Tag Archives: Sue Grafton

Remembering Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton, April 24, 1940 – December 28, 2017

On December 28, 2017, the mystery community lost a legend in the genre with the passing of Sue Grafton, author of 25 Kinsey Millhone “Alphabet” mysteries. Grafton’s first Millhone novel, A is for Alibi, was published in 1982. Her final novel, Y is for Yesterday, was released in 2017. According to Grafton’s daughter, Jamie, “Sue was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows, and in that same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”

I first discovered Sue Grafton in the early ’90s, when I found a hardcover copy of G is for Gumshoe at a flea market in Collingwood, Ontario. Mike and I had rented a chalet there for a week’s fishing/hiking vacation but the weather wasn’t cooperating. What better way to pass the time than with a good book by the fire?

And G is for Gumshoe was a very good book. I made my way to the local bookstore and purchased A through C. It didn’t take me long to make my way through the alphabet, at which point I impatiently waited for the next letter. You’d think with 25 books in a series where the protagonist barely ages the stories would get stale, but in fact the reverse was true. With every book, Grafton became more accomplished, the plots more layered, more intricate. When I was teaching creative writing, I would often suggest that my students read A is for Alibi, and Grafton’s latest book at the time, to compare how much she had matured as a writer. In short, Grafton inspired me, made me believe I’d become a better writer, if I just kept writing. Without Grafton, I’m not sure I would have ever tried to write a novel.

At the Bloody Words Mystery Conference held in Toronto in 2014, we were asked to dress up as our favorite character for the banquet. As you’d expect, there were a few Sherlock Holmes, Poirot’s and even a Trixie Belden. As for me, I opted for Kinsey Millhone, wearing the “all purpose black dress.”

Sue Grafton in the original all purpose black dress.

When I read that Sue Grafton was scheduled to be the Lifetime Achievement Honouree at Left Coast Crime Vancouver 2019, I knew I had to attend, and started counting the days to when I’d meet her in person, to tell her that she changed my life, that I loved her books.

And now I’ll close with some of my favorite Sue Grafton quotes:

Ideas are easy. It’s the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats.

If you’re unhappy, change something.

I write letters to my right brain all the time. They’re just little notes. And right brain, who likes to get little notes from me, will often come through within a day or two.

If high heels were so wonderful, men would be wearing them.

I focus on the writing and let the rest of the process take care of itself. I’ve learned to trust my own instincts and I’ve also learned to take risks.

RIP Sue Grafton. You will be missed. 

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First Drafts

New Story Building

 

In an interview by Leslie Karst, Sue Grafton, author of the popular “alphabet” mystery series starring Kinsey Millhone, was asked about her concept of “the shadow.”

 

“Your shadow is the pieces of yourself that you repress and deny,” Grafton explained. “It’s your pettiness, your sense of humor. And once you shut it off, you’ve denied your true self with regard to your writing. For example, you meet someone and your shadow thinks ‘yuck!’ But your ego will tell you, ‘well, that’s not very nice.’ But your shadow is right: that woman’s gonna run off with your husband.

“You’ve got to listen to your shadow; she’ll always tell you if you’re off course in your writing, even when your ego tells you it’s fine. I call this ‘eating a death cookie.’ I once threw away the first eight chapters of a book. It’s very scary to have to start over; you feel stark naked. But once you have the courage to dump a book, you have the courage to trust the process.”

Far be it for me to compare myself to someone as talented and accomplished as Sue Grafton, but I will admit to eating the occasional “death cookie.” Such was definitely the case with my most recent work-in-progress, a first-person mystery novel tentatively titled Skeletons in the Attic.

It all started off so well. I had a plan to write 1,000 words a day, which meant the first draft would be finished in three months or less. I even created an Excel spreadsheet that included: Target Daily Word Count; Word Count Progress; Average Word Count Per Day; and Projected Completion Date.

That spreadsheet should have been my first head’s up. When you are investing hours creating a spreadsheet, or color-coding characters and scenes in Scrivener, instead of putting words on the page, something in your head—your shadow—is telling you that you’re writing pure crap.

Sometimes, at least when it comes to first drafts, that’s okay. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying “The first draft of anything is shit.” Shannon Hale says, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” And Terry Pratchett says, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

All true, and yet, when you’re telling yourself the story and your shadow is falling asleep, it’s probably time for the death cookie. It’s not that Skeletons in the Attic doesn’t have a good premise. In fact, I quite like the first couple of first chapters. It’s in Chapter 3 that things begin to unravel, and writing another twelve chapters, and 20,000 words—which I did—doesn’t change that.

So this morning, I made myself a cup of vanilla rooibos tea, and forced myself to eat a death cookie, scrapping everything after Chapter 2 in Skeletons in the Attic. I won’t lie to you and say it went down easily, but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. Because, as Grafton said, writers have to have the courage to trust the process. After all, that’s all we’ve really got. Our ideas and our imagination, and our own unique process that allows us to get those stories onto the page, one hard fought word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.

And now it’s time to get back to Skeletons in the Attic. The protagonist is calling, and she’s telling me it’s time to stop writing blogs and developing spreadsheets. It’s time to start writing her story the way it’s meant to be told. One hard fought word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.