Travel memoirs are notoriously hard to get published. Yet when they’re done well, they’re my favorite kind of stories to read. Perhaps publishers are put off by author’s propensity to simply write about one’s trip, instead of a deep examination of encountering another culture and transforming oneself. I was fortunate enough to get my travel memoir, Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights, published in 2012. Here are 5 things I did wrong and 5 things I did right while writing my book that I believed hindered and ultimately helped me reach publication.
Some things I did wrong:
1. I had an issue with word count.
I didn’t know how many words a publishable book should be. This information would have been simple to obtain. I just never bothered to obtain it. Now, I tell everyone I meet who has ever thought of writing a book that a publishable book is about 80-90 thousand words.
At the time I was writing my book, the idea of an entire book seemed so incredibly daunting that I put EVERYTHING into it. By the time I finished the first half of my book, my total word count was 150,000 words. This is ridiculously long—equalling around 450 book pages—and it was only the first half! Did I really want to go on to write a 900 page tome on the two years I spent in the United Arab Emirates? No way!
I wanted to write a snappy, un-put-downable, commercial story, full of romance and discovery. I managed to become ruthlessly unattached to many of my chapters and scenes and the final manuscript was 105,000, which equalled 300 book pages. It’s still long, but that’s in the publishable realm. Anything beyond that is probably not.
2. I tried to sell my travel memoir before I wrote it.
Although I’ve heard of other memoirs being sold in advance, this tactic was a dead-end for me. Once I wrote three chapters I was happy with, I switched my focus to learning everything I could about how to sell a memoir (except for how many words it should be). Not only was I just not ready to sell my book at this point, but leaping into learning about pitching agents and marketing my story took me out of whatever writing groove I had managed to create. Finally, I realised that I had to plunge back in without a book deal, and was much better off for it.
3. I thought I should have a gimmick.
I wasn’t especially ‘in search’ of anything when I moved to Abu Dhabi. That’s okay by me, but not necessarily okay with the publishing industry. They wanted more of a tidy package, an easy selling point surrounding my ‘year of’ project or my attempt to ‘discover myself’. For a brief time, I considered retrospectively developing a gimmick and tacking it onto my story. But of course, that would be insincere. It wasn’t my story or the one I wanted to write. But I wasted some time pining over more sellable books that had clear and tantalizing (to publishers) hooks to hand their stories on.
4. Apparently, I write too much about boys.
I love reading travel memoirs by women and learning about their attractions and affairs. I love deep, considered writing about all kinds of romantic relationships. In such books, including my own, the narrator’s relationships, especially romantic ones, reveal so much about the culture of the new place, and bring so much meaty personal information to light. Yet, many agents rejected my book because it was too focused on boys. Once again, this reaction made me doubt myself and the story I wanted to tell.
5. I didn’t get enough feedback.
Fortunately, I did have one fantastic reader, and sometimes that’s all you need. But I wish I had found or developed more of a writing community, live or virtual, around the book writing process. In 2008, there either wasn’t much in the way of online writing communities as there are now, or I just wasn’t aware of them. Either way, I could have saved myself some loneliness by seeking out more writing friends and sharing writing with them.
Some things I did right:
1. I took a year off.
This is certainly not feasible for many people. It wouldn’t be feasible for me to do right now, since I now have a husband and a daughter. But at 28, I didn’t have those things. I also have a mother and sister who are very generous and were willing to let me live with them. It was a luxury to take that time off from any sort of paid work, live off my meagre savings (and my family), and focus on telling my story.
2. As I mentioned above, I overwrote the book.
In many ways, this wasted a lot of time. And I wouldn’t recommend overwriting your book in quite the way I overwrote mine. But I did see an advantage in writing more than was necessarily and cutting back, rather than trying to keep to a strict word count, or writing less and then trying to add onto my story. Having a lot of material helped me to see the real bones of the story, and pare down to the essentials. Without doing that, I wouldn’t have known what the essentials were.
3. In the end, I wrote exactly the book I wanted to write—not what I thought would be trendy or popular.
Although I considered it, I didn’t change the book based on a literary agent’s whim. I relived my experiences, and then distilled them for an audience. I wrote exactly the book I wanted to read, and in the end, that’s all that you can hope to accomplish. While writing this book, I read a lot of travel memoirs, and this helped me to sort out what I loved about the genre, and what I didn’t want to include in my own story. I recommend becoming an expert reader of the genre you’re working in. Develop your own aesthetic, and write to that.
4. I started writing just after the story finished.
I didn’t write my story as it was happening, and I didn’t wait five or ten years. Sometimes, it’s good to write in the moment, or much later. But for the story I wanted to tell, I found the right time to express it. I could have never written about my relationships with such depth of feeling much later on, because the memory of that intensity vanished. My opinions on some of the characters that populated my story have since veered into impolite caricature. If I had written in the moment, the intensity of those relationships would have been too great, and the story would have delved into melodrama. With the clarity of physical distance, I was able to reflect just enough about my experiences, and still easily relive them for the purpose of telling my story.
5. I believed in my book and my story, so I didn’t give up.
When I finished the manuscript, I spent a year and a half trying to get it published. I didn’t give up when, one-by-one, ten agents who had asked to read my manuscript rejected it because they ‘liked it but didn’t love it,’ and I ‘deserved a champion’ for my book. I didn’t give up when one agent said that he loved my book and couldn’t wait to support me throughout my long writing career, and then reject me a few days later when the literary agency he was part of didn’t agree with his assessment to represent my book. I didn’t give up when an agent called me to tell me she wanted to represent me and would email me a contract the next day. That contract she promised never appeared. Instead I received an email stating that she had changed her mind. I didn’t give up when I moved to Australia and sent my query letters out to agents in Sydney, and experienced more rejection.
My manuscript was finally accepted by an Australian agent who decided to take on my book because she could think of at least two publishers who would be interested. That seemed like a strong reason to represent a book to me. A week later, Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights sold to Pan Macmillan. I didn’t need a gimmick, or to stop writing about boys. I did need an agent and a publisher who appreciated my story and the part of the world where it took place. Finding that wasn’t easy, and I’m glad I didn’t give up.