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
I disagree that you should simplify and stop trying to be "showy," and to stop italicising your thoughts. You have a unique style of writing. Accept some of Sally's advice, but don't sell out. Keep your style! You have a sort of cerebral, macabre, cornily humourous mix of quality. So, don't sell out!
That, my good friend, also describes you in person. This makes you very unique and draws people into you. You attract people of all walks. All countries. All races. All religions. All classes. If you dumb-down or brain-up your writing, it won't be you. It will take away from its believability and confine your book's target audience. Everybody. Everywhere.
what about Capote? In Cold Blood uses the varying perspectives/ time frames and it does the whole journalism/ novel thing. AND that collection of his correspondence Too Brief a Treat gives amazing insight on the intellectual and emotional behind the scenes part of the writing process. i'm a bit of a Capote fanatic which may influence my opinion. i think one review i read of Too Brief a Treat mentioned "balls-aching boredom"
thanks for sharing this writing advice! it's very much useful!
When the cops first rush in, the description is too clinical, and that interrupts my reading. The part about them lining up on opposite walls... accurate, but too much information and not enough interpretation/reaction.
I read Part 1. It sounds like your regular readers are torn between your mentor's advice and your original style. I've always liked your style although I do find it a bit unnerving at times. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with it, but the blunt (maybe I should say stark) description and language isn't something I would normall set about to read. Yes, I know it reflects life, the actual events that include every expletive and crass bloody event. But I guess my problem is that I've seen too many crass and bloody events in my life. I have reached that point in my life where if I never heard of another murder, rape or "man's inhumanity to man," I would be forever thankful. The old Latin saying Homo Homini Lupus is even more true today than then.
I agree with some of your mentor's suggestions, and not so much with others. Definately use more descriptions involving the five senses, less "cultural name-dropping," and rethink the alternating chapter format. As far as cutting back on characters and anecdotes, I would advise caution. Where it is true that some characters show up once or twice, most of yours reappear in several different places briefly and have a bearing on the story development. If you were to delete them based solely on whether they are pertinent at a given point, it may prove difficult to bring them back in later without some form of back story.
I also agree with her concerning the length of your paragraphs. Sometimes I find your writing choppy, not because of the content but because of the format. Short precise paragraphs are great for delivering that powerful exclamation to certain situations but they lose their usefulness when they are used constantly.
Regardless of what I think, your mentor's suggestions, or the blog feedback, it really comes down to what you want to convey and whether the people reading that material can relate. You have the ability, the raw talent; if you only continue to move forward you will be one of the great writers of our time. I hope your writing continues to blossom at its present staggering pace.
Best wishes for the New Year,
I agree that the minimal simple style of Hemingway or Orwell has a lot to recommend it.
It's personal taste, but to me that writing has more emotional impact than more flowery styles.
One of my favourite pieces of writing about prison and punishment is George Orwell's essay 'A Hanging' about watching a condemned man in 1930s Burma. It's a cold, unforgettable piece.
Jon, having read and loved this blog for many years, I'm sure you'd find it interesting...and of course the prose style is amazing.
Thanks for the constructive feedback. I agree, Chris, in getting rid of the cliche in the SWAT paragraph, my attempt at rewriting it as a longer paragraph hasn't worked. It slows down the pace.
I did enjoy the minimal styles of Hemingway, Orwell and Capote while in prison.
I just got a chance to read the latest blog entries more carefully. The one where you included the rewrite on the opening of the book-I agree with Shane. He described your style perfectly. It's so hard, and I can relate. The temptation in any art form is huge to rely on a teacher or mentor. And we all need to learn. The road to finding your own specific voice and identity is difficult-I've seen more than one student copy a successful teacher and be tremendously successful themselves. I know you wouldn't do that, but do keep yourself in there. As I was reading about the t-shirt, I hoped that you kept the grapefruit deodorant part while talking about being in the jail. Now that was an original "funny" that only you woul put in. Remember your strength has always been, as Shane said, that many different types of people can identity with you, mostly because your take on the situation is fresh, and you're a middle class Brit in the worst of American cultural shock, an average hapless Joe we really like and want to cheer for. Do not compromise on that outlook-there are all sorts of prison stories out there as you well know. That's where the humor, originality and unique viewpoint come in, especially if you're aiming at an American audience.
If in doubt, get rid. Here's the rewrite of the SWAT paragraph:
A small army of SWAT – all black fatigues and ballistic armour – blitzed through the doorframe, pointing submachine guns at us. Bracing to be shot at any moment, I froze – terror-struck.
Writing can be like making scrambled egg; you can eat it runny, or you can stir onwards towards a drier finish, and choose your moment to stop before it becomes distinctly overcooked.
The danger of endless rewriting is that the result becomes stale.
The point of your book is not, I suggest, the perfection of it's prose, but rather the message that your experience brings to a world that needs to hear the plain unvarnished truth about systemic wrongdoing, and your ability to survive that experience by looking inwards to The Self.
If your message strikes a chord, it will be the message, not the style, that does it.
So any time spent on rewriting overmuch, wuld be better spent on your second book, allowing your style to develop as you fly by the seat of your pants.
My own experience is that I write as a creative flow, then I weed out unecessary words.
If I find myself rewriting overmuch, the flow dwindles, and my insertions - while correct by themselves - alter the energy of the piece as a whole.
Good Luck! Zen :-)
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