Mentored (Part 6)
Thanks to the Koestler Trust, I am now being mentored by Sally Hinchcliffe, a published author with an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of London.
Here’s an article recently posted to Koestler’s website, that gives my mentor’s perspective on my writing development.
Mentoring Session One
“Mentoring is a strange balancing act: somewhere between befriending and tutoring, and one I'm still getting to grips with in my sessions with Shaun. I find it an interesting coincidence that we are the same age and we left university in the same year, but the paths of our lives since then have been radically different.
“Our first session was at Liverpool's Walker Arts Gallery Cafe, whose staff have an incredibly relaxed attitude to people occupying a table for two hours with nothing but a cooling cup of coffee. At times I am painfully aware that we are discussing the mechanics of 'keystering' drugs into prison while two immaculately dressed and blue-rinsed old ladies share a pot of tea and cakes across the room. Fortunately the acoustic in the cafe is echo-y and I hope our words don't carry too far beyond our table. Shaun initially sent me a mountain of stuff to read and I made detailed notes on the first three chapters. So much about developing as a writer is about having a sympathetic reader who can see what you're trying to achieve and tell you what works and what doesn't in that context. I'm trying to walk a narrow line – I don't want Shaun to lose his own voice and become a ventriloquist of mine, but then again, I can see how his writing needs to be sharpened and de-cluttered, so that his voice and his story comes through. I have marked up the text as I would a fellow MA student, holding him to the same high standards.
“We also discuss aims and objectives, filling in the planning sheet that Koestler have provided. Shaun is a man with a mission, and in a hurry. He wants to be approaching publishers within three months. I do a lot of expectations management about the pauper's life a writer leads. I'm hoping some of it sinks in. I walk out of the session feeling a little shattered, not helped by an epic four-hour, three-train journey home.”
“My first session with Sally went extremely well. Now that I have a professional pointing out the errors in my writing and coaching me on getting published, I feel I am about to make some serious progress. After reading the draft of my autobiography, Sally offered a variety of advice... 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 was 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.”
Mentoring Session Two
“Reading through Shaun's first blog, I find I have been cast as the dragon lady. His blog readers are appalled, but Shaun seems happy and more importantly the next tranche of work he sends me is radically improved, with all my comments taken on board. I realise the power of my position – the lightest word from me might send Shaun off down a wrong track; a worrying responsibility. We talk about the structure of the book and I find myself torn between making concrete suggestions and getting Shaun to make up his own mind. In the end we consider a couple of approaches for Shaun to try. I sometimes have to bite back my natural tendency to have and voice an opinion – this is not my book, when all is said and done. The mentoring relationship is strictly time limited, and at the end of this year he'll have to continue on his own, and fostering a dependence on me will not be helpful.”
“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.
“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.”
Mentoring Session Three
“Shaun talks in his blog about 'homework' making me sound more school-marmish than I hope I really am. But I am trying to give him the skills of self-critique, starting with critiquing others. It's easy to become dependent on the opinions of others and lose the ability to see one's own faults. Each tranche of writing Shaun sends is better than the last, and my own critiques have had to become more nuanced. Sometimes he's overshot – I asked him to put more of himself into the writing, now at times I suggest he puts in less.
“We talk about general techniques and I am impressed by how much Shaun has anticipated my own tentative suggestions and going beyond them. The research he has put in is amazing, relying not just on his memories but on letters, and going back to the characters involved and even recording their speech to make sure he's got the dialogue right.”
“In the third session Sally offered this advice:
Make it clear to the reader how much time is passing and where you are. Try to remember the layout of the jail is confusing to the uninitiated...Consider stepping back at some point and describing how the jail works. Such as the layout, terminology, even the fact that it’s for prisoners on remand. Now that your disorientation stage is out of the way, give the reader some clues. There is a much better sense of yourself in these chapters, but be careful of editorialising. Tell us what you feel, but don’t tell us what to think... In general these three chapters feel solid and well realised, and would fit in well to the book however you slant it. Good stuff.
“Sally recommended I read The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis. It’s a book of literary criticism, containing pieces on some of my favourite authors such as Tom Wolfe and Don DeLillo.”
“Every time I fill in my monitoring sheets after a session I have to count back to see how many we've done because I can't believe how far we've both come in a few short meetings. Half way through the project and Shaun is already producing writing that is both assured and at times powerfully moving. I'm fortunate in having someone keen to work hard and utterly dedicated – taking the few hints and tips I've made and running with them. I know I've been fortunate in my mentee (although I still don't believe that's a word) but the past six months have shown how effective this relationship can be.
“I said at the start that our lives had run along radically different courses but if they have diverged in the past, they are now converging. Increasingly we meet these days as writer and writer – sharing tips at our last session on avoiding the aches and pains of a laptop-bound sedentary life – rather than as mentor and mentee.”
Click here to read Mentored Part 5
Link to the original article.
I also received this email from the school I did my first talk about prison and drugs to:
You may remember coming to speak at Bishop's Stortford College earlier this year.
Our pupils rated your talk as the best one they had recieved all year !
I would very much like to invite you to give the same talk again next year.
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Shaun P. Attwood