The Best Book Writing Advice I’ve Ever Gotten

by Kellie McGann | 57 comments

A few months ago, I traveled home for the holidays. This time was filled with loud family political rants and way too many sugar cookies. I had an amazing time traveling all over the Northeast, and in my travels, I got a lot of great life and writing advice.

The Best Book Writing Advice I've Ever Gotten

The Best Book Writing Advice

I was inundated with advice from older friends and family about life, money, and relationships. But the best advice I received came from the an unexpected source: my seven-year-old cousin.

I was visiting her family in New Hampshire and one afternoon I received a reminder about my upcoming chapter deadlines. I pulled out my computer to start working. A few minutes later, my cousin, sad that I had stopped playing with her, roller-skated over to me and asked, “What are you doing?”

I explained, “I'm working on some chapters for a book I'm writing.”

“A book?” she asked.

“Yeah, a real book! It's kind of hard to write . . .” I tried to explain, but she interrupted my excuses.

“No it's not!” she said. “All you have to do is start with ‘Once upon a time' and then turn the page, then turn the page again and again.

“Yeah? Until the ‘And they lived happily ever after?'” I asked sarcastically.

“Exactly!” She smiled as she roller skated down the hallway.

And that is the best book writing advice I've ever received. Although this seven-year-old didn't realize it, she told me everything I needed to know about writing a book in that one sentence.

Everything You Need to Know About Writing a Book

As simple as it sounds, my cousin is right. Writing a book doesn't have to be as complicated as we make it. It's as easy as this:

1. Start With Once Upon a Time

Not that I believe every story should be a fairy tale, but I believe most books start with the concept of “Once upon a time.”

“Once upon a time” is a reminder to start your book. So often we wait for the perfect storyline and characters. But what if you started with “Once upon a time” and went from there? You can't help but finish that line. Do it, right now.

Once upon a time…

“Once upon a time” gets our imagination thinking. Our creativity is channeled and we simply have to write.

The concept of “Once upon a time” takes the reader out of their world and instantly transports them to another place and time with new people. What better way to start writing?

Try putting “Once upon a time” at the beginning of your next novel, and take it out afterward. I think you'll be surprised at the creativity and inspiration channeled by those four simple words.

2. Turn the Page

Because when you write a book you just gotta turn the damn page.

Remember constantly Hemingway's advice about this:

The first draft of anything is shit. —Ernest Hemingway

When you write your book you have to constantly turn the page because you're not editing; you're writing. You have one job. Fingers on the keyboard and turn the page.

3. Then Turn the Page Again and Again

There comes a time every writer faces while writing a book—the crying, torture, anger, and hatred of your own book. I've written two books in the last year and came to that point both times.

Here, you have to remember to turn the page again and again. In this place I often tell myself, “The more you write, the more words you add, the faster you will be done with this book.”

Just keep writing. Keep writing. Every day. Hit every deadline, because once you fall behind, catching up is nearly impossible.

4. Until the Happily Ever After

This is my favorite part. “Happily ever after.” (I'm an optimist.)

Although not all books have happy endings, I do believe that most books end with hope. Most books, fiction and non-fiction, have an underlying message and a “call to action.”

End your book with something meaningful.

I don't believe a book is worth writing (or reading) unless there is some hope or call to higher.

We've only got one life to live, so let's write something that makes an impact.

Write Your Book

No, writing a book isn't easy. But I think my seven-year-old cousin was on to something—it's not as hard as we sometimes make it, either.

Try out her writing advice: Start with “Once upon a time” and turn the page. Then turn the page again and again until you reach the happily ever after.

What's your best writing advice? Let us know in the comments.


Take fifteen minutes to finish the sentence “Once upon a time . . .” and then keep writing. Then share your practice in the comments below. Let us know how this writing advice worked for you.

Happy writing!

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Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book. She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.


  1. Pamela Hodges

    “We’ve only got one life to live, so let’s write something that makes an impact.”

    Now that is brilliant.
    The best advice I have ever read. Love this.

    • Katina Vaselopulos

      Brilliant, indeed, Pamela!
      Kelly McGann, I love it too. Especially, calling the reader to something higher, not just at the end but also during the course of the book.
      I do that in my story.

      Happy New Year!

    • Kellie McGann

      Thanks Katina! It’s why we do what we do.
      Happy new year to you too!

    • Kellie McGann

      Aw Pamela you’re so sweet! Love that our job allows us to do this!

    • Debra johnson

      Since my birthday a few weeks ago I have been trying to do just that with my writing… ”Write something that makes an impact.” Currently I am still trying to find the right words. But I’m not giving up.

      “Once upon a time when I was 16 I wondered if I would even make it to 50 now I wonder where the years went.

  2. Ronnie

    I wrote this last night. So it still counts 😛

    Once upon a time, When inanimate things had feelings, and rain knew how to sing, everything then had a purpose , just like now. Yet, everything had dreams as well then. However, there were two candles in a big house.They loved each other a love stronger than the one between fish and sea.But every night, They wouldn’t be able to see each other because of the darkness.They had to wait for the long hours of the night to pass to see each other again.

    It went like that for along time until one day, the chandelier told them that there was a place where the sun was always up and it would only go down for two hours to rest then it would shine all over again.That chandelier brought a big hope to their life. But he warned them that the way was dangerous. They’d have to walk through the tenuous rocks of the lonely mountain and face the wicked winds of it. But for all the love they had for each other, they accepted the challenge.

    They said their goodbyes to the chandelier and started their adventure with high spirits. They walked for days and weeks, until they reached the lonely mountain. But, the mountain was stiff and so hard to mount.They sat right down the mountain for a night almost broken down for not being able to climb and wishing they could see each over. Suddenly, One of the lazy rocks felt sorry for them. Thereby, he told them that if one of them could get the rope out of him/herelf, they would be able to use it for climbing. The male got excited for the idea and said that he’d do it. Hence, the female got worried and as much as she tried to stop him, she couldn’t . He had a dream. And he was about to fulfill it. He took out the rope feeling a great pain. But, the pain of now was nothing compared to the joy of what would come after.

    In the morning, they started climbing, using the rope to mount easily. They were on the tip of the mountain by evening. And they felt so tired. Therefore, they decided to stay there for the night and dismount to the other side in the following morning. They sat down on a rock that was on the top of another one. In the quiet evening, they started singing to each other to break sadnes. Suddenly, and from nowhere, a wind blew strongly shouting in a loud voice he said: “I’m the king of the lonely mountain. It is lonely, and its rocks are weak because of me.I’m here to make sure it is as I left it the last time.” They both were so scared. The rock under them got scared from the suppressor too. And none of them could do anything about it because they were paralyzed by the wind’s strength.

    In a moment, The rock was getting so weak. And would break in two so soon. And if it did, they would both die because The rock was their only shelter from falling off the mountain. However, the female had a plan. She thought that if she got to lighten herself up, She’d melt in the crack of the rock, Keep it up together, and most importantly save the one she loved from a certain death. The male on the other hand, objected furiously . But, she made him calm down for that was the only solution. And through it, two out of the three would be able to survive. He wanted to do it instead of her, but couldn’t for he had no rope. She lightened herself up. Thus, she started melting so sadly and the male’s heart ached from the scene. But, she asked him smiling not to think about anything else but the fact that they could finally see each other in the middle of the night. What if I hug her while she is melting and melt with her,he thought. In the end, he hugged her and as they were melting They got joined as one, setting their love on fire and saving the rock from being destroyed and teaching the wind’s heart how the immortal true love really is.

    • Susan W A

      Creative story! It reminds me of the situational irony of The Gift of the Magi.

    • Ronnie

      Thank you so much, happy you liked it 🙂

  3. Marilynn Byerly

    Many years ago, my much younger brother was helping me clean out our horse’s stall.

    His class had seen SOUNDER about a poor family in the South and their struggles.

    I asked him how he liked it, and he said it was boring.

    I explained that the movie was about real life and how hard it can be.

    He replied, “Shoveling manure is real life, but that doesn’t make it interesting.”

    Thinking about that is one reason I chose to write popular fiction instead of literary fiction.

    • Kellie McGann

      Marilynn, That’s really interesting. Thanks for sharing. Those little pieces of life’s advice and conversations like those are sometimes the most insightful!

  4. Katherine Rebekah

    My favorite writing advice comes from C.S. Lewis, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

    Here is what I came up with from the prompt:

    “Once upon a time, many years before you and I were born, the entirety of the human race contracted a lethal virus that killed off 99.9% of the population.”

    A young girl squirmed from her place in her grandmothers arms and looked up into pale, milky, blue eyes with her young, bright blue ones. “This doesn’t sound like the other stories you tell me.”

    Her grandmother chucked, though it was somehow hollow and humorless and something about it made the girl want to squirm all the more. “No, because this is a true story, and they hardly ever follow the pattern of fairytales. Now, do you want to hear it or not?”

    “It depends. Are there princesses?”

    “Afraid not.”

    “No princes either then?”

    “No, darling. There were no princes back then. Well, there were, but I’m fairly sure all the royalty died.”

    The girl frowned, “Is there a happy ending at least?”

    Here her grandmothers eyes seemed to take on an amused glint, “Sweetheart, is the world in smoke and ashes?”

    The girl frowned, confused. “No.”

    “Do you have a home and a family and plenty of food to eat and a beautiful green backyard?”


    “Then of course it’s a happy ending. This is a true story remember, and one you’ll want to know before you grow much older and they start trying to cram your brain full of made up history. I’ll ask again, do you went to hear it?”

    The girl hesitated, played with the fringe on her grandmothers scarf, then whispered, “Is it scary?”

    Her grandmother took the girls hands in her own and bent down so that their noses were almost touching, “You’ll soon learned,” She whispered, “That all good stories have a fair amount of suffering and scary bits in the beginning and between parts. But that makes it all the more happy when you get to the end. And you needn’t worry. I’ll be here the whole time.”

    The girl smiled and her grandmother returned it, “Okay. I want to hear the story.”

    “Good.” The grandmother leaned back on her cushioned seat and wrapped her arms tighter around the girl. “Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Once upon a time the human race contracted a lethal virus that killed off 99.9% of the population. But the important bit to remember is that .1% survived. And among that .1% was your great grandmother, my mother, and she soon found that there was a very important purpose for her to fulfill.”

    • EndlessExposition

      I love this! I hope you expand it, there’s a much longer story here begging to be told!

    • Kellie McGann

      Love this advice and this piece!

    • Shell Fish

      Wow! I want to keep reading! Great job!

  5. Crim

    Here’s my prompt:

    Once upon a time there was a man.

    There was nothing special about this man. He was tall, slender, had some muscle, and his hair was non-existant because he had the barber shave it off yesterday. Lot’s of men shave their hair off after a certain amount of time. Nothing special about that.

    Now, this tall and bald man was walking down the street. Again, nothing special about the street. It was an average street in a suburban area of a large city in Canada. Since he’s walking in January, he’s wearing a winter coat and his boots crush the snow underneath them. He chose not to wear snow pants today, as he had something to do. Snow pants would have gotten in the way of that something, he thought before leaving.

    There is just one problem. He cannot remember what he was supposed to do. Go to work? Go to mom’s? Go to gramma’s? Shovel the driveway? No, the drive way got shoveled two days ago as that day was after a big snow storm. Did he have to scrape the car? No, his sister borrowed his car so she would be scraping the car windows to remove the frost from the windows.

    Maybe he had to buy milk and some other groceries? The man turned and ran back to his house to check. No, the fridge was fairly full and the 3.5L milk cartons in it would be enough to last him a couple of days. So, no groceries need to be bought.

    Of course, he could be off to work. It is 8am on a Wednesday morning in Toronto. Everyone goes to work now, don’t they? But where does he work? Come to think of it, who is he?

    He sees a note stuck to the fridge: “If you are a man reading this, you are Steve. Steve, this is your wife Jessica. Remember you are on disability, so you don’t have to go to work. Also, your sister borrowed the car and you already purchased groceries. No need to visit your mother or grandmoter, as they had to move. No need to worry about things today.”

    The man blinked and smiled with eyes lit up. That’s right, his name is Steve. Steve Blue. He lives in Toronto and is married to Jessica. He’s 40 and he remembers hearing in a doctor’s office he was diagnosed with early onset of alhzeimers. He remembers the doctor, but not his name so Jessica writes the notes for him.

    He smiles and decides to go for a walk. He steps outside again, and continues to smile as he walks in a different direction from where we initially found him. Then he stops, and his face crunches up. He turns around and dashes back home to read the note. He again smiles and walks back outside.

    Of course the same thing happens in about 5min. He forgets who he is, why he’s out there, and other short-term details. However, when he turns around to run back he sees a man’s face paling as it gazes on a child on the ground. The man shouts, “Help! Help! My son, Peeko, just collapsed!”

    Steve seems to know what to do, as he runs to the fallen child. He says, “Don’t panic,” in a very calm voice. “Do you have a cell phone? If so, call 911.”

    He then leans in and checks the child’s pulse and breathing. The child is breathing, and their pulse seems to be fine, but they are not responding when he speaks: “Hello? Little one? Can you hear me? I’m Steve, Peeko, and I’m here to help.”

    Gently, Steve respositions Peeko so the young boy is more comfortable, and loosens some of the child’s clothing. He removes his coat and places it on Peeko to keep him warm. When the ambulance comes, Steve is able to help them collect the child rush him to hospital. When Jessica gets home, Steve has forgotten much about the incident. He explained, “I went for my roundabout walk, and I remember there was a father and his son, Peeko.”

    Jessica nodded. “Did you join them in playing? Do you remember what Peeko looked like?”

    Steve sighed and shook his head. Jessica walked over to the door after a bell rang. “Oh? Yes? This is where Steve lives.”

    Steve walks over and he sees a man and young boy. The young boy walks up and hugs Steve. “He saved me from the diabetes monster. He’s my hero!”

    Steve shouts, “Now I remember! This is Peeko, Jessica, I did first aid when he fainted, and got his father to call an ambulance.”

    The boy’s father grinned. “You saved my son, sir. Thank you, you are a special man.”

    And they all lived happily ever after.

    The End.

    • debbi

      Love it!

  6. Carrie Lynn Lewis

    What great advice! I once used this method to start a blog post when I had no ideas what to write. I ended up with a post that worked beautifully with “Once upon a time” as the opening phrase.

    Since then, I keep a draft post with the title Once Upon a Time in my blog post folder. Just in case.

  7. dduggerbiocepts

    The Write Practice steers well away from the reality of writing business, preferring to deal with technique in writing, so my comment may not be in their preferred context – or welcomed. The best advice you ever received probably depends on your perspective as a writer. If you are a “professional” – meaning you write for competitive professional compensation (not just self satisfaction – hobby writer) – you already are aware that writing is like any other profession – its a business. As a professional every published product – article, screenplay or book – is a separate business venture. Most successful business ventures don’t just happen. They are researched, examined in a risk/reward analysis – essentially whether the investment in time an money spent will be compensated with profits above them – before they begin. Writing ventures are no different. Do you approach your writing projects this way?

    One valuable piece of advice most often given to authors is to know for “whom” you are writing. Consequently, the first step in your writing venture should be to understand this “whom” as completely as possible: How many people compose your “whom”? How many other writers will be seducing this same “whom” with their products? How much the resulting number of people in your “whom” are willing to pay for what you are about to write and over what period of time?

    How to accomplish this writing economic feasibility research is the subject of many books, much book market statistics, and many internet articles – and isn’t the main point of my comment, but is essential reading for a professional writer.

    Self-publishing has flooded the market with written material products. It has saturated demand and has reduced the value of written material in the market place by providing almost infinite choices of written materials – albeit of unknown quality both in construction, content and validity. Unfortunately, even as a self-publishing fan myself – I have to admit that self-publishing has reduced the general quality of the written materials for sale in all genre.

    Hemingway had it correct. First drafts are… 99.9% of the time – not professional level written product. Neither are they chaff that should be discarded entirely. They should be edited repeatedly by many people with many different professional level editing skills until the draft is the best it can be both in content/plot pace, structure, mechanics and grammar. Note the “should be” – it means that reality is likely very different.

    Unfortunately, in today’s written product market the editing business and its processes also suffer from cost reductions due to the reduction in the margins of written material sales. If you are an avid reader (which as a writer you should be), you may have noticed that even big house publications now have far more typo’s, pace and structural problems than they did before self-publishing – simply because of industry wide competitive affordability due to the impacts of self-publishing. The final question becomes how much product distinction and demand increase will the written product market actually pay for. That question is still being answered. Currently the written product appears to be evolving into two segments premium and discount – or professional and hobby. Your question as a writer should be “for which one are you writing?” There is no wrong answers, as long as your expectations as a writer match realistically to your answer.

    The point here is not to deny the importance of the writing advice in the above article, just to expand it past the creative/romantic/orgasmic side of the writing process. To expand it to the practical side of professional writing. Like it or not writing is a business venture. There are far to many of you out there that have no clue of the total written product process in total beyond putting words on a page – book market trends, demand, competition, distribution choices, earnings per book and whether your expectations as a writer are realistic, and or the basis of the numerical probability of your expectations being met.

    Not to worry. The written product/publishing market is slowly sorting this out, but while the technology of writing has gotten easier in recent years with self-publishing opportunities, the business of writing has not. Writers need to be much better at the entire process of successful writing today than ever before. Writer beware – of your expectations.

    • Crim

      If the point of your post was not to deny the importance of the writing advice… Then why is your first sentence- “The Write Practice steers well away from the reality of writing business, preferring to deal with technique in writing, so my comment may not be in their preferred context – or welcomed.”

      Came across more as a means to discredit the Write Practice than expand on the content of the article.

    • dduggerbiocepts

      I’m not intending to demean anyone. I think you fail to understand the broadness of “writing advice.” and or positive criticism. As I said, The Write Practice focuses on creativity and technique (as did the articles advice) – and both accomplish that quite well. That is their forte, but it isn’t a complete picture of the (book) writing process or the “advice” needed for it. Let’s remember that The Write Practice is a support venue for “how to write course” sales. TWP’s business model is a marketing technique sometimes known as “farming the farmers.” While that may not sound complementary, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing or demeaning – depending on the quality of the “farming.” Getting free quality advice in writing and having a forum to discuss it in clearly has significant value to aspiring writers. It doesn’t necessarily make the information for success complete.

      It isn’t necessarily in TWP’s interests in selling writing courses/seminars, etc. and or wanna-be author expectations – to point out the commercial realities (declining numbers of readers, exploding numbers of books and other written materials, and “Overall, half of the writers – traditional and independent – surveyed this year earned $1,000– $2,999 or less.”) – as in those aspects that make and or limit (competition and demand) the creative writing process’ products’ monetary value.

      If you are writing as a hobby, you probably aren’t concerned as to whether your product sells or not, and that does not necessarily make your work and what you say less significant. If you writing as a professional for income, your perspective necessarily must include information (advice) on what and how makes your product marketable in today’s written material market place. Ideally and as in a real business – that research and planning needs to come first – you know before the words are created. I’m hopefully encouraging TWP to do more of that.

      After all I’m clearly investing my time in reading The Write Practice and occasionally making comments that I hope are helpful. I addressed what isn’t being said regarding professional writing herein – more than what was said. The topic article was on “The best book writing advice…” – which did not limit a response to only creativity and technique advice, or what I consider the best advice that I have received.

      My point was professional/successful writing is a process that is more than creativity and good technique. Huge numbers of great and well written books never have market/financial success. Few authors rarely get to the point of supporting themselves financially by writing. Are those your expectations? If so, I wasted my time.

      The business of writing and its respective market places are evolving from what it was just a decade ago, and our expectations as writers need to change with it. What I read – and don’t read enough of on the The Write Practice suggested a need for that reminder.

      Suggested reading if you’re interested:

    • Crim

      I clicked on the links and I got a 404 error.

    • R.Aller

      I would think that the practice question should have gone more in the lines of “What’s the best writing advice you have ever received?”. So as not to imply that this technique is the only or most effective way to start and finish a book.

      But Kellie was referring to her own experience in this post; as was obvious in her title “Best book writing advice ((I’ve)) ever gotten.”

      @dduggerbiocepts The links work, just remove the bracket from the url, like this:

    • R.Aller

      I would think that the practice question should have gone more in the lines of “What’s the best writing advice you have ever received?”. So as not to imply that this technique is the only or most effective way to start and finish a book.

      But Kellie was referring to her own experience in this post; as was obvious in her title “Best book writing advice ((I’ve)) ever gotten.”

      Crim The links work, just remove the bracket from the url, like this:

    • Joe Bunting

      Great point. No one is saying this post, nor this website in general, has all the answers. We focus on technique because it’s called The Write Practice, not The Write Business. For the business side of writing, I recommend Susan Tice’s excellent blog,, and subscribing to the Passive Voice Blog, which is an excellent news source for writers, Thanks for sharing your great advice.

  8. Ammon Bowman

    Once upon a time there was castle in the middle of the
    forest were the elf king dwelt. He was a good and kind king and all people men
    elves and dwarves respected and loved him. He was a rich king who made sure
    that none were poor and that all had enough to eat and a bed to sleep on. This
    was the golden age of the elves their mines seemed to be filled with gold and
    diamonds and all manner of precious stones and metals. Even though this was a
    time of peace in the world, they had enough armor and weapons to supply their army’s
    two times over. And so they gave them to the men and they made some for the
    dwarves. These tools of war were not ordinary even for elf make they all had
    special properties that gave the bearer extra protection or power over the
    elements. They could also hold wisdom or gems with great magic inside of them.

    king of men accepted these gifts graciously and decided to give supplies to the
    king of the elves that they themselves could not produce which were not many. In
    fact there were only two things that the Elves could not make they were the
    Golden apples of Men, and Tarital the precious and rare metal found only in the
    mountains were the dwarves lived. The Golden apples of Men had special
    properties, they gave the partaker wisdom in whatever way he wished. The King
    of Men decided to give the king Elves ten bushels of Golden apples every year. The
    prince of Men, Prince Dar disapproved of his father giving away the apples but
    nothing he could do would stop his father giving away the apples. So he gathered
    all of the people who felt the same way as he did and armed them and attacked
    the elves who were taking the apples to their king. He also had his father assassinated
    so he became king. They Elves saw his actions as actions of war. The price was
    already preparing for war against the elves. He gathered the dwarves and the
    giants and all who would follow him telling them lies about the elves. He
    defeated the elves their losses were so great that they went into hiding. The dwarves
    Discovered that Dar had told them lies and turned on him he defeated them as
    well and he world was plunged into darkness.

  9. Grey Gregory

    Once upon a time
    there lived a Story
    Aching to be told.

    • Kellie McGann

      So true. Every day this story is being written.

  10. EndlessExposition

    Once upon a time

    I believed fairytales happen like they do in books

    I believed thick castle walls saved you from armies of evil

    I believed princesses were snow white and untouchable

    Locked away in towers to keep their dresses clean

    I believed wizards were good but witches were not

    I believed kings were wise but queens fed you poisoned apples

    I believed knights killed dragons and their armor was still shining

    Since then I have pricked my fingers on a forest of spindles,

    Hunting for magic

    I have learned that sometimes the castle walls must come down if you are to be saved

    I have learned that princesses taste like cigarettes and cheap lip gloss, and they wear flannel pajamas and write shitty poetry

    I have learned that witches are burned for being too powerful

    And if queens poison apples it is because they are sick of Genesis

    I have learned hydras are far more common than dragons

    I emerge from my battles drenched in blood

    And maybe someday I will wash my armor clean but I will always remember my screams

    From being picked open by black claws

    I will remember the smell of cauterizing one hundred scaly throats

    I will save triumph for my deathbed

    At the moment I’m just tired

    I have learned that fairytales are nothing like they are in books

    They are so much, much more beautiful

    • Kellie McGann

      This is great! I love that you went with that fairy tale theme! This could be like one of those cool wall hangings!

  11. betty

    Once upon a time I loved someone and had someone to love me back. Two years ago
    my husband of forty four years went home to be with God after a long bout with cancer.
    I never knew that love could live on and even grow stronger after that person is taken
    out of your life. You search for inner strength to keep going. You pray often, you talk
    with friends and family but nothing seems to fill the emptiness.
    Once upon a time, I was loved.

    • Kellie McGann

      This is really powerful Betty. Sharing this must be hard, but I know that it will have a lot of impact. I loved how you used once upon a time.

    • Susan W A

      Beautifully expressed, Betty. Yes, the empty space remains, but rainbow mists blow through and delicate butterflies flit about in the void bringing messages of love and lessons for life from our loved ones.
      My sincere sympathy to you for the passing of your partner in life. I love to hear the strength and determination in your words to honor his memory by honoring your new process in life.

  12. Jason Bougger

    That was such a cool post and a great way to remind us of the simple components of story and even the process behind writing one.

    • Kellie McGann

      Thanks Jason! Often, it’s the little things that remind us of the bigger things.

  13. betty

    Hi Jason,
    thank you for your response to my comment. I’ve found that since my lost, writing has
    helped me express my true emotions during this period of grieving. Would love to write
    about my journey over the past couple of years, but it’s still a little raw.

  14. FritziGal

    Kids have it nailed. Then as they get older, they forget, or else, are led away from the strongest writing principles they will ever employ, by well-meaning adults. By way of example: When I was around 9 years old, I needed an opening grabber involving a mysterious woman who was standing at a bus stop with a private investigator type standing directly behind her. In the opening paragraph, the P.I. said to himself: ‘My, that woman has long fingernails. I think I’ll follow her!” Later on, when Erle Stanley Garner came out with a Perry Mason book that had the same title as mine (The Case Of The Velvet Claws), I was ready to sue him, as I knew he had stolen it from me. Incidentally, all the characters in my books rode buses because that’s what we did back in Jersey when I was a kid.

  15. LaCresha Lawson

    Kids. They can be a real inspiration! Most of mine are about them. The best thing of all was to see their expressions when I published my first book and bought a copy. They were clapping and yelling and running around. Now that made me feel like a, “star.”

  16. Lauren Timmins

    Once upon a time, he could breathe. The air was clean in the countryside and the smoke from the fire didn’t scorch the lungs, but warmed them. However, his mother had been struggling for years, the call of the leaves tucked inside a roll of paper were too much for her. He watched as the machines took over the most basic aspect of life, he saw her return home with a hole in her throat, and knew that though she died of an illness, the constant battle with her lungs sure as hell didn’t help her stay alive. From then on he had a vengeance against the smoke, and was determined he could tempt himself and live to tell the tale. So he sputtered and choked through one cigarette and decided he could never do it again.

    But he did it again, and again, and again, and it started when he was twenty one and lost the girl. It was a quarter of a pack that day. A couple before a job interview to calm the nerves. Three at a social event, a cigar on his birthday. The smoke grew inside of him like choke vines, and the horrid purple flowers weren’t flowers but temptations, life vests that would help for a moment but drown someone just before they reached the shore. The day his daughter was born he smoked five for victory, but ended up stepping outside once a day because she wouldn’t stop crying. He didn’t know the smoke set her lungs on fire, because his were accustomed to the poison, and like the burn of alcohol in a drunkard’s throat ebbs into nothing, his lungs stopped pleading for air and settled for ashes.

    They had to move to the city because there was nothing in the country for him any more. But the city stretched him until the smoke became a lifeline, and it crept out of his lungs and into his head. Without it he grew cold and irate, so he’d have another, but with each breath he took it held onto him tighter, until he and the smoke became one individual, inseparable.

    Once upon a time, she could breathe.

    • Katherine Rebekah

      Wow, that was amazing. Great tie in from beginning to end, and I loved how you show the addiction spreading through the family. As someone who comes from a family where various addictions have been passed down, I can attest that this is more than true. It’s a vicious cycle. This illustrates that perfectly and it’s short length helps to emphasize the point, like a fast, sharp punch to the face. I loved it.

    • Courtnie

      I love how everything came together. As I read it I felt like was there with them in that moment. It made me think about when I smoked and how I’m glad I stopped. Thank you for this.

  17. Giulia Esposito

    This article made me laugh more than once, and it is really great advice! Thank you.

    • Kellie McGann

      This is the best comment! Thanks! I LOVE laughing, so I’m really glad you laughed. 🙂

  18. Susan W A

    Delightful … both your cousin’s charming and confident comment, and YOUR ability to respect her perspective and create lovely writing inspiration. Thank you for that.

  19. deedeekm

    Once upon a time a sad girl went for a walk. As she walked she began to hum and soon the humming turned to singing and her steps became a dance. She danced and danced and waved her arms in the air and soon her arms became wings. When she opened her throat to send out the notes she filled her lungs with air and her wings lifted her high above the swirling leaves and the wind carried her farther than her dreams. Her legs and feet began to draw up and shrink for they were no longer needed for the dance and the sun warmed her back as she floated between clouds and swirled and twirled like the leaves she had passed on her way to sky. Her words became sound that she left behind her as she soared higher and higher and farther still. As she swooped and dived and climbed again she turned her eyes to the earth she had once belonged to and she saw the green of the trees and the blue of the sea. She dove and saw her reflection on the water as she coasted just above the glittering surface and the ripples broke the image into millions of sparkling pieces. Her sadness had blown away on the breeze and she decided then and there that she was no longer earthbound. The girl who was not a girl turned back to the sky and joined the flock of others who no longer stumbled in the dirt. Sadness is small as stones on sand and she had risen above it.

  20. daphna shalem

    Just got up and wandered through the internet and suddenly received such a wonderful hint. I am a bibliotherapist and the idea of starting to write with once upon a time can be a powerful exercise in my workshops.
    Thank you Kelly and good morning everyone

  21. Amy May San Nicolas

    I am extremely late on this post, but I came across it and felt very inspired by the prompt. I have had this story bouncing around in my head for over two years now but it has always felt too difficult/painful to write. Perhaps this has unlocked it.

    Once upon a time we all believed in fairy tales; the inevitability that good would always conquer evil and that the true of heart would always find their happily ever after. Then, somehow, along the bumpy path of life, those beliefs were broken, burned, and buried like the dead. Now, I don’t know anymore whether or not those beliefs are dead because they couldn’t survive reality or if we killed them with our pragmatism and society-taught desire to just be realistic. Either way, one day we woke up and were deeply disappointed by life or hurt in such a way that caused us to question those beliefs. Someone was standing by to tell us, “life isn’t fair,” or “sometimes life is hard for no good reason;” some kind of empty platitude aimed to deflect the lack of explanation to the inconceivable in life. We started to believe in that moment we are truly minuscule compared with this great bad world and we have no power over what happens to us or the outcome of our stories.

    The story contained in the pages to come is not a fairy tale. In fact, it is rarely pretty but it IS realistic. And, for me at least, it ask the question, “does circumstance overcome us or can a group of people so deeply hurt by circumstance heal and become stronger for it?” Fairy tales told our child-selves yes but adult experiences taught us to believe in brokenness that cannot be fixed, in wounds that never properly heal.

    At the end of this, the story I will tell, perhaps you shall have an answer where I still have found none. I hope that you do. I hope you begin to re-believe.

  22. Cierra

    He Loved Me

    Once upon a time, he loved me. It wasn’t the kind of love like you might expect. He truly cared about me. No football game or TV show was more important to him than I was. Countless times when I felt like giving up and ending it all, he never left my side until I collected myself and moved on in life. I struggled with depression and had contemplated suicide before. He was always there for me. None of the suicide attempts worked because he was always there. He was like my safe place where I could always go. When I was with him, I was okay. I was confident. I felt like nothing could come between us.

    The day I got that terrible phone call about Ethan was the worst day of my life. I was at home and I had just finished putting on my makeup after my shower. I sat down to call Ethan but my cat knocked my phone out of my hand.

    “Gracie!” I scolded. She meowed and curled up around the phone. “Gracie what are you doing? Get off of my phone,” I said. I nudged her off and unlocked it. I smiled at the picture of me and Ethan that I set as the background. I had just pulled up my contacts when my phone started buzzing. I never had the sound on. I looked at the caller ID. It was my best friend Beth. “Hello?”
    “Cierra you need to get over here now.”

    I frowned. “What’s wrong?”
    “It’s Ethan. He’s been shot.” I froze. He was my strength. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to.

    “Where are you?” I asked trying to keep my voice from shaking.
    “I’m at the hospital.” She paused and I heard her take a deep breath. “Hurry.” She hung up and I stared at the blank screen for a moment before springing into action. I grabbed my bag and keys and locked the door behind me. I jumped into my car and started the ignition. I sped away and tried to stay under the speed limit. I stared straight ahead and blinked away tears that didn’t make sense. I had no way of knowing if it was fatal or not. I just held on to the memories and the wheel.

    I finally made it to the hospital and gazed at the police cars stationed around the entrance. I hurried in and Beth ran up to me. I couldn’t speak and she threw her arms around me. I stared blankly at the waiting room behind her. She didn’t let go and she only whispered two words to me. Only two but they hurt me more than anything else ever had and I knew they would never leave me.
    “He’s gone.”

    Once upon a time, I loved someone. I still love him but it’s so different since he’s gone. It’s been three years since it happened and I miss him more everyday. Once upon a time, I lost the very someone who helped me through the hardest times of my life.

    Once upon a time…
    …he loved me.

    • Christine

      Wow! If this is fiction, it’s great. if it’s a real event, it’s very poignant and sad as well as well told.

  23. zarna desai

    Once upon a time there was a small girl, as shy and as timid as one could imagine. Her parents wishing good for her, put her into a boarding school at the tender age of five. She cried a lot, but in vain. They were not deterred and off she was sent with many her age, in a train that took them to a faraway place called Mekgunj, where her school was located. She felt very homesick and scared and spent the first few days crying and crying. She was scared to show her tears, so she cried at night under her covers. In the day time she attended classes with the other girls. Days passed but she never felt happy, not for a moment. She was scared all the time and nervous with butterflies fluttering in her stomach all the time. Strange for a girl that small, especially when all the other girls had settled down and made friends. All of them would giggle and laugh and talk, making noise without a care in the world, except for her, she would be sitting in a corner watching the girls and trying to hide from them. Wishing in her heart that she too could be like them, but her tongue was tied and her glutes were stuck, she could neither move nor talk and in her shyness her mind was stuck.
    She was very good at her studies and they provided respite from her shyness. So she spent her time reading and it always made her feel good, escaping into another world where she could be anyone she wanted to. She used to see herself as a naughty bubbly girl, who was always talking and running and laughing. She had very few friends and as she grew older her friends started getting jealous of her as she always stood first in class and most of the years she got the student of the year award. Her classmates used to tease her and talk bad of her behind her back and also on her face. She used to feel very sad but because she never spoke up, there was nothing she could do. Finally they were given permission to write letters home which would not be checked by the teachers. So she wrote to her dad, pleading him to take her back home. She promised her dad that she would do anything and everything he asked her for, but to please call her back. Her dad relented and the very next week he came and picked her up and took her back home. She decided from now on she would open her mouth and not be scared anymore. She lived happily ever after that.

    • Christine

      This is a well told story a lot of people can relate to, even if we’re not sent to boarding school. I think you should make shorter paragraphs, though. Short paragraphs make a story easier to read and are what editors prefer these days.

    • zarna desai

      True Christine. I never realised as I just typed the whole thing in the comment box. Thank you

  24. Rakel Bryant

    Once upon a time, there was a single rosebud in a garden of thorns. Once upon a time, there was a baby guppy in a pool of sharks. Once upon a time, there was a person who thought he could change the world. To him, the world looked upon him as a baby rabbit in a den of a bear, a baby bird in a circle of a hungry wolf pack. People thought he was crazy, he was absurd, he was mad to think that his theory about the world would make a difference in their lives. He fixed his tie and pulled at his suit, and got ready to face the many pairs of judging eyes he was going to have to convince. He had been preparing this speech in his mind for over ten years, and now he got the chance to speak it to the world. This was a distopian society set in the future a thousand years from now. A time where humans no longer had the rights they used to, and a nation that was no longer founded upon equality, but difference. Founded upon myths, not truth. And he agreed with everybody else- until today. He took a deep breath, and saw many pairs of eyes again and again and again. He gripped his microphone, and spoke, “We can change the world,” and that is how he began.

    • Fabio Salvadori

      I loved it, I would only change the sentence “This was a distopian society set in the future a thousand years from now.” because it seems out of the story’s flow.

  25. Scott Adlhoch Writer

    Hi i am Scott Adlhoch and i am a freelancer writer. I read your article and it is very interesting and useful too. I will surely use these advice in my upcoming book to make it more impressive and interesting. Thanks!

  26. Nicole Phoebe

    Once upon a time, a girl was given the purest heart of them all. She was too kind, that goodness of her was abused. She gave but didn’t receive. She loved but wasn’t loved back. She gave a lending hand when they needed help. Her broken parts, she fixed them herself.

    She thought she was blessed because she had something nobody in this world possesses. But the toils she’s been thru became the catalyst for her to act against her program.

    She stopped following instructions. She fights back when they kick her for not doing the things they want. She had found ways to be more powerful. And she ruled the people who once got the most out of her pure heart.

    But that heart wasn’t pure anymore. It was rotten. Because it was abused, tortured, unfed, unloved.

    Soon this girl will die. Because her now rotten heart will eat everything that she is like a worm eating a dead body.

  27. drjeane

    Once Upon a Time
    There was a five-year-old girl, wearing a flour-sack print dress because she was going to school with her older sister. She didn’t know why she was going to school, but was very happy about it. She loved school. She even loved the long walk on the dusty country road to get to the school. Most of the time, that is. Sometimes the big boys who joined them on the walk would tease and scare her. One time one of them picked up a fishing worm and pretended to swallow it. At least, she thought he pretended and really didn’t do it. She thought, “What does he think he is, a fish?” The school was one room with windows along the west wall and rows of different size desks. The girl sat in a double desk with her sister and listened as the teacher called first graders to the front of the room. They were reading from Dick and Jane. The story wasn’t very interesting, but the sound of the words as the readers struggled to bring the words from the page into their mouths and say them aloud fascinated her. Her sister was in second grade so she was called up with the next group to the blackboard to do math problems. A bigger boy, with greasy hair and yellow teeth, turned to her from the seat in front of her and asked why she had come to school that day. He was sneering and she felt small as she searched for the answer to the question. Finally, the words, “My mother is not feeling well and I needed to come to school today so she could rest.” “That’s not true,” he sneered. “She’s having a baby – why didn’t you stay home to watch it hatch?” Her stomach felt queasy, there was something wrong about having a baby. Papa said the doctor brought babies in his black bag. This isn’t right. School isn’t fun anymore. She lowers her face to the desk so the boy can’t see it reddening. Why does this feel so wrong? But, if the boy is right, there will be a new baby at home. That thought cheered her. She wondered what the baby’s name would be and if it would have a lot of dark hair like her other little brother did when he was very small. What the boy said wasn’t important, yet the uncomfortable place in her stomach wouldn’t go away. She pushed it out of her thoughts, but the feeling remained.



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