writing

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.

Interview: Saigon Dark Author, Elka Ray

 

saigon_darkAfter reading SAIGON DARK last month, I reached out to Elka Ray’s publishers at Crime Wave Press with some interview questions, and was amazed at some of the replies I received. As readers, we get used to authors reaching deep to bring our innermost fears to the pages of their books, but we don’t often expect them to come from real life experiences. However, Elka Ray’s Saigon Dark is anything from the usual…

LISSA: In Saigon Dark, a really unusual drama creates a platform for exploring, among other things, issues of trust. Did you decide on the plot first or draw the plot around the themes?

ELKA RAY: Ten years ago, my first daughter died as a baby. It was a total shock. I’d believed my child would outlive me. Instead, I was cremating her. How could this have happened? Why her? Why me? Was this a punishment for my failings and mistakes? I had all sorts of crazy thoughts. The trauma of her death shook my trust in the world. I felt unsafe – like a door I didn’t even know was there had opened and couldn’t be shut. If this unthinkable thing had occurred, more bad luck could follow.elka_ray

Without trust, we can’t function normally. We trust other drivers to stop at red lights. We trust the food we buy is not poisonous. We trust our friends have our best interests at heart. Most importantly, we trust ourselves to make reasonable choices.

When you doubt yourself, you’re lost. You can’t trust anyone or anything else. This was the starting point for Lily Vo, the main character in Saigon Dark. I wanted the novel to explore grief, trust and paranoia.

The plot centres around passing one child off as another. This idea came to be shortly after the birth of my son, whose first passport photo was taken when he was three days old. He was squinty and bald – indistinguishable from most newborns. That passport was valid for five years, which gave me the idea: it could be used for almost any kid.

LISSA: You chose to make the main character a Vietnamese woman who was born and raised in the US. Did this allow her to behave differently or be more identifiable to non-Vietnamese readers than a native, or is her background incidental to the story?

ELKA RAY: To make Saigon Dark work, I needed the main character, Lily, to be as isolated and stressed as possible. Her marriage to a local man has just broken down. She’s a single mom in a foreign country. Her youngest child is unwell. She has no real friends nearby. She’s leery of the police and feels judged by the locals.IMG_4873.JPG

This story wouldn’t work if Lily trusted the authorities. It wouldn’t work if she had family nearby. Someone with a strong support network would get help. They’d make less desperate choices.

When I first heard Lily in my head she was American Vietnamese – and that worked perfectly for the story.

My husband is Australian Vietnamese. Some of my closest friends are American Vietnamese. In Vietnam, Viet Kieu (Overseas Vietnamese) face special stresses compared to other foreigners. They often come here expecting to feel “at home” only to experience profound culture shock. Many local Vietnamese don’t understand that culture is learned – not passed down in your blood – and judge Viet Kieus for not speaking fluent Vietnamese and behaving like natives.

With suspense, your goal as an author is to keep adding pressure and building tension throughout the book. You’re stacking the deck against your poor protagonist to test how strong they can be.

LISSA: Your previous work include kids and more mainstream fiction. What tempted you over to the dark side? And most importantly, are you staying?

ELKA RAY: My first novel, Hanoi Jane, is a romantic mystery. It’s light and funny – a book about a young woman rebuilding her life after a bad break up – but there’s still a crime at its core. And my short story collection, What You Don’t Know: Tales of Obsession, Mystery & Murder in Southeast Asia is packed with crimes and ill will. I’ve always been fascinated by why people behave like they do, especially when their actions seem unreasonable. Crime fiction is about motivation – and that’s crack for me.

Many thanks to Elka and Henry Roi at Crime Wave Press for the interview! 

Dead Memories

Don’t you wish sometimes that you could just close your eyes and start again? With two counts of murder under her belt and Detective Davis after her, teenager Lilly Lessard has done just that. She’s taken her dead friend, Janine Kenny’s ID and scholarship and she’s off to California.

But when a traffic accident leaves her with amnesia and only Janine’s ID in her pocket, things take a turn for the surreal. Her caseworker wants to know why her memories don’t match her history. The hospital candy stripper has noticed her hair appears blonde at the roots when it should be black. And who is this man who wants to help her get to California, who is willing to sneak her out in the dead of night? Can he help her get back some of her dead memories?

“Dead Memories will grab a hold of you from the very first page and won’t let go until you have turned that last page.” Nancy Allen (The Avid Reader)

“I could not put down this page turner” Blogger Dana Busenbark

“A high tension Thriller with a traditional feel” Blogger Tonja Drecker

 

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The Dark Themes Of Film Noir, And Why They Matter Today

 

Came across this while researching the theme myself. Someone asked me, why Noir had to be so dark? I think this blog answers that.

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noir1 Robert Mitchum and Jane Grier in Out of the Past

In the 1940s and 1950s, a new genre of film began to filter out of Hollywood.  It was a hard-bitten, cynical genre, dealing with the kinds of themes that movies had not dealt with before.  It’s often said that jazz is the only truly unique American art form.  This is nonsense.  Film noir is a genre that was created in America, and has been copied elsewhere around the world.

What is film noir?  It’s difficult to define precisely.  But when you see it, you recognize it for what it is.  It can be a genre, a style, or a motif.  What matters is the overall “spirit” of the film.  What is its message?  What impression lingers on the viewer’s brain?  All noir films deal with at least a few of the following themes:

Existential crises affect the main character

The…

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

3 Ways to Beat the Nanowrimo Half-Time Funk

Whether it’s your first or your tenth Nanowrimo, the pressure is still the same. In between work, school, homework, housework and crying babies, you somehow need to pump out 1600 plus words of legible, coherent text a day, every day for the whole of November.

It’s not that easy. Things happen, good and bad, that interfere with your schedule. Days pass when your fingers never touch the computer and while that’s okay in the early days, by the middle of the month, these can be disastrous. And for some reason, once you’re 10k words behind, the writer’s block problems start to gather. This story doesn’t make sense. It’s going in the wrong direction. There are too many inconsistencies…. And there’s a party tonight.

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And yes, if you don’t finish Nanowrimo, it’s not the end of the world. But if you do want to do it and you are flailing, I’ve got 3 tips to help you out.

1. You’ve lost the plot
It’s so easy to write when you know where you’re going, but as soon as you go off track you’ve only got two options. One, write around to bring the story back or – heaven forbid – delete. Okay, no one should be deleting more than say, 500 words ever for Nanowrimo. The month is about writing not editing and it’s certainly not about deleting. So what do you do? Simple, jump ahead. If you know your story, jump ahead to the next scene or chapter and leave a big, to be continued hole, in the place where you’re stuck. Next month or next year, you can go back and look at where it went off track. Until then, you can enjoy the sensation of moving through your book towards the conclusion of the story.

2. You’re bored!
Okay, what’s boring, your story or the process. If it’s your story, I’m sorry really sorry and my best advice is…

“When stumped, have a man come through a door with a gun.”

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Okay, that’s not my advice, that comes from Raymond Chandler and while tons of people will laugh at that kind of approach to writing, it fits perfectly to Nanowrimo. This is your one month of hard-hitting, quick-fire writing. If your story sucks, do something dramatic to rekindle your own interest. Let one of the characters be the only witness to murder, break a leg, develop an obsession for one of the others, anything. If your story has turned into a passed out mid-Victoria lady at a dinner party, give her a slap and stick something disgusting under her nose to wake her up.

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However, if the process of writing bores you, I’m sorry, it can be boring sometimes but you just have to get through it. My trick here was Treacle Toffee. November is Bonfire Night season in the UK and Treacle Toffee is made for November 5th. I took a whole tin of that sticky stuff and let myself have a piece only when I was actively writing. The sugar rush is pretty intense, but thinking burns calories really fast (Sure. Whatever you need to tell yourself). And it’s like that gummy bear trick for getting kids to read textbooks. You want the treats, so deal with the boredom!

3. You don’t have time
Really, 1666 words on a subject that you know explicitly because it’s in your head? I’m kidding. I know it’s tough. While some people can do this in about half an hour for others it takes three. But the middle of November is not the time to quit. Why would you? All those positive feelings you’ll get from completing will be turned into feelings of defeat. Instead, you should forget the 1666 number and write to your heart’s content. If it’s a Monday night and you’re on 2k at 10pm, keep going if you’re on a role. It’s an investment for all those days when you can’t get or don’t have time to get past 500.

Bonus point. Forget the idea that it’s meant to be fun.
I’m dead serious here. So many good things are dressed up as being fun to get people to participate, but like the gym or going on a diet, why not fess-up and admit, the fun part is the having done it part.

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Writing is work. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

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