Terry Truman and Patrick Flaherty recently finished their mystery thriller, "Rich Man, Dead Man," which centers on house guests who calmly bump off each other sometime after tea. The plot thickens until the reader finds out that sweet Katrina knew more about the grappling irons than she'd been letting on.

But it's unlikely that you'll find "Rich Man, Dead Man" in bookstores any time soon. That's because Truman, 12, and Flaherty, 13, don't write for the general public but for the Prince William County school system. Both attend Marsteller Intermediate School near Manassas.

They are just two of more than 10,000 elementary and middle school students who competed in this year's Prince William County's third annual Write-A-Thon, a program in which students write books instead of read them.

By all accounts the program has been a fabulous success.

"The Write-A-Thon is designed to get children involved in writing in a fun way," said Frank Seese, Prince William superintendent for language arts. "It's a lot of work for the teachers because you can't just tell a child to write a book, you have to teach them. But once they see what they can do, there's no stopping them."

Winners in the countywide competition were Brandy Decker (kindergarten through third grade) for her non-fiction book "Sammy My Friend," Carrie Vitko (fourth and fifth grades) for her book "Poems for the Holidays" and David Norris (sixth through eighth grades) for his book of poems "Time is the Essence."

The program started as a technique used by Prince William's remedial reading teachers to help slow readers.

Three years ago, in an effort to emphasize reading and writing generally, county school officials expanded the program to include students at any school that wanted to participate. This year, all 40 Prince William elementary and middle schools took part.

Marcia Tiller, a Prince William parent who has helped administer the Write-A-Thon at Rippon Elementary School, said the program has tapped into often over-looked creative energies. Reading specialist Marcia Hoenle said the program encourages children to read more, expand their vocabulary and hone grammar skills.

"We've found talent we never knew existed in some children," said Tiller, who helped with the judging. "It's been especially difficult this year because the children from the schools that have participated in the past are submitting better and better entries all the time."

Entries in the kindergarten through third grade grouping were dominated by illustrated and shaped books. There were books that looked like pickles, bears, frogs and apples. One book resembled blue jeans. Many were stories of family members and events -- a special cat, a grandmother's death. They had page after page of carefully drawn illustrations.

Older students grappled with everything from horses to fantasies about wizards and warriors and adventures on Madagascar. A group of fourth graders put together "Poetry for Endangered Animals," with poems written on pages shaped like leopards, condors and seals. Jodi Kranich wrote a fable about the Easter bunny called "The Land of Wacky Rabbits."

At many schools, the Write-A-Thon has become a major event, with parents helping children laminate and bind their books for presentation. Betty Covington, principal at Kilby Elementary, siad the school gives every child who writes a book a prize during the annual celebration, the "Night of Stars."

"We couldn't possibly pull back now, although if we have any more children next year, we will have to have two Nights of Stars," Covington said. "We'd have a pack of disappointed children. It's too exciting."