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Settling or Focusing?




 

Settling versus focusing, it’s the most common issue I see in my design practice.  Not being able to make the distinction between the two results in:


  • Layouts never getting built because no design is ever deemed to be good enough. Sadly, this is the outcome for a major percentage of model railroading enthusiasts.  Decades pass and eventually, they go to the great beyond, never having the experience of owning a satisfying layout.

  • Layouts that get started but quickly stall once reality sets in

  • Mechanically unreliable layouts and ones that are a burden to maintain.

  • Visually unattractive railroads.


In a typical month, I get numerous inquiries from prospective customers outlining their list of “must-have” elements.  An element could be a town, yard, scenic feature, industry, etc.  They will then outline the space they have available, typically a spare bedroom or half basement.  The “must have” list is typically very long and deemed non-negotiable. 

In coming to me they say that they’re having trouble finding a configuration to fit everything in.  I’ll then explain that the reason they’re struggling is simple…. it won’t all fit. It just won’t.  It’s mathematically and geometrically impossible. At that point, there is often a sigh, a note of dejection, and I feel like the crusher of dreams.  It's a self-defeating loop that many struggle to break out of.


Let’s back up for a moment. For our purposes, I define “settling” as a negative outcome where the end result leaves the individual giving up their dreams and ending up with something they just simply are not excited about.


Focusing means professionally and artistically prioritizing. It means composing a design that flows visually, is buildable, and fits in the space.  Done well, the end result is somebody who can’t wait to start building their layout….and actually does build the layout.


A few years ago I stumbled on a fitting analogy while reading an interview with an academy award winning film producer.  He explained that when shooting is done they’ll typically have four, five, or even six hours of really great material.  Nobody is going to watch a five-hour movie.  The job then becomes one of editing, composing, and making hard choices to send clips to the cutting room floor.  Done well, the end result is a great film.  It’s exactly the same with model railroading.  The true art is setting priorities, composing, and the willingness to sacrifice individual elements for the overall success of the final product.


At its core, the problem with setting priorities stems from a lack of experience.  It’s almost always an affliction for those who haven’t built a layout before.  I’m certainly not immune and have the mistakes to prove it.  Every experienced layout owner has been there. Having never built a layout creates two major obstacles.


-You don’t have a sense of how much railroad, or section of a railroad, spins out the desired level of enjoyment.  A newcomer may think they need a 30-square-foot scene and five elements in order to be happy when in reality they would be blissfully content with a ten-foot scene comprised of one element.  Without this mental connection an affliction called “scene stuffing” occurs where way too many elements are squeezed into a design.


-Without experience, you really don’t have a sense of how long it takes to build a given amount of layout.  You may think a design will take you a year when in reality it would take even an experienced modeler three years.

 

 

How does one get out of this self-defeating spiral, the mentality of “If I can’t have it all, I choose to have nothing”? First, you need to establish the link in your mind between laundry list length and true satisfaction.  You need to truly grasp the connection between laundry list length and construction complexity. The only way to do so is to build something. 

Everybody has the space for a 10 x 10 “L” shaped shelf layout in the corner of their office.  Everybody has the time to whip up a simple railroad composed of four or five turnouts.  Even if you’re dream is to model cross-country BNSF container trains, the practice exercise will be transformative.


Second, get away from bullet point planning, and try to think of things as an overall composition.  In other words, a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Third, do some soul-searching as to where your enjoyment will come from.  We may think we know but often we do not.  Do you enjoy the actual construction? Constructing what? Do you enjoy your scenes as paintings, trains or not?  Do you want to casually rail fan, and watch trains running through scenes as with a movie?  Do you want some form of prototype operations?  Again, the only way to know is by doing. 


If you can free yourself from all-or-nothing thinking what will likely happen is you’ll find a far simpler railroad, that exceeds your most optimistic goals for enjoyment.  You’ll end up owning a truly satisfying railroad which is what it’s all about.

 

 

 

 


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5 Comments


Loren Clarke
Loren Clarke
Apr 12

This was a REALLY hard blog post to read. And the reason is that I was one of those that contacted you "wanting it all". Fortunately, you spoke the truth and I took it to heart and removed several design elements from my layout plan. It was a hard pill to swallow, especially since I had a very large and detailed city scene that I wanted to keep and incorporate into my new layout. Alas, it ended up on the cutting room floor. Thank you so much for speaking truth rather than only looking for monetary gain. I am sure that there are many in the design and layout construction business that would just go along with what the custome…

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lmindheim
Apr 12
Replying to

I'm glad you enjoyed it Loren.

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Burr Stewart
Burr Stewart
Apr 12

Well put, Lance. I'm composing a clinic for the NMRA's PNR convention in May on the subject of "Using triage to get your railroad built", and am weaving in many of the same ideas. I use the word "restraint" a lot to keep my own ambition in check, similar to your word "focus." It can be hard to teach yourself to get pleasure from deciding not to do something, but I keep working on it, and seeing the benefits. :)

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lmindheim
Apr 12
Replying to

It sounds like an interesting clinic you're doing Burr. I wish I could attend.

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sandy_smith
Apr 12

Great perspective. When I look back at my past layouts, they are what propelled me to complete my current one so quickly. Like reading a great mystery novel, I couldn't wait to finish the layout to see how it would come out. Thank you Lance for keeping us focused.

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