Sunday, 31 May 2009

Guest Review: Write Away, by Elizabeth George

For some time I've had a copy of this book on my shelf, waiting to be read: when Helen Parker sent this review to me, I took the book down from my shelf for a quick flick through and sure enough, an hour and a half later I was still reading it. Either I'm a compulsive reader, or this is an excellent book. You decide! My thanks to Helen for this review. You can find her blog here; her first book (a ghostwritten biography) is about to be published.

As the Sunday Times says on the front cover of this book: ‘A perfect DIY guide for the determined new novelist’ and as Mariella Frostrup says on the back cover: ‘Indispensable’. I’ve read many books that discuss the dos and don’ts of writing and, in my opinion, this is one of the best.

Write away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George does exactly what it says on the tin – sorry, cover; it guides the writer patiently and thoroughly through the many difficult stages of writing a novel. From the very first sentence it persuades the reader that writing a novel is not just possible, it’s actually achievable:

I find it both fascinating and disconcerting when I discover yet another person who believes that writing can’t be taught. Frankly I don’t understand this point of view.

And if Elizabeth George says that, then I believe her.

Elizabeth George is the author of the bestselling Inspector Linley novels. She has also been a writing teacher for many years and plans her book in logical, well defined chapters covering the usual subjects: character, story, plot, place and dialogue but she also discusses in great depth the trickier (for me anyway) subject of viewpoint. As Ms George says:

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 craft is crucial because it’s part of how a writer dramatizes events. It also is critical to how the story is structured (as you will see I hope), and often it’s part of the entire artistic idea behind the novel.

This is a book that speaks to you as an equal, not a book that talks down, up, or in a roundabout way to a would-be novelist. It’s more about technique than talent because Elizabeth George believes that the former can be taught whilst the latter is presumably either God-given or just given out to those who have the discipline to write year after year, day after day, hour after hour, same time, same place because as she says, ‘A lot of writing is being able to delay gratification’. Read the chapter on the value of ‘bum glue’ and you’ll realize that you simply can’t, or don’t want to, argue with Ms George’s belief that writing your novel is simply ‘moving it forward a sentence at a time’.

I feel there are many of us who would benefit from the author’s no-nonsense approach to writing, unfortunately I believe her writing classes take place only in the USA although her novels are all, to my knowledge, set in the UK.

If nothing else, you must read chapter twenty-two where The Process in a Nutshell sets out the writing of your novel in fourteen difficult, bone-wearying, hurdle-jumping stages. The book preceding this list clearly and simply tells you how to do it and for any remaining doubters, here’s what Elizabeth George tells her students on the first day of her creative writing course:

  • You will be published if you possess three qualities; talent, passion and discipline.

  • You will probably be published if you possess two of these three qualities: either a combination of talent and discipline or a combination of passion and discipline.

  • You will likely be published if you possess neither talent nor passion but still have discipline.
Please note; she never says you will not be published.


Karen said...

Great review - that's probably the only "How To" book I haven't got, but I'll be remedying that very soon!

Feisty Crone said...

I just ordered this book, used, from amazon. Thanks for the review. I need to work on the disciple part.

JP_Fife said...

Nice review and good info. If my credit card wasn't crying out in pain I would consider buying it. I might look at getting it next month. My favourite book on writing is How To Have A Brainchild by Jack Woodford.

"I find it both fascinating and disconcerting when I discover yet another person who believes that writing can’t be taught. Frankly I don’t understand this point of view."

Everything except common sense can be taught.

catdownunder said...

Ah yea, discipline. It means you actually have to sit down and write something. That's the hard part.

none said...

People who claim writing can't be taught either want to believe they're special flowers--or they want you to believe that you're not.

Helen P said...

As you can probably tell, I've had the book for quite a while and read it more than once but I'm still working on the bum glue...

Rod H said...

I have just finished a novel by this author. In most ways it was very good though, in my opinion, she has a tendency to over-write. She will take an idea and elaborate it to distraction.

The title reviewed here may well be excellent, since the author is both successful and skilled.

Writing can't be taught? Plainly it can, but it doesn't follow from that that everyone at the receiving end can learn.

Nik Morton said...

I reviewed this book quite a long time ago and recommend it highly. As I said in my lengthy review, If you aspire to being a writer and you haven’t read any ‘How to’ books on the subject, this is a good place to start; if you have read similar books, this is still worthy of your attention. Aspiring or accomplished, as a writer you’ll take away something from this book.