Writing

From Ideation to Revision: Margaret George’s Writing Advice

Typewriter / Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Margaret George is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels of biographical historical fiction, including The Confessions of Young NeroElizabeth IHelen of TroyMary, Called MagdaleneThe Memoirs of CleopatraMary Queen of Scotland and the Isles; and The Autobiography of Henry VIII. She also has coauthored a children’s book, Lucille Lost.

Every writer is asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Writers create people and worlds in a way that hints of magic, making things seemingly real that didn’t exist before. This mystery intrigues readers, who enjoy the final result but wonder how it came about.

I suspect every writer has his or her own pathway to creation. One of the best explanations I ever read, and the one that comes closest to what happens to me, was described by C.S. Forster (author of the Horatio Hornblower novels) in his autobiography Long Before Forty. He said various random ideas would come to him, some stronger than others. He would let them rest — he compared it to sinking a log into water and then pulling it up later to see if moss was growing on it. If there was, it was a viable idea.

A writer has many ideas but only a few take root and grow. For every one of my eight novels, I must have had ten other tentative novels that didn’t ‘grow.’

Readers, editors, and friends often make suggestions; those are treated to the ‘log submersion’ test; sometimes these bear fruit and sometimes not. My Nero novel came about from a casual question at dinner: “Have you ever thought about the emperor Nero?” My Henry VIII novel came from a trip I made to Hampton Court, where I was struck with the realization that everyone knew about Anne Boleyn but few knew about his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. My Helen of Troy novel came about because I wanted to see what it would be like to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Ideas and inspirations can come from all quarters; they come best when I am not actively searching for them.

Ray Bradbury said all writers should write a thousand words a day. That seems a little extreme to me — that’s about five pages. But I do think the better advice is ‘keep the pilot light lit.’ You should write something on your project every day just to sustain it in your mind, to keep it alive. Email and Facebook don’t count. If you really want to be superstitious about it, make sure to write at least a paragraph on your work on New Year’s Day because the folklore is that whatever you do on New Year’s Day you will continue to do all year long. Conversely, whatever you don’t do, you won’t do all year long.

It helps to keep a log of when you wrote and how much you wrote; otherwise you forget and in planning a new project, you tend to overestimate the amount you actually can do at a reasonable pace. I can normally do about twenty-five pages a week. That’s one hundred pages a month. Others, of course, can write more or less.

Drafts — ah, drafts! That’s such an individual choice. Some people write best what they write first, and subsequent drafts get paler and paler and dwindle away in power. Other people write sprawling first drafts that have to be corralled and pounded into shape. The only rule is, please know which category you are in!

Ideally some time should elapse before you start editing your work. Let it sit — this is sometimes called ‘the icebox method.’ Then you can read it in a more detached manner.

Some people — like me — have a hard time editing their own work. I see it from the beginning as if it is a fixed thing rather than still in progress. (Along the same line, I have trouble visualizing the furniture in a room in any other arrangement.) If you have this problem, enlist the help of a friend whose reading tastes are like yours.

The first feedback I get tends to make me nervous, but apparently even Stephen King suffers from this, as he awaits his wife’s first read-through. It is the first time anyone has seen our ‘darling’ besides us, and of course to us she is beautiful, but what if she isn’t to anyone else?

This is as good a time as any for me to say I have heard the advice ‘read through your manuscript and every time you see a phrase that is fine and lovely, strike it through.’ That seems silly to me — why shouldn’t it be fine and lovely? You are not writing a newspaper, but a work of art. Would you follow the advice to open your closet and take your most flattering clothes out, leaving only the dull ones?

Finally, the most useful advice I can give is to develop the ability to sit still and see a project through, and to ruthlessly avoid the distractions that can derail the project. It is hard — it feels like entering a monastery sometimes, but in the end you will thank yourself.