Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Dollhouse Metaphor for Writing

So, every few weeks, it happens that Clementine will sort of stop playing with her dollhouse. Like she's gotten a bit bored of it or just doesn't think to amble over to it. When that happens, there are a few things I do to get her interested again.

(Hint: yes I suppose this really is a post on how to keep your toddler interested in her toys, but it *may* have broader applications so keep reading :-)


This is basic. I go over to the dollhouse and take everything out of it. Every stick of furniture, every doohickie and resident undressed elephant. I plop it all on the floor.

PZOW! Instant interest. 

A jumble of stuff on the floor to plunder with = YAY! It never fails. So we play with it on the floor for a bit, and then we put it back. The key being: we put it back different.* You know, swap the kitchen and the living room maybe, or really shake things up and put the nursery downstairs. Crazy, I know :-) Once we took away the bathroom entirely for weeks. In fact, it was only reintroduced yesterday, with much fascination. Elephant brother got to try out the toilet first.

It is no surprise that this works. You know how rearranging a room is so rewarding? Well, dollhouses are no different.

And ... are you ready for this? Manuscripts are no different either! What do you do when you are bored with your living room? Do you walk away from it and never come back? Do you put it in a drawer? NO! You might try moving stuff around, right?

So. It may be that your plot is not unfolding in its pzowiest possible way. What can you do to light your brain back up with excited neural receptors or whatever it is that goes on in there**? Take stuff out and look at it "on the floor." (Really, a working doc will work better than the floor here.) Then put it back in a new and exhilarating way.

Result? Fresh story feng shui! Pathways to new possibilities will open up, like attic doors that were hidden by old dusty armoires, suddenly flung open.

I am anticipating the anxiety some of you are feeling at this suggestion. "Take my story apart? *shudder* I could never do that. I lack the emotional fortitude." I get that. You have no idea. So here's the great thing: you're not really taking any risks. You are not -- gods forfend -- actually picking apart your only living draft of the book. Don't do that! Save it and mess with a copy. That way you will know you are not doing anything that can not be undone. You will be brave and maybe even wild. You will Try Stuff, safe in the knowledge that you can always revert to your original and try again!


Again, really, this is basic. In the dollhouse/toddler scenario, this might be a new Calico Critters play set. (The choo choo train is a favorite.) Or it might just mean cutting out some art pictures from a catalog or magazine, putting sticky tape on the back and letting her hang them on the walls.

Radical new things, or minor new things. Both provide a spurt of new juice.

I would guess that the major problem writers face when getting their novels finished is the doldrums. They lose their initial excitement and let this get the better of them. The most common question I get in emails is some form of: how do I get back into my story? How do I fall in love with it again? Well, this is my answer, these two methods. You could just slog it out as is, determined to finish at all costs, but the things is: if you are bored, your readers will be too. So don't be bored! Ever! Shake your brain like a snow globe and make the glitter swirl. Yes, you will be picking glitter out of your brain for years to come, but it is worth it!

Brainstorm brainstorm brainglittersnowstorm!

It might be a whole new character who breathes in new life. Maybe you have to cut out a character and substitute in a new one. This can be difficult, but it can be key. In Blackbringer the single most important change I made was deleting an early character and creating Talon instead. He was new and he was so much better! The life he brought to the story spurred it forward into the book it became.

If a character is not the answer, how about some element of setting? A subplot? A theme? There has to be something. For me, the process of writing a novel is one of constant reinvigoration. I may be three-quarters of the way through a book and I will still be looking for ways to make it more exciting for myself, and by extension (one hopes) for the reader.

Do you have a languishing manuscript? Are you being timid with it? Passive? Don't be. Be brave! You have absolutely nothing to lose.

But back to toddlers and toys. Here is what I think, and what we are trying to do around here: have a smallish, well-curated, and shifting selection of good toys. I find that too many just causes overload and the bratty toss-everything mentality that is so irritating in other people's kids (ha ha). We try to rotate things, so there's never too much stuff out at once. This also makes it easier to maintain order.

If Clementine stops playing with her awesome blocks, say, we'll put them away for a while, bring them out later. (This doesn't really work as a writing metaphor, I don't think :-)

Also, we play with her as much as possible, and try be as silly and imaginative and inventive as possible, so that she knows that anything goes. She is always doing goofy things and trying to make us laugh. It is awesome. Really, in case you didn't know: almost anything can be a hat!

Books and art stuff. Lots of them. But the same rules apply. We try to keep them tidy and not overwhelming, and teach her respect for them. Crayons get put back in the box for next time, books get rotated to place where she can reach them down herself (favorites get to stay put, of course). Etc.


*I think "different" is correct here, and that to put it back in "differently" would refer to the manner of putting-inning, rather than the resulting configuration. Am I right or wrong, grammarians? Will change it if schooled.

**what really goes on in there = tapdancing brain men. You know it's true.


Msb said...

Fresh story feng shui. I love it! That just gave me the biggest smile.

Yes, I couldn't agree more. At least on the parenting front. My mom used to keep a raining day box in the closet and whenever either the weather or sickness prevented us from going outside, she'd reach into that mysterious box and pull something magical out. Usually it was just a coloring book or small plastic toy but that it was in this box that only came out on rare occasions mesmerized me. Children really do get overwhelmed. It's important to keep it all simple.

This is a great metaphor for writing. Thank you!

P.S. When are you going to decorate C's dollhouse with one of your own photos?

Leah Rae Miller said...

Geezie Creezie! Thanks for this! I'm in the middle of editing/revising my first draft and have become kind of complacent and bored with it. I know it is a great idea, but I think it needs something more. I'm going to try taking it apart and looking at the pieces. Seeing what works and what needs major adjustment. I guess, it is just a matter of not losing my initial excitement and vowing to NOT give up. :)

storyqueen said...

Actually, I think the putting away thing works for manuscripts, too. Sometimes, you just have to stick it somewhere and get distracted by other things or projects. When you pull it out again, one of two things happen:

1. You swoon with love for it.

2. You can really see what the problems are now, and that's the first step in being able to fix them.

Love this post. Wanting a dollhouse just for me.....

Jeanne said...

Love this post!
I am just learning how rearranging scenes can breathe such life into a draft. It also is helping me to discover where I need to add new scenes. Like if you move the bed to that side of the room, then suddenly there's an opening that is just the right size for a desk! tada!

SarahWT said...

These are excellent ideas, Laini - thank you! :)

Anonymous said...

I have so many comments I don't know where to begin!

First, I think Laini's blog should be nominated for an award. Brainglittersnowstorm? Priceless. Seriously, has anyone considered nominated her (you) for something?

Let's see . . . what else . . . love the re-working/getting excited about your MS parts. Unlike bitter writer advice, which tell you to slog through no matter what. Someone should inform them what L.T. said: if you're bored, readers will be too.

Also, I want Clementine's entire childhood. If I rewind to 1983, will you be old enough to adopt me by then?

And just to be anal, I think it IS "differently," unfortunately. That, or you have to rearrange the sentence to clarify that "different" refers to nouns (in this case, dollhouse objects).

Jane said...

I think you are a very smart mother

Susan Oloier said...

Came across your blog via a Twitter post and am so glad I did. This is terrific stuff. I may just try to be daring enough to take everything out and rearrange it. Love the parallels between Clementine's play and writing. What a lucky girl to have such inventive parents.

Faith Pray said...

I like Speed Scrabble, which is essentially the same idea as your lovely dollhouse one - my own personal scrabble game that has to change completely with each new letter addition. It's great practice for writing,
forces my brain to give up entirely great words in order to find better ones. Great analogy. It sounds like a happy piece of you much enjoys the putting-back part.

Laini Taylor said...

MacDougal Street Baby, I love the idea of the rainy day box. *must implement* :-) It's kind of what I do for C when we travel -- she has a backpack of new stuff that gets revealed one at a time and hopefully lasts the duration of the flight!

Leah, good luck! I hope you get some sparky new idea!

Shelley, you're totally right. The metaphor DOES work for putting away manuscripts. I don't know why I didn't see it, since it is something I rely on!

Jeanne, yes, seeing where new scenes are needed is a crucial part of revising. But scary! I always feel like I should be done thinking up new stuff by then and just get to move existing stuff around. But no.

SarahWT, you're welcome :-)

Anon, thank you! And you're probably right about the different. I'm feeling too lazy to change it right now though!

Jane, thank you!

Susan, I'm glad you stopped by!

Faith, so nice to see you! I've always thought I should play more Scrabble!

Jessica Fleming said...

I really loved the connection between the dollhouse and writing, too. I can completely relate with the "getting bored with the story" part. I've recently gone back to working on a novel that I put away for a while, and all my old enthusiasm has returned. So I know that method works, but I liked your idea too because doing it that way means I can keep working on the same one and complete it sooner, instead of moving on to something else.

Kristan said...

Love the analogy. :) Also, the adorable child and her dollhouse, hehehe. Her expression of joy in the second photo is just wonderful.

Liz said...

Fun post. I love the little puppy on the bed :) and your idea of cutting out pictures for decorating and wallpaper for the house.

As always, your blog is inspiring.

Catherine Denton said...

Okay, "brainglittersnowstorming" is genius! :D I LOVE this post. I feel unbelievably inspired. Now I'll be playing with my manuscript and putting new furniture into my WIP. Thank you Laini!

Sarah Wedgbrow said...

I have two girls, and a set of rotating toys...usually between the playroom and the basket upstairs. I do the same, switch stuff around, set things up. That's probably more fun for me. They like to deconstruct. :)
Never thought about taking elements in my story apart and seeing how they play out in a different order. This could work for me right now as I'm in the murky waters of "I don't know what comes next" before the big ending. Thanks!

misticalnia said...

I liked reading this post. It was helpful. And motivational. I think I'm gonna try it - both with writing, and with life.

Thanks a bunch for the advice. :D

PS. Link to my blog in case anyone's interested: misticalnia.blogspot.com

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