This past weekend was beyond magical for me as a mystery writer, highlighted by a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escort a rock star in the mystery world who is also an inspiration to women writers in this genre -- the incredible Sue Grafton.
Her acceptance of the invitation to be guest of honor at this weekend's 2009 New England Crime Bake conference for mystery writers and fans is credited with helping us sell out for the first time despite tough economic times that led to the cancellation of other mystery conferences.
As many of you know, Sue Grafton's books featuring private investigator Kinsey Milhone have been published in 28 countries, 26 languages and have a readership in the millions. She expects to conclude her alphabet series -- which began with "A is for Alibi" in 1982 and will see its 21st installment,"U is for Undertow, on Dec. 1 -- by 2015 with "Z is for Zero."
You can imagine how thrilled I was to be the Crime Bake organizing committee member assigned to escort her during the weekend conference. But you cannot imagine my embarrassment over what happened just minutes after I proudly informed her that we arranged for an executive car service to transport the two of us from the airport to the conference hotel because we were so pleased to have her as our guest of honor. Instead of the black town car I anticipated would drive up, the vehicle from American Executive Car and Taxi was from the "taxi" side and had seen better days. I was mortified then, but can laugh about it now.
Sue, however, was exceptionally gracious. She also is extremely funny and irreverent (no surprise to her readers) and was extrordinarily generous with her time and advice to the nearly 300 authors and wanna-be writers at Crime Bake. Not only did she sign every book and additional object pushed in front of her, she surprised everyone by offering to critique the first 20 pages of one attendee whose name she selected in a random drawing.
I also became aware of another example of her generosity, though it was far less public. An unpublished writer showed Sue a book she had signed at an event 21 years earlier. The woman told Sue then that she was writing a mystery. Sue offered to review a few pages and added her contact information. The woman never sent them, and finally finished her manuscript recently. "Then I'll read them now," Sue told her Saturday. The woman got in her car and drove home to retrieve them -- and later enjoyed the manuscript review of her life.
It's difficult to convey the energy at Crime Bake, but everyone was excited about the opportunity to meet Sue Grafton and hear her speak, although I suspect that some of what she said during her luncheon address was not easily accepted by many in the audience.
I'm not talking about her urging her listeners to delete adverbs and avoid words like glare and stomp. Or her suggestion that writers refrain from having women characters square their shoulders or blow their bangs up off their faces. I'm also not referring to her belief that the trick of a successful mystery is to fool the reader without making him or her angry.
I'm talking about the point where she said that perhaps writers should not join writers' groups. Did I just hear a collective gasp out there? I did in the ballroom of the Dedham Hilton.
In her view, writers' groups can make you feel too comfortable. They tell you your work is great, even when it's not. She believes writing involves isolation and creating in a pressure cooker. In her view, joining a group where you share your work also means you give away energy -- energy that would be better put into your manuscript.
It's a point worth considering. I never joined a writing group because I do not think there is enough time for me to be part of such a group, keep up with my everyday life and finish my novel, too. However, I have many writer friends who say their writing groups are what keep them going and they could not continue this difficult endeavor of writing without such support.
What do you think? Do you agree with Sue Grafton's point about writing groups?
To read more about the Crime Bake experience, click here. The photo is the same, as are some of the words, but there are more details about the weekend. One important element is missing, however: Our very own Working Stiffs blogger Paula Matter won the Crime Bake Flash Fiction Contest! Hopefully she'll share her creation soon. Yay Paula!