How to write a memoir …

How to Write a Memoir

How to write a memoir … procrastination to print made simple

 by CHRIS THRALL

Author of the international bestseller

Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland

www.christhrall.com

 Introduction

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 …”’

‘Uh-huh …’

‘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.

Getting started

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.

Get writing!

 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.

To continue reading, click the link. Thank you.

Resources

45. Books

Eating Smoke

Penguin Guide to Punctuation

Penguin Writer’s Manual

Oxford Paperback Thesaurus

On Writing

Writing Realistic Dialogue

World Wide Rave

The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook

46. Websites

www.christhrall.com

www.christhrall.com/blog

www.youwriteon.com

www.roget.org

www.wikipedia.org

www.grammarbook.com

www.urbandictionary.com

www.grammar-monster.com

www.thefreedictionary.com

www.writing-world.com

www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use

47. Networking

www.facebook.com/christhrallauthor

www.twitter.com/chris_thrall

www.plus.google.com/106402810085484857901

www.uk.linkedin.com/in/christhrall

www.goodreads.com/christhrall

www.youtube.com/christhrallauthor

A Review of ‘My Secret Life: A Memoir of Bulimia’ by Leanne Waters

“But let’s not get ahead of ourselves now …”

– a review of My Secret Life: A Memoir of Bulimia by Leanne Waters

I found this book to be exceptional, for so many reasons it’s hard to articulate in this short piece.

Leanne’s writing style is up there with the best, descriptive, articulate and richly metaphorical; the recall of her experience so detailed – as only the memory of someone who has been through extreme trauma can be.

Leanne takes you through the phases of bulimia, from the socio-psychological foundations of this condition – for example, the bullying at school – to the ‘fasting’, ‘binging’, ‘purging’ and ‘recovery’ that then plays out – each stage intricately narrated for the readers understanding and at the respective pace.

You find yourself so in-tune with Leanne’s story and so fond of her personality that you wonder how in our society this self-denunciation could be allowed to happen, or to go unseen – particularly brought home as Leanne details hiding her bulimia from all those around her

My favourite line is the book is “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves now” and the most touching part for me is when her friends stand fast to support her recovery.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is invented. The Girl with the Eating Disorder is real life. Take your pick … I know which book added more to my life …

Chris Thrall is the author of Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland– a bestselling true story

www.christhrall.com

www.facebook.com/christhrallauthor

Amazon US

Amazon UK

 

A review of Wordjazz for Stevie by Jonathan Chamberlain

“…life worth living…”

 

Wordjazz for Stevie is Jonathan Chamberlain’s deep and moving tribute to his late eight-year-old daughter, a candid and beautifully written soliloquy born out of the pain of loss but conveying hope, love, happiness and insight.

Stevie arrives in the world when expat Jonathan and his Chinese wife are living on a quiet island off Hong Kong. Although shocked to learn Stevie has Down syndrome, Jonathan and Bern immediately accept the additional challenges this presents, challenges that increase significantly when an operation to close a hole in Stevie’s heart goes horribly wrong, starving her of oxygen and resulting in severe disability. Towards the end of Stevie’s short-but-delight-giving years, little does Jonathan know her failing health is not the only major life-changing event on the horizon.

Wordjazz for Stevie is a remarkable testament to the human spirit, friendship and integrity. Penned with fondness and gratitude, it will appeal to anyone who has faced hardship or prejudice, love and loss, or can relate to bureaucracy and social/cultural difference whether at home or abroad. But putting the textbooks aside, it’s simply a touching and enlightening story that should inspire all who read it.

And if you’re wondering why I choose this title for my review, I opened the book at random and this is what I saw.

Chris Thrall is the author of Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland– a bestselling true story

 

www.christhrall.com

www.facebook.com/christhralllauthor

Amazon US

Amazon UK

 

The Alphabet of Vietnam by Jonathan Chamberlain

When men come back from war they bring the war back with them …

Having read two of Jonathan Chamberlain’s memoirs – King Hui about a Hong Kong playboy and Wordjazz for Stevie, a touching tribute to Jonathan’s late daughter who was born profoundly handicapped – I was really looking forward to reading ‘The Alphabet of Vietnam’ and seeing how Jonathan turns his hand to fiction. I was more than impressed. It is an exceptional piece of writing, well researched, one that explores the light and dark in every ‘man’s’ soul in a refreshingly unapologetic manner.

The story unfolds through a series of skillfully interwoven narratives: Two psychotic – or perhaps completely sane – Vietnam veterans who bring their sick war games home with them. A brother who comes to question all he believes in an attempt to do what is right. A return to modern-day Vietnam that explores US war crimes and the country’s rich history and culture through a series of cleverly though out vignettes.

‘And then there is love – and love is complicated …’

What a great book!

Chris Thrall is the author of Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland – a bestselling true story.