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THE COELACANTH: PATRICIA HIGHSMITH ON THRILLER WRITING

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Oh, Patricia.

I sometimes get a kick out of reading writers' "this is how you do it" books, especially when they were written in the golden era of magazine publications. To hear tell of it, the writer could bolt down a story or two in a garret somewhere, take a spin around Positano, go ice-skating in a picturesque season, and be back around to moping up a draft of something new a mere month later. Nobody's charging a submission fee for a lit mag that nobody reads except in contributor's copies. Writing is a job, a proper job with regular intervals of work, rather than a personal discipline so frequently lonely it attains a whiff of the spiritual. Sounds fun!

Patricia Highsmith, by her own assessment, isn't exactly the acme of fun, but I love this book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction because it's so well leavened by her obvious enjoyment of the work itself. Sometimes writers, myself included, characterize the process of cultivating a germ of interest into a story and a character and an inevitable end as maddening/grinding/unfun, but not Patricia! She sounds actually quite cheerful to do the work, and it's a joy to read this book just for the glimmer of a soul happily at work. (Happily at work reality-testing the ways a man might be poisoned, OK, yes.)

My favorite quotes:

"I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me. Therefore, I don't dislike this boredom which encroaches on me every now and then, and I even try to create it by routine. I do not 'have to work' in the sense that I must drive myself to it or make myself think what to do, because the work will come to me. I get the same pleasure from making a table, a good drawing, occasionally a painting, as I do from writing a book or a short story. This boredom is a happy thing, and I am scarcely aware of it until an idea for a short story or a book strikes me. Then I realize how much more interesting I shall find the world I enter when I start working on this idea. I am already entering that world when I start thinking about the development of the idea. Perhaps most writers feel this way."

"As for life's little difficulties, they are myriad. What writer hasn't had to work with a toothache, with bills due, with a baby sick in the next room or the same room, with the in-laws visiting, or at the end of a love affair, or with the government demanding the filling out of endless forms? I have scarcely a morning that doesn't bring something in the post that could be called psychically disturbing."

"Criminals are dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone. I am so law-abiding, I can tremble before a customs inspector with nothing contraband in my suitcases."

"There are some writers who in their first drafts write too briefly. I have met one. But for that one, there are a hundred who will write too much. There is a tendency to overdescribe and even overexplain. In describing a room, for instance, it is not necessary to describe everything in it--unless the room is full of interesting incongruities like spider webs and wedding cakes."

"One need not be a monster, or feel like one, to demand two or three hours' absolute privacy here and there."

"Why worry about point of view? You might as well have a spittoon in the corner talking next."

"A writer is usually asked by the publisher to read his book in galley proofs. These are narrow and a yard long, difficult to handle, and most easily read in bed."

"Like boxers, we may start to flag after thirty, that is, not be able to do on four hours' sleep any longer, and then we begin to grumble about taxes, and to feel that the aim of society is to put us all out of business. It is then good to remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and the coelacanth and other unchanging forms of organic life, since long before governments were dreamed of."