|Getting it Write
Elizabeth George, author of 13 best-selling novels, "spells it
out for aspiring novelists."
By AMY WILSON
The Orange County Register
write, she said. What a nice sentence that is. So nice, in fact, it should just
stand alone on the page, beaming at you, like it makes enormous sense out of a
universe of uncertainty.
It does just that for Elizabeth George.
Writing is how George orders her world and makes sense of her emotions and gives
voice to her stories and flight to her fear. It is how she stays sane. (Truth be
told, she's more honest than that. She says it keeps her "from being
It is also how she makes a very, very good living.
Elizabeth George - she is known to friends as Susan - is the author of 13
best-selling novels and the editor of an anthology of crime fiction due in July.
Her book on writing, appropriately called "Write Away," was published in March.
It is the book on writing that is the Huntington Beach author's most revelatory,
telling as it does how she literally takes in breath every day and breathes out
living characters deeply involved in twisting plots wound around and through
precisely drawn British landscapes, all chosen solely for their ability to suit
Her purpose: to tell a story so seamlessly that you do not notice the craft.
But it is there. Craft is the thing, she says, that, if you aspire to write, you
must recognize, embrace and clutch to your chest like it's your firstborn in a
Is that so mystical?
But you're in the demystifying business, yes?
"No," she finally decides after a pensive pause. "But writing is not, as some
people would tell you, about getting in touch with the cosmos. A lot of people
believe they will just sit in front of the computer and, writing aimlessly, the
plot, the story and the point will emerge from the void, fully formed."
(She is looking as exasperated as someone who is small, raven- haired, polite,
soft-spoken and dressed in pale, pale pink can be.)
"I really do know some people who write hundreds of pages in search of a plot.
That would be too terrifying for me."
"I just wanted to de-terrify the process of writing."
Craft can do that?
"Yes it can. It is there to rescue you when the art fails to."
George was a teacher before she was published. First, at Mater Dei High School,
where, she says, she was fired for union activity. And then at El Toro High
School where, for 12 years, she did the best she could with the prose of
She must have done pretty well at that: In 1981, she was Orange County Teacher
of the Year. When, in 1983, she decided to devote herself to her first novel,
her only aspiration was "to make as much as a writer as I had as a high school
She taught creative writing at Coastline Community College during that time and
was a little surprised to discover that most of her students didn't know that
craft was necessary to write novels. Even fewer knew the words to use in
discussing that craft.
So she took the process apart for them for at least eight weeks before they
moved on to the "creative" stuff.
She was doing plenty of creative stuff at home, working according to a carefully
orchestrated schedule that includes a specific time allotment for getting up (6
a.m.); feeding the dog; working out, getting on the exercycle and reading for
pleasure at the same time; exercise; for Katie Couric; for meditation, for
organizing her assistant's day; and for sitting down, after another 15 minutes
of reading a snippet of great literature, in front of the computer. She then
writes five pages of manuscript a day. (It's OK; she's knows it's obsessive.)
The routine identifies the process, she says. She has to have a way "to get
inside the right side of my brain."
dozen successful novels later, almost universally praised for her pacing,
lyricism and sense of place, anxious as always to expand her mind between first
and second edits and final edits and galley proofs, she looked inside and found
the teacher again. It is who she ultimately is. She wants to explain and she
wants to encourage and she wants to rejoice in others' successes.
It is the only thing that would explain someone so willing to give up her
professional secrets. And to show her own hand, and her own frailty.
You should buy the book to learn her novel-writing specifics. They're there in
spades. Tips on character, plotting, voice and scene. Examples, rules, more
examples (from the most gifted of writers like Harper Lee, John Irving, Gabriel
Garcia Marquez, to name only a few), textbook lists, vocabulary basics and
inspiration for the most bereft.
Still, it is the once-private journal entries that most intrigue.
The tradition of writing a journal to record the history of a novel is not
something she made up. John Steinbeck's journal as he wrote "East of Eden"
served as her template and her point of reference as she wrote her first novel,
"A Great Deliverance," and its accompanying journal.
Every one of her books has a journal attached to it. In it, as she writes, she
admits what is troubling her about what she is going to write. It can wander
into narrative about what's she doing in other areas of her life, but, as she
notes in Journal of Novel, Oct. 12, 1994:
"I am filled with doubts. Why isn't Steinbeck filled with doubts? ... Is it
because he has so many outside interests? Probably. I have so few. I've never
been a hobby person, and when I start working on a project, all I can think of
is finishing the damn thing. And there's Steinbeck, building desks, carving oars
for his sons, buying a boat, decorating his little house in New York. Should a
future Nobel Laureate have a little more angst? I'd certainly appreciate it."
The point of the journal - besides as immediate therapy - is as a psychological
crutch. As she begins her next novel, as she faces fear again, she picks up the
journal of her last novel. It reminds her that she has faced these very dilemmas
before and overcome them.
"It is like P.D. James once said 'I don't know how I did it and I don't know if
I can ever do it again.' The journal is my way of taking care of myself
If you are an aspiring writer, read those entries first. The relief you will
feel is palpable.
The stories begin for her, she says, "with something I've seen."
George is very visual. She makes three trips to Great Britain a year - andeven
maintains an apartment in South Kensington - because she needs to walk the
places she will describe.
She is visual, as well, in her taste in exceptional black and white photography.
On the walls in her Huntington Harbour home hang originals from Yousuf Karsh,
Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith.
Every sense is used in writing, she says. She often tells students to listen to
what their bodies are telling them about what their eyes are seeing. "Ignore
what the mind is saying," she likes to say, "because it will lie to you every
As hard as she works to craft individual pieces of her stories, George says she
has no real emotional attachment to a piece of writing. In her last novel, she
took out an entire subplot.
"I recognized a bad feeling that I was not doing justice to either of my
hourglass plots. It was asking way too much of the reader," she says. So the
pesky subplot was gone, though not entirely. Saved through the magic of
computers, it was resurrected as the basis of her next book.
Most books don't start that way, she says, smiling.
Where do they start?
You must lay down a sentence that will take you somewhere."
Where do they end?
With someone else you absolutely trust reading it cold because "the writer is
the last person to know if it's any good."
In fact, someone at a book conference raised his hand and asked George about
"the imagery of the dust" in her latest novel.
Speechless, she had no idea what he was referring to.
Another author jumped in and said, why ask her? She's the writer. How would she
He was serious.
She likes to read "up." Margaret Atwood, Penelope Lively, Graham Swift, Barbara
"I aspire to grow as much as those authors have grown."
No. More like admiration. Because she is not them and she couldn't be them if
she tried, which she wouldn't think of doing. Everyone's writing is so
particular to that individual, she says, that you can't be jealous, but you can
There is another piece of advice that she drops here. It's not in the book. It's
not probably in anybody's book about writing. But it should be.
If you have read something that transports you, really transports you to another
place, or toward another truth, write them and tell them.
"If people don't hear from people who love their books, they only hear from the
critics and they are self-defining."
She writes authors when she is genuinely moved to do so. In every case but one -
it was Ian McEwan - the author has written her back. And that was before she was
Long before. The first letter she wrote was to John Fowles after reading "The
Magus." The last letter?
To John le Carré after reading "The Constant Gardener."
Le Carré had written a line that struck George as lightning-bolt true. (Every
novel should have one of those, she says, almost in passing.)
So enamored was she with the line that George could barely wait to finish the
novel so she could write and tell him so.
BOOKS BY ELIZABETH GEORGE
"A Moment on the Edge," a collection of 26 crime stories by women
"A Place of Hiding," July 2003, hardcover
"I, Richard," a collection of short stories, October 2002
"A Traitor to Memory," July 2001
"In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner," August 1999
"Deception on His Mind," August 1997
"In the Presence of the Enemy," April 1996
"Playing for the Ashes," September 1995
"Missing Joseph," June 1994
"For the Sake of Elena," May 1993
"A Suitable Vengeance," 1991
"Well-Schooled in Murder," 1990
"Payment in Blood," 1989
"A Great Deliverance," May 1988
"The Evidence Exposed," a book of short stories available only in Great
|A few of the other fine books on writing and the writer's
" On Writing," Stephen King
" Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life," Anne Lamott
" One Writer's Beginnings," Eudora Welty
" Writing Down the Bones," Natalie Goldberg
" Being a Minor Writer," Gail Gilliland
" The Art of Fiction," John Gardner
" The Art of the Novel," Milan Kundera
" Writing in Restaurants," David Mamet
"Letters to a Young Poet," Rainier Maria Rilke
"Something to Declare," Julia Alvarez
" The Forest for the Trees," Betsy Lerner
" If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit,"
" Writing the Memoir," Judith Barrington
" How to Write," Richard Rhodes
" Writing Past Dark," Bonnie Friedman
" Lively Art of Writing," Lucile Vaughan Payne
" Writing for Story," Jon Franklin
" Making a Literary Life," Carolyn See
Orange County Register