Writing System

by Karin Abarbanel

Hearing an author explore craft and her writing process – what a gift! That’s why it was a thrill to take a jaunt with my Write Group buddies Carl and Deirdre to hear Elizabeth George speak at the Free Philadelphia Library – a literary mecca. Elizabeth is the author of more than 20 novels, all built around DI Thomas Lynley, an aristocratic gumshoe. Shades of Sherlock!

Elizabeth is a teacher and a big believer in sharing advice – in fact, she’s penned a craft guide called Write Away. In her talk, she outlined a writing system she uses to set up each of her complex stories before she begins writing a first draft:

* Setting her story: Since place is key in her tales, Elizabeth starts out by immersing herself in the setting for her story – say a small village. She becomes a “topographical gumshoe,” walking around, doing interviews, taking photos – “looking for something that suggests story.”

* Picking the players: Once she has her “plot kernel,” she begins figuring out “who’s in this world,” she’s creating. She makes lists of characters – I believe her new book, The Punishment She Deserves, has 17. She spends time naming them: she feels that names are very revealing, especially in Britain, where her stories are set.

* Developing dossiers: Once she identifies all her players, she launches into what sees as the “most creative part” of her story preparation: Delving into who they are by creating a dossier for each player that is, “as complete as I can make it.” She defines each player’s “core need, agenda, pathological maneuver.” Characters are “designed to have a life before the story and after.” At this stage, she chooses her core point-of-view characters – the ones who drive the story.

* Story-launching scenes: Once she’s created dossiers on her characters, Elizabeth launches into what she finds the toughest stage of preparation: Conjuring up 10-to-15 scenes which will set her novel-writing in motion: discovering the body, summoning the police, etc. She arranges them by causality and roughs them out in about 50 pages. After she has all this information at her fingertips, “Now I do the actual writing. All that advance work [is done] because I don’t want to be sitting at the computer feeling blocked. This allows me to have fun with the writing.”

Fascinating! What strikes me as most valuable for us isn’t the specific system Elizabeth has created, but that she has a system – a set process that works for her and she can rely on for each novel she writes. She’s inspiring me to spend time crafting a system of my own.

How about you? Do you have a writing system that you’ve developed? A specific approach that you rely on to build a story? If so, I’d love to hear about it as we all write on!

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