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.