Mentored (Part 8)
Thanks to the Koestler Trust, I am being mentored by Sally Hinchcliffe, a published author with an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of London.
Now that my jail memoir is finished and has found a publisher, I’ve moved onto writing the volume of my life story that encompasses everything up to my arrest. I submitted the first sixty pages to Sally, and she provided the following constructive feedback.
Think on two levels:
Level 1: The big picture. Story. Themes. Arc. Characters.
Level 2: Detail. Writing. Sentences. Clichés. Pacing. Language. “In the moment.” Editorialising.
– The first draft often has lots of faults at the detail level. This is not necessarily a problem as you can sort those out later. Don’t let your inner editor stop/slow you down.
– The aim of a first draft should be to get the big picture sketched out (but it doesn’t always work that way).
– Balance between plotting stuff out and just writing. You need to find what works for you.
– Ask yourself what is this book about (in a nutshell)? Who is it aimed at? When you’ve answered these questions, you can then decide which incidents and characters serve to tell that story.
– What are the themes? How can you best arrange the themes to hook the readers and satisfy them?
You also need to consider who’s going to read your drafts after this mentor program ends. Here are some ideas:
– Deploying blog readers.
– Joining a writing group.
– Your agent can act as an editor, but probably won’t want first drafts.
– Other readers won’t necessarily act as editors, but can give you feedback/ reactions.
– Ask: – for their initial reactions
– for any questions the draft has raised
– them specific questions: “Does X work?” “Should I start with Y?” in order that they think about the work in concrete ways.
My questions are:
– Who will be reading this book and why?
– How much of your own youth, childhood do you want to put in, and how much of Wild Man’s?
– What is the story arc? If you think of it as a cautionary tale, there are places where you make choices and things could have gone differently. You need to make these points clear (subtly!).
The first thing Sally wrote on the draft was “Why start here?” I opened with a childhood anecdote about Wild Man and me as a year ago Sally said I needed to explain my history with Wild Man more, but I’ve decided that Sally is nudging me in a different direction: the book needs to start with an anecdote more relevant to the theme of the book. The Wild Man anecdote should come later. The theme of the book is my rise and fall. But my rise and fall in what? Well, raving and the stock market were two of the main focuses of my pre-arrest life. A lady I told my story to recently expressed it in this nutshell: “Your story is the Manchester rave scene meets Wall Street.” In light of Sally’s advice, the best place to start the book seems to be my first rave and Ecstasy experience. That was a night that reshaped my destiny. So I’m going to end this blog entry with that anecdote. Bear in mind it’s only a rough draft and I’ll no doubt be rewriting it as many times as I rewrote the opening of the jail memoir – I stopped counting, but it was easily over a hundred times. Your feedback and suggestions on any improvements are most welcome, and please be as nasty as you like.
When I first saw ravers on the news – wearing loud colours, dancing in ways I’d never seen before to music that sounded like it was coming from outer space – I couldn't wait to get to a rave to find out what all the fuss was about. My excitement grew when Gary, a fellow economics student at Liverpool University, invited me to a club called The Thunderdome in Manchester – dubbed “Madchester” by the media because raving had exploded across England from there.
We arrived at The Thunderdome too early. The bare room, square and dark with a stage at the front, didn’t impress me. There were only a few people dancing to acid house. Gary, who resembled Tintin, haggled with the dealers. I’d agreed to try club drugs, but I’d never met a dealer before and their presence – all shiny sports suits, gold jewellery and shifty faces – worried me. I admired Gary for having the nerve to do something I couldn’t: walk up to a stranger who might have a weapon or be an undercover cop and buy drugs. When Gary pulled some money out, I thought he might get stabbed and robbed or end up buying rat poison. I was relieved when he rejoined me with a big grin, and showed me two Ecstasy pills, and two grams of speed meticulously wrapped in little rectangles of paper.
“You put your gram of Billy Whizz in yer Lucozade,” he said, tipping the contents of one of the wraps into a bottle, “and swallow the White Dove with a big swig.”
Committing to do drugs was one thing, actually doing them another. My heart was going fast, my hands trembling. But the desire to have fun was winning out over the terror of ending up in an ambulance and my parents finding out.
“Come on, get on with it,” Gary said, having already taken his Ecstasy.
Suspecting Gary had detected my fear was all the motivation I needed to dump the speed into my drink, and pop the pill into my mouth. Gagging on the chemical taste, I thought, Oh my God, what’s gonna happen to me now? “How long before I feel it?” I asked Gary.
“Within the hour.”
I spent the next thirty minutes or so convinced I was about to join the unlucky minority who die after taking drugs their first time. I kept having to check my pulse to reassure myself.
Gary’s face was the first to change. A look blossomed on it, like he’d just had an orgasm. He couldn’t stop smiling or stand still, and was exuding the kind of bliss you see on those old paintings of angels. He begged me to dance with him, but I hadn’t really enjoyed dancing since the days of punk rock, so I refused. Watching him bounce off as if he owned the place, I felt like I’d let him down. Frustrated at the drugs for not affecting me, I finished my drink. I was walking toward the bar when one of my knees buckled and then the other. I had to stop walking, but strangely, I wasn’t afraid. I tried to walk, but wobbled, and had to sit down. This interruption to a lifetime of walking normally didn’t faze me. I remained anchored to the floor with people walking all around.
Someone kicked me by accident. “Sorry, mate.”
I looked up at the smiling youth, and broke into a smile that refused to go away. Then something distracted my mind. It was the sensation of my T-shirt against my skin. I touched my neck. It no longer felt like my neck. I touched it again to make sure and sure enough felt the same sensation, as if my fingertips were feathers tickling my skin. Or were they melting into my skin ever so gently? Whatever was going on felt so good I just had to massage myself. Even breathing was a whole new experience. Each inhale went beyond expanding my chest. It sent ripples of pleasure throughout my body, even making my eyes tingle somehow. That my body was no longer behaving like it should created feelings of confusion and pleasure, but with the pleasure so much stronger. Not only was my body feeling exceptional, so was my mind. The forces at work were such I could only think happy thoughts. It was as if my smile had taken control of my brain, making me think things to keep my smile going. I remembered I was going to the bar, but that didn’t matter any more, nor did all of the things I’d been stressing about in my life such as losing my girlfriend, the engine problems with my car, and the calculus heavy five-thousand-word balance-of-payments essay due on Monday morning. Keen to make use of a good mood that was still elevating, I tried communicating with strangers by the medium of smiling. They smiled back just as emphatically, which was all the proof I needed that we were reading each other’s minds, conversing in a realm inaccessible to the uninitiated. As the club filled, time lost all relevance. Ravers were everywhere, saturating the room with body heat and enough colours to put the hippies of the sixties to shame. Watching them feed off each other’s hugs and grins, I wanted to get up and join them. My high kept climbing, overwhelming my brain one second and the next making me sway with pleasure and my eyes shoot up. I was so hot, I wanted to take my top off. My brain pondered this in slow motion until the urge faded away. The thud-thud-thud from the speakers and strange beeping noises were all making sense now. They were telling me to get off my arse and dance. The part of me that knew I couldn’t dance and feared I’d make a fool of myself had gone. I was bobbing my head, tapping my fingers against my thighs and rocking to and fro on the floor when Gary found me. Our big eyes locked in recognition of our like moods and we intensified our smiles.
“Come on,” he said, and I knew what he meant.
I followed him into the thick of bodies, until he stopped and danced. I jumped from side to side, trying to find my groove, and then settled into the same rocking motion as everyone else. We were a wave, a human wave with ripples, subject to the laws of physics governing fluids; only our laws were coming from giant black speakers blasting music that felt as if it were beating exactly at the rate of my heart. I was actually dancing, loving dancing, surprising myself with how natural it felt, experimenting with moves I copied from those around me, that is until everyone stopped dancing. Had someone turned the music off? No. There was still a trancey sound. Arms shot into the air. Whistles blew. A machine hissed out smoke. A black woman sang with a beauty bordering on the spiritual, tingling me all over, and I mean right down to the genitals. Then a few piano notes were struck, and we swayed, our fingers reaching into the beams of the sun laser. An air horn sounded, and for a moment I braced for a lorry to plough through the club. Such an absurd notion made me laugh. The soulful woman’s voice faded as DJ Jay Wearden mixed in a Guru Josh track: 1990’s... Time for the Guru… A haunting saxophone solo sent my eyes rolling up, and my eyelids fluttering. In the square room that had bored me earlier I was now one with God.
Is this the kind of opening story that would keep you turning the pages?
Click here for Mentored Part 7
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Shaun P. Attwood