“The ‘Art’ of Writing” (by Twist Phelan)

Twist Phelan is the author of the Finn Teller spy novels and the Pinnacle Peak mystery series (both for adults); her latest book, Snowed, is her first middle-grade mystery, due for release this fall. She’s also a short-story writer whose honors include two ITW awards and Canada’s Arthur Ellis award for best short story. Many of her stories have had their first appearance in EQMM. She’s got a haunting one, “The Kindness of Strangers,” in our current issue (September/October 2022). If you’ve been following her work in EQMM, you’ll know that Twist produces a wide range of types of stories—something she discusses in this post. —Janet Hutchings

My mother was a lifelong modern and contemporary art groupie. As a kid I was taken not only to museums and galleries, but almost as often to artist’s studios—warehouses, garages, stone quarries, furnaces, lofts, even a tent in the forest that smelled of mildew and cat.

Mom, a scientist by training, was fascinated by creativity, particularly how art was made. She liked hearing artists talk about their process—where ideas came from, how a piece was planned and executed. Several painters and sculptors became friends. Some became famous; most did not. On occasion an artist would give or sell her work, which decorated the houses my family grew up in. I didn’t really appreciate what hung on the walls or was tucked into the corner of the family room until I started visiting museums and galleries on my own, where I recognized a few names on the wall labels.

I’m big into eavesdropping (or, as writers call it, doing research). During studio visits, the artists were usually kind enough to give me some materials to play with. While I dabbed paint onto canvas, made armatures out of wire bits, glued together wood scraps—and once started a small fire using a shard of stained glass—I listened.

I remember one abstract artist describing how he’d carry around a scene or idea in his head for weeks, even months, until he felt ready to paint it. He’d start with a sketch, adding enough detail until he thought it would be a sufficient guide. Next, he’d work out the color palette, mixing pigments until the hues were right. Then he’d prepare a very large canvas and go to work, spending long days and sometimes nights in the studio. (I saw more than a few sleeping bags in artist’s workplaces.) He’d first lay down what he called the bones of the piece, the paint strokes that would be the basis for the work. The next pass would include secondary shapes and the addition of color. The final stage was adding details until he knew the painting was finished.

Some sculptors worked from sketches or a maquette (small-scale model of a larger work), others preferred taille directe, going straight to carving the chunk of wood or stone, Once a sculptor had me stare at a large cube of marble for several minutes. “What do you see?” she asked. “Just rock,” I admitted. She saw more—on our return visit months later, a large mountain lion was emerging from the stone block. “I just chip chip chip away what doesn’t belong,” she said, paraphrasing Michelangelo, when I asked her how she did it.

I liked seeing mixed media artists work, assembling cloth, paper, wood, paint, and found objects until the arrangement was right. “Sometimes I want to emphasize color,” one explained. “Other times, it’s shape or texture. You work until the piece shows what you want to highlight.”

Visual art and writing have their respective advantages. A picture can indeed be worth a thousand words—that is, a complex idea often can be more effectively demonstrated by a single image than a written description. Such is the power of the graphic! But while a photograph or painting can perhaps better convey a scene, words usually excel at describing the action taking place before, after, and therein. The best prose constructs the setting in your imagination, allowing you to paint your own picture of what is happening. And a story needs a lead character reacting to a catalyzing event to set off the action, while a piece of art may by inspired by something the artist experiences or imagines, the specifics usually unknown by the viewer.

Even though what they depict may differ, visual art and writing are similar when it comes to their creation. Both require talent, the learning and practice of technique, the development of the creator’s particular style or voice. Both benefit from uninterrupted time during creation. Both are usually better if started with a plan—ranging from an idea of the beginning and ending to a detailed outline in the case of a story; preliminary sketches to a precise model for a painting or sculpture—developed through multiple passes, and finished with a unique take in the big-picture sense of things. Searching for the right word or phrase matters as much as mixing the right shade of color; narrative style is as important as brushstrokes. And both writers and painters usually end up spending more time than they want to staring at a blank page/canvas.

My time spent around artists apparently has blurred the line further for me between making art and writing; I begin each short story as though I were creating a painting or sculpture. (Perhaps this is why visiting art museums is a favorite way to recharge my inspiration.) Word count determines the medium I use as a model.

I think of a long-form story (ten thousand words up to novellas) as though it were a triptych painting—three large canvases filled with shapes and colors, quiet broad strokes and busy details. Each act is one of the panels; as with the painting, not complete without the other two. Both are often embellished with inside jokes, surprises, and twists that require concentration to discern; layered tales in a limited space, often suggesting more beyond their parameters.

My shortest works—around two thousand words—are like sculptures. The story usually arrives nearly fully formed in my mind. I quickly put it down, in full, on paper before I lose it, ending up with a block of words without paragraphs and sometimes even sentence breaks, XXX substituting for a description or character name here, the right word there. It’s like a piece of marble with a finished sculpture hiding inside. I then edit edit edit away until it’s honed to the essential, revealing just the story, including its final devastating paragraph, the unexpected yet inevitable ending, the twist or reveal that lingers. Like a sculpture, a very short story still has to support its weight, be anchored around its center of gravity. Its negative space—the words that were cut or never put down in the first place—defines its boundaries and brings balance and focus. Stop too soon with the red pen and the end result lacks refinement. Cut too much and you can ruin the entire work.

My stories in the six- to eight- thousand-word range most resemble mixed media works. Some elements (voice, character, plot, theme, prose, setting, imagery) are emphasized over others, but in the end everything comes together in perfect balance. This freedom to choose what is highlighted and what is consigned to the background is very useful when one of the goals is misdirection!

Finally, there’s the title. I craft it to be a maquette, giving a hint—and more, to be understood after the story is read—of what the larger work is about. Triptych painting and novella, sculpture and very short story, mixed media and character/plot/theme-driven works—is creating art and fiction writing more alike than not?

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3 Responses to “The ‘Art’ of Writing” (by Twist Phelan)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    Oh, I so love this post! Coincidentally, one of my own go-to’s in terms of thinking about creation is Alberto Giacometti’s Women of Venice series—which requires a little longer explanation, but would echo with some of what you have here. Saving this post. Much to think about.

  2. Art Taylor says:

    Hoping I’m not commenting twice (I think I hit something wrong on first one) but wanted to say how much I love this post. One of my own writing-art connections draws on Alberto Giacometti’s process, specifically his Women of Venice series—and while that would take a little more explaining, it’s resonant with what Twist wrote here. Feeling inspired by all this—a post I’ll save.

  3. Great post, Twist! Gives me lots to think about. Jim

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