Keeping It In The Family

It turns out my thirteen-year-old granddaughter is a writer, too. She spent a week with me recently and while she was here, she worked on a short story. Imagine: here’s this dear child whom I love to distraction, saying, “Nana, can I read you what I wrote?”

Most of us in writing critique groups know the feeling of panic that hits when a fellow-author asks if we’ll read his or her work. Yikes! What if it’s lousy? Most writers secretly want praise and assurance that their work is absolutely flawless. Some thick-skinned individuals can deal with carefully worded suggestions. But almost everybody gets mad if you become too carried away in the honesty department.  That’s what I was thinking.

What I said was, “Of course.” I planned to be kind. She’s just a kid.

Imagine my relief when I realized she can write! She composed dialogue that sounded like real people talking, and she understood point of view. I’ve been in classes where people five times her age had trouble with those aspects of fiction-writing. (I am sometimes one of them.) Her innate talent reinforced my belief that the ability to write is with us from an early age. You can learn to parse a sentence. You can learn rules, guidelines and iambic pentameter. But a natural ability to get words onto paper in readable fashion is as unmistakable as a graceful jump shot that sends the ball whooshing through the net. You know it when you see it.

So there’s my granddaughter, plugging away on a story that may accompany her application to a fine arts high school. She read it to me scene by scene. I made notes and then we talked. Because she’s the real deal, I gave her the same kind of critique I’d give an adult – honest and unvarnished. Now here’s the cherry on top of the sundae: she could take criticism and utilize suggestions for a rewrite, while understanding that it’s her work and her voice. Sometimes she didn’t agree with my comments and that’s okay. She got it that the only proper response to a critique is “Thanks. I’ll consider that.”

Now, you may be thinking that I’m just a proud grandma, and quite possibly you’d be right. But I’ve hung out with enough writers to feel confident that I can recognize ability. Can’t wait to see where this girl’s talent takes her. I’m betting there will be a book dedication to good old Nana someday.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?


If you ever want to bring a blank look to the eyes of a writer, ask that. It’s a logical question. All those intricate plot twists, characters and situations – where the heck do they come from? The thing is, we don’t know. They may appear full-fledged, as in “Aha!”  Or they might tippy-toe into our subconscious, as in “Oh…yeah.”

Sometimes they lie in wait. I’m surprised by the people and events that ambush my computer, and presumably, my mind. I like to start typing with a germ of an idea and see where it takes me. If I get stuck, I ask myself what would be the most unlikely thing that could possibly happen next. So characters take sharp left turns, veer right and do illegal U-turns all the time.

But let’s think: say you were going to write a story. Where would you get your plot idea? Well, do you have an eccentric relative about whom family myths are spun? Was there a house you lived in and loved? Ever had an unrequited love? I’ll bet you could flesh out all three of those skeletons with stories uniquely your own. All you need is a person in a place with a problem. And we’ve all been that person. We’ve all had life experiences that tested, tickled and taunted us. That’s the jumping-off point for a novelist.

However: beware of reality. It’s fiction’s enemy. “But it really happened this way!” you may protest. Yeah, and who cares? Reality hardly ever has a satisfactory beginning, middle and – especially – end. The most earth-shaking events tend to taper off into normality, simply because humans crave and seek normality. Beginnings are seldom sharply defined. With the exception of birth, beginnings just sort of happen. And middles! Middles are mindless muddles of the mundane. Nothing interesting about ‘em in real life. But readers want a cohesive narrative that keeps them turning pages, so…you make it up. Or, you beat your head on the nearest wall and return to the land of sanity where people actually live their own lives, instead of dreaming up worlds for imaginary characters. But where’s the fun in that?

So here’s a challenge: describe someone. Could be someone you know or a someone you invent. Make him or her memorable. For example, here’s a character I love, Cora Entwhistle. She’s a lady of mature years who has definite opinions, but she won’t offer them unless you ask.  Mrs. Entwhistle doesn’t seek adventures, but they seem to find her. Her ancient dog, Roger, gets kidnapped; she’s swept into the witness protection program; she unknowingly eats a pot brownie. To all these situations and many more, Mrs. Entwhistle responds with straight-ahead common sense. (I like her so much I’m working on a book of short stories about her.)

And where did I get the idea for Cora Entwhistle? No clue.