Watch me write
The first time I met face to face the pupils who were studying my writing we started a discussion about what noise - precisely - an arrow makes when it hits the wall of a mud hut. John Kelly, who designs my books, had pencilled in a "Thwaack!" in his word balloons but, after some discussion, we decided on a more sonorous "Thud!"
I had asked them to compose their own story boards - 20 frames of words and pictures - that would be their smaller versions of the book I was preparing professionally for the publishers Dorling Kindersley.
My title was Tales of the Dead: Ancient Rome, which combines a graphic novel within a non-fiction framework. It was what Derek Cobley, co-ordinator of the Swansea Wordplay Festival, wanted for our project, which aimed to give children an insight into the way professional writers operate. "For many children, especially boys," he explained, "facts are what they want to read. I want the project to show that non-fiction writing needs to be just as creative as fiction or poetry."
I was asked to work with Year 6 at St Illtyd's Roman Catholic primary, Swansea, which is a long way from my home in Kent. I had wondered whether I should set up a camera in my garden hut workplace and stream video down to South Wales, but the pupils would either have had to endure mind-numbing hours of me typing or I would have had to stop every five minutes and explain what I was doing. Impractical.
Instead, I sent them copies of a similar book I had written on Egypt to show how the innovative design worked and give an impression of what Ancient Rome would look like when finished.
The pre-visit work involved email interaction between DK editor Simon Beecroft, DKdesigner John Kelly, and the pupils, via their teacher Alison Howells, and myself.
I sent the school the original book plan and the revised version, in which the story moved from North Africa to a climax in the Colosseum, inviting the pupils to compare the two and suggest why the second was preferred to the first. This sophisticated exercise in comparison also meant thinking about the book's potential market.
I sent the school some of John Kelly's non-fiction roughs. The pupils used these as a guide for spreads of their own, choosing subjects from the agreed book map. This meant designing, drawing, planning and writing clear, concise and lively non-fiction text to accompany their artwork. The results were impressive.
The children saw their work as something "real", linking to the world outside: this was how it was done in the writer's workshop, on the designer's drawing board and on the editor's desk - and they were involved in it. Writing non-fiction took on a new purpose and meaning.
The final stage of our virtual relationship was writing the graphic novel.
As with the non-fiction, I forwarded to the pupils the relevant sketches and emails that had passed between Simon, John and me, allowing the pupils to produce their own versions of the story in 20-frame spreads.
As each spread was a story complete within itself, the pupils had to write an attention-grabbing opening and then develop it towards a cliff-hanging ending, an exercise in planning that would benefit their own story-writing.
Moreover, whereas writing for tradional exams can encourage flowery language, a graphic novel relies on a minimum of words. The genre obliged pupils to produce good modern English: simple, clear, concise.
And then I went to Swansea so that finally we could meet up. Alison Howells, their teacher, was positive throughout. "It was great to see the children realising that writers are normal people," she said, "living in the same world as them with deadlines and people to answer to, just like them."
The Adopt an Author scheme, funded by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) offers many of the benefits of a writer in residence at a fraction of the cost. The pupils looked at writing fiction and non-fiction in depth but they also made use of technology and came to understand the need for planning all academic work. the exercise also reinforced the confidence of a group of youngsters whose self-image can at times be less than positive.
Stewart Ross is chairman of the educational writers group of the Society of Authors. His The Middle East Since 1945 has just been published by Hodder Arnold. Pirates, Plants and Plunder (Random HouseEden Project) is due out in spring 2005. Contact him at email@example.com