Grafton talked to students about her writing process and daily routine, and answered specific questions from them about character development, scene descriptions and writing style. The discussion didn’t stay tied to Grafton’s own novels, or even to novel writing. Sitting in a circle of desks, the intimate group discussed writing plays, poetry and even songs.
Regardless of what kind of writing it is, Grafton said, a writer has to be “willing to write very badly for a long time.” Knowing when to abandon a story is part of the learning process, not defeat.
“I’ve started a hundred books I didn’t finish,” she said. “You have to have the courage to dump a book — then you're free. That's your learning process."
Besides, she said, "You don't take your first piano lesson then check in to Carnegie Hall for your concert."
When asked how she knows where to take the story, Grafton told students that writing is the process of making "thousands and thousands of decisions.” Make a pros and cons list, she said, and if it doesn't work, back up and try again.
Students were encouraged to write down every idea they have — you may not be able to use it now, or even know what to do with it, but you might come back to it later, she said. Grafton said she begins her day by journaling each morning — even if it just a “long whiny letter” to herself about not knowing what to write.
“I ask myself three questions,” Grafton said. "Is it plausible? Is it dramatic? Is it satisfying?"
Kinsey Millhone, Grafton said, is like Grafton’s alter-ego — “she’s who I might’ve been if I hadn’t married young and had kids,” she said.
"If I did it again, I might try to get into law enforcement,” Grafton said. Then she reconsidered. “But some safe part, not the part where you get killed in the street."
But, Millhone can only know what Grafton knows, which has led to extensive research over the years on topics like criminal law, court procedures, ballistics and forensics. She recommended students do the same — “act like a journalist,” she said.
And while Millhone may be Grafton’s second life, they’re not the same person, she said.
“(Millhone) cusses more than I do — she embarrasses me,” Grafton said. "She eats junk food, I don’t."
Grafton said she is fortunate that writing turned into a lucrative career, but that wasn’t the intent. “When I wrote 'A (is for Alibi)’, it was purely for the joy of it,” she said. “Even if it didn’t get published, I really enjoyed it."
Writing, she said, “is the toughest thing I have ever done — but it has given me meaning and purpose."
Regardless of if they are working on a future bestselling novel, a poem, a song or a play, Grafton told the class in the end, it is all story telling.
"We were born to tell stories,” she said. "We've been doing it all our lives. A joke is a story. A dream is a story."