Mentored (Part 9)

Thanks to the Koestler Trust, I was being mentored by Sally Hinchcliffe, a published author with an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of London.

I had the last session with Sally. I figured I’d nailed the opening chapter of the prequel to my jail memoir, but Sally breathed fire on it. And I’m glad she did, as her criticism has been the driving force behind my improvement.

Before we revisit that chapter, I’d like to share Sally’s comments on the draft in general.

- overall it rattles along fine, there’s a much better sense of good anecdotes, although you could start some later and end earlier

- it’s only a first draft, so the writing will need fine tuning

- there are too many incidents, I have a good idea of the mayhem and lunacy, but it’s hard to keep track of all of the characters

- the sense of structure and journey is lost in places

- you need to bring yourself more into the story, what do you feel when you relive these experiences?

- check that you are not opening yourself up to new charges from what you’re writing, statute of limitations/libel laws

- the dialogue is a little clunky in places

I agree with Sally on all counts. So far this year, I’ve been wearing myself out just to get the story down. I finished it last week. It’s 96,000 words. Now I can start to address Sally’s concerns, put more of me in the book, and trim the fat. In regards to her last comment, I’ve just started interviewing the characters to go over the conversations and get the dialogue as precise as possible.

Now onto Chapter 1. One of my problems is not starting anecdotes in the thick of the action. Slowing the action down with too much explanation early on. My rewrite of Chapter 1 is a classic example of this. Here it is with Sally’s comments in parenthesis.

Chapter 1

(Is this the place to start?) When Gary pulled our money out, I thought he might get stabbed and robbed or end up buying rat poison. (The opening sentence is spraying too many possibilities.) Gary was a fellow Economics student from Liverpool University. (You are backing away from the action by offering this explanation of who Gary is too soon. Go straight into what’s frightening, before backing off. Close down on one fear, and get the reader hooked.) Tall and blond with a pointy nose, he resembled Tintin. It was 1989, and we were in a club called The Thunderdome in Manchester – dubbed “Madchester” by the media because raving had exploded across England from there. (Madchester, again, slowing the action down.) I’d seen ravers on the news – wearing loud colours, dancing in ways I’d never seen to music that sounded like it was coming from outer space – so I was hoping to find out what all the fuss was about. But I was unimpressed by the bare room, square and dark with a stage at the front, and with only a few people dancing to acid house. I’d decided to try club drugs, but having never met dealers before, 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 strangers who might have weapons or be undercover cops (Again, spraying possibilities.) and buy drugs. I was relieved when he spun around with a big grin, and showed me two Ecstasy pills, and two grams of speed meticulously wrapped in little rectangles of paper.
(Why are you using phonetic spelling?) Yer put yer 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 heartbeat was growing louder, 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 (This language and phrasing is distancing when you’re just trying to say you didn’t want to appear to be a wuss.) 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 (This slows the action down.) I kept having to check my pulse to reassure myself (This sentence is good because it demonstrates the fear more graphically.)

Here’s the rewrite. I’ve reverted to my preference for opening with dialogue.

“We want two E’s and two grams of Billy Whizz,” Gary said to the drug dealers.
“E’s twenty quid. A tenner for a wrap of Whizz.”
I was hovering behind Gary wishing my heartbeat would slow down. Having never done drugs before, I was afraid of the dealers: all shiny sports suits, gold jewellery, and shifty faces.
When Gary pulled our money out, I thought he might get stabbed. “Here you go.”
Almost imperceptibly, the dealer passed Gary the drugs. My relief began when Gary spun around with a big grin, and showed me two pills, and two grams of speed meticulously wrapped in little rectangles of paper. But the relief didn’t last long. I braced for undercover cops to snatch us while we had possession of the drugs. I couldn’t stop my body trembling, especially my hands.
“You put your Billy Whizz in your Lucozade,” Gary 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, doing them another. My heartbeat was growing louder, my armpits moistening, But I wanted to have fun, and that was winning out over my 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.
Worried Gary knew I was afraid, I dumped the speed into my drink, and popped the pill into my mouth. Gagging on the chemical taste, I thought, Oh my God, what’s going to happen to me now? I asked Gary, “How long before I feel it?”
“Within the hour.”
Gary was a fellow Economics student from Liverpool University. Tall and blond with a pointy nose, he resembled Tintin. It was 1989, and we were in a club called The Thunderdome in Manchester. I’d seen ravers on the news – wearing loud colours, dancing in ways I’d never seen to music that sounded like it was coming from outer space – so I was hoping to find out what all the fuss was about. But I was unimpressed by the bare room, square and dark with a stage at the front, and with only a few people dancing to acid house.
I spent the next thirty minutes convinced I was about to die. I kept having to check my pulse to reassure myself.

So I’m back on my own now. No more Sally. I’m not even allowed to contact her for six months as a way of making me stand on my own two feet now the umbilical chord has been cut. Sally recommended I join some organisations, including the Society of Authors, and find readers in the writing profession to review my writing and provide constructive feedback.

Thanks to Sally and the Koestler Trust, I’ve achieved the goals I first set with Sally of finding a literary agent and a publisher. I’m truly grateful to them for enabling me to realise my dream of becoming an author.

Click here for Mentored Part 8

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Shaun Attwood

3 comments:

Kathi said...

Shaun,

Sally was nice to help you for your first book. And soon, the book is in the store and we are all very curious.
You are a good writer. I think you do it well without Sally also.
You should have more trust in yourself.
I believe in you.

Love,
Your Kathi XXX

PS: I promise not to disturb you when you writing! :)

Anonymous said...

You have given us a gift by showing yourself being critiqued, which can be a real ego smasher.
Yet it helps all of us to see that one can live through "ouch" and come out all the better, for listening, even if you decide to do your own thing in the end.

Chris H said...

Big Dawg

I get that she's helping you and all so I'm not going to be mean - but...

This isn't the 1st time she's seen the chapter, is it? We've seen muptiple revisions based on Sally's advice.

So why, on the last session, are all these points raised? All I mean is, would it not have been more helpful to raise them earier?

I'm not trying to be knarky, just curious.

Yours as always,

Chris H

P.S - Hugs and kisses!!!!