23 Nov 08

Mentored (Part 1)

Thanks to the Koestler Trust, I am now being mentored by Sally Hinchcliffe, a published author with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London, taught by Julia Bell and Russell Celyn Jones.

My first session with her went extremely well. Now that I have a professional pointing out the errors in my writing and coaching me on getting published, I am confident of making progress.

After reading the draft of my autobiography, Sally offered a variety of advice. She said I need to rethink the structure of the book, as running the jail story in the odd chapters and the stockbroker/rave story in the even chapters is too confusing. She wants me to remove any characters and anecdotes that do not further the story, with a view to the book totalling 125,000 words or less.

She provided detailed feedback on Chapters 1 to 5, which some of you have read. She wants me to provide more background on the main characters such as Wild Man. To add more of my thoughts, feelings, motivations, and reactions, so I’m not so much a bystander. To describe things using all five senses, particularly the sense of smell. To provide more details about the environment, especially the prison buildings and cells. To simplify my prose and stop trying to be “showy,” for example, getting rid of all of my references to the classics, which she calls “cultural name-dropping” – we had a good laugh over that one. To increase my paragraph size – difficult for me as I find large paragraphs cumbersome. To stop italicising my thoughts because italics are better used for emphasis.
She asked me to summarise the book in one sentence. I replied, “It’s the story of my rise, fall and redemption.”
She asked me to write a brief synopsis, and recommended I read these two memoirs, Lucky by Alice Sebold and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and these two prison memoirs, Forget You Had a Daughter by Sandra Gregory and A Life Inside by Erwin James.

When I told Sally about my high hopes of getting published as soon as I got out of prison, she said that if I am seeking immediate results, I need to find another occupation. Getting published takes years and my book must be presented in the right way because I only have one shot with each publisher, and in its present format my story would be rejected.

Our friends inside who are aspiring writers – Jack, Shane, Warrior – have asked I keep them posted on what I learn from my mentor. So I’m providing the first two pages of my autobiography, with my mentor’s constructive feedback in bold, in the hope it will be of benefit to them, and anyone else studying writing. Other than the specific points in bold, she asked me to insert more of my thoughts and feelings, and to try and write some bigger paragraphs.

Chapter 1

“Tempe Police Department! We have a warrant for your arrest! Open the door immediately!”
The stock quotes flickering on the computer screen lost all importance as I rushed to the peephole.
Bang, bang, bang, bang!
Wearing only boxer shorts, I dashed to the bedroom. “Claudia Wake up! It’s the cops!”
“Tempe Police Department! If you refuse to open the door, we will use force to enter!”
Claudia scrambled from the California king, her long blond hair tousled. “What should we do?” she asked, anxiously straightening her pink pyjamas.
Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!
“Open the door! This is your last warning!”
We searched each other’s faces.
“Let’s open it,” I said.
Claudia clung to my arm. We hastened to let them in and – boom! – the door leaped off its hinges.
Pointing submachine guns, a small army of SWAT blitzed through the doorframe, and fanned out with military precision. Рfeels like a clich̩, also, how did having guns pointed at you make you feel?
“Get on the fucking ground now!”
“On your bellies now!”
“Hands above your heads!”
“Don’t fucking move!”
Crushed by hands and feet, I could barely breathe. Cold steel snapped around my wrists. I was hoisted like a puppet onto my feet.
As they yanked Claudia up by the cuffs, she pinched her eyes shut; when she opened them, tears spilled out.
– make into a longer paragraph, save the short ones for when you need them

“I’m Detective Reid. You’re a big name from the rave scene, English Shaun. – why did he tell you this? How did it make you feel? I’m sure this raid will vindicate the charges.” Detective Reid was a tall burly man with long scraggy hair and an intimidating presence. His gaze probed my inner self.
Dazed by shock, my mind struggled for an appropriate response. “There’s nothing illegal in here.”
He smirked knowingly, then read my Miranda and consular rights.
I wanted to put my arms around Claudia to stop her trembling. “Don’t worry, love. Everything’s going to be alright.” I said, concealing my fear.
“Don’t fucking talk to her! You’re going outside!” Detective Reid took a dirty T-shirt from the hamper and threw it at me. “Take this with you!”
“I’m exercising my right to remain silent, love!” I yelled as they pushed me out of the apartment.
“I told you not to fucking talk to her!”
Yelling over each other, they shoved me down the stairs.
“Stand by the stairs and keep fucking quiet!” Detective Reid left me guarded by a policeman.
The punishing heat of the sun rising over the Sonoran Desert soon engulfed me.
They locked Claudia into the back of a Crown Victoria. It sped off with my girlfriend of one-and-a-half years. – exposition, best either done explicitly or left out altogether
Police in state uniforms, federal uniforms, and plain clothes swarmed our Scottsdale apartment, their eyes burning with a mechanical zeal for Рclich̩ the administration of justice.
Every so often, Detective Reid and a short bespectacled lady conferred.
Neighbours gathered:
“What’s all this about?”
“Some kind of drug bust.”
“Drug bust up there!”
“I know. They seemed so quiet.”
“You never can tell these days.”
– did you really hear them say this? It needs to be explained somehow?
Sweat streamed from my armpits, trickled from my crotch. I thought about Claudia. What will they do to her? Will she be charged? – don’t italicise thoughts, unless you want to emphasise an important thought
Detective Reid approached me. “What’s in the safe, Attwood?”
“A coin collection and documents like my birth certificate.”
“You’re full of shit! Where’s the key?” Detective Reid asked, the hostility in his voice increasing. “You might as well just give the drugs up at this point.”
“The key’s on my key chain, but it needs a combination as well as a key.”
“What drugs are in it?”
“None.”
“Don’t play games with us, Attwood. Don’t force me to call a locksmith.”
“I’m not playing games.”
“We’ll soon see about that.”
I was about to volunteer the combination, but he whipped out a cell phone, and dialled a locksmith.
“Get in the back of that car over there,” said a policeman in his late forties with a rugged face. He looked the type not averse to taking a detour on the way to the police station to teach certain criminals a lesson.
New to manoeuvring in handcuffs, I fell sideways on to the back seat.
He threw a pair of jeans at me – how can you put jeans on in handcuffs? Need to explain more what happened and secured the door. In the driver’s seat, he donned Electra Glide in Blue motorcycle-cop sunglasses, mouthed a stick of gum, and blasted a hard-rock radio station. Tapping the wheel, he bobbed his head slightly as he drove.
The sense of being on the road to losing my liberty increased my dread and helplessness.
“Looks like we’re gonna be waiting outside,” he said, parking near Tempe police station.
Sealed in the Crown Victoria for what seemed like an eternity, I mulled over my predicament. Cuffed. Cramped. Sweaty. – good
“Bring him in,” someone radioed.
He parked by a mobile police unit, and escorted me to a man sat at a desk.
“Fill this out.”
NAME, DATE OF BIRTH, SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER, HOME ADDRESS, OCCUPATION, WORK ADDRESS…
“I’m exercising my right to remain silent,” I said.
“You must fill this out, or else we’ll book you in as a John Doe, and you don’t want that.”

Here’s my revised version of the first two pages, incorporating her feedback.

Chapter 1

“Tempe Police Department! Open the door, we have a warrant for your arrest!”
The stock quotes flickering on the computer screen lost all importance as I rushed to the peephole – it was blacked out. Boots thudded up the outdoor stairs to our Scottsdale apartment.
Bang, bang, bang, bang!
Wearing only boxer shorts, I dashed to the bedroom. “Claudia Wake up! It’s the cops!”
“Tempe Police Department! Open the door! We have a warrant!”
Claudia scrambled from the California king, her long blond hair tousled. “What should we do?” she asked, anxiously fixing her pink pyjamas.
Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!
“Open the door! This is your last warning!”
We searched each other’s faces.
“Let’s open it,” I said, figuring not letting them in would make matters worse.
With Claudia clinging to my arm, I was hastening to let them in when – boom! – the door leaped off its hinges.
Toting submachine guns, a small army of SWAT blitzed through the doorframe. I froze in place. Terror-struck. In an instant, they surrounded us like a mechanical hand. Accompanying every gun aimed at my body was an avid squint behind tactical goggles. I braced myself to be shot at any moment.
“Get on the fucking ground now!”
“On your bellies now!”
“Hands above your heads!”
“Don’t fucking move!”
As I dropped to the floor, they fell upon me. Crushed by hands and feet, I could barely breathe. Cold steel snapped around my wrists. I was hoisted like a puppet onto my feet. As they yanked Claudia up by the cuffs, she pinched her eyes shut; when she opened them, tears spilled out.
“I’m Detective Reid,” said a tall burly man with long scraggy hair, and an intimidating presence. “English Shaun, you’re a big name from the rave scene. I’m sure this raid will vindicate the charges.” He had a condescending look in his eyes, and a self-satisfied edge in his tone of voice, as if he were savouring a moment of great triumph. He seemed dangerously childish.
Dazed by shock, I fumbled around for an appropriate response. “There’s nothing illegal in here.”
He smirked knowingly, then read my Miranda and consular rights.
I wanted to put my arms around Claudia to stop her trembling. “Don’t worry, love. Everything’s going to be alright,” I said, concealing my fear.
“Don’t fucking talk to her! You’re going outside!” Detective Reid took a dirty T-shirt from the hamper and threw it at me. “Take this with you!”
“I’m exercising my right to remain silent, love!” I yelled repeatedly as they pushed me out of the apartment.
“I told you not to fucking talk to her!”
Yelling over each other, they shoved me down the stairs. They briefly removed my cuffs, so I could slip the T-shirt on.
“Stand by the stairs and keep fucking quiet!” Detective Reid left me guarded by a policeman.
The heat of the sun rising over the Sonoran Desert soon punished me.
They locked Claudia into the back of a Crown Victoria, which sped off.
Police in state uniforms, federal uniforms, and plain clothes swarmed our place.
Every so often, Detective Reid and a short bespectacled lady conferred.
Neighbours assembled, fascinated, saying things like:
“What’s all this about?”
“Some kind of drug bust.”
“Drug bust up there!”
“I know. They seemed so quiet.”
“You never can tell these days.”
Sweat streamed from my armpits, trickled from my crotch. I thought about Claudia. What will they do to her? Will she be charged? Tired of being outdoors, I worried about where they might take me.
Detective Reid bounded down the stairs, his air of triumph gone. “What’s in the safe, Attwood?”
“A coin collection and documents like my birth certificate.”
“You’re full of shit! Where’s the key?” he asked, raising the hostility in his voice. “You might as well just give the drugs up at this point.”
“The key’s on my key chain, but it needs a combination as well as a key.”
“What drugs are in it?”
“None.”
“Don’t play games with us, Attwood. Don’t force me to call a locksmith.”
“I’m not playing games.”
“We’ll soon see about that.” He sounded desperate.
I was about to volunteer the combination, but he whipped out a cell phone, and dialled a locksmith.
“Get in the back of that car over there,” said a policeman in his late forties with a rugged face. He looked the type not averse to taking a detour on the way to the police station to teach certain criminals a lesson.
New to manoeuvring in handcuffs, I fell sideways on to the back seat. I straightened myself up, and he threw a pair of jeans on my lap.
In the driver’s seat, he donned Electra Glide in Blue motorcycle-cop sunglasses, mouthed a stick of gum, and blasted a hard-rock radio station. Tapping the wheel, he bobbed his head slightly as he drove.
The sense of being on the road to losing my liberty increased my dread.
“Looks like we’re gonna be waiting outside,” he said, parking near Tempe police station.
Sealed in the Crown Victoria for what seemed like an eternity, I mulled over my predicament. Cuffed. Cramped. Sweaty.
“Bring him in,” someone radioed.
He parked by a mobile police unit. He uncuffed me, told me to put my jeans on, and escorted me to a man sat at a desk.
“Fill this out.”
NAME, DATE OF BIRTH, SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER, HOME ADDRESS, OCCUPATION, WORK ADDRESS…
“I’m exercising my right to remain silent,” I said.
“You must fill this out, or else we’ll book you in as a John Doe, and you don’t want that.”

Click here for Mentored Part 2.

Email comments to writeinside@hotmail.com or post them below. To post a comment if you do not have a Google/Blogger account, just select anonymous for your identity.

Shaun P. Attwood

7 comments:

Chris Phoenix said...

I kinda' liked it the first way. It must be said that I'm a guy raised on science fiction. But still, some of what she was calling "errors" I just call a different style or voice.

Your first version is stark and factual. To me, that makes it more present and believable. I can, and do, insert my own feelings.

The part about them closing around you like a mechanical hand is vivid... but... were you thinking that at the time? "Gee, these people act like they're the fingers of a giant hand. Yep, there's the wrist coming through the door now, and he's about to ask me for the combo to my safe."

No, I bet your thoughts were more like, "Oh shit, these guys are acting hard-core military!" Especially by contrast to (the American stereotype of) English cops.

So the second version, at least in the first major change, feels like you're telling someone else's story - it feels staged or composed.

But I agree about using all five senses.

Anonymous said...

I think what he was writing was fine before she put in her comments. If I were going to give him advice I would say 'make it more intense' make your paragraphs shorter - more like bursts of uzi fire. Make your prose more like something that needs to be snorted rather than read!

D

Anonymous said...

I loved the critique you put up from your mentor - it's helpful to me as an aspiring writer and also helpful to me as someone who edits others' writings. If I can't publish work, I would love to be an editor.

Glad to to see you're doing so well, BTW. I really like, from afar, the path you've been given since coming home to England.

Anonymous said...

What struck me is how original and spontaneous your writing is and how your mentor seems (to me at least) to be trying to dampen it. Now if you're writing for money, well forget it. It's a shit career choice - and I'm sure you'd be able to make more money in a month than most writers make in a year, from any other means.
If you care about what you're writing then stick to your guns. I think the style you're using (which is really your own voice) matches the subject matter. It's really quite hot stuff.

Chris H said...

Big Dawg!

No! No, no, no, no, NO!

It was such a neat idea of moving back and forth between the 2 threads was great and really innovative. When you first said that was how you were going to do it I thought it would be confusing but after reading it, I think it's superb.

I know you respect and appreciate the input from your mentor - and you should - but I think the style was creative and fun and helped prevent the reader from becoming too traumatised by the prison world.

Just my opinion mate.

Hugs and kisses,

Chris H

Suzanne said...

I liked your original concept of moving back and forth between 2 narratives, though I thought there were three narratives? Regardless, stories constructed in that framework keep me continually refreshed and interested, as I like being brought sharply back into a compelling storyline my brain dropped while being engaged in a different thread.

I do agree with some of her technical feedback. She had good feedback - I don't think it is stifling your natural voice so much as defining and refining it.

Anonymous said...

I just read your mentor blog today, and following what we said over the phone this weekend, I can only say it is a plus for motivating you to push and question yourself in how you write. I must of read in some case five different version of the same chapters of what you allowed me to read so far of your autobio in draft form. Each time I read a reworked part of a draft I wanted to make sure you had not lost the spontaneity of the initial work though I think each time it got better, tighter. You spoke of what was more essential and dropped the superfluous. I like the expression "less is more". A term used in architecture design for minimalism. So I do agree with miss Hinchcliffe about reducing characters (even thought they are all more fabulously crazy) and focussing on aspect that further the story. I'm sure you will remember what I said about when I could not wait to get to the point in the story (the linear in time version) where you got arrested because reading parts of the draft I made the cruel statement it was like ridding my bike up hill against the wind...not fun! I was harsh. A little. I think what I find interesting in sharing your story is the contrast of what you lived and extremes. Being on top yet feeling empty and then down at the bottom of the food chain and yet getting such uplifting moments like receiving a letter or a visit from a loved one...I want to see more of the the dualism, down to your own emotions and stability at times. It is true that you do not need to support your writing by using cultural references... You are your best witness to describe what happened. You were at the front row and need to exploit that, tell what others (your readers) did not have access. You know what first got me hooked to you? Is the way you play with words, I felt you had tremendous fun putting one word after another, I wanted to read you more, get infected by the virus you were infected with. Later you taught me the word alliteration, which made me smile...for a French speaking person to repeat words like "Booty Bandit Buyer" taken from the phrase : What Max did for the Booty Bandit Buyer of Semen.
Thank you for considering I might have had anything to do with your development as a writer. I am very moved.

Cat Eyes