Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life

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Overview

Bestselling author Elizabeth George has spent years teaching writing, and in Write Away she shares her knowledge of the creative process. George combines clear, intelligent, and functional advice on fiction writing with anecdotes from her own life, the story of her journey to publication, and inside information on how she meticulously researches and writes her novels. George's solid understanding of craft is conveyed in the enticing manner of a true storyteller, making Write Away not only a marvelous, ...

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Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life

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Overview

Bestselling author Elizabeth George has spent years teaching writing, and in Write Away she shares her knowledge of the creative process. George combines clear, intelligent, and functional advice on fiction writing with anecdotes from her own life, the story of her journey to publication, and inside information on how she meticulously researches and writes her novels. George's solid understanding of craft is conveyed in the enticing manner of a true storyteller, making Write Away not only a marvelous, interesting, and informative book but also a glimpse inside the world of a beloved writer.

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Editorial Reviews

Birmingham News
“A fabulous book for writers.”
Orange County Register
“You should buy the book to learn her novel-writing specifics. They’re there in spades.”
Bookreporter.com
“Elizabeth George knows her stuff. How well she knows it is readily apparent in Write Away.”
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“An inclusive and enlightening examination of George’s thoughts on the craft of writing.”
Sunday Times (London)
“An impressively thorough and down-to-earth guide...a perfect DIY guide for the determined new novelist.”
Publishers Weekly
Here's a useful book for the novice writer battling the fears and insecurities that attend when she contemplates her first novel. Highly successful as the writer of a dozen novels of suspense (A Place of Hiding, etc.) and a teacher with significant experience, George reveals that those same fears and insecurities still bedevil her. She quickly moves beyond that to a consideration of the craft of writing-mastering the tools and techniques that a writer needs in order to create art. While George illustrates her points with passages from both her own works and those of numerous writers she admires (Martin Cruz Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Michael Dorris), this remains more of a how-I-do-it book than a how-to-do-it book. Thus George will typically discuss an aspect of writing, such as creating the landscape of a novel, illustrate it with examples from various writers and then show how she approaches it. The result is an informative, instructive and idiosyncratic examination of the structure of the novel and of one writer's rigorously disciplined approach to creating one. George makes clear that writing is a job and that mastering the tools and techniques of the craft can go a long way toward making a writer successful. Finally, she advocates self-discipline, or what Bryce Courtenay (The Power of One) calls "bum glue." As George puts it, "A lot of writing is simply showing up... day after day, same time and same place." Both aspiring writers and fans of George's novels should enjoy the author's insights into the creative process. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Learn to write from a master. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060560447
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/15/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 275,311
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George is the New York Times bestselling author of sixteen novels of psychological suspense, one book of nonfiction, and two short story collections. Her work has been honored with the Anthony and Agatha awards, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and the MIMI, Germany's prestigious prize for suspense fiction. She lives in Washington State.

Biography

Elizabeth George was happy that her first novel was rejected.

Scratch that. She's happy now. At the time, it wasn't her best day. But the notes from her editor helped her realize that she had written the wrong book and chosen the wrong leading man. She threw out her Agatha-Christie/drawing-room-whodunit model in favor of a more modern police procedural set in the world of Scotland Yard. She promoted a minor character to her leading man, the handsome, aristocratic, Bentley-driving Thomas Lynley. And she invented a partner for him, the blue-collar, foul-mouthed, messy Barbara Havers.

"I was very lucky when the first one was rejected, because the editor explained to me why," George told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. "I had written a very Agatha Christie-esque book and she said that wasn't the way it was done. The modern crime novel doesn't have the detective call everyone into the library. It must deal with more topical crimes and the motives must be more psychological because the things you kill for are different now. Things like getting rid of a spouse who won't divorce you, or hiding an illegitimate child, or blackmail over a family scandal -- those are no longer realistic motivations."

And so, in A Great Deliverance, her first published novel, she opens with the decapitated body of a farmer, his blood-splattered daughter holding an ax, the horrified clergyman who happens on to the crime scene, and a rat feasting on the remains. Nope, not in Agatha Christie territory anymore.

George began writing as child when her mother gave her an old 1939 typewriter. When she graduated from high school, she graduated to an electric typewriter. But not until she graduated to a home computer (purchased by her husband in the 1983), did she actually try her hand at a novel. At the time, she was a schoolteacher and had been since 1974. But with the computer in front of her, she has said, it was put-up-or-shut-up time. She finished her first manuscript in 1983. But her first book wasn't published for five more years.

Though the Lynley/Havers novels are set in England -- as are the tales in her first book of short stories, 2002's I, Richard -- George is a Yank, born in Ohio and raised in Southern California. Maintaining a flat in London's South Kensington as a home base for research, George has been an Anglophile since a trip as a teenager to the United Kingdom, where she ultimately found that a British setting better served the fiction that she wanted to write. "The English tradition offers the great tapestry novel," she told Publishers Weekly in 1996, "where you have the emotional aspect of a detective's personal life, the circumstances of the crime and, most important, the atmosphere of the English countryside that functions as another character."

Readers have made her books standard features on the bestseller lists, and critics have noted the psychologically deft motives of her characters and her detailed, well-researched plotting. "A behemoth, staggering in depth and breadth, A Traitor to Memory leaves you simultaneously satisfied and longing for more. It's simply a supreme pleasure to spend time engrossed in this intense, well-written novel," the Miami Herald said in 2001. The Washington Post called 1990's Well-Schooled in Murder " a bewitching book, exasperatingly clever, and with a complex plot that must be peeled layer by layer like an onion." The Los Angeles Times once called her "the California author who does Britain as well as P.D. James." And in 1996, Entertainment Weekly placed George's eighth novel, In the Presence of the Enemy in their fiction top ten list of the year, where she kept company with John Updike, Frank McCourt, Stephen King, and Jon Krakauer.

In her mind, each book begins with the killer, the victim and the motive. She travels to London and stays at her flat there to research locales. And she writes long profiles about what drives her characters psychologically. The kick for the reader isn't necessarily whodunit but why they dun it.

"I don't mind if they know who the killer is," she has said. "I'm happy to surprise them with the psychology behind the crime. I'm interested in the dark side of man. I'm interested in taboos, and murder is the greatest taboo. Characters are fascinating in their extremity not in their happiness."

Good To Know

The original model for Lynley was Nigel Havers, the nobleman and hurdle-jumper in the film Chariots of Fire whose butler placed champagne flutes on the hurdles to keep him from knocking them over. She named Barbara Havers as an homage to the actor.

On page 900 of the rough draft for Deception on His Mind, George changed her mind about the identity of the killer.

George's ex-husband is her business manager.

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    1. Hometown:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 26, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Warren, Ohio
    1. Education:
      A.A. Foothill Community College, 1969; B.A. University of California, Riverside, 1970; M.S. California State University
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

Preface
Pt. I An Overview of the Craft
1 Story Is Character 3
2 Setting Is Story 17
3 Nothing Without Landscape 29
4 Plotting: "It Is the Cause, My Soul" 39
Pt. II The Basics
5 Yes, There's More About Plot. But First ... 47
6 Onward from Idea 53
7 The Start: Decision, Decisions 65
8 As There Is Viewpoint, So Is There Voice 76
9 Voice: You Gotta Have 'Tude 97
10 Dialogue: Speak the Speech, If You Will 106
11 Tricks of the Dialogue Trade 119
12 The Scene: Okay, So It Is Rocket Science 129
Pt. III Technique
13 Knowledge Is Power, Technique Is Glory 157
14 Loose Ends 167
Pt. IV Process
15 Baby Steps First 177
16 The Value of Bum Glue 190
17 Tidbits from Q & A 198
Pt. V Examples and Guides
18 Gimme a Map, Please 207
19 All About Character 216
20 Turning Places into Settings 230
21 Final Words 253
22 The Process in a Nutshell 255
Notes 259
Index 263
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First Chapter

Write Away
One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life

Chapter One

Story Is Character

Am I kidding myself about being a "creative artist"? Can I possibly be a creative artist if I approach this effort in so methodical and left-brained a fashion?

Journal of a Novel,
June 25,1997

A large piece of Plexiglas covers the top of my desk. Beneath this shield, I keep bits and pieces to serve as inspiration or to cheer me up in those moments of bleak despair when I'm wondering why I've taken on one difficult project or another. Among these items I have a copy of John Steinbeck's letter to Herbert Sturz on the subject of The Grapes of Wrath -- I find his comments about critics particularly smile-producing -- as well as pictures of my dog, of myself grinning inanely alongside a wax effigy of Richard III from Madame Tussaud's waxworks in London, and several quotations from writers on one subject or another. One of those writers is Isaac Bashevis Singer who, in an interview with Richard Burgis in 1978, said the following:

When people come together -- let's say they come to a little party or something -- you always hear them discuss character. They will say this one has a bad character, this one has a good character, this one is a fool, this one is a miser. Gossip makes the conversation. They all analyze character. It seems that the analysis of character is the highest human entertainment. And literature does it, unlike gossip, without mentioning real names.

The writers who don't discuss character but problems -- social problems or any problems -- take away from literature its very essence. They stop being entertaining. We, for some reason, always love to discuss and discover character. This is because each character is different and human character is the greatest of puzzles.

That's where I want to begin, then, in laying the foundation for my exploration of craft: with character.

Not with idea? you may ask, aghast. Not with where a writer gets ideas? What a writer does with ideas? How a writer molds ideas into prose?

We will get to that. But if you don't understand that story is character and not just idea, you will not be able to breathe life into even the most intriguing flash of inspiration.

What we take away from our reading of a good novel mainly is the memory of character. This is because events -- both in real life and in fiction -- take on greater meaning once we know the people who are involved in them. Put a human face on a disaster and you touch people more deeply; you may even move them inexorably toward taking an action they might have only idly contemplated before that disaster was given a human face. Munich '72, the Achille Lauro, Pan Am 103, Oklahoma City, 9/11 ... When these tragedies become human by connecting them to the real people who lived through them or died in them, they become imprinted indelibly on the collective consciousness of a society. We start with an event as news, but we almost immediately begin asking Who? about it.

It's no different with fiction. The trial of Tom Robinson is maddening, disturbing, and heartbreaking in its injustice, but we remember the trial long after it's over because of Tom Robinson's quiet dignity and because of Atticus Finch's heroic representation of the man, knowing all along that his client is doomed because of the time, the place, and the society in which they both live. To Kill a Mockingbird thus rises to the level of timeless, classic literature not because of its idea -- the innocence of childhood set into an ugly landscape of prejudice and brutality -- but because of its characters. This is true of every great book, and the names of those men, women, and children shine more brightly in the firmament of literary history than do the stories in which they operated. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Jem and Scout Finch, Captain Ahab, Hester Prynne, Sherlock Holmes, Heathcliff, Ebenezer Scrooge, Huckleberry Finn, Jack-Ralph-and-Piggy, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, George Smiley, Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls ... The list can stretch from here to forever. With the exception of the last, not a single character is a real person. Yet all of them are, because the writers made them so.

Once we have begun it, we continue reading a novel largely because we care about what happens to the characters. But for us actually to care about these actors in the drama on those printed pages, they must become real people to us. An event alone cannot hold a story together. Nor can a series of events. Only characters effecting events and events affecting characters can do that.

I try to keep some basic guidelines in mind when I'm creating my characters. First, I try to remember that real people have flaws. We're all works in progress on planet Earth, and not one of us possesses physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological perfection. This should be true of our characters as well. No one wants to read about perfect characters. Since no reader is perfect, there is nothing more disagreeable than spending free time immersed in a story about an individual who leaps tall buildings of emotion, psyche, body, and spirit in a single bound. Would anyone want a person like that as a friend, tediously perfect in every way? Probably not. Thus, a character possessing perfection in one area should possess imperfection in another area.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle understood this, which is one of the reasons that his Sherlock Holmes has stood the test of time for more than one hundred years and counting. Holmes has the perfect intellect. The man is a virtual machine of cogitation. But he's an emotional black hole incapable of a sustained relationship with anyone except Dr. Watson, and on top of that, he abuses drugs ...

Write Away
One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life
. Copyright © by Elizabeth George. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2014

    Batman

    "I dont know who to be."

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2012

    As a writer with an MFA in creative writing, I found this a grea

    As a writer with an MFA in creative writing, I found this a great refresher for myself as to the elements of composing a long work, whether fiction or nonfiction. The author does more prep work than I could ever do, but for her, it clearly pays off. Elizabeth George is my favorite mystery writer, and now I know why!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2012

    Nothing New, but very well written

    She really does through HER process of writing and it is very detailed. However, when she does show samples of her texts, you can see her fiction isn't as strong as her nonfiction, which is interesting and does hurt the text some.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2006

    An in-depth look at one writer's process

    Thie book offered an exceptionally detailed, inspiring look at one very hard working author's process. What impressed me most is the insecurity George still so often feels (when she is SO talented and successful) and the exceptional lengths she goes to in meticulously planning out her novels. It is not the kind of thing I could or would want to do because I go more by creative inspiration, but it was very helpful in showing her ideas on how to plot a novel and develop the characters. I thought it was more interesting in terms of the insight into her as a person and a writer than it was an insight into the craft of writing, though.

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    Posted November 8, 2011

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    Posted September 28, 2011

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    Posted April 30, 2010

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    Posted March 10, 2010

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    Posted July 14, 2010

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