Your chance to win pounds 2,000 and have your story published
The Independent/ Scholastic Story of the Year Competition, now in its sixth successful year, aims to encourage top writing for the very difficult to please six to nine year old age group.

To help you meet the challenge, some of our most successful novelists and scriptwriters will be explaining how they set about writing a page- turning narrative.

This week, Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong, The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray, to be published later this year, tells Nicole Veash why the story is one of the writer's greatest weapons.

This year's judging panel includes: The Independent's editor, Andrew Marr, and columnist Suzanne Moore, leading TV scriptwriter Tony Jordan, librarian and children's literature expert Trish Botten, Scholastic Children's Books Editor Director Anne Finnis and publishing director David Fickling.

`You have to be very bloody-minded'

"When I was a child I read everything, although children's books didn't make much of an impact on me. I was more interested in adult fiction. The first grown-up book I read was David Copperfield when I was 14. This was followed by Sons and Lovers. These and other books completely altered my sense of existence. And by the time I was 15 the idea of writing had formed in my head. If I was to take one book with me to a desert island it would have to be Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu.

My wife usually reads aloud to my children, because I find most children's books ghastly, as I did when I was younger. My daughter, who is five, is at that Secret Seven age, while my son, who is seven, loves Greek myths and biblical stories. I think he is excited by their sense of grandeur, which goes far beyond the usual Janet and John.

I wrote a number of books when I was in my 20s but none were any good. By the time I was 30, however, I had gone through that important trial and error process.

I start by choosing themes I want to write about and the narrative's purpose is to exemplify those themes. The characters then have to be people capable of enacting the plot. Ideas, story, character, in that order, although it is not always as clear-cut as that, of course. Sometimes you get a house or a person early on. Then it's a question of putting bits in and pulling bits out. Some things just don't work and you should always be prepared to cut things out.

I like to start writing just slightly before I am ready because it makes me feel anxious, which then makes my imagination work more intensely. I usually continue with some research while writing. I don't really make that many notes about the novel itself before I start, perhaps three or four sheets of A4. But each book is different. Some scenes require close planning, others don't. The Battle of the Somme sequence in Birdsong is about 30 pages long but I only wrote down four prompt words: bird, river, cream-tea and disembodied.

Narrative is definitely something I think about. When I was a student, it was one of those things seen as a crude device. It was not until I got to my fourth novel that I realised I could write narrative. I discovered that one reason why some people dislike it is that they can't use it properly. The story is one of a writer's weapons and you should use it appropriately. Do not let it use you, or you will end up writing airport books.

The other weapons include theme, atmosphere and character. Characters develop through interaction with other characters. Real people in novels don't ring true because they belong to the real world and not the fictional one you are creating. There are no courses out there to teach you how to write. You have to be extraordinarily bloody-minded.

competition Rules

Story of the Year 6 offers a pounds 2,000 prize for the winner, with pounds 500 each for two runners up. The top 10 stories will be published in an anthology by Scholastic Children's Books. You are invited to submit stories of 1,500-2,500 words which must arrive on or before 28 February 1998 at: PO BOX 21302 LONDON WC1A 1PE. You may enter only once and entries must be made by the writer, not on his/her behalf. Entries must be typewritten, double-spaced and on one side of the paper only. We will not accept stories with illustrations. Manuscripts will not be returned, so please keep a copy. All entries must be unpublished, but published writers may enter with new material. Each entry must be submitted with both a cover page and title page. The cover page must feature the story title, and the entrant's name, address and telephone number. The title page must feature only the title of the story. The story should start on a new page, and the author's name must not feature on any of these pages, so that all entries can be judged anonymously. The winning story will be published in The Independent subsequent to the final judging of the competition which concludes on 22 May 1998. The top three stories and up to 10 others will be published in the autumn, in the anthology Story of the Year 6 by Scholastic Children's Books.

The competition is not open to employees of, or relatives of employees of Scholastic Ltd or Newspaper Publishing plc or anyone connected with the competition. Proof of posting cannot be accepted as proof of delivery. No responsibility can be accepted for entries which are delayed, damaged, mislaid or wrongly delivered. The judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. Entry grants to Scholastic Ltd the exclusive right to publish an entrant's story in all formats throughout the world for the full legal term of copyright. A copy of the form of the contract may be obtained on application to Scholastic Ltd. By submitting an entry an entrant agrees to be bound by the terms of and to sign this agreement if called upon to do so. Any story chosen for publication in the anthology that does not win one of the top three cash prizes will receive a fee of pounds 200. Any entry not submitted in the form specified will be deemed invalid. If your story is not published in the anthology or in the newspaper by the end of December 1998, these rights revert to you. Entry into this competition implies acceptance of these rules.