How to write a memoir … procrastination to print made simple
by CHRIS THRALL
Author of the international bestseller
First off, I don’t profess to be an expert. But I did put together a 230,000-word manuscript in six months with only a high school qualification in English. Then having taught myself how to improve my writing and editing I figured a way to get a publisher to approach me – rather than the other way around. So this humble advice is for those of you who, like me with Eating Smoke, have a story you want to tell but limited knowledge on how to go about telling it, let alone seeing it through to print.
On writing – an important lesson
I was encouraged to retake high school English by a colleague I served with in the Royal Marines. Having completed a correspondence course, he said, ‘It’s easy, Chris. Passing the English exam is not about how much you know but the way you put it across.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, it’s like this. We were asked to write an essay about someone in prison. I could have written: “The prisoner sat in his cell …”’
‘But what I wrote was: “Beams of sunshine poured through the cell’s tiny, barred window, ricocheting around the room, filling the cold stone chamber with light, supplying the prisoner’s heart with hope and freedom.”’
‘Ahhh! I see! You mean you put the reader in the story!’
‘Exactly!’ said my friend, with a grin.
Not only did his impromptu English lesson make more sense than any I’d attended at school, but it earned me straight As for the first three assignments I posted off, with a note attached to the fourth feedback informing me I should take the English exam right away instead of seeing the year-long course through. I did and passed it, and that’s the only experience I had of learning English before writing Eating Smoke sixteen years later.
The aim of this free download e-book
The aim of this free download e-book is to encourage you to go from procrastination to completion of your manuscript with easy-to-understand instruction and by adopting a pragmatic approach, allowing you insight into the art of good writing as you progress. It is not intended to be a comprehensive grammar, punctuation and stylistic guide. There is an abundance of these already available in the marketplace that you will naturally wish to invest in as the writing bug takes hold.
1. Work out the time-frame when you write your memoir or autobiography
Work out which part of your story the target audience will want to read about. This may sound obvious, but you should decide if you’re writing a memoir – a period in your life – or an autobiography – your life story. This will help you to keep focussed and save time on editing.
2. Understand the role backstory plays
Backstory is your history – everything that has taken place in your life until now. Backstory can add valuable insight into your character(s), but it can also sidetrack the reader and become boring. If you are writing a biography, it’s all going to be backstory. If you are writing a book entitled My Month in Tibet, then backstory isn’t going to play such a prominent role. Either way, backstory doesn’t need to be volumes; nor does it have to be set out in chronological order like a diary or journal. You can take snippets of appropriate backstory and slot them into the manuscript at pertinent moments.
*Example from Eating Smoke
I picked up the receiver and heard Sarah’s voice for the first time in what seemed ages. It must have been close to midnight back in the UK – maybe she’d had a drink and got a bit sentimental.
Nineteen when we met in the club in Plymouth, we went out together for three years …
3. Make a list
Spend time typing up everything you can remember that you feel is relative to your memoir. This might require some research and should include incidents, events, characters, conversations, relationships and appropriate backstory. Get it all down, in no particular order, and then arrange these key recollections into a rough timeline of events using cut and paste. Then you have to be ruthless with the delete button by applying a rule of thumb.
Note. If you spend a couple of evenings making your list over a glass or two of your favourite tipple, you’ll find that embarking on a memoir is easier than you thought. Not only is this a fun way to go about it but you’ll leave the ‘I’m-thinking-of-writing-a-book’ mindset and join the ‘I’m-writing-a-book’ one.
4. A rule of thumb
A rule of thumb is to leave out narrative that doesn’t take the story forward by adding to the understanding of your character(s), the situation you are describing or the outcome of events. This includes irrelevant anecdotes, unnecessary backstory and other off-subject matter. In short, no one needs to know your favourite colour or read about the kid who had a crush on you in high school (unless it adds to the understanding of your character(s), the situation you are describing or the outcome of events) but they might like to learn that falling out of a tree as a child gave you a fear of heights if your story is about conquering Mount Everest.
5. Write a prologue
Even if you don’t intend to have a prologue, I’d suggest writing a short one. You can always delete it later. The reason being, it’s an easy way to slip into the writing process. It will give you an idea of what your story’s focus and selling point is and you can show it to friends and start getting feedback as a ‘writer’. Tailor your prologue to suit your type of book. Short and to the point appears to be the current trend.* A bit of humour can work, too.
* If at all – hence, you can delete it later.
*Here is the prologue to Eating Smoke
In 2004, I worked in a mental health unit. People often asked, ‘How can you stand it with all those nutters?’ I’d quote from the textbook: ‘It’s a misunderstood condition affecting one in four people at some stage in their lives.’ I never told the real reason. I worried that knowledge might confuse them.
You see, in 1996, I went mad.
Now, this isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. The UK has plenty of systems in place to help people who throw wobblers – doctors, medicine, hospitals, not to mention Incapacity Benefit and God. Unfortunately, these comforts were in short supply when it happened to me. Therefore, I must warn you: If your mind is planning on playing an away game, taking a sabbatical or simply f##### off, don’t for Christ’s sake let it happen while working as a nightclub doorman in Hong Kong’s red-light district …
6. Consider making the first chapter the ‘hook’
If you’re not an A-list celebrity with a top-notch publicity team behind you, you might want to make your first chapter the ‘hook’ – a harrowing, pertinent or exciting moment – to engage readers, agents, publishers and yourself.
*Here are the opening lines from Eating Smoke
The Man in the Mirror …
I STARED INTO THE LARGEST SHARD of blood-splashed glass.
‘Do I know you?’
‘You’ve never known him at all…’
Sitting on the filthy concrete, I convulsed occasionally and whimpered like a sick dog. I hadn’t slept for days, the crystal meth pulsing through my veins denying all refuge from the madness enveloping me.
Now that the anger had passed, I found myself suspended in a ghostly calm, trying to focus my mind and piece together a life as fragmented as the mirror I’d smashed. I needed to make sense of what happened and put a stop to the Voice.
I leant forward, slowly, to examine the claw marks in my scalp and a haunted face I hardly recognised.
‘Is this me?’
The only thing still familiar was the eyes – although now they were bloodshot and yellow with pupils raging deep and menacing. I wondered if these black abysses could dilate further, triumphing over the turquoise rings around them, heralding the madness had claimed my soul.
7. Get writing!
Pick the first event in your timeline and write about it. Ask yourself, ‘Does this anecdote take the story forward or add special interest to it?’ But most of all, WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! Go for it! Get as many words down on paper as you can every day. Before you know it, you will have a manuscript. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, as you’ll glean a lot from books, Internet sites and your own intuition as you progress. You can then employ your newfound knowledge in the editing process when it all starts to make more sense.