to grow on.
  • Guided extrapolation.

I’ve outlined these more below:

(A caveat, as ever, that I use “moodvery broadly, to include mood, texture, tone, trope, attitude, posture, allusion, reaction…)

Continue reading

New story: The Wonderful Stag…

Once, not so long ago, a marvellous stag lived in the forest at the foot of our mountain, on the other side of the little bridge you must still cross when you leave our village…

My (very) short story “The Wonderful Stag, or The Courtship of Red Elsie” has just been published on Tor.com — with this gorgeous and luminous illustration by John Jude Palencar.

Art by John Jude Palencar

That lit crescent of its antlers! The strange wise oddity of its face! The texture of its fur! The ears!

A fun fact about this story is that it actually began as an illustration — one of the earliest of the ink-and-gold Inktober fairytale illustrations I did in 2019.

A silhouette of a man in medieval garments offering a gold ring to a stag with rings on its antlers.

The story I imagined behind this illustration was a little different (although it survived as one of the narrator’s asides about possible origins). It was prompted by a @fairytaletext tweet “Before long, the suitor fell in love with a mischievous stag.”

A silhouette of a stag with gold rings on its antlers leaping

I couldn’t shake the image of a stag running through the forest, hung with rings with which it had made off. When I sat down to write that, however, the consequences became rather deeper-reaching, and George-the-Wolf emerged to listen to the rumours, and Red Elsie flickered into being, and all the courtship arrangements of the isolated village…

But you can read all about that here: https://www.tor.com/2021/09/01/the-wonderful-stag-or-the-courtship-of-red-elsie-kathleen-jennings/

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.

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 — or I will once we get out of lockdown again!).

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