A roadmap for writing

‘Write Away’ by Elizabeth George

You’ll often hear writers talk about the value (or lack thereof) of planning.

Some writers (like James Patterson) are dedicated planners who write extended plot outlines. Others (like Lee Child) claim to fly by the seat of their pants and be consistently surprised by the twists and turns their stories take.

Of course there’s no right choice between the planner vs. pantser approach to writing. Each writer needs to develop their own approach, suited to the way they think. For most of us, the reality is that we shift along a continuum – sometimes planning more, sometimes planning less.

What writers often lack is concrete advice about how to go about the planning task. Rather than receiving a simple list of steps or checklists, writers need suggestions and examples about what planning might involve.

That’s where Elizabeth George’s book ‘Write Away’ is so useful. George, who is probably best known for her Inspector Lynley novels, gives a detailed overview of her writing process, full of examples from her own work and the work of others.

George’s approach to writing leaves nothing to chance:

  • She moves through defined stages, starting with the primary event and over-arching plot. Because she has defined writing stages, she always knows what to do next.
  • She has a particular technique for getting to know her characters, using freewriting rather than tables of characteristics.
  • She visits the places where she plans to set the novel, identifies locations and takes photographs so that description becomes a matter of reference rather than invention.
  • She completes her planning with a simple step outline followed by an extended plot outline.

George’s approach to planning means that, when she’s writing her first draft, she can concentrate on the writing itself, without having to figure out what happens next or whether an idea is true to character. Her planning lays the groundwork for what is to come. It’s likely to remove much of the mystery of writing.

George’s pragmatic approach resonated strongly for me. Her book provides a roadmap that novice writers can follow and experienced writers can learn from. I’m about to try to implement it in my own work.

George concludes with some useful reflections on what it means to be a writer.

  • She talks about the difference between authors and writers – pointing out that many people want to be an author (with their name on a book and the potential glory of huge sales), but fewer people are motivated to be a writer. Writing is hard work, yet writers are forced to write: they cannot not write. Being an author is an end point; being a writer is the craft.
  • She talks about the value of discipline and persistence. She points out that writers are likely to be published if they have talent, passion, and discipline. But it’s discipline that matters most. Talent and passion simply help writers along the way.

The book: Write Away: One novelist’s approach to fiction and the writing life by Elizabeth George (2004, Harper Collins). I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to write long-form creative work.