Monday, July 15, 2013

Elizabeth George's Writing Process: From Idea to First Draft

I just listened to Elizabeth George speak about writing. She was the featured speaker at a wonderful brunch held each year by the Seattle7Writers—a collective of (now about 60) well-published Northwest authors devoted to promoting literacy in their communities. The brunch is held to raise money for literary support for young writers in underprivileged circumstances, and is always fun and enlightening.

Elizabeth George is the author of the famous Thomas Lynley crime novels set in England that were made into a PBS series. Since the brunch audience was made up of book groups, writers, and others involved in the book business, she answered a question that is often asked of her: how does she go about writing her novels?

Her process (I'm liberally paraphrasing and interpreting here, because I did not take detailed notes!):

1. Every author, she says, first "is struck" by something—something in the news, something in their community, an idea, that rivets them. So, the first thing that happens for her when she's going to write a new novel is that she's struck by something that she wants to write about.

2. Once she has the idea, she focuses on place. For her, that involves going to that place and doing voluminous picture-taking, exploring, focusing on physical detail, and asking the place to speak to her--to tell her what there is about it that she will include in her story. She claims to be seriously unimaginative and so finds it critical to get as much concrete detailed info as she can for her story development.

3. The third step, which she might do on the airplane home or shortly thereafter, is to write up a short statement of what the book is about—about a page long.

4. Next come the characters. She jots down a list of characters who would be involved in the story. This first list is broad, and characters might be identified loosely, like witness one—milkman, witness two—mailman, investigators—police sergeant and inspector, etc. There may be fifteen or so characters on this list, who would be involved in the crime, the investigation, the subplots, etc.

5. She develops the characters in more detail—writes briefs on them and their involvement in the story she's writing, including some quick scenes. From this she is able to identify which of the characters are the strongest and will become the main characters in the book.

6. She writes brief descriptions of many or most of the scenes that will make up the story, including subplot scenes. Included are things like who's in the scene and what happens. She lets the characters tell her those things, rather than controlling the characters. They are the source of the storyline at this point.

7. From this she develops a quite detailed outline of the entire book.

8. Now, she feels secure in where she is in her story development and can finally do what she loves, which she says is the part where her soul gets involved and soars—she writes the first draft.

It's always fascinating to me to listen to authors talk in such detail about their writing process. Writers are all over the place on this topic, from not being able to write a story if they know what's coming next, to not being able to write a story if they don't know everything that's going to happen before they start.

I'm in between, and find that detailed outlining ahead of time totally kills my creative process—I've tried several times because authors I admire sing the praises of detailed outlining. It just doesn't work for me. But knowing some detail ahead of time is HUGE for me. It helps me visualize all sorts of scenes and interactions.

So a couple of the things Elizabeth talked about really spoke to me: exploring place in detail to obtain concrete information on the setting you're going to write . . . ruminating on those concrete details and letting them speak to you; and I also love that idea of sketching out all the characters you can think of that might be in your story and then developing their involvement in plot/subplot lines before you decide where the story is going. Let them tell you where it's going.

Are there things in Elizabeth George's process that you find work for you?


  1. Loved hearing about Elizabeth's process. Like you, I can't be that organized. I like to know the main characters and major plot points and then start drafting.

    1. I work that way, too, Natalie. But after listening to Elizabeth, I think I might try letting the characters lead me to some plot points rather than moulding the characters' behavior to make sure they reach the plot point I've pre-ordained. Gives a bit more heft to 'character-driven.' Don't know if it will work (and I'm not sure that's exactly what Elizabeth does, either), but I find the idea intriguing enough to try it. :-)

  2. I love listening to author's writing processes too! I'm totally a detailed outliner. But flexible. Also... visiting the location is so essential! I went to the Salish Lodge to explore the Falls, as one of my scenes is there. When you do that, you can write more quickly and accurately... visually, because you can see it. Amazing how that helps. You know when they turn left, right, where the stairs are, and what they see and feel. The atmosphere cannot come off the internet. I highly recommend it!

  3. Elizabeth George has written a fantastically helpful book on writing called "Write Away", which I strongly recommend. I found it much more useful and specific than Stephen King's book.