Can you write the story of the year for six to nine year olds?; 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 explain how they set about writing compelling narrative. A.S. Byatt, Booker prize winning author of Possession, Babel Tower, Still Life, Angels and Insects tells Nicole Veash of the importance to her of research

I USUALLY start a book by getting lots of things that are the same together. Themes, ideas, a period in time. Then I do vast quantities of research. I steep myself in the voices of the era and I tend to read as much as possible. This can take months, really it should take years and it only stops when I feel a spark bring everything together.

I keep vast, exhaustive notebooks of all the information I have collected. This includes detailed plans on the order of the narrative. I write notes before starting a book and then continuously throughout.

In my early life I was constantly interrupted. With children, with teaching and I found that having the notes provided a certain continuity. I might have three or four A4 notebooks per novel which are absolutely full to the brim. I usually end up making an index just for my notebooks, so I can find the little details as soon as I need them.

I used to go through 20 drafts of a novel, but then discovered that if you are pretty sure what you are going to say before you put pen to paper the process is much easier. I now do one draft in ink and one on my computer.

It is important not to write what I call a dead novel. A dead novel is an imitation of other people's works. If your novel is dead then give up on it and do something else. But don't go on and on. The unsuccessful writer hangs on to something that doesn't quite work and doesn't know when to get rid of it.

Increasingly, it is important for me to make my books real page turners. The avant garde thing that plot is tedious and you should be rid of it is one of the great mistakes for writers.

There must be narrative. You have got to have motivation in a story. You must make the reader want to know what happens next. Sequence may be more primitive than causation, but that really doesn't matter. Telling a good story is all-important. You have got to draw readers in.

Characters never work if they are based on one person you know. They need to be an amalgamation of at least two different people. The character has got to be independent of the original because this frees you to develop a new identity, which in turn prompts a certain momentum.

Writing is a hard slog. You have got to do lots of research, but I actually enjoy this side of writing because I keep discovering new things. People confuse the idea of research with school work and that's a problem. If you don't like the slog of writing, including all those months of research, then you really shouldn't be doing it.

As a child I loved reading myths, fairy stories and legends. My mother had a book of Norse myths which was my favourite. It was a grown-up book, but I just read it and read it. I also loved the Athurian legends.

I didn't like stories about children because I wanted to stop being a child. I thought the Famous Five children were boring. When I got a bit older I read most of Dickens and Walter Scott. I also adored Pilgrim's Progress which I read over and over again. I like it because it has narrative drive and it is set in a mythical world.

My own children loved being read to aloud. Beatrix Potter really captured their imagination because her sentences are so beautiful. I read the whole of the Lord of the Rings aloud to my two older children. The thing with Tolkein is that you get completely submerged into another world. I also read poetry to them. Walter De La Mare's Come Hither was a wonderful collection of poetry for children which is now out of print.

I think that children like long, complicated jingly language that they can savour. Not too many difficult words, just enough to enjoy.

If I had to choose something to take with me to a desert island, it would probably be a book of Browning's poetry because you can contemplate it for a long time and I might need something spiritual. If I know I'm going to be rescued I would probably take the complete Terry Pratchett because they are such fun.

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.