Although novelists can come up with a justification for almost any procrastinatory activity (I need to eat this cake! My protagonist loves cake!), we can genuinely benefit from watching the odd episode of a soap opera. Want to create strong characters your readers would happily spend years alongside? Get in late and leave early with your scenes? Nail tight pacing? Raise your stakes to the roof? Show not tell? Cram in more twists than a superunicorn's horn? (they do so exist; if you were a virgin you could see them, reprobate). Soaps own most novels on every count. Even - no, especially - if they're written by a bunch of schoolkids with no previous writing experience and a budget of almost-zilch.
On Monday night I went to the screening of the Ministry of Stories' Dead Ends project. This summer, eight 8-to-18 year olds spent their precious evenings in after-school workshops, devising and scriptig four 5-minute episodes of a new soap opera inspired by Hoxton Street. Supported by EastEnders writer Pete Lawson and the MoS's volunteer writing mentors, their output is incredibly impressive - taut, gritty, heartfelt and utterly compulsive viewing. One episode is being uploaded online each day this week - here's the first to whet your appetite.
I have been meaning to get involved with the Ministry of Stories for years - based in my area, along with the accompanying Hoxton Street Monster Supplies Shop, their work empowering youngsters to get excited about writing is ambitious and of exceptional quality. No patronising rubbish poetry pamphlets here. Another of their recent projects, The Children's Republic of Shoreditch, got kids to create their own independent state, complete with passports, newspaper, and letters sent to the PM, Secretary of State and the Queen. It looks and reads as beautifully as the work of any top-end Soho creative agency wonks.
Ministry of Stories was founded by the charismatic trio Lucy McNab, Ben Payne and novelist Nick Hornby in 2010, following the example of Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari's 826 Valencia, a writing centre and shop for pirates in San Francisco. It reminds me of another favourite charity, First Story, which puts writers-in-residence into challenging secondary schools across the UK.
Those of us lucky enough to have been encouraged to read and write from an early age surely have an obligation to pay it back by supporting these causes with our time, money, attention and word of mouth; and not as superior benevolents graciously bestowing our wisdom, but as ignorant rookies who have a hell of a lot to learn from these kids' courage, verve and skill.