A Stellar Book about Writing Fiction (& Nonfiction)
Write Away, One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, Elizabeth George
This slim volume by Elizabeth George, creator of the Inspector Linley series, is the best I’ve read to date about writing fiction–with lots of applications for nonfiction too! My co-blogger Annette Yourk often cites this book—so I put it on top of my summer reading stack. And she was right. George has a clear and articulate voice, with ideas based on her own successful practice and lots of teaching.
George runs through all the big questions, from what’s at the heart of a compelling story, to slippery subjects like voice, scenes, dialogue and point-of-view. She presents her ideas in clear prose and gives examples that take concepts and theory from the abstract to the concrete.
It’s all about the characters.
George is an advocate of pre-planning and describes ways to get your thoughts on paper within days or a week, rather than the months of work some writers champion. She starts with a sketchy outline of the story, followed by a detailed profile of each of the lead characters. Don’t skimp here, says George. We need to know everything we can about these people and she uses five leading questions to open this exploration: What are his core needs? How does he act under stress? What’s his sexuality—his attitudes toward sex as well as his sexual history? What circumstance(s) in his past shaped him? And what does he want in the course of this novel/story? Not all of this info will make it into print, but it’ll inform everything that character does.
Scenes reveal what these characters are made of.
George follows her character explorations with what she calls a step outline: “a list of scenes in the order in which I envision them in the novel.” As in the earlier stage, this is a quick process, involving sketchy notes and questions to herself, delineating ten or more scenes. Her example of an outline for one of her own novels is illuminating for anyone who has turned away from what they fear is an involved and constricting plan. As George makes these notes she gains clarity about the emerging story. “Every scene either advances the plot, advances one of the subplots,” writes George, “develops character, or addresses them. I have to be honest with myself during this process. If the scene I’m creating in the outline doesn’t do one of those things, I have to toss it out.” She follows this with a running plot line.
What’s in this book for nonfiction writers?
There are applicable gems throughout this book for nonfiction authors, especially for those interested in creative nonfiction. Just as with fiction, we need to know all we can about our characters and we need to know where our narrative is headed—what points we want to make—to help us decide what stays in and what gets tossed into the recycling bin. George’s planning process, her outline procedure, has application here too, as do her cogent thoughts about developing the writer’s voice.