Observation Journal: Reflections and making things happen

A page from the observation journal, headed "Reflections & Lessons & Patterns", with mind-map style notes on the week's observations.

I’ve continued to find weekly reflection pages the observation journal very useful when I do them, and interesting to look back on. This is from the end of January: the week including Points of habit and resistance, Patterns in days, Reflections and alphabetical order, and The appeal of staginess — there was also a more introspective, prosy page of reflection which I haven’t posted about because, well, turns out that’s not the sort of journal I like to keep.

It’s a different format, and it has fewer birds and dinosaurs than the previous week’s summary, but there are a few continuing and new themes that began to push the journal (and what I was making) in certain directions after this. A few are:

  • The trap of thinking only about creativity/productivity, and not about actually creating and making things (the art of making things manifest, as it were). In retrospect, this was mostly a problem because I was reading so much about creativity at the time, in preparation for teaching, and trying to cast a fairly wide net in the journal, so that it would work as an example. But it led to the next point.
  • The links between IDEA and DOING, between filling a page with ideas and going back and making something with them, the difference between “incubation” and “overthinking”, and the extent to which an idea can be the thing itself (and ongoing personal resistance to collage). This was initially of concern because I wanted to make sure students actually made something in the creativity class, but it immediately fed into my own issues with inertia vs momentum. I began taking time to look at how I got certain ideas to the finish line (and also, eventually, why I chose those particular ideas). This led to the next point.
  • The immediate power of pushing an idea just a bit further — this was scarily effective, and derailed my time planning (such as it was) and I want to post at a bit more length about it. At its most basic, however, it boiled down to this:
    • Once I have an Idea™, take five minutes to do an incredibly high-level, noncommittal outline of what a final version of it might look like.
  • The belief that style might not be everything, but it can get you a long way. This is personal to my taste and the way I work, of course, but is connected to recurring future references to “aesthetic”, as it emerged from the post on staginess.
  • The usefulness of considering patterns across a set of [stories, pictures, etc], rather than just a close critique of one — triangulating elements of interest and craft, and prioritising appreciation over criticism.
  • An emerging concern with surface design, written and visual, which I will post more about eventually when I get to the core pages — it relates to the post Framing devices and stories in the ornaments).

Also, with splendid dramatic irony, the note I don’t want to go out! I want to stay in and make things!

Also: My Australian Gothic book Flyaway is out very soon!

Writing news: A review of Flyaway, and Year’s Best in the mail


Flyaway comes out at the end of July (you can preorder it now, though)! And here is a beautiful review of it from Christina Ladd at Geekly, Inc:

Flyaway Review: Exquisite, Exquisite, Exquisite


I have been buying a lot of books lately (not at all curtailed by a birthday subscription to Slightly Foxed Quarterly — did you know T. H. White published his journals about taking flying lessons?). So it was a delightful surprise to get an unexpected box of books in the mail.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 contains many wonderful short stories — and for once, thanks to judging the World Fantasy Awards, I have already read quite a few and can confirm they are great!

It also has my Tor.com story, “The Heart of Owl Abbas“.

Here’s the table of contents, the better to convince yourself to acquire this anthology:

  • A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies — Alix E. Harrow
  • Intervention — Kelly Robson
  • The Donner Party — Dale Bailey
  • How to Identify an Alien Shark — Beth Goder
  • The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death — Alex Jeffers
  • Carouseling — Rich Larson
  • The Starship and the Temple Cat — Yoon Ha Lee
  • Grace’s Family — James Patrick Kelly
  • The Court Magician — Sarah Pinsker
  • The Persistence of Blood — Juliette Wade
  • Lime and the One Human — S Woodson
  • Bubble and Squeak — David Gerrold & Ctein
  • Sour Milk Girls — Erin Roberts
  • The Unnecessary Parts of the Story — Adam-Troy Castro
  • The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish — Octavia Cade
  • The Gift — Julia Nováková
  • The Buried Giant — Lavie Tidhar
  • Jump — Cadwell Turnbell
  • Umbernight — Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • Today is Today — Rick Wilber
  • The Heart of Owl Abbas — Kathleen Jennings
  • The Spires — Alec Nevala-Lee
  • The House by the Sea — P H Lee
  • Foxy and Tiggs — Justina Robson
  • Beautiful — Juliet Marillier
  • Dayenu — James Sallis
  • Firelight — Ursula K Le Guin

Peter de Sève on style (or ‘voice’)

 “An artist’s drawing is a catalog of the shapes that he loves. When I’m drawing something, I’m trying to find the shapes that please me. I believe that’s what makes up what people refer to as a style”.

 Peter de Sève, A Sketchy Past: The Art of Peter de Sève


A stack of layers for printable stationery for supporters on Patreon

I love layers, and piles of projects. The accidental colour schemes and unexpected patterns, the repeating motifs, the undesigned aptness of placements of birds and frames. The hundred-mattress promise of them, as if there’s a secret hidden below, if only you’ll take the time to feel for it. The way when you put absent-minded notes end to end you end up with something like the rough shape of a book.

The moment before editing begins.

Framing devices, and stories in the ornaments

Distilling further observation journal thoughts on how a good frame can help to call its contents into existence.

But also on the common human urge to ornament surfaces.

And all the places that leaves open to add even more story.

More to come.


(This follows on from yesterday’s post Thinking about points of view).

My only clear memory of reading Tirra Lirra By The River as an undergrad is of a scene where a character following the narrator up a staircase observes her new haircut:

'If you look at the underside of the cut,' said a man named Wallace Faulks, 'you can see the grain. Look, just like in a section of wood.'

It lingered. One reason is because it is so true and keenly observed, and every time I see a friend with freshly bobbed hair I think of this line. But I think it also stayed with me because it was such a wonderful example of viewpoint.

In writing, “point of view” usually refers to whether a story is told in first/second/third/omniscient point of view (“I”/”you”/”third”/godlike). But here I was thinking more about viewpoint in the artistic/perspective sense — literally where the viewer (whoever they might be) is physically standing, and what they can see from there.

For writers, in a broad sense, it can apply to temporal points of view, too (past? present? future? “The Present Only Toucheth Thee” was kind of all about that).

But to keep it simple: If I’m describing (or drawing) a person climbing a staircase, I can describe the scene several ways, including:

  • From their eyes, travelling with them: how the wallpaper gleams olive in lamplight, and where the carpet on the stairs is faded, which stairs creak, what is lurking on the landing.
  • From the top of the staircase: seeing their shadow climbing ahead of them, their eyes flicking from stair to stair, their expression as they get breathless, the way the buttons on their cardigan pull, the point at which their feet come into view.
  • From the foot of the stairs: the scuffs at the back of their shoes, the way their calves disappear in curved shadows under the hem of a skirt, the marks on the back of the cardigan, over the shoulderblades, where they leaned against a dusty wall, the way the lamplight pulls away from them as they ascend into darkness.

It’s easy to get into habits of describing things all one way, or from the most obvious viewpoint. I try to consciously play with this when I’m sketching, even sometimes building a reference piece that I can move around (e.g. the model library in this post). I do it when writing, too. Occasionally I will write out a scene from the other side of a room, or the level of the ceiling fan. Quite often the original viewpoint was sound (and style and purpose create their own restrictions), but seeing it briefly from another viewpoint will tell me more about the setting, and sometimes the character: Is there dust on the ceiling fan? What’s stored behind the door that was just flung open?

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick a scene (written or drawn). If you don’t have one in mind, choose a classic (for example, here, Cinderella running down the stairs) and do a super-quick stick figure or dot point sketch of it, as it first leaps to mind.
Sometimes it’s a classic for a reason. Cinderella front and centre, the prince in the distance, a shoe between them.
  • Identify where your viewer (the “person” describing the scene or holding the metaphorical camera) is located. In the sketch, they’re at the bottom of the stairs, or perhaps even driving her carriage.
  • Then consider some other potential vantage points — obvious or surprising.
  • Sketch those out quickly (words or drawings), and see what you find out about the scene.

The lower picture is from inside the palace, over the prince’s shoulder. Now the scene (and Cinderella) is running away from the viewer. There outside is dark, inside here is bright. Shadows stream away, opulence is everywhere, perhaps there is startled laughter nearby, or the clinking of glasses in the sudden silence of the orchestra.

The upper image is from the shrubbery below a curve of the staircase (might someone be lurking there?). Cinderella is obscured by balustrades — their design would now become important (a specific architectural era? carved with past legends of the realm?), as would the design of the gardens (ominous groves? brightly lit topiaries?). It also provides a particular staging: at least three distinct and separated levels of picture plane, story, and society.

Thinking about points of view

I was writing a post on viewpoint/point of view, but then I drew this, which I think expressed the idea concisely.

(I’ll still put up the full post later. Edit: Full post is here — Viewpoints.)

Observation journal: touch and smell

I don’t keep observation journal pages on a Saturday, as a rule. This is because I started it as an example for students, and was trying to keep it to a reasonable workload (allowing for me putting ten times the detail I required of them). But I saw wonderful things that day — orange mushrooms and flame-tree twigs and belligerent rainbow lorikeets.

The left-hand page is the usual saw/heard/did/pic arrangement.

On the right-hand page, I wanted to record a few things smelt and felt, to see whether I should include them in daily observations.

It’s oddly personal and visceral, recording these, far more than noting things heard or done (or even tasted). This is why I didn’t include these categories in the suggested/required layout.

But it’s a useful reflection for writing, when I’m trying to capture (or avoid) a sense of intimacy with a character! And just occasionally writing down smells and feelings is good practice. There are certain physical sensations I’m inclined to overuse as shorthand (the pull of fabric at the back of shoulders, water moving over wrists, the harshness of bark), and I need to remember others exist.

(I’m not being flippant about avoiding a sense of intimacy, either — sometimes it’s a necessary effect, sometimes it’s a matter of taste or style or register.)

Coral tree flower. You can gently take them apart into helmet, cape, breastplate, tunic, and long-johns.

These two pages were also where I began to notice how the observation pages capture the feeling of a day, however indirectly — and then to play with taking one element from each category to create the sense of very particular time and place.

For example, each of these selections suggests a rather different setting and story, even though they are from the same day in the same life:

  • Lorikeets screeching, the smell of boiling potatoes, fuzzy seed-heads, a silky table-top, buying new street numbers for a mailbox.
  • Triple-J Hottest 100 countdown, the dank smell of an air-conditioner switched to fan, pens in wild disarray at Officeworks, a watch shifting on a wrist, and rubbing toes tender in cheap new shoes.

These ideas developed in another direction later — but more on that as those ideas crystallise.

Writing/art activities:

  • Make notes of five things you can see/hear/smell/feel (or have done today) — mundane as you like. Choose one at random from each category — what sort of a world or story does it suggest? What colour scheme or composition? (I’ve used this a few times to kick off a story/art idea, and to create a quick world to drop an existing idea into — you can easily adjust some specifics for genre).
  • Choose one smell. What are five ways to describe it? What are five ways you could suggest it in a picture? (Smells are tricky in visual media, but they still impact & suggest visuals).

Undine Love: Reprint, new art

A big week for writing news! In addition to the new piece, my short story “Undine Love” has just been reprinted on Tor.com!

It’s a story of promises and hospitality, set in Australia (or something like it), and I’m still rather fond of its heroine and her not-entirely-absent family.

Ever since doing the cover for The Border Keeper I keep thinking it would be a great idea to cut out strands of wire.

This is the first publication of Undine Love since it appeared in ASIM in 2011, and although Tor.com doesn’t usually illustrate reprints, I wanted to do a fresh set in the style of the silhouettes in Flyaway.

But you’ll need to go to https://www.tor.com/2020/06/11/undine-love-kathleen-jennings/ to see more…