Twist Phelan is a former plaintiff’s attorney whose novels, but not her short stories, often make use of her legal background. Perhaps that’s because, as you’ll see in this post, her approach to short stories is very different from her approach when writing a novel. She’s received equally strong recognition for her short and long fiction—earning an International Thriller Award for Best Short Story for the EQMM tale “A Stab in the Heart” (February 2009) and nominations for several mystery awards for her novels. That makes her experience of the travails of working with these different literary forms (which she compares to endurance sports) all the more compelling.—Janet Hutchings
I’m writing this on stage one of my honeymoon—me, my husband, and 1,998 other cyclists are riding 550 miles from Telluride to Colorado Springs. Each rider has his or her unique athletic metabolism, a distinctive speed and efficiency with which he or she converts pedal strokes into forward movement. As the terrain varies, so does the riding style. For me, the best way to get up the mountains is to downshift and pedal at a high cadence. I sacrifice some speed but save my legs for the long haul. On the flats and descents, I push bigger gears, letting the power in my quads and hamstrings eat up the miles more quickly.
I have my own creative metabolism, too, when it comes to writing novels and short stories. Just like on the bike, I am focused on getting to the finish line, but depending on the route to be traveled, my methods—and thus my speed and technique—are different.
My novels always involve several major characters, subplots, at least one distinctive setting, and many conflicts and twists. The action is of considerable duration and length, in which the plot moves forward by various characters’ actions and thoughts and the results thereof. When writing a book, I’m prepared to go the distance.
In contrast, my short stories usually are centered on a single event or the tale of one particular character. The plots are tighter, the twists and conflicts fewer. I do try for an element of deception in my stories that I don’t seek to achieve in my mystery or thriller novels. I want a reader to begin a story thinking it is about one thing and that the tale is going in a certain direction but discover upon finishing that the story was about another thing and did not end up at all as expected. I’m not talking about a plot twist or a surprise ending. I mean the experience was completely different than anticipated, leaving the reader in an out-of-body state, gasping and slightly dazed like after a lung-burning time trial.
With a novel, I start with a situation that intrigues me, usually sparked by a news story or observation from life. In Doubt, my latest thriller, it was seeing a televised white-collar perp walk. It wasn’t the FBI agents escorting the accused down his mansion’s stone walk who interested me. Nor was it the Ponzi-schemer himself, despite his looting of $400 million of investor funds. No, it was the pale-faced, assisted-blond wife standing beside the front door who caught my eye, fingering the strand of pearls at her neck with one hand, clutching her Lilly Pulitzer sweater closed with the other, while agents searched her home. What if, I wondered, when the agents had arrived, her hedge-fund-honcho husband and his secretary were in the wind? What if, despite all evidence to the contrary, she still believed in his innocence?
Once I come up with the initial scenario, I create as a protagonist the person who is most ill suited to deal with it. In the case of Doubt, it was someone the wife wasn’t close to: her older sister, a corporate spy. I made notes on plot and character and setting, divided those ideas into three acts, further refined them into a detailed chapter outline, and began writing. Even though I knew I would rewrite it when the first draft was done, I did several versions of Chapter One. Although it helped me establish my narrative voice, getting past those false starts was one of the hardest parts of writing the book. I think of them as embarrassing baby photos, ones that thankfully won’t be posted on any real or virtual wall. Once the first draft was finished, I put it aside for a week or so before beginning rewrites. I revisited the entire book in several passes, looking for particular problems or weaknesses. When that was completed, I put it aside for another week, read it one more time, and sent it off to my agent. I’d completed the equivalent of a 550-mile ride over varied terrain and conditions.
This method doesn’t work when it comes to the mad dash that is a short story. Stories are a sprint, even the ones that are upwards of 15,000 words. I usually write stories in a two-step process. First, I think about them long enough to develop a narrative voice, identify my protagonist, and come up with the apparent problem, the one the reader will initially think the story is about. I’m pushing my creativity hard during this phase, mentally doing the equivalent of a series of muscle-searing intervals. Sometimes it takes me hours to get there, other times, days. But once this phase is done, I can sit down and write the first draft of the story in a couple of hours. I don’t make notes, I don’t outline. I just write the story, and then revise it after the fact. I make more passes on a story than I do on a novel, because there’s less margin for error. You can tarry too long at an aid station over the course of a century bike ride without appreciably altering the experience. But one wrong word or lazy metaphor can kill your story just like a mis-shift can doom a time-trial sprint.
I prefer cycling long distances, but sprint work is a necessary part of training: It increases my endurance capacity. So, too, do stories strengthen my novel-writing muscles, getting them in better shape to write precise dialogue and taut descriptions. Perhaps cycling and writing are closer than I think! I came up with an idea on my honeymoon bike trip for another Henri Karubje story. (He’s the Congolese-born New York detective in my Ellery Queen series.) I dictated the bursts of ideas generated by my imagination into my phone while keeping up the even pace needed to travel 90 miles across a valley in a crosswind. I saved the actual writing for when I was back at my computer. Some things you just can’t do on a bike.