Thursday, December 17, 2009

Write Away by Elizabeth George

I have never liked it when a blurb says "This book will change your life!" because a) do you know me? and b) no it won't. I mean, there are some books that do have an emotional or intellectual impact on a person, I am not saying that they can't, but the book, in and of itself, isn't going to change anything. It is going to sit there and be a book. Take the agency away from the book and put it where it belongs.

All of this said... it is possible that I am going to change my life a little in response to Elizabeth George's Write Away. I had a pretty major mental shift while I was reading this book, puzzling over what George writes and thinking about how it applies to the way I think and feel about writing. It got me excited about writing fiction, but it also really hit home for me that what I have been doing thus far, as far as writing, is barely even a hobby. A hobby implies that there is some sort of structure, some sort of goal. My writing to this point has been entirely, completely for fun and escape.

And let me say too, I have no qualms about that. It's a perfectly good reason to write, and I will continue to do that. Where the problem lies is this: I have always nursed the secret desire to actually write a novel. (Note: I say secret. Not so secret anymore, I guess; even writing that sentence was a little squirm-inducing.) Publishable or not, I have wanted to write a novel. I've written for NaNoWriMo, and I've even finished a few things (that's a big step in and of itself.) But what I have been considering as my writing up to this point is really never, ever going to come close to reaching something that is recognizable as a novel. Part of what this book has done for me is set it out in plain English: if I really want to write in any serious way, I've got to get serious about writing.

George says that there are three components of writing that are unteachable: art, passion, and discipline. (We'll discuss discipline in a moment, shall we?) And then there is the foundation skills, the craft of writing, which George argues is entirely teachable. She puts it this way: someone had to teach J.S. Bach how to read and write music. He wouldn't have become the composer he was if he didn't have the foundation of craft to build upon. So why should writing be treated any differently? The thing is, I believe I can put words together in a compelling way, when I'm on my game. I love doing it. I love getting the idea, I love meeting new characters in my head and letting them play in the sandbox that is my writing. I think, if I get serious, I can even pull out the discipline (which, incidentally, I do think is teachable -- I think I can train myself to glue myself to my seat and do what is necessary to actually produce; NaNoWriMo has taught me that). But I am missing, in many ways, the craft. I have never paid enough attention to craft as being important. So when I did decide that I should think seriously about writing, I floundered. Flailed, even. I drowned in bad habits and a complete lack of understanding of what writing, professionally, actually is. I have read about writing before -- how to write, what writing is, writing prompts, autobiographies of writers. But nothing has fired me up the way this book has.

But enough about me. Following are some of the most important things I liked about Write Away.

George is both adamant that writing craft can be taught, and emphatic that not everyone learns, teaches, or writes the same way. She provides examples of her process, and that of others to contrast it -- and there's no saying which one is "best" -- just what is best for her. She of course spends more time on her theories and processes, but one never gets the impression that she does that because she thinks its best, but because it's what she knows best.

At the beginning of every chapter she includes a paragraph from her various "Journals of a Novel." She does one for each novel she writes, and these paragraphs made a big impression on me. It's really fascinating to get just a tiny bit of insight into some of her insecurities and thoughts, as well as some of the things she says to cheer herself up and keep herself going.

In the first part of the book, she talks a lot about writing well -- an overview, essentially, of what makes a good novel. In the process she exposes some things about reading that I think are fundamental, but good to note. On character, for example, which is the very first thing she talks about, making it explicit that she believes developing good characters is the key to writing a good novel:

What we take away from our reading of a good novel mainly is the memory of character. This is because events -- both in real life and in fiction -- take on greater meaning once we know the people who are involved in them.

On choosing and creating setting:

One piece of advice that neophyte writers are always given is "write about your own backyard." Loosely translated this means to write about an environment with which you are familiar. Broadly translated it means write what you know.

To this I say balderdash.

YES! I've always wanted to write fantasy, which is bloody hard to consider my own physical backyard -- least the kind of fantasy I want to write. And I had teachers in public and high school who actively discouraged that sort of thing in creative writing using the "write what you know" maxim which is, to this day, a freaking monkey on my back. I should say I don't think they were being deliberately anti-fantasy, since they encouraged my fantasy and sci-fi reading inclinations. But taking "write what you know" literally (meaning: people like me, in places where I live, doing things I understand from personal experience) is an insidious little doubt-inducing habit and I hate it. In the above context, George goes on to say in this section that it's best to write about a place that excites you, whether that's a physically real place or a place in your head. She has a very high opinion of Herbert's world-building in Dune, for example.

On process, which was one of the paragraphs that induced some mental shifting:

Every writer has to develop her own process: what works for her time and time again. Having no process is like having no craft. It leaves you dangling out there over the abyss, a potential victim of writers' block. Having no process puts you at enormous risk because writing becomes a threat instead of a joy, something that you are terrified to begin each day because you are at the mercy of a Muse that you do not understand how to beckon.

Overall, if you like to write, or want to write, or think you might want to write someday, I recommend this book. I recommend it for readers, too, who want to know what goes into writing fiction. She really humanizes authors. Some of the things she talks about are quite basic, but in my case, I needed that. I have no illusions: this book will not change my life. But I might just attempt some changes for myself because of it.

4 comments:

....Petty Witter said...

I agree with you, sort of - there are books that will inspire you, books that may make you look at things in a different light, books that might get you to try something new so, in that respect, I suppose they could be said to have changed your life but ...... in the strictest sense? No the book hasn't changed your life.

kiirstin said...

It's the "will change your life" that I have the strongest objection to. It's almost like a command, and I kind of pity the poor book that gets stuck with that because it's almost guaranteed to disappoint.

Darla D said...

Sounds like this might be a needed shot in the arm for me after all the holiday craziness. I've just put it on hold at my library - thanks!

kiirstin said...

Darla - I hope it helps! I had to take my copy back to the library but my brother bought me one for Christmas... it just hasn't arrived yet.