inspiration

Top 5 Writing Tips from Patricia Highsmith

I luuuuuve me a little bit of Highsmith… The prose is so economic but oh so gripping. She creates truly hateful characters, in whom we recognise people we also may have held deep, 182782032dark dislikes for, people we may have fantasised about ‘doing away with.’ For some, reading Highsmith is a kind of therapy, but for others it’s a master class in how to create teeth grinding tension with a satisfying conclusion. I’ve learnt a lot about writing just from reading Highsmith, but my favourite 5 of these….

1.”The Germ”

Highsmith described the origin of her stories coming to her as a “germ of an idea”… that she would have some tiny small piece of inspiration and then have to grow it out until the story followed. This is an excellent way of seeing the beauty in a good book. All too often  popular books are created instead of written, and seemingly through an arrangement of ticked boxes. Hook – Push off – Tension – Relief. The self-help writing books also endorse this formulaic method, so it’s no wonder, so many books seem to be lacking the fundamental element of a burning idea.

UnknownLooking out down on to the beach at Positano at 6 am one morning, Highsmith saw a young man with a towel over his shoulder walking alone on the sand.

This was the germ for The Talented Mr Ripley. A single soul walking along a deserted beach at day break. Where had he been and what had he done?  Where was he going and to do what? My mind reels at the thought of the process that she would have gone through to ultimately arrive at Tom Ripley. Was he an American? He’d have to be – she was still a young writer and hadn’t started imaging foreign heroes. How did he get there? Was he wealthy – no that’s dull. How did he feel? How did she feel in this town of judging glances, where if you say you write you are compared instantly to Positano’s other onetime residents Hemingway and Steinbeck? She put her thoughts and feelings into this vessel and grew the oak tree that became TTMR.

I’m a big fan of this germ-theory 😉 When you get a twinkle in your head, you can turn it over and over for years before suddenly it becomes what it became.

2. Ignore the rest of the world…if in doubt throw you typewriter out of the window

When Howard Ingram goes toTunisiato write a script in the ‘Tremor of Forgery’, things start going down back in the USA. A friend commits suicide and his girlfriend is probably having an affair. But Howard doesn’t get on a plane to dive right into what could have been 2949a different plot. He stays put. He starts working on a novel and as he waits for a letter from the girlfriend to explain what’s going on, he sorts out his plot and accidentally, possibly kills a man with a typewriter. Luckily this gives him lots of opportunity to explore feelings of guilt. In this example, I see the power of not following the expected plot line but rather fighting against it, letting it build and build until your protagonist is ready to tackle it. Because if we all dealt with our issues right away, we wouldn’t have any.

3. Write about what you know and if you find something you want to write about and have never done it…Do it.

In the Suspension of Mercy, Sydney Bartleby actually makes the lady next door suspect him as murderer to harness the feeling of being a suspect. He buries an old carpet, he acts dodgy as hell. The old dear ends up keeling over out of terror and pretty soon the cops really do think he’s killed someone. This fake body burying thing always struck me as something Highsmith actually did. Because she doesn’t skimp on the details, just as anyone who’s ever carried a drunk friend out to a taxi or tried to move a wardrobe knows, they are heavier than they look and the pure strain and fear of having either one halfway up the stairs and wobbling is enough to lead to blind panic.

I like to imagine Highsmith is heavy boots and a thick jumper, pacing around Montmachoux, pulling on a rolled cigarette, looking into damp wooded lots and “setting her jaw” as she would say, trying to work out if you could stash a body in there. I wrote a passage a few years back about someone fighting and being killed as he slipped down a set of icy  concrete steps in Stuttgart, Germany. The scene is set in a real place, the steps rise up between pre-war apartment building and cross two roads as a short cut. I saw them everyday from the bus I took to work and I kept telling myself, I have to get off the bus and stand at the top of those steps next winter to see if it looks as scary as I think it is. I was so thrilled when I was invited to a Christmas party shortly after and realized as I followed the map that I was at the top of the steps. I almost turned around and went straight home.

4. “You don’t write a book with your little finger.” -You’ve got to commit.

This is a straight dig from Tom Ripley about Marge Sherwood’s writing schedule. When Tom asks Dickie where Marge is, he tells him she is having a good day with the book and suggests that she is on a roll with her work. In the same breath he remarks that she might come along to the beach after lunch. PathighWe all know this type of writer, faffy types (as my mother would say) who seem to spend more time at Nanowrimo socials than at home in front of the computer and we snigger with satisfaction when Tom makes this remark. However, we are all guilty of occasionally being this type of writer, so it cuts both ways. It says, I know what is needed of me to be satisfied with my writing efforts and I am still not doing it, not always. This is a very important lesson from Highsmith and one which I hear in my head whenever I switch off the computer to read an episode of The Killing (I haven’t quite mastered Danish yet

5. Move on.

In Plotting and Writing Suspense, Highsmith shares with the reader her failings and talks about the stories that never got published. While trying to put the idea out of my head that I should immediately rush off to the archives in Switzerland (kidnapped publisher in tow) and demand to see these silenced masterpieces, I am reminded that if Highsmith was able to shelve her failures definitely I should be able to do so too. I spent 7 years on and off trying to write one particular novel that contained my own alter-ego. He became so diluted by all the experiences I imagined for him that he was almost translucent at the end. I recently had some boxes sent over from the UK and found reams of pages of the same-same but different chapters. Literally years of work… for nothing. However, my first impulse was to write it again…. properly this time!

Highsmith would give herself 20 opportunities to publish a story and after the 20th rejection she would take “a few days” and then start fresh. With this in mind, I resealed the box and put it back in the wardrobe to try to forget about it. Of course I failed and spend 10 whole days over the Christmas break,  rewriting it, 14 hours a days, for no reason. After all – just because I’ve learnt the knowledge from the master, doesn’t mean I mastered it myself.

How being pessimistic about writing can make you a better writer

Positive thinking is all over the place and for one good reason – it sells. Telling someone that they can control their own good fortune by simply deciding to think positively is a beautiful idea. And you know what? You think positive – you feel positive. It works, we’ve all experienced it, but isn’t that a little like saying, if you imagine the colour blue you will see the colour blue?

More and more, the evidence is stacking up. Positive thinking can make you happy for a short time, but it can also stop you from reaching achievable goals too.

09-positive-thinking.w710.h473.2x.jpg

Positive thinking alone won’t secure you the job you want that was otherwise unattainable or save a failing relationship. Positive thinking can make you appear to others as a confident and outgoing person, but most jobs and relationships soon dissolve that illusion, leaving positive thinkers in a worse position than they were in originally.

Jeez. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but one many writers will recognize as true. Being positive about your own writing doesn’t make it good and can lead to the opposite, bad writing. So what the Jiminy are you meant to do about it?

In the BBC Radio 4 mini-series The Power of Negative Thinking psychologist (and hero to pessimists the world over) Oliver Burkeman explores how negativity can be a powerful route to joy, success and satisfaction.

testing-380x253

 

 

He argues that people who regularly envisage their own success are less likely to achieve their potential. Why on earth can that be? Surely, these visions make you more ready to accept the path you’ve chosen, they prime you for your success.

Well, apparently not. Have you ever imagined winning the lottery and everything you’ll do with the loot? It felt good, didn’t it, for all of five minutes until you remembered that you hadn’t actually won the lottery. Picturing success has the same effect. You feel good while you picture it and this can make you feel as if you have already achieved it. And unlike lottery money, you can believe the fantasy of good writing longer, perhaps indefinitely. This feeling of success produces endorphins and rewards us with happiness. So the motivation to work harder, longer, and take more criticism is decreased. Why would you listen to negativity when you already know you’re good?

Backfiring Positivity

“When the human mind focuses on a certain thought, for some reason, it has the opposite effect,” Burkeman says. “When someone says, ‘Don’t think about a polar bear for a whole minute?’ Then all you can think about is polar bears.”

136_f.jpg

Oh, come on. I just told you not to…

The idea of thought subversion is evident in psychological studies too. “People suffering bereavement, who try not to grieve, take longer to recover”, Burkeman says. And repeating positive mantras and looking for meaning in inspirational quotes and ideas which rely on reversed word order does not help those with low self-esteem. In fact, it often makes them feel worse.

4f0435d9e82bddb8ae9e90a965ea9a9b.jpg

Come again…. Does that even mean anything?

Again and again, if you try really hard to be happy and positive, the effort backfires. The result is you expect too much happiness and are doubly disappointed when none comes your way. This is an interesting idea to many writers. How many have set the bar to happiness at ‘getting published by a big house’ or selling 100K copies, only to either not achieve this or to realise when they have, happiness has not been achieved?

What really makes you happy?

The things that actually make us happy are much more fleeting, such as getting a nice review from an unexpected corner, writing a chapter which differs from the one we had in mind and is better than the original, and of course looking back on past achievements.

unknown

Most writers get the blues after finishing their umpteenth draft. The closure that comes with a book done and dusted is surprisingly sour. But looking back, at books long finished brings a surprising amount of pleasure…

In closing, Oliver Burkeman’s advice is… stop aiming for happiness and you may find that it sneaks up on you without any conscious effort.

But most importantly, thinking you already are a brilliant writer, or you are an undiscovered talent and all you have to do is wait to be found, is a sure fire way to make sure, you never will be.