A nationwide hunt for undiscovered talent, with hopefuls being voted in or out - but no Simon Cowell in sight. Nick Morrison looks at how the new Stephen King could be caught on the web
Charles Dickens was a past master but in case you thought it was going out of fashion, Stephen King and Alexander McCall Smith have also turned their hands to it. Now a website launched this week aims to encourage children to have a go. But this attempt to write a book by instalments comes with a twist - aspiring authors will be asked to collaborate, each supplying a chapter and picking up the story where someone else has left off.
Teachers Patrick Horne and David Wade came up with Scriblist as a way of promoting creative writing in schools and of harnessing the democracy of the internet to give readers a say in which chapter is picked to take the story forward.
Scriblist will run five stories simultaneously, with writers asked to come up with a first chapter by the end of this month. Contributions will be posted on the website and readers asked to vote for their favourite, with the best five to start off the tales. The cycle then begins again to write and choose the five second chapters.
Each story will have six chapters in total and the aim is to publish the completed stories in a book. As well as seeing their work in print - and getting royalties from every copy sold - the writers of the winning chapters will also receive a prize, with an iPod shuffle on offer for each of the five chapters chosen to start the stories.
A plot outline has been drawn up for one of the stories (see panel) but the others will be left entirely to the authors' imaginations.
Patrick Horne, assistant headteacher at Harrogate Grammar School, North Yorkshire, says the books will be aimed at readers aged 13-18, although anyone can submit their chapters. A panel of judges will choose the winning entries, based on the public vote but ensuring no two stories take the same path.
Collaborator David Wade, the head of technology at Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls, in Elstree, Hertfordshire, says while many children enjoy creative writing at primary school, few carry on into secondary.
"We're trying to build a place where writing is not seen as something for a geeky few, but is cool again. We also want to have forums where people can discuss their own work," he says.
Each chapter should be accompanied by a synopsis of no more than 30 words, and visitors to the site will see a randomly-generated sample of these synopses. They can then either choose to click on and continue reading, or see another sample until they find one they like. They could also search for a specific contributor, using their profile name. About 200 secondary schools have already signed up to take part and the National Association of Writers in Education has offered the prize of a visit by a professional writer to the school with the largest number of students submitting opening chapters.
Stephen McKenzie, head of English at Patrick's school, Harrogate Grammar, plans to make the project part of coursework for Year 10 and lower-sixth pupils.
He says, "The strength of the project is that there is an instant audience.
Students always write best when they're writing for a purpose and here the audience is both friendly and critical.
"There will be relatively quick feedback and it is not just from their teachers but their peers as well. Students listen very closely to each other and the opinion of their peers is very important, probably more important than their teacher's, hard as it is to say.
"And of course a lot of students do still have that dream of being writers."
HOW IT WORKS
* Students submit the first chapter of a story, of 1,500-2,000 words, by January 28.
* Website visitors have a week to rate the submissions. The five winning chapters are chosen and published on the website.
* Students then have two weeks to submit a second chapter to any one of the five stories.
* Website visitors have a week to read and rate these second instalments.
* The five winning second chapters are chosen and published on the website.
* And so on, until each story has six chapters, which will be about the middle of May. The five completed stories will be published in a book.
Plot Number One
* The setting for the story is a funeral.
* Each of the first five chapters will be written from the viewpoint of five guests at the funeral.
* The chapter should reveal details about the guest featured in the chapter, their association with the deceased and why the guest has good reason to celebratemourn.
* The final chapter will reveal the facts surrounding the death.