by C. Kevin Thompson
At the Academy of Achievement,1 Sue Grafton spoke to a group of college-age attendees, encouraging right-brainers in the crowd to consider a life in the Arts. As I listened to this presentation, I was struck by how similar writer’s lives are in so many ways. No matter how fledgling or how established, it seems all writers have a rite of passage they must endure.
Sue began by listing things we already know, like how writers get to work in their “jammies” and don’t have to attend company picnics. She talked about the downside, too. “There’s no path; no course you can take.” Going to an Ivy League school won’t help you, either. Yet, the rite of passage creates some peculiar paths to the publishing world. Sue received a four-year degree in English from the University of Louisville, but spent the middle two years at Western Kentucky State Teachers College, “which is full of Ag majors” and endured classes like “Pork Production” and “Corn.”
Sue informed her audience the Arts probably takes the toughest, most committed people of any job field. Considering a life in the Arts? “Expect rejection,” “learn how to take criticism,” “learn to labor in obscurity,” and “don’t be surprised if you get treated with condescension by people who love you but secretly wish you’d get a day job and get off the family payroll.”
I sympathize, empathize (and every other “-ize” out there) with Sue at this point.
I’m sure you do, too.
Sue started at the age of 18 as a writer of bad poetry and mediocre short stories. At the age of 22, she had an “epiphany.” She realized something important for any writer. If you are to be a writer, “you have to commit.” So, she did. She wrote her first, full-length novel…”which was never published.” And a second, full-length novel…”which was never published.” And a third, full-length novel…(you guessed it) “which was never published.” She accomplished all this at night while working full-time as a medical receptionist and a cashier in a hospital. She was raising a family, too. Bet that doesn’t resonate with anyone, does it?
At 25, Sue entered her fourth, full-length novel into the now defunct “The Anglo-American Book Award Contest.” She didn’t win. However, she received a publishing offer from a British company for £275, and used that deal to land an American agent. The book sold to an American publisher for $1,500.
Sue sold the film rights to her fifth novel, The Lolly-Madonna War, and MGM produced the movie in 1973. Sue wrote the screenplay and “got to work in Hollywood” for 15 years, but that experience didn’t set well. She disliked the movie folk extracting their “fine, gold pencils” and ruining her writing. She learned a very valuable lesson from that experience. “If you don’t like the game, don’t take the money.” “Writers who try to ‘get into Hollywood’ are like people who try to get into prison.” Something to think about from one who knows.
While in Tinseltown, a Hollywood agent informed Sue “she could write characters, but she couldn’t do plot.” That ticked her off. So, she decided to teach herself how to write plot and felt writing a mystery novel would be the best way.
At the same time, Sue went through a terrible divorce. With no money for a “fancy pants attorney” and enduring three custody battles, she thought it was enough just to be a “nice person.” Her naiveté apparently didn’t fare well in the courts. So, at night, she concocted ways to kill her ex-husband. One particular method rose to the fore, and she said, “You know, I bet I could do that.” However, Sue admits being a law-abiding citizen who takes her library books back on time and crosses the street between the lines. So, if she tried to kill her ex, she knew she’d get caught, go to prison, have to wear prison clothing, eat starchy food, watch her derriére widen, and disgrace her children.
Then, it dawned on her. “Why not use this plot in a book and get paid for it?”
And A is for Alibi was born in 1982.
Why did I write a short bio on Sue Grafton? To show three things. One, all writers share the same struggles, and it creates an eerie, eclectic sort of comfort for those of us who aren’t in Sue’s shoes yet. If every author got together in a large room, handed the microphone off and listened, one at a time, they’d hear multiple stories of perseverance and heartbreak. Sue’s story resonated with me because she wrote three unpublished novels before number four became the beginning of something special. I, too, had three unpublished novels written before my fourth caught the attention of a publisher. And it won an award.
Two, you have to be nuts to be a writer. There isn’t a more treacherously rewarding occupation out there, save snowboarding down an uncharted mountain with jagged rocks protruding through the virgin snow. The life of a writer appears glamorous to the Amazon-hawking crowd, scouring the Top 100 lists. For most of us, though, day jobs as medical receptionists and cashiers at local hospitals pay the bills. The novels are crafted at night when normal people sleep.
Three, murder mysteries full of suspense and thrillers which truly thrill are written by novelists who get in touch with their inner psychopath (Another reason why writers have to be a little nuts, perhaps?). Again, I resonated with something Sue said. When I wrote 30 Days Hath Revenge, I asked myself, “If I was a terrorist, what could I do to bring a country to its knees?” Sue envisioned killing off her estranged husband, put it into a novel, and has enjoyed 31years of writing success spent on one series alone. Sue said the smartest thing she did was invent someone who could support her.
I guess being a bit psychopathic can pay dividends after all…so long as it remains fictitious.
C. Kevin Thompson’s debut novel, The Serpent’s Grasp (OakTara, 2012), was the winner of the 2013 BRMCWC Selah Award (Fiction-First Novel category). His second novel, 30 Days Hath Revenge (OakTara, 2013), was the Silver Medalist in Readers’ Favorite 2013 Book of the Year for the Christian Fiction category. You can visit him at www.ckevinthompson.com.
1 Ershed, Allison. ENG210: Creative Writing: A Master Class. Academy of Achievement. iTunesU. 2012 July 13.