I've been lucky enough to judge a batch of stories in the 500 Words children's short story writing competition hosted by Chris Evans and Radio Two over the past two years. It's been an honour to be involved and the ability of our nation's young people to write a readable story within the confines of 500 words always impresses me. If you entered, I send you massive congratulations. Writing a story is an achievement itself, let alone editing and polishing it until it's fit to enter a national competition. The very best of luck to those of you who entered and I send you all great wafts of fairy dust as we count down the weeks until the winners are declared at the Hay Festival at the end of May.
Although I am sworn to secrecy on the content of the stories I read, I can tell you that elements of every single story were entertaining and yet, of course, some of the entries had that little something extra which convinced me to give them the top marks.
And thus the reason for this blog. Both years I noticed that the stories which scored the best marks had something in common with each other. Let me explain.
The competition is divided into two age groups: nine and under and ten to 13 year olds. Each of the thousands of judges at this first stage is sent a selection of around 30 stories without knowing anything about the author, not even their gender or exact age. Judges are then required to mark each story on-line and award it a score out of ten in each of five categories:
Once marked, each story is listed on the judge's page in order of score. The ranking of the titles constantly updates itself as more stories are marked. At first I was sceptical. How could I judge the 'feel' of the story and the impact on the reader simply by giving aspects of it a clinical mark out of ten? Surely a scoring system couldn't adequately reflect my gut reaction?
In reality, both years I've been flabbergasted by the accuracy of marking the stories in this way. And both years, I've seen it in black and white: a common factor linking the top three stories.
So, here it is. I noticed that the stories which came out top consistently scored highly in 'originality'. It wasn't that this was a superior category of the five used for judging, after all, a maximum of ten points was available in each of the five categories, but where a story felt original, it was much more likely to also score highly in 'enjoyment'.
This is logical and something we writers young and old should remember. It doesn't matter how well a story is written, the quality of the language used or the writer's command of grammar, if it's a story with nothing new for the reader, it's unlikely to keep their interest. Who wants to read a story where they know what is going to happen? Who will bother to spend the time reading something which asks no questions, where we don't have to think? There's Candy Crush for that.
But, I hear you cry, people tell us there are only seven types of story and everything ever written is based on one or more of those. How can we possibly be original living in the 21st century? This is true to some extent. There are certain themes, such as overcoming adversity: Harry Potter, or the great adventure: Robinson Crusoe, which are the backbone of all story writing. But this is all they are; a tool, a start point or a model. They are the base for a plot on which we add our own characters and situations; a base to add our writer's touch.
We can take a familiar story and add different people, change the time frame, the country and the events themselves. Take Harry Potter, for example. How would he fare in the year 2114? How would his magic be received then? Would technology be better able or less able to cope with his tricks? How about the other characters? Let's change them a little. What if Voldemort really wanted to be nice? Or should we change our hero? Does he even need to be male? What if 'she' was a different kind of character at school? What if she wasn't very successful? What if she was a clumsy oaf whose only chance to escape ridicule – and death – was her magic but she kept making mistakes? All of a sudden you have more of a comedy but still with its element of adventure.
There are too many possibilities to count and this is true of all story telling. My advice is to start out with an idea and think how you can make it different. How can you make it special and individual? How can you make it your story? Tell yourself that you're not going to write Harry Potter again. After all, JK Rowling had seven novels to tell her story, you have only 500 words.
If, when you write, you can really believe that your reader would sit in a chair, on the bus or in bed bothering to take the time to read your 500 words over any other story they could pick from their book shelves or reader, then you are a long way to writing a story they will want to read rather than a story they've read before.
Write for your reader. Be original. And check your work – spelling and grammar mistakes distract us from the actual story. And by the way, having an adult check your work is not cheating - all professional writers have editors :)
This year's 500 words competition is now closed but there are lots of other competitions open to young people. Click here for a great list of local and national competitions in 2014. You can also find lots of competitions at Firstwriter.com.
Have fun! And let me know how you get on!