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9 Things I Learned About Travel Writing At Book Passage

by Eva Holland Oct 29, 2007

In August 2007, travel journalist Eva Holland attended the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, CA. In this article, Eva shares practical tips dished out by the professional Book Passage faculty of travel writers and editors.

Book Passage was a blast.

After four full days of workshops and discussion panels, and four late nights of informal schmoozing, I came away with some great advice, some new friends, and a serious cumulative hangover.

Here are 9 tips I picked up about writing and selling travel stories.

1. Is Your Destination Mature Or Immature?

According to San Francisco Chronicle travel editor John Flinn, “mature” destinations – places that readers will already know a lot about, like Paris, or Cancun – require a narrower focus or a more unusual angle.

“Immature” destinations, on the other hand – Papua New Guinea, say, or Nunavut – can be covered more broadly. Decide which category your destination falls into, and plan your research or structure your story accordingly.

2. Don’t Be A Gusher

From South Florida Sun-Sentinel travel editor Thomas Swick’s Ten Sins of Travel Writing: #5 is Travel Stories That Gush.

“Bad writers pick up on all the predictable things and, in hopes of elevating them to a grander status, write noisily about them. Good writers notice the unexpected things and present them calmly, without fuss.”

3. It’s About The Place, Not Your Trip

Founding San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle travel editor Georgia Hesse suggested minimizing your presence in a story by writing a draft in the first person without using the word “I”.

John Flinn offered a similar exercise, telling us to try writing a first draft in the third person, then identify the key points and insert first person anecdotes to illustrate them.

4. The Name Is Bond…

A gripping travel story is like a James Bond movie.

One approach is to think of your lead and your nutgraf – the subsequent paragraph that tells the reader the basics of the situation – as following the same structure as a Bond flick,

Plunge the reader into a dramatic opening sequence (think 007 skiing down a mountain firing over his shoulder at baddies in a helicopter) and then cut to M’s office to explain what the baddies wanted and how Bond is going to foil them.

John Flinn shared this one with us, but I believe he credited it to adventure writer extraordinaire Tim Cahill.

5. Start With Newspapers (And Online)

The faculty all agreed that newspapers (and online) are the place to start for beginning writers.

The faculty all agreed that newspapers (and online) are the place to start for beginning writers.

Several editors noted that spelling their names correctly is a good first step towards getting published; others suggested endearing yourself by matching your accompanying “If You Go” information to the paper’s existing format.

John Flinn added that good photos can be the difference between a sale and a rejection – but no “neutron-bomb” photos, he said, referring to carefully composed cityscapes that are seemingly devoid of life.

6. With Magazines, Start Out Small

Front-of-book stories, the short bits and pieces generally found at the beginning of a magazine, are the place to start.

Larry Bleiberg of Coastal Living pointed out that “charticles” are a popular trend these days: stories where the information is arranged in a table or other visual display rather than in full sentences and paragraphs. Think “Hot Sauces Around the World” or “Top 5 Sake-tinis in San Francisco”.

This stuff is not for the literary travel essayists and purists among us, but – so they tell me – it works.

7. “Riga is the new Prague!”

John Flinn suggested that there are a few angles or stories that most papers are always in the market for: “______ on the cheap”, “______ is the new _____” or, “Sure, _____ used to suck, but now…”

He added that editors love to have a number thrown into the title: 7 Cheap Sleeps in NYC, 1000 Things to See Before You Die, or even 9 Things I Learned at Book Passage.

8. Enchant Your Audience

Another tip from Thomas Swick’s Ten Sins of Travel Writing: #10 Stories That Fail To Enchant.

“So few travel stories convey any sense of the wonder of travel. They are dry compilations of information relieved, so their authors think, by “cute” leads of unbearable triteness.

Yet a travel story, in the right hands, can have the narrative flow of a short story, the substance of a history lesson, the discursiveness of an essay, and the elegance of poetry.”

9. Be Prepared!

Finally, just like a boy scout, always be prepared.

Two unbreakable travel rules from Georgia Hesse: Go to the bathroom whenever you see one, and never leave home without a good corkscrew.

Eva Holland is a historical researcher and freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada. She is a blogger for World Hum and for Rolf Potts’ Vagablogging, and her travel writing has appeared in The Ottawa Citizen, The Edmonton Journal, and Matador Travel.

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