George – Write Away

write-awayA How-To on Writing

George, Elizabeth. (2004) Write Away. New York: Harper Collins

If you haven’t read any writing-how-to books, this one is a good place to start. It’s easy to read, encouraging in tone, covers most of the basics, and has plenty of examples. George is a well-known writer of mysteries and thrillers, and a teacher of writing. She describes her personal understanding of writing fundamentals and her own writing process. The result is a solid overview for a beginning writer.

On the down side, the information content is low and conversely, redundancy and irrelevance are high. That’s what makes the book easy to read, but a more experienced writer would be better off with a genre-specific how-to book, or a more rigorous treatment, such as “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” by Burroway and Stuckey-French.

George offers a “seven step story line” guide, based on common sense and apparently derived, as much modern writing method is, from Aristotle’s Poetics. There’s nothing wrong with that approach. Most of it seems like common knowledge, but maybe it isn’t if you’re just starting out.

George’s example quotations go on way, way too long, often for two or three pages, when a couple of well-selected paragraphs would have done the trick. Most of these examples are extremely boring, almost unreadable, especially those taken from her own works. These excessive excerpts seem like filler to me. It’s a shame, because one can think of numerous brief excerpts that could have been used to make very sharp points, from authors such as Strout, Faulkner, Nabokov, Bowles, Ishiguro, Coetzee, Silko, Morrison. George prefers mass-market authors like Kingsolver, P.D. James, and Martin Cruz Smith. She does throw in the perfunctory Shakespeare and Hemingway, and those excerpts actually stand out by contrast to the others.

When George gets down to specifics, which is not often, I found her explanations lacking. For example, concerning the difficult problem of creating a character’s voice, she says merely that the voice arises “naturally” from the character’s biography that you have previously written. At a very high level of abstraction, that’s true. A garbage man is not going to talk like an Oxford don. But an interesting voice does NOT arise “naturally” from a specific biography. It must be explicitly created by the author and George offers no clue about how one does that.

The last third of the book covers George’s writing process, how she actually goes about writing a novel from start to finish.  Most of that material is idiosyncratic and of little interest to anyone else. For example, she is keen on researching locations for her novels. She flies off to Europe to make extensive tours of old castles, wineries, and government institutions. Nice work if you can get it. But she doesn’t discuss why she does all that. Readers appreciate accuracy, but for a how-to book published in 2004, this one seems curiously uninformed about the virtues of the internet.

George’s best advice comes in her final words. “You WILL be published if you possess…talent, passion, and discipline. You will PROBABLY be published if you possess… talent and discipline or passion and discipline. You will LIKELY be published if you possess [only] discipline.”  In other words, writing discipline is necessary and sufficient, the other two qualities only helpful.

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