What Assembling My Daughter’s New Dresser Taught Me About Writing

As I work on the worldbuilding in a linked series of fantasy stories, my mind keeps drifting back to the day I tried to put my daughter’s new dresser together. It was a lovely dresser. Sturdily built, with real wood. Wicker drawers, for interest and texture. Warm colors. It was well packaged, came from a store I trusted not to sell me junk.

But when I got into putting it together, it was whole different story.

The body of the dresser is made up of a series of boards connected into a framework. All the pieces are labeled, and the usual “connect par A to part B’ instructions were there.

Here’s where everything fell apart.

The first thing that happened was the names. All the names. Everything got named, and not only did they all get named in the same step, but none of the names meant anything to me. ‘Upper Back Frame’–what the heck is that? Apparently, it’s what you have after you’ve found the appropriate pieces and put them together in the proper order and orientation.

Since there was no obvious front or back on the pieces, and the instructions just said to put them together, there was a lot of putting things together and then taking them apart again so I could turn them around. It easily doubled the amount of work necessary to put the frame together.

Every line in the instructions had at least three names that I hadn’t seen before. By the time I’d gotten to the end of the line, I’d forgotten what was at the beginning. I read those instructions over and over again, and spent more time puzzling over what they meant, and trying to keep the unfamiliar terms in my head long enough to look away and connect them to the physical hardware I was dealing with.

There were pictures, though. This is the one that purported to help me see where to put all the pieces of the frame.
dresser 3
*If you click on it, it will get larger. Not that it will help. That had to be one of the most confusing diagrams I’ve ever seen. Compared to some Ikea stuff I’ve put together, where there isn’t even a need for words…*headdesk*

By about halfway through, this is the state I was in:
dresser 2
*Note the bottle of Frangelico on the dresser. And the bottom drawer is in backwards, because at first I couldn’t figure out which side was which, and then was too cranky to take it out. Not because of the Frangelico.

I did eventually make my way through it. I left it alone overnight, and finished it the next day, when I was less grumpy. It’s together and full of most of the teenager’s clothes. (The rest are scattered over the floor in several rooms of the house, until I threaten to put them all in a garbage bag.)

What this brought home to me is how careful we have to be in our pacing when we’re establishing the setting of a story. Not just for fantasy, science fiction and such, but even for contemporary. Because pacing isn’t just about how fast you move the story along, but how quickly you filter the information the reader needs into the story.

Overload the reader with terms, or description, and even if they desperately want to read your story (like I desperately wanted to get that dresser together!), they may never be able to pick up the threads of what you want to tell. I finished the dresser, not because I finally figured out the directions, but because I started poking around and trying different combinations. I doubt that would work well with a book.

And I don’t want my readers to have to work that hard.

It’s an easy mistake to make. Writing books tell you, over and over, that you must orient your reader to the world the story takes place in, as soon as possible. Which is true. The problem is finding that line that you shouldn’t step over, the line between just enough and too much. I’m going with the rule of now more than three pieces of exotic information per paragraph, and no more than nine per page. Mixed in with more prosaic info, of course.

I’m experimenting now (since I seem to be in an epic fantasy mood today), with how much info I can cram into a single paragraph, trying to describe a country that is mostly islands within a giant harbour. There’s a lot of cultural differences as well, that I need to get across. It’s an exercise in trying to have every sentence do at least two things for me at once. A fun puzzle, if I’m being honest–I like pushing my limits, and I’m starting to feel more hopeful that I can come back from this crazy, depressive year and bang out some good, entertaining stories.

At some point, once I’m relatively happy with it, the guinea pigs (um, I mean my wonderful crit partners!) will get a crack at it, and we’ll see how successful I am.

I also need to learn to draw, so I can make a map of this place before I get lost. I have no sense of direction at all. And there are already too many countries (and too many storylines) involved for my own personal comfort.

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