Writing advice from Patricia Highsmith

By Monday, July 22, 2019 0 , Permalink 0

I’m new to the writing of Patricia Highsmith (I’ve only read one of her books) but I still consider myself a fan, so when a friend loaned me a copy of her book on writing, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, I read it right away.

While it’s geared towards crime writing, Highsmith’s book has a lot to offer writers of any genre. It’s also a fascinating look into her mind and writing process, which she’s very open about. She breaks down her plots in vivid detail, so it feels a bit like a peak behind the curtain. I agree with this Guardian review that says, “In spite of her modest tone, much of this book reads like a showcase of a master magician’s tricks.”

If you’ve never read anything by Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction might be too full of spoilers for you. But I recommend it anyway because even if you know what happens in her books they’re still enjoyable to read. She’s just that talented.

Here’s some advice that stood out from her book on writing.

On having a notebook

“I highly recommend notebooks for writers, a small one if one has to be out on a job all day, a larger one if one has the luxury of staying at home. Even three or four words are often worth jotting down if they will evoke a thought, an idea or a mood. In the barren periods, one should browse through the notebooks. Some ideas may suddenly start to move. Two ideas may combine, perhaps because they were meant to combine in the first place.”

On getting started 

“I often reach a point beyond which I cannot think, cannot make an outline, and I become impatient to see something on paper, and so I begin—and I trust to my luck, or to the momentum of the story, to carry me on. This may sound as if I am very vague, but what I wait for is a sense of life, of activity, of something dynamic in the characters and setting of the first section of the book, action that I can clearly see and feel. This is not a vague sensation at all. There is absolutely no doubt when it is there, and no doubt when it is not there.”

On making progress

“A sense of pride in your work is essential, and if you permit interruptions and accept invitations, your pride is slowly tarnished. The progress on a novel may be slow, but that is not important. The important thing is to have the feeling that the book is on the rails, going fine as far as it has gone—even if you’ve done only forty pages after a month.”

On cutting and cutting some more

“For all your cutting, there is usually more to come. Cutting becomes more and more painful, more and more difficult. At last you don’t see a single sentence anywhere that can be cut, and then you must say, “Four more whole pages have got to come out of this thing,” and begin again on page one with perhaps a different coloured pencil or crayon in your hand to make the recounting easier, and be as ruthless as if you were throwing excess baggage, even fuel, out of an overloaded airplane.”

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