Monday, January 03, 2005

Elizabeth George

My review of Elizabeth George's book on writing a novel, in The Star yesterday.

One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life
By Elizabeth George
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton, 296 pages

IT is always humbling when successful novelists put their own fiction aside awhile to share some of their secrets with novice writers. Stephen King’s On Writing and Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, to take but two examples, are valuable insiders’ guides to the process and craft of writing. Now, award-winning mystery novelist Elizabeth George joins their ranks with Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and The Writing Life.

Georges’s credentials for writing a book of this kind are excellent. She has 12 novels of psychological mystery, featuring Inspector Lynley, including A Suitable Vengeance, A Place of Hiding and A Traitor to Memory, and several have been adapted for television by the BBC. She is also an experienced teacher of creative writing, and has been a featured speaker at the famous Maui Writer’s Conference.

Although she believes that the art of writing cannot be taught, because no one can give anyone else the soul of an artist or the passion to put words down on paper, a mastery of the fundamentals certainly can be fostered.

George begins by giving an overview of the craft. Character is the most important element in constructing a novel, she argues: readers are wooed to keep on reading because they care for the people in the novel, first and foremost. She also considers setting, landscape and plotting briefly in this first section. (Landscape plays a very big part in her novels: all of them are set in Britain, and she researches her settings painstakingly.)

Later in the book, she explores each of these areas in rather more depth and moves on to talk about how she constructs her novels. She takes the reader through her own journey, from original idea to finished draft, and in doing so, answers many of the questions that any budding novelist would want to ask.

George illustrates her points very well with extracts chosen from mainstream literary fiction, as well as crime writing. (Authors featured include Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Ken Follet and John Irving.) And she includes examples of her own draft notes, side by side with extracts from the finished novels, so that the reader can see how raw ideas translate into finished story.

I picked up plenty of useful hints, particularly in the sections on viewpoint (always a tricky area for new writers) and what she calls THADs (Talking Heads Avoidance Techniques): ways of introducing action into a scene that is composed mostly of dialogue. As you might expect, she also writes very well about how to build up suspense – the stock-in-trade of any crime novelists, and well-worth reading about even if this isn’t the genre of your choice.

This author plots her novels very carefully at the outset, using what she calls a running plot outline, and she explains in detail how this works for her. This method will perhaps not suit everyone, and I found myself more drawn to the working method of her friend, the crime writer T. Jefferson Parker, who embarks on his first draft without a road map of any kind, setting it aside once it is completed to begin redrafting from scratch.

George begins each chapter with an extract from the journal she keeps while she’s writing her novels and these snippets expose her own insecurities – which, of course, are part of the landscape for any writer.

“Am I kidding myself about being a creative artist?” she asks, at one point. She reveals that while writing For The Sake of Eleanor, she became so incapacitated with fear that she had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Elsewhere, she talks about how her body tells her when her writing is on track (“I feel a surge of excitement in the solar plexus”). Such insights give a nice “we’re-all-in-this-together” feeling to the book.

George stresses that self-discipline is all-important for success in writing. You can be talented, you may be passionate about writing, but if you lack “bum glue”, that is, the ability to stick yourself to the chair for long periods and actually get the writing done, you will never get published.

Overall, this is a useful addition to any fiction writer’s bookshelf. The advice is solid, and the book is written in very readable prose, which neither patronises nor condescends.

The book does not contain writing exercises though, and readers will probably need to supplement it with one of the excellent books of writing exercises which are on the market: George draws on Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s excellent What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (Addison-Wesley) and this could very well be a useful companion volume.

Sharon Bakar teaches creative writing.


Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Hi Sharon,
Read this piece already yesterday and was going to tell you how well I thought you had expressed your views. Simply put, understated & concise.
Will call you tomorrow after sorting out airtickets to London (leaving somewhere between January 7th - 10th) Still, looking fwd to that coffee before I leave if you can make time. cheers P.S. And yes, you have to start writing. May your dreams come true...

Chet said...

Yes, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s excellent What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers is a great book. Now, maybe I should get Elizabeth George's Write Away as the companion book.

Shakeel Abedi said...

Well written, Sharon.

At times when I get a little bogged down: become a little unsure, I remember Sylvia Plath's words:

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."

bibliobibuli said...

Thanks Susan. Yes, looking forward to catching up with you ...

Chet - you can borrow the book from me as soon as the present borrowee returns it. One of the best things about reviewing is that you get to keep the book. (Free dictionary anyone?)

Shakeel - that's a lovely quote and I will treasure it.