The promised literary contest — and a tantalizing peek into a new memoir

giant cockroach & shaun attwood

I have a real treat in store for you today, campers. Actually, more than just a treat: a treat plus a writing challenge.

Remember my last post, when I waxed indignant about the fact that U.S.-based fans of longtime member of the Author! Author! community Shaun Attwood would have a harder time (so to speak) obtaining a copy of his just-released memoir, HARD TIME: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail (Mainstream Press/Random House) than readers in the U.K. or Canada? All they would have to do — and I would encourage it, if you are at all interested in the challenges of turning personal experience into compelling narrative — is waltz into a bookstore.

Heck, U.K. readers wouldn’t even have to budge from their respective desk chairs to obtain a copy: Amazon UK would be perfectly happy to deliver it to their doorsteps (with free shipping, even). Canadian readers willing to invest a few clicks of a mouse would have similar success in negotiations with Amazon Canada.

But here in the U.S. — which, lest we forget, is where most of the story in the memoir takes place — hopeful readers must throw themselves upon the mercy of foreign nationals to obtain a copy. The only option for those of us wielding good, hard American currency is to take advantage of a U.K. online bookseller’s,the Book Depository, willingness to ship to North America for free. (Which may be the less expensive option for Canadian readers, incidentally; would-be online purchasers north of the border may wish to do a bit of comparison-shopping.)

I’m glad that we have this option, but (as, again, some of you may recall from yesterday) it strikes me as a trifle silly. Here we have an in-depth, first-hand account of the inside of a jail that not only is on my side of the Atlantic, but whose sheriff has been appearing on the national news constantly in recent weeks. For anyone who has been following the intense controversy over the civil rights of illegal aliens in Arizona, I would think that it would be intensely interesting to learn how people awaiting trial there might be treated.

Because I feel very strongly that this is both an important story and a good book, I’m going to do something unusual today: with the permission of Shaun and his publisher, I am posting the first page of HARD TIME here. That way, at least page 1 will be directly available to U.S. readers, albeit in a slightly modified form.

Modified how, you ask? Shaun has very kindly edited the language to be family-friendly, so that I may post it here. (In case you hadn’t noticed, I routinely avoid profanity out of deference to my teenage readers, whose Internet viewing may be constrained by parental control programs, and readers whose access is through library computers, which often feature similar controls. I remain deeply committed to making sure that every aspiring writer with Internet access can take full advantage of the resources here at Author! Author!)

Even if prison memoir is not your proverbial cup of tea — even if memoir isn’t your usual reading material — consider it as a first page. Purely on a story level, I think you’ll agree that it is a grabber. Those of you currently working on memoirs might also want to check out Shaun’s bio, located at the very end of this post: since what a memoirist is selling in a proposal is not just pretty writing, it might be helpful to gain further insight on what got his agent and publisher excited about his life story.

Here, then, is that first page, presented for the first time on my native soil. I am proud to bring it to you; this author has taken a tremendous number of risks to bring this story to us.

Attwood HARDTIME coverAttwood HARDTIME coverAttwood HARDTIME coverAttwood HARDTIME cover

16 May 2002

“Tempe Police Department! We have a warrant! Open the door!”

The stock quotes on my computer screen lost all importance as I rushed to the peephole. It was blacked out. Boots thudded up the outdoor stairs to our apartment.

Bang, bang, bang, bang!

Wearing only boxer shorts, I ran to the bedroom. “Claudia, wake up! It’s the cops!”

“Tempe Police Department! Open the door!”

My girlfriend scrambled from the California king. “What should we do?” she asked, anxiously fixing her pink pajamas.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!

“Open the door!”

We searched each other’s faces.

“Better open it,” I said, but before I could make it to the door – boom! – it leapt off its hinges.

Big men in black fatigues and ballistic armour blitzed through the doorframe, aiming guns at us. Afraid of being shot, I froze. I gaped as they proceeded to convert my living room into a scene from a war movie.

“Tempe Police Department! Get on the ground now!”

“Police! Police! On your bellies now!”

“Hands above your heads!”

“Don’t move!”

As I dropped to the floor, they fell upon me. There was a beating in my chest as if I had more than one heart. 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.

That, my friends, is an opening. No false suspense there, eh?

So much for the treat. On to the challenge. Let’s give away some books.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about an opportunity for all of you to generate what we here at Author! Author! like to call ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), nifty little credentials to plump up author bios and that pesky background paragraph in one’s query letter. The response to the recent Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Pages Made Even Better contest was so overwhelming that I’ve been thinking very seriously about how difficult it can be for hard-working, conscientious aspiring writers to come up with ECQLC. Literary contests can be both expensive and extremely time-consuming to enter.

Now, I’m relatively positive that all of you are already aware that I do not rule the universe. If I did, talented writers would be granted three extra hours per week, over and above the time available to the rest of humanity, in which to pursue their craft. Millicent the agency screener would be a well-paid, literature-loving reader allowed both the time to read pages and pages of submissions before making up her mind and the discretion to say more often, “To heck with current market trends — I really like this writer’s voice!” And, of course, published exposés of government-run institutions would be readily available for purchase within easy driving distance of those institutions.

Need further evidence that I’m not in charge? Do cows give free chocolate milk to every child they encounter?

I can, however, do my bit to help make life a trifle easier for aspiring writers, a goal near and dear to my heart. My next effort in that direction: I shall be hosting writing contests here more often — and to maximize their ECQLC-generating oomph, I shall be publishing the winning entries here on a regular basis.

Speaking of which, I am pleased to announce…

The Author! Author!/HARD TIME Words Across the Water Contest
Since the difficulties of acquainting readers in one country with the work of writers in another has been much on my mind over the past couple of days, and because I was delighted to see that entries to my last contest came from all over the English-speaking world, I think it might be interesting to ask writers inside and outside the U.S. to share their experiences a little. I would also, given our recent series on self-editing, like an excuse to encourage all of you to show, rather than tell, and to make your point through specifics, instead of generalities.

The prizes

In addition to boasting rights and ECQLC, the grand prize winner will receive a free MiniConsult: a half-hour telephone consultation with me to talk about any aspect of your writing career that strikes you as relevant. In the past, writers have used MiniConsults to refine pitches for literary conferences, professionalize their query letters, nail down a book category, discuss marketing options…if it’s about your writing, it’s fair game.

Top-placing entries in each category (hold your horses; I’m getting to that) will be published here at Author! Author!, accompanied by an explanation of precisely why each was so darned good. (Hey, talented writers often go for years without hearing either praise or feedback more specific than a hearty, “Well done!”)

U.S.-based entrants will also be eligible to win copies of HARD TIME. (Had I mentioned that it was kind of hard to find in the States?) Non-U.S.-based entrants, will, I’m afraid, have to track down the book for themselves at any of the fine local emporia that happen to carry it. To level the prize pool, the judges reserve the right to create a sub-category of winners specific to these entries.

Piqued your interest yet? Good. Let’s talk about how to win those prizes.

The rules

1. Compose a short scene — 500 words or less, please — that shows (not tells!) something about being a creative person in your native land that you think will surprise and enlighten writers who live elsewhere.

Or, to put it another way:

U.S.-based entrants: what about American creative life would you most like writers in other countries to find fascinating?

Non-U.S.-based entrants: what’s the single aspect of your country’s (or province, or region’s) creative life of which would you most like writers in the U.S. to be aware?

Now’s your chance, folks. Have at it.

2. Either fiction or nonfiction narratives may be entered, but only scenes will be considered. Only one entry per writer, please.

This is the show, don’t tell part, folks. Lectures on international relations will not work here. Nor will diatribes. Create some characters, already, and don’t skimp on the telling details.

3. On a separate page within the entry document, please include your name, country and city of origin or current residence, e-mail address, and, if you are under 25, your age.
Hey, if I receive a lot of good entries from young writers, I’m open to creating another category for prizes.

4. All entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts, as well as previously unpublished in the English-speaking world. They must also be free of profanity.

If you don’t know how book format differs from short story format — or that either had a regulation format — please avail yourself of the abundant explanations and practical examples under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. And if there’s a formatting point that confuses you, for heaven’s sake, leave a comment asking about it.

On the non-profanity front: did you miss my explanation above about my teenage readership? Let’s all do our part to make this forum accessible to them.

5. Make it your best writing — and proofread, for heaven’s sake.
In response to many, many requests, this time around, the judging will be based purely upon literary merit, interest of story, and, of course, adherence to these rules. For once, let’s take a vacation from marketability and just tell one another some stories.

6. All entries must be submitted as a Word document, attached to an e-mail.
No exceptions. Word is the industry standard, so if you are writing in some other word processing program, you will need to get used to translating your documents in order to work with an agent or editor anyway.

7. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail. Include your last name in the subject line.
Believe me, I’ve seen my inbox crammed with messages all entitled Anne Mini contest often enough for this lifetime. Give yours a subject line that will enable me to differentiate it from the other 150 entries, please.

Oh, and would it kill you to include a polite note in the body of the e-mail? That’s always nice to see.

8. Send your entry to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by midnight on September 6, 2010.
That’s Labor Day in the U.S., for the benefit of those of you living elsewhere. As always, the deadline is midnight your time, not mine.

Has that gotten your creative juices flowing? I certainly hope so; I’m genuinely looking forward to what all of you have to say. Not to mention sharing Shaun’s memoir with a few of my compatriots.

Hey, I’m not entirely sure I don’t have all of the copies currently in the U.S. sitting on the corner of my desk at the moment. Let’s get some international dialogue going, folks — and, as always, keep up the good work!

P.S.: memoirists, here’s that promised bio.

Shaun Attwood 2010Shaun Attwood grew up in North West England where he was an early participant in the burgeoning rave scene that soon took over the whole country. Graduating from Liverpool University in 1991 with a business degree, he immigrated to Phoenix, Arizona to try his luck in the world of finance, and rose quickly through the ranks to become a top-producing stockbroker.

But it was not quite plain sailing. Shaun lost control of his life and finances in the mid-nineties, declared bankruptcy and quit his job.

The rave bug had never left him, and Shaun started to throw raves in Arizona while investing in technology stocks online. By 1999, he was living in a luxurious mountainside home in Tucson’s Sin Vacas, working as a day trader in the day and partying at night. It was the time of the dot-com bubble and he made over a million on paper, but the bubble was soon to burst and Shaun lost most of his fortune and moved back to Phoenix.

In May 2002, he was arrested in Scottsdale during a SWAT-team dawn raid, and alleged to be the head of an organisation involved in a club-drug conspiracy. The local media described him as “bigger than Sammy the Bull.” Facing a life sentence, he entered a lengthy legal battle.

In 2004, Shaun started the blog, Jon’s Jail Journal, documenting the inhumane conditions at the cockroach-infested Madison Street jail run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. After two years of being held on remand while three trial dates were cancelled, Shaun signed a plea bargain admitting guilt to money laundering and drug offences. He was sentenced to 9 ½ years, of which he served almost 6.

Shaun had only read finance books prior to his arrest. While incarcerated, he submerged himself in literature – reading 268 books in 2006 alone, including many literary classics. By reading original texts in philosophy and psychology he sought to better understand himself and his past behaviour. His sister sent him a book on yoga, which he still practices.

In September 2004, blog excerpts were published in The Guardian attracting further media attention, including several BBC news stories.

Shaun was released in December 2007, and has since kept Jon’s Jail Journal going by posting prison stories sent to him from the friends he made inside. In July 2008, Shaun won a first prize, a Koestler/Hamish Hamilton Award, for a short story, which he read to an audience at the Royal Festival Hall. In February 2009, Shaun moved to London to work for the McLellan Practice speaking to audiences of youths about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug taking. He has been working on his memoir ever since.

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