Writing Fiction with Help from Picasso

cover image for Death in Cold WaterToday’s guest post is written by Patricia Skalka (@PatriciaSkalka). She is the author of the Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries, with the third book of the series, Death in Cold Water, now on shelves. In her post, Skalka reveals how stepping away from her pen and into the world of art changed her perspective on the way she approached her writing.

I’d been a professional nonfiction writer for more than twenty years when I decided to make the jump to fiction. Specifically, I wanted to write mysteries – stories based on both character and plot. Those were the types of books I most enjoyed reading and felt most drawn to writing. I had plenty of ideas and the confidence that comes from two decades of making my living with words.

So, I started. And failed. The first draft of my first mystery was a dud. The second was not much better. I kept reading, revising, and chipping away. I was determined to do this but each faltering step drained away some of my self-assurance.

The problem lay with my perception of the novelist. As a nonfiction writer, I worked for national magazines like the Reader’s Digest and Ladies Home Journal, and was intimately familiar with the work involved in crafting a piece for publication. First came the idea, followed by the gathering of material through research and interview, then organizing the material and writing a first draft and, finally, the revising. Intellectually, I understood that the same basic process applied to fiction. But on an emotional level I had a very different concept, and therein lay my problem.

Deep in my psyche, I embraced the notion that fiction writers were born to the story. In this fantasy, I envisioned the novelist as one who woke with the idea in full blossom and who proceeded to write a captivating novel with almost effortless ease.  The fact that I had to work – and work hard – at the process sent an unconscious message that I wasn’t and never could be a novelist and that, despite my attempts, I was just fooling myself.

I was at one of my lowest points, when I traveled to Europe to visit my daughter during her study-aboard semester in Spain. On a sun-drenched autumn afternoon in Barcelona, I walked down the famous La Rambla to the Museu Picasso in the Old Town area. I went to see his art, never realizing that the hours I would spend there would save my fiction-writing career.

photo of Chicago Picasso sculpture

The Chicago Picasso. Photo credit: tacvbo via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

Among the more than 4,000 works on display were the table-top models and rough sketches that Picasso had made of the iconic untitled sculpture that would eventually be installed in downtown Chicago. I lived in the city and was familiar with the massive, 50-foot tall steel structure. But in Barcelona, I came face-to-face with the many versions that Picasso had to work through before he arrived at the final design.

There were so many, and as I took them in, the truth dawned. I was looking at an example of a world famous artist going through a struggle and process similar to mine. Picasso didn’t wake up one morning with a vision of the finished sculpture in mind. He started with an idea and then for some two years he nurtured it through a long string of evolutionary and developmental steps until he reached his goal.

If Picasso had to work at creating his art, then why shouldn’t I have to work at writing my novels?

The point seems obvious, but to me it was a revelation. I walked out of the museum almost giddy. My attitude and approach were transformed. I could do this.

pencil and pencil shavingsBack home, I embraced my work with new enthusiasm and understanding.  Failure was not a defeat but a learning process. Ideas were seeds waiting to be cultivated, nourished, and tended. Change was good. Revision was an elemental part of the process.  If a plot line didn’t pan out, it wasn’t a disaster but an opportunity to figure out how to make it better.

Eventually, I learned two more important lessons. The first was discovering that I couldn’t write blind. I couldn’t take an idea and write by the seat of my pants. I needed to understand the entire story first. This meant plotting it out step by step before I began to write.

The second was learning to be comfortable writing at my own pace, and learning that the pace would vary. On some days it meant a thousand words and on some it meant five hundred.  I congratulate those who are able to do more but no longer let myself be intimidated by their output or feel that I have to match their pace.

Writing is a very intense and personal experience.  The only way to make it genuine is to believe in yourself, to go through the trial and error process of finding what works for you, and then to be true to yourself.

I made the trip to Barcelona ten years ago. Since then, I’ve published the first three books in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series and am well into the fourth. All I can say is, Thank you, Picasso!


photo of Patricia Skalka

Photo by B.E. Pinkham

Patricia Skalka is the author of Death Stalks Door County, Death at Gills Rock, and Death in Cold Water, the first three books in the popular Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series. Skalka, a Chicago writer, turned to fiction following a successful career in nonfiction. Her many credits include: Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest, freelancer, ghost writer, writing instructor and book reviewer.

Read more about the series and Door County HERE. Purchase a copy of Death in Cold Water HERE.


About Christi

Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Family Matters Contest, 2010. You can send comments or questions via her contact page.
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3 Responses to Writing Fiction with Help from Picasso

  1. Maggie Smith says:

    As an art dealer by trade, and novelist by desire, this was so relevant to me. Likewise, the conversations I’ve had with many artists about their desire to not keep repeating themselves, to try different styles — certainly relevant to Picasso as well.

    The only thing I’d comment on is the plotting everything out ahead of time. Yes, working from a plot helps give direction but I’ve found that the characters and their goals often take you in unexpected directions that you did not initially plan on, oftentimes much deeper and richer than you initially imagined. (maybe not so much in mysteries, but certainly in women’s fiction – my genre) so being open about changing the “plot” as it evolves is the best amalgam of the plotter/pantser dichotomy.

  2. Patricia says:

    Maggie — Congratulations on your dual career. I appreciate your comment about plot but find that even working within a tight story line characters can blossom in unexpected ways. That’s when I step back and reassess. I suspect there are always surprises in writing. That’ s one of the delights and rich rewards we all share.

  3. Ah, the dialogue on “Pantsing” vs. Plotting 🙂 I love how you both speak to honoring the process, and more–honoring *your* process. Mine seems to evolve with each piece I write. At times, I’m in full organic mode. In another moment, I find myself outlining and rearranging that outline well before I write the first line. All the while though, as you both say, being open to unexpected twists and turns!

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