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The Play’s the Thing

child upon bridge [1]
photo by flickr’s alicepopkorn

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, one of my favorite things to do was make paper dolls. I’d collect some good paper and a new box of crayons and spend the next several hours (sometimes days!) happily coloring and designing an entire world full of paper dolls and, of course, their wardrobe. Filling in the details of the wardrobe could be a bit tedious, so that is when I inevitably began telling myself the story of these dolls’ world and who they were and what was going on in their lives. The thing is, what I remember most vividly about that experience is that sense of becoming utterly lost, not only in the world I was creating, but in the act of creating. It is still to this day one of my most cherished memories.

A more recent memory is watching my own two kids at their play, building castles with blocks, or Lego spaceships, or playing with those little plastic army men—and being struck by how utterly they too lost themselves in that process. It was no longer a game, but about building a world, a reality, filled with characters they were making up on the spot. Most children with a blank piece of paper and a new box of crayons can transcend time and space in a similar way—through the act of creating.

I think it is often so easy to forget that these creative pursuits we engage in are supposed to be fun. They should bring us joy. But when we become obsessed with getting published or are hunkered down trying to meet the next looming deadline, it is all too easy to forget that.

And I think the work loses something in the process. Or at the very least, the process itself becomes diminished.

This has become painfully clear to me over the last few weeks as I knuckle down, trying to stay on track to meet my deadline for Book Three, all while preparing for the publication of Book Two, writing guest posts and extra content for upcoming blog tours and guest posts, and preparing for a real, live book tour, conferences, and workshops I’ll be attending all next month.

It is safe to say that any concept of creative play has fled the room. And I realize that this is one of the (many!) challenges facing working authors—how do we hold on to our sense of creative play?

The thing is, I used to be good at this—keeping a playful spark alive in my work by finding ways to remind myself that it was around creativity. I thought I’d share some of the different techniques and processes I’ve used over the last few project. Most selfishly in the hopes that it will help me think of some way to do the same with this current book.

For Grave Mercy, I created a collage that I referred to throughout the writing of the book. I actually collect pictures of interesting or compelling faces and keep them in a file. When I start a new book, I often go through the file looking for pictures that can act as a touchstone for the characters. Oftentimes it won’t be an exact image of the character in my mind, but will capture a specific expression that is key to the character’s attitude.


For the upcoming Dark Triumph, I returned to my childhood love of paperdolls, using that same folder full of faces to create index cards for each character. I also made notations on the back of those cards as to each characters primary goal, their driving forces, and unique characteristics and tics to help keep them individuated in my mind.

char index cards [3]

I’ve used tarot cards, not to do a formal reading of my characters but to help me map out their journeys, the visual and symbolic images a great way to stay in touch with the emotional arc they were going through.

IMG_0036 [4]

With my Theodosia books, I did a couple of different things. For one book, I created a travel journal in Theodosia’s voice, and cut out pictures of all the historical, real life places she would be visiting, then had her describe in the journal in her own voice. It was a great way to really see things through her eyes.


Another time I created an altered book, which was simply a way to try and get in touch with her inner journey and perspective.



For every book I sketch out maps and floor plans, significant objects that I need to really see and feel in my mind’s eye. And just like when I was a child, I find my busy hands free my mind up to wander

Now, for the doubting among you getting ready to cry, Fancy procrastination technique! I would beg you to consider the following:

And all of this reminds me that I need to do something like this for the current book. Somewhere, somehow I need to find a way to bring in that element of play, that helps make the project come alive.

How about you? Do you have ways you try to bring a sense of play or creativity to your work when it feels stale? I love to hear about them in the comments!


About Robin LaFevers [8]

Robin LaFevers [9] is the author of seventeen books for young readers, including the HIS FAIR ASSASSIN trilogy [10] about teen assassin nuns in medieval France and the upcoming COURTING DARKNESS [11]. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.