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. Clich├ęs. 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


Scambuster said...

Wow Shaun, congratulations on being mentored by Sally Hinchcliffe. That is such an honor and blessing to have that kind of guidance, you must be so excited.

I would give my right arm (I'm left handed...hahahaha) to learn how to write. Though-out my life I have had so many friends tell me I should write professionally because I love to express myself in letters and the such. Well one can dream and really I am more of "story teller" it would seem and not good at that either without formal guidance.

Best of luck to you Shaun, you seem young and have a full life ahead of you sir, writing is just a great way to express ourselves, educate and entertain others.

Anonymous said...

great read

reminds me of my clubbing days and the fun we had with drugs and music and friends


brynne said...

In a word, yes.

Fantastic way of describing the experience. You really hit it dead on.

Anonymous said...

don't like "dying" in the first paragraph


Jon said...


I didn't like the use of the word "dying" either. I've changed "I was dying" to "I couldn't wait."

Anonymous said...

Hi Shaun

Love the piece...took me right back...keep up the good work. Sound like you have had a very colourful life!

Kind Regards

Jason Wearden

Rosa said...

Would I keep reading? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I would give you that much time, the time it takes to read this bit, but if the next section didn't start telling me who you are, I wouldn't continue. Right now, there is no character to the narrator, nothing for me to relate to. Are you male or female? How old are you? You're a student? What year? What is your motivation for going to a rave, taking drugs? Curiosity? Stress? A desire to connect with others? Immaturity? What? All of that, up front, would help make me interested in the person this is happening to.

Small, small notes: A "top" (in American English anyway) is worn by a woman, not a man. And the reference to "the [your?] genitals" is almost comical in its appeal to gentility. Why not say "I felt it in my cock/dick/balls?" If it's a sexual feeling, make it raw. Bedroom, not drawing room.

Not to be overly harsh about it, because I generally like the way you write. But please don't just follow in the footsteps of Bret Easton Ellis. Your true story is more than his fiction.

Jon said...

Well put, Rosa. I will contemplate those questions and make some adjustments. Thanks for taking the time to provide feedback.

Anonymous said...

Im hooked. Bang on and I can so remember them days. It cost me my carerr. Top times and blackburn after.
Leighton atwal. from hattersley. manchester.

colmanchester said...

Finally someone has mentioned my thunderdome the club my pals and I lived in from its opening in 88 to its demise in 90,we the M9 contingent never missed thursdays and saturdays I was 20 when it opened but found many youger kids were in the dome within months of the doors opening the birkshire tavern in blackley and the clough hotel were the starting places of the nights events which soon saw us in cars going to the dome always met by the girl bouncer and her sidekick a very thin dude,failsworth on the left of the club normally and our firm in front of the speakers where steve williams and jay did there magic,col gibb M9.

Jon said...

Nice to see some Thunderdomers come out of the woodwork. I had some good nights at The Konspiracy too after the Dome shut down, but the Dome was the best for me. Even over the Hacienda and Quadrant Park where I also had some great nights. Shelley's was good, but after the Dome, my fave was The Eclipse in Coventry.

All the best!

Chris Phoenix said...

Wow - you make me want to run out and take drugs!

Well, only sort of... but I have a lifetime habit of not taking them. I don't know how an impressionable 18 year old would read this.

I know a lot of people who do take drugs, and manage to keep their lives together (so far). Of course, it may be that I simply never meet the ones who have been destroyed.

But so far, after reading your writing for years, it's sounding like drugs have a lot of upside, and the main downside is that they happen to be illegal.

If that's not the conversation you want to be having, it might be worth mentioning, amid this glowing anecdote, thoughts (or foreshadowings) of friends whose lives were derailed or health damaged by the drugs themselves, as opposed to the legal system.


Anonymous said...

I remember I was in my late 30s and used to hang out with a group of apartment neighbors, about 15 of us. Most of them in their 20s. Back in the 1990s. One guy would talk about Rave parties and talk about "shrooms." I was clueless, although I knew he was talking about a mind altering experience. It was really not for me. I learned from the older part of the boomers how LSD messed them up. I was a straight arrow "goody two shoes" in my impressive years. I'm glad I was straignt.

Jon said...

Chris in Phoenix,

My story is not about glamourising drugs.

Drugs start out fun at first. That's why people do them.

My story is a cautionary one.

Look where I ended up. Look at how many friends I lost, like the head of my security team who is now dead.

Shaun Attwood

Anonymous said...

Hi Bloke,

I just read your new first draft. I think you are right in your choice to begin with your first drug experience. For you, that's where the story really begins. You can always throw in any relevant childhood antidotes later in the book. My only suggestion at this point would be to try and come up with an opening sentence like my "I woke up that morning handcuffed to a dead man". It's always good to try and grab the readers attention in that very first sentence. Anyway, keep up the good work.


Weird Al

Jon said...

thanks bloke!

i was thinking exactly the same about the opening sentence

syncopated eyeball said...

Hello Shaun,
I would probably change "inhale" to "inhalation".
I would read on because I am interested in your particular story. I like that you are writing it as a cautionary tale and I always like a story of redemption - of whatever kind.
There's quite a glut of "the drug memoir" available and having read a few of varying quality, I've started to groan when I see another. I don't mean to discourage; I mean to encourage you to ensure you make yours stand out in some way from the others.
I'm still looking forward to reading your first book when it hits Australia.
Keep going, Shaun. Good luck.

Pippa said...

The first sentence is not grabbing. When I pick a book to read I judge the first sentence heavily. For me, I don't feel inside your story until "Someone kicked me by accident. 'Sorry, mate.'" From that line onward I can visualise myself as you, living that evening. What I get from your exert is: you first took drugs intentionally and it was amazing. I also think you need to introduce yourself next. Your book will be grand. Keep writing :)

Jon said...

Thanks Pippa & Sync,

Getting a diversity of viewpoints really helps me shape a piece. My mind is already forming rewrites based on the feedback here. I can also see a few repetitions in this draft that need tidying up.

Almost a year ago, I posted the opening of my jail memoir, which has been changed beyond recognition since then, so I imagine the same will happen here.

The new opening sentence will probably come to me when I least expect it.

Appreciatively yours,


Sue O. (aka Joannie, SS) said...

Hey my friend-you know I love your writing and it was interesting to read the comments on this next effort. I guess I've seen so much destruction of life over the last four years due to drugs, and I'm so glad I know the Shaun I know now rather than then...take the advice that all of your great bloggers here have given. I think it is on target. Maybe your memoir gives powerful insight as to why so many people return to the scene, even though the end is usually a death of some kind. I'm so anxious at this point to leave anything that resembles coping devices in my life and face things as they are-it was sort of hard to read. Don't quit-you'll get it done.

Vanessa said...

Hi Shaun!
First, you know that I think you are brilliant and have so much writing talent. You asked for honesty and I think the story is much more interesting if it begins here:

"When Gary pulled some money out, I thought he might get stabbed and robbed or end up buying rat poison."

As a reader if I begin there rather than in your beginning paragraph, I can't wait to know what happened. Why did Gary have money and why does it seem so shady? Shady is interesting to most people. Have you ever read Elmore Leonard's books? James Patterson? Both are able to write stories that yank readers right in. And once you hook us, we will follow you almost anywhere as long as it is interesting. Heck, we will even forgive a few minutes of boring (not that boring applies to the rave scene). My point is that you have some good stuff there and I know you already know it needs more thought. One thing that I use in my own writing sometimes is that I do see what happens if I mix things up within a story. Sometimes that alone is enough to jostle that creative energy into something you can dive off with.

Keep going!

Anonymous said...

bit gay but it was the the thunderdome bit of diversity