Here is a new blog post from Chris Thrall author of Eating Smoke
How hard is it to write about yourself and make it interesting? Tell us a little about writing creative non-fiction.
Chris Thrall is the authour of Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland – a bestselling true story
After failing most of my exams upon leaving school, 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 a sense of 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 A’s for the first three assignments I posted off, with a note attached to the final 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 real experience I had of learning English before embarking on Eating Smokesixteen years later.
1: Work out the timeframe for your story
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 up 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 piece entitled My Month in Tibet, then backstory isn’t going to play such a prominent role. Either way, backstory doesn’t have 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 some time typing up everything you can remember that is relative to your story. This includes incidents, events, characters, conversations, relationships and appropriate backstory. Get it all down, in no particular order, and then arrange these memories 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.
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 your falling out of a tree as a child gave you a fear of heights, if your story is about conquering Mount Everest.
5: Consider making your 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’ – your most harrowing moment, for example – to engage readers and publishers.
Consider the following opening lines from Eating Smoke:
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.
6: 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.
*Setting the scene
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 – but don’t overdo it! In the sub-scenes, your descriptions can be brief – …the nightclub had a distinctly underground feel to it – or you can leave them out altogether as most people can picture a cheap motel, a modern hospital or a local police station. Don’t forget to say how the scene affected you on a personal level, i.e. I stood there wide-eyed …full of hurt …filled with a sense of trepidation …couldn’t wait to explore more, etc.
Examples from Eating Smoke:
I STEPPED OUT OF THE STATION into Mong Kok, the most heavily populated square mile on the planet, and began to make my way past the myriad of shops and businesses lining Nathan Road. This six-lane highway stems the length of Kowloon’s sky-scraped peninsula like a main artery flowing with corpuscles of bright red taxis.
As I steered a course through what seemed a frenetic mass of pedestrians, I soon realised it wasn’t the people that were chaotic – they moved surprisingly slowly – it was the surroundings. The sights, sounds and smells of Cantonese culture and exchange bombarded my senses as elaborate façades sold everything from Rolex watches to dried tiger penis, steam poured out of noodle shops and a cacophony of traffic noise complemented the vivid clashing colours of signs anchored to the buildings’ lower walls.
Rick’s Café was a nouveau-style cocktail bar on Jaffe Road, just around the corner from the Big Apple and Joe Bananas on Luard.
The look of utter shock on their faces said it all. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
For characters that feature briefly in the story, you don’t need to sacrifice valuable page space describing them in detail. Instead, you can say …he looked the part of a vagrant …she had the fashion sense of a bingo queen, and so forth. When introducing key figures you can give a brief outline of height, weight, clothes, hair, face and demeanour – but don’t make it too clinical. A short, squat chap with curly brown hair, he dressed in a cheap suit and had a smile that made me feel welcome is sufficient in the first instance, allowing the readers to conjure up their own image of the person. In subsequent liaisons, you can drop in the …narrow brown eyes …humble personality, etc. Avoid the trite …strong jaw …a figure to die for …a thousand-yard stare. Equally, if not more, important is to highlight subtle nuances such as …he couldn’t look me in the eye …I smelt alcohol on his breath …her grin spoke volumesas the manuscript progresses and the characters come into their own.
Examples from Eating Smoke:
As I went to board the bus, an overly made-up crone, stinking of cheap booze and dressed like an Eastern Bloc prostitute, thrust a business card at me.
When I arrived the next day, one of them, a short stocky chap with curly fair hair, was already at his desk. He stood up immediately and with an idiotic grin spreading a ridiculous amount of freckles, and flashing sky-blue eyes, bounded over like an excited puppy.
As he looked at me, contempt radiating from his narrow eyes, the finality of my situation slammed home…
Still looking away, he muttered, barely perceptibly, ‘I think the world of you, Chris.’
Dialogue not only adds a dimension of realism to your work but it also provides valuable insight into your character(s), their motivation and the direction your story takes. However, there is a knack to writing realistic dialogue, but for the first draft just write it as it comes to you and edit it later (see below).
Remember, it’s your story so people should experience it from your perspective. As you narrate, don’t forget to include your thoughts, feelings and observations so the reader can see how a particular scene affects you and subsequently relates to the outcome of events.
Example from Eating Smoke:
‘Those two, Duncan…’ – I swelled with pride – ‘…are the bestDJs in the world!’
I had a feeling, there and then, that I wouldn’t be in that job much longer.
Remember, you’re not telling the facts you’re describing the scene. You’re not regurgitating the tale diary fashion you’re putting the reader in the story.
Example from Eating Smoke:
When I got outside, chuck the box I did – but not in the skip. I couldn’t give a backflip in Beijing where that thing ended up. All I had in my mind was sprinting down the alley. I think it cut through all the blocks and would eventually get me home.
‘They’re waiting for you…’
I checked myself.
The pitch-black of the alley was a real contrast to the dazzling disco lights of a moment before, the sounds of booming beats and rapturous vocals fused with fever-pitched conversation a distant memory as I stealthily made my way down it expecting to see a chopping blade glint in the moonlight at any moment.
I began to feel afraid…extremelyafraid. I knew theywere waiting for me.
With so many people putting their experiences into print, what writing style could you employ to make your story unique? How about telling your memoir from the perspective of your favourite pet or writing it as a series of letters to people you are close to, or incorporating internal dialogue?
Example from Eating Smoke:
I was shaking, my heart pounding a mass of drug-and-fear-induced adrenaline through my veins to send me high up to a place I’d never been before…a place where I was able to look down from above the rooftops and see a young man way below I felt strangely akin to…threading his way through a tunnel laden with suffocating menace…violent killers…laired mutants…bonded by a web of horror and permeated by the terror…and it wasn’t until I neared the end of the second alleyway that I felt myself coming back down, like returning from an out-of-body experience, yet still as frantic as ever.
Adding in the occasional witticism can make even the most mundane of stories interesting. It can render your character(s) more likeable and add an element of levity to otherwise dark situations. Dry wit seems to work well in non-fiction, but it has to come naturally – don’t force it!
Example from Eating Smoke:
He puffed out his pigeon chest and waddled across the room towards me. With his feet pointing outwards, he looked like a fat duck with a grievance.
*Be honest and be yourself
As human beings, we often share certain thought, fears and prejudices – at least to a certain extent. Being honest about these can bring your reader closer, seeing them tune in to you and more empathic to your story. However, this doesn’t mean you have to disclose every personal detail and don’t write anything that might be overly offensive to minority groups – religion, ethnicity, etc. Keep some things back for yourself; otherwise, you may regret it when you see it in print.
Example from Eating Smoke:
As he walked off up a short flight of stairs to retrieve the records that would show me to be a total fraud, I turned and fled the scene, feeling wretched that I’d tried to cheat this hardworking man.
*Avoid pre-emptive statements
If you are telling your story in present time and you want it to be fast-paced and suspense-filled, you should avoid justifying your position by saying things such as If only I’d known at this point… Looking back, this was an awful decision… Knowing what I know now… etc. This can become irritating. You didn’t know then what you do now so let the story play out in its own time.
Similes can be a great way of introducing humour and conjuring up a picture in the readers mind, but avoid the clichéd …he ate like a pig …as white as a sheet, etc. Be original. Have some fun thinking up your own, but make sure the subject and simile match!
Example from Eating Smoke:
The Chinese bodybuilders all stood like Easter Island statues staring across the sea to a far rising sun – only the star spellbinding these monoliths was the one on the gym’s huge TVscreen.
7: The first edit.
‘How many times should I edit my work?’ The answer is ‘As many times as necessary.’ Obviously, you are going to keep back-up copies of the manuscript, so you can always change it back again.
*Pare it down!
The advice I received when editing Eating Smoke was to pare it down! For example, did you ever find yourself with a 3,000-word college essay when the word count was 1,500? You then had to strip all the excess from it by cutting out duplicated material, deleting unnecessary lines and paragraphs, making twenty-word sentences into ten, and generally getting rid of your own ego. It’s the same with your work. In the first edit, apply the rule of thumb to streamline the storyline itself by deleting any anecdote that doesn’t add special interest to the manuscript or take the story forward by adding to the understanding your character(s), the situation you are describing or the outcome of events.
8. In the second/third/fourth… edit
Here are a few examples of what can be pared down to polish the manuscript, thus making it more concise, smother flowing and more readable.
*Avoid the obvious
He sat down in an ‘empty’ chair in the corner.
He sat down in a chair in the corner.
‘I’ woke up ‘and’ ‘I’ put the kettle on ‘and’ ‘I’ made a cup of coffee.
Upon waking, I put the kettle on and made some coffee
Word repetition can appear ugly and amateurish, not only in sentences but in paragraphs, chapters and even whole books, depending on the commonness the word in question. Is, for example, can be used three times in the same sentence – where appropriate – without drawing attention to itself. Whereas words like bland you wouldn’t want to use twice in the same chapter and ubiquitous you’d only want to use once in a manuscript.
*Avoid unnecessary adverbs
He hurled his dinner plate across the room ‘angrily’.
He hurled his dinner plate across the room.
As the dinner plate shattered against the wall, his flushed red face said it all.
*Write realistic and to-the-point dialogue
‘Hello, John. How are you?’ asked David.
‘I’m fine, thank you, David,’ replied John.
‘And how are the family?’
‘I’m glad I bumped into you. I’ve been meaning to catch up with you for a while as I wanted to know how the new job was going.’
Pleasantries over, ‘How’s the job going?’ David asked.
*Remove redundant dialogue tags
Only use a dialogue tag when it would be unclear who is speaking without one. Thereplied John (above) is unnecessary, as it’s obvious that John is speaking.
*Use said, replied or asked in dialogue
Avoid the use of retorted, responded, inquired, interjected, etc, in dialogue, as these are overkill and can sound amateurish. Use said in most cases – and only when it’s not obvious who is speaking. You can use replied or asked sparingly, too, to avoid unsightly repetition on the page.
Being true to indigenous speech can add authenticity to your work, but don’t overdo it or it may become patronising and hard to wade through. Just add in the odd hint on certain words. Be consistent with each character and make sure it sounds realistic. YouTube is a wonderful medium for getting accents down to a tee.
Example from Eating Smoke of a conversation with a Chinese person:
Benny took a conspiratorial glance all around before continuing in almost a whisper. ‘You know, Quiss, when I was’a young boy, juss finish school, juss statted working, I live in a village long way from here. Sma’ village, not like Hong Kong.’
‘One day, I get sick . . . with the fever. You know the fever? . . . The one from the fish?’
‘Yeah yeah! This the one. Hepatitis. Well, I have the hepatitis an’ I cannot even to get out of bed, you know? A’m so sick that my mother have to wash me, feed me. Cannot get out of bed for three month’a?’
‘Uh-huh. Go on.’
*Choose your words carefully
Would you really snatch a (sharp) knife from someone’s hand – or would you prise it from them?
Would you run though a door – or through a doorway?
*Punctuation and grammar
If you are unsure about punctuation and grammar, it’s worth investing in a guidebook and spending a little time learning the basic rules. When you get to a sticking point in your work, if your book doesn’t cover it you can visit the growing number of Internet forums and websites to find your answer.
It can be rewarding to get feedback from family and friends, particularly if it’s positive. However, you have to bear in mind that they might not want to hurt your feelings or be best qualified to spot your errors. A better way to get constructive criticism is to contact an author published in your genre and ask if they would be kind enough to read your first chapter. You’ll be surprised at how supportive your fellow writers are and their advice can improve your work immeasurably – or see it forwarded to their publisher!
My final piece of advice would be to get hold of a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. I bought the audio version and listened to it, repeatedly, during car journeys for two months at the time I was editing Eating Smoke. As well as learning the art of creative writing from a master, I was pleasantly surprised how much of Stephen’s instruction I had worked out myself.
I hope my humble article spurs you on to start that story you’ve been meaning to write – or contains a couple of tips to support the one you have begun. It may not all be relevant to your non-fiction piece – and others may have different views – but it worked for me. If you want to see the above put into practice, pick up a copy ofEating Smoke.
Thank you for reading.
About the author
Chris Thrall was born in the UK. At eighteen, he joined the Royal Marine Commandos. Following active service in the Northern Ireland conflict and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachutist’s ‘wings’ and went on to serve as part of a high-security detachment on board an aircraft carrier.
In 1995, Chris moved to Hong Kong to oversee the Asia-Pacific expansion of a successful network marketing operation he’d built, part-time, while serving in the Forces. Less than a year later, he was homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine and working for the 14-K, a notorious Hong Kong crime syndicate, as a doorman in Wan Chai’s infamous red-light district.
Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland – a bestselling true story – is his account of what happened.