Travel writing is not for everyone

Recently, I boarded a tour bus and took a trip to Iowa for a two-day Mississippi River cruise. The river part was wonderful; the long ride on the bus not so great; but I did meet a lot of nice people.

Invariably, while getting to know people, I mention that I was a travel writer. There is always the question: “How can I get a job like that?” Followed by, “Isn’t it great to be able to travel and get paid for it?”

Yes, it is, because a travel writer can get to see some wonderful places, but it’s not for everyone. What some people don’t understand is that when you travel as part of a job, you are constantly looking for particular facets of the trip – those that relate directly to the publication that has hired you. It’s not strictly pleasure as you are always on the clock.

When I was actively working, I looked at a trip from a tour operator’s point of view. How would a certain trip work for a group of 30 to 40 people? In most cases, the tour group is made up of senior citizens. Then the question becomes more specific. Is this a trip that 30 to 40 mature (retired, elderly, seniors, whatever) travelers would enjoy and can easily navigate?

A working writer also has to look for good photo opportunities. I took a lot of my own photos, but local tourism departments are always happy to provide more. Photos were also valuable to help me recall exactly what I saw.

I had to be alert for good quotes from fellow travelers and locals, and when I heard one I needed to ask that person for permission to include their name in the article with the quote.

I tried to meet local people, soak up the culture and the atmosphere of a place, and research facts later. I couldn’t just casually mention that I walked through the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and saw paintings of the masters: who were they; what paintings? Or that it occupied what was once a railway station built between 1898 and 1900. Details are necessary to give readers a true picture of a place.

All this is leading up to a conversation I had with a woman on my Mississippi River trip. She had lots of questions about travel writing. She seemed serious about wanting to try it, so I suggested she write about the trip we were on, send the manuscript to me, and I’d look it over and offer suggestions.

She did. Apparently, she hadn’t heard a word I said about the process. The piece was one page, single spaced, and void of any useful information. She wrote about the wonderful time she had and all the wonderful food. She did mention two of the cities where we stayed overnight, but nothing more. “What an adventure,” was one line. Why was it an adventure? There was no description of the boat, the river, the sights we saw, those we traveled with, nothing.

I wrote back to her stressing that she needed to include details about the trip, including quotes from other people, maybe some river lore that we heard on the trip, and a side bar about the riverboat company.

Her response was that she didn’t have the patience for all that, and she wouldn’t be trying travel writing after all.

Travel editors everywhere should thank me.

* * * * *

A Spirit in the Heart
By Ell Wheeler

Peri hesitated near the rear of the cabin. Far above her head, the stately Norway pines pierced the sky and blocked out the sun. Only the tiniest rays filtered through the canopy and dappled the ground with spots of light.

The trees swayed and made soft whispering sounds as they talked to the wind. The repetitive and mournful call of a loon echoed across the stillness of the lake and faded away. Then the wind stopped for an instant and nothing moved. All was quiet, and the only sound she could hear was the pounding of her heart.

“I don’t think I like this,” she said aloud, and her voice sounded strange and misplaced in the quiet of the woods. More softly, “I know I don’t like this.”
She hurried down a slight incline toward the front of the cabin, stepped through the screen door and reached for the lock, but found none. None on the inner wooden door, either.

“Great,” she muttered, but it wasn’t great at all. She felt exposed and vulnerable, and even a little frightened. It was a feeling strange to her, and she didn’t like it, not one bit.

***

A SPIRIT IN THE HEART: available on Amazon.com.

Toot Your Own Horn

Someone once said, “Toot your own horn because no one else is going to do it for you.”

Writers understand that. You can write a great book and have it published, but the writer must still be involved in the promotion of the book. Unless of course you are a celebrity or political figure, then it seems that you are on the best seller list before the book even gets printed. That’s the way it works sometimes. Publishers pre-sell a book in such large numbers that it becomes a “Best Seller” (imagine me doing finger quotes) before it appears on the shelves.

If you are already famous or a known writer, you’ll get plenty of offers to appear on talk shows and requests for interviews. For the rest of us, promotion and public relations falls on our shoulders. I’m going to use myself as an example because it’s all I’ve got.

I wrote a book –A Spirit in the Heart. It’s available on Amazon.com and I think I’ve made a whopping twenty or so dollars off it. As I’ve said before, I’m not going to get rich on my books, but, hey, twenty dollars is twenty more than I had before, and a few people are reading my writing, so I’m thrilled.

Back to promotion. I vacationed in the city (Bemidji, Minnesota) where my romance novel was set. Bemidji is a town of about 14,000 people in the northern part of the state. It’s a beautiful town that attracts tourists all year around, even in the winter when they rename it Brrrrrmidji.

It’s also a town with a strong arts community. I made the rounds of the gift shops and found one that spotlights local artists and promotes most things related to the city. That’s the one that agreed to take a few of my books and offer them for sale.

When I returned home, I sent the Bemidji newspaper a press release saying what the book was about and where it could be purchased. I haven’t heard from them, yet.

Then I sent a press release to a couple of local newspapers where I live and I got a response. A reporter contacted me and asked if I would be willing to do an interview for the paper. Gosh, let me think about this….of course!

One more thing I did was to contact my local library and put in a request that they place the book on their shelves. I was told they would submit the request. I’m still waiting to hear if that happened, but I’d love to walk into the library and see my book up there with all those best-selling authors.

Everyone wants to feel good about themselves and what they do. Even a little recognition goes a long way in stroking a writer’s ego. All in all, I’m happy to say that it’s been a good week for me.

The Great American Novel

I had a sudden realization this week. It happened while I was reading a major news magazine and came across two pages of “novels to read this summer.” The subject matter in the selected books was varied, and serious. I mean really serious stuff.

Included was a book on the struggle of a family surviving war and genocide; another on teenage angst and the years after high school graduation; a tale of the ravages of AIDS across two generations; and a religious cult at a university.

The time it took for me to read the blurbs about these meaningful, informative, passionately written books equaled the time it took for me to realize that I am never going to write the great American novel.

Compared to those deep-thinking authors, my writing is simple fluff, in the fluffiest sense of the word. I write happily along, falling in love with my characters and putting them into cutesy or unusual situations, and I’m content. And, spoiler alert … my stories all have a happy ending.

And you know what? That is just fine, because not all of us were destined to write the deeply profound manuscripts with which our bookstore and library shelves overflow. There are just as many interesting, humorous, educational, suspenseful, exciting, colorful, (add your own adjective), stories and articles bouncing around our world and appreciated by readers, who are as diverse as those of us who write for them.

What I write may appeal to only a small percentage of people and they may not be the same ones you target. What’s wrong with that? This doesn’t mean that I won’t keep exploring and expanding and attempting to venture into different genres or areas of publishing. I’ll try different things and test the waters here and there, but I’ll still be happy enjoying what I do. Can it get any better than that?

Yeh, yeh, I hear someone mumbling something about getting rich with writing, but that’s probably not going to happen either. The best that most of us can hope for is to actually make a living at writing. So, go back to your computers and get to work on what you do best.)

Business or pleasure?

Why do you write? You want to express your feelings, to share your ideas, to influence others, to entertain and inform. It might be any or all of those things and more, but there is another question to ponder. Do you write for pleasure or business? Is it for fun, or because you want to make money with your words?

Most of us begin writing because we have this strong desire to put our thoughts and ideas down on paper. Sometimes it’s for our eyes only, as in a diary or journal. Sometimes it’s to share thoughts in a letter or in a special tribute to someone dear. Maybe it’s as an outlet for an overwhelming emotion – love, grief, anger. I think I have run the gamut of all those.

For many of us, there comes a day when we discover that we can make money doing what we love. That’s when we realize that writing for a living is a business, and there are times when there is no pleasure connected with it at all. Those times generally come when a writer becomes an employee, working for hire or on contract.

A number of years ago, I was hired to do a monthly newsletter for a factory that produced things like calculators, circuit boards, and a variety of digital products that I couldn’t explain to you if I had to.

Think factory: a building with acres under roof, long production lines of people doing the same small task over and over as products passed by them on conveyor belts. Items came off the line and were quality checked, packaged, and shipped to, who knows?

This monthly newsletter was not very big, 12 to 16 pages, magazine size. In each edition, I was required to highlight a particular production line, its successes in meeting quotas, having no injuries or problems during the month, interviewing the foreman, getting the employees of a line together for a photo (almost impossible) or highlighting a certain employee who had an interesting hobby or talent, and they were always the one who didn’t want attention.

I did not like that job and that’s an understatement; yet I produced the factory’s monthly newsletter for two years before I could walk away from it.
The income from that job sustained me while I built up a stable of other clients. And when I’d reached a goal where I could let one go, I don’t have to tell you which one I dropped. However, even though I did not enjoy the job, I did the best I could to deliver a quality product to those who were paying me good money for it. When I decided to turn the job over to someone else, I helped with the transition, left on good terms with the company, and added them to my resume.

My point is, if writing is a business, then not all of it is going to be pleasurable. A writer may have to take some less-than -satisfying jobs to earn a decent wage and continue with more interesting and/or exciting projects.

I look at that factory experience as a training exercise. I learned a lot about how to put together a company newsletter, doing my own photography, working with designers, interviewing people, and keeping the upper management happy.

Each thing we do as writers moves us forward in our careers. You may not get pleasure out of every job you take, but you will learn something from every job. You can certainly take the other route and write strictly for fun. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But if you need to get paid, then you must be a business. That means sometimes taking on the jobs you don’t like. It’s going to happen. Put your best into it and deal with it as a professional.

Bragging Rights

I’m going to do a little bragging here.

In a previous blog I wrote about changing things up now and then. Try something new. I did just that with good results.

When I work on my current novel, I sometimes get stuck. And I mean stuck! It’s like I hit a wall. When that happened earlier this year, I put it away and decided to try something different.

In the back of my mind, for many months actually, was an idea for a poem, or a song, or an essay. I decided on a poem. I then entered it in a local competition sponsored by the extension office of our state university. I then forgot about it. It was, for me, simply a writing exercise.

So, imagine my surprise when I got a phone call telling me I had won first place in the state for my entry. First place! Wow!

Okay, so this is not going to make me the state’s poet laureate, and there’s not even a cash prize; just a plaque and the opportunity to read it for an audience at a banquet, but I’m quite proud of it.

Because I’m proud of it, and I feel as though I have earned some bragging rights (in lieu of money, national recognition, etc., etc.), I’m sharing it here.

Miracles in the Sky

Look up and see
The sun that rises in the morn,
The moon that takes its place each night
Among the many stars.

Galaxies of light
Amid the darkness of the sky,
Shed tracings of a shooting star
Flashing through the blackness.

Then comes the rain
With clouds that glide and drift along,
Lightening splits the sky and leaves
The magic of a rainbow.

Birds in brilliant feather
Fill the summer morn with color,
And fireflies flit among the trees
On a clear, warm summer’s eve.

The snow that falls
Spreads its beauty on the earth,
Dressing the trees like nature’s brides,
Waiting for the spring.

Look up and see
The gifts and beauty from above,
And marvel at the bounty of
Miracles in the sky.

I still like it!

This has been a busy couple of weeks. I had already put up my one novel, A Spirit in the Heart, on Amazon as an ebook. Once I saw it up there, and a few people purchased it, I was inspired to continue the project.

I have spent the last couple of weeks designing and editing the paperback version. I don’t mind telling you, I am exhausted. I have proof read that book so many times that I think I can recite the entire manuscript from memory. But something else happened as I read it for about the fifteenth time. I liked it!

To me, that is not only important, but exciting. Any writer who can return to a manuscript, be it an essay, poem, magazine article, short story, novel, et al, and say, “Hey, that’s pretty good,” makes it something special.

So, I completed my proof reading and designed a cover and went through the process to get the paperback version ready. Guess what, I just ordered my third proof copy because it seems that no matter how much time I spend on this, I keep finding errors or simply things that I don’t like.

It’s costing me a few pennies, but that cost is totally justified. I’d gotten the inside pages looking the way I want them, but I wasn’t pleased with the way the cover looked. So, I’ve changed it again and am waiting for one more proof copy to arrive.

I tell you this because I cannot stress how important it is to see the final hard copy in your hands. It’s the only way, so never skimp on this step.

Now, I just hope it all looks the way I want. I know I said I still like the story, but I cannot read it again.

Edit, Proof, Rewrite, and Start Again

Look at that title and you’ll know what I have been doing lately. I have a romance novel, A Spirit in the Heart, that is available as an e-book on Amazon.com. The book is doing well, so I decided to offer a paperback version, because not everyone likes e-books.

The initial process for this was relatively easy. I chose the photo for the cover, did some simple design tasks, uploaded the text, and requested a couple of review copies that came to me within a few days. If you are producing a standard book, paperback or hard cover, please get review copies because that is where you see what went wrong. Believe me, plenty goes wrong.

Starting with the covers: there seemed to be too many text colors, and some of those colors were difficult to read against the photo I had chosen. I had to completely remake the cover, and it does look better.

Then I decided that I should probably read the book again. I didn’t really want to do this. I mean, I have gone over this manuscript so many times on my computer that I couldn’t imagine why I should read it again. But I did. Boy, oh boy, I hate to admit it, but I am still in the process and certain pages are a mess of mark outs, corrections, and additions. This is not an enjoyable part of the job.

How did I miss all these things before? One reason I can think of is that I read differently from a written page as opposed to one on a computer screen. I don’t know why; I can’t explain it; and I know others who would agree with me on this point. I just know that I catch my errors quicker on a hard copy.

When I finally finish proofing this book, I will upload the manuscript again, not only for the paperback, but also the e-book format, because those errors are in there too. How embarrassing. I hope the readers will forgive me.

This is one more item I can list under “valuable lessons learned.” No piece of writing is perfect. Never, no matter how many times you edit, proof and rewrite. That applies to books, scripts, poems, essays, and blogs. And even if you correct all the grammatical and spelling errors and rework some of the sentences, there will come a time when you look at it, smack yourself in the forehead and say, “Why did I do that?”

We want our work to be perfect, but mistakes will happen. We just have to do our best to weed them out to the best of our ability before presenting our art to others.

(Gosh, I wish I didn’t have to read this again.)