Once upon a time…

Whilst visiting a children’s play area this week we stumbled upon this chair and it got me thinking about beginnings.

“Once upon a time” is an opening synonymous with fairy tales. We instinctively know which characters to expect, rule of three to pop up and of course, a happy ending – all those expectations from a four word opener. Once upon a time we were transported to a world of princesses in towers, bears who eat porridge, girls in red cloaks and those four words have stayed with us ready to transport us back to their world in an instance. 

The first sentence can be extremely daunting to write – hook the reader in, excite them, inspire them, get them to keep reading and set the scene for the story – a fairly big ask when you break it down. I was talking with another writer last week who said he’d repeatedly written, deleted and re-written the opening of his novel. In his mind there was no point in continuing to write until he had the beginning in place. 

When I write picture books they are normally inspired by something someone has said. More often than not it will be our three year old son or one of his peers – they’ve absentmindedly spoken gold dust, often more by mistake than by design. So I magpie the idea, phrase, word, sometimes the whole sentence and it goes straight onto the magnetic writing board on our fridge. 

The board was initially meant to house our weekly meal plan and then later became a general notepad for things we were planning to do in the week. Now it is a garden of poetry, an inspiration board and a starting point. It is where my stories begin.

Sometimes they stay there for months, gathering dust and being smudged until one day the rest of the story arrives. It arrives without warning and often inconveniently at 4am when the sane people are fast asleep. But there it is. The fridge phrase has festered away until images are conjured and words arrive. At this point I might make a few notes on a post-it I keep in my bedside table drawer, but more often than not I do nothing. I just wait. 

It is normally a few weeks and often a month or two before I sit down and commit the idea to paper. At some point the stars align, creativity starts to bubble away and I know it is time to write the story. Funnily enough it is rarely at the time when I have cleared space in my schedule to write, or set aside time to work. More often than not, it will be an infuriatingly ill-timed moment when I realise the story is ready to be written and I will end up scribbling half of it down on old napkins, or sweet wrappers at the bottom of my bag, so I don’t forget the words.  

And then the words are there on the paper and the first draft is complete. A mere three or four months after I heard the initial phrase. Other times I just sit down and write and see where I end up. Drafts of stories which have yet to become anything sit in their own special folder on my laptop, awaiting the day they might be offered a second chance with a new beginning – stories like, “The fly who won’t die”, which was a phrase our son repeated until it manifested itself in quite a dark, political picture book which has no place on a child’s bookshelf.

I never feel frustrated when I write though, whether the words become a story I am happy with or not. As I’ve learnt to appreciate, writing stories which won’t turn into books is as important a part of the creative process as writing the good stories. Committing time to writing, playing around with new ideas and concepts for a text, experimenting with words and language are as good a use of writing time as creating a great first draft. 

I could sit and wait for good stories to come along but more often than not the best idea is just to begin. Begin writing and see what happens, even if your beginning isn’t the one you imagined, it is a starting point for everything else. It’s time to see where the words take you; it’s time to begin. 

Published by Charlie Bown

Children's Author

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