Friday, 26 November 2010

Write Away:One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George

I've had this book hanging about for a while, as the dog-eared state of the pages testifies. I'm surprised to discover it was published as recently as 2004.

'A perfect DIY guide' says a Sunday Times critic, and that about sums it up for me, too. It seems to be a 'does what it says on the tin' kind of book. I hope so, anyway.

I think it's the common-sense style as much as the topic coverage that makes me decide to read it in tandem with my 'construction ' book, Karen Wiesner's 30 Days to a Full Draft. I should say at this point that it seems to me that must be 30 days writing at top speed 18 hours a day. My lifestyle doesn't lend itself to that kind of pace or commitment. That said, I'm plodding along nicely, although I sometimes have to read the complicated instructions several times over.

Elizabeth George's handbook provides the perfect contrast. I feel as pleased as I did when I decided to Study Spanish as an antidote to Chinese.

For one thing, George is down-to-earth. You can tell she's open-minded but she's also very well-read, and illustrates the points she makes with lengthy passages from other writers' books, whether its point-of-view, dialogue or describing characters.

I like the way she says 'this is how I do things' but doesn't lay down the law or even claim her methods are superior. She's painstaking, and I like that. It sets me a good example.

She's generous, too, with sharing her methods and describing just how she personally goes about things. Each chapter of Write Away is headed up with an extract from a diary she kept while writing a recent novel. Apparently George writes a diary for every book, and that strikes me as a good way to encourage reflection. It's something my A-Level Communication students did for their media projects. They had to integrate Coms theory with decision making and then make revise and formulate as they went along.

She's written plenty of novels, too. I decided I should read one. Crime is her chosen genre, another reason I can relate to her approach. She invented a character called Inspector Lynley but he doesn't appear in the novel I came across in a charity shop. It's called What Came Before He Shot her, one of these very wordy titles I notice are popular of late. Succinctness was all, in the past, or at least something recognisable as a quotation. This was written in 2007 and comes in at 643 pages.

I was sceptical about an American writing novels set in England. How could that work?

Amazingly, it convinces. Set in north west London, the narrative centres around three London-born West Indian children who are left in the care of an Aunt, in a tough West London housing estate, when their grandmother follows her no-good lover back to Jamaica. Their mother is not fit to care for them, possibly because she's a drug addict, but I don't really know that because I'm only up to page 72. But it's very detailed, the characters eccentric but credible, the setting detailed and the dialogue, mainly dialect, as authentic as I can tell. Having taught in the West Ham and South London for a lot of years and priding myself on an ear for the spoken word, I'm really impressed.

All is explained when I look at the Acknowledgements and see the name of Courttia Newland, a black West London author whose short story collection Music for the Off-Key (2006)I reviewed a couple of years ago.

She's an ex school-teacher, too, another point in her favour. She's been teaching creative writing as well as writing novels for quite a few years .

'Indispensable!' says Mariella Frostrup. I'd certainly be upset if I left it on a train or in the cinema, which there's every chance of me doing.

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