After graduating, Peter Moore travelled around the Equator and wrote a book about it.
“The book was rejected by every publisher on the planet,” says Peter.
Back at the day job, and unable to shake off that yearning to travel and write, he continued to submit stories to magazines. Some were published, but winning an international travel competition (sponsored by the South Korean Tourist Board) provided the impetus he needed to move up one frail rung on the ladder.
After creating a stir with his website, No Shitting in the Toilet, “a light-hearted, perverse look at travel”, he decided it would make a good book. Ignoring the underwhelming response he had suffered first time round, he presented his idea to the publishing industry. And was “roundly rejected all over again.” Luckily for us, Shona Martyn at Transworld saw the potential of Peter’s idea.
Now an acclaimed travel writer, he has agreed to answer questions from the Itinterant Writers Club.
Liz: The writing process for me is organic. I’ll have a rough idea of what I want to say (based on notes, research and memory), which I slowly shape into a finished product on the page. I’ll throw everything down, then move it around, honing and editing as I go, a bit like turning a shapeless bit of clay into a useful or pretty thing (although quite often I end up with a pointless and ugly thing).
I’d like to write a book, and have had some encouragement from publishers, but I’m put off by the nuts and bolts of going from writing 500 or 5000 word essays to a 100,000 word book. Must you be more disciplined when writing a book and have a complete structure in place from the beginning? Do you map it out, chapter by chapter, or does it grow and change as you write? Have your own books changed significantly from the first idea to the end result?
The process is very organic for me too. I drag out all my notebooks, photos and other ephemera I picked up during my journey and see where it takes. I’m lucky that most of my journeys are Point A to Point B, so the journey itself is the narrative drive taking the book forward. And travelling being an unpredictable beast, enough roadblocks are thrown up to provide the necessary jeopardy.
Basically, you’ve got to ask yourself where you want to take your readers. It’s about reaching a goal, whether that’s the end of a particular journey or, in your case, achieving a certain lifestyle, and the obstacles overcome to get there. There’s no fun in things going smoothly.
Writing a book is a slog. I used to work as an advertising copywriter so I’d knock out an ad in half an hour. A brochure would maybe take three hours. A book goes on and on and on. I like to treat each chapter as it’s own little entity. I get a little bit of satisfaction and sense of achievement when it’s done. Celebrate each chapter! And it helps me give it a beginning, middle and an end, which all writing needs. It also keeps me focussed on ending it in a way to make the reader want to keep reading. Sometimes if you’re focussed on it as a book you forget to have those compelling little moments needed to keep people going!
As for books changing, I haven’t had any shift too far off their initial premise. The Wrong Way Home is still a book about travelling from London to Sydney overland. Vroom with a View is still a book about riding around Italy on a forty-year-old Vespa. But things I thought were important when they were happening didn’t turn out so important to the book and vice-versa. Little themes appear that you weren’t aware of and the book starts growing and morphing as you write it. It’s one of my favourite parts of the process.
Liz: Can you recommend any web sources for help with book writing?
Not really. The whole creative writing industry is full of snake oil salesmen, preying on people’s dreams and charging them for information they already know or could have found out for themselves. There is no silver bullet. It’s trial and error. It’s hard work. And perseverance. And you won’t get that from any course. You’re better off finding a little community of like-minded individuals, like the Itinerant Writer’s Club, and asking for advice, ideas, comments. Plus you develop your own voice and style. Creative writing courses are like battery farms for writers. They all come out sounding the same.
Liz: Is book publishing following the same path as music publishing, in that the old behemoths are being overtaken by e-books and self-publishing? What’s your advice to new authors: to self-publish or not?
Pretty much. Which is a shame. The publishing industry had the luxury of watching what the music industry went through and chose to make the same mistakes.The tools are certainly in place for new authors (and even established authors) to self-publish. And if I was starting out again, I’d definitely be getting my stuff out that way, if only so that you’re not just saying you’re going to write a book, but you’re actually out there doing it. I also know for a fact that a lot of publishers are scouring Amazon etc for successful self-published books and offering authors contracts to bring out the dead tree versions. So in that way, it can be a more useful path to getting published traditionally than sending a manuscript off to a publisher or an agent.
I suspect this may change though. It’s getting to the point where there’s too much stuff out there, too many people trying to get your attention. It’s overwhelming and people will want ‘gate-keepers’, people or organisatons that they trust to tell them what’s good or worthwhile. That used to be publishers, critics etc. I’m not sure who it will be in the future, but there will be someone.
Helen Watson: I am writing a book based around a cycle ride to China that I did in 2009/10, but I find it hard to find the time to write. When do you write?
Hi Helen. This is the same dilemma I’ve been facing since my daughter was born 7 years ago and hence why my output has become a trickle. It’s only now that’s she’s older that I’m getting on top of things again, but in a very different way than before.
Before I would write whenever the mood struck me. When I got up. After having a mid-morning coffee with mates down the local café. Late at night after watching TV. If I was in the mood, I could just power through it.
That’s not how it works any more. Now I set aside a couple of hours and write whether I’m in the mood or not. Just find a bit of time, even if it’s half an hour, and write. That block of time without distractions won’t ever come along so don’t wait for it.
Helen Watson: What are the top self-promotion skills that you think todays aspiring writers should master? What things are not worth bothering with.
It’s tricky keeping on top of things, isn’t it? Facebook, Twittter, now Google Plus and Pinterest come along. My advice would be to put most of your effort into creating a solid author website or blog. Make that the main port of call and use Twitter and Facebook to bring people to it, not vice-versa. Facebook will eventually go the way of MySpace etal. That’s the nature of the web. By keeping the focus on your own website you simply jump ship to the next big thing that comes along.
Helen Watson: What are your top tips for writing about people and conversation.
Good dialogue is the key. And you can’t make up the stuff you hear while you’re travelling. I always keep a little notepad in my back pocket. When the dialogue gold comes along I pop around the corner and write it down. You think you’ll never forget such a classic piece of dialogue, but you will.
Other than that, it’s the old writer’s nugget, ‘Show don’t tell.’ The thing about good dialogue is that is exactly what it does.
Aidan: When writing a book or a longer piece it could be easy to end up a bit too diary-like in terms of including too much pointless detail that may have had great interest for the person who wrote it, but very little to the reader. How would you approach filtering travel notes or a travel diary to decide what may be of interest to others and what is unnecessary or only of interest to you, the writer? I have lots of travel diary notes from my long backpacking world tour, bits of which I’m trying to write up in a readable way, but naturally huge swathes of it would be boring to others, despite having great memories for me.
Hi Aiden. This is the most fundamental thing to master. Learning what to leave out. And the more brutal you can be the better. If you have even the slightest feeling that something is boring, get rid of it.
Sometimes you might have to get rid of something that at the time you thought was fundamental or really important. In writing circles that’s called ‘killing your baby’. (It can be as difficult and gruesome!)
I’d go as far as saying learning what to leave out is the most important skill you can develop. Some people have innate sense about what is superfluous. Others will have to seek out the opinion of others until it is honed. Again, this writer’s club is a great way of finding out what you should leave out.
So, go through your diaries, get rid of the chaff, maybe even whittle each entry down to one fundamental issue, incident. The great thing about travel writing is that a long boring bus ride can be reduced to ‘By evening we were in Bangalore.’ You moved your readers along without boring them to tears.
It’s something I still struggle with. When I was writing Vroom with a View I had a great little scene set in Sydney where I went along to this old Vespa workshop, run by a little old Italian. Fantastic place. A beat up coffee machine, old Italian dudes drinking coffee, gossiping, watching this guy as he worked. But it didn’t add anything to the story, and in fact slowed things down. It was superfluous, but at the time I thought it was important.
Jenny: Was it difficult for you to get your first book published?
Bloody difficult! I spent six years trying to get published before I got my lucky break. And even then a perfectly good idea/manuscript had to bite the dust when I decided to take a different tack. But I stuck with it, backed off, tried a different approach and finally cracked it. I can’t stress just how important perseverance is. You cannot guess where your bit of dumb luck will come from.
Would you advise a writer with a book idea and the drive to write (this is not said lightly, as I think we all write avidly for a while and then lose faith that others will want to read our work) to just ‘go for it’, and at the same time try to find a publisher for their work?
Definitely! And the fantastic news is that it is so much easier to do that these days. When I started out, self-publishing involved coughing up cash and printing thousands of books that you had no way of telling anyone about and ended up gathering dust in your garage. Now, with ebooks and print-on-demand, the risks and costs are minimal. And with the various web tools, your potential audience is immense.
And as I mentioned, most traditional publishers are scouring the web for self-published stuff to pick up, so your effort is even more likely to be rewarded.
Jenny: I see you are an avid supporter of e-books. I was told today by an assistant at Waterstone’s that their adoption of Kindle has come about because their own e-book hardware is still a couple of years down the line. It looks like Amazon will once again dominate the market. This is a shame for publishers as the Amazon terms are ridiculous. Maybe you won’t want to comment on this, but I would be interested in your view.
I think we’re in the middle of a tumultuous shift. And there are going to be casualties. It may be traditional publishers. It may be bookstore chains. It could even be Amazon itself. As a writer I think you’ve just got to focus on your work and let the publishing world sort itself out. Things like hardware etc are irrelevant. Who knows what device we’ll be using to read our books?
Personally, I think that once the dust settles, the walled-gardens will come down and people will be able to access their books on any device they chose. A bit like Kindle with its apps for phones, Windows, Mac, iPad etc etc. And I think bookstore chains are dead and buried. Instead I think we’ll see a resurgence in independent bookstores offering a bespoke experience. Print on Demand is getting to a point where it’ll be cost effective to offer readers paperback, hardback, and special edition versions of books to cherish as objects for a reasonable price. Digital will give you the quick fix and convenience. Hardbacks will be like vinyl. Something to be collected, held, cherished. (And vinyl is having a huge resurgence, almost to prove my point.)
Jean: You know a little of the kind of stuff I write from Wanderlust. I would like to put all my travel tales together as a book about travel and personal development from a female perspective. Is that enough of a USP and is there a market for this kind of book?
Yes. The fact is, women are by far the biggest consumers of books. And Eat, Pray, Love has shown that personal development sells. Thankfully your stuff is more down-to-earth and funny than that so you can differentiate yourself from being just another Eat, Pray, Love
Bex: Like Jean, I am in the process of finishing my book about life in Greece. I am thinking of bypassing the ‘finding a publisher’ route and once edited, going down the Self-Publishing route. Would you suggest this? I already run a successful blog which was set up in order to establish a following.
Hi Bex. We miss you at myWanderlust. Please come back!
As I have mentioned in my previous answers, self-publishing is definitely the way to go. As is developing a strong personal website. And as I mentioned, traditional publishers are keeping an eye on self published authors with a view to signing the good ones. My only point would be to keep plowing the traditional route as you go down the self-published route. Who knows, you might get lucky. Then they do all the hard work – and expensive stuff – for you.
The most important advice I can give you if you decide to go down the self-publishing route is not to scrimp on editing and cover design. These are the two things that will distinguish you from the rest of the rabble. Get both done professionally. People DO judge books by their covers. And nothing screams ‘Amateur’ more than poorly edited copy.
Helen Moat: I’ve had a bit of success in travel writing competitions, published a few pieces on various travel e-zines (some even paying a few quid/dollars – but not about to give up the day job as a teacher yet as I might starve!) and have had pieces published in The Telegraph and The Guardian (soon adding Wanderlust to my list – yay!) – but reader’s pieces rather than journalistic pieces. I’ve found it relatively easy to get published online (and recently had my first pitch accepted from one of the main American travel e-zines) but don’t know which magazines and newspapers to approach who will accept material from unknown freelance journalists. It seems to me you need to be in-house or a celebrity or an established name – and as a result find myself in the proverbial catch 22 situation. What would you suggest a wannabe writer should do to overcome this issue?
Hi Helen. I had the exact same problems when I was first starting out. Won a few travel writing competitions. Had a few articles published. Didn’t seem to help much.
The only thing I would say is that having all this behind you is better than not having it. Publishers are cautious, ideally wanting someone else to take a chance on you before they do, hence the classic Catch-22 situation.
When I first tried to get published I was told I wasn’t famous enough. I couldn’t see how being famous would make my writing better or my story any more interesting. But publishers are investing in you and celebrity etc makes that a more solid investment, at least in their eyes.
You won’t change that mindset. I went off and took a different approach. I created a website with the 1MB webspace (!) provided by my ISP celebrating the more perverse side of travel, and because the web was young, it got fairly well known, even won some awards. I put together a book proposal, based on the website, touted it around and got rejected all over again.
But here’s the thing. In one final moment of frustration, I sent it off to Transworld publishers and it was picked out of the slush pile. My perseverance finally paid off.
But more importantly, my perseverance got me my moment of dumb luck. Transworld had just appointed a new publisher with a mandate to ‘shake things up.’ They’d got rid of a very conservative lady and replaced her with one with a funky haircut and a magazine sensibility. My book fitted her brief perfectly. (Indeed, the first two books she published were No Shitting in the Toilet, by me, and Hot Sex by Tracey Cox!) I didn’t know that at the time. I wasn’t slavishly following the trade press, watching for trends. I just stuck at it.
Of course, everyone has a different story about how they got their break. But I guarantee most of the time it involved huge dollops of perseverance. A lot of people don’t like to hear that. They want the step-by-step instructions with success guaranteed. But it’s not like that. And that’s why it’s so exciting when your book, your baby, is published.