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Writing > Tips on how to write a memoir.

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message 1: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Hi all!

I was recently asked to blog "How hard is it to write about yourself and make it interesting? Tell us a little about writing creative non-fiction."

I had no previous experience of creative writing, but my book, Eating Smoke, has been on the Hong Kong bestseller list since its release in August 2011. I wrote down a few tips that I hope will be of help to others who are considering writing a memoir but are unsure of how to proceed. They are only what worked for me - comments and suggestions welcome!

My best - Chris

Eating Smoke One Man's Descent Into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong's Triad Heartland by Chris Thrall

message 2: by Leila (new)

Leila Summers (leilasummers) | 770 comments Hi Chris
Great blog post! I think you just about covered everything, well done. I think I may have gone a bit overboard on the 'said' synonyms in my writing, even though I knew that 'said' should be used most often. I just hate repetition (o:

message 3: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Thanks, Leila! It's hard to get a good balance - takes a bit of juggling!

message 4: by Chris (new)

Chris Bullock (chrisbullock) | 19 comments Chris,
Just had a read through your blog and found it extremely useful, interesting and to the point. I shall work my way through it in detail as I write my current manuscript.
One key issue that I have problems with is that you suggest paring the story down. Unfortunately I have the opposite problem - since my background is non-literary (failing miserably at English Literature exams), and is also scientific, I tend to write with as few words as possible. I am getting out of this by trying to be more descriptive and adding dialogue, which helps but can appear stilted at times. Do you have any other advice?
Thanks, Chris
Living through Hope!

message 5: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Hi Chris

You must be doing something right to have a book out! I guess the "Introduce the sights, sounds, smells and atmosphere of major locations so the reader feels as if they are in your shoes. You can include a few facts to add depth such as geography, weather, history, language, and local statistics..." applies in this case. But most of all, I would recommend listening to or reading Stephen King's "On Writing" - it's great advice. Good luck - Chris.

message 6: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Also, Chris, if you wanted to forward me a chapter, I would be delighted to give you some feedback (email is on my website Cheers!

message 7: by Chris (new)

Chris Bullock (chrisbullock) | 19 comments Thanks Chris,
You can get to my book 'Living through Hope!' on Smashwords at:-
This will let you see a sample for free. If that is a problem, I'll happily email you the first chapter or so.

message 8: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Hey, Chris!

Congrats! I hope you don't mind I chip in my two-pence worth. You have a highly thoughtful/all-inclusive approach to writing. A slight refinement on this will see your writing jump up a gear, I feel.

Pare it down: Trying to be overly descriptive is leading to dense, choked up tense - namely, too many adjectives (for example: a smart black fast sleek-lined sporty car . . . is a sporty car!). Set yourself an editing task of getting rid of every redundant word – one adjective is generally enough and often not neccesary.

Repetition: In your opening paragraph, count how many times you mention ‘rain’ or words associated with it (deluge, water, soaked, downpour, dowse, waterproof, dried-out, etc, etc,) or rain/fire, rain/roof, rain/wind, rain/crops, etc. The reader gets the idea it is raining heavily – you can thin down the overly descriptive narrative.

Stating the obvious: The solid sheets of rain torrented down = rain torrented down; the high-pitched howling winds = the howling wind; The oppressive heat of the long, hot summer’s day = the heat of the summer day.

Hope this helps, Chris! I’ll message you further.


message 9: by James (new)

James Kunen (james_kunen) | 22 comments Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life

An aspiring author in a cancer patients' writing group asked me yesterday if it would be better to organize her memoir chronologically or by theme. This is a great question that we all struggle with: what to say, and in what order to say it. My advice to her was that at every fork in your decision tree, do NOT think that there is a right choice and a wrong choice. There can be many right choices. Just do your best to decide, and then execute. I also pointed out that you can sit and think all day about what and how you should write, and that effort will get you almost nowhere, compared to the progress you'll make by actually sitting down and writing. As soon as you write down a sentence, you read it and react to it. You are in a dialogue with the page. Things that you write will give you ideas that you never would never otherwise have thought of. I have a Q & A going about my book and issues in memoir writing. If you've found this helpful, please drop by. Thanks.

message 10: by Leila (new)

Leila Summers (leilasummers) | 770 comments great advice James!

message 11: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Brilliant, James! I was just thinking yesterday how glad I am that I just started writing my next book rather than plan every twist and turn. It's amazing what comes out of your head via the keyboard! This book is fiction - and to be honest, after writing a memoir, I feel a total fraud. Apparently, you just have to make this stuff up! With reference to the chronological approach, your friend may get something out of reading my article. Good luck!

message 12: by James (new)

James Kunen (james_kunen) | 22 comments Thanks, Leila and Chris, for letting me know you found my post useful. Further on getting stuff down on paper (what I call a Data Dump): A sculptor starts with a big block of granite and chips away, chips away, chips away until s/he finds the scultpture inside. It's the same for us writers, except we have to creat the block of granite (first draft), too. ....Best of luck with the fiction, Chris.Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life

message 13: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Chamberlain | 10 comments If I can dive in here with a comment in relation to the person with cancer writing their memoir (should it be chronological? Should it be thematic?). These sound like the kind of questions one might ask of a college essay. A memoir really only has one purpose: to take the reader into the heart of the true personal experience that the writer is describing. As with a novel there will be a key focusing moment that initiates that experience. With Chris's book Eating Smoke - that key moment happens a long way into the story - whereas, with my book - Wordjazz for Stevie - it happens several years before Stevie was born. Working out what the moment is is surely the first step - then working out how that moment is best presented is the next issue.

message 14: by James (last edited May 25, 2012 11:58AM) (new)

James Kunen (james_kunen) | 22 comments Working out "the key focusing moment" as the first step seems to have worked wonderfully for you, Jonathan. However, I'm sure you don't really mean to lay that down as a one-size-fits-all directive for every memoir. Of my five published books, three have been memoirs, and none have begun with a focusing moment. All three have been organized in diary form, and key moments occur at various points. Indeed, if my life has had one key focusing moment, I'm not sure what it's been--but I'll keep looking.Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a LifeThe Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary

message 15: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Chamberlain | 10 comments Hi James
Your title seems to encapsulate the key focusing moment clearly enough - you lost a job - that's what initiated (I presume) the story that followed.

message 16: by James (new)

James Kunen (james_kunen) | 22 comments Jonathan, I take your point. On closer reading of your comment, I see that I misconstrued it as a prescription for the order of presentation. That said, I do still believe that the creative process is different for different people. I suggested to the cancer-patient writer that she do a data dump -- just get as much of her story down as she could on paper, then start chipping away to find the shape of the story within. I analogize it to a sculptor chipping away at the stone to find the statue inside, except we writers have to amass the stone first. She then asked if it was better to present the story chronologically -- as I do, using the diary form -- or organized in some other way. I don't think that's a sophmoric question. I guess I'm talking nuts and bolts, which could be seen as merely means to the end of finding and presenting your focusing moment.

message 17: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Chamberlain | 10 comments The problem I have with 'data dumping' is that you ignore the voice - and for me the voice is everything. Data is objective; voice is 'you the writer being subjective'. To paraphrase Kevin Costner "Create the voice and the data will come". The data is meaningless without the attitudes and resonances of the voice. To give you a jokey example: imagine the first person to read the freshly written lyrics: "You say potatoes and I say potatoes, let's call the whole thing off." Without the voice, this lyric is meaningless.

The opening ten pages of any memoir are the most crucial - and if you can get them right the rest - and the reader - will follow. That's why I would focus as much attention as possible on the key moment - and a deconstruction of the person and events surrounding that key moment.

message 18: by James (new)

James Kunen (james_kunen) | 22 comments You seem to have misunderstood what I meant by "data dumping." No one who's read my books would dream of suggesting that I ignore "voice." There isn't much to be gained by our continuing this discussion. So with all respect, I'm signing off.

message 19: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Chamberlain | 10 comments James, we're just having a friendly exchange. I certainly wasn't criticising you - and I certainly wasn't suggesting that making notes of what needed to be included wasn't helpful and I certainly wasn't suggesting that 'voice' was absent from your work.

message 20: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Hi James and Jonathan.

I certainly gained a lot from the exchange so far - as I also have reading three of Jonathan's well-attuned books. And as, I have no doubt, I would glean from your work, James (looks fascinating BTW).

I think we're all aware that not one size fits all when it comes to writing and it's good to read these different angles and ideas.

I think we all also know that the secret is to GET WRITING and THEY WILL COME - ha ha!

Thank you both for your input.

PS. Jonathan, I made a comment on your recent write-in to say that you don't need to be an apologist for the (moderate) level of violence in 'The Alphabet of Vietnam' - as a former serviceman who is aware that three times more vets commit suicide after a conflict, it probably wasn't violent enough! But I deleted it as it sounded like a rant! Great read. Thanks!

message 21: by James (new)

James Kunen (james_kunen) | 22 comments Jonathan, thanks for your clarification. I think sometimes things "sound" different in email than they would spoken or written out more fully. And Chris, thanks for your meta-comments, which tie everything up nicely.

message 22: by Trey (new)

Trey | 2 comments I managed to put down the computer game last week as the wave of what I call "existence" washed over me just as it did a few years ago. I grew tired of wasting my time that is lost forever. I need to thank you for writing a good memoir of HK. I really liked your tips as I learned a few new things about writing. Very helpful. A scene from the film, "Rum Diary" was the tipping point for me. As Johnny Depp's character stood there in the empty news office; no job, no money, no girlfriend, and a warrant out for his arrest; I saw myself standing in Huaqiao.

I'm hoping to get something written soon. It's complicated working around 2 jobs and school, but now I have my previous writings along with a document program at my fingertips. I'll let you know when it's ready for a proofread.

message 23: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Chamberlain | 10 comments Hi Chris, thanks for the comfort on the violence front! Evan, good luck with your writing - remember the adage: who do you give the job to - the one who is busy or the one who has plenty of time? The one who is busy of course! He's the one who'll get it done.

Tje life journeys of our youth are the modern rites of passage where we go from the world of order to the world of adulthood and we discover our own life mission and the fate that is waiting for us (and the fate we make for ourselves)

message 24: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments @James - you're welcome. Great to meet another gentleman through this engaging medium called 'writing'!

@Jonathan - you're welcome for the comfort (incidentally, I sure you guessed I meant that 'three-times more servicemen commit suicide after a conflict than the number of those that die in it' ... in addition to the drug addiction, mental health, homelessness and domestic violence issues). It's a shame that people who live in the 'Matrix' are allowed to write reviews!!! But, hey ho!

@Evan - mate, so chuffed you read my book (and left a thoughtful review!). I'm pleased my little 'how to write a memoir' piece gave you some ideas for your story, too. I felt a little conceited writing it - but it's only what worked for me and might help others get started.

Thanks everyone!

message 25: by Leila (new)

Leila Summers (leilasummers) | 770 comments I’ve enjoyed learning from this conversation. I’ve signed up for an online writing course, and I’m quite nervous! I have no experience of writing fiction. I’ve only written memoir and some newspaper journalism, so making things up is completely new to me. But I'm up for the challenge... I think.

message 26: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Go for it, Leila! I've just started my first non-fiction piece and am finding the way! Good luck!

message 27: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Hi all!

Please visit this link and get your free download of 'How to Write a Memoir'.

Any thoughts and suggestions welcomed!


message 28: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Rasley | 173 comments Nicely done, Chirs. Thank you.

message 29: by Chris (new)

Chris Thrall (christhrall) | 21 comments Thank you, Jeffrey!

message 30: by Leila (new)

Leila Summers (leilasummers) | 770 comments Thanks Chris!

message 31: by Jay (new)

Jay Artale (rovingjay) | 2 comments I've been using Scrivener to write my Memoir (actually I use it to write all of my content) - is anyone else using this software to write? Would love to have you share your insights and tips on my new group

Moderator of the Writing with Scrivener Group

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