Once Upon A Time

It’s how a story starts.

Once upon a time: four words which make us wait with bated breath for a consuming story.

We settle down at the words, our mouths and minds agape, for what is about to unfurl.

Once upon a time there was a lady in a tower, or a deeply unpromising youngest son, go the fairytales. Once there was a servant girl, or a garden full of witch’s lettuces.

Later, the promise settles beneath the surface. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, ” the fifty year old “It was love at first sight,” or a favourite of mine, “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black…”

I came upon a perfect Once Upon A Time today, fresh out of life itself, starting out on its journey by word of mouth from fact to folklore.

Once upon a time, in the far Western reaches of our rugged little island, there lived a hard-working farmer.

Farmer Thomas had been born and raised  in the family farmhouse. Folks in that part of the island get their feet under the table, and they don’t take to gadding about changing houses.

He was a kindly soul, helping all in his path. And his kindness extended to animals. His favourite part of every day was his early morning journey, clad in wellington boots, to feed the animals.

Always at his heels was his constant companion: Monty the blackmustachioed dog.

One morning early, Farmer Thomas put on his wellington boots, marshalled Monty, and began the climb up the hill to see the animals.

But he never got there.

For out of nowhere on that inhospitable hillside in the semi-darkness, he was suddenly lifted, violently, off his feet and hurled up into the air.

And in that freeze-frame moment which so often accompanies cataclysm, he carefully noted the silhouette of his wellingtons against the sky, and the ground somewhere beneath his head.

He remembered nothing more. All went black.

Twenty minutes later, Farmer-Thomas was woken. He was brought to consciousness by the dishevelled, plentiful whiskers of Monty.

The dog waited patiently, encouraging the farmer – shaken and shocked- to drag himself painfully to his feet and walk back to the house.

None of the doctors at the county hospital could work out what was wrong with him: they scratched their heads and ordered scans.

The scans confirmed that he had been the victim of a bolt of lightning. If it had not been for his wellington boots, he would not have survived.

And after four days the Farmer went home to the little dog who had helped him. And they both lived happily ever after.

A tall tale. Formulaic. Timeless. True, loosely, actually.

A great event looms in the lives of many of my writer friends. NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month – commits them to write a novel in a calendar month.

There is great industry, planning plots and devising characters.

It is compelling.

How much to plan? That is the question. We teach storywriting by numbers to our UK youngsters: opening, characters, setting, conflict, growing suspense, climax, relaxing of suspense, resolution, ending.

They often find it tedious.

Because storytelling comes from the realm of the subconscious. Our conscious mind should not have too fierce a grip.

A storyteller walks out on an enchanted lake. Look down: and you will sink without a trace, all the way down to stark reality.

Today I met an author who had her books borrowed 16 million times from UK public libraries in the decade 1999-2009.

Jacqueline Wilson writes for children, quite beautifully. Maddie is entranced by her modern books; but most of all by her Victorian heroine, Hetty Feather.

Jacqueline talked about her novel, Sapphire Battersea, today at London’s Foundling Museum.

Someone asked the author a question. Does she map her stories out in detail before she writes them?

Her beginning, she says, is always mapped out. She has ideas about what will happen to her main character – one or two key events. And she has a good idea of how her story should end.

And that’s it. Because, she says, her stories have a life of their own. And the real fun of writing is watching how they take the reins and steer themselves.

If you know precisely how the story is going to turn out, where’s the fun in writing it?

The epic promise of Once Upon A Time: it endures, for both listener and writer. The story strikes us like a bolt of fairytale lightning and sweeps us up into the sky so that our wellingtons are silhouetted against the sky.

It takes control and, on some days, it tells itself. It can change direction when we least expect it.

I wish the whole exuberant clan of November storytellers the bolt of lightning for which they yearn.

Written in response to Side View’s challenge: Once upon a time….they lived happily ever after

63 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time

  1. – oh how true it is, that the formulaic teaching of writing stories is so wrong!

    When I write it is a strange mix of planning and allowing the story to take its own shape – and in this day and age of the computer the elements ‘missing’ from the first draft can so easily be added that it is best, I feel, just to go with the flow of that first inspiration and not to worry if it fulfills any of the ‘necessary elements’.

    Anyway, there are so many marvellous stories out there that do not fit any preconceived ideal and stand as one off wonders 🙂

    1. They do, Pseu. Interestingly Jacqueline Wilson writes in books, rather than word processing. I think the way you approach a story does differ according to your learning style. But that moment when the story controls you – it’s a thing many of the great authors speak of.

      1. I’ve done NaNoWriMo before and am thinking of doing it this year… but as a series of short stories, not attempting a novel. but there’s a lot on this coming month already, so I’m not sure! One more day to decide.

      2. In a hushed aside atypical of her exuberant loud character, Pseu’s cyberfriend uttered an almost-silent “Huzzah!”
        I promise not to badger you to find out how it’s going 😀

  2. I’m tempted by the challenge – but where to find the hour that it will take. A friend took up the reins last year, and said it took at least that each day. Have to admit, that it do it will be in secret. At least I can type fairly fast – so it won’t, sadly, be longhand.

    1. I know – it’s a long haul. I can’t help but hope that you give it a go. It’s such a dramatic, sweeping way of writing. For me. I’d have to stop blogging for a month and start writing. Or write it on the blog. It would surely have to be at least 2,000 words a day….

  3. I wonder……… a novel in a month. Old project seems to be re-appearing, a website content to finish, an assessment report, and new customer for a whole load of documentation. Oh me oh my, too many hours a day a-keyboarding.

    Lovely post Kate, I have to admit my stories (such as they are) tend to go off on their own where I didn’t initially think they were headed.

  4. I’m not sure whether I could do this, Kate, as it seems a little daunting with the time that – I get the feeling – will be needed to allocate for it. Having said that, I find that when I write my stories they take a life of their own, and run their own course; and the characters write for themselves. Which sounds odd as I type that, but it is the best way I can describe what I mean. OK, my stories tend to be only half a page in length, and nowhere near novel material, and I suppose I would just need to expand on that for a start.. but I don’t know. I do enjoy the process of writing, though. Hmmm…
    I can’t make my mind up whether it sounds easy or difficult now… I’ll go and lie down in a darkened room and ponder this for a while. I may be too late to get started for this month, but I don’t actually need to do it this month, do I?
    Once again a thought provoking post, Kate, thank you!

    1. I think your style would be amazing in a longer piece, Tom. Every one of your posts gives me a head full of questions about what happens next. And you manage to write so accessibly: so affably. It draws one in. Good luck in your decision making…

    1. Not at present, Earlybird: with a family and job I would have to blog it day by day as I did it I only have time for onbe set of 2,000 words a day! I’d be really interested if you had a try though. The snatches of story you write are compelling.

  5. “Once upon a time” – yes it *is* an epic promise, Kate and one of the most relaxing phrases in the English language – as there is inevitably a treat ahead 🙂

  6. Every writer has a different way of working, I suppose. I don’t have a novel in me so I don’t know how I would be, but I do know that when I start a post I think I know how it’s going to end but it seldom does turn out that way.

    Rather like raeding one of yours 🙂

      1. Mine are like that too, they head off in directions I never imagined, and sometimes I have leave out the original idea because it doesn’t fit in with what I’ve written anymore.

  7. I don’t think I could write a long novel Kate, short stories and the ( definitely ) odd poem, seem to be my genre` although saying that, I’ve never really and truly sat down to write characters and map out a storyline from beginning to end… A bit like Sir Aquatom, I ‘go with the flow’ and my mind gives in to my imagination nodes and ‘takes off’ … Time is the key I suppose, and I seem to be spending more and more time pounding the keys on this ‘poor’ keyboard… (it complains bitterly and gets it’s own back by making horrendous ‘mistakles’ ) … Loved the Farmer story…and I’m so glad he wore his Wellies… xPenx

    1. Time is indeed the key. I do have to say you take my breath away with your poems: they way some of them use the old seventeenth century ways to frame your ideas, it’s really striking. I warm to them, because you choose the simples most beautiful subjects and write them precisely as someone back then might have done.
      And Maddie (all right, and me) is addicted to the animations on your page…

  8. What a wonderful post, Kate, and what a tidy bit of encouragement coming across the miles and miles. You are the best.

    How exciting for you and for Maddie to see a favorite author. My Kate and I once had the pleasure of being with Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, Number the Stars) and Kate still remembers the hearing the author read her words and answering questions. So do I.

    1. Maddie’s response was just wonderful: “Oh, I wish we could go and do it all over again!” she confided in me as we sat on the train going back home. These moments leave such an indelible mark on their lives, don’t they, Penny? I would have loved to meet Madeleine L’Engle. What a treat….

  9. I knew you’d do a great job on this theme, and I haven’t been disappointed!

    Jacqueline is one step ahead of me. I also map out my ‘once upon a time’, and I aim generally for some sort of ‘happily ever after’, but I haven’t the faintest idea of what that will be. I also don’t know what lies in between until I write it.

    Good luck on the novel thing! A daunting task. I wrote Regina in TWO months (7000 words was the best daily output) and that utterly drained me!

      1. Very little sleep, and on a roll – Regina the impossibly-too-perfect girl is one of my favourite characters.
        Of course, I pale into insignificance by comparison with Edgar Wallace. Inter alia, he dictated a 36 000-word summary of the First World War in one day.

  10. Oh, I see you are wisely not trying the marathon. I wondered how you’d possibly manage it plus blogs. Virtually impossible, I’d say, even aiming for the 80 000 which some schools of writing regard as the ‘only’ length for a novel. To me, that is only about 2/3 of the right length.

    How do you feel about the theory that every word should drive the plot forward? I like pointing out that if that was applied to ‘Alice’ there wouldn’t be much book left.

  11. Ah. Supreme response to Sidey’s weekend theme, Kate. I love the struck-by-lightening story.

    I signed up for NaNoMo last year but completed the first draft of my novel before it started. Like you, I will be cheering from the sidelines.

    It is always a treat to meet people we admire. Maddie will probably remember that trip for the rest of her life.

    1. I’m sure she will, Andra. She’s like to write for a living when she grows up. I keep trying to steer her towards jounalism – she’s born and bred of two journalists – but she’s a complete Miriam, far too dreamy….I can’t wait to see who takes part in NaNo. It’s my latest spectator sport…

  12. A delightful post for anyone who has ever written or attempted to write a novel. The only one I ever attempted was written longhand and never completed. (At the time I firmly believed longhand kept me closer to my story.) I can’t imagine actually completing one in a month, but I applaud all who try.

    1. Me too, Piedtype: it’s quite a task. Interestingly, Jacqueline Wilson writes all her novels longhand in beautiful old hide-bound books. She waved one of them around yesterday. I can’t imagine doing anything other than word processing….

  13. I agree… Children are natural storytellers, why not just let them write? At least in the beginning. Nothing kills a new story (or poem) better than a list of how-to’s or a lecture on what works and what doesn’t… or as in my case, restrictions (imposed by family, not teachers) as to what one could and couldn’t write about.

    As for NaNo, I had decided early on that I wouldn’t do it this year, but find myself vacillating now that we’re on the cusp of those heady November days… I’m busy, but have managed it before under worse conditions.

  14. Great post! I always wondered how much authors plan out their books, particularly fiction ones. I agree that it wouldn’t be very fun if you had it all planned out and already knew how it was going to go. When I’ve tried writing some fiction stuff in the past I really don’t like having it mapped out and just prefer to let the words flow. I do that with a lot of my blog posts too I guess, I just write, and the post comes together.

  15. Wionderful post, Kate. When I write novels, I rarely know where they’re headed just out of the starting gate ~ I just keep a notepad handy for plot twists and turns.

    I did NaNoWriMo once . . . that was enough. 😀

  16. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ~ Robert Frost

    When I begin a blog post, I never know where it’s going to end up. I wonder why I think I should know what will happen in my novel. Control freak.

    I hope you’ll join us in NaNo. I’m determined to make my 50,000 words this time. If I do, I’ll get 50% off Scrivener. I think Scrivener might help rein in the chaos in my head.

    1. Love that Frost quote, Kathy…If you make your 50,000 words I shall begin to look forward to the day when I can settle down and read them, post publication. What a day that will be…

  17. Stories do, indeed, take on a life of their own, as do poems, Kate.

    What would be really interesting (and the Blogosphere is a perfect platform for it) is to see the results of a progressive-novel project where a number of bloggers each write a different chapter of a single story – NaProNoWriMo

  18. Oh, boo, Kate…you’ve just reminded me of the challenge. Each day at work I’ve seen it in my inbox, and I quibble. I think I wrote a whole two days worth last year, lol! I’m not plot driven, ergo, I wonder if I could just stream it?
    Hmmm, most interesting about what constitutes storytelling (or writing). I submitted a piece to a NPR challenge, a short of 600 words or less, i.e. 3 minute fiction. Things became down right nasty today when peeps on FB are grumbling about one of the stories being prose poetry, ergo, not a story! ha! Jeez, you’d think writers (artist) would stick together on the idea of art! I shall post my story as soon as they announce the winner….after that commentary, you can guess mine would make some boil (its like my poetry, but in paragraphs (smile)).

  19. What a great story about Farmer Thomas! NaNoWriMo has been a temptation for a while now, but I don’t think it’s for this year. Trying to transition out of bodywork and back into writing, with a novel wagging at my heels in a mishmash is stressful enough for 2011-2012! I, too, will cheerlead this year. Go writers, go!

  20. Perhaps blogging is the first-line attempt at larger projects. For those of us who fiercely claim we have no time, somehow the desire to connect through words and stories surpasses the grip of jobs, families, and sometimes even face-to-face friendships! What a fun idea to think of participating in this NaNoWritMo endeavor, and someday perhaps I will. For now, I’ll gladly cheer on those who do. And Kate, thank you for introducing Jacqueline Wilson to me. I look forward to meeting Hetty Feather! Debra

    1. Blogging is a wonderful way to write, Debra, you are right there. I have no idea what I’d do without it, these days. Hetty Feather is a lovely heroine: full of spirit and adored by little girls….

  21. Well said! I’m participating in the Young Writers Program (NaNoWriMo for young ‘uns), and frankly, I’m disappointed with my English teacher. How is this sort of thing CREATIVE writing??? My special novel has only a rough outline – I’ll let my characters decide what they want to do, not me.

    But unfortunately, I too am a crap typist. Small world!

  22. I loved this post! (Although I love them all.) The craft of storywriting is one that fascinates me. I’ve been writing stories for a number of years and have read various books on how it should be done and on what the “correct” formulas are. Yet I find that the stories I get most pleasure out of writing are the ones which I do quite spontaneously. I really do find that if they’re given the chance they can take on a life of their own. Having said that, I am glad I’ve read the books on the subject I have and swallowed the tips that I have, because I’m sure that I must sub-conciously take the best bits relevant to whatever I happen to be working on at the time. So it’s great to hear that other people don’t stick to the “rules” too strictly.

    This is changing the subject a little, but is still on the subject of writing: have you seen this article? I stumbled across it yesterday, and I’m glad I did. As you know, I’ve mentioned before a slight obsession with notebooks, stationery and all other items that I fondly refer to as “deskstuff”! Well this article cheered me no end. No longer do I feel such a dinosaur for preferring the feel and look of pen/pencil and paper, along with the lack of intimidation from a blank screen! 😀


    1. Oh, that’s wonderful, Heather: the secret pleasures of longhand writing that Orwell writes about with his hero, Winston in 1984 are still with us. It’s a sensual pleasure, writing. Thank you for that wonderful link!

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