I was extremely privileged last Wednesday to have been invited to join the first literary festival to be launched at the Priory LSST Academy in Lincoln. It was actually a festival within a festival, arranged by Mrs. Sarah Oliver, the energetic and enthusiastic writer-in-residence at the Academy, with the help of the very talented Sara Bullimore, who is one of the organisers of Lincoln Inspired, the city’s arts and literature festival. My contribution was to offer creative writing students feedback on the work they had submitted for a crime-writing competition, organise and take part in two writing workshops for younger students
and deliver the festival keynote talk later in the afternoon. Members of the public were admitted to the latter.
Before I go on to describe the day in more detail, I’d just like to pause to say what an amazing place the Priory Academy is. One of the first academies to have been set up after the government announced its support for them, it is situated on a sprawling site with several buildings and many beautifully laid-out gardens, distinguished particularly by their modern sculptures and water features. Students move from one building to another via a series of covered walkways. The academy also has a planetarium, an Olympic-standard running track, an incredibly well-equipped gym and a swimming pool. Although it is a state school, it takes sixth-form boarders (they are usually either students from overseas or from armed services families). Those who attend it are greatly privileged and keenly aware of this. All of the students I met were impeccably polite; several of them told me how passionate they were about the Academy itself.
The sixth-form creative writing course was set up by Sarah Oliver at the beginning of the current academic year; it is voluntary and after school. Many more students wished to take the course than she could accommodate. Eventually fourteen were selected, of whom twelve entered the creative writing competition. They were asked to write the opening chapter of a crime novel (with a 500-word limit) and a synopsis of the whole novel (with a 300-word limit). This in itself was a pretty tall order, but they succeeded admirably. It is no exaggeration to say that I believe that every one of those students could go on to be a successful writer. The prize was for the student who wrote the winning entry to have his or her chapter published in the Lincolnshire Echo and the two runners-up to have theirs published in the online version of the same newspaper.
Choosing the winner was a daunting task. I asked my husband, who also acts as my copy-editor, to help. We decided to evaluate each entry on the following seven attributes: the opening sentence; consistency (did the chapter match the synopsis?); how compelling we found the writing; the quality of the plot; characterisation; the accuracy of the writing; the quality of the writing. It’s of course impossible for me to describe all of the entries in detail here, but to give my readers some idea of the quality of the entries, I’ve listed below a few of the opening sentences from the students’ submissions:
Bryant’s breath condensed in the plastic of his gas mask before fading away, only to be replaced every time he exhaled. It was stifling.
It’s the screech of the tyres that haunts, and the sickening crunch of metal splintering on bone.
Peer pressure. It was always peer pressure to blame when we got caught.
A myriad of birds shot out of the trees as loud sirens blazed past and a blur of blue lights blinded the night sky.
Sally heard the breathing in the darkness. The short gasps of air slowly faded into the inky night as she crouched, frozen, behind a wild hedge.
My job as judge was made more difficult because the opening chapter and synopses that we both considered to be the best ones were not written by the same person. Furthermore, there was a third entrant who, while she wrote neither the best chapter nor the best synopsis, had the best stab at both put together.
The rules of the competition organised by Sarah Oliver in conjunction with the Lincolnshire Echo were clear-cut. The best chapter was undoubtedly written by James, so we awarded the prize to him. Fatmira and Katie therefore became the runners-up.
The constraints of the competition were, however, considerable, and I knew that I wanted to see more of these students’ work. By great good fortune, Jean Roberts, Business Development Director at PrintOnDemandWorldWide, had very generously said that, if the winner wanted to complete his or her novel within a year of entering the competition, she would print ten copies of it free of charge and also put it into legal deposit, PODWW’s distributor channels and its own new online bookselling venture, The Great British Bookshop. I decided that James, Fatmira and Katie all deserved to be eligible for this new prize, so I have now set up a further contest for the three of them. If they can get their completed novels to me by the end of this year, I’ll choose the best of them and send it on to Jean. PrintOnDemandWorldWide also very generously gave all the students a Great British Bookshop notebook, pen and box of Union Jack sweets. Both the students and all those who attended the afternoon keynote also received PODWW’s pamphlet giving advice and writing tips to would-be authors.
I shall write more on this blog at intervals about James, Fatmira and Katie and the progress that they are making. I hope that you will join me in following their journey, perhaps also offering your own support and encouragement along the way. In the meantime, I’d like to celebrate the achievement of all the student writers at the Priory Academy. I’m certain that we shall be hearing more of at least some of them in years to come.