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.

October 2, 2015

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

            Just a quick post this week.
            I wanted to talk about repetition.  Repetition can be a powerful tool.   It is amazing when used correctly.
            But sometimes it indicates a problem.  A tool being used incorrectly.  Perhaps always repeating the same words.   Or always using the same phrasing.  Or very similar sentence structure. And this is when repetition fails.  Because now it weakens the story.  Or the post, in this case.
            Do you see what I mean?
            All these sentences have six words.  No more or less in each.  The words are all different lengths. The structure of each sentence varies.  But you still feel the rhythm. Six words repeating over and over.  The pacing feels a bit unnatural.  And then I start watching it.  I stop reading the story normally.  I end up auditing each line. I count up the repeating words
            This is when repetition means boring.
            And my readers hate boring.
            Okay, that’s enough of that.  Did the last sentence seem to slam the point home a bit in your mind?  Especially at the end?  Look again—the last sentence only has five words.  It’s different.  It stands out.
            I’ve also seen people who repeat the same opening for every sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same structure for every sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same opening and structure for each sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same trick again and again and expect it to have the same impact.
            But it’s not just the blatant stuff. Repetition can creep into my writing a bunch of ways.  I may be using the same word a lot.  We all have a phrase or a term we latch onto and have to go rooting out of our manuscripts.  Or maybe someone’s name.  It might even be the way I present information. 
            I spend a lot of time trying to weed out of much of that as I can. Even something as simple as dialogue descriptors—I hate looking at a page and seeing a chorus of Wakko said, Dot said, Yakko said, Wakko said, Phoebe said.  Not that there’s anything wrong with said—it’s a borderline-invisible word.  But this structure of name-said-dialogue, name-said-dialogue, name-said-dialogue, name-said dialogue… it’s just boring as hell.
            D’you notice that one? The fourth repetition is just too much, isn’t it.  You get the point, I don’t need to keep pounding you with it.
            And it’s so easy to break up that sort of thing. Name-said-dialogue.  Dialogue-name-said.  Dialogue-said-name.  Really, if everything’s working right, I probably don’t even need descriptors past a certain point.
            Y’see, Timmy, that’s the thing about repetition.  It can be a powerful form of writing.  It’s writing at level eight or nine.  But we’ve talked about this before—what happens when everything’s set up at nine or ten?
            It’s dull.  It’s monotone.  It’s true for my story, but it’s also true for my writing itself.  If I try to make every page, every paragraph, every single six-word sentence a piece of dialed-up-to–ten Pulitzer-winning literature, my writing is going to get boring really fast.
            D’you catch that?  Repetition for emphasis.  At the end. Where I want to score the big points.
            I don’t need to be scared of repetition.  I just shouldn’t be wasting it when I don’t really need it.
            Next time…
            Well, I’ll be honest.  This time next week I’ll be moderating a couple panels at New York Comic Con and doing a couple of signings.  So next week will probably be a few photo tips.  But hopefully you all know that sort of thing’s the exception, not the rule.
            And if you’re attending NYCC and you have some time, please stop by and say “hello.”
            Until then… go write.

            And don’t repeat yourself.

August 22, 2013

Making It Count

            I haven’t babbled on about dialogue in a bit, so I thought I’d toss out a quick idea about that.
            And I thought I’d make it interesting by telling a story.
            As some of you know, I worked in the film industry for several years.  This let me work with a lot of storytellers of all different types—most notably (for this little rant) directors.  If the screenwriter is the person who creates the story, the director’s the one who decides how to tell the story.  Some of them were very good at this.  Others were not.
            A common flaw I saw in bad directors was an urge to make every single shot special.  It didn’t matter if it was a wide shot, a close-up, a master, or coverage.  Every shot required tons of set up and rehearsals and discussions and little tweaks and adjustments.
            Now, I’m sure some of you are saying “Isn’t that the director’s job?  To make it look good?”  Well, yes and no.  That is one element of the job, yes.  Another one is sticking to a schedule so material gets delivered on time (very important in television and the lower-budget realms), and another one is making sure the material that gets delivered is usable and cuts together well.
            So what I’d see again and again is unskilled directors who would spend hours on their first scene or two of the day, then come back from lunch and discover they still had 85% of the day’s schedule to film.  And they’d do this again and again.  I worked with some directors who’d do this on every day of a shoot.
            And this was bad for the final product, too.  All this effort was put into those first scenes no matter what they were, and then later scenes had to be rushed through and skimmed—no matter what they were.  So the final film was uneven.  It had too much punch were it didn’t need it, not enough where it did.  These guys were so focused on making each individual shot look amazing—no matter what that particular shot was—that they didn’t stop to think of the film as a whole.
            Enter… Krishna.  I worked with him on a Sci-Fi Channel show (yes, it was Sci-Fi back then) called The Chronicle and he was wonderful.  Krishna started out as a lowly crew guy (one of his first film credits is John Carpenter’s Halloween) and worked his way up, learning the whole way.  He had kind of an unwritten rule—I’m not even sure he ever put it into words.  “One pretty shot a day.”  Once a day we’d have an elaborate shot with the camera dolly or a crane (if we had one), or an elaborate one-er that involved lots of rehearsal.  Everything else would just be master-overs-coverage-done.
            I’m sure there’s a few film students reading this who might be muttering about the lack of art in television or making some snide comments about “real” directors, but keep these things in mind.  Krishna made his schedule pretty much every day.  The cast and crew loved working with him and worked twice as hard because of it.  Because he didn’t overload himself trying to do too much, he had time to make sure all his material fit together just how he wanted.  And he still had (on an average television schedule) seven pretty shots in a forty-odd minute episode.  That’s a great shot every six minutes, which meant he could use them to punctuate the moments where he wanted to have visual impact.
            And, like any rule, sometimes he’d bend it a bit.  There were days we’d do two pretty shots, or maybe we’d have an elaborate stunt or effects sequence on top of the regular pretty shot.  But these were always the exception, not the rule.  And his episodes looked fantastic.
            Many of you are probably wondering what this has to do with dialogue, yes?
            I’ve mentioned the word said a few times before.  Said is the workhorse of dialogue descriptors.  It does the job without being showy or flashy, and it’s quick and simple to use.
            I used to avoid said like the plague.  I went out of my way to make sure all my dialogue descriptors were special and pretty.  I’d actually spend time making sure I never used the same one more than once on a page.  And I never used saidSaid was for pedestrian writers with no skill.  No art.
            As some of you may recall, one of the very first critiques I ever received from a professional editor was to stop using so many flowery descriptors and start using said.  It’s advice I took to heart, and still follow today.   Hell, it’s number three on the late, great Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing.  
            That doesn’t mean I don’t use whispered or shouted or chuckledor any of those other colorful descriptors.  I just use them less often.  A lot less.  I save them for when it really counts rather than wasting them.  I want my words to have the most impact, and that means saving the good ones for the moments that count.
            So when your characters have something to say… just have them say it.
            Next time, author Thom Brannan’s going to step in here for a guest post so I can get some work done on a new project.  But I’ll be back the week after that to talk about Easter eggs.
            Until then, go write.