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Elizabeth George’s “Write Away” – an approach to fiction and the writing life
article [ Books ]

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by [VeronicaValeanu ]

2009-08-07  |     | 

Elizabeth George is not the writing’s spoilsport: she just shunts a focal point along the writing’s shortcomings when somebody might want to quit this inner urge of creating for lack of method.

Elizabeth George is the New York Times bestselling author of thirteen novels; she has spent years teaching writing and in “Write away” she shares her knowledge of the creative process. She 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.

The writing’s know-how is most of the times a predicament for the neophyte writers in desperate need of orientation. Elizabeth George views fiction-producing as a common, alive space between the author and the reader, a second reality where you should get the feeling of belonging to. From there to accepting the existence of fiction like an alive organism is only a step away.
The writing process is envisaged as the two hemispheres of a brain: art and craft, each of them enabling us to resonate from the outside right in the interior of the fiction’s realm.
The starting point in laying out the foundation of fiction is the character. Fiction is not reality’s second best, but filling space with story. Characters effecting events and events affecting characters, like nature’s feedback. A character should be built as imperfect, but in a perfect pattern of a normal human being.

If character is story, the dialogue is character, in its turn. To banish doubt from the reader’s mind, the dialogue should be wielded in the purpose of creating bonds between the existing reality of the book and the expectations that should rise up to it.
Creating characters in advance, with a rigorous system of implementation within their own space they could gain one day into this fictional world – allows a novelist to dissolve the boundaries between creativity and creation, so both of them should become one. Thus, becoming a fictional character is on one hand equal to rendering experience, for the writer, and on the other, equal to exploring new experiences, for the reader.

Setting could also mean story. Triggering mood and atmosphere stimulates emotional response in the reader. At an advanced level, where setting is a metaphor in itself, characters are viewed from a distance, as if they were exhibited, not exposed from inside.
But setting used to its fullest is when the description is part of the narrative, and it doesn’t interrupt the fiction’s flow.

Elizabeth George operates a distinction between setting and landscape. The latter can be displayed as a “broad vista” to place the settings. It’s only a question of resonating. The place selected for landscape mirrors the condition of the character or the variations of his disposition that go along with new territories.
“If the reader owns the landscape, you are halfway home in your job as a writer since owning the landscape will promote both emotion and connection on the part of the reader.” The reader is simply drawn by the reactions he finds in the character’s mind in different circumstances. Later on, what every writer aspires to do with landscape is to work it in throughout the narrative, interweaving elements of it with the action, like a macro-function.
The landscape also has a micro-function because it can be applied to characters as well, not only to the text. Each character has 2 landscapes: an external one (he looks in a certain way, operates in a certain environment) and an internal one (a character that lacks it runs the risk of becoming a stereotype).

Landscape triggers climate, a method of stimulating the senses – which will lead the story ahead. Moreover, this mental climate supplies to the character a certain extent of human dignity.
“Sometimes I develop an idea based on a challenge. In a seminar, Ph. D. James once said that a writer cannot create a scene from the killer’s point of view after the killing has occurred, because the killer would naturally be thinking about the killing, and to make the killer think of anything else would not be playing fair with the reader. I took this as a challenge. I decided that I would write a book in which scenes would take place in the killer’s point of view after the killing, in which the killer would indeed be thinking about the killing, but scenes in which I would make the reader believe that the killer was actually thinking about something else.”

Events – called “dramatic dominoes”, must be organized by a writer with an emphasis on causality, otherwise the book might turn out a picaresque novel or a novel in which characters are in search of plot (this would destroy them). Plot must have a climax, the climax itself must have a climax – “the bang within the bang” effect. Post climax, resolution is a must, otherwise the writer would reach dead ends.
Elizabeth George’s recommendation for novice writers is to continually open up the story by creating scenes in which to lay down (but not to answer) dramatic questions. Partial disclosures will provide the suspense, a state of wanting to know. Every character’s intention is about to produce anticipation in the reader.
This literaturing skill that E. George insists to teach can give evidence, much to the writer’s relief, of a fair assessment. If a writer gives something away too soon, the entire house of cards will collapse; therefore, the information is to be played out with great care.
One of the best methods mentioned for creating authenticity is the stream-of-consciousness technique. The author recommends it as something that never fails.
Events and characters go hand in hand with motivations.
“Someone whose core need is to have excitement or to experience the impulse life is someone whose fulfillment of need has an external manifestation, no? (…) That person is going to be out there doing something.(…) when his need for excitement is stymied in some way, he’s under stress. His reaction to this stress will take an overt form, just as his need for excitement will.
Picture this individual in the classroom, forced to sit quietly and listen to a rather boring lecture. When it reaches the boiling point…? Of course. He acts out. He doesn’t turn inward for a good ground of self-castigation as does the person striving for competence (…) who would never act out because, to him, acting out is the height of incompetence.”

Plotting is envisaged in a “take-no-prisoners” approach. Strategically, the plot built in advance offers the writer a sense of where he is going to be heading. A suitable solution seems therefore to get surrounded with lists of potential scenes (one might trigger another). Then it’s high time to ponder: why then shouldn’t we write them down? Might we just be avoiding the act of writing? In fact, it’s an evaluating process. The running plot outline is a present-tense stream-of consciousness affair that will indicate in whose point of view the scene is best to be rendered.

The next step for the writer is to decide what sort of THAD to use. Elizabeth George calls THAD a Talking Head Avoidance Device – an activity going on in a scene that would otherwise consist of dialogue. Apart from enabling us to use this moment as a metaphor, the other purpose would be to eliminate the possibility that a scene will become nothing more than two or three talking heads.
“Here are examples of THAD that I used:
Deception On His Mind: the THAD is a scene between X and her Pakistani friends (…) presenting to X a bee captured and put in a jar. It becomes a metaphor for people being removed from their communities (…)
In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner: the ongoing scenes between Lynley and his wife Helen have as their THAD choosing wallpaper for the guestroom. This activity becomes a metaphor for Helen’s troubled internal life and the sense of personal unworthiness that plagues her.”

The blocking out of the scene will be helpful also to decide on the style: starting in media res (in the midst of an action) / being in somebody’s mind / just entering the scene then on to getting inside the character’s mind?
Elizabeth George estimates that “neophyte writers believe that conflict has to be writ large, but the truth is that conflict is merely a form of collision and what collides is a character’s desire against some sort of resistance to his desires.” Therefore, desires can come from anywhere, but the characters can’t react out of nowhere.
Role-plays give an internal functioning for the reality of the text. Most of the times two characters bonded together are unable to escape being in conflict with one another.
One of the most important approaches among the multitude of characters is never to lose track of your act of writing, and part of how a writer dramatizes events is through the point of view (it refers to where the narrator stands in relation to the characters and events). If we choose an objective point of view, we choose to remain outside the character, give just facts instead of feelings. “We are close to characters, but not in their head, there is no delving into a character’s psyche.” This attitude, even if it gives the least degree of intimacy, can compensate by its aura of intrigue.

The omniscient point of view allows for the narrator “a godlike authority” – he could enter any mind. But this storyteller attitude is not necessarily the viewpoint of the author too. The benefit is that it renders for the reader the sense of sinking into the story.

The character viewpoints (single character viewpoint or multiple character viewpoint) can be found in the following techniques: shifting 1st person (each section is told by a different-person narrator); shifting 3rd person (multiple character viewpoint) and narrator as observer (this character never directs the course of action or effects it substantially, he is just a witness).
Writing can really be a rocket science after all.
Here are some other tips for the construction of a dialogue: to pay attention to the subtext which shows what is really going on both inside and between two individuals; - for the construction of a scene: it can be best replaced by dramatic narration (a narrator relates actions rather than render them).
The last great humanized discipline prone to meticulous improving is suspense, the art of creating one large “don’t want” so that the reader should think “I don’t want to put this damn book down”. However, maintaining suspense might be in the end of Elizabeth George’s approach “being aware of how you’re structuring the novel”.

This guide along the craft of writing proves that fiction is as real as it has ever been there, latent in the reader’s mind. But only and only if the reader doesn’t get to exclaim in the writer’s face: Well, you could have fooled me!”

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