So you’ve worked out how to get your travel features published in magazines, newspapers, and sites like this one. Good. But what you really dream of writing is that great long-form travel quest of a book to put up there among the travel literary greats, like Theroux and that Polish chap and that nice man with the beard and that guy who took all the buses in Buenos Aires and came up with a stunning laugh-a-minute work of psychogeography1.
Here are a few tips. Some of them might be wrong. Some of them might not apply to you. Ah, well.
Have a good idea.
Having good ideas is kind of key, isn’t it? The problem is, it’s hard to distinguish your one good idea from the 100 so-so ideas that you have every day. You might have a great idea and not realise it, or forget to jot it down in the notebook you carry everywhere. (You don’t carry a notebook everywhere? And you want to be a writer?)
You might think a so-so idea is a great idea and then spend six months working on it, only to find you have a turkey on your hands, and not a very juicy turkey, either.
I first had the idea for my book Colectivaizeishon in early 2009, after reading AJ Jacob’s The Know-it-All for the third time and looking for a way to copy it while living in Buenos Aires. I then spent six months tossing the idea about among friends, until they got tired of my tossing and told me to get on with it. So I took seven out of the 140 bus lines in Buenos Aires, got bored and forgot all about.
Eighteen months later, I happened to mention the failed quest in a newspaper article and three radio stations phoned me to ask about it. My wife, ever one with a shrewd eye for making money out of her moneyless writer husband, showed me that I’d had a great idea but hadn’t realised it, and shoved me out onto the streets for seven months until I’d finished. She’s bossy like that.
You don’t have to travel to be a travel writer.
It’s not all about bothering your friends and acquaintances for a crowd-funded trip to Thailand. Ask yourself whether you want to be a travel writer, or whether you just want to travel. If the answer is the latter, you can save yourself a lot of heartbreak and annoying other people by just getting a proper job and having some fantastic holidays every six months.
If you want to be a travel writer, you can do your travel writing wherever you are, as long as you learn to look at things with the right eye and write with a style of your own. The longer you stay in one place, the deeper your understanding of it, and the better you’ll write about it. If you can write great, original prose about, say, Wigan, or Delaware, imagine how well you’ll write about the elusive pygmy tribes of the Antarctic.
Write in a different language.
Unless you’re one of those odious people who spends all their time abroad and never bothers to learn a language, you probably speak at least one foreign language. How about writing in that language? It’s fairly common for non-native English speakers to write in English, but it works both ways.
I’d written three books in English while living in Argentina before I realised that instead of trying to get published on another continent for a readership I had next to no contact with, I should engage more with the country I’d lived in for over a decade and write for them instead. Not only do you increase your chances of getting published, it’s a lot more rewarding. And it puts you in the same exclusive club as Nabokov, Conrad, and Kundera and, thus, makes you look really clever.
Write the book you want to read.
Take your five favourite books. Read them again, carefully. Make a list of what it is you like about them: style, theme, content, humour, pygmy tribes, whatever. Put all those things in your book.
But watch out! “Write the book you want to read” does not mean “write a self-indulgent book full of private references that only you and a few friends will appreciate.” No one wants to read that book. Not even your friends.
Don’t give up. / Do give up.
Unless you’re an outrageously gifted literary prodigy, and it’s nice to think that you are but you probably aren’t, the first three books you write will not be published. That’s about six years of your life. The fourth and the fifth books might be published to a tidal wave of indifference. Don’t give up. Or do give up, if it’s making you miserable and you’d rather have a quiet life and some nice holidays.
I started writing my first book in 2005 and got a book deal for my fourth book in 2012, published in 2013 to a wave of media excitement and a ripple of sales. I was probably two years premature. If you decide to be a writer, you decide to be in this for the long haul, which means finding a rich and supportive spouse or getting a job that will pay the bills while giving you enough time to write.
You always have time to write.
The biggest excuse people tell themselves when they want to write but don’t is that they don’t have the time. There is always time. Become a hermit. Forget about having a social life. Get up at ridiculous hours. Stay up ridiculously late. Become a grub in a writer’s cocoon. But then turn from a cocooned grub into a beautiful media butterfly and…
Use the media.
The media love a good story, and faced as they are with the Sisyphean task of filling 24 hours / pages of content every day, they love a fairly average story too. Work it. If you’re young and attractive it helps, but failing that there’s always radio. It also helps if you’re English and living in Argentina. As one of the wise commentators on La Nación quipped after I was featured a second time for taking all the buses in the city, “An Englishman farts in Argentina and it’s front page news.” It was actually the back page, but he had a point.
Eventually, you’ll draw so much attention to yourself that a statistician-cum-radio DJ will tweet to an editor at Random House Mondadori “why don’t you publish this guy?” and he’ll invite you out for coffee and give you a publishing deal. Believe me, it happens.
Writing is more important than marketing.
As much as Facebook and Twitter can help to get your writing out there and even published, don’t overkill. Don’t bombard people with your blog posts (guilty!). Don’t obsess over blog stats (guilty!). Don’t send badly written 300-page novels to friends and expect them to read and critique them for you (er, yep).
Besides, most stuff that goes really viral is kind of shitty and disposable (jealous? yep). You’re better than that. You’ll make a lot more progress as a writer if you just unplug your modem for a while.
Say yes to everything.
Even the unappealing stuff. Especially the unappealing stuff. You never know where it might lead.
Ignore all “how to get published articles,” especially those written in an unimaginative list format.
- 1Editor’s note: Daniel Tunnard’s book, Colectivaizeishon, el ingles que tomó todos los colectivos de Buenos Aires, about his seven months taking all 140 bus lines in Buenos Aires, is available in traditional paper-and-ink form from bookshops all over Argentina, or as a new-fangled “e-book” from Amazon. He writes at www.danieltunnard.com. He’s now taking all the trains in Argentina.