Log on for book talk

17th March 2000 at 00:00
A new website is giving young readers the opportunity to chat to well-known Scottish authors - and to each other. Eleanor Caldwell reports

While reading and writing are essentially personal activities, a lot of pleasure can be had from discussing and considering other people's ideas. So a new website linked to the recently launched Scottish Writers project provides a forum for young readers and professional writers to exchange literary ideas.

Sets of selected Scottish books in English and Gaelic, ranging from John Buchan and Lewis Grassic Gibbon to Irvine Welsh and Aonghas Pahdraig Caimbeul, have been arriving in secondary schools all over the country, thanks to the Scottish Library Association and a pound;400,000 lottery grant.

The books are already proving popular with pupils, says the SLA. The next step for the youngsters, described by one of the organisers, author Theresa Breslin, as the "point-click" generation, is to use new technology to communicate with real writers through the website.

The site will have its own writers in residence, starting with poet and playwright Tom Pow, whose first children's book, Who is the World For?, will be published next year.

Pow, who teaches English part-time at Dumfries Academy, writes in his introduction on the accompanying Scottish Writers CD-Rom: "No novels, no short stories. So why am I the writer in residence for a project that includes nothing but novels and short story collections? Simple, I love reading them."

He describes himself as an "innocent" in technology and finds the prospect of getting to know the processes and potentials an exciting one. His advice to pupils visiting the site quotes George MacKay Brown: "Never read anything you're not interested in and never write anything you're not interested in writing" - advice which in his day, he says, was rarely doled out by teachers.

As a part-time teacher, Pow has increasingly enjoyed working with Higher English pupils on the Response to Personal Reading element of the course. Sharing his own enthusiasm about writing with the ideas and comments of his pupils is the role which, he says, he would like to extend as a virtual writer in residence. Using the Post It area of the site, which invites responses to reading, pupils can email Pow during his residence, which lasts till June. He hopes in particuar that the Scottish books which have just been sent to school libraries will engender responses from across the country. The site also contains a Topic of the Month, currently "Getting Started", in which Pow gives practical advice on the hardest moment for any writer.

He advises pupils to take notepad and pen and jot down any interesting comments and situations in everyday life which might otherwise be forgotten. He also discusses basic issues such as planning, use of first or third person, and approaches to starting a piece of writing. With six possible opening lines as stimulus, for example, "By my count it was the six hundred and fifteenth day of continuous rain..." or "It was the ugliest dog I had ever seen," pupils are invited to write, while heeding his advice that "short stories are like poems, they have no words to waste".

A future topic, he says, will be the tricky but fundamental subject of characterisation. Tom Pow enthuses about the opportunity to share these "core ideas" on the website. An interview with writer Alan Spence, for example, suggests to visitors that they should "make the world of their story real - either a world you know and have grown up in or a fantasy world. Describe how things feel, taste and smell."

Video and text presentations of interviews with authors describe their development as writers and offer ideas and encouragement to teenage beginners. From his own school days, Pow always thought he would be a novelist: "I felt writing stories was the only thing I had a real talent for. But in sixth year I began to write poetry and that was me hooked."

A section called Show It includes games and competitions, the first of which is a 1,000-word Short Story competition which Pow hopes will broaden pupils' ways of responding to both reading and writing. Audio and video competitions are in the pipeline.

Biographical details of a host of Scottish authors are arranged in chronological order and a Buy ItFind It area guides visitors to related sites. Pow says the librarians at whom the whole Scottish Writers project has been targeted have been very positive about it.

He hopes that regular visits, sharing opinions and responding will give pupils a chance to extend their reading and writing skills.

Scottish Writers website: www.slainte.org.ukscotwritscwrhome.htm

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