Mentored (Part 2)
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.
The second session started with Sally helping me restructure the draft of a short synopsis of my book. The short synopsis is just for my own use, and states the basic structure of my memoir.
She also wants me to consider writing a long synopsis, breaking down each chapter to give the full arc of the story. The long synopsis will be a marketing tool. It needs to state why somebody would want to read my memoir, and what my book says about a larger world – I think exposing what goes on in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail system is a larger theme, and Sally pointed out so is being an Englishman in an American jail system.
“You'll probably end up with two different versions of your long synopses,” Sally said. “One which is very much for your own use – the writing tool – for planning out the structure and what episodes go where, the other is the marketing tool, which you might send out to agents and publishers. At the moment we've only been looking at the structural one, until you get the structure of the book right, then when you're ready to be sending it out, we can work on the more polished version.”
Sally has suggested I get rid of the numerous anecdotes that do not move the story ahead. She wants me to list all of the anecdotes I have written, with a view to culling only the ones that are important. There’s so much material to be removed.
Sally pointed out my tendency to continue writing – “dribbling on” – after a particular episode and the chapter should have ended.
For homework, Sally set me the task of critical reading. She wants me to look at some books, to find some good prose and some poor prose, and to explain what works and what doesn’t. I am also to study how authors transition back in time. We both agreed John Updike is a master of such transitions.
She hopes this exercise will help me critique myself more.
Here’s my homework:
Good Prose, Poor Prose, Transitions
I’ve extracted these quotes from four books: Forget You Had a Daughter by Sandra Gregory, The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort, Lucky by Alice Sebold, and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. (Shantaram contains the highest standard of prose I've ever seen from an ex prisoner. I couldn't put it down, reading all 933 pages in two weeks. It's about a heroin-addict bank robber on the run in the slums of India.)
Shantaram: I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum-security prison.
So much about the author is packed into this one sentence. The juxtapositions are strong.
Lucky: Betty had a face full of deep Main Line wrinkles. She looked like an exotic breed of dog, sort of a cultivated shar-pei, and she spoke with an aristocratic accent…
This description is compact, vivid and original.
Shantaram: Every time we turn the key we twist the knife of fate, because every time we cage a man we close him in with hate.
Good use of aphorism and poetry. It’s this style of writing that makes Shantaram such a wonderful book. Roberts constantly probes the big questions in philosophy, giving Shantaram universal relevance.
Shantaram: His love song echoed and rang a bell in every heart that heard him.
Poetic use of metaphor and personification.
The Wolf of Wall Street: …some very obnoxious yuppies, seventy of them in all.
Belfort has a great story to tell, but his prose is weak. The word “very” appears on the first page and is used too much throughout the book. Instead of using very this or very that, one better word would do. Sheer laziness.
The Wolf of Wall Street: Thankfully, I was able to follow him just fine tonight, because I was sober as a judge…
The Wolf of Wall Street: In the past, I had stuck drugs up my ass too – going through this country or that – and it wasn’t a barrel of laughs.
The Wolf of Wall Street: …there was no denying that he was smart as a whip, cunning as a fox, ruthless as a Hun, and, above all else, loyal as a dog.
Belfort’s prose lacks originality. The above three quotes demonstrate his love of clichés. The third quote should be nominated for a clichés-per-sentence award. Prose like this makes me yawn.
Shantaram: Listening to the band, watching the children, and thinking of Tariq – missing the boy already – I remembered an incident from the prison. In that other world-within-a-world, back then, I moved into a new prison cell and discovered a tiny mouse there.
Forget You Had a Daughter: No one ever knows it at the time but there are always signs or incidents in your life that try to point out the rocky path. Most of the time we fail to heed them. When I was 17 I went to Amsterdam…
Lucky: That May, after my rape, I arrived back to a congregation that was traumatized, no more so than Father Breuninger himself.
Forget You Had a Daughter: I close my eyes. We are together, my brother and I, riding on bicycles next to our house and there is a cartoon sticker on the red frame of mine. It is warm and breezy, the summer of 1971 and I am happy for sure.
Those are four examples of smooth and original transitions.
And here’s what happened to the opening of the book after incorporating Sally’s input – click here to read Sally’s input in Mentored Part 1.
“Tempe Police Department! We have a warrant! Open the door!”
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!”
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!”
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.
A small army of SWAT – all black fatigues and ballistic armour – blitzed through the doorframe, pointing submachine guns. Moving with speed and unity, every other man entering our living room took an opposite direction, lining up in front of two perpendicular walls. Bracing to be shot at any moment, I froze – terror-struck.
“Tempe Police Department! Get on the fucking ground now!”
“Police! Police! 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, elbows, knees and boots, 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.” There was a self-satisfied edge in his tone of voice, as if he were savouring a moment of great triumph.
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 slapped it on my shoulder. “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 engulfed 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.
Sweat streamed from my armpits, trickled from my crotch. I thought about Claudia. What will they do to her? Will she be charged?
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, intensifying 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?”
“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 1.
Click here for Mentored Part 3.
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Shaun P. Attwood