December 3, 2015

Over-Elaborate Paint Schemes

Hope you all had a nice week off and got a lot of writing done. Or at least a lot of relaxing so you’re fresh and ready to write again.

As it turns out, this little rant has turned out to be well-timed… but we’ll get to that in a bit.

For now, I wanted to talk about paint and simplicity.

As one or two of you might know, I am a bit of a miniature wargamer, or, as they’re known to the greater world at large, a geek. Yep, I build little toy soldiers and beasties, scale scenery, vehicles, the whole deal. I used to be much more into it than I am today, but I still enjoy building the models and playing with my group now and then.

Recently I was painting some models and remembered an old article I’d read ages back in one of the hobby magazines I subscribed to (again, used to be much more into it). They had a regular column on painting techniques for little toy soldiers, and one month a guest columnist wrote about what he called “non-metallic metallics.” It was a style of painting where you made swords, guns, armor, and so on look like steel and gold without actually using steel or gold paint. Instead you’d use lots of whites, blues, grays, oranges, and yellows—all different shades—to create highlights and reflections and the appearance of shiny metal. Make sense?  So much better, he said. So much more realistic.  It really brought the miniatures to life.

Now, the very next month they ran an article from another painter—their regular guy, in fact—and his article amounted to “no, no, NO!” He was very much against the whole non-metallic metallics thing. As he explained, it was using a lot of time and extra paint to create the same effect you’d get naturally by just using the metallic paints. Plus, the non-metallic style was completely angle-dependent. It worked well for displays and dioramas, but wasn’t appropriate for models that would be out on a tabletop battlefield and viewed from many different directions. That’s when the non-metallic illusion would break down. As he explained, why buy seven or eight pots of paint to achieve what—for these purposes—you could do much better with one?

That was the last painting column, if memory serves, and the regular guy was never mentioned again. The company that published the magazine also sold the paint. Draw your own conclusions about what happened there.

Now, aside from the capitalist warning, what’s the message here?

There’s a subset of folks who insist things can’t be simple. Simple is stupid. Simple is for amateurs, they’ll tell you, not professionals. You’re not going to use that common, easy paint scheme, are you? Because you’ll never be considered an expert that way

Unfortunately, too many of these people consider themselves gurus of some kind or another. They’ll charge you good money for bad advice. Advice they’ll usually try to pitch as rules.

There’s nothing wrong with simple. Having a simple paint scheme let me paint the bulk of my Space Marine army in a few weekends rather than a few months. I had close to a hundred little soldiers the size of my thumb—I wasn’t going to spend hours and hours on each one.


There were a couple models I did lavish with some extra time. Captain Machiavel got a lot of fine detail picked out on his armor. I put highlights on Veteran Sergeant Constantine’s sword. Veteran Dreadnaught Faustus has a ton of scrollwork on his weapons and purity seals.

(Yes, I named some of my little toy soldiers—stay on topic, okay?)

Just like there’s nothing wrong with simplicity, there’s nothing inherently wrong with complexity, either. It’s all about having the experience to know when each is appropriate. I wasn’t going to spend hours and hours painting each of the rank-and-file soldiers, because I didn’t want a hundred individual paint jobs distracting from the look of the army as a whole. That said, I’m still going to make the army commander, squad leaders, and big models look good because… well, they’re the ones people are going to focus on.

See where I’m going with this?

As an aspiring writer, I encountered lots of folks trying to tell me my writing wasn’t sophisticated enough. That my vocabulary was too simplistic. And I listened to them. I started using a lot more adverbs. I tried to use metaphors and similes in the description of every person, place, and thing that appeared in my stories. Hell, for a while I made a point of  never using the same dialogue descriptor twice on a page. And I never, ever used said. Said was stupid. It for amateurs, and I was a professional

Thing is, none of this made my writing any better.  Oh, sure, it was boosting my word count a lot, but it wasn’t really improving my ability. In fact, one of the first times I ever got to sit down with an actual professional editor—someone who could pay me money for my work—his two big pieces of advice for me were to cut all my adverbs and go back to using said.

Let’s do a quick test. Grab a novel or anthology that’s near you. Not a Kindle, if that’s possible—a real book will work better for this. Preferably something you’re familiar with.

Got one?  Flip through it, or just open at random once or thrice.  You’re looking for a page with dialogue, not exposition.  Found it?  Count up how many times said appears on that page.

I’m willing to bet it’s there a decent number of times. And I bet you never noticed until I just asked you to count them up. Said is invisible. When I use said, readers can enjoy my overall story rather than getting caught up in individual sentences that break the flow.

Y’see, Timmy, using complex phrasing and obscure words doesn’t automatically make me a good writer. Especially if there’s no point to my complexity and I don’t understand the words I’m using. If that’s the case, trying to do this can actually make me a worse writer. I’m suddenly the guy trying to do fine detail work with a paint roller, or trying to cook a five course meal when I haven’t quite figured out the toaster yet.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with being more sophisticated, or to using ten-syllable words over two-syllable ones. There just needs to be a point to it. It needs to serve a purpose in my telling of this story. If it’s just me, the author, trying to show off how impressive I am and how extensive my vocabulary is… well, that’s not really helping the story. It’s just the literary equivalent of hanging rubber testicles on the back of my truck.

I mostly use said in my writing. Mostly.  I’m not against having my characters shoutor mutter or snap or whisper or shriek or hissor call out. When they do, though, I have a solid reason for making that bit of dialogue stand out on the page.

So ignore those folks saying you must be more complex with a wider vocabulary. And the ones telling you to always keep it simple. Just focus on telling your story the best way you can.

And that’s that.

In other news… It is, alas, that time of year. So, if I may, I’d like to direct your attention to my usual Black Friday offer for those who need it, the standard Cyber Monday appeal to consumer capitalism, and the suggestions of much better stuff to give the readers in your life.

I’d also like to point out that my publisher, Penguin Random House, is doing a fantastic online campaign this season called Give a Book. If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, just use the hashtag #giveabook when you talk about buying books for friends, family, loved ones, and so on. Every time someone uses the hashtag, from now until December 24th, PRH is going to donate a book to the First Book literary charity. The goal this year is to hit 35,000 books (last year they aimed for 25,000 and hit 37,000). So take a minute out of your holiday frenzy and do something for a good cause.

Next time, I’d like to talk about the people we enjoy reading about.

Until then… go write.

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