Today’s advice is all about writing suspense, and it comes from that great mistress of suspense Patricia Highsmith.
Now for a little confession: as of today, I haven’t yet read any of her books, but I’ve watched plenty of Hitchcock’s adaptations of her work to know that she knows what she’s talking about. And if you do like her work, then you’ll probably enjoy her book twice as much, because she talks about her own work a lot. The name of the book is “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction”.
Today I want to look at the chapter that talks about that first idea, the germ of an idea, and her first sentence confirms what I know, and what you all probably know deep down, even if you have been seduced and distracted by the reminders about knowing your audience and writing to market, I quote:
“The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write the book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.”
I particularly like “if you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write the book”, which as some of you may well know can be years, is really important…
In this book, Highsmith also talks about the need to recognise the germs of story ideas by the excitement they produce in us.
Plot ideas are those that either grow or stay with us, and those are the ones worth pursuing, or at least worth noting down and keeping safe. She talks about the conditions for those ideas to emerge – resting, taking breaks, changing locations, etc. I would add, take note of where your best ideas emerge and make sure you put yourself in those situations/places/contexts as often as possible. (In the episode I talk about how I explored one of my ideas by taking part in NaNoWriMo.)
Another important point that the author makes is the influence that others have on us. I quote again:
“Another cause of this lack of ideas is the wrong kind of people around a writer, or sometimes people of any sort.”
At the risk of making it sound like I’m highlighting the myth of the writer as loner, it is true that some people kill our creativity and that if we don’t spend time on our own, we don’t give time for our brain to go off on one. We should protect our daydreaming time.
Noting down your ideas is not new advice, but I have to admit that, although I do jot ideas down, I often forget to go over them, specially if they relate to different projects. Going over notes for different projects can help us get unstuck; some strange combination can pop up; or maybe we can borrow the atmosphere from one idea and put it in a different piece of work; or just one word can spark off all kinds of new images or moods.
So, if you’ve been writing for a while, or if you’ve been putting off writing by reading lots of books on writing (guilty, sometimes…) you might not find anything extremely new and revelatory in this book, but you will certainly be reminded of the basics which are really easy to forget about. And if you do like that Patricia suspense novels, you will be very, very inspired by all the examples Highsmith gives.
Another aspect of the book I enjoyed is that she comes to it from the point of view of a full time writer, although she does recognise that not everyone writing can commit to it full time. In any case, I’ll leave you with this simple quote, which I think captures the creative process of a novel:
“A book is really a long continuous process, which, ideally, should be interrupted only by sleep.”