How many words did you write last week?

I probably shouldn’t be posting anything until I’ve had a good night’s sleep and can therefore regulate what’s coming out of my brain but I haven’t posted in over a week and this time I have a really good reason!

At the start of February I signed up to volunteer with the White Water Writers Project. And all of last week I was getting up at stupid o’clock to get the train into London (commuting like an actual responsible adult, aaah!) and working with a group of schoolchildren to write a book.

Not ‘conceptualise a book’. Not ‘draft a book’. Not ‘edit a book’. Conceptualise, draft and edit (more than once) a completely original novel which is set for publication sometime this week.

We had twelve/thirteen people in the group (one dropped out two days in, unfortunately) and their average age was twelve. None of them are classed as ‘gifted and talented’ and none of them had English as their favourite subject (we asked). And yet, in five days, with five and a half hours a day of writing, they’d produced a 25,000 word novel with a complex plot, character development, backstories and multiple subplots.

In fact, they produced three novels.

I should explain: the guy who came up with the project, Dr Joe Reddington, had the wonderful idea of increasing their output by getting them to write a ‘template’ novel that could have specific scenes relating to one of three particular themes switched in and out as necessary. It meant a little extra work for the kids, who had to write each theme-specific scene on top of the novel, but it seems to have worked.

While this is definitely a writing project, it’s also computer science and teamwork and a fascinating social experiment. All too often, adults will try to shelter children from the harsh realities of the world, and yet when you get a group of children together and have them think of a plotline, the first thing that comes up is death. (In this case, the very first idea that was put forth was ‘apocalypse’, followed shortly by ‘bomb plots’, ‘murder, ‘kidnapping’ and ‘crime lords’.)

At the start of the week, the kids organised themselves into small social groups which pretty much ignored each other. By Friday, they were sitting in a large group all talking about their book. On Monday morning, all of them were a little shy about putting forth ideas; by Monday afternoon they were coming up with so many ideas we had to rein them back (lest the book end up like Game of Thrones! lengthwise!).

What’s very interesting to note is that none of them said ‘that’s a stupid idea’ about anything, or shot down anyone else. They discussed each idea as it was proposed and either gave a reason why it couldn’t fit in the book or said how much they liked it and this is how it might work. It’s how we ended up with a plot that involved a teenaged serial killer who could be hired through the internet (tell me that doesn’t sound at least a little bit interesting to the thirteen year old that lives inside all of us).

During this week, not one adult wrote a word, put forward an idea, or did anything other than organise which sections of the book needed writing and assigning jobs to the writers as necessary. This book came entirely from a group of ordinary schoolchildren, and they kept their focus nearly all week (the odd one or two didn’t really take to proofreading the third and fourth edition). Teachers who put their heads round the door kept commenting on how hard they were concentrating and how quiet the room was. We didn’t have to police the kids to keep them on task; the one time we were asked if someone could be excused for something other than a toilet break, it was to fetch a dictionary. They refused to go home the one time we said they could go home early if they liked, they even asked to work through breaks!

I’m now a fully-trained camp leader, meaning that I can set up and run my own camps now. I can’t wait!*


*If anyone’s interested in participating in a camp (anyone can do them), find nine other interested people and comment, because the more camps we can run, the better! Bonus points if we’re in different time-zones, because that’s something the project would really like to try and coordinate.


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