TIPS ON GETTING A TRAVEL NARRATIVE PUBLISHED
(1) Avoid writing about your travels at all costs
Sorry, I know this first bit of advice already goes against the whole aim of this column, but there's a reason for this: I really think you think twice before setting out to write a travel memoir. The competition is fiece. But more importantly, armchair travel is a dismal-selling genre. Most mainstream publishers won't even look at manuscripts in this category because they consider your work to be unmarketable.
Keep in mind that this is coming from a published author. I got a contract from Random House. So success is not impossible. But the key is this: Do you want to be a traveler or a writer? If you answer the latter, keep reading. (Otherwise, think about getting a job with the Peace Corps or an overseas NGO.)
(2) Consider another genre. Even if you want to write about your travels, consider publishing in a different category. If you've led an adventurous, international life, think about writing a memoir instead of a travel narrative. Memoir sells a lot better than travel essays, which means editors are much happier to actually take a look at your manuscript. Had I known this when I first started out, frankly I would have written a memoir. (I'm at work on that now actually.)
(3) If you insist on writing a travel memoir, consider becoming famous. If your name is Brittany Spears or JLo, it doesn't matter if your travel story is about a trip to the grocery store. Your memoir will sell. And an editor will buy it.
These days, publishing has become a business. While an editor may love your style and story that very same editor also has to convince the marketing and publicity departments that your book is marketable.
With this in mind: Do you have credits to your name? Do you regularly write for magazines? Do you have a radio show? Do you have a Web site that receives an impressive number of hits? Any of these things can greatly increase your chances of getting a book contract because you already have a built-in audience. Consider writing for magazines or even your local paper first -- it builds your reputation and can also augment your income.
(4) Your travel narrative needs to be about something specific. It's not enough to say that you've written a travel book that's extremely funny or even that you've recounted your adventures overseas over the past ten years. Your description needs to be specific. For instance: "A journey to the world's least likely vacation spots" or "a trip by land through the African contentent" or even "a year in Amsterdam."
There has to be a thread uniting your travels. This is so that the marketing department at your publishing house has a way to describe your book. "A very funny book about traveling" doesn't cut it. What do the places you visited have in common? Is it a journey through British Commonwealth nations? Is it a journey to all the countries where you had free places to stay? Is it trips to countries with the best beer?
Tony Hawks wrote a book about traveling through Ireland with a fridge. Jeff Greenwald penned a travel narrative about shopping for Buddas in Asia. Use these books as examples: think of how to sum up your journeys in one especially intriguing phrase.
(5) Your book isn't simply about your travels; it's also about your emotional journey. If you want to turn the account of your travels into a book, you need to first discover the emotional journey underneath. What was the deeper meaning behind your need to leave your home behind? And what lessons did you learn along the way?
(6) Look back and find the themes in your travels. In many ways, this point is related to the previous one. You need to make your story bigger, to find the universal themes that transorm your life experiences into literature.
When I started my first book, I was writing at the same time I was traveling. In other words, the first draft read like a diary: today I did this, the next day I did this, then I went there. However, when writing about your life day by day, you merely live in the present, which doesn't work for a book. Since you have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow, there’s no foreshadowing, no long-term aspiration toward a single goal. In short, it’s impossible to pick out the themes of your life while you’re in the middle of it. You can only do this in retrospect, taking a long hard look at what the journey has meant.
It was only after my travels had been completed that I was able to go back and figure out what it was I really had been searching for. Why did I really go to Lebanon? In the first draft, I wrote that I went because I had a free place to stay and it sounded like a crazy place to visit.
But as I sat down to rewrite, I realized that Lebanon represented a desire to step off the grid, to seek out happiness in unconventional ways (and places). This idea eventally formed the basis for the first three chapters of my book.
When you think in terms of your deeper journey, you give your reader a reason to root for you. A protagonist who merely stumbles across the meaning of life is not nearly as satisfying to a reader as a protagonist who searches everywhere for the answers and finally discovers them.
Now that I’ve said all this, I hope it doesn't sound like my book was untruthful, that I was deliberately seeking out themes that weren’t there. These themes really were part of my life all along; it wasn’t a matter of inventing them. The challenge in writing the book was PICKING OUT the strongest themes. Because real life is more complicated than literature. My real life story had far too many themes to cover in one book so I had to simplify. I had to choose the path that seemed to best tell the story. I could have written an entirely different book and still been truthful. In the end, as a writer, I was forced to make creative decisions about the nature of the story I wanted to tell.
(7) Make sure your book is better than great. This is probably the most important advice I can offer when it comes to writing a travel narrative. In fact, it applies to anyone trying to get a book published. I talk more about this in the right-hand column on this page.
(8) Give yourself a realistic timeframe. Publishing is a very slow process. For me, finding an agent took eight months (and lots of rejection letters). After signing with her, I rewrote for nearly a year. And after getting an offer from Crown, it was another year and a half until the book actually hit bookstores. That's three-and-a-half years, not even counting the time it took to travel and put together a first draft of my book.
I hope all of this information helps. Happy travels!
Wendy Dale is about to offer online courses in memoir writing. For more information, sign up for her newsletter below or go to Memoir Writing for Geniuses.