Elizabeth George . 2004. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. New York: Harper Collins.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
The corona virus pandemic turned me into a full-time writer and aided my transition from nonfiction to fiction writing. This life behind closed doors has given me time to read a lot of craft books. Among the best of these has been Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.
George focuses on teaching craft. She believes that art, passion and discipline cannot be taught, but the craft of writing can be (x). In her final words, she writes:
“You will be published if you possess three qualities—talent, passion, and discipline. You will probably be published if you possess two of the three…You will likely be published…[if you] have discipline.” (253). For her, craft is a discipline that must be part of any successful writing career so she focuses on teaching it.
Background and Organization
Elizabeth George was born in Ohio, but grew up in California where she earned a teaching certificate in English at the University of California, Riverside and a master’s degree in counseling and psychology. She has received many honors and awards for her detective stories placed in England written with a literary touch.
Writing Away is written in twenty-two chapters divided into five parts:
- An Overview of the Craft
- The Basics
- Examples and Guides (vii-viii).
The chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by notes and an index.
Research Plows her Ground
Throughout her book, George includes lengthy excerpts of her writing and the writing of others that sometimes seems excessive, but makes it obvious that she thoroughly researches her topics before sitting down to write. This research method is necessary in writing most nonfiction, but George’s preoccupation with research is much more than other fiction authors usually admit in fashioning their craft books.
This research focus allows her two advantages in crafting her fiction. The first advantage is that she is able to consider more plot, character, and descriptive alternatives before committing herself to any particular alternative. Some authors will run through a litany of alternatives in their mind, but she visits her locations and interviews professionals that she writes about with a journalist’s intensity. She also records her impressions as she goes about her work to pick up the smells and sounds of a place that most of us simply scribble from memory. Where my character sketch might fill a page for my main character, hers can go on for pages and include details about family history, education, and flaws.
The second advantage is that she can focus on her literary expression when she finally writes and it helps her to economize on the number of edits required to create a final draft. She talks about this advantage a bit, but the depth of her writing speaks more clearly of how it aids her craft. It is hard to imagine her winging it through her prose, although it rolls forth unpretentiously, not in labored fashion, like you might envision someone gifted in conversation.
One measure of a book is whether I can remember anything from it once I put it down. George’s description of landscape fits this description.
George defines landscape as: “The broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual setting of the novel.” (29). You might image an artist starting by choosing the colors to paint a background for images that populate the canvas later, like maybe a baby blue tint in a Chagall painting.
In my own writing project, Masquerade, the landscape for the main characters is oppression of constant work that demands attention every waking hour. When the two main characters meet, they employ costumes to distinguish themselves on the street. It seems cute or serendipitous at first, but grows into a theme in the book—in part, an exposition of identity.
George calls this sort of thing an “internal landscape,” (35) which resonated with me because I had done conscientiously. Knowing that I had done this gave me a theme to develop more completely.
Elizabeth George’s Writing Away is must read for aspiring authors who struggle to develop the descriptions in their settings, characters, and plots.