January 21, 2016

No Photobombers

            I spent time at a few conventions last year and, as I do, I tried to get lots of photographs of the various cosplayers there.  I’m always blown away by that sort of thing.  I worked in the film industry for years and it’s amazing to see so many folks who are so dedicated they can do costumes that are on par (or better, in some cases) than the ones that end up on film.

            Alas, one or two of my shots were spoiled by photobombers.  You know that term, right?  The folks who decide to lean into a picture and draw attention to themselves with a goofy grin or thumbs up, even though it’s really clear they’re not who the photographer wants things focused on.  If you’re Chris Pratt, Hayley Atwell, or William Shatner and you end up photobombing somebody—hey, power to you.  How fantastic would that be, looking at your pictures later and finding Hayley Atwell smiling and waving at you?

             On the other hand, if I’m someone that’s going to make 99.9999% of humanity say “who the hell is that?”… I’m kind of being a jerk.  Because I’m not supposed to be the focus of this picture.  And by drawing attention away from what is supposed to be the center of attention, I’ve messed up this image.
             Or, for our purposes, this story.
             In some ways, being a writer is a thankless job.  If I do it right, people shouldn’t even notice me. If I do a spectacular job, people should forget me altogether.  Screenwriters get hit even worse with this—their work is often credited to the actors or director.  The ugly truth of storytelling is that none of us really care about the storyteller, we just want to hear the stories.
           Some storytellers try to get noticed.  It’s a deliberate choice.  They lean in and draw attention to themselves.  They wink and point.  Sometimes they make goofy expressions and shout “Look at me!  Look what I’m doing!” 
            When I do this as a writer, it’s just like photobombing.  Textbombing?  Prosebomb?  Whatever we want to call it, it’s me drawing attention away from telling my story, which—in theory–is supposed to be the focus of my writing.
            Here’s a few simple ways I can make sure I’m not ruining my focus…
            Vocabulary—Stephen King once said that “Any word you have to search for in the thesaurus is the wrong word.”  And, personally, I think he’s completely right about that.  I don’t think using a thesaurus is bad.  I’ve got one right here on my desk.  I often use it to jog my memory when I know there’s a specific word I’m looking for, and the easiest way to find it is to look up a synonym. 

           But some folks default to their thesaurus.  They have a sentence—let’s say “The thin woman wore a red hat.”—and then just immediately go to find bigger, better words for it.  That’s how you end up with sentences like… well…

            “The rawboned feminine figure accoutred her cranium with a chapeau of deepest carmine felt.”
            That’s me, as a writer, trying to draw attention to myself when you, the reader, want to be focused on the story.
             Any word I choose just to get attention, to prove I don’t need to use a common, blue-collar word, is the wrong word.  Any word that makes my reader stop reading and start analyzing is the wrong word. I can try to justify my word choice any way I like, but absolutely no one is picking up my manuscript hoping for a vocabulary lesson.  When my reader can’t figure out what’s being said for the fourth or fifth time and decides to toss said manuscript in the big pile on the left… there’s only one person to blame.
            Like I said, I’ve got a thesaurus on my desk.  But it’s not right here in arm’s reach, like the dictionary.  It’s a shelf up and off to the side. Just enough that I really need to stand up to get at it.  And move some LEGO people.
            Structure—A friend of mine is really into cirque school.  I’ve seen her do some of those aerial silk tricks where she’ll climb to the top of the studio, wrap her legs, bring the silk around her body, and then sort of roll down the silk. She spins and the silk twirls all around her and it takes two or three minutes for her to work her way back down to the floor.  I’m sure most of you reading this have seen some version of this, either live or maybe on television.  Its really beautiful and amazing when done right.
            It’s also—and she’d be the first to admit this—a really inefficient way to get from point A to point B.  And taking even longer to do it, well, that just gets exhausting for the performer and the audience.  None of us have the stamina for that kind of thing.  Getting there is half the fun, absolutely, but the point of most trips is still getting there.
            When the trip itself becomes the focus, it means my goals have shifted.  Getting to point B isn’t the important thing anymore.  And since storytelling is, in essence, getting characters from point A to point B… well…
            If I think of my story as an A—B line (to fall back on geometry), how often does my chosen structure deviate off that line?  How many times does it not move along the line at all?  How often does it go backwards?
            And how much of this is because of how I’ve chosen to structure things?
            I’ve seen people write page-long sentences which serve no purpose except to be a page-long sentence.  Sure, it’s very impressive in an MFA, grammatical-accomplishment kind of way, but past that… does it really advance the story?  Is it pushing the narrative, or just pushing the fact that I sat through half a dozen classes on creative writing?
            If I’m overloading my story with flashbacks, a non-linear plotline, or twenty-two points of view… what am I hoping to accomplish?  Are they adding anything?  Would it honestly lessen the story to not have them? Or am I just adding in gimmicks that I’ve heard make a story betterwithout any real understanding of how or why they work?
            Just like how an obscure word is wrong if it’s just there to be obscure, an overcomplicated structure is wrong if it serves no purpose except to be overcomplicated.
           Said—I’ve mentioned this a few times.  People will never notice if you use said.  Honest, they won’t.  Saidis invisible.  What they notice is when my characters retort, respond, pontificate, depose, demand, declare, declaim, muse, mutter, mumble, snap, shout, snarl, grumble, growl, bark, whimper, whisper, hiss, yelp, yell, exclaim, or ejaculate.  Yeah, ejaculate.  Stop giggling, it was a common dialogue descriptor for many years.  Once I’ve got three or four characters doing this all over the page, I shouldn’t be too surprised if my audience stops reading to shake their heads or snicker. 
            Now, granted, there are times where my characters will be hollering or whispering or snarling.  And when that happens, I don’t want my readers to already be bored by my constant use of different dialogue descriptors.  I want it to count.  Overall, they’re just going to be saying stuff.  So I shouldn’t overcomplicate things and draw attention to myself.
           These are just a few things to watch for in my writing, granted.  There’s always going to be that person who finds a clever new way to draw attention to themselves.  And there will always be exceptions, sure.   Really, though, photobombing my own story isn’t going to be a winning strategy.
            Never forget… first and foremost, people are showing up for the story.
            Quick note, before I forget.  If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, this weekend I’m hosting the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank on Sunday.  It’s three hours of writers talking about writing, it’s open to everyone, and it’s free. Stop by and talk.  I guarantee it’ll be highly adequate.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about a big car accident I was in many years back.
            Until then, go write.
            Just don’t be seen doing it. 
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.