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August 2003


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Elizabeth George


A PLACE OF HIDING

WRITE AWAY: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life
Elizabeth George
HarperCollins
Reference/Creative Writing
ISBN: 0060560428


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

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