How to write a crime thriller in 5 days – by the A level English students of Croydon College

By - Wednesday 25th June, 2014

Liz Sheppard-Jones talks to Chantal Irtelli, Head of English and Humanities at Croydon College, about her students’ week of amazing creativity and their ultimate conquest of writer’s block

The nine Croydon College students who participated in Too Many Cooks.
Image provided by Chantal Irtelli and used with permission.

The story broke on Twitter, as is so often the way. Keeping a weather eye on social media Croydon, I learned that a group of A level English students at Croydon College was writing a crime thriller – in five days!

So the story IS the story, and I gave them a quick follow @TooManyCooksCC (where their tweets were a masterclass in lively audience engagement and dramatic narrative) then rang Chantal Irtelli, Head of English and Humanities at the College, to find out more.

First of all, Chantal – where did you get this amazing idea?

It originated at Royal Holloway College, University of London, where computer scientists are experimenting with computer-supported narrative. They are interested in its deep structure and the processes involved in collaborative as well as individual work. Dr Joe Reddington first ran a group writing exercise with his undergraduate students a couple of years ago and was so interested in the results that he decided to roll the project out to schools and colleges.

The project is called Too Many Cooks and I found out about it when I attended a workshop with Joe at Royal Holloway. I immediately wanted Croydon College to take part.

So last week, nine of our English A level students rather nervously assembled: Sian Moore, Tia Goedluck, Matthew Kabwe, Brandon White, Kayla Francis, Elizabeth Dale, Shannan Connolly, Ayanna White Laurent and Holly Peters. Their task was to work together to plot, write, edit then publish a crime thriller, starting on Monday morning and completing it by Friday afternoon.

How does the process actually work?

Joe Reddington provides a structure, which has to be there to prevent all the creativity from tipping over into chaos, but it’s loose enough to allow the members of the writing group to take their story in whatever direction they decide.

So last Monday morning, 16th June, we began with Joe’s proposal for a plot, and after a discussion we drew up a big board outline of events of our novel. We spun the story as a group, bouncing ideas off each other and expanding our concept until there were nine characters involved, one for each person to work on. Then each student picked a character and fully visualised that person – their names, appearance, background, like and dislikes – and reported back to the group.

Next we decided on a timeline of events and an opening scene. Then it was chapter time – using fifty cards, one for each chapter, we divided them up, gave each one a title and wrote a brief summary of contents. Then we literally put our cards on the table and moved them around, until we had a sequence of named, plotted chapters telling the story laid out in front of us – the skeleton of our novel.

Is everyone still controlling what happens to their own character at this point?

This is where the creative process really has to be collaborative. If in the chapter you are writing, your character starts to interact with another, you can’t assume that the other character will do whatever you want. You must get together with the person who created that character and talk about how they will react.

By now it was Monday night. On Tuesday morning it was onto the PCs. Too Many Cooks uses a program which allows everyone to work at once, and we wrote solidly through Tuesday and Wednesday – hard and continuous work all day, showing how committed and engaged the students had become. By the end of Wednesday, we had a 40,000 word novel!

That sounds like some job for an editor…

Some job for an editor… a few of the corrected proofs of the students’ novel.
Image by Chantal Irtelli, used with permission

Yes indeed! Then it was time for us all to start editing. We quickly found that working on printed proofs was easier than onscreen editing so we printed it all out and starting proof-reading and checking.

Several nervous breakdowns later, it was 2pm on Friday and time to agree on a title. That was a really difficult decision for the group, because the title encapsulates the work and we were all emotionally involved by then, with strong ideas about what it should be. On Twitter we described this stage as ‘hysteria’, not because we were out of control but because of the intensity of feelings that it generated. Reaching a consensus really tested everyone and I was impressed how mature the group was able to be over such a difficult decision.

What do you think the students have gained by participating in Too Many Cooks?

Croydon College is only the second college to take part in the project – other participants have either been undergraduates or groups in schools. We’re rather different, and our students’ sense of entitlement can be lacking compared to A level students elsewhere.

So I think the people who accomplished this genuinely challenging and exciting task have gained an enormous amount – I can actually see the difference in them. They’ve learned about working as a team, and gained tremendous confidence.

And what is the novel about?

The title of our book is Behind The Screen, and although it started as a crime thriller, it evolved into more of a mystery story… but no spoilers! You can buy our book on Amazon and we hope everybody will – it’s a cracking read!

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    Congratulations to all!

  • Everyman

    From what I hear, Croydon College students know a fair bit about crime already so they should find it easier than most…