Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Advice From Sue Grafton

by Kathleen Ernst

Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone series, was the Lifetime Achievement honoree at Malice Domestic this year. You may know it as “the Alphabet Series.” Sue published A Is For Alibi in 1982; her latest is U Is For Undertow. All told, she’s officially sold a bazillion books.

Sue Grafton I had never heard Ms. Grafton speak before, and she didn’t disappoint. She managed to convey both humility and pride in her accomplishments; she expressed opinions, but often with a touch of self-deprecating humor.

One of her comments struck me in particular. “You have to be willing to fail,” she said. “You have to work right on the edge of your talent.”

I’ve been thinking about that. Am I willing to fail? Yes, been there, done that. Many times, actually. I have sixteen books in print. I also wrote ten or twelve that were never published, prior to getting my first book contract. Those will never see the light of day, but I have several newer manuscripts I love that have not sold.

Am I working at the edge of my talent? A trickier question.

I am willing to try new things. Does that count? Old World Murder, the first book in my Chloe Ellefson series, is told entirely in alternating 3rd person point of view, in 1982. In the second book, The Heirloom Murders, I experimented with two timelines. Most action still takes place in 1982, but that’s interwoven with a thread from 1876. (The book won’t be published until September, but content reviewers have given it a thumbs-up.)

And I’m not complacent. I know that learning to write good books is a perpetual journey. I don’t take anything for granted, and look for opportunities to learn and grow.

So I’m not sure about the whole “working at the edge of my talent” thing. But I like the concept. I’m going to keep it in mind—an ongoing challenge to do everything I can to make each book stronger than the last.


Beth Groundwater said...

Great advice from Sue Grafton, Kathleen, but from your writing history, I think you're already taking it to heart.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks, Beth!

Robin Allen said...

I'm not sure I understand what it means to write to the edge of your talent. Does it mean writing a book when you normally write short stories? Or is Sue talking about letting your creativity have its way? Did she elaborate in her talk?

Kathleen Ernst said...

Robin, she didn't really elaborate on that point, which I think is why it keeps circling in my brain. I suspect she meant we shouldn't be afraid to take chances, or to try something new. It might not work, but it also may work brilliantly.

I think of some of my favorite writers who have taken risks, such as killing off a favorite character, or switching to a new point-of-view mid-series, or taking a break from a bestselling series so they could try writing a stand-alone. They were willing to take a risk and try something that might not be as successful for them as their earlier work had been.

Darrell James said...

Kathleen- I took the comment to mean "keep pushing the envelope and don't let yourself go stale as an author." I can buy into that. It sounds like you have too.

Good post!

Kathleen Ernst said...

"Don't let yourself go stale" - that's a great summary! And after all, isn't that what keeps writing fun? If we're not bored, our readers (we hope) won't be bored either.

Jessie Chandler said...

Kathleen, great post! I'm a big Grafton fan, and I think her comment was to challenge yourself, too. What an amazing treat to see her speak!

Lois Winston said...

Kathleen, I took Sue's advice to mean not to get complacent. Too many authors find a formula that works for them and never veer from it. After a while every book starts to read like the previous one. There are many authors I've stopped reading for this reason. Some readers like the comfort of knowing exactly what they're going to get book after book after book by their favorite authors, but I think that becomes boring, both as a reader and a writer.

Robin Allen said...

Okay, I'm understanding this better. I think seasoned authors can and should get away with more chance taking. Lois is right about formula writing.

Maybe Sue was also preparing her fans for what's to come after Z.