Write Away
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Write Away

Elizabeth George

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eBook - ePub

Write Away

Elizabeth George

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About This Book

Here's what I tell my students on the first day when I teach one of my creative writing courses: You will be published if you possess three qualities—talent, passion, and discipline.

In Write Away, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth George offers would-be writers exactly what they need to know about how to construct a novel. She provides a detailed overview of the craft and gives helpful instruction on all elements of writing, from setting and plot to technique and process. To illustrate her points, George presents excerpts from a number of well-known writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Lee, E. M. Forster, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Alice Hoffman.

In addition to being a clear and concise guide to fiction writing, Write Away also opens a window into the life of Elizabeth George. It reveals the inspiring personal story of how the distinguished author came to be published and how she meticulously researches and crafts her novels.

I have a love-hate relationship with the writing life. I wouldn't wish to have any other kind of life... and on the other hand, I wish it were easier. And it never is. The reward comes sentence by sentence. The reward comes in the unexpected inspiration. The reward comes from creating a character who lives and breathes and is perfectly real. But such effort it takes to attain the reward! I would never have believed it would take such effort.

George's solid understanding of the craft is conveyed in the enticing manner of a true storyteller, making Write Away not only a marvelous, interesting, and informative book but also a glimpse inside the world of a beloved writer.

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PART I

AN OVERVIEW OF THE CRAFT

1

Story Is Character

Am I kidding myself about being a “creative artist”? Can I possibly be a creative artist if I approach this effort in so methodical and left-brained a fashion?
Journal of a Novel,
June 25, 1997
A large piece of Plexiglas covers the top of my desk. Beneath this shield, I keep bits and pieces to serve as inspiration or to cheer me up in those moments of bleak despair when I’m wondering why I’ve taken on one difficult project or another. Among these items I have a copy of John Steinbeck’s letter to Herbert Sturz on the subject of The Grapes of Wrath—I find his comments about critics particularly smile-producing—as well as pictures of my dog, of myself grinning inanely alongside a wax effigy of Richard III from Madame Tussaud’s waxworks in London, and several quotations from writers on one subject or another. One of those writers is Isaac Bashevis Singer who, in an interview with Richard Burgis in 1978, said the following:
When people come together—let’s say they come to a little party or something—you always hear them discuss character. They will say this one has a bad character, this one has a good character, this one is a fool, this one is a miser. Gossip makes the conversation. They all analyze character. It seems that the analysis of character is the highest human entertainment. And literature does it, unlike gossip, without mentioning real names.
The writers who don’t discuss character but problems—social problems or any problems—take away from literature its very essence. They stop being entertaining. We, for some reason, always love to discuss and discover character. This is because each character is different and human character is the greatest of puzzles.
That’s where I want to begin, then, in laying the foundation for my exploration of craft: with character.
Not with idea? you may ask, aghast. Not with where a writer gets ideas? What a writer does with ideas? How a writer molds ideas into prose?
We will get to that. But if you don’t understand that story is character and not just idea, you will not be able to breathe life into even the most intriguing flash of inspiration.
What we take away from our reading of a good novel mainly is the memory of character. This is because events—both in real life and in fiction—take on greater meaning once we know the people who are involved in them. Put a human face on a disaster and you touch people more deeply; you may even move them inexorably toward taking an action they might have only idly contemplated before that disaster was given a human face. Munich ’72, the Achille Lauro, Pan Am 103, Oklahoma City, 9/11…When these tragedies become human by connecting them to the real people who lived through them or died in them, they become imprinted indelibly on the collective consciousness of a society. We start with an event as news, but we almost immediately begin asking Who? about it.
It’s no different with fiction. The trial of Tom Robinson is maddening, disturbing, and heartbreaking in its injustice, but we remember the trial long after it’s over because of Tom Robinson’s quiet dignity and because of Atticus Finch’s heroic representation of the man, knowing all along that his client is doomed because of the time, the place, and the society in which they both live. To Kill a Mockingbird thus rises to the level of timeless, classic literature not because of its idea—the innocence of childhood set into an ugly landscape of prejudice and brutality—but because of its characters. This is true of every great book, and the names of those men, women, and children shine more brightly in the firmament of literary history than do the stories in which they operated. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Jem and Scout Finch, Captain Ahab, Hester Prynne, Sherlock Holmes, Heathcliff, Ebenezer Scrooge, Huckleberry Finn, Jack-Ralph-and-Piggy, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, George Smiley, Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls…The list can stretch from here to forever. With the exception of the last, not a single character is a real person. Yet all of them are, because the writers made them so.
Once we have begun it, we continue reading a novel largely because we care about what happens to the characters. But for us actually to care about these actors in the drama on those printed pages, they must become real people to us. An event alone cannot hold a story together. Nor can a series of events. Only characters effecting events and events affecting characters can do that.
I try to keep some basic guidelines in mind when I’m creating my characters. First, I try to remember that real people have flaws. We’re all works in progress on planet Earth, and not one of us possesses physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological perfection. This should be true of our characters as well. No one wants to read about perfect characters. Since no reader is perfect, there is nothing more disagreeable than spending free time immersed in a story about an individual who leaps tall buildings of emotion, psyche, body, and spirit in a single bound. Would anyone want a person like that as a friend, tediously perfect in every way? Probably not. Thus, a character possessing perfection in one area should possess imperfection in another area.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle understood this, which is one of the reasons that his Sherlock Holmes has stood the test of time for more than one hundred years and counting. Holmes has the perfect intellect. The man is a virtual machine of cogitation. But he’s an emotional black hole incapable of a sustained relationship with anyone except Dr. Watson, and on top of that, he abuses drugs. He has a series of rather quirky habits, and he’s unbearably supercilious. As a character “package,” he emerges unforgettably from the pages of Conan Doyle’s stories. Consequently, it’s difficult to believe that any reader of works written in English might not know who Sherlock Holmes is.
As individuals we’re all riddled with issues of self-doubt in one area or another. This is the great commonality of mankind. So in literature, we want to see characters who make mistakes, who have lapses of judgment, who experience weakness from time to time, and this is the second of the guidelines I try to remember when I’m creating a character.
As an example, consider the poor narrator in Rebecca. Here’s a girl who is incapable of seeing her own appeal to the rich and brooding Maxim de Winter. She goes through life terrified of causing offense, so much so that when she breaks a figurine in her own home, she hides it in the drawer of a desk lest she get in trouble for having knocked it over! We cringe when she does this. But we also empathize with her humanity because we’ve all had moments when we’ve doubted who and what we are, when we’ve wondered if we could truly be lovable to another person. We identify with this narrator and we care about her, so when she finally says to the nasty Mrs. Danvers—housekeeper of Manderley and flamekeeper of Rebecca’s memory—“I am Mrs. de Winter now,” we want to cheer as she comes into her own. Of course, Manderley burns to the ground and that’s too bad. But the characters continue to live.
They do this because, if the novel is well written, they have grown and changed during the course of the story, and this is the third guideline I try to keep in mind. Characters learn something from the unfolding events, and the reader learns something, too, as a character is revealed slowly by the writer, who peels away a layer at a time.
What the writer knows as she does this is that characters are interesting in their conflict, their misery, their unhappiness, and their confusion. They are not, alas, interesting in their joy and security. The first gives them a pit out of which they climb during the course of a novel. The second robs them of story.
If you’re wondering about the truth of any of this, consider the following set of characters as they were revealed to me in a writing class that I taught a number of years ago.
One of my students was creating a private investigator who would work in Boston. She brought in her first ten or fifteen pages for the class to evaluate. In these pages we met the PI, his sister, their mother, and their stepfather. The PI was from a large Irish family. His sister worked for him. He and his sister got along well; they were practically best friends, and they loved each other to pieces. On the night in question as the novel opens, the PI and his sister—loving each other to pieces—are going over to their mother’s house for St. Patrick’s Day dinner. They adore their mother and wouldn’t miss a St. Patrick’s Day dinner for all the corned beef and cabbage in County Clare. Plus, their mother is a superb cook, the best cook ever, in fact. Their childhood memories are filled with meals eaten around that old kitchen table, the joy of familial conversation buzzing in the fragrant room. So they go over to their mom’s house, and the first person they see is their stepfather. He’s a wonderful man. They worship him. He made their childhood bliss. He married their mom when she was widowed and nothing could have pleased them more…
At this point in the chapter, one was praying for someone to come along and put all of these characters out of the reader’s misery. Why? Because there was no conflict. There was nothing but happiness, joy, and familial bliss. Alas. There was no story.
So the basic guidelines in creating characters should be: Give them flaws, allow them to doubt themselves about something, see to it that they grow and change, and make certain you are putting them into conflict. Once you have committed yourself to following those guidelines, you can begin designing the characters themselves.
Note, I use the word design. For you are both the master architect and the general contractor here, and this is the most creative part of the entire novel-writing process, save for your manipulation of language.
When I’m designing a character, I begin with a name. To my way of thinking, it’s impossible to create a character without one. The name I choose cannot be arbitrary, either. It’s the first of the tools that I can use in revealing who and what my creation is, and silly is the writer who fails to recognize this and just slaps any old name on a character without realizing that name’s import to the reader. Names can suggest just about anything to the reader. As Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter point out in their writing exercise book What If, names can suggest traits of personality (Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Roger Chillingsworth, Mr. Knightley). They can suggest social and ethnic background (Captain Ross Poldark, Tom Joad, Mrs. van Hopper, Maxim de Winter, Winston Nkata). They can suggest geography (Hank will be on a ranch, probably not at Harvard), attitude, or even events that are yet to happen in the story.1 Names influence how a reader will feel about a character. They also make it easier for the writer to create a character.
Consider the following, taken from the annals of my own literary history. When I was writing In the Presence of the Enemy, I created a very hard-edged and determined career woman whom I called Eve Bowen. To me that was a nice, hard, assertive name. A no-nonsense name. I had no trouble working with it to bring the character Eve Bowen to life. Set against her would be her husband. I wanted him to be her equal, a man capable of going mano a mano with her, a man not intimidated by her successful political career. He would be tough, a successful entrepreneur who grew up in Newcastle of a working-class family and essentially reinvented himself. He would brook no nonsense. He would not suffer fools.
So I began with his name. I called him Leo Swann. Then I sat and stared at my computer screen for a good twenty minutes, unable to write a thing about him until I realized that I’d given him the wrong name, that a character called Leo Swann could not be as I wanted this man to be. Once I changed his name to Alexander Stone—Alex Stone—I could work with him. That name suggested strength to me; it suggested determination and a refusal to be cowed. Leo Swann did not. And, more important, I did not believe Leo Swann would suggest that to a reader.
Once I have the name of the character, I create an analysis of that character, something that I will explore in more depth later. Suffice it to say now that the analysis begins with a basic list of facts about a character, which soon expands to a full report. In this report, I become the character’s psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, probation officer, and biographer because I know that the more I know about my characters before I write the novel itself, the easier it will be to make each of them distinct and to give each of them a voice unlike any other character’s voice.
The purpose of doing this work in advance of what seems like the “fun stuff” of writing the novel itself rests with my belief that you cannot bring a character to life in a book unless he or she is alive before the book begins. If I don’t know a character before I place him into the crucible of the plot, I run the risk of either not knowing how that character is going to react to what happens or—just as bad—falling back on same-old, same-old to illustrate that reaction. The truth of the matter is that we all react to the circumstances of our lives differently. So should characters.
This is doubly true for how we speak, and the creation of characters allows me to understand how that character will talk—what his actual dialogue will be like—as well as how that character’s narrative voice will sound if I choose to put a scene in his point of view. The words a character uses, the syntax he employs, and his diction thus become another tool to reveal character to the reader. A character’s dialogue will illustrate not only his opinions and his personality, it can display his educational level, his economic background, his attitudes (one of the key elements of characterization), his beliefs, his superstitions, his pathology, and just about anything else. But it can’t display any of this if I don’t know what the “this” is in the first place because I haven’t created him prior to putting words in his mouth.
If character is story, then dialogue is character. Take a look at the following abbreviated scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Are you the father of Mayella Ewell?” was the next question.
“Well, if I ain’t I can’t do nothing about it now, her ma’s dead,” was the answer.
Judge Taylor stirred. He turned slowly in his swivel chair and looked benignly at the witness. “Are you the father of Mayella Ewell?” he asked, in a way that made the laughter below us stop suddenly.
“Yes sir,” Mr. Ewell said meekly.
Judge Taylor went on in tones of good will: “This the first time you’ve ever been in court? I don’t recall ever seeing you here.” At the witness’s affirmative nod he continued, “Well, let’s get something straight. There will be no more audibly obscene speculations on any subject from anybody in this courtroom as long as I’m sitting here. Do you understand?”
Mr. Ewell nodded, but I don’t think he did. Judge Taylor sighed and said, “All right, Mr. Gilmer?”
“Thank you, sir. Mr. Ewell, would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?”
Jem grinned and pushed his hair back. Just-in-your-own words was Mr. Gilmer’s trademark. We often wondered who else’s words Mr. Gilmer was afraid his witness might employ.
“Well, the night of November twenty-one I was comin’ in from the woods with a load o’kindlin’ and just as I got to the fence I heard Mayella screamin’ like a stuck hog inside the house—”
Here Judg...

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