The captive audience – repeat performance

26 September 2010

I must have done a decent job last time, as Lucy the tutor asked me to come and talk to her charges at Ford Open Prison’s creative writing group a second time. As before, this was supposed to be an hour or two, but ended up with Lucy walking me back to the main gate and the outside world with minutes to spare before I was due out.
The latest group must have been genuinely interested, as Mo, Ross, Andy, Jonathon, John, Alfred, Daniel, Mr P, Del, Van, Mark and Greg were still there and asking questions even when all the extra-special biscuits Lucy had brought had vanished like dew in the morning sunshine.
They were asking good questions, practical and realistic stuff. We started with the intricacies of obscure nautical journalism – what works and what doesn’t work, plus the diktat that it’s better to ask what might seem a daft question at the time than get something wrong in print later. The basics are just that but are often ignored or forgotten. Do your homework, read your copy through before you send it off, write what’s been asked for, not what you feel like writing – that comes later, and just shrug your shoulders and move on when you see your words butchered by a brutal editor.
Then fiction followed after tea and biscuits. Again, straightforward rules of not running before you can walk (me, I’m just about getting into a steady jog by now). Plenty of questions, from how did you find an agent (keep sending out the letters, three chapters and a synopsis...) to how much research did you do? I suppose everyone does research in their own way, but asking even the obvious questions works for me, as well as just quietly taking a back seat and listening to what people say and how they talk.
A prison audience isn’t like a group of writing students anywhere else. The questions are practical, straight to the point, plus a few barbed comments, even a suggestion that I ought to be wearing green trousers when I explained how to sell the same article to more than one magazine.
It was a real pleasure to talk to these guys, buzzing with ideas and some of them with work in progress. Some are interested in writing for themselves, some for magazines, some more in fiction. One has the story of how he wound up in Ford on the go, while another has a historical play in progress, but is hampered by the lack of source material available at Ford. I’ll look forward to reading the book and seeing the play.
Lucy said that one of the group I spoke to six months ago has stories written for his grandchildren being read by a publisher. Of the group I spoke to before, only one was still at Ford and hopefully he doesn’t have too much longer to go on food budgeted at £1.38 per day. So it’s no surprise that the biscuits went down well.

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