Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How to write a novel the George way

When Elizabeth George published Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life in 2004 she was a New York Times best-selling author of a thirteen mysteries. So the book is more than twelve years old, but the information and advice is as timely today as it was the day it came out of George's computer.

She points out that this is "one novelist's approach," and other novelists with other approaches are equally successful. She is relatively undogmatic; the only rule in writing a
novel is that there are no rules. At the same time, a novel tends to have a character—or characters—in a setting in a conflict. No character(s), no story. No setting and the characters float in an abstract void. No conflict and there is no plot. I believe the best novels have fully realized characters in recognizable settings with significant and engaging conflicts.

A conflict, by the way, is not an argument or a fight. Conflict arises when a character wants something and cannot easily obtain it because of another character, because of circumstances (social, economic, environmental), or because of an internal flaw. Readers continue to read when they want to see how, and whether, characters will obtain their desires—or not. Will Ahab find and kill Moby Dick? Will Edmond Dant├Ęs obtain his revenge? Will Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr. Darcy? Will Robinson Crusoe survive shipwreck?

Because, as George titles her first chapter, "Story is Character," and because it is not easy to create vivid, interesting, engaging characters (as I can testify from personal experience), she spends many pages to describe her process. Before she even begins to draft her novel, she writes a detailed character analysis for every significant character in a book. Her Character Prompt Sheet includes a physical description but "best friend...enemies...core need...pathological maneuver...gestures when talking what others notice first about him/her...what character does alone...." And to show the practice that she preaches, George includes the raw material—seven printed pages, around 4,000 words—she wrote about a character "long before she put in an appearance on the pages of my rough draft."

She researches locations as carefully as a movie director, taking pictures and making notes in a tape recorder, so that when it is time to write about, say, a lonely stone barn on the moors, she knows exactly what it looks like, where there are doors and windows, how the light hits the walls.

She also thinks through her entire book in terms of scenes, again much like a movie scriptwriter who has to decide where does the scene take place, who is in it, who says what, how does the dialogue and action advance the story? The novelist, of course, has the advantage of being able to enter the heads of characters in a way that is either clunky or boring in a movie. And on the subject of point-of-view, George has several interesting things to say. For example:

"You have to have a point of view in the novel, and wise is the writer who makes her decision about point of view early in the process. This one element of the craft is crucial because it's part of how a writer dramatizes events. It also is critical to how the story is structured. . .and often it's part of the entire artistic idea behind the novel."

The book is filled with examples from George's novels and other works, so it is both practical and theoretical. She includes two lists that I have copied and will refer to in the future, "Where People Work" (more than 100 entries including sporting goods store, mobile library, clockmaker, martial arts supplies, limousine driver) and 78 THADs.

A THAD is a Talking Head Avoidance Device, "an activity going on in a scene that would otherwise consist of dialogue. It serves several purposes: It eliminates the possibility that a scene will become nothing more than two or three talking heads; chosen wisely, it reveals character; it may in and of itself contain important information; it can be used as a metaphor." Examples? Eating a meal. Cooking a meal. Working on a car. Grocery shopping. Training a dog. Building a structure. Posing for portrait. Killing ants...and 70 more.

I believe anyone who wants to write fiction or improve her craft can read Write Away with profit—I have. I believe anyone who is curious about one novelist thinks about and creates her books will enjoy Write Away. And anyone who enjoys Elizabeth George's mysteries may like this look behind the curtain to see how she does it.

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