Best-selling author Peter Moore shares the secrets he (l)earned writing six popular travel narratives
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I get a lot of emails from people asking me how to become a travel writer. And why not? It’s a great job. Unfortunately, like all great jobs competition is very tough. I wouldn’t mind being a radio DJ, for example, but I don’t fancy my chances of stepping into Zane Lowe's shoes any time soon.
Having said that, with a little bit of perseverance, anything is possible. It took me over six years to get my first book published. If I’d known then what I know now, it probably would have only taken five!
In my experience getting published boils down to four things. A strong idea. A unique voice. Good writing. And a good deal of perseverance.
There has to be a reason why. Why did you do this journey rather than another one? Some people follow in the footsteps of explorers of the past. Others attempt to be the first to do a particular journey. Some people are trying to find themselves, start a new life. It really doesn't matter what the reason is, as long as it is a good one.
Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. Bill takes one last look around England before returning to the US.
Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald. Sarah road tests different religions in the spiritual supermarket of India.
Crazy River by Richard Grant. Richard attempts to be the first person to travel the length of the Malagarasi River.
A strong, easy-to-encapsulate reason why is vital because it’s the hook everyone will use – from you or an agent trying to interest publishers, through to the sales and marketing departments of the said publisher trying to get publicity for your book.
One thing to keep in mind is that most successful travel books are aspirational. Whether it’s renovating an old house in Tuscany, starting a new life in Paris or climbing Everest, each chronicle something that people would love to do if they could. My most popular book in the UK has been The Wrong Way Home. It tells the story of my journey overland from London to Sydney, a trip a lot of people have thought of doing (and often end up doing bits and pieces of it). Similarly, my book about riding around Italy on a Vespa, Vroom with a View, did really well in Australia. Aussies, it seems, have a hankering for the dolce vita on two-wheels. Or have a fixation with Sophia Loren. Like I did.
If you're finding it difficult to single out one idea, write a one or two paragraph overview of your journey – or your idea for a journey – instead. Remember the who, what, where, when and why? It should lead you to your big idea.
Your 'voice' is just the publishing industry’s way of describing your writing style. The biggest mistake aspriring writers make is to try and sound like someone else. Or worse, write like they expect 'proper' literature to sound.
When Andy McNab, the former SAS soldier-turned-author, first started out, he was told to write like he was telling a story to his mates down the pub. It’s good advice. Think of all the little tricks you put into telling a story so that it gets a laugh or retains the interest of your friends. If you’re not a big drinker, don’t worry. Pretend you’re meeting friends for a cup of coffee.
Another trick that some writers use is to imagine they are writing a letter to a particular friend. Some even go as far as writing ‘Dear John’ at the top (remove it, of course, before you send your manuscript off). That way you avoid being a pale imitation of Bill Bryson or Eric Newby. You’re being yourself, and that’s the best way to get a unique voice.
It sounds more difficult than it really is. As an aspiring travel writer you’ve probably already developed a unique voice writing the emails to friends and family while you were on the road. Or on the blog you've been keeping. I get a lot of emails from people who say that friends and family have encouraged them to write after enjoying the emails they sent while they were travelling. That’s because they have discovered their 'voice'.
One thing I've taken for granted is that you can actually write. Maybe not of a Pulitzer Prize winning standard, but your sentences should be well constructed, your ideas clearly expressed and your story told in a way that maintains a reader's interest.
The good news is that writing about a journey gives you a head start over a lot of other writers. You already have your narrative drive in place – you have a beginning and an end and a journey that that takes you from one to the other. But there are some other things you should keep in mind.
I can’t stress how important good dialogue is. Travel writing is about describing people and places. And you can do that a lot easier with dialogue. It 'shows' people rather than 'tells' them. You'll be surprised how just a little bit of dialogue elevates your writing.
How do you get good dialogue? Just listen. You’ll be amazed by the things people say. I’m certainly not creative enough to make up the things that have been said to me in my travels. In The Wrong Way Home, for example, the guy who came up and told me Australia was safe in the event of a nuclear war. 'I have worked in a nuclear facility in the States,' he said. 'Your country is safe!'
How do you remember it? Write it down! I keep a small notepad in my back pocket and write things down when I hear them. I don’t take dictation. I let situations play out and then duck around a corner and scribble it down!
If you've started writing something and it hasn’t got much dialogue, try and re-write it using dialogue. You’ll be amazed by the difference it makes.
Deciding what to leave out is a key skill and probably the hardest thing to do. We all have trouble 'killing our babies.' I’ve been sent the odd chapter or two by people and the biggest problem was that they included every small detail. One guy sent me a document recounting one small part of his journey in Mali that ran to 50 pages and detailed boiling water for a cup of tea.
It’s a problem I still face. One of my latest books was about buying an old Vespa in Italy and riding it from Milan to Rome. I had a fantastic scene where I visited an old Vespa mechanic in Sydney. He had a great workshop with old posters on the wall and a coterie of little old Italian guys hanging around a beat up coffee machine. But I couldn’t use it without slowing down the whole narrative. So I had to cut it free.
It’s like movies. A lot of scenes end up on the cutting floor. A boring all day bus journey can be easily pared down to ‘By evening we were in Esfahan …’
Peter Moore is Associate Web Editor at Wanderlust and author of six travel narratives including The Wrong Way Home, Swahili for the Broken-Hearted and Vroom with a View. You can find out more about Peter and his books by visiting www.petermoore.net.
Want more tips on how to improve your travel writing? Join Wanderlust Journeys On Assignment in Istanbul or travel to Berlin for a travel writing weekend packed with inspiration, advice, tips, adventure on-the-ground and so much more.
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