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!
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.
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.
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.
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.