Week thirty-seven: Make informed choices

It is week thirty-seven of 2019. How did the writing go this week? Here at the garret, I could almost feel a current of creative energy in the air as I talked to authors. People are getting back to work, and the ideas are sparking.

In last week’s newsletter I noted that Rube Goldberg machines are a wonderful visual metaphor for novels. A few days ago, I spotted something even better, an intricate, interlocking wooden marble run filled with dozens of marbles journeying through inventive lifts, sudden spiraling chutes, and vertiginous drops. Picture each marble as a reader being carried through the cause and effect machine of your novel, with every scene providing the necessary energy to keep the reader in motion.

The marble run is a perfect metaphor for what Elizabeth George, author of this week’s book, Write Away: One Writer's Approach to the Novel, achieves in her intricately plotted Inspector Lynley novels. They are deliberate, painstaking constructions underpinned by rich psychological portraits that provide an array of propulsive forces to keep the plot, and the reader, rolling along. In Write Away, George explains the process she uses to craft these plot machines.

It’s no surprise to find that every novel, for her, begins with character creation. George has a “character prompt sheet” of possible aspects of character to explore (which she includes in the book) and does stream-of-consciousness freewriting to build a portrait of each character. George tells us she becomes “the character’s psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, probation officer, and biographer” because this allows her to “dissolve the boundaries between herself and her creations.”

After completing her character profiles and researching the settings she will need, George writes a “step outline” – a basic list of scenes that she carries as far forward in the novel as she can, usually between ten to fifteen scenes. This step outline then inspires a more detailed plot outline, written, as with her character portraits, in stream-of-consciousness style and in present tense. George explains that she is “strongly left-brained” and this kind of fast-paced freewriting helps her unlock her creative right brain. She includes an example of both the step outline and the stream-of-consciousness plot outline in the book; both of them show her working out her ideas in real time, discarding and reconsidering and building as she goes.

Here, for example, is a plot outline for a scene from her 1996 novel In the Presence of the Enemy:

WEDNESDAY SCENE ONE We are in Charlotte Bowen’s head. It’s dark because the windmill windows are boarded over and because she is on the ground floor where there are no windows at all. She comes to, out of a drugged sleep. We begin with: This is what she remembered. Or, When Charlotte Bowen lifted her head from the damp hard surface that served as her pillow, this is what she remembered. Or: Charlotte Bowen-called Lottie by her friends and Elle by her mother and Hedge by her stepfather and Tick by the people who wished she wasn’t quite so persistent and irritating a presence—opened her eyes to the darkness. (too convoluted).


After writing the plot outline, George begins drafting. When the rough draft is finished, George does what she calls a “fast read” of the whole manuscript over the course of two days and writes up an editorial letter for herself, noting weak areas to be fixed in the next draft. After that, the manuscript goes to a cold reader for feedback, which leads to a third draft if necessary.

George’s process is very much aligned with the advice of Lisa Cron in Wired for Story, and Write Away would make a good companion volume to that book for any writer interested in developing a process with a great deal of preliminary plotting. If you are a confirmed pantser, this book will be less useful for you, though there are some other gems I can point you to:

  • When developing characters, George identifies each one’s “core need,” a concept we’ve seen before. However, George also identifies what she calls the character’s “pathological maneuver,” which is the action the character takes under stress and is usually the "flip side" of the core need. As she points out, the “supreme stress” is being thwarted in the effort to fulfill the core need.

  • George notes that authors should not use an omniscient narrator as “an excuse for an undisciplined sliding in and out of different characters’ points of view.” An author who chooses this viewpoint should have something important to say about characters, theme, setting, etc. and – most importantly – must develop a distinctive, identifiable storyteller’s voice for the narrator.

  • George has a wonderful mnemonic for the background activities that can be layered behind dialogue scenes: THADs, or Talking Head Avoidance Devices. As she notes, an activity “eliminates the possibility that a scene will become nothing more than two or three talking heads; chosen wisely, it reveals character; it may in and of itself contain important information; it can be used as a metaphor.”

Write Away is, to this reader at least, an easy book to learn from but a difficult book to love. It’s deliberate, didactic, sometimes cranky and scolding (“finding a copy editor who knows one kind of sentence from the other these days is becoming nothing short of miraculous,” George huffs) and lacks the koan-like wisdom I enjoyed in David Lynch and the warmth and charm of Elizabeth Gilbert. (Gilbert recently posted a breezy “10-step Writing Academy” on Instagram. Step 9 is my favorite: “Every writer starts in the same place on Day One: Super excited, and ready for greatness. On Day Two, every writer looks at what she wrote on Day One and hates herself. What separates working writers from non-working writers is that working writers return to their task on Day Three. What gets you there is not pride but mercy. Show yourself forgiveness, for not being good enough. Then keep going.”)

George includes painfully earnest excerpts from her writing diaries and drops in odd autobiographical details – for example, that she feels compelled to bring “a cooler of food” with her when she visits her spontaneity-loving sister-in-law lest she miss a meal-time. In addition to her very useful summary of her own process, samples of the work products of various stages, and materials like her character prompt sheet, George includes hilariously random lists of “where people work” (“drive-through dairy,” “Friends of the Sea Lion,” “crack house,” “stained glass manufacturer”) and potential Talking Head Avoidance Devices (“programming a VCR,” “rowing,” “robbing a liquor store,” “autopsy,” “figuring out Xerox,” “getting a bee into a jar”).

Despite these quirks, Write Away is worth the time for anyone interested in writing character-driven fiction, especially if you also wish to create a process for your writing that involves more planning and less spontaneous discovery. As George emphasizes, every writer must create the process that works for them. Throughout the book, she notes that there are no rules in fiction and that the variations she explores in Write Away and in her own novels are only a small sample of the possibilities. As she puts it, “There are no rules; there are only informed choices. But you can’t make an informed choice if you remain uninformed.”

Here’s to making informed choices, y’all,

Next week’s book: Walter Mosley, Elements of Fiction

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