The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Lessons from George Elliot

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

19 October.JPGIf you want to be reminded that characters are the most important part of a narrative, go and read (or reread) George Elliot’s Middlemarch.

I have just done exactly this and was struck by how emotionally engaged I was by the characters and their world. I am an emotional reader. I enjoy being intellectually stimulated, but I still find that, if you can capture my emotions, you will hold me more intensely.

Middlemarch shows us something that we writers should never forget: give us raw human truths and a novel won’t date.

As Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker. “I have gone back to “Middlemarch” every five years or so, my emotional response to it evolving at each revisiting…My identification with Eliot’s heroine and my dismissal of her simpler sister was shaken when I became the besotted mother of a son. (To a friend, a professor of English literature, I giddily wrote, “All these years I’ve thought of myself as Dorothea, and now I’ve turned overnight into Celia.”)

There’s nothing sentimental here. Some characters, such as Dorothea’s sister Celia, are treated with gentle humour, but every character is exquisitely developed.

“Celia [was] … walking to meet little Arthur, who was being drawn in his chariot, and, as became the infantine Bouddha, was sheltered by his sacred umbrella with handsome silken fringe.”

Every person is real and complex, with all the loneliness of disappointment and failure which life brings. We watch people, in minute details as they make choices which trap them. We see newly married couples talk past each other and lose all hope of a happy union. No-one gets exactly what they want.

We see humans compromising in their interactions and their hopes for the future. These people don’t live big lives. They look forward to marriage and families. They gossip and worry about their debts and income – and their family connections.

But this is the other thing I learnt anew from this book: Here is the novel regarded as possibly the greatest of the Victorian era, and it concerns itself with visiting and gossip, finding husbands and wives and the daily business of provincial lives. It is precisely through these tiny, precise details that we see society. We learn about the place of women, the importance of class, and how people live.

It provides a big lesson in something we should always remember. To show the large issues, write small.

***

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

Jo-Anne Richards
Jo-Anne Richards is an internationally published novelist with a PhD in Creative Writing from Wits University. Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, was originally published by Headline Review in the UK, and has recently been rereleased as one of the prestigious Picador Africa Classics collection. She ran the Honours programme in Journalism & Media Studies at Wits University for fifteen years.
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