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Scott Lax Blog

Don't Fear the Adverb

One of the things that many students learn in the MFA factories and writing workshops around the country is never use adverbs. Like the dreaded exclamation point, banishing adverbs to the hinterlands of middle-school essays has become de rigueur for anyone wanting to write serious fiction.

Instead of telling you the problem with those hard-and-fast rules of unpublished professors, let me give you an excerpt from a novel. The game is “spot the adverb and name the author”:

“There’s something funny about a fellow that’ll do a thing like that,” said the other girl eagerly. “He doesn’t want any trouble with anybody.”

“Who doesn’t,” I inquired.

“Gatsby. Somebody told me –”

The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidently.

“Somebody told me he killed a man.”

A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.

“I don’t think it’s so much that,” argued Lucille skeptically; “it’s more than that he was a German spy during the war.”

One of the men nodded in confirmation.

“I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany, he assured us positively.”

Wow!, if you’ll excuse the exclamation point. In that small excerpt from “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, we find a “confidentially,” a “skeptically,” two instances of “eagerly,” and a “positively.” That’s five adverbs – which is five more than many creative writing students are allowed by their profs in total.

What are we to make of that? First, I think that fashions have changed, and maybe one of the greatest novels in American literature could have used a bit more editing. On the other hand, Fitzgerald wasn’t an MFA product – he used the best words he could think of to suit the purpose of the sentence, which in turn suits the purpose of the story. He didn’t worry that someone in a writers’ workshop was going to admonish him because of some adverbs.

My advice to fiction writers is this: if adverbs suit you and your style, use them with care. Don’t toss them out the window just because they’re out of fashion. Words – lots and lots of words – are there for you to use.

If you can show the action instead of using an adverb, that’s usually a good idea.
For F. Scott Fitzgerald, though, he apparently needed to keep the story moving, and he wanted the reader to know – yes, by telling a bit, not simply showing (breaking yet another "rule") - that a character’s actions were confident, or skeptical, or eager, or positive.

The moral of this story? Be yourself, and write as well as you can. But if you try to please workshop participants, or a teacher or professor who has lots of rules about what you should and shouldn’t write, you’ll drive yourself nuts. Or put another way: Adverbs don’t kill stories, bad writing does.

I don’t use many adverbs. But on the rare instances when I do, I use them...happily.
 Read More 

Moving Between Fiction and Nonfiction

It's common for me to move between writing nonfiction and fiction during the day (or night). What the two forms have in common is that I try to craft sentences lyrically, to make them sound pleasing to the ear, or mind. What's different is that with nonfiction, I make every effort to write the truth to the best of my knowledge.
This necessarily limits nonfiction, because if the author speculates, he or she must make clear that it is opinion, not fact.

With fiction, I believe in what Ernest Hemingway wrote: "All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened."

What that means for me is that in my fiction I try to write not just about human beings, but about human nature. While I may not tell the reader why a character says something, I know why he or she says it. I know the character's history, her background, and her mood when she utters the dialogue.

When Hemingway says, "[novels are] truer than if they had really happened," I think he means that the action of a novel speaks to a deeper truth about life - it's truer because it isn't random, but illuminating. Who turns on the light to illuminate the page? We do - the writers. That's what we strive to do; that’s what we live for. We can’t be afraid to shine a light, even into dark corners. Read More 

Writing and Nature

I just wrote and filed a newspaper essay about walking in nature - specifically through a meadowland and woodland near where I live. I'll post it soon under the "Nonfiction" area of the "Writing and Film" link.

If you're a writer, or aspiring writer, I hope you find the time to connect to nature; to be in nature. Much of what is being written today is disconnected from the sky, the meadows, the woodlands, the animals and birds that inhabit the world. You simply can't find nature in a computer, or television. It's not in there. It's out there. Find it, and it will help you find your writerly self.

To quote the ancient African saying, as a parent holds a newborn to the starry skies, and which was depicted in Alex Haley's "Roots": "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself."

If you're writing is blocked, take a walk. Look around you and past your mind. Breathe. Behold. Read More 

Tribute to my Sister Pat

I've posted my tribute to my sister Pat that ran today in the Sun News on the Events & Announcements page, which you may find by clicking the link above.

Writing in a Noisy Age

Susan Sontag said, "I don't write because there's an audience. I write because there is literature."

Sontag, a fiction and nonfiction writer, wrote to achieve standards of literary excellence. She did not pander for the sake of having more readers, or “followers," in today's lexicon. Sontag studied great writers and she read incessantly. She worked for nearly her entire life to be literary - which is to say, to write things that last.

Today we live in an even noisier age than when Sontag was in her prime. The Web and many books are full of words that are seemingly just strung together, often about trivialities.

If you are an aspiring writer, life is too short to write about nothing but trivialities, or to appear hip, while avoiding ideas that really matter. To think that advertising and self-promotion and droll, often baseless observations are at all akin to the literature that Sontag produced is wrong. If you're a humorist, pointing out our foibles to make others laugh, is service to humanity. If you’re a diarist, or a blogger who simply wants to get your thoughts out there, fine.

But this blog is for those who care about writing as a serious art and craft. Sontag was an artist and a craftswoman. Read writers like her, or Joan Didion, or E.B. White, or Sherman Alexie,or John Irving, or James Baldwin, or anyone who moves you because he or she is really writing, not just typing.

In my own days of grief - my mother and sister having just passed away - I cannot think of a more important message to those who wish to write seriously than this: Try to make it matter. Have courage. Don't stop trying. Write through grief and joy and boredom. Write when you're inspired and when it's a drag. Just don't quit, unless you really don't have anything to say; because there is nobility in being a plumber, or carpenter, or stockbroker (still). You don't have to be a writer. But if you want that, be willing to sacrifice for your art. Life, my friends, goes by all too quickly.  Read More 

Thank You.

Thank you for all your notes and calls of sympathy.

Upcoming Tribute to Pat Lax Davidson

I'll be posting a tribute to my sister Pat Lax Davidson this coming Thursday. It will run in various editions of The Sun News.

Patricia Lax Davidson, 9 March 1948 - 2 June 2009

"Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow."
-- Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D

Earning Dialogue

Good dialogue in fiction needs to be earned. It can't just be thrown in because the words sound pretty, or impressive, or fancy, or complicated, or "dramatic." For example, here's a bit of dialogue from the movie, "Closer," which was adapted from the play of the same name. (Patrick Marber wrote both; the great Mike Nichols directed the film.) Two of the characters in the film are played by Jude Law (Dan) and Natalie Portman (Alice). Listen to how brutal and blunt this dialogue is, spoken toward the end of the film:

(Spoiler alert.)

Scene:

Dan comes back down the hall, steals a rose from outside another room. He walks in and offers her the rose.

ALICE: I don’t love you anymore.
DAN: Since when?
ALICE: Now. Just now. I don’t want to lie. Can’t tell the truth, so it’s over.

Only three lines of dialogue. Yet they are, to me, devastating. Why? Because all of their previous actions and dialogue in the movie earned the characters the right to use few words to convey total annihilation of a relationship. Alice doesn't need more words because she sees Dan's callowness, suddenly and starkly; you can see the love (whether it was mature or not) leave her as suddenly as as a vase breaking into a thousand pieces. Dan's shock is understandable; yet because he never really got her in the first place, and perhaps he never really saw her as a real person. Maybe he never really got what it was to love. And maybe none of that is right...still, so much happened before that dialogue that viewers can debate endlessly about what was going on. That's where Marber's art comes in: he's not telling us what to think; rather, he's showing a romance fall apart before our eyes and allowing us to decide what happened.

What matters in this context is that the characters and actors may use simple dialogue because the writer earned it.

Listen to the dialogue that moves you, both in print, on stage and screen. Ask yourself why it moves you. I think you'll find the answer lies in the intricate and extremely hard work the writer put in to the story before that dialogue occurred.

Do that in your own fiction. Allow your characters to earn their dialogue. It's hard work, but I think you'll find that your characters' words will pack more power. Words mean little but for what is behind them. You know the phrase, “talk is cheap.” So is dialogue, unless it's earned. It’s dramatic tension that matters. Dialogue is a medium for expression, not expression in and of itself.  Read More