Review

Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life

by Elizabeth George



Full disclosure: Elizabeth George is one of my all-time favorite
mystery writers --- actually, George, like the others on that
shortlist (including P.D. James and Ruth Rendell), writes in a more
specific arm of the genre, known as the "literary mystery." What
this means to readers is that the books these authors produce have
complex characters, beautifully constructed (sometimes intricate)
plots and fine, subtle use of language that manages to
simultaneously contribute to the mystery at hand and to delight on
its own.

What this means to writers is that Elizabeth George knows her
stuff. How well she knows it is readily apparent in WRITE AWAY: One
Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, because she
grounds most of her instructional examples in excerpts from great
literature, including classics like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and
modern suspense/thriller novels such as MYSTIC RIVER. George taught
English at El Toro High School in Huntington Beach, California for
over a decade before turning her back away from the lectern and
towards her computer screen in the mid-1980s, and she now
frequently teaches creative writing. Her pedantry is of the
pleasant variety, meant not to bury potential writers but to
encourage them.

Still, this book does have its pedantic moments, especially as
George elucidates her process. One of the most important parts of
her process is creating a "character map" before she begins her
first draft. As she explained why and how she does this, it made
perfect sense --- for her. I love reading literary mysteries, but
they are not a genre I'm likely to write myself. WRITE AWAY, at
first, seemed to me to be an excellent way to learn about how to
write an Elizabeth George novel. Indeed, it's not as if she's
hiding what she's doing: her subtitle says it all. And she begins
each chapter with a brief section from one of her own journals kept
while writing in order to show that even published authors get the
blues.

Yet, from the moment I began to read George's book, I was drawn in
by her enthusiasm for writing. She may have been describing what
works for her, but her energy and excitement made me want to
discover what works best for me. George is quite right when she
says that she is puzzled by those who believe writing can't be
taught; it is, after all, at least halfways a craft. In the
sections where she discusses different techniques as "tools" and
says that using these well is part of a building process, she
reminded me that artisanal skill can be just as important as
artistic inspiration.

George also reminds would-be, struggling and working writers that
all the art and craft in the world can't help if you don't have
discipline; her chapter titled "The Value of Bum Glue" (that
colorful noun taken from Australian bestselling author Bryce
Courtenay) should be read by every writer and writing student in
the country. But one of the last things she hits on, while not new
under the sun, is made urgent again by her own thoughtful, elegant
prose: "Lots of people want to have written; they don't want to
write. In other words, they want to see their name on the front
cover of a book and their grinning picture on the back. But this is
what comes at the end of a job, not at the beginning. To reach that
end you have to be willing just to set it aside, knowing that it
may never happen at all but not much caring because it's the
writing that matters to you; it's the mystery and the magic of
putting words on paper that are truly important. If you don't feel
this way, then you want to be an author, not a writer."

On one hand, I wonder why she didn't put that up front. On the
other, I see exactly why she saved these words for last. Great
mystery writer that she is, Elizabeth George has forced us to march
through the forest tree by tree before revealing her secret.

Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 24, 2011

Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life
by Elizabeth George

  • Publication Date: March 15, 2005
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0060560444
  • ISBN-13: 9780060560447