George Researches her Fiction

George_review_20210330

Elizabeth George [1]. 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.[2]

Writing Away is written in twenty-two chapters divided into five parts:

  1. An Overview of the Craft
  2. The Basics
  3. Technique
  4. Process
  5. 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.

Landscape

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.

Assessment

Elizabeth George’s Writing Away is must read for aspiring authors who struggle to develop the descriptions in their settings, characters, and plots.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_George.

George Researches her Fiction

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Bell Writes Finishing Well

James Scott Bell. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The hardest part of ending a post or book is to end gracefully. It is generally good to offer a chiastic return to your opening comments or to highlight the theme with choice words. But endings also carry emotional weight—it’s like an only child getting on the bus to leave home for college or kissing a terminal relative for the last time. What words should your reader remember as they move on?

Introduction

In his latest craft book, The Last Fifty Pages, James Scott Bell uses a golf analogy to kick off his exposition: “It’s not how you drive, it’s how you arrive.” (1) In other words, the endgame in golf is all about the putting on the green. Bell goes on:

“If there’s one Word that sums up the feeling readers crave in an ending, it’s satisfaction. The word is broad enough to include any type of ending, so long as it is one that leaves the reader in a positive emotional state about the reading experience as a whole.”(4)

Part of this satisfaction comes in tying up loose ends. Citing John Gilstrap, Bell writes:

“Before you kill me, you’ve got to tell me why you did it, and how all of your compatriots fit into the puzzle.”(5)

This sort of egotistic protagonist is common in film, which Bell describes as a classic mistake–the talkative villain (76-77), but it points to the need not to the leave the reader hanging—a better way is to have a minor character fill in details.

Background and Organization

James Scott Bell[1]is a former trial lawyer and author of numerous writing books and thrillers. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara and graduated from the University of Southern California Law Center. His best-known writing book is: Plot and Structure.  Amore recent book of his, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue,was immensely helpful in my memoir project in 2017 (Called Along the Way).

Bell writes in eleven chapters:

  1. Endings are Hard
  2. What Should an Ending Do?
  3. Should You Know Your Endings Before You Write?
  4. About Act 3
  5. The Shape of Your Ending
  6. The Meaning of Your Ending
  7. Brainstorming Endings
  8. Resonant Endings
  9. Avoiding Common Ending Problems
  10. Some Endings Examined
  11. The Ending of This Book on Endings.

Following these chapters is an author’s note, list of other books, and an about section.

Plotters verses Pantsers

A fairly inane conversation that comes up among writers is whether to use an outline or to write “seat of the pants.” I say inane because only masters of the craft have the intuition to be successful as a pantser; everyone else either is better off starting with an outline or has an enormous among of time on their hands to rewrite their book. 

Stephen King (On Writing) is probably the most famous pantser (9), but no one would confuse him with being a beginner—if I recall correctly, he wrote his first book at the age of about eight. King does not want to outline his book because he writes suspense and argues that if he knows the ending as he writes, then the reader will figure it out and it will deflate the suspense. So he creates tension and a well-defined character, then reasons how that character would respond to the tension. Add a few twists and turns, and you have a King novel.

By contrast, Bell is a plotter. His advice on endings begins with the lead character’s mirror moment (11). The lead character’s mirror begins with a question: is the lead character willing (and able) to grow emotionally (transform) to become the hero that can overcome and win the struggle that is presented? (12) From that moment forward, the author needs to have a vision of how the book will end—this is the light at the end of the tunnel.

High Stakes in Three Acts

Remember that Bell writes thrillers, which implies that thrills are required. All of this happens in three acts and a bit of structure is required. Bell sees this structure summarized in LOCK—leader character is introduced (L), the lead has an objective (O), the is forced into confrontation (C), and the ending needs to be a knock-out (K; 15).

For Bell, the character is introduced in Act 1, but thrown into Act 2 by a life changing threat (14-15). The character cannot overcome this threat without dealing with a serious character flaw. At the end of Act 2, the lead discovers a clue, setback, or crisis that makes resolution possible, but not easy—the lead must be willing and able to meet the challenge a final battle that takes place in Act 3 (16).

Assessment

James Scott Bell’s The Last Fifty Pages is a short-but-informative book on the craft of writing a novel or screen play. Bell illustrates his points with vignettes taken from famous movies, the like Wizard of Oz, the Fugitive, and Casablanca. Authors will love it; I love it—maybe you will too.

References

Bell, James Scott. 2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (Review)

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (Review)

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2017. Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir.Centreville, VA: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

King, Stephen. 2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner. (Review)

Footnotes


[1]http://www.JamesScottBell.com.

Bell Writes Finishing Well

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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