So You Want to Write a Travel Memoir
You’ve just returned from an inspiring career break and are inspired by the experience to write a book. Think it’s not possible? Alexis Grant offers tips on how you can make it happen.
How to Write a Book About Your Travels
When travelers hear I’m writing a book about backpacking solo through Africa, they often confess that they, too, have dreamed about telling their travel story. “But I don’t really know how to go about it,” the traveler says. “How should I get started?”
Indeed, a book-length work can be daunting. But if you have a blog – and many travelers do – you’re already ahead of the pack. Blogging gets you in the habit of writing regularly and gives you an outlet for feedback, so you can get a sense for which stories resonate with readers.
So what’s the best way to turn your ideas into a book? Here’s how to get started on your travel memoir:
Read other travel memoirs
Think about why each book works (or doesn’t). Try well-known authors like Bill Bryson and Mary Morris and Paul Theroux, but also browse your local bookstore’s travel section for up-and-coming writers. Since my book is about traveling solo, I look specifically for books by women who have done just that. How is the story structured? Why did it sell? How will yours be different – and better?
Figure out your message
Your memoir should be about more than your trip; you need an overarching theme that readers can relate to, a story arc that includes personal growth. Look back at those travel memoirs you read. What’s their message? You can bet those stories aren’t simply a chronicle of “first I did this, then I did that.” There’s some thread, some theme that ties their experiences together and makes them meaningful. How can you turn your story into a narrative that people who don’t know you will want to read?
Focus on improving your writing
Having an awesome story isn’t enough to sell a book (unless you’re Snookie); you’ve also got to tell that story well. No matter how much writing experience you’ve had, know your strengths and weaknesses, and look for ways to improve your skills. One option is to take an online course. MediaBistro offers virtual classes geared specifically toward writers of travel memoir.
Understand your publishing options
If you’re looking to publish traditionally, you’ll need a literary agent to represent you – and they’re not easy to come by. Pitching agents is an art in itself, one that requires a query letter, a proposal for your project and at least the first few chapters of your book. Some agents won’t consider representing first-time memoirists until you complete the entire manuscript. If an agent agrees to represent you, she’ll take on the responsibility of pitching publishers. (In return, she gets 15 percent of the money you make from the book.) But while it’s important to understand this process, it’s more critical, at least in the beginning, to focus on the actual writing.
Self-publishing can be a smoother road, but there’s still a (diminishing) stigma against self-published books. You can pay up front to have books printed, which can be costly; use a print-on-demand service that produces books only when readers order online; or create an e-book. Taking advantage of these tools can help you make your story available to the world.
Start getting it on paper
If you feel compelled to write your story, start getting it on paper, even if you haven’t yet figured out your message. Sometime it takes retrieving memories and telling mini-stories to discover the thread of meaning that will hold your book together. Get those anecdotes in writing, and go back later to figure out your structure.
Share your stories
Telling your stories online is a good way to test whether they’re interesting enough to warrant a book. In addition to your blog, look for other outlets that accept – and even pay for – travel writing, like Matador Network, BootsnAll, plus others featured on this post by Adventurous Kate. The Lost Girls also offer tips on how to pitch online travel sites.
Having these published clips will also help you make your case for a book to a literary agent, and eventually, a publisher.
Reach out to the travel writing community for support
Dozens of writers share critiques, ideas and resources online. If you’re writing a book about your travels, consider joining our Facebook group for writers of travel memoir. (http://on.fb.me/hvLpN9)
What’s the biggest challenge you face when it comes to writing a book about your travels?