Cheeseburger Gothic

How to Be a Freelancer, Version 1.1, the travel writer DLC...

Posted August 17, 2012 by John Birmingham
... with plug-in modules for fashion mavens and would be restaurant reviewers.

Put my head in at Avid Reader last weekend for National Bookshop Day, where I ran into a reader I won't further identify because he's examining his longer-term options as a journalist. Wise move, big guy. The clock is ticking for all of us.

He was interested in travel writing. It's not an area I've ever worked in, but I know a surprising number of people who do, and I wanted to talk a little bit about it this week because there's some general points I can make about this specific form of writing that apply across the board to other writing forms.

The first thing to understand; there are very few people making a living as professional travel writers. There are, however  many more people calling themselves travel writers. Travel writing, like food writing, is often the preserve of the gifted amateur. Or the would-be professional who can never quite escape the gravity well of amateur status.

What separates the pros from the amateurs? Two things, mostly, as far as I can tell. (1) books, and (2) an established income stream, which sounds kind of tautological now that I look at it. But I make the latter point for a reason. There are people, like Susan Kurosawa that The Australian, who have quite conventional employment histories in journalism, as travel writers. They are the exception in the field.

Of much more interest to me, and the guy I promised to write this for, and probably a lot of people reading, are the gifted amateurs, the self starters. They make up a much larger group of writers who didn't set out to become travel writers, they often set out to travel. And then they wrote about it. Often they began blogging, and the blogs were so well written, so well put together, that they attracted enough of an audience to draw the attention of mainstream publishers.

Just off the top of my head, and plucking directly from my Facebook friends list, I would include Peter Moore, Dirk Flinthart, Matthew Thompson and Mark Mordue in this group, especially Pete. They all have travel books to their names but he is the only one to have become a dedicated travel writer, while the others have dipped in and out of the field the same way I do with food writing.

Pete now has seven books to his name and a very professional looking website. If you're interested in being paid to swan about the place, collecting stories, take yourself over there now. But pay particular attention to his biography. He didn't just decide to become Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson one day. You'd be surprised how many people think they can pull that one off. (Be it in travel, fashion, food, whatever).

But let's have Pete tell the story, shall we? As background, I'll just pencil in the fact that he studied medieval history at the University of Sydney, but dropped out of his arts law degree before he got anywhere with the law thing. (Just like me). He taught for a bit in Japan, traveled a bit around Europe, came back to Australia and paid his rent by writing advertising copy. And then:

Decided to combine my two loves – travel and writing. Tossed in job, traveled around the Equator and wrote a book about it. The book was rejected by every publisher on the planet...

Returned to copywriting and wrote ads enticing young graduates to move to Mount Newman in the middle of Western Australia’s barren Pilbarra region. Continued to travel, had the odd travel article published and won a travel competition sponsored by the South Korean Tourist Board.

Used the 1mb of web space that came with my dial-up account to create No Shitting in the Toilet, a light-hearted, perverse look at travel.

Decided it would make a good book, presented the idea to publishers and was roundly rejected all over again. Eventually Shona Martyn at Transworld took pity on me and my first book was published.

There are two golden nuggets to take away from this story. First of all, if you're serious about doing it, you're doing it for love not money. By doing it for love, you'll be able to sustain yourself a lot longer when you're not earning any money. Be prepared to not earn any money for quite some time. And be prepared to work hard at what you're doing, to pour yourself into it, to respect the craft, because you love it. Persistence in love is all.

But get yourself a blog too. Not just a Facebook page, or twitter handle, of a copy of iBooks Author, get yourself a blog FFS. Get yourself one before you even think about putting together an e-book on your own. Books are important. With books comes cred, and heft, and long lunches on the publishers Amex. Books establish you as a hitter in the field.

But they come later.

With a blog, written for love not money, you can amass what amounts to an entire manuscript and a readership for that manuscript without ever needing to bash your head against the gates of the publishing castle. Peter Moore was not the first writer to be allowed in through the gates because he had demonstrated his abilities to write on a blog. He won't be the last.

So yes, a blog. And yes, I know there are 183,000,000 of them. Most widely unread, and for good reason. But that won't be relevant to you will it? Because you have some actual writing chops, and you are doing this for love, not for the banner ads or the keys to the kingdom. Are you gonna make any scratch with this thing? Nope. It's gonna cost you time and money. A lot of both.

Admittedly this seems an expensive and roundabout way of reaching your goal. You're writing the book before you're being paid to write it, something I would normally advise against–unless you're doing it for the love.

But you cannot just decide to be something. A travel writer, a fashion blogger, a food critic. Well, actually you can. No trouble at all. But the act of deciding is not the act of becoming. The former leads to the latter, but does not guarantee it. Apprenticeships needs be served, skills honed, and nowadays an audience gathered and presented to your future publisher with a big red ribbon tied around their appealing demographics.

Last week we discussed the need to specialize, to choose something about which you were especially passionate or well informed. This model works well when you apply yourself to the sorts of things we've been talking about today, and assuming you have any talent. (Don't expect it work for fiction and poetry. Different forces are in play there.)

Be prepared too for your overnight success to take somewhere between three and five years to manifest.

Along the way you will have to do a lot more than filing the occasional blog post about your trip to Wallyworld. As a baby travel writer, you are a traveler first. It is what you must do. You are a writer always, it is what you are, even when nobody else knows that. But the writing is dependent on the travel. To do is to be, as Sartre wrote. Just don't expect anyone to pick up the tab for existential journey just yet.

On the other hand do not be intimidated out of forcing your way into the industry from the edges. Again, as I said last week, a lot of magazines source most of their copy from freelancers. They are happy to have a look at potential stories if you can show your potential publisher or editor that you're not a pretender or a whackjob. How to do that? Point them in the direction of your beautifully written, professionally produced specialist blog.

Rolling Stone or Gourmet Traveler are not commissioning you to fly off somewhere on their tick, but if you have already been, and you wrote some great stories, and captured a few striking images, if you can show that you have already sought out and sustained an audience for your stories, then sure, they might take a look at your shit. It'll only be the work of a moment for them to decide whether you're wasting their time.

Want the insider info from the actual expert. Here's Peter Moore again, with a thousand dollar seminar's worth of specific advice for baby travel writers.

My much more general take away? Whatever it is you're going to do, just do it. Don't wait for a features editor to send you an advance check. Own your love, whether it be travel or shoes, or barbecue legends of the MidWest. Learn everything you can, from whoever will teach you. Then write about it. Because you want to. Because you're good at it. Because you're not a self-indulgent, hipster doofus scribbling prose poems in a notebook at an inner-city café.

You're the real fucking thing, my friend. You throw yourself out into the world, you hunt down stories, and you tell those motherfuckers like they never been told before.

29 Responses to ‘How to Be a Freelancer, Version 1.1, the travel writer DLC...’

Paul Nicholas Boylan has opinions thus...

Posted August 17, 2012
"Because you’re not a self-indulgent, hipster doofus scribbling prose poems in a notebook at an inner-city café."

Well, that counts me out.

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ConspiracyCat reckons...

Posted August 17, 2012
And what, exactly, have you got against self-indulgent, hipster doofi scribbling prose poems in a notebook at inner-city cafés? We have feelings too, you know. I've written mine down here in this notebook. Go ahead, read them. Then show them to your publisher.... please?

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beeso asserts...

Posted August 17, 2012
Great post, lessons i need to learn, for a different field, but great points.

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Murphy mumbles...

Posted August 17, 2012
Definitely guilty of the Wallyworld what I did today posts. :)

Good article.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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Murphy reckons...

Posted August 17, 2012
Here is an example of a blogger who, while she doesn't always write about travel, does write about what she loves.

http://www.ragsagainstthemachine.com/

In addition to working as an English professor by day and night, Terri has a little sideline going as a fashion blogger. Definitely worth a look.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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Quokka has opinions thus...

Posted August 17, 2012
The bloke informed me one fine day that most blogs are never read by more than 8 people, and four of them only do so because they plan to hide in your ceiling and watch you till the cops turn up and put an end to their fun.

Naturally I believe him, which is why I don't have a blog.

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Murphy ducks in to say...

Posted August 17, 2012
I got a blog at first because, well, it was one of those rare moments of crowd following. It seemed like the sort of thing a writer needed to have way back in 2003. It morphed into a networking device and sanity saver during the Journalspace days. Ever so often I'd actually turn out a nugget (usually by accident) of something worthy of wider readership. Then I sold a couple of stories which generated some interest and spread the network out a bit more.

That was followed by the Epic Journalspace Crash of 2008, then the career implosion of 2009 (combination of teaching, the stormy relationship with my girlfriend, losing my temper with elements of the science fiction community).

Facebook came along and took most of the shorter, pithy stuff away. Then life in general turned the Pondering Tree into a tumbleweed town.

On a good day, when I'm actually putting up something other than the, "My Dear Diary," posts, I can generate anywhere from 60 to 80 hits. If I pick the right topic and submit a link to a larger site such as SFSignal, that number can easily go far higher. Sustainment, however, is the key and I find that I'd rather put that level of passion into my fiction.

Thus at the end of the day, the blog, when I update it, still serves as a sort of online post it note/slash networking device.

My two cents on my experience. Others may have different views on the matter.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted August 17, 2012
I got into blogging because of Murph. He wrote a review of WoC, which I found very useful. I'd always avoided blogs before that, but I suddenly saw they could be put to an end.

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Quokka would have you know...

Posted August 17, 2012
If I were to write book reviews it'd be the author in the ceiling, taking aim with a sniper pistol.

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Paul Nicholas Boylan ducks in to say...

Posted August 17, 2012
Okay, I admit it. I am an aspiring travel writer and, for the last 20 years, have been slowly writing a book with the working title "Awful People, Awful Places." Most travel books tell people where they should go. Mine tells people the places to avoid. For example, the Clown Bar in the basement of the Circus Circus casino in Reno, Nevada. Or the General Custer Motel and Laundromat in Billings, Montana. Or the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Ulan Bator, Mongolia (the downtown store, not the one near the prison). Seriously. These are the most depressing places on earth. Even I could not have a good time there. Stay away from them if you can. There isn't a person alive who, upon entering any of these places, wouldn't wonder what concentric circle of Hell they had just entered.

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Murphy reckons...

Posted August 17, 2012
I remembered reading your comment (now lost to time, sadly, unless someone manages to extract it) and thinking, "Seriously? Someone is pulling my leg."

Nope. Cheeseburger Gothic popped along not long after.

Later, when I wrote something about mass transit in Kansas City, Mick Hawes wrote a credible imitation of then Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser.

I almost bought it.

I might say, in line with that original blog crit of WoC, part of what has always worked for Birmo has been his ability to humanize nearly anyone, even Joe Stalin. He wrote about American military personnel in a sympathetic, realistic way which reminded me of the type of writing I enjoyed in All Quiet on the Western Front and The Forever War. It more than made up for the piddling milporn errors elsewhere.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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Peteb swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 17, 2012
He eats so much he must use sandpaper to clean his ip screen

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Peteb mutters...

Posted August 17, 2012
eats and blogs, the big guy does .. has to be at the same time sometime

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NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted August 17, 2012
OK, so I googled for Murphs review & didn't find it, I guess it went in the great journalspace crash of Ought wheneveritwas.

I did however find this.

"This book is genius. Just sheer genius. Except for the bits that Birmingham wrote, of course. The man is a dreadful, dreadful hack. I hear he can't even afford his own drugs any more... by God, it's a travesty I tell you. In fact, I hesitate to demand that you buy this book for fear of supporting his disgusting habits -- except, of course, that obviously this Flinthart chap (no relation, naturally) is the kind of suffering genius who needs every iota of support you can provide... "

http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A2VWFZJQR5M89Y/ref=cm_pdp_rev_title_1?ie=UTF8&sort_by=MostRecentReview#R35RMXM3XAZIPV

Who was that masked man?

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Paul Nicholas Boylan asserts...

Posted August 17, 2012
I wrote that.

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Paul Nicholas Boylan mumbles...

Posted August 17, 2012
Okay, I didn't write that. I'm just trying to fit in.

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NBlob mutters...

Posted August 17, 2012
Aunty Q, do you know my mate Sue W ?

With the squatters in the roof space watching, then coming out to rummage when everyone was out?

This thing with the people in the roof, is either alarmingly common- for us both to know of an example, or just alarming. Or perhaps your (disturbed) imagination just ran into the Bullbar of a speeding Mack track called reality.

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DrYobbo is gonna tell you...

Posted August 17, 2012
Do it because you love it, and because you'd do it for free anyway. This was why I signed up to be a scientist; it's also why anyone should be an artist, or a sportsperson, or a writer.

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Dino not to be confused with mumbles...

Posted August 17, 2012
I miss you JB,

Still working on Unt Direchlet, Big Pharma Joanne and almost beaten 'The Borg Joke'.

I miss your Falsetto, Fuck you can sing man, can you still hit the high notes? (The Darkness, I still believe in love descends but doesn't decay)

I can't. Maybe if I practise, even if I practice 'chawbitch fez', I still have lost 3 or four notes at the top of the register. Yearning for innocence, product of time.

Growing old sucks, and GBS has nothing on me.

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HAVOCK puts forth...

Posted August 17, 2012
its why I signed up to be me, Co's I FKN love it!!!!!!!!!!!

oops..I'm with PNB

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w of brisbane is gonna tell you...

Posted August 17, 2012
I always wanted to be a professional writer, but I knew I needed a subject that no one else was writing about. After some years of intense research, I finally thought I had come up with a very interesting subject that absolutely no one else was writing about. Cheese burgers of the 12th to 15th century. But alas..........

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Paul Nicholas Boylan swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 18, 2012
I, too, have been studying the history of fast food as a private passion for virtually all my life, but, unlike you, I have concentrated my interest on the period before the 10th century - which is why I know that Charles Martel is credited with introducing the cheeseburger to Western Europe in 725 during the Battle of Tours, and many historians credit this innovation with his famous victory over the Moors, who were unable to feed their troops as quickly and efficiently as Martel could feed his.

However, after the battle, Martel suppressed all knowledge of cheeseburger production and distribution because Martel feared a Moorish resurgence, and he wanted to prevent his military rivals from developing the same battlefield advantage. (The irony is that Islamic cultures of that day, like today, have an aversion to dairy products and, in keeping with their Semitic heritage, rarely mixed milk with meat.)

In any event, Martel never deployed the cheeseburger again and did not pass the secret on to his descendants, who superseded the Merovingians to found the Carolinian dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire.

Yobbo is so right: do it because you love it.

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Adam Denny would have you know...

Posted August 18, 2012
Good advice, JB. Dunno if my experience of the States, Alaska and then here down & out in San Francisco, would be of interest to anyone, though.

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Quokka is gonna tell you...

Posted August 18, 2012
Nbob, there's not much room for ought but rats & copulating possums in our ceiling and the decaying horsehair plaster has trouble supporting even them. So in truth any stalker type that made it up the manhole would wind up in a cloud of dust and asbestos on the dining room table.

There was a domestic violence case in WA, I think, where the woman had a restraining order on her ex. The police found him living in her ceiling, he'd been watching her through the vents for about 4 days.

I don't think that story ended well.

I heard it retold recently on Richard Fidler's Conversations - WA social worker Carolyn Harris-Johnson, who has done a lot of post-grad research on men who kill their children. She wrote a book called 'Come With Daddy - child murder-suicide after family breakdown.'

I have heard the stalker in the ceiling stories from American friends, too, but it's a while ago and I can't remember specifics.

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Moko has opinions thus...

Posted August 18, 2012
Curious about the Columbian book.

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NBlob mumbles...

Posted August 18, 2012
@ Aunty Q. I heard most of that ep, except for stupid dumb work getting in the way, shall podcast it for coming long haul flight.

My mate Sue moved out while reno-ing her house. She moved into a quaint country cottage rental with her 2 kids (at the time I believe girl 8 & boy approx 12) hubby was away working FiFo @ the mines in WA. Strange things started happening: coming home to find lights on that she was sure she'd turned off, doors open she was sure she'd closed, whole hand of bananas disapearing, loaves of bread disapearing more quickly than one would expect. Sue wrote it off as "I'm tired & stressed from work, reno, kids etc" and the food to the teenage boy. Not entirely unreasonable. Late one night in bed she was sure she heard a sneeze, but again dismissed it as the kids. She started not wanting to be at home, finding excuses to visit friends etc, then cursing herself as being irrational. After 3 months she finally could take no more & told hubby. He investigated and found a squat in the cieling. Apparanty the previous tennants refused to be kicked out & let themselves back in with extra keys they'd had cut.

Hubby, probably foolishly, mentioned to Sue that "you can see straight down into the bathroom, bedroom, lounge & kitchen."

She called the cops and moved back into the construction site.

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The Travel Goof swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 18, 2012
There is another option to all this, get a job working through the internet, such as translations. Also not easy, but it allows you the freedom to be wherever and whenever you want to be, as long as you have a laptop and an internet connection (many times available through a mobile phone hooked up to the laptop). Then you can travel and write about it, out of love, as you say, and not because you are pursuing some agenda. I'm six years on the road now and have been writing about my travels mostly because my friends wanted updates and because I discovered that original content helps get my pages higher in google, to help me get customers for my primary income. Over time my friends started saying I should write a book. Fortunately, my sister is a publisher and is rewriting it entirely, and I am learning how it's done. We'll split the proceeds, and my latest plan is to make a "carabike", as I like to call it (a downgrade from my caravan in Europe but necessary for SE Asia), and boot around this continent, writing about my zany stories. Worst case scenario I'll have the time of my life, but it's crazy enough already. Heck, I know I'm insane, but that puts me into insane and interesting circumstances, which those who are afraid to take such a leap love to read about.

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John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted August 18, 2012
That sounds a great plan, goofster.

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pi swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 20, 2012
David Thorne would agree I assume.

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