The struggle with ‘Once upon a…’

once upon a

The one piece of advice given by literary agents and publishers the world over is to have an opening paragraph that will hook your audience so much that they won’t be able to stop reading.

Speaking to other writers at SCBWI, I’ve heard that it’s this opening paragraph that causes the most headaches. It is repeatedly agonised over and reviewed, often rewritten tens if not hundreds of times.

With this in mind, I decided to take another look at some of the best opening paragraphs of children’s books to see whether there’s  some kind of alchemy – a mixture of suspense, challenge and intrigue perhaps, which makes children (and adults) want to dive straight in. The answer of course is no. They’re all gripping, and all entirely different. But there are elements from each that new writers should definitely learn from.

In Suitcase Kid Jacqueline Wilson lays the cards out on the table and tells the main characters’ problem from the outset:

“When my parents split, they didn’t know what to do with me. My mum wanted me to go and live with her. My dad wanted me to go and live with him. I didn’t want to live at my mum’s new place or my dad’s new place.”

David Almond does the opposite in Skellig, setting a mysterious scene which reveals little enough to keep you hooked:

“I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. The winter was ending. Mum said we’d be moving just in time for spring. Nobody else was there. Just me.”

In Patrick Ness’ Monsters of Men, there’s a sense of the reader standing on the verge of a big event:

“War,” says Major Prentiss, his eyes glinting. “At last.”

“Shut up,” I say, “There ain’t no at last about it. The only one who wants this is you.”

And then there’s the immediate comedy in Roald Dahl’s The Twits:

“What a lot of hairy-faced men there are nowadays. When a man grows hair all over his face it is impossible to tell what he really looks like. Perhaps that’s why he does it. He’d rather you didn’t know.”

Hen Houses and Happiness

The Nosy Crow conference on Saturday was filled with the useful and unexpected. It made me realise that I didn’t know what I don’t know.

It also offered huge relief to the true bookworms, who love everything about the traditional, shamelessly old-fashioned, real book, even if it doesn’t fit in your bag and gives you severe shoulder strain when you lug it around. Is it a peculiar to be attached to the smell of a printed book?

A few years back, I looked on with horror at a YouTube clip which showed a delightful boy working an iPad better than I could myself. At that point I cried a bit inside and resigned myself to a bleak future, akin to Farenheit 451 in which all books are burnt and swiftly forgotten, in favour of lightweight technological marvels.

So I almost sighed aloud with relief when I heard that even in 2013, e-books form less than 5% of the children’s book market. There is still hope!

My favourite part of Saturday’s event was the panel of three Nosy Crow authors who made the journey from the slushpile to getting their work sold internationally. Helen Peters was a particular inspiration as she told us about how she’d given up on a piece of work, tucked the manuscript under her bed, only to revisit it years later following advice from a friend. The result was The Secret Hen House Theatre which I’ve just finished reading – a great, unpredictable story which really captures the childhood imagination.

Hannah is a unique heroine, one that you want to befriend and learn from at the same time. And then there’s the importance of smell again. You really sense it as you read – the mud, manure, and the magic. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a warm-hearted page turner. And you don’t necessarily have to be 8-12 years old.DSC00581

In the beginning…

Welcome to Flotsam and Jestsam. Here you’ll find an assortment of my recommendations of great children’s books, both new and old, as well as some notes on my struggle to write a story of my own.

I tend to write down ideas on scraps of paper which form a chaotic mess in my handbag, so this will be an attempt to copy down some of the important ones and give some order to the madness.

Please bear with me, as this my first foray into the world of blogging. It was inspired by a talk by Jon Reed at the Nosy Crow Conference on children’s publishing.  ‘Anyone can do it’ he said… so here goes.