The shame of old (travel) blog posts

February 27, 2005: I posted about jetlag and date confusion, about how I can’t keep a calendar straight, how my expat life made that even harder for me to do, and how oh, we’re going skiing and also, I can’t wait to eat noodles later! It is written as though you know all the details of my life, who’s in it, and actually care about those things.

October 31, 2007: I posted a review of a 1966 movie about Hawaii. I managed to cross reference that review with some sharply written references about Hawaiian history and then, I tied all this in to the frustrations and vanities around the sun break guide to Hawaii I was writing at the time. I found a way to complain about writing a guidebook to Hawaii. Imagine.

March 17th, 2009: I posted a link choked name dropping round up of a day I spent at SxSW,the Music, Film and Interactive mega-event that takes place in Austin, Texas, every year. Do I tell you who these people are or why they’re important? No, I do not. Do I tell you why I’m in Austin at all? Nope. I make all kinds of assumptions about what and who you know. I proudly alienate all of my readers who aren’t there at the time. Way to go.

Old (travel) blog posts. They’re there to keep us humble. The shocking typos and editing oversights. The tone-deaf attempts at humor and self deprecation. The utter failure to provide any kind of context for, well, anything. The vain assumptions that these things matter to me, therefore, they must matter to you. I’m talking about my blog, of course, your archives are a library of beautiful syntax, of sensible contextualized advice, and entries that stand alone on their own merit, each one a well formed travel essay or service piece that could live a healthy life outside of the confines of your blog. Right? Right.A punishing little WordPress plug in called Advanced Random Post tortures me every time I refresh my site. It works its nefarious self-esteem busting evil by publishing, in the second slot on my home page, a post pulled at random from the archives of my site. On the one hand, this is a good thing. It pulls up selections from a series of guest posts I ran one April while I was traveling, 30 days or so of well written stories from friends and fellow travelers who kindly sent a story my way to keep my blog from going dark. It reminds me of, oh, that time I took a tour of the shipping terminal on Seattle’s Harbor Island or visited the Ballard Locks when they were full of running salmon. I see these old posts and I think, “Wow, that was a great day out.”

But Advanced Random Post also presents writing from my days as a volunteer for the Kerry/Edwards campaign. Those aren’t about travel! What was I thinking! And oh, no, I didn’t really choose to write about how tired I am after that hike in the Austrian Alps, did I? Not when I could have either posted a simple photo or told you how to do that hike yourself. That would have been useful to my readers. Instead, it’s two paragraphs of whining about fatigue. Why did I think you’d want to read that?

Every time I load a page, I’m confronted with the mistakes (and less often, triumphs) of my past. I can see the trajectory my writing has taken, I can see things change. I’m not the same traveler I was in 2004 when I started my blog in its current incarnation, and I’m certainly not the same writer. Seeing that old work reminds me of places I’ve been, of what’s changed. Sometimes I’m pleased but mostly, I’m just embarrassed. Did I really publish 600 typo choked words about an hour in a tea house? What was I thinking?

The secret formula for writing a successful travel narrative

For years people have been asking me for the secret formula for writing a successful travel story. I did my best to conjure this formula into my book Travel Writing, but as you know, there really isn’t any secret formula. Or is there? This year, in preparing for a spate of appearances where I was talking about travel writing – notably TBEX, a talk with Julia Cosgrove of Afar magazine, and a one-day in-the-field writing workshop that was part of the Book Passage travel writing and photography conference — I realized that I could distill what I’ve learned in three decades on both sides of the writer-editor relationship into a few pithy points.

So here’s my version of the secret formula.First of all, what is a travel story? There are many different kinds of travel stories, of course, but the kind I’m focusing on here is the travel narrative. Here’s my definition: A travel narrative is the crafted evocation of a journey, usually written in the first person, that is structured as a sequence of anecdotes/scenes, and that presents a quest that illuminates a place and culture.

Which brings us to a very important point: The narrative should have a theme – lesson, message, point, illumination – that you as the writer are trying to convey to the reader. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, then there’s no way the reader — or editor — is going to know, so don’t write your story until you know what you’re trying to say. Well, let me rephrase this: It’s fine to start writing before you know what you want to say, but at some point in the writing process, you have to figure out what you want to say – and then you need to go back and rewrite/reshape your story so that it conveys most evocatively and effectively whatever theme/lesson/point you want to make.

How should the travel narrative be organized? It goes back to the cave-and-campfire scene where one of our adventurous ancestors was describing the hunt for a Gnarly Mastodon. Like that Stone Age storyteller, you should give your narrative a beginning, a middle and an end.

To my mind, these break down like this:

The beginning introduces the place where the story is set and suggests the writer’s quest or reason for being there. (To test this notion, I recently looked through the feature stories in the current issues of three prominent travel magazines. In every one, by the end of the fifth or sixth paragraph, the writer had given one sentence that clearly articulated the reason why he/she had come to that place: the quest.)

The middle reveals the writer’s experience through a series of scenes that are ordered chronologically or thematically. (Usually, it’s easier to arrange these chronologically, but sometimes for dramatic purposes, it makes more sense to organize them thematically. You want to make sure that your anecdotes ascend in power as the story progresses, so if your best anecdotes are from the beginning of the trip, you’ll probably not want to tell your tale chronologically.) These anecdotes/incidents/encounters are the critical stepping stones that led you – and so will lead your reader – to the illumination/point/resolution that inspired your story.

The end presents the resolution of the quest and ties the story back to the situation introduced at the beginning. In the best narratives, this creates a kind of closure that gracefully sends the reader back into the world, but enhanced now with the experience and lesson your story imparted.

So, here’s what you have to do:

  1. Figure out what the lesson of your travel experience/story is.
  2. Figure out what steps led you to learn that lesson.
  3. Recreate those steps in your mind.
  4. Recreate those steps in words so the reader can live them with you.
  5. Craft your tale with a beginning, middle and end that shape and convey your lesson.

Voila! Instant travel narrative. Just add wonder.

Of course, the truth is that success in travel writing is ultimately in the execution, not in the design. But at least having the right design can get you off to a great start. The rest is up to you: First of all, to travel deeply and secondly, to choose and evoke your travel experiences in a way that transports the reader with you.

In this way, every travel narrative is the process of at least two journeys – the journey in the world and the journey in the words.

Bon voyage!

[flickr images via merrah’s and woodleywonderworks]

Six Reasons I Broke Up With Your Travelblog

Every now and then I go through the little graveyard that is my RSS reader. It makes me sad when a travel blog I loved just… stops. I understand; you stopped traveling. Maybe you ended up totally off the grid; that’s cool for you but it’s weird that you just disappeared. Perhaps it turned out that blogging wasn’t your thing and you wanted to live in the trip instead of at the keyboard. It happens.

When I’m engaged with your blog, I get surprisingly attached to you and your adventures. I love hearing your stories about that time on the train or that time with the guy with the hair or that time in Siem Reap when all the laundry came back the most delicate shade of pale pink. (Wait, that was my story.)

So when your blog goes dark – last post, February, 2010 – I wonder what became of you. After a few months, I sigh and unsubscribe. I hope that you are well and happy and, oh, by the way, I’ve moved on to other blogs but I promise, it won’t be weird between us when you show up on my Twitter feed. We’re cool.

But sometimes, it’s not you, it’s me. It’s awkward and there are hurt feelings and I’m totally the bad guy. You’re blogging away about your travels, perfectly content. But my reader’s eye is roaming, over there, to that nice couple in camper van in New Zealand or that 20 something RTW guy who managed to keep his shirt on in his profile picture. Maybe there’s a woman in her 60s who has incredible stories of traveling solo in Thailand on the beaten path, or a journalism student in Seoul who has a wicked eye with the camera. It comes down to that same stupid conversation we all hate having. “It’s just not working out; I think we should read other people.” Then, early one morning, when I’m up because I can’t sleep, I hit unsubscribe. It’s over and you never know why.

It’s time for closure, that elusive feeling we hope for when a relationship ends. Here’s the truth. It was you. It’s time to clear the air, to go with the tough love. See, I didn’t want to break up with your blog, it’s just, well, you were driving me crazy. Here’s why.

  1. You junked up your site. I didn’t mind when you started selling text links, I really didn’t. Your call. But when you cluttered up your site with ad links in the content, or added those horrible pop-ups on the posts, it became clear you were more concerned with the ad buyers than our time together. We both know you weren’t doing me a service by adding links to cheap airport parking into a post about backpacking in the Rockies.
  2. You cheated on me. I know, we had a deal, you could write whatever you wanted and I’d read it. But our time together was supposed to be special. When I clicked on your blog and found stories that could have been lifted directly from a sales or promotional brochure, I felt like you’d let me down. The PR or visitor’s bureau hosts were first and I got the writing equivalent of plastic sushi.
  3. You took advantage of me. Instead of giving me beautiful stories or useful information, you pestered me. To buy your eBook. To follow you on Twitter. To be your Facebook friend. I was a number, a statistic, no longer a loving reader. “Does this make my assets look big?” you’d ask, as though that was all that mattered. I didn’t read you because of your size, you know.
  4. We grew apart. It’s sad when this happens, and really, there’s nothing to be done about it. You decided that travel wasn’t really your thing and turned to the burgeoning universe of artisanal meats. I’m a vegetarian. While I respect your choice, there were one too many late nights when you’d show up stinking of bacon. I couldn’t continue to support your new, uh, hobby.
  5. You shut me out. I wanted to read your post. But you blocked me with a newsletter sign up or some ridiculous navigation scheme or add-ons that take forever to load. Your tiny white text on a black background completely obscured anything you were trying to tell me by making your story physically unreadable. I wept with frustration, why would you draw me in like that and then, make it so difficult for me to read you? Why?
  6. You stopped caring. Maybe you never cared and I was initially attracted to your fly in the face of grammar rules bad boy ways. Your random use of commas was cute at first, but I hoped you’d grow out of it. Your mysterious word order and rambling sentences held my attention because I couldn’t wait to see what you were going to do next. But then, I overheard you say these fatal words, “I don’t care about writing, I’m just trying to get the blog updated five times a week.” Your disregard of all that was dear to me was intentional. That noise you heard, it was my heart breaking.

It was over.

I’m not saying we should get back together. You probably don’t want to anyways, after I’ve turned out to be so unforgiving. “Hey, that thing with the hotel property, it was just that one time, I don’t get why a little experimentation had to ruin everything between us.” I know, I know, but I’m a promiscuous reader and there are so many travel blogs, so many. We were never exclusive. There are only 24 hours in a day and I can’t read all the time.

Right now, you’re probably blocking my Google+ posts and photoshopping Xeni Jardin over me in your Flickr feed. I don’t blame you; Xeni is freaky smart. I just thought that maybe, if you are open minded about what I’m saying, your next reader won’t have to go through the same kind of guilt and disappointment I felt when it came to that final unsubscribe moment.

Okay, maybe you’re happy with the readers you have now, and they’re not so critical, and really, who cares what I think anyways, we’re SO not together any more. I get it. I know. It’s not you, it’s me.

[flickr image via Nina Matthews Photography]

Top tips for TBEX and other writers’ conferences: What I’ve learned from 20 years of success stories at Book Passage

When Elaine Petrocelli conceived the idea for the first Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference 20 years ago, she didn’t know what she was getting into. “All I really knew was that I loved great travel writing and photography, and I thought it would be fascinating to bring the best writers and photographers together for a few days to talk with aspiring writers and photographers about what they do and how they do it,” says the co-owner of Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, California, where the conference is held for four days each August. To help realize her dream, Petrocelli contacted the then travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle – who, as luck would have it, was me — and I contacted legendary travel writer Jan Morris, who agreed to be the first guest of honor, and the Book Passage conference was born.

That was 20 summers ago. We certainly didn’t imagine then that two decades later conference alumni would have published hundreds of articles and photographs in national magazines and newspapers, and dozens of books that directly resulted from contacts made and lessons learned at the conference. We didn’t think that some alumni would be so successful that they would return in future years as members of the conference faculty. And we didn’t dream that we would be celebrating in 2011 with the most ambitious Book Passage Travel, Food and Photography Conference yet.

We’ve learned a lot over the past 20 years and the conference has evolved to embrace those lessons. We’ve added food writing and photography to the menu and focused more and more on writing for the web, blogging and self-publishing. We’ve included in-the-field workshops and one-on-one evaluations, expanded the faculty and fine-tuned the panels and events. And we’ve added karaoke!

Most importantly of all, we’ve learned from the successes of our participants what it takes to get the most out of attending a conference — whether it’s Book Passage or other creative conferences around the country. Thinking ahead to TBEX in June and to the many other summer gatherings now offered, I thought it would be helpful to share the top tips I’ve learned from successful students.

Fittingly enough, as I’ve put these together, I’ve realized that these tips can equally be applied to getting the most out of any journey:1) Know before you go
Do your research before your journey starts. Know everything you can about the territory: the conference schedule (when do activities start and end, when are the break times, when do you eat, when can you rest), the venue (how far is it from your hotel to the event, where is food, caffeine and cabernet available), and the faculty (what are their blogs and their books and their areas of expertise – if at all possible, read their work before you go).

2) Plan your itinerary
Know who you definitely want to meet (authors, photographers, editors, publishers, producers, participants), and what subjects you want to learn about (at TBEX, for example, this could be making money from blogging, working with pr people, maximizing technology, and/or refining your non-fiction narrative style). If you want to be sure to meet author X and learn about subject Y, mark that author X is reading on Friday at 7 pm and subject Y is being discussed at a panel on Saturday at 10 am, and map your schedule accordingly (this is especially handy when someone spontaneously asks if you want to go to dinner on Friday).

3) Be a sponge
When I’m on the road on assignment, I try to absorb everything; I pick up brochures, postcards, menus, facts. I know I’ll end up discarding 90 percent of them, but since I’m not sure at the time which 10 percent I’ll want to use, I vacuum up everything I can. Past participants say the same applies to conferences. You won’t be able to attend that reading, workshop or panel after it’s over, so do everything you can while you can (and yes, this includes karaoke).

4) Embrace serendipity
Once you’ve crafted your carefully planned itinerary, don’t be afraid to detour from it. My best travel stories always come from serendipitous connections – the artist I meet through a chance encounter, the festival I hear about along the way. I love the story of the Book Passage student who by chance sat at a table with an editor from a publishing company, started talking about his travels in Europe and ended lunch with a contract for a book. If you meet someone fascinating or stumble upon a subject you know nothing about that instantly intrigues you, go with the flow. Dozens of students’ stories affirm that the life-turning, career-changing encounters were unplanned and unforeseen. When the universe opens a door, walk through it.

5) Practice the art of vulnerability
It’s a lesson I keep re-learning in my travels: The more open you are to the world, the more the world rewards you. Open yourself to the people and lessons around you. Embrace the risk; trust in the kindness of strangers. As countless students at Book Passage have found, if you really want to talk to Tim Cahill, pluck up your courage and approach him. (You’ll find he’s remarkably friendly.) And at TBEX, Book Passage and other conferences, you take out only as much as you put in. The more you leave there, the more you’ll bring home.

6) Keep the journey alive
The road doesn’t end when the conference ends. That’s just the beginning. Follow up with the contacts you’ve made. Incorporate the lessons you’ve learned. There’s no such thing as overnight success: All success is the result of hard work and respectful persistence. Pursue your passion; follow your dream. There’s no guarantee where your journey will take you, but as I learned long ago on the Karakoram Highway, there’s only one way to get there: step by step.

[flickr image via raindog]

Travelocity video contest awards winners $5,000 voluntourism vacation grants

Travelocity knows you work hard. That’s why the online travel company would like to give you a $5,000 grant to go on vacation.

Calm down now. You have to work to win your just reward. And by work, I mean you or a team need to submit a winning video. Then you have to use your five thousand smackers to take a Signature Trip volunteer vacation offered by Travelocity’s voluntourism partners. Examples include doing trail work in Alaska with the American Hiking Society, developing community projects in Tanzania with Cross-Cultural Solutions, working side-by-side with scientists on an Amazonian riverboat with Earthwatch Institute, or living in a children’s home in Peru with Globe Aware. Oh, and there’s one more catch. The top 25 finalists will be determined based on the number of online votes they receive from social networking sites.

Since 2006, Travelocity’s Travel for Good® program has been annually awarding eight, $5,000 volunteer vacation grants to American applicants. Travel for Good’s main objectives are green hotels and voluntourism. As Gadling has previously reported, voluntourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry.

If hands-on, experiential travel is up your alley, go to VolunteerJournals.com. The site will walk you through the easy process to upload your video. You can then promote your video on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and send it to friends and family for voting.
Each video should explain why you deserve to win, and which Signature Trip from Travelocity’s voluntourism partners inspires you. Volunteers and grant winners also have use of the site’s free blogging platform to share their experiences.

The top 25 finalists will be determined by 50 percent audience support and 50 percent quality of their videos. There are two contest cycles per year, and Travelocity employees will select four winners from the top 25 finalists from each cycle. There are two deadlines for entries: March 31 (voting is April 1-May 31), and July 1-September 31 (voting October 1-November 30). Get filming!