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Scott Lax Blog

When Should You Break the Rules?

T.S. Eliot wrote, "It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them." Likely he was talking about the rules of poetry and prose. But you can apply that to grammar - to style and usage - too.

If you break a grammatical writing rule, you should do so with an understanding of what rule you're breaking, and why.

Say you're writing dialogue in a young adult or middle-grade novel - or any novel, for that matter. If your character is someone who would say, "Me and Sally went to the mall," then it's fine to break that rule -- it's advisable, really. Because it's honest, it's the way your character talks, and that means it's right for the story.

If you're writing an essay in your own, adult voice, however, and you write, "Me and Bobby went bowling today," then you just sound ignorant of grammatical rules of usage. There's a big difference.

How do you learn the basic rules of composition? Pick up Strunk and White's THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. There are other good books on style and usage, as well.

It helps to read one of them. You (and I) will still make mistakes, but we'll make fewer of them.  Read More 

When Your Writing Just Isn't Working

"Let's say you wrote badly today." (With thanks and apologies to David Huddle and his book on writing.) You might want to take Charles Dickens's advice: "Run a moist pen through everything and start afresh."

Delete keys work, too. Or you might want to save the writing that doesn't work and rework it some other time. The point being, if it just isn't working, jettison it and start over. Sometimes you just need to clear out the mental and literary flotsam and jetsam before you can get to the clean, clear waters of good prose.  Read More 

Powerful Dialogue as a Great Bordeaux

How important is dialogue in your writing? If it's not very important, you might want to rethink that.

For dialogue to be powerful, it shouldn't sound like actual talk. The old school teacher trick of having students go around and record dialogue isn't necessarily the way to teach students how to write dialogue. Because, as Kingsley Amis said, dialogue is more powerful than actual talk, which can be boring and aimless. Don LeLillo called dialogue "hyperrealistic," as well as "jumpy, edgy and a bit hostile."

Which is all to say that dialogue, like all important elements of good writing, needs to be crafted, not merely parroted. Think of the lines in books and movies that you remember. These are likely not lines you would hear at the checkout counter at the supermarket. They're words that tell a story through dialogue - perhaps the most important weapon in your fiction arsenal. It's not a matter of how much dialogue you use; it's how good the dialogue is that you put on the page.

How much dialogue should you use? Think of dialogue as needing to be more like a great Bordeaux instead of a boxed wine. A glass or two of well-crafted wine can enhance your meal (your story), but a box of rot-gut will just make you (and your readers) sick.  Read More 

You Have to Tell A Story

If there is one piece of advice I have for creative writers of all kinds, it's this: You have to tell a story. You can't just type in information and hope that readers will find it interesting.

There are millions -- billions -- of interesting stories. Everyone has one. Everyone's grandparents have one; everyone's pet has one.

What makes us writers is that we take information or imagination or both and tell a story. It's the simplest and most complicated thing. Tell a story.  Read More 

The Writer and Exercise

Writers are cerebral by nature. Who else would want to sit for hours at a time making stuff up as fiction or writing about places or other people as nonfiction, and doing so all alone?

Still, it's not a good idea to be isolated, and part of not being isolated is not being isolated from your own body. You need exercise. Basketball, yoga, marathon running or strolling around the block; it doesn't matter what it is, you need something to get out of your head, and out of your chair. Like the non-fanatical experts say, ten to thirty minutes a day is fine. But do something.

There are a lot of out-of-shape writers, maybe for all the right reasons. They're working hard creating worlds from words. Yet, those reasons really aren't OK. Better to stick around longer to create those worlds. I give myself this same advice every time I don't feel like exercising. It's something like writing: you do it even when you don't feel like it.  Read More 

On Art and Success, Suffering and Transcendence

For those of you - especially the young - who are seriously considering a life and career as an artist, actor, writer, filmmaker - this is for you. This won't be the most pleasant thing you've ever read. It's not a commencement address about following your dream and everything working out (though that is the ideal, isn't it?). It's all a bit gnarlier than that. Here it is:

You can want to be an artist. You can want money and security. You can want fame.

All of these things are valid wants. But none of them are guaranteed to go together. If you are determined to be an artist that writes - a writer of things in which you believe, say, instead of advertising copy or promotional videos or what have you - you will need to be prepared for a rocky road. This is not an artist-friendly society. It is a commerce-friendly society. That's simply the way it is.

If you commit to art, you commit to sacrifice, at least for a while (if you're not bankrolled), maybe for a long time, and with no guarantees.

This could mean no medical coverage or care in a society that doesn't guarantee its citizens medical care, but does guarantee them that they must pay taxes for corn and soybean subsidies and waging war. It means that you may not know where from where your next dollar will come. It means that you may have to scrap in ways you never imagined. It means you may not be able to go to the doctor or dentist or the hospital. It means you may lose things that are precious to you.

This is the commitment you make to art. Not fake art - not artistic jobs that end up selling things, that end up as advertisements or promoting ideas that come from corporate boardrooms. Rather, art. Those other things are artistic, and worthy of admiration by many, maybe by you; sometimes by me. But they are not art.

Very little great or even very good real art - the expression of a person's soul - has come from anything other than hard work and sometimes suffering. I believe this. Yet in that suffering and hard work lies transcendent happiness. Therein is your main reward. If money and security comes, you've hit the mother-lode. If not, you are still an artist. And you are rare. From that, I hope you take some small comfort.  Read More 

Write About What You Know? Not Necessarily.

"Write about what you know" is a quote that most creative writing students have heard too often. They also hear, "Write about what you don't know about what you know." Or, "Write about what you know you don't know you know." I'm no mathematician, but I imagine there lots of variations on this theme.

My advice is to write about what you care about. If you don't know about it, research. Or imagine. Or just make it up. In my new novel I wrote about a village in Europe that doesn't exist, and in a geographical area I've never been to. I created it. That's what's so wonderful about fiction: you have no limits. It's the one place where no one can tell you where you can and can't go and what you can and can't do.

If you escape into your fiction and do so with craft -- you must learn some craft or you'll lose your reader -- you are in for a fantastic trip. It's a trip into the human psyche. You can go anywhere. Craft is your craft... do you see what I mean? Skill is your vehicle. Take care of your craft, your vehicle, and it will get you where you want to go. It takes works, and preparation, and persistence. It isn't easy. But if you really want to write well, it's worth the hard work.  Read More