Monday, March 12, 2018

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, by Patricia Highsmith

Last week, I ran a workshop for the Hastings Writers' Group on writing science fiction, my brief that this was a bunch of enthusiastic, hard-working writers - many of them professionally published - who had mostly never dabbled in sf. No pressure.

Seeking inspiration, I nosed through guides to writing in a bookshop and fell upon Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by best-selling author Patricia Highsmith, originally published in 1983. It's a great, breezy, enthusiastic and honest account of her process, from where she gets her ideas to dealing with publishers' notes on the manuscript. She's often specific, giving insights into her most famous novels, so it's a book for fans of thrilling fiction as well as for would-be writers.

Among the gems imparted is to base the events of your story on real "emotional experience", felt or observed first hand. Even small events that affect us should be recorded in notebooks to be exploited later. The reason for this is that suspense stories - and the kind of sci-fi nonsense I write - often involve events far outside the author's direct experience. But emotional responses are transferable. Highsmith's example is some teenagers larking about outside her window who made her feel uncomfortable - a feeling she then applied to more tangible, thrilling events for a novel.

While much of the advice is very useful, it's clear it comes from another age. For one thing, even though the book entirely consists of Highsmith's own perspective, she refers to the author - and reader - in the third person as "he" thoughout. The feeling is that she's a rare exception in an otherwise male domain.

For another, there's a lot on the mechanics of writing in the age before word processing computers. She counsels us not to make carbon copies when typing up our first and second drafts, and advises us to retype whole pages or sections only if the earlier draft is too covered in notes. Even though she says she reworks and revises as she retypes her work, the sense is that - because of the technology involved - there were many fewer revisions made in the old days. That's not to say it was better then, or now; just notably different.

Given the slow plod of manually typing a new draft, I found it particularly bruising when Highsmith talks about her novel, The Two Faces of January, being turned down by the publisher Harper & Row, with whom she'd enjoyed years of success. They were not turning down a first draft, but the revised second or third version - a proper, professional submission. Ouch. So how did Highsmith respond?
"I let time go by and wrote another book, which was accepted, and then returned to January and rewrote it, but without referring to the first manuscript, because I completely changed the plot, the age and character of the wife and the character of the young hero - everything except the layout of the Palace of Knossos; three-quarters of a page was all I used of the first manuscript. The charm of that musty old hotel in Athens [her real experience] and the fascination of the young man on meeting a stranger who resembled his father (and a stranger who was a crook) [her seed idea the novel had grown from], these still held me fascinated, and inspired me to write another two hundred and fifty or three hundred pages in order to use these characters. The second and present version of The Two Faces of January was also rejected out of hand by Harper & Row, and this time I thought they were wrong, though I shelved the book, mentally at least, and did not know what to do except write another book. These little setbacks, amounting sometimes to thousands of dollars' worth of time wasted, writers must learn to take like Spartans. A brief curse, perhaps, then tighten the belt a notch and on to something new - of course with enthusiasm, courage and optimism, because without these three elements, you cannot produce anything good."
Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, p. 113.
The cost of it, in time and money, is something that resonates all too strongly. By coincidence, last week a spec novel I've written was turned down by yet another publisher, but with notes that have helped me clarify my own thoughts about how it should be reworked - drastically, from the ground up, but retaining the basic plot and the seed ideas that first excited me when I thought of them. It's a gruelling prospect to have to start again, and I'd already decided to write something else first. Highsmith has quite inspired me to push on.

(It's some solace that Highsmith tells us The Two Faces of January was taken up by another publisher, Heinemann, and went on to win a prestigious award from the Crime Writers Association.)

In her final pages, Highsmith makes some general comments - on her discomfort with genre labels, on raising the quality of novels, on her works being adapted as films. But a few grumbles aside, she concludes with some words on the joy, and freedom, of being a writer. It's a book full of practical tips, but Highsmith's most important lesson is her attitude. 

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