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Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

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"The book is as unusual as you might expect and hope for from Patricia Highsmith. An elegant creative writing guide, it’s also a goldmine for anyone hoping for insight into The Talented Mr Ripley – and its author." - The Guardian.


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"The book is as unusual as you might expect and hope for from Patricia Highsmith. An elegant creative writing guide, it’s also a goldmine for anyone hoping for insight into The Talented Mr Ripley – and its author." - The Guardian.

30 review for Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

  1. 5 out of 5

    Toby

    In 1972 The Authors League reported that 95% of writers in America must hold another job all their lives to make ends meet. A sobering thought to end this book on the writer's craft from one of the greats of 20th century storytelling. Remind me, why do I want to do this? The talented Ms Highsmith is not at her most comfortable with this educational piece especially, as she says herself, she doesn't really consider herself a writer of suspense fiction or a fan of the label created by American publi In 1972 The Authors League reported that 95% of writers in America must hold another job all their lives to make ends meet. A sobering thought to end this book on the writer's craft from one of the greats of 20th century storytelling. Remind me, why do I want to do this? The talented Ms Highsmith is not at her most comfortable with this educational piece especially, as she says herself, she doesn't really consider herself a writer of suspense fiction or a fan of the label created by American publishers. There are a lot of interesting anecdotes and she doesn't hold back in her contempt of "hack writers" and an unnamed author of the time who liked to have buildings or bridges explode in his forgettable tales peopled by nonentities. This is less a self-help or how-to guide than an exploration of how she crafted her novels and approached the creative side of things, with useful pointers thrown in along the way and as such it may be more interesting for people to read as biographical material and less for beginners looking for tips on how to write. What I have learned from reading this is that Patricia Highsmith loved being a writer and quite often hated it too.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nandakishore Varma

    I like to read these "writer's tips" sort of books once in a while, just to get to know how their minds function. Patricia Highsmith's book is nothing great: very light fare, in fact. The advice is pretty much standard: jot down your ideas, allow them to develop, pay proper attention to plotting, the first draft, the second draft, revisions...But it was very enjoyable to read how she actually plotted her stories. Two pieces of advice stayed in the mind: The plot: It should be tight - absolutely wa I like to read these "writer's tips" sort of books once in a while, just to get to know how their minds function. Patricia Highsmith's book is nothing great: very light fare, in fact. The advice is pretty much standard: jot down your ideas, allow them to develop, pay proper attention to plotting, the first draft, the second draft, revisions...But it was very enjoyable to read how she actually plotted her stories. Two pieces of advice stayed in the mind: The plot: It should be tight - absolutely waterproof. Patricia explains how she laboured over and over to get the plotting and pacing just right. Gone Girl is an example of how a plot can be full of holes, like a sieve, BTW - according to me, at least. The characterisation: Even though it is sometimes given short shrift in suspense novels, the ones with the stronger characters endure. (The recent suspense movie in Malayalam, Drishyam, is a fine example of how strong characterisation helps suspense, IMO.) Patricia gives us one chapter on the germination and development of one of her novels, The Glass Cell. This was very enjoyable reading. However, the book may be said to contain spoilers, so be warned.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Patricia Highsmith is the godmother of psychological suspense; I would go so far as to say that she is one of the most important influences on modern crime fiction. This book is less nuts-and-bolts than its title implies, and more the philosophies and observations of a writer at work.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lee Klein

    Poorly titled collection of recollections about the author's experience writing novels and stories. A few insights here and there, and worth a look, but nothing particularly inspiring. She's unwilling to make general pronouncements or to preach, which is admirable but makes the book seem almost lesson-less. Liked the bit about writing stories based on a memorable emotional experience.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kressel Housman

    Once upon a time, about five to ten years ago, I was obsessed with becoming a writer. I used to spend most of my time writing fiction, often to the point of neglecting my kids. It was some time during that period that my husband gave me this book as a present, but I didn't read it because "suspense fiction" was not my genre. Although I did eventually finish a novel (Harry Potter fanfic) and manage to sell a few short stories, I basically stopped writing when I began working 9 to 5. I'm a much mor Once upon a time, about five to ten years ago, I was obsessed with becoming a writer. I used to spend most of my time writing fiction, often to the point of neglecting my kids. It was some time during that period that my husband gave me this book as a present, but I didn't read it because "suspense fiction" was not my genre. Although I did eventually finish a novel (Harry Potter fanfic) and manage to sell a few short stories, I basically stopped writing when I began working 9 to 5. I'm a much more responsible mother and wage-earner now, but I often feel bad that all I write these days are book reviews for Goodreads. I enjoy doing it tremendously, but I want to get published again, and work is the only way that can happen. So to jump start my writing, I took a class called "How to Write Page-Turning Fiction" this summer when my kids were in camp. This book is a follow-up to the class. Probably the biggest flaw in my fiction is that it's not exciting enough. My stories are like my reviews: observational. My themes are like my personality: contemplative. The feedback I got in class was that my writing flows readably and my main character was likable, but there just wasn't enough tension to keep the pages turning. The lesson of Writing for Story - follow the complication - became clearer to me in that class than when I originally read the book eight or so years ago. Every page must have tension and suspense, some problem that must be resolved or the characters will suffer some loss. To do that, I have to separate myself from my characters a bit because tension is something I try to avoid in my real life. So you see why a book on suspense fiction seemed the ideal follow-up to the class. But my initial reaction was also correct: suspense is just not my genre, at least not in the way author Patricia Highsmith defines it. I suppose I care more about education than entertainment, but most readers prefer the latter. So this was not the ideal writing book for me. Greater familiarity with Highsmith's own work would have helped because her examples are taken from her own writing. So good writing advice, but not a great fit for me. Too bad.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jack Getze

    This book offers few tips on writing suspense fiction, which was the reason I picked it up at a used book store, but few books on writing have inspired me more than this one. Ms. Highsmith was an artist in every sense of the word, and through her own thoughts and explanations of the subject, the reader gets to know her own singular artistic sentiments and temperament. What a wonderful time it would have been to sit with her during a meal, although I suspect she would have found me boring. The wr This book offers few tips on writing suspense fiction, which was the reason I picked it up at a used book store, but few books on writing have inspired me more than this one. Ms. Highsmith was an artist in every sense of the word, and through her own thoughts and explanations of the subject, the reader gets to know her own singular artistic sentiments and temperament. What a wonderful time it would have been to sit with her during a meal, although I suspect she would have found me boring. The writer of the Mr. Ripley sagas gives readers much outdated information about agents and publishers and contracts, although perhaps hanging onto your film and foreign publishing rights will always be a great idea for writers. Most important to me were the passages on art and how an artist should live her/his life. Few of us artists will ever be rich and famous, Ms. Highsmith says, so it's best to focus on the art itself.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    Highsmith gives relaxed and honest advice and steers clear of the self-organizing, process nonsense mistaken for creativity today. People who write habitually will find the lack of a "system" and her description of certain pitfalls familiar and soothing. Beginners will find her accessible and no nonsense. Those preferring business style organizational tactics and quick fixes with little respect for a stubborn unconscious should give it a pass.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joey

    Attn: The Writer, Inc. , not to be confused with Murder Inc. HEY YOU!?!? Have I captured your attention? Are you a lazy agent? I am a writer with an invisible antennae. I have filled dozens of notebooks with my words. In 1988, Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train lamented that many American magazines that used to buy short stories have folded. It is thirty years later and prospects are even gloomier. She also began The Talented Mr. Ripley in a cottage in Attn: The Writer, Inc. , not to be confused with Murder Inc. HEY YOU!?!? Have I captured your attention? Are you a lazy agent? I am a writer with an invisible antennae. I have filled dozens of notebooks with my words. In 1988, Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train lamented that many American magazines that used to buy short stories have folded. It is thirty years later and prospects are even gloomier. She also began The Talented Mr. Ripley in a cottage in Massachusetts and read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in preparation. She hangs her writing awards in her bathroom. “A book is a really long continuous process, which ideally, should be interrupted only by sleep.” (73) The objective of the writer is to write something saleable. “Maybe much of luck for the writer comes from having the right publicity at the right time, and this I do discuss here.” (ix) “To all beginners, I give credit for being writers already, since they intend, for better or worse, to rusk exposing their emotions, their quirks, their attitude toward life, to public scrutiny.” (ix) Stories need to be gripping. Suspense stories have a threat of violent physical action and danger. “A book is not a thing of one sitting, like a poem, but a longish thing which takes time and energy and since it takes skill, too, the first effort or maybe the second may not find a market.” (15) SUSPENSE SHORT STORIES CAN TAKE PLACE OVER A SPAN OF 5 MINUTES! “write down all those slender ideas.” (36) Stories can develop in six weeks or three years of “slow brewing.” “If the writer can thicken the plot and surprise the reader, the plot is logically improved.” (38) DO NO USE THE SAME PERSONALITY AND PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OF SOMEBODY THAT YOU KNOW. OUTLINE THE PLOT. PLOT SHOULD NOT BE RIGID. “I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me.” (49) SOME BOOKS DO NOT HAVE A CLIMAX. CHAPTER OUTLINES ARE HELPFUL TOOLS. SURPRISE YOURSELF AND YOUR READER. “It is often possible to give the gist of a conversation of forty lines in three lines of prose.” (71) SOME FIRST DRAFTS ARE TOO BRIEF. “If the writer thinks about his material long enough, until it becomes a part of his mind and wakes up thinking about it- then at least when he starts to work, it will flow out as if by itself.” (76) “A sense of pride in your work is essential.” (77) “Writing is a way of organizing experience and life itself.” (80) TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S PROFESSIONS. The joy of writing cannot truly be described in words. “It is then good to remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and coelacanth and other changing forms of organic life since long before governments were dreamed of.” (145) “The most important thing is: Does the film work, is it believable?” (132) “All the above is rot.” (5) Sincerely, The Writer

  9. 5 out of 5

    Pickle Farmer

    One of the best books on writing I have ever read, no joke! So approachable and down to earth and warm and practical. I wanted to underline every page! Was very moved by the ending when she talks about the joy of writing, and how "it is good to remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and the coelacanth and other unchanging forms of organic life, since long before governments were dreamed of." YASS!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jigar Brahmbhatt

    Plotting is an intuitive act, IMO. We learn more about it from other writers than we consciously register. In fact, the best way to learn more is to read more. Plotting is something a writer makes personal peace with. There is no trick of the trade. For instance, what works for me sometimes is the slow unraveling of the material, like an onion being peeled calmly, almost in a state of repose, because the subdermal violence or a moment of unreality that I try to suggest in a story is enhanced by Plotting is an intuitive act, IMO. We learn more about it from other writers than we consciously register. In fact, the best way to learn more is to read more. Plotting is something a writer makes personal peace with. There is no trick of the trade. For instance, what works for me sometimes is the slow unraveling of the material, like an onion being peeled calmly, almost in a state of repose, because the subdermal violence or a moment of unreality that I try to suggest in a story is enhanced by the preceding stillness. And it is all I seem to be working towards as far as the intrigue factor of the story is concerned, while in the background, I can work on the themes that matter to me. Though this method can change based on a lot of factors... say, a chance encounter of a Jim Thompson novel can make me redo everything! Can't really say that this book is unmissable. Anyone who has tried writing can figure out most of it. But speaking of suspense fiction, it certainly can't hurt to know what the creator of The talented Mr. Ripley, the tensest yarn ever weaved around a charmingly repulsive character, has to say about her home turf: 1) I can only suggest giving the murderer-hero as many pleasant qualities as possible - generosity, kindness to some people, fondness for painting or music or cooking, for instance. These qualities can also be amusing in contrast to his criminal or homicidal traits. I think it is also possible to make a hero-psychopath one hundred percent sick and revolting, and still make him fascinating for his very blackness and all-round depravity. 2) I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me. Therefore, I don't dislike this boredom which encroaches on me every now and then, and I even try to create it by routine. 3) A very fast or slow tempo should not be attempted, if one feels strained and unnatural writing in it. Some books are nervous from the start, some slow all the way through, underplaying, analyzing and elaborating on the events. Some start slowly, pick up speed, and rush to the end. Can you imagine a suspense story by Proust? I can. 4) It is a cheap trick merely to surprise and shock the reader, especially at the expense of logic. And a lack of invention on the writer's part cannot be covered up by sensational action and clever prose. It is also a kind of laziness to write the obvious, which does not entertain, really. The ideal is an unexpected turn of events, reasonably consistent with the characters of the protagonists. Stretch the reader's credulity, his sense of logic, to the utmost-it is quite elastic-but don't break it. In this way, you will write something new, surprising and entertaining both to yourself and the reader. 5) A beautiful young girl is faithfully tending her grandfather who is in a wheelchair, and is shutting out the world because of him. This really can't go on forever-not if you're writing a book about it! In the book, she may come out of the wheelchair world for a while, then go back to it at the end of the book-but if it is a suspense book, very likely she stays out. There should be either action or the promise of action in the first chapter of a suspense book. There is action or the promise of it in every good novel, but in suspense stories, the action is apt to be of a more violent kind. That is the only difference. 6) The snag in a book is a lurking problem that has to be solved, however, and that fact cannot be swept away by pretending. Of course it can be very easily pushed aside, if you are not really involved in the book. But if you are involved and care, your unconscious will come up with the solution to the problem. There is also a case study at the end which is like a mini-MFA in writing suspense fiction, the most enjoyable part of the book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    David Leemon

    She has a number of great insights on writing suspense fiction, which also apply to any other sort of fiction. This is not one of the technical how-to's, but a collection of essays on her own views and methodology of writing.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Karolyn Sherwood

    I was thrilled to find a how-to-write book by one of my favorite authors, Patricia Highsmith, of the Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train fame. And, while I underlined many wise and helpful hints throughout the book, I found it less helpful than say Stephen King's On Writing, and even Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. First of all, through no fault of the late Ms. Highsmith, the book is now quite dated. She writes a lot about her interaction (direct interaction) with editors, publish I was thrilled to find a how-to-write book by one of my favorite authors, Patricia Highsmith, of the Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train fame. And, while I underlined many wise and helpful hints throughout the book, I found it less helpful than say Stephen King's On Writing, and even Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. First of all, through no fault of the late Ms. Highsmith, the book is now quite dated. She writes a lot about her interaction (direct interaction) with editors, publishers, her typewriter and carbon copy drafts, and her personal journey with one particular novel, The Glass Cell. From where I sit (behind a computer, non-published), the world of writing and publishing is a bit different these days. Ms. Highsmith was not a professor, so perhaps this book exists mainly to give us a peek into the mind of a great suspense writer. And for that, I loved it. At 145 pages, it is a quick read, and it will hold a permanent spot on my bookshelves.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    One of the best books on writing I've ever read whether one is specifically interested in the genre or not. The author of Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and other classic thrillers not only reveals herself to be a consummate literary craftsman with a refreshingly down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts approach, but also offers a unique window into her own creative process. To pick but one small example, in discussing her rather gruesome short story, "The Terrapin", she mentions that the sh One of the best books on writing I've ever read whether one is specifically interested in the genre or not. The author of Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and other classic thrillers not only reveals herself to be a consummate literary craftsman with a refreshingly down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts approach, but also offers a unique window into her own creative process. To pick but one small example, in discussing her rather gruesome short story, "The Terrapin", she mentions that the she came up with the idea after running across a recipe for turtle soup, then drily goes on to wonder why more writers of murder tales don't turn to cookbooks for inspiration.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Magda

    145 pages of hard selling prior books and introspection.., Do not recommend it for those who actually want to learn elements of the writing craft.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ygor Speranza

    Not a thriller or suspense reader myself, but Patricia talks openly from her experience and makes many important remarks on plot, mostly which go beyond her genre. Her rational approach makes writing a book or a story seem playful but a very pragmatic activity as well.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bill Powers

    Not really a "how-to", but some good tips for suspense writers and interesting stories from the author's life...

  17. 4 out of 5

    Slawka Scarso

    At first, I found it rather banal, and aimed at beginners. Later, it became more interesting and I will always be grateful for that chapter titled The Snags, which was most helpful.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Halley Sutton

    Salty but entertaining and some good pointers.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    I read this book after Damon Knight included it among his “Suggested Reading” at the end of CREATING SHORT FICTION. He wrote, “Sensible, good-humored, and practical advice from a distinguished mystery writer. Much of what she says about novels can be applied to short stories.” I agree that there are lessons to be learned from this book, but readers will have to hunt for them inside this highly personalized, subjective book. After all, Highsmith (who wrote THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and STRANGERS ON I read this book after Damon Knight included it among his “Suggested Reading” at the end of CREATING SHORT FICTION. He wrote, “Sensible, good-humored, and practical advice from a distinguished mystery writer. Much of what she says about novels can be applied to short stories.” I agree that there are lessons to be learned from this book, but readers will have to hunt for them inside this highly personalized, subjective book. After all, Highsmith (who wrote THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) begins her book by saying, “This is not a how-to-do-it handbook.” It’s a collection of lessons she has learned over the course of her career: the successes, the failures, the tips, and the traps. I enjoyed Highsmith’s advice on how to find the ideas for a story and how to judge whether that idea will carry a short story, a novel, or only a subplot. She also talks about developing or “thickening” those ideas. I am an outliner, and Highsmith isn’t, but I still found her approach interesting. She will outline enough to get rolling, and then look for opportunities to let the characters take over and surprise her (and her readers too). I also enjoyed her advice for starting a story at a brisk pace and keeping it moving, as well as staying in control of a stories “proportions” and themes. I think this advice would be useful for any writer. But a big negative for me was that throughout the book, Highsmith says, in effect, “This is what works for me. It may not work for you. Although she is very upfront about the subjective nature of this book, I think Stephen King’s ON WRITING is a far more effective autobiography/how-to book for writers in general. If you are focusing on suspense or mystery though, I think you would find this quick read worth your time.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bruce Beckham

    “Perhaps I have some severe and severely repressed criminal drive in myself, or I would not take such an interest in criminals or write about them so often.” Patricia Highsmith, 1983. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s a maxim that certainly holds good for this one, which promises to be something of a handbook. In fact it’s more of an autobiography, and a fascinating one at that. It’s a short affair – Amazon quotes the paperback at 145 pages – but nonetheless it provides a revealin “Perhaps I have some severe and severely repressed criminal drive in myself, or I would not take such an interest in criminals or write about them so often.” Patricia Highsmith, 1983. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s a maxim that certainly holds good for this one, which promises to be something of a handbook. In fact it’s more of an autobiography, and a fascinating one at that. It’s a short affair – Amazon quotes the paperback at 145 pages – but nonetheless it provides a revealing insight into Ms Highsmith’s way of thinking. She is surprisingly candid – unashamedly describing her failures and rejections, and continually stressing her economic need to conceive stories that editors would buy. She describes where and when she wrote – of short stories shaped and sold over snatched weekends during the writing of novels – and of how a tiny event that disturbed her could become the germ of an entire story. She offers few direct tips on good writing – preferring to explain her own preferences, such as her shunning of the first person for fear of her ‘heroes’ becoming too introspective. However, I think there is much to learn from these gentle remarks – to expect something more concrete would be rather akin to asking Muhammad Ali how come nobody could lay a glove on him, or Pele how he bends the trajectory of a football around a wall of defenders. In any event, as the quote I have incorporated suggests, she unassumingly attributes the qualities that have made her a stellar author as largely down to luck. In this regard she undersells herself – both in terms of natural ability and hard work.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lindsay

    I've never read any Highsmith, but found this book useful and informative. While not a typical writer's craft 'how to', this is a great look at Highsmith's particular techniques when writing suspense. It's highly entertaining to read her take on inspiration and how she develops her 'germs of ideas'. I found her enthusiasm immediately infectious and her dry, matter-of-fact observances hilarious. "The most exciting story told by a friend with the fatal remark, 'I know you can make a terrific story I've never read any Highsmith, but found this book useful and informative. While not a typical writer's craft 'how to', this is a great look at Highsmith's particular techniques when writing suspense. It's highly entertaining to read her take on inspiration and how she develops her 'germs of ideas'. I found her enthusiasm immediately infectious and her dry, matter-of-fact observances hilarious. "The most exciting story told by a friend with the fatal remark, 'I know you can make a terrific story out of this," is pretty sure to be of no use to the writer whatever. " (pg. 6) or "I [don't] want to sound mystical about people and their effects on the writer, but there are some people, often most unlikely people — dull-witted, lazy, mediocre in every way — who are for some inexplicable reason, stimulating to the imagination. I have known many such people." (pg. 10) She offers a LOT of examples from her own stories to highlight her suggestions and topics, which sometimes was too tedious for me to follow, but fans of her work will probably find this holds added interest for them. Overall, I found it an encouraging, useful book about the challenge of writing suspense, with interesting anecdotes from her career woven throughout.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Art Taylor

    An odd little book but certainly not without its insights. I've seen complaints about it elsewhere -- valid ones to some degree. Highsmith doesn't offer any hard-and-fast rules for writing a novel (or for writing at all), and what she does offer, she presents with a little bit of a shrug: might work for you, might not, who knows? But while there's no step-by-step blueprint here for writing your own novels, she does proffer the kinds of questions that anyone trying to write a novel should ask him An odd little book but certainly not without its insights. I've seen complaints about it elsewhere -- valid ones to some degree. Highsmith doesn't offer any hard-and-fast rules for writing a novel (or for writing at all), and what she does offer, she presents with a little bit of a shrug: might work for you, might not, who knows? But while there's no step-by-step blueprint here for writing your own novels, she does proffer the kinds of questions that anyone trying to write a novel should ask him- or herself, explores the kinds of problems that certainly arise. And while this book will be more compelling for readers familiar with Highsmith's novels and stories, since she spends a lot of time discussing her own processes and products, an unfamiliarity with those other works shouldn't preclude a reader for gaining some important insights.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

    I probably wouldn't have benefitted from reading this book when I was just starting out as a writer; I was still too green, and writing is a craft only mastered through long years of practice. Now, looking back at decades of writing and lots of mistakes, reading what Highsmith has to say not only offers many shock of recognition, but helps me see ways to avoid some of the mistakes she cites. Not recommended for the novice or aspiring writer, who is likely to become discouraged, but recommended f I probably wouldn't have benefitted from reading this book when I was just starting out as a writer; I was still too green, and writing is a craft only mastered through long years of practice. Now, looking back at decades of writing and lots of mistakes, reading what Highsmith has to say not only offers many shock of recognition, but helps me see ways to avoid some of the mistakes she cites. Not recommended for the novice or aspiring writer, who is likely to become discouraged, but recommended for experienced writers and fans of Highsmith. Her analysis of how she wrote her novel The Glass Cell and her account of all the mistakes and false starts she made in writing it are worth the price of the book.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Hol

    This book was part of a series by writers about their craft, published in Boston at mid-century and blessedly still lingering in the stacks of my local library. I find it unlikely that Highsmith has much advice that would be useful to contemporary writers but enjoyed reading about her own writing process (intuitive, reclusive) and the economics and logistics of American publishing at the time--serialization fees, pasted-up galleys, etc. I was unsurprised to learn that Highsmith felt “psychically This book was part of a series by writers about their craft, published in Boston at mid-century and blessedly still lingering in the stacks of my local library. I find it unlikely that Highsmith has much advice that would be useful to contemporary writers but enjoyed reading about her own writing process (intuitive, reclusive) and the economics and logistics of American publishing at the time--serialization fees, pasted-up galleys, etc. I was unsurprised to learn that Highsmith felt “psychically disturbed” by all sorts of ordinary occurrences, like mail delivery or the sound of children playing.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Max Kindred

    Intuitive and informative. Highsmith breaks down how practical writing fiction really is, reflecting on what her first novel lacked, and what made her subsequent works better. Tinged with dry humor and drawn through a matter-of-fact prose, Highsmith starkly emulates what King did with 'On Writing'.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    This book is instructive without getting that dire tone that some writing manuals get.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Clifford

    I enjoyed a glimpse into Highsmith's process, along with examples from her own work, but this book isn't going to be terribly useful for anyone who really wants to understand HOW TO create suspense.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ksenia Anske

    Excellent quick guide on writing suspense with very useful examples of "before" and "after" that teach you more about plotting than just the theory of it. A very good read for any writer.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Glen Engel-Cox

    “Writing fiction is a game, and one must be amused all the time to do it." That was my favorite quote from this how-to book by Highsmith, best known for writing the novel Strangers on a Train, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, and The Talented Mr Ripley, made into a movie starring Matt Damon. I like this quote because it matches my experience. My best writing is done when I play a game with myself. In my first novel, it was to see how many references to eggs I could manage, In the novel I'm currently w “Writing fiction is a game, and one must be amused all the time to do it." That was my favorite quote from this how-to book by Highsmith, best known for writing the novel Strangers on a Train, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, and The Talented Mr Ripley, made into a movie starring Matt Damon. I like this quote because it matches my experience. My best writing is done when I play a game with myself. In my first novel, it was to see how many references to eggs I could manage, In the novel I'm currently working on, it's all about how many references I can work in to colors and songs, and also how nothing and no one is quite what they purport to be. It doesn't matter if no one catches on to what I’ve done: they are my personal game. In fact, some of these references may be changed or removed before the final version. Of the writing guides I recently finished reading, I liked this one the best. Highsmith is careful to note that her method of writing is not for everyone, although she uses examples not only from her work but also that of others. Her process, unlike both that of James N. Frey and Christopher Vogler, seems much more like mine. Ruminating on ideas until there's enough in your head to be able to begin, even if you don’t yet have a middle or ending. The focus on quick first drafts to get the concepts and characters captured, then 2nd and 3rd drafts that improve and extend upon that initial draft. Highsmith’s view of suspense writing, as opposed to the mystery or detective novel, is akin to how Law & Order: Criminal Intent differs from the original Law & Order or Murder She Wrote. In suspense, the focus is on understanding the criminals, and what motivates them to commit a crime. The point isn't to try to forgive the crime—for murder is murder and robbery is robbery. But the study of transgressions is interesting, if only to better formulate a better moral compass. As Highsmith says, justice is a human construction, not something that occurs in nature. People murder and are never caught. People murder and are never punished. If we want justice, it is not something that will just happen, but something we have to actively work for. Although this book's focus is not at all similar to Dorothea Brande's On Becoming a Writer, it is to that work that my mind keeps trying to connect this one to. Perhaps it is because, unlike Frey, Highsmith never engages in imperatives. She simply, like Brande, talks about the psychology of the writing life. Writing is a weird profession—in one anecdote, Highsmith tells a story of how she was once denied a New York apartment because the building rules required that all occupants be professionals, and writing wasn't viewed as a profession (as she put it, because writers don’t receive clients, which meant that a prostitute would have qualified but a writer didn’t). Unlike some trades, where the apprentice / internship experience often has an active mentor, writer’s don’t tend to. Or rather, they do, but they take the form of all those writers you admire who wrote before you. How you end up using that is up to you.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cultivar

    Have you ever seen the movies, Strangers on a Train, or, The Talented Mr. Ripley? They were written by Patricia Highsmith, who wrote over 20 novels, and also wrote a helpful little book called, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Note: All fiction should employ some tension, and I think that is how you should regard the title. Plotting is a fast read, chatty, anecdotal, no boring lists of rules and a nice recognition of the various intangibles— i.e. the unteachable parts you’ll have to work o Have you ever seen the movies, Strangers on a Train, or, The Talented Mr. Ripley? They were written by Patricia Highsmith, who wrote over 20 novels, and also wrote a helpful little book called, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Note: All fiction should employ some tension, and I think that is how you should regard the title. Plotting is a fast read, chatty, anecdotal, no boring lists of rules and a nice recognition of the various intangibles— i.e. the unteachable parts you’ll have to work out for yourself. A far too dreary accounting of how even a writer of numerous books, which get made into movies, still frets over money and is plagued by paperwork and the basic administrative aspects of life. Yet… still enjoyable and quite useful. She’ll tell you how she wrote something, thought it was lazy, and then later figured out what she really needed to do. Which sort of gives you both permission and roadmap to do the same thing. Sometimes, you have to write the wrong thing, to really know it’s not working. Then you backtrack and find the right path. She recommends writing a summery of your chapters, and then asking of each one, How does this move the story forward? I felt at least four chapters just evaporate from my draft as I read that. Naturally, I still have to determine which four are getting the pink slip. There’s quite a lot of information, sometime subtly delivered, sometime plainly so. She talks about failures and snags, delays and blocks. I’ve sort of been harboring the feeling that Real and Talented writers automagically know what they're doing and it just pours out of them as a joyous, but lucid spree. Spoiler alert; No. She talks about moving backwards and forwards, described as a type of weaving, that I thought was under recognized by most teachers of writing. Even after writing numerous books, she still struggles, still feels stupid, still can’t find the right way forward. Until she does. This is undeniably comforting while working on my first book, but rather gloomy if I consider, you know, the entire rest of my life. Which, may just be counterproductive. I became somewhat fascinated by the author, who is American but I always thought was British. I’ll also need to read at least 6 of her novels, maybe more. Super fun fact: Highsmith once attended a London cocktail party with a "gigantic handbag" that "contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails" which she said were her, "companions for the evening.” Pass up spending time with that brain at your own peril. I think you will enjoy this book. You can find other 'How to Wrire" book reviews, on my site, Culivar. https://cultivar.info

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