So you want to be a travel writer?

A few weeks ago The Adventurists interviewed me about what it was really like to write a travel book. Gazillions of people think they want to waft around the globe with a quill and some ink, but it’s not all cocktails and glamour you know. 

The Adventurists: How did you get funding for your book, A Short Ride in the Jungle? I work freelance as a TV producer so spent a solid year prior to writing my book working my butt off on various BBC documentaries, squirrelling away as much money as I could. Not only did I need to save enough cash to spend two months travelling the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I also had to support myself afterwards while I wrote my book. The trip itself was fairly cheap: under £3,000 including flights, kit, specialist insurance and food and accommodation on the road. It was living in the UK and not earning anything while I wrote the book that was the expensive bit! Although I did receive some extremely useful sponsorship in kind – such as my Honda Cub from Explore Indochina and my visas from The Visa Machine – I didn’t bother with trying to raise financial sponsorship. Firstly I didn’t have time to write a million letters to companies begging for money. Secondly, I wanted my trip to be low-key and low-fi; riding through the jungle splashed with corporate logos wasn’t part of my ethos. I did also receive a teency weency advance from my publisher, but it was barely enough to cover my return airfare to Vietnam. These days advances are rarely sizeable.

The Adventurists: How did you get a publisher? Summersdale are well-known for producing quality, mainstream travel titles and I’d been in touch with them for a few years, bandying around ideas for another book. I’d already co-written Tuk Tuk to the Road in 2006 so I had a proven track record – it was just a matter of finding the right story. I suggested a solo motorcycle ride down the Ho Chi Minh Trail during a Skype call with Summersdale one day, and a few weeks later we were signing contracts: cue six months of me wondering what the hell I’d let myself in for. The good thing about Summersdale is that they will accept unsolicited manuscripts, whereas most of the bigger publishing houses won’t accept anything unless it comes via a literary agent. Getting an agent is a whole other ball game – chickens and eggs spring to mind. Since agents take 10-15% of your fees I haven’t wanted to go down that route yet. But given the complexity of international and digital rights and all that malarkey, I might change my mind.

The Adventurists: How did you research and plan the trip? The idea for the book came about through a BBC2 documentary on the Ho Chi Minh Trail that I had produced the previous year. Hence I’d already spent three months not only intensively researching and filming the Trail but building up an invaluable network of contacts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This was a huge advantage and meant that planning my solo journey didn’t take a massive amount of organisation. The thing that took the most planning however, was my kit. Since I would be travelling alone through remote areas for the best part of two months I had to be fairly self-sufficient and take things like a tool kit, medical kit, hammock and emergency food supplies. But I was also riding a tiny 90cc motorcycle which I didn’t want to load too heavily. It forced me to think very hard about what went into my £25 panniers – nothing could be superfluous to my mission. In terms of academic research, over the course of the two year period – from working for the BBC to finishing my book – I read a massive amount of material on Southeast Asia and the Indochina Wars, watched endless documentaries and spoke to numerous Vietnamese and American veterans of the conflict.

The Adventurists: How did you record your experiences on the trip? Writing is like painting a picture; you need the tiny details as much as the broad brush strokes in order to bring the scene to life for your reader. What did that festering pile of turd smell like? What shade of puce was the man’s face when his pants fell down? What sound did your wheels make as they crunched over the dirt? Exactly how wet were you after riding through that tropical thunderstorm? What did it feel like to be alone in the jungle? On a road trip like this, when you see and experience so much every day, it’s vital to record these details as you go along. Let your diary writing slip for even a day and it’s amazing how much you forget. I (hand) wrote a diary at least once a day, stopped every few hours to babble things into a dictaphone app I’d downloaded onto my iPhone and took hundreds of photos and the occasional video. And because I was paranoid about losing all of this I was religious about backing everything up: I took photos of every page of my diary and saved them to Dropbox, emailed the voice recordings to myself as wav files and downloaded and backed up my photos every night, no matter how tired I was.

The Adventurists: How did you plan the writing? I knew before I started writing that the book had to be between 80-100,000 words long. I also knew I wanted each chapter to be around ten pages – 4000 words – long. I read a lot of travel literature and, in my opinion, having roughly uniform, bite-size chunks like this makes for more of a page turner. The beauty of writing about a journey like this is that it has its own narrative, so it’s not like you’ve got to dream up the plot and manufacture characters. All those factors already exist. However, I also wanted to weave the story and history of both the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War throughout my personal account, with this history unfolding with my own journey. This did take some planning, and the most rewrites. On a day to day basis, before I put finger to keyboard every morning I scribbled notes on the next section. The more I planned, the better my day’s writing went. It reminded me of a well known military maxim: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

The Adventurists: How did you motivate yourself to write? I returned from Vietnam on 26 April 2013, and I had to give Summersdale the first draft by 31 September 2013. Having five months to churn out 100,000 words is a pretty good motivating tool I can tell you! I’d also saved the right amount of money to last me for five months and knew that at the end of that period I’d need to get another TV job – another pretty good motivating factor. In order to produce a minimum of 1000 words daily I treated writing like a job. It didn’t matter if I felt inspired or not, every morning I was at my desk at 9 a.m. and worked until at least 5 p.m. I took our dog, Seamus, for a walk before work, at lunch and in the evening, and every few hours I’d make a cup of Earl Grey and have a good boogie to whatever was playing on Radio 6. I was ruthlessly disciplined – never answering the phone or noodling on the internet. This Draconian style doesn’t suit all writers: some write on buses, in cafes, first thing in the morning or in the dead of night. But it worked for me. When I handed my first draft in I worked out I’d spent a thousand hours writing, drunk 500 cups of Earl Grey, walked Seamus an estimated 400 times and startled at least ten blackbirds with my kitchen renditions of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky.’ Vitally, I love writing, so although it was an extremely intense five months it was enormously satisfying. For me writing is an immersive, meditative experience: those thousand hours flew by.

The rules of engagement..
The rules of engagement..

The Adventurists: How did you edit? I self-edit all the time as I write, so at the end of each day I had a fairly polished chunk of prose. The next stage of editing was my boyfriend Marley, an excellent writer, who read and commented on my work at the end of every three or four chapters. Once I finished my first draft the manuscript went to my editor, Jennifer Barclay, then later to my copy-editor Rebecca Legros. This process of editing, re-writes, copy-editing, final tweaks and proofreading lasted for another three months, with the book finally going to print in early January this year and being released on 7 April.

The Adventurists: What would you have done differently? I’d have liked a little more time to write the book, especially for the final editing stages. By the time I was doing rewrites and proofreading I was not only moving house but also working on a demanding TV job. To say it was stressful is an understatement. Oh, and I’d have also won the lottery – that would have helped enormously.

The Adventurists: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a travel book? Lots of people think they want to write a travel book, but it’s not for everyone. If you really think it’s for you, then here are a few pointers. Make sure you really, really love writing! Read a wide variety of travel literature. Choose a story that you’re passionate about. Writing a book takes a lot of dedication and you can’t risk getting bored halfway through. I’m mad about motorcycles, travel, Southeast Asia and history, so writing a book about riding the Trail was a dream combination. Find your voice. Don’t try and copy other writers, find your own unique writing style and stick to it. Be unwaveringly determined. Don’t give up the day job. Unless you’re Paul Theroux it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever make any real money out of writing travel books. You do it because you love it, not because you want to buy a gold-plated Rolls Royce.

The Adventurists: How are you promoting your book? Promoting books is almost as hard as writing the darn things. Summersdale have done a good job on the PR front, and between us we’ve got some great coverage in magazines (Wanderlust, Conde Nast Traveller, Overland, Overland Journal, Bristol Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Ride, Adventure Bike Rider), Radio (Radio 4, Radio Bristol, Radio Norfolk, Radio Free Europe) and various blogs and websites (Good Reads, the Environmental Investigation Agency, Me and my Big Mouth…). There’s also some international press coming up, for example in The Word magazine in Vietnam. Ultimately the job of promoting a book is never over, and I’ll be banging on about it, giving talks, writing articles, Tweeting etc for years to come! This summer, for example, you can see me at Shambala Festival and The Adventure Travel Film Festival.

The Adventurists: What was the hardest bit about the whole process? Writing a book is just like any journey – there are days when you speed along and everything goes to plan, and there are days when the words tie themselves in knots and refuse to come. And, like most journeys, there’s a point when you hit the doldrums and, however hard to try, simply can’t move forwards. I hit the doldrums at around the 30,000 word marker. For a week I sat staring at my screen, deleting everything I wrote, feeling increasingly frustrated. It felt like climbing a mountain and being able to see the summit, but not quite being able to take those last steps to reach the top and see down the other side. The only solution was to keep sitting there, keep trying, keep forcing the cogs of my brain to turn. Then, one day, normal cerebral operations were resumed and I was off, racing through the words again. That was a difficult time.

A Short Ride in the Jungle

My book  A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle, is out now and available online worldwide (except currently the USA and Canada) and in paperback all good UK bookshops. You can even download and pick up copies in Thailand, South Africa, New Zealand, Malaysia, Ireland and various other places. If you don’t have a Kindle you can always download the Kindle app to your smartphone or tablet and purchase it that way.