Q&A: Taking the Mystery Out of Writing

Number one New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth George is sharing with readers her insight into novel crafting in Mastering the Process: From Idea to Novel. The author of 21 psychological suspense novels featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, she’s been teaching writing nationally and internationally for more than 30 years. Her current Inspector Lynley novel is The Punishment She Deserves. Elizabeth George has also written four young adult novels and two short story collections. This is her second non-fiction book. Mastering the Process is a work of practical writing instruction and advice. As one of the most successful and prolific authors today, she’s clearly mastered the process.

Currents: What surprised you about the editorial process when your first book was being published?

Elizabeth: I was surprised by how detailed my first editorial letter was–nine pages with 22 paragraphs of questions that I had to answer within the body of the manuscript. And I was determined, after that, never to receive such a long editorial letter in the future. That was the first step in developing a process for my novel writing. Not a formula, but a process of steps to take and topics to explore that would give me the kind of information that my editor had looked for when she wrote her nine-page editorial letter.

Currents: What is the biggest misconception people have about the writing process?

Elizabeth: People tend to think that writing a novel is about sitting down at the computer and waiting for inspiration from the cosmos to strike.

Currents: Why is developing a process so important when writing?

Elizabeth: The process gives me a fallback position so that I don’t end up with writers’ block. It doesn’t make the writing easier, but it establishes some areas that I can review if I’m having a tough time with any other part of the process. What I mean is that when–for example–the step outline is painful, I can look at the chapter summaries of the previously written part of the rough draft and from those summaries, I can usually see where the plot needs to go next.

Currents: What’s the most important part of your process?

Elizabeth: I would have to say that the creation of the characters in advance of the plotting is hugely helpful because as I create them, I learn how they relate to other characters as well as the theme that the book will be dealing with.

Currents: What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a novelist?

Elizabeth: I suppose I would have to say that the one thing I wish I’d known is that it doesn’t get easier...for anyone.

Currents: Do you ever use a character you’ve created for one book and discarded in a subsequent book?

Elizabeth: I created Isabelle Ardery in my novel Playing for the Ashes. Then I didn't use her again until I got to This Body of Death and needed someone who could talk Lynley into returning to the job.

Currents: Which step in the process is your favorite? Which is the most difficult?

Elizabeth: My favorite part is writing the rough draft because at that point, I can play with language. The most difficult part is always the step outline. That’s a real killer for me, in every book.

Currents: What makes a place jump out at you while doing research?

Elizabeth: I’m always looking for places where people can live, where they can work, where a crime can occur, where something from the novel can occur. I’m looking for the unusual and when I see it, I definitely know it, even if I don’t know how I'll use it in the book. My best example of this is the cliff hut that I used in Careless in Red. I’d read about it in a guidebook so I went to see it. I knew at once that it had to be in the novel.

Currents: What’s your tip for when a writer hits a dead end or gets writer’s block?

Elizabeth: Sometimes you need to walk away for a while. I always remember what Sue Grafton once said to me: “If you know the question, you know the answer.” That was invaluable.