Archive for the ‘Ellen’s News’ Category

SO YOU WANT TO WRITE A BOOK

Sometimes it seems that almost everyone I know or meet wants to write and publish a book. With the development of e-books and self-publishing, achieving the dream has become much more  possible than in the past. In fact, anyone can generate a bunch of words, feed them into an online publishing system, and create “a book.” But especially for an inexperienced writer, it can be difficult to figure out if the material you want to communicate is of interest and value to anyone but yourself.

A while ago an acquaintance approached me, almost timidly, saying: “I heard you have been helping someone edit a book. Would you be willing to look at a manuscript of mine?” The man was a retiree, distinguished in his professional scientific field. Some twenty years earlier he had worked for two years in an exotic but politically explosive country, thousands of miles from his home in North America.
“While I was there,” he told me, “I kept a journal of my experiences. I had some adventures, and I’ve always wondered if the journal might make a book.” We discussed possible audiences for such a book, ranging from the general public to professional colleagues and friends. Admitting that he was not an accomplished writer, he said that if the prospects for publication did not seem strong, he could always give the journal to his children, “so they could understand what their dad was doing over there.”
I read the entire manuscript and took notes on it. The manuscript was truly a journal, consisting of about 300 dog-eared, type-written pages. To me, the document was appropriate reading for an audience of one–the writer–or possibly two, including his wife.

 

The problems were numerous. The purpose of the overseas journey and the work he was doing did not become clear until almost the end of the journal. The text assumed extensive personal familiarity with the writer, his family, his friends and acquaintances and his work colleagues. People were not identified, and their roles were not explained.
The writer had faced tremendous frustrations trying to set up both his work equipment and his personal living situation in a Third-World country. Much of the text was devoted to telling stories over and over again about the daily challenges of securing a telephone or a computer, or transportation. And the “adventures” he’d mentioned to me, it turned out, were mostly experienced by his colleagues, not by him. (I mention the issues raised by this manuscript here because most of them represent common obstacles for inexperienced writers.)
Revising the journal for publication would have been a massive project of reorganizing and explaining technical terms, as well as many anecdotes that did not stand on their own. I outlined exactly what the steps would be in such a project. The prospective author reviewed my comments, admitting that he was not surprised. It took him about five minutes to decide that as a retiree who was enjoying a life of family and travel, he did not want to commit to what clearly would be a long and tedious endeavor.

 

I wrote this post to illustrate one of the most important services I offer as a book editor: Serving as an objective observer who can help you determine if your proposed book is worth the trouble it will take to find a publisher and an audience, and specifying the steps for achieving that goal.

For more information on my book editing, please see the Editorial Products section.

 

 

 

A WRITER’S TOOLS–A PERSONAL HISTORY


From time to time I’ll be sharing both news and my personal perspectives as a writer through this section of my website. Read on for my first musings.

Full Disclosure: At the time of this update, I do not own either a tablet or a smartphone (yet.)

During my college writing jobs and as a Washington Post reporter, my words flowed from what we’d probably call now a “traditional” typewriter, whose clacking keys  confirmed that some type of progress was being made on the current work.

At The Washington Post, in those days our words emerged on “copy sets,” clunky 6-page packets of paper. The copies, which surfaced more and more faintly as the pages got closer to the bottom, were distributed to various editors and desks for reading and editing.

I wrote my first book, “How to Plan a Successful Trip,” in the 15th Century house I was renting on a Spanish island, on what seemed at the time to be a stunning technological advance–a small, portable Brother electronic typewriter that allowed the fingers to swoop across the keys and did not require the precisely targeted pounding of the keys on an old-style machine.  Using the electronic portable, in those days I was still writing on paper, each one a shiny, flimsy single leaf rolling gently out of the carriage.

The articles I wrote had to be sent snail mail to the magazines and newspapers publishing them. To provide accompanying photographs –a “must” to go with my travel articles–I had to convert them into slides, file them in plastic sheets, and label them and, along with cardboard protectors, stuff them into manila envelopes and hope that they would arrive undamaged.

The leap from using the electronic typewriter to a computer occurred when National Journal, a Washington-based policy and politics magazine, offered me a slot as a contributing editor. In addition to providing a professional workspace with colleagues and other resources, this position gave me the opportunity to learn to use a desk-top computer in an office where there were techies to help me learn and to survive the inevitable crises that would occur close to deadline time.

In the early 1990’s, another  new world of writing tools opened up for me when I saw my first demonstration of the WorldWideWeb.  Strangely, this demonstration occurred in a barn belonging to some forward-thinking friends in the outskirts of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I and my partner Riccardo Accurso had moved from Washington, D.C.  to Shepherdstown in search of a “kinder, gentler” lifestyle that was within commuting distance.

Soon after that early glimpse of the Web, I was clacking away on my own machine, working in an upstairs office overlooking a calming green patio, in an 18th Century historic building in downtown Shepherdstown. Then came difficult times, for a non-techie,  years adjusting to concepts of  MS-Dos, WordStar, Word Perfect, computer discs, hard drives, laptops, netbooks, pen drives, external hard drives and all the other paraphernalia that has come along with the opportunity to speed our writing and send it flinging around the world, all in a few instants.

For a writer whose forte is not technology, the computer has been a mixed blessing. I work on three different machines, a desktop in my home in the U.S., a laptop in my home in Argentina, and a netbook that allows me to do some writing as well as check my e-mail almost anywhere in the world.  Keeping all the files current and in harmonious form –to say nothing of dealing with viruses and other causes of breakdowns–has become a major time-eater.

When cell phones first came out, I wrote an article for Psychology Today magazine in which I interviewed psychologists about the potential impacts of the new technology on individuals’ mental health. Would bosses insist on constant contact with their employees? Would employees become overly stressed, knowing that they could almost never get away from the demands of their employers?

The experts’ answer was that most of us would simply react according to our already-established psychological make-up. If we were the type to get stressed easily, chances are a cell phone would make our lives more stressful. But for the equilibrated individual, with a strong sense of personal identity and priorities, they said, the cell phone would probably not add to stress.

So do I regret the evolution of the writer’s primary tool? Of course not. Any change requires adjustment, whether it’s physical or psychological. You don’t need me to tell you all the advantages that the computer and the Worldwide Web have brought to writers.

But I will tell you one that has been crucial for me:  This technology has allowed me to live a lifestyle that would have been, at a minimum, much more inconvenient and, at its worst, impossible–as a writer who can do my chosen work efficiently from anywhere in the world.

HOW CAN I BREAK INTO TRAVEL WRITING?

My life as a writer and a traveler frequently brings me into contact with people who aspire to become travel writers.

Recently a query came from a professional woman in Australia, a technical writer who loves to travel.  She prefaced her questions about the field with the correct observation that “it must be a very hard field to break into.”

With the caveat that although I was a full-time travel writer years ago, in recent years I have been doing only occasional travel writing, here are the tips I sent in response.

1. Decide whether you want to do this to make a full-time living. I was a full-time free-lance travel writer in the 1980’s and had to conclude I could not make a full-time living. And I had been a reporter at the Washington Post and a writer pretty much all of my life! I think it is even harder now, with the Internet. In those days, the main barriers to getting assignments and getting published were that major newspapers and magazines had their own staff to assign; the good ones would not allow you to take subsidized travel from hotels, airlines, etc.  and if you were on your own you could not afford to pay; and the number of people willing to do travel writing just for the fun of it, including professors on sabbatical, etc.  All of these barriers exist today…and it is probably even harder, because travelers increasingly turn to the Internet for their info. and this pays poorly, if at all.

All of this is to say that almost more than the writing, the issue is marketing your work. And most of us who are writers at heart are not too good at that….


2. There is quite a difference between writing an occasional piece based on your travels…and aiming for a salaried job at a magazine, for example. To get a salaried job, you will need to demonstrate a fairly extensive body of published work. To get that, you will probably need to free-lance for some time.    Now, with the Internet, one way to get some “clips” is to post online. There is little or no pay for doing this, but at least you could have something to show a potential employer.


3. If you have never done any travel writing, you probably should take a course somewhere….get some professional advice and criticism of your work. The course might be not just in travel writing, but perhaps in feature writing, especially since you have been mostly a technical writer. You don’t necessarily need a degree, but that experience should be helpful and should immerse you a bit in that world, giving you some ideas about marketing as well as writing tips. Also, search the Internet for advice on this field. I know there is a fair amount available.

4. You should be realistic about the work of a travel writer. It is extremely hard work, not all glamour and fun, for very minimal pay. For example, I have done a lot of writing for guidebooks. They simply never pay you enough to come near paying for your time. You end up working 15 hours  a day, just to cover the points to be included in a particular article or chapter, with no time to rest and no time to go into any depth with your research. Even just setting up a trip for a guidebook or other market that has commissioned you in advance takes a lot of time, although it is probably less now, with the Internet. Definitely in the case of guidebooks, but also for a lot of other types of markets, there is a lot of boring but crucially important detail work…making sure you have the correct, current names, addresses, phone numbers, emails, etc. of hotels, attractions and the like.

5. One way for you to start might be to come up with some unusual angles on places you know, close to where you live…And this is important: Do not try to write  “everything” about a destination. If you have a special interest or special knowledge…or even if you don’t…focus on one aspect of the destination. It could be food, artists’ studios,  or hiking, whatever…and give it your own spin. Study your own local and national media and try to figure out whether they are using contributions from free-lancers, or just copy from wire services and from their own staff.

 

A final word: My correspondent seemed to think that at least some of this advice was of practical use to her.  Here´s part of what she wrote to me after receiving my tips: :

…Thank you so much for the great practical advice.  …Although it definitely looks like it is a pipe dream to think I could make a living from travel writing, it would certainly make a very fulfilling hobby.  I especially like the idea of starting out with an interesting angle on a place close to home.  And your suggestion to focus on just one key element rather trying to cover everything is duly noted!