Write Away: One Writer's Approach to the Novel

Write Away: One Writer's Approach to the Novel

by Elizabeth George

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061841507
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 534,218
File size: 920 KB

About the Author

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.


Seattle, Washington

Date of Birth:

February 26, 1949

Place of Birth:

Warren, Ohio


A.A. Foothill Community College, 1969; B.A. University of California, Riverside, 1970; M.S. California State University

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Part IAn Overview of the Craft
1Story Is Character3
2Setting Is Story17
3Nothing Without Landscape29
4Plotting: "It Is the Cause, My Soul"39
Part IIThe Basics
5Yes, There's More About Plot. But First...47
6Onward from Idea53
7The Start: Decisions, Decisions65
8As There Is Viewpoint, So Is There Voice76
9Voice: You Gotta Have 'Tude97
10Dialogue: Speak the Speech, If You Will106
11Tricks of the Dialogue Trade119
12The Scene: Okay, So It Is Rocket Science129
Part IIITechnique
13Knowledge Is Power, Technique Is Glory157
14Loose Ends167
Part IVProcess
15Baby Steps First177
16The Value of Bum Glue190
17Tidbits from Q & A198
Part VExamples and Guides
18Gimme a Map, Please207
19All About Character216
20Turning Places into Settings230
21Final Words253
22The Process in a Nutshell255

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Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
inkcharmed on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is probably my second favorite writing book, the favorite being Bird By Bird. This one is more structured and lays out her very precise process.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.