Cutting Advice from Patricia Highsmith

I picked up Patricia Highsmith’s book on writing titled “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” last week for $1.00 at a library book sale. Bargain!

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The book is entertaining, for the most part, and she tells anecdotes about writing and editing several of her books, everything from the germ of an idea to development through multiple revisions. At the end, she includes a “case history” for her novel, The Glass Cell.

My aim in reading was to understand the writer’s task from the non-literary fiction angle. So when I reached the last chapter, it felt like she was speaking directly to me in a section titled “The Suspense Label:”

Strangers on a Train, which was just “a novel” when I wrote it, …was labeled a “suspense novel.” From that time on, whatever I wrote was put in the “suspense” category, which means to have one’s novel fated, at least at the start of one’s writing career, to no more than three-inch reviews in newspapers, squeezed among good and bad novels that get the same treatment…In France, England, and Germany, I am not categorized as a suspense novelist, but simply as a novelist, with greater prestige, longer reviews, and larger sales, proportionately, than in America…

Hey you, Jilanne! Get off your high horse about this literary cr@p.

Point taken. I did compare her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley with the film version for a grad school seminar paper and consider them both both well done.

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She discusses the hallmarks of quality no matter the genre:

…insight, character, an opening of new horizons for the imagination of the reader…[the writer] should try to shed some light on the minds of the characters; he should be interested in justice or the absence of it in the world, good and bad, and in human cowardice or courage—but not merely as forces to move his plot in one direction or another. In a word his invented people must seem real.

To achieve this level of quality, she wrote and rewrote. She removed plot lines, characters, sections of novels at the request of editors. She trashed a novel that didn’t seem quite up to snuff and rewrote it completely.

She told how Harper & Row rejected one of her novels, The Two Faces of January (entirely rewritten after the first rejection) that was then bought by her European publisher, Heinemann, and went on to be chosen as the best foreign crime novel of the year by the Crime Writers Association in England. Even after that success, Doubleday asked her to cut 40 pages from the European version before publishing the book in the United States.

She emphasized that writers should get over themselves and do the work it takes to get a book published.

On editing:

For all you 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 colored pencil or crayon in 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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Highsmith’s book was published in 1990, and I wonder if some of today’s editors are approving too many overloaded books for take-off in hopes that they will miraculously fly like that dirigible of a bumblebee.

Nuff said.

29 thoughts on “Cutting Advice from Patricia Highsmith

  1. FictionFan says:

    Hmm…I certainly like her take on the hallmarks of quality. For me, I think that’s what makes the difference between ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ (or perhaps just ‘good’ and ‘bad’…). And oh yes, I’m ceratinly going to agree with her on cutting, cutting and cutting again – it’s not the length that’s the issue, but whether the zillions of words are actually adding to or detracting from the plot/characterisation etc. Compare and contrast – The Goldfinch and The Luminaries (that’s a teaser for tomorrow’s review… 😉 )

  2. Call of the Siren says:

    Love this post, Jil. Thank you. I’m ordering a copy of the book, and it’s worth it, though a new copy costs more than a buck!

    I think you’re right — we all just need to get over ourselves when it comes to how we see our writing. Highsmith was as intent on being a pure artist, and you can hear the frustration in her comment about being labeled as a “suspense” novelist! That’s terrific.

    Plus, I appreciate your comment “I wonder if some of today’s editors are approving too many overloaded books for take-off in hopes that they will miraculously fly like that dirigible of a bumblebee.” I think the overloaded books also happen to appear because there are fewer and fewer editors who have the time to trim them in collaboration with the authors.

    Hope this post gets a long comment thread. I’d love to see more. Ah, shoot, and I think I have to reblog it myself. It’s too interesting not to steal!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I’ve been reading so many books about editing fiction lately that I can’t recall where I read that the newbie needs to submit a near perfect manuscript because there’s no one left to shepherd the promising writer/book along. In contrast, veteran writers are finding their work being published with less attention to the wordsmithing, once again because there are fewer editors available to do the work. I think editors and publicists are going the way of paid consultants—paid by the writer. The publisher will just serve as the conduit to a broad audience. But if a publisher isn’t going to invest any money in a marketing campaign, then a writer seems just as well served by going the self-publishing route and paying an editor and publicist. What do you think?

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    “I wonder if some of today’s editors are approving too many overloaded books for take-off in hopes that they will miraculously fly”—I think this may be the case for successful authors, the bigwigs who can get away with it, but I don’t think that’s true for newbies. Agents and publishers want a tight novel with nothing overloaded. They like to see word counts that fit within the genre’s recommendation.

    Cutting can be hard, but I don’t mind it so much. I find the more intensively I outline, the less I have to cut.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I just said a version of this in my comment to Nick, too. I’m glad that outlining works for you. Lots of writers can’t seem to make that work. I’m headed in the “vague” outlining direction. 😀

  4. Call of the Siren says:

    Reblogged this on Call of the Siren and commented:
    Not long ago, a former colleague of mine turned up her nose when I mentioned that I was enthralled in the middle of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” saga. That really irritated me. Martin pulls off some very intricate, psychologically deep scenes, but all this snotty person could think of were the dragons and longswords. Jil Hoffmann’s post goes to the heart of the issue — do we really know what we’re talking about when we refer to “serious” literature? — in her post about Patricia Highsmith. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  5. Lady Fancifull says:

    Oh a most wonderful post Jilanne! Though (given my fellow terrible twin Fiction Fan’s post) there is obviously something so personal about whether you hang on the words of the writer’s voice or not……..I KNEW Goldfinch would be in your (and her) thoughts on this, as it was in mine – but for different reasons – I DID hang on her words, because she wrote in a way which meant I HAD to stay present, and held off from the what happens next of plot.

    That said, as NOT someone drawn to any ‘genre’ per se because POOR writers who are writing IN that genre will be stuck in the traps OF that genre, I always headed to the Crime section of the library FOR Highsmith. I particularly love the Ripley books, which are taut and disciplined and she makes the reader VERY uncomfortable as they (like the victims) fall under the spell of Ripley.

    I’m increasingly finding I write reviews saying ‘where was the editor’ and seem to read books where i have the distinct sense that everyone, writer, publisher, agent have their vision obscured by big pound, dolar or euro signs flashing in their minds eye, so that what you get is a ratchet up of bonk, shock and body count. Too many BOOKS SHOUTING AND SWEARING VERY LOUDLY. It’s what makes me sink with deep satisfaction into re-reading a carefully crafted book which knows when to whisper, when to stay silent, when to leave a tempting chocolate waiting for the reader who is about to turn the light out or make the supper, when to CRASH AND SHOUT and when to introduce that sneaky little tune you just must follow…….just another page…….just another page. I actually love it when a writer makes me miss my stop on public transport. Sneaky sneaky wickedly good writer!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I do so love it when I feel the need to read just another page, another chapter—oh, I’m near the end! Have you ever read Seabiscuit, the nonfiction book about a race horse in the U.S.? The end of each chapter pulled you into the next. I read it a long time ago, but from what I recall, it was a well-edited book.

      • Lady Fancifull says:

        No, I haven’t………..I do hope no one noticed me sidling off to shopping basket (saved for later) – this is what i do to try and curb the TBR – there is an enormous pile of Saved For Later books and every now and again i do a cull, either because the impulse to read has vanished entirely or because the book suddenly did a jump into the shopping basket

  6. susanissima says:

    There’s so much here to consider but, for me, getting over oneself resonates like thunder. As a novelist, for sure, but also as a poet, which is why writing a poem each day goes right to the jugular, especially if you follow prompts. You’re left without old habits to stand on and that’s when the learning process begins.

  7. Craig says:

    Cutting and editing are the hardest parts of writing. I love writing, it’s one of my favourite things to do. I hate editing, and cutting even more. That is where the work of being a writer comes in I guess. As a struggling new author I am learning all this the hard way. I am not looking forward to the edit job I have ahead of me with my current work, the editing of my last novel which I feel was much tighter than this one, took almost a year.

    That’s working part time of course, I have to hold down a job to pay the bills, but what lies ahead of me is almost discouraging me from finishing the book, just because I don’t want to edit the thing. It’s hard being author, editor, cover designer and marketer for your work all while trying to work on new projects. With the money I pay to designers and am considering paying to marketers and maybe an editor for my new book I am realizing that writing might be too expensive a hobby for me.

    Kind of off an a tangent there but it’s just something that has been bothering me for a bit, any way, the advise in a lot of book on publishing by authors revolves around cutting. Stephen King’s “on writing” is much the same.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Craig! Yes, cutting or editing, in general, is difficult. But I find that the more I do it, the better I get. For me, the hardest part is getting the words down on the page. Then the fun begins. I love editing, no matter how difficult! Sound strange? It’s like dumping a huge pile of puzzle pieces onto a table, even the ones that don’t belong to the puzzle, and then figuring out which ones do belong and in what place. So I guess I love puzzles, I just don’t love making the mess on the table to begin with. 😀

  8. Laurel Leigh says:

    Call me the cutter. I think that should be your new tagline!

    It’s so interesting to read this post, because I’ve always felt like cutting is a little easier than adding, but I habitually write long so expect to make a few rounds of cuts.

    I have a running joke with one of my students that Moby Dick could use some cutting–the question is where.

  9. Letizia says:

    I love her thoughts on cutting, cutting, cutting. I actually find that there’s something freeing in that (in a way) because as you write the first draft of something you know that you’ll be cutting away furiously later anyway. Of course, it’s the cutting part that’s difficult but let’s leave that to draft two, haha.

  10. KidLitReviews says:

    The first post I’ve read here and what a post. I review books and say, more than anything else it seems, are “where was the editor” or “with a good editor [this book] could have been a good read.” I am talking middle grade novels, chapter books, and picture books.

    In regard to the lack of editors and writers expected to do the editing or hire an editor, then do the marketing publishers used to take on, it seems to me that writers should get more of the royalties, that those rates need to rise in relation to how far the editing and other once publisher responsibilities fade. That might stem some from self-publishing. Something is going to have to give in the royalty department if publishers continue to skim on their resources. Just a thought.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Hello! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! Yes, the publishing industry is in flux, and writers are having to make some adjustments. Who knows what the future holds? But I’d like to thank you for doing your part by getting the word out about books you like!

  11. cleopatralovesbooks says:

    What an interesting post. I agree with so many of your points, and those of your esteemed commenters – I find the genre part the hardest to get to grips with and where you draw the line between literary and non-literary is hard to understand. The cutting part resonated with me though, sometimes (often?) less is more and there does seem to be a trend to include non-value-add verbiage to quite a few genres nowadays.

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