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.

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.)

No Critique for me, thanks.

My local library recently started a writers’ workshop that meets once a month. When I first heard of it, I was excited, and I attended the first two meetings.

I’m not going back, and the reason is that I don’t like critique groups, and that’s where this group is headed.

Don’t get me wrong, having someone critique a piece of your writing can be valuable. In my earlier writing years, I may have asked others to read my work. An important point to consider here is that I searched out those who were established, qualified writers or editors in the same genre or area of interest as I; people who could be objective and honest, even if I wouldn’t want to hear what they said. I trusted them.

It’s easy to tell someone how good something is if that is what you honestly believe. It’s not so easy to tell someone their subject is boring: their spelling is atrocious; you don’t like their style; or that they should just go back to English 101 and start over.

I have critiqued the work of others, but I don’t like doing it because each individual has his or her own special style of writing, and it’s not like mine. The only way to find out if a piece of writing is good enough for publication is to refine it as best you can and send it to the people who matter — editors and agents who can champion your work.

Not everyone likes what I write, or the way I write. I don’t like every writer I’ve read, and that applies to some well-known authors that others rave about. Sometimes I’ll start a book by a best-selling author only to find out that I really don’t like the way he/she puts words together, or I don’t like the subject or the way its handled. Would I critique it and say it’s not worth reading? Of course not, because I’m only one reader, and what do I know?

To those who want to be in a writers’ group, don’t make it only about reading each other’s work and commenting on it. Real value in these groups comes from sharing tips on writing that others can use; learning how to write query letters; understanding how to move a story along; learning how to research the market and find the right publisher; sharing relevant information on publishing; bringing in guest speakers who have some expertise with writing; generally supporting and encouraging fellow writers; and above all, learning to use the research resources of your library.

Special note: never ask your best friend, loving spouse, or anyone who is really close to you, “What do you think of my story?” Trust me on this one.

A Spirit in the Heart

A Spirit in the Heart (an excerpt)

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.

*********************************************

Peri Fergeson’s life revolves around the city and her career as a lawyer, but she’s burned out and needs time to re-energize. “I know the perfect place for you,” her father says, which happens to be a cabin on a lake in northern Minnesota, miles from anything that remotely resembles civilization to her.

She decides to give the wilderness a chance but becomes a bit too brave and almost drowns in the lake her first day there. It is Hawk, a bronze-skinned, part-Chippewa Indian, who is her savior, and thus begins a relationship that seems doomed from the beginning.

Peri feels indebted to Hawk for saving her life, and when she learns that he is in danger of losing the land that his family has lived on for generations, she decides to help him.

Respect, friendship and passion surface between them, but Peri must return to the city. She immerses herself in work, but her thoughts keep returning to the little cabin on the lake, and to Hawk.

A place, its beauty, peacefulness, and wildness; its people, their diversity, and their unity; and the love that surfaces in unexpected places, are all there waiting in A Spirit in the Heart.

A Spirit in the Heart is available as an ebook on Amazon.com.

Career Day: inspiring the young

I have been invited to be a part of a career day at a local elementary school.

I’ve done this before. Students at the junior and senior high school level generally have a good idea of what they want to do with their lives, and I’ve met many who are interested in learning what it takes to be a writer.

But in this instance, those that I will be talking to at this career day are in the third, fourth and fifth grades. I’m not sure how many of these little folks are thinking about what they want to do when they hit eighteen and are headed for college. At that age their biggest thrill is that they are excused from regular classes for an afternoon to talk about careers.

I have spoken with eighth grade students, taught classes in freelance writing to beginning writers, and organized seminars for freelance writers, but I don’t think I’ve ever had an audience this young. Calling it an audience is a misnomer because I’ll get 10 students at a time for 10 minutes. These groups will cycle through the gymnasium and stop at each presenters’ table to learn about a possible career path, so I will be repeating the same information over and over for three hours.

At first, I wondered what I could possible say to them that would inspire them to want to pursue writing as a career. There may not be one child in that school who will become a paid, published writer. So, I have been trying to determine what I can actually say to them that will be of benefit to all of them, and I think I’ve come up with a plan. (Although it could change drastically over the next few weeks.)

I plan to give each group a quick overview of the different types of writing jobs that are available, but most of all, I believe this is an opportunity to encourage each student to become a better writer in general terms. The best thing they can do is to learn to write coherently, precisely, and correctly; to learn about grammar and increase their vocabulary knowledge.

They should know to never stop learning, and that means going beyond what the teachers are teaching in the classrooms. They need to go to the library and check out books on as many subjects as they like, and learn as much as they can. That is what will influence their choices in the future.

If I can encourage them to read more as well as to write better, it will stand them in good stead in whatever career path they choose when they are older.

If one of them should become a famous reporter or fiction writer with a best seller, I can only hope that they may remember something I have said to them and they will remember me in their memoirs. If we as writers can inspire someone else and watch them become successful, that is a great honor.

Plus, they’re going to like me more because I’m going to give each one of them a little gift to take away from the table; a pencil or notebook or big eraser. I know about promotions. I’ll be their favorite.

Editing your work

I really do like to write. Sometimes, however, there are times when I write too much. I’m so anxious to put down every word that comes into my head that I don’t immediately realize I have included words that don’t really have to be there.

Take a look at that last sentence: “that don’t really have to be there.” The word “really” is unnecessary, but it just felt natural. I did it again. “…it just felt natural.” The word “just” is a throwaway.

One of my favorite words that gets inserted into my text is “actually.” Such as, “Actually, he did like to eat ice cream.” Totally not necessary, but I do it all the time.

I didn’t realize this quirk of mine until recently when I was proof reading one of my manuscripts. If you use Word’s review of a document to check spelling and grammar, it will tag certain phrases and suggest replacing them with one or two words. Remember, they are suggestions, but don’t use four words if one will do the job effectively.

Self-editing can be difficult. I know we have all gotten inspired and motivated to sit at the computer with flying fingers. That’s great, but typing the last period on a document, does not finish it.

I learned a great lesson on editing from a sale that I made to Woman’s Day magazine years ago. It was a short essay about learning to have fun with your children and to go down to their level now and then. The editors liked the idea, but the writing left much to be desired. In my defense, I was a fledgling writer, self-taught, and still learning.

Example of what I wrote: My two young daughters and my niece stood with me in the kitchen and watched the pounding rain. The three girls were obviously distressed.
Woman’s Day: They eliminated the last sentence. Wasn’t needed.
I wrote: So many times, I have believed….
Woman’s Day: Often I have believed.
I wrote: …they had never before had reason to come together in a group for the sake of play.
Woman’s Day: …they had never played in such a group.

It was embarrassing to see how much a good editor could do and maintain what I wanted to say. I was shocked to see that the final edit reduced the article by at least one-third. I used this essay when I taught classes in marketing freelance writing as an example of how we can get carried away with words, and why we don’t always need so many.

When I sold this piece, to say it was exciting is an understatement. I was thrilled to have a byline in a national publication, and the pay wasn’t bad either.

I’d like to add that a writer shouldn’t feel that she must always take the advice of an editor and change a specific word or phrase. Do keep an open mind and listen to the professionals, but if your words express what you want to say in exactly the way you want to say it, protect them. We each have a style of writing, a voice, that is our own. Never abandon that to fit into a mold of someone else’s making.

Happy writing. Happy editing. I wish you success.

And if you find too many unnecessary words in this post, I don’t want to know about it.

Observation brings inspiration

How well do you observe the world? Do you really look at the people, places and events around you? Or is it all a blur in your memory when those things are no longer directly in front of you?

We are all so busy with our individual careers, families, worries … life in general… that we move automatically through 0ur daily routines without taking in the details. But as a writer it’s those details that matter and can make the difference between a good story and an exceptional story.

Some of the nicest comments I’ve received is that the readers felt as if they were in the places about which I’d written. I think that comes from having been a travel writer, as it was my job to take in the details and describe locations in a way that would make others want to go there. My articles had to lead the reader into a locale by making it real for them.

I would say that is one of my strong points. On the other hand, I’ve not always been so good at detailing the people in my articles or the characters in a story. That is where I work the hardest. So, over the years, I’ve learned to study people: their general appearance, habits, facial qualities or lack thereof; their way of walking and talking, and the way they interact with others. Sooner or later, some of those bits and pieces will find their way into a character in my fiction.

Even if you write fantasy and specialize in characters from other worlds, you must include the details if they are to be believable.

Observations bring our written pieces to life. If you aren’t already being overly observant, start practicing right now. Look out your window and take in all the details of the scene. Really look at it and study it. What’s in the scene? What stands out? Look at the colors; describe them. Are there hidden places there that you might want to investigate? Does the view give you a feeling of any kind; make you smile, make you sad?

The next time you are talking to someone, be it relative, friend or colleague, take a moment to study their face and the way they talk. Do they have any habits that are obvious, or quirks of personality? What does their skin look like; or their eyes, ears, hair, hands, clothing, posture? All of these things make up the total person and we know that when it comes to each individual, we can use the word “unique” correctly.

Sometimes it’s fun to sit in a crowded place and focus on someone to study. I find this is particularly easy and entertaining in airports, with its many kinds of interesting subjects rushing about or sitting across from me in the waiting areas. The same could be said for a busy restaurant, or a shopping mall, gatherings of every kind.

Inspiration through observation is everywhere. Take the time to look around you, and be inspired.

****

Now available as an ebook on Amazon.com:

“A Spirit in the Heart” by Ell Wheeler is a light romance that takes readers into the north woods of Minnesota and the beauty of the lake country. When a man and a woman from two different cultures meet and try to understand each other, anything can happen; and does.