Monthly Archives: May 2012

How to Get Your Travel Writing Published, with Doug Mack

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This is part two of a two-part post on Doug Mack, a graphic designer whose trip to cliche-ridden Europe turned into a Penguin-published travel memoir. Read part one.

 

It started when Doug Mack found a 1963 travel guide of Europe and took off when he added love letters his mother had written in the same period to the man who became his father. Then Mack’s Europe on Five Wrong Turns released in April. He discusses the evolution of travel in the past 50 years in part one of this two-part post. In part two he talks about turning his experiences into a travel memoir published by a Penguin imprint. Read what he says about the blog-as-published conundrum, charting your narrative arc, travel writing rules, and more.

Read an Excerpt of Doug Mack's Travel Memoir

 

Was your approach to getting published the same as exploring another continent?

“No. In the first rule of travel writing: Be able to walk and write at the same time.

“Second rule of travel writing: Be able to decipher your notes later.

“Third rule of travel writing: Understand that Rule Two will, in the end, take more time and energy than you think.

“I mean those rules both literally and metaphorically. I try very hard not to let my note-taking take over my day or alter the course of my activities or interactions, but I also try to jot down at least a couple of words about everything remotely interesting. Don’t worry about what it means or anything like that; just scrawl down enough information to jog your memory later.

“At the end of the day, I look at my notes and panic. There’s way too much to work with, I can’t see how all the pieces fit together, and I’m hesitant to let go of even one insight or anecdote or factoid. A day or two later, I look back with fresh eyes, and I can start to see what’s important and what’s not. That part takes hours—note-taking is easy; writing a cohesive story is hard.

“Some of those notes should come before you even embark on the trip. Have a plan for getting your story, whatever it is. In my case, I intentionally didn’t do a lot of planning, because that was part of my story: semi-aimless wandering, guided only by my wits and an outdated guidebook. But if you’re working on a story about, say, Mongolian restaurants in Bermuda, then before you go, you’d better make some contacts in Bermuda so that you can get the interviews and do the research to get to the bottom of the story. Know your angle and let that guide your planning.”

(Mack was interviewed by Alexis Grant on her insightful travel-writing blog, and brought out the big guns— a graph of his narrative arc. It may not be the bikini graph made popular on The Rachel Maddow Show but this kind of chart will expedite any writer’s process.)

 

Many ATW readers are writers. Some want to become travel writers. What are some tips?

First rule of travel writing: Be able to walk and write at the same time.

Second rule of travel writing: Be able to decipher your notes later.

Third rule of travel writing: Understand that Rule Two will, in the end, take more time and energy.

 

What about extended formats– such as long trips or long-form writing?

I mean those rules both literally and metaphorically. My general approach to writing—travel or otherwise—is to do way too much research and note-taking and ill-formed-idea-thinking. I try very hard not to let my note-taking take over my day or alter the course of my activities or interactions, but I also try to jot down at least a couple of words about everything remotely interesting. I don’t worry about what it means or anything like that, I just scrawl down enough information to jog my memory later, and then I keep going.

Eventually, though, a day or two later, I look back with fresh eyes, and I can start to see the what’s important and what’s not. That part takes hours—note-taking is easy; writing a cohesive story is hard.

In my case, I intentionally didn’t do a lot of planning, because that was part of my story: semi-aimless wandering, a lot of making it up as I went along, guided only by my wits and an outdated guidebook. But if you’re working on a story about, say, Mongolian restaurants in Bermuda, then before you go, you’d better make some contacts in Bermuda so that you can get the interviews and do the research to get to the bottom of the story. Know your angle, and let that guide your planning.

 

Many writers are confounded with the blog-means-published conundrum. Did you have any problems with your agent or publisher because you’d already had much of the content on your blog?

“This really wasn’t an issue, although I very intentionally kept the best stories and strongest arguments off of the blog, because I was mindful of this potential problem. I don’t want to get into the semantic debate about being a blogger versus being a writer, but I view my blog as a supplement to my paid writing. As such, I consider it a forum for telling stories that aren’t in the book or that I otherwise wouldn’t get paid to write, or as a place for me to hash out some vague notes about the ideas going around in my mind. The blog is like the extras on a DVD: outtakes and supplementary material, which might give you an impressionistic, scattered idea of the final product but is very different from (and lacks the highlights and connective tissue of) the carefully-composed main narrative.

“One piece, about visiting the Anne Frank House, was originally written for the blog, then slightly tweaked for the San Francisco Chronicle— which knew I’d used the material on the blog— and then slightly tweaked again for the book, although the edits weren’t major and the content was essentially the same in each version. No one cared. If there had had been more instances of this, more direct overlap between the blog and the book, that probably would have been a problem.

“My recommendation is that if you know you want to write a book about something, you can offer a teaser about it on your blog, but don’t give it all away. Give people enough to want to read more, and then trust that they’ll go find those stories when you’re ready to share them.”

 

Read Mack in The San Francisco Chronicle and WorldHum or an excerpt of his book, published by Perigee/Penguin. Or check out part one of the Doug Mack Q/A.

Doug Mack Turns Travel Blunders into Publishing Rights

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“Enough with the road less traveled,” Douglas Mack said about travel. He eschewed Google Maps, CouchSurfing, and the latest edition of Lonely Planet. Instead, he used a 1963 travel book as a compass through 11 cities. Then the writer and graphic designer chronicled his “exercise in willful ignorance” in Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day.

Mack’s humorous, often self-effacing narrative demonstrates the ebb and flow of enthusiasm of long-term journeys. His book contemplates not only the things we see when traveling but also the changing nature of travel itself.

For me, as a fellow writer and serial expat who initially thought Mack was nuts, I took some time out to discuss travel and publishing with Mack. In my two-post series get a glimpse of luddite travel, rules of travel writing, and spinning travel wrongs into publishing rights. Five Wrong Turns was released earlier this month by Perigee/Penguin.

 

Are you a solo or accompanied traveler?

“For this trip, I traveled in two phases: first a trip to Florence and Paris on my own (to see if it was feasible and enjoyable to travel with my old guidebook); then I later met my friend Lee in Amsterdam. We proceeded to another four cities together before he had to head back to the States.

“We had met at a writers’ conference a couple of years earlier and spent all of three or four hours hanging out together. We kept in touch via email, and I mentioned this crazy idea I had and asked if he wanted to tag along as my sidekick. He did.”

 

What was your scariest moment, a moment in which your blood felt like razors racing through your veins?

“I’m, shall we say, a bit neurotic and prone to worrying about all the really esoteric ways that one could die while traveling. This is a recurring theme in the book: Maybe a big piece of stone will fall off the Colosseum and crush me; maybe some East German bodybuilder will have a bout of ‘roid rage and snap me in half, maybe … These are the things that went through my mind, implausible—but not impossible!–scenarios that any normal person might not consider. The fears finally began to abate by the end of my trip, once I gained more confidence.”

What and where was your dumbest moment?

Paris. Because my own guidebook did not always provide me with the necessary details, I was often forced to rely on the kindness of people who, at most other points in life, I would go to extreme measures to avoid. As I was trying to make sense of a Metro map on a station wall one day, a group of chattering English preteen girls—sans chaperone—walked by and then stopped and asked, with a chipper preteen sneer, if I needed help. Apparently, I looked very, very lost—and I was.

“Pride, however, forced me to stammer out a reassurance: ‘No, no . . . I’m okay, thanks.’

“They didn’t believe me, and after I confessed, red-faced, that, fine, maybe I was slightly out of my element, they launched into these complicated directions for how to get to my destination. They were so young and so savvy; I felt like a tourist dope, totally humiliated. Oh, and their directions were spot-on, which was both a relief and demoralizing.”

 

Why no technology? How much time did not using technology like this save or cost?

“The main point of avoiding technology was to travel like a 1960s tourist. One of the things that struck me when I read my 1963 guidebook and my mom’s letters from her own days as a hippie traveler back in the 1960s was that tourists back then truly saw everything with fresh eyes. Okay, they may have seen Roman Holiday or a movie like that, but they didn’t have Flickr, they didn’t have Google, they didn’t have all the resources that we can use to over-plan our trip and see what everything will look like and what will be on all the menus, and so on.”

“Willful ignorance can lead to some problems, obviously—I almost certainly paid more for rooms and meals that I really should have, although that wasn’t just an issue of technology but also a factor of trying to eat and stay in the places in my book, which tended to be better-known than a random budge-travel place might have been. But willful ignorance also reintroduces surprise, wonder, and serendipity–three things that get lost all too often in the modern travel experience. If you’ve planned your journey down to nanosecond, down to the vista (and scoured Flickr to find the precise angles that make that vista look the prettiest), and you’ve read all the reviews on TripAdvisor, and you’ve left nothing to chance … then why travel at all?

“It’s not that I don’t love technology, it’s that, well, I don’t think travel should be too easy. To me, part of the joy of going abroad is being surprised, experiencing the unexpected, getting out of my comfort zone, and being disconnected from the familiar. Sure, it’s nice to plan certain things ahead of time and I did wish I’d had a smart phone in Venice, where I was perpetually lost … but in retrospect, no, I don’t wish I’d had that. I had to figure things it out on my own. I had to ask locals for directions. I had to be immersed in my environment—not an all-knowing screen.

“And in the future, I probably will do more research—I’ll find a middle ground between willful ignorance and over-planning.”

 

What problems could have been averted by the use of technology?

“Technology could have averted misery in Venice. I got so, SO lost there, and had so many horrible meals. Actually, I came to really loathe Venice, largely for those reasons but also simply because I was far enough into my trip to have become incredibly jaded about the whole thing—all the wonder and thrill was gone. (Luckily, it came back in Rome, but you’ll just have to read the book for more about that—it involves a mysterious, once-grand hotel and copious amounts of gelato.)”

 

What foreign travel had you done before this trip?

“I had been abroad several times before—to the UK several times, as well as Iceland and Costa Rica. But all of those trips were with my parents or other family; I had never had to plan anything on my own, much less travel by myself. Those trips certainly spurred a bit of wanderlust and made me want to explore more, but they also felt like cheating, like just being along for the ride on someone else’s journey.

“Since then, I’ve been to Mexico and Cuba—the latter with a pre-Castro guidebook. (This turned out to be way, way trickier than using my vintage guide in Europe … but that’s a long story for another time.)”

Just then Mack described a new purpose, a renewal we could say, for those travel guides that just seem old and useless to those of us who like up-to-the-minute info for our trips.

“Whenever I’m in a used-book shop, can’t help but page through—or just go ahead and buy—outdated guidebooks for various places. Guidebooks offer a really interesting snapshot of a particular place in a particular cultural moment—they’re really time capsules on a printed page. Actually, they tell you not just about a particular place, but about how people in Traveling Culture A viewed people in Destination Culture B. For example, my guidebook offered some really intriguing insights into (Cold War-era) American concepts of East Germany.”

 

Your travels were partially guided by love letters written from your mother when she was traveling through Europe in the 1960s to the man who’s now your father. What major differences in styles and methods of travel did you notice from that?

One of the things that struck me about my mother’s letters from Europe was the sense of wonder and surprise evident in her tone—and much of that, I think, came from the fact that she was discovering all these places and things in real life, in real time. She didn’t have preconceived notions based on Internet research or pop-culture influences.

“They didn’t expect their pizza to taste a certain way; they weren’t measuring the tourist café against the better Italian food back home. Put another way, back then they were ignorant; today we’re delusional.”

 

What can we learn from your book?

“Travel really isn’t about where you go—on the beaten path or off—but what you make of it. You can take a package tour to the most remote parts of the world and still learn nothing; you be a clichéd tourist in the most overrun city and still learn all kinds of things, if you approach it with an inquisitive spirit and an open mind. It’s just as absurd to avoid a place for the sole reason that other people are there as it is to go to a place because others have.

“Let the place tell you about itself—don’t rely simply on information overload from the Internet and guidebooks and background research. Get lost. Meet new people. Trust the locals and your instincts over your smartphone and get immersed in the place and the culture.

 

What’s next for you?

“Let’s say pogo-sticking across the Andes. Just because.”

 

Read Mack in The San Francisco Chronicle and WorldHum or an excerpt of his book. Or check out part two of the Doug Mack Q/A.

A Mission for a Patron Saint

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My 12 Peruvian students and I are in the lab. That is, we’re in the computerized, air-conditioned room on the University of Piura campus. Perhaps the crucifix on the left wall and the painting of the Virgin Mary on the opposite wall will bestow whatever it is Jesus would give students before an exam.
Occasional bursts of high musical notes seep through the cracked plaster walls from the auditorium next door. Chills raise goosebumps across my skin as I’m mentally transported to a Spanish mission set in the Amazon rain forest of the 18th century. Choral notes elicit images of a mission leader hoisting a grand gold crucifix as he, dressed in white, lacy robes and other spoils of the wealthy Catholic church, leads a group of pious children down a dirt road. Suddenly bullets ring out from all sides of them and sporadically they fall, one after another, dead.
No wait, that was The Mission.
I no more than punctuate that thought when the desert’s early evening breezes blow open the lab door with a crescendoing creak. Enter the full melody of the tune, something you might have heard at a Roman Catholic Sunday mass or echoing down the streets during various saintly holidays in Old Chicago’s Little Italy.

It’s the university choir, or the Coro de UDEP. They’re Catholic kids on their own, more vocal, less visceral mission. Perhaps they can summons blessings from Saint Bridget, the patroness of students.