Book review: Patricia Highsmith’s advise on writing

Quite a few authors have written books to help and encourage starting writers. The best known and most easily obtainable, is without doubt “On Writing” by Stephen King. But due to “Carol”, still running at cinemas, there is an increased interest in Patricia Highsmith. Among her less familiar books is “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction”.

Plotting patricia HighsmithStephen King fans may disagree with me. After reading his book and more recently Patricia Highsmith on writing, I prefer hers. Before you start bashing your laptop to mail me your objections … Any person who is remotely serious about his or her writing career must read both! In fact, you may opt to have both books within easy reach, while working on your latest novel, thriller, romance, drama.

A word of warning: some find reading this book daunting, because Patricia Highsmith does not offer step by step, easy to ape instructions on how to write a billion-copies-selling-mystery. “…Although, if you’re hoping for tips about casting such spells yourself, Plotting and Writing A Suspense Thriller may sometimes make for depressing reading. … “, as Sam Jordison puts it.

But even this depressed – and impressed – Guardian reviewer concludes “…The impression you get of Highsmith is of a complicated, roving intelligence: clear-sighted, determined and not at all concerned with trying to live a conventional life. The book is correspondingly eccentric. Yet while it doesn’t have the usual sets of rules, suggestions and markers you might expect from a creative writing handbook, by the end you realise that this is a singularly useful volume. There’s hard practical advice here from someone who has a fine understanding of plotting, motivation, what to “show” and not tell, how to keep things moving forward and how and where to place a climax. …

Personally, I did not find “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” daunting or depressing. Highsmith uses examples from quite a few of her works, including her character Ripley. To read she did not like him much, was a revelation. There went the advise of many a creative writing course and teacher about absolutely having to adore and love your main character!

Not that Highsmith breaks all rules. She stresses the importance of a first and second sentence to “hook” a reader. While writing about the composition of a story, she advises to think hard about core questions before starting. For example: what will happen to the hero, will he or she end victoriously or be defeated? But she also shows how an author’s best intentions may totally change, during the writing process.

It is interesting to read how and why Highsmith distinguishes between her novels and short stories. Even more interesting is her remark, that she wrote “Strangers on a train” as an ordinary novel. She states her first novel was dubbed a “thriller”, long after publication.

Other advise is about using real events and real people. A real event or scene may be jotted down and later used in a short story or novel. A character trait or appearance of a friend may be interesting and penned down too. But Highsmith clarifies why she preferred to combine traits of people she knew with totally different appearances.

She stresses the importance of mulling things over. She dedicates pages to first, second, umpteenth drafts. There are plenty examples of ideas, plots, stories which were put aside for ages, or turned out to be dead ends.

Some might find the lack of “I will take you by the hand” instructions depressing. I for one, found Highsmith’s advise refreshing and very liberating. What remained after reading, was the feeling this succesful author found it more important for writers to experiment and find out see what works for them. Her advise and examples of what worked or did not for her, make it an encouraging read.

Highsmith’s best advise came towards the end. Throughout her book, she mentions the importance of giving joy to a reader. But the most important thing according to Patricia Highsmith is the joy the creative process of writing should give you!

The review by Sam Jordison, Guardian 2015.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction”, Patricia Highsmith, fist published in 1966, has been reprinted various times and is available in translations. Hard cover, paperback and kindle editions can be bought through Amazon and other booksellers.

“On Writing, a memoir of the craft”, Stephen King, first published 2000, has seen many prints. It is also available in translations. Hard cover, paperback, kindle editions can be obtained through Amazon and other booksellers.

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