Writing a Book
I went to Vietnam to write a book.
I'd done some writing before - several short stories that were published in anthologies and a few articles (and a few thousand pages of unpublished stuff buried in the back of my computer) - but this time I really wanted to try travel writing as a career. I had high hopes - my manuscript from the Peace Corps had been well received by publishers (but ultimately rejected because the Philippines was deemed an "uninteresting country"). Nobody told me that making a living as a travel writer was only slightly more lucrative than being a full-time poet.
So I went to Vietnam. I gathered notes (and film and photos). I wrote the manuscript (130,000 words). I submitted it to agents. I got an agent. She asked for a rewrite. I rewrote the manuscript (118,000 words). She sent it in to publishers. She kept calling with good news - several big publishers really liked it and were taking it to their board... and bad news. It wasn't personal enough. It was too personal. It wasn't spiritual enough. It wasn't factual enough. It wasn't about the war. I hadn't fought in the war. It was too much like a Peace Corps book. They already had a Vietnam book on their lists. They had run out of money for the year... eventually I put the manuscript aside and worked on the film and web site. Six months later I tackled it again, rewriting it according to the specs of several publishers (104,000 words). This time it was submitted with an action-packed pedigree - a nationwide PBS special (with write-ups in many of the country's major newspapers)... a huge website that had over 200 pages of manuscript excerpts in it.... several hundred photos published on the internet...
A few more publishers turned it down. Several are still looking at it. My agent is hoping that if people read excerpts from this website then they will write nice things to me via email and we can submit them to the publishers. I'm about ready to give up this travel writing stuff and take up a career as a poet.
If you're still thinking of writing...
SURVIVAL TIPS FOR TRAVEL WRITING:
- Writers generally prefer pen and paper to any sort of fancy gadgetry. Nevertheless, I encourage you to bring along at least one microcasette and enough tapes to cover ten minutes a day for your entire trip. There will be days when even the most ardent writer simply won't have the energy to sit down with a journal after a long day's travel, scrubbing clothes on the bathroom floor, searching out a meal and cleaning camera equipment.
- I dictated about 8 minutes a day (on average) usually last thing before going to sleep. I was often so tired that I would drift off at the end of a sentence. When I got home and started transcribing the tapes I was surprised how many long silences I came across.
- The act of transcribing your tapes is the fist step towards putting your experiences into perspective. It also allows you a few days of mindless work before plunging into the real task of organizing and outlining (if I didn't have this method of easing into the book I would still be procrastinating the start)
- Use your microcassette to capture sounds - the market vendors, the early morning farm animals, the children's voices. They will evoke many more memories than a factual description.
- If you are traveling with someone, ask them to describe particular incidents or insights on tape. Interview them if you have to.
- If you speak the language even a little, try interviewing locals on tape. This will give you the opportunity to transcribe their conversations in full when you get home and to capture nuances of voice and dialect which you would otherwise have missed.
- No detail is too trivial to get down on tape/paper... that the smaller denominations of currency are so well-worn that they feel furry... that the corner soup shop sets up at four fifteen in the morning... that the kilometer markers near the border of China have been whited out. It is exactly these observations that will make your writing come alive.
- Details are particularly important to record right after you arrive, when everything is new and your senses are sharpened. After a week or two even the extraordinary will have become mundane and you won't think it worth recording (or you will simply no longer notice it).
- Even if you don't become another Paul Theroux or launch a career as a National Geographic writer, the act of observing will enhance your trip a thousand-fold. While everyone else is drifting through the market in a daze, you will be sniffing spices ("Nutmeg! Cumin!"), watching how the fisherwomen skin frogs (head first, eviscerate, then pull the skin off like a jumpsuit) and seeing the one resourceful crab clamber out of a bucket and sneak away. Then when you get back to your hotel everyone will wonder how you got to see all the interesting stuff.
- There are plenty of ways to publish. Consider writing articles for your local paper. Query magazines. Write a book. Start a newsletter. Create a website.
- Photographs are crucial. If you don't want to take them, bring someone along who will. If you don't know how to take good photos, learn. Many great articles have been turned down by publishers for want of good-quality illustrative photographs.
- I've plowed through dozens of travel books (and manuscripts) that read like the world's most boring diary. "Got up at 7:15. Had bacon and eggs for breakfast. Went back upstairs to pack. Met driver out the front at 8:04..." I beseech you, if you plan to write a travel book (which I will someday probably buy and read), look beyond the mundane details of your day (will thousands of people who don't know you from Adam really care when you got up?) and record events that say something about the country/culture or something extraordinary about yourself. People won't want to know what you had for breakfast unless it was live snakes. They won't really care what time you left the hotel unless it was bombed moments later by the local revolutionary front. They will care about a marketplace you record with such stunningly original details and observations of color and smell, taste and texture, that they go away thinking they were there themselves.
- I once read an article by Theroux in which he proudly proclaimed that he had never once written about diarrhea. Illness, he said, has no place in a travel book. I'm afraid that I have several times fallen short of his standards, but I would like to register my own pet peeve - bathroom fixtures. It seems that most people who travel to third world countries feel the need to describe every bathroom fixture they run across in excruciating detail. Maybe I'm just unobservant (I don't normally notice what shoes people are wearing either) but I simply don't remember whether the toilet handle is rusty or the floor tiles chipped. So if you stay away from bathrooms and the things that generally happen in them then you will have gained two readers - one important and one not...
A FEW HELPFUL RULES TO GETTING PUBLISHED:
Someone gave me these rules and I have followed them religiously. They have several times been the only thing that has kept me from giving up...
So you have your manuscript written and ready to submit:
- Pick a number between 10 and 20. This is the number of times you will submit a sample of your manuscript to a publisher/agent.
- When your manuscript comes back, turn it around in twenty-four hours or less. This requires a significant amount of organization since you will have had to query enough agents/publishers so that you have someone waiting for the chance to read your work.
- The moment your manuscript goes out the door for the first time, start another writing project so compelling that when you get that brown-wrapped package back in the mail you have to think for a moment before you remember what it is (no sitting by the mailbox waiting for a letter telling you you're the next Tom Clancy...)
If you do this right then it will take about two years to go through the entire process and hit your magic number. By that time you'll have at least two other manuscripts in the queue so it won't hurt that much to label your old work "Learning experience" and put it aside. Then when your other stuff gets published and you're famous you can pull it out, dust it off, thumb your nose at everyone who once turned you down, and hit the bestseller lists....
Just remember, advice is only worth as much as the advisor, and I'm still working on rule #3 up there.