What’s on my travel memoir bookshelf?

Every writer knows it’s important to read within your genre.

For me, this is not a reason to read travel memoirs as much as an excuse. I love travel memoirs. I read every one I can get my hands on. And now that I’m writing one, I read them in the name of research.

One of my favorite travel authors is Paul Theroux — I read his most recent book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, pubbed in 1975) while traipsing through Madagascar last year. But what I’m really focusing on now — partly out of interest, partly for research purposes — is travel memoirs written by women, particularly women traveling alone.

This comes in handy for my book proposal, which has a section called “Competitive Books,” where I list already-published titles that will be competition for my book. (Proposal writers take note: It’s also important to explain briefly why your book will be different and better than those titles.)

So what’s on my travel memoir bookshelf?

To help you decide whether to read these yourself, I’ve rated them on a three-star three-asterisk system. Three is best.

Have I missed any memoirs written by women traveling alone?

A quick note on how my book will be different and better, as required by my book proposal. As you can see, very few memoirs written by women traveling alone take place in Africa. And most of these authors were older than thirty, while my perspective is that of a woman in her late twenties.

But most importantly (aside from my literary voice, of course), unlike most women’s travel books, my story is not about looking for love nor running away from a failed relationship. It’s about taking a leap in life, following a dream, and how that in itself — even without a man, if you can believe it — is thrilling and satisfying.

How to turn your blog into a book

The movie Julie & Julia started out a blog, then became a book (and finally, a film).

It’s the most well-known example of a story that went from blog to book. But that tale — which, ironically, is partly about a frustrated writer — isn’t the only one. An increasing number of blogs are being published as books.

I’m one of the writers trying to make that happen. Whenever I talk about transforming my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, into a memoir, I say my blog is serving as a “skeleton” for my book. That’s because creating a book from a blog requires much more work than simply pasting together posts.

So how does one go about turning a blog into a book? What does it take?

Figure out your theme. Penelope Trunk, who got a six-figure book deal from her blog, says the main difference between blog posts and a book is that the latter has to have a Big Idea. She’s right. For me, that Big Idea is a theme, a thread that pulls all of my mini stories into one narrative, a story with a point.

Consider your voice. I love my blog voice. Blogging comes naturally to me. I’m funny on my travel blog, maybe even funnier than I am in real life. But my blog voice does not always translate into literary voice. Why? Because it’s choppy. On my blogs, I write in short sentences, quick paragraphs that are easy to read. But my book has to read smoothly, with longer paragraphs, because I’m writing entire chapters, not posts. A book is 300 pages, not eight paragraphs like a blog post. That means my book voice is slightly different than my blog voice. Maybe your blog voice translates directly to your book. But maybe it doesn’t. Either way, this is something to think about.

Add transitions. On my blog, it was okay for me to be in South Africa one day, Madagascar the next. That doesn’t work for my book. Taking the reader along for the ride is more literal, and smooth transitions are important.

Double — or triple — the stories. The book is about more than what I wrote on the blog. Otherwise, why would you buy it? Why would you buy my book if you could just scroll through my travel blog for the exact same stories? My book has got to offer more stories, more introspection, more something. Whatever your something is, offer more.

Add context. On my blog, I have an About Me section and a sidebar with links that explain background about why I left my job to travel. In the book, that’s gotta be in paragraph form, part of the story. I have to include background in an interesting way because the reader can’t just click around my book, choosing links that provide context.

Improve and reuse. Even blog posts that make it into the book must be rewritten better than they were on the blog. Think of the blog as a rough draft. The book version needs more description, dialogue, pretty much everything I neglected to include when I quickly wrote the post in an Internet cafe in Cameroon, trying to finish it before the power went out. For example, here’s a post I wrote for my travel blog; here’s the better version I wrote for the book.

Don’t forget to use the blog to sell your book. Write about the popularity of your blog in your book proposal. Inkslinging in Africa got 50,000 page views during its first six months. That may not be a huge number by some standards, but it’s impressive for an independent start-up, and it shows there’s a market for my stories.

Anyone out there embarking on a blog-to-book project? Or considering one? Got advice to add to the list above? What sort of blogs do you think might make good books?

Rewriting. Not my manuscript, my proposal.

One of my projects while at The Hambidge Center was to rewrite my proposal.

I wrote my proposal once already, at the beginning of this year, before I began writing the book. Back then it served as an outline and guide as I began to draft chapters.

But as I prepare to seek out an agent to represent me, my proposal needs to be rewritten. A lot has changed between when I first started writing and now, when I’m just a few weeks away from finishing a draft of the manuscript.

Rewriting that proposal helped me realize just how far I’ve come. My themes are more solid than they were nine months ago. I’ve cut several chapters and changed the direction of others. Now I’m not writing about how I want the book to read, I’m writing about how it does read.

I also can see clearly the work that lies ahead of me. The last third of my manuscript needs more shaping than the first two thirds. And the book is still too long — It won’t yet hit the 85,000 to 90,000 word-window that I’m aiming for. Trimming and cutting will be a big part of my revision process.

What’s in the proposal? The first 10 pages include an overview of the book, my promotion plan (what I’ll do to sell the book), a list of competitive books and how mine is different, and my bio. Then 23 pages of chapter summaries. Finally, two sample chapters from my manuscript, which tacks on another 24 pages. In total, it’s a 58-page document.

It’s polished and ready to go!

Tackling Chapter One, the scariest of them all

I’ve never been the kind of journalist that can bang out a lead. Sometimes it’s easy to crank out the first paragraph, but more often than not I write the rest of the story and return to the lead afterward, crafting it right on deadline.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I feel challenged by the first chapter of my book. The other chapters? They’re moving along quite quickly now. But every time I return to Chapter One, I feel a little… intimidated.

Chapter One is important because it contains the first ten pages of the book, which give readers, as well as publishers and agents, reason to keep reading or skip the story altogether. (Check out this post on the Murdock Editing bog about re-thinking your first ten pages.) It’s my opportunity to pump a lil’ theme into the book, give my adventure purpose and hit the reader with my voice right off the bat.

So I’m embracing the technique that’s always worked for me in journalism: I write what I can, whatever inspires me on a particular day, which often means avoiding the first chapter. I’m writing this book in pieces, slowly weaving lots of short stories together to form one themed book. This has become one of my favorite parts of writing; Every morning, I wake up excited and ask myself: What scene do you want to write today?

Part of the reason this tactic works for me — aside from capitalizing on whatever inspires me that day — is because I’ve already outlined the manuscript.

But it’s time for me to write Chapter One. Partly because my critique group keeps asking for it. “We’ve read the middle of the book!” they say. “Give us the beginning!” But really, I need this push. I’ve got to get down on paper the meat of the manuscript, a basic explanation of why on earth I decided to leave my reporting job and go to Africa, alone.

So I’m finally writing the lead.

Anybody else out there have trouble with the first chapter? Do you save it for last, or hunker down and write it right off the bat?

Bookmark and Share

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner addresses memoir

Memoir includes elements of both nonfiction and fiction, as I’ve discussed before on this blog. While literary agent Miss Snark calls it a pesky category buster, until today I was ready to call it the forgotten genre. Although literary agents seem eager to represent memoir, most don’t specifically address the genre or its submission guidelines online.

So when literary agent Rachelle Gardner called for questions on her Rants & Ramblings blog, I jumped right in with inquires about memoir. Today she answered them! I’ll paste part of her post here, but for her full answer and readers’ comments (which are quite helpful), check out the entire post on memoir guidelines.

Alexis Grant asked: Would you consider a post on memoir guidelines, since memoir falls somewhere between fiction and nonfiction in many ways? For my travel memoir, should I query when I have a proposal and several sample chapters, like nonfiction, or wait until the manuscript is complete, like fiction? What’s the usual word-count window for memoir? Are there any other areas—aside from reading like a novel—where I should follow fiction guidelines instead of nonfiction?

Great questions! I think memoir requires the most out of a writer, because it’s non-fiction, so platform matters. But it’s also story-driven and the writing is the most important aspect, so it requires the level of attention to the art and craft of writing that fiction does.

I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about whether to query with sample chapters or a complete manuscript. With a first-timer, I always prefer to read the whole thing before I make a decision whether to take it on. At the very least, I want to read three or four chapters, and perhaps rough versions or outlines of the remaining chapters.

I DO recommend finishing the manuscript before you query. Like with a first novel, you are going to discover so much in the writing process. I believe your book will morph and evolve throughout the writing, and so those first few chapters, though written, will not actually be complete until you’ve finished the book. A memoir is a work of art much more than the typical non-fiction book.

If you don’t read Rachelle’s blog, start now. It’s worth your time!

Bookmark and Share

When to query?

Maybe I’m going about this all backwards.

During an Editor Unleashed live chat on Wednesday, literary agent Jessica Faust not only critiqued my query, she also made me reconsider my writing and publishing plan.

I was under the impression that an agent and publisher would consider my book based on a quality proposal and sample chapters, before I write the entire manuscript. That’s how many nonfiction books are sold.

Fiction works differently; writers are usually required to finish the manuscript before they have a chance at getting an advance.

Narrative nonfiction, the genre of my book, fits somewhere in between. It is nonfiction, but it actually has more in common with fiction. It has to read like a novel. Unlike nonfiction “how to” books, readers will buy my travel memoir for the same reason they might buy fiction, because it’s a good story.

That’s why Faust says I need to write the entire book before sending out queries. I’ve got to treat this travel memoir like fiction.

Continue reading

What makes my book unique?

A big part of selling my book will be convincing both an agent and a publisher that it’s unique, different than travel memoirs already on bookstore shelves.

So from the beginning, I’ve asked myself: What makes my book unique?

Travelogues written by women voyaging alone have become so popular, they’re practically their own genre (Think: Eat, Pray Love.) And plenty of travel memoirs are set in Africa.

But put those two themes together, and you’ll recognize the niche I’m about to fill: Very few travel memoirs have been written by women traveling in Africa. It’s even rarer for a female author to backpack the continent alone.

My book, however, must be unique for more than its plot. Publishers and readers will look for a literary voice that stands out, a style that’s fresh. I’ve got to let my dry humor and perspective shine, while shedding light on far-away places and foreign friends. That means inserting my personality into my writing.

In the end, that’s what’s going to make this book sucessful: my writing personality. My style. My voice.

Watch out, literary world.

The all-important query

A query is a pitch to a literary agent, asking him or her to look at your book proposal and hopefully represent your work.

There are lots of resources on the Web that explain how to write the perfect query letter. The one-page letter should give a summary of the book’s plot and theme, as well as why readers would buy it. It should include information about the author and why she’s qualified to write the book. And it’s gotta be catchy — this is the writer’s one chance to catch the eye of an agent.

I’ve already written my query. As soon as I finish my sample chapters and add them to my book proposal, I’ll start sending the letter to literary agents.

I’ve personalized my query for every agent I plan to send it to, explaining why I chose them. But the meat of the letter is the same. It includes my working title (which may change as I write), selling handle and comparison to another published book, three components I’ve already addressed on this blog.

Wanna have a look?

Dear [agent name here],

I hope you’ll be the right agent to take on my travel memoir, Madame or Mademoiselle? A woman’s solo journey through Africa.

The story of a journalist who leaves a stable Houston life to backpack through an undeveloped continent in search of adventure, this poignant narrative will inspire readers to take leaps in their own lives. Think Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari on estrogen, with a dash of optimism and a few dozen wannabe-suitors thrown in.

While this is my first book, I’ve been published for years in newspapers and magazines. I turned stories for three years at the Houston Chronicle, and I hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I thrive on deadlines and enjoy the editing process. I’m 28: full of potential and worth your investment.

Madame or Mademoiselle? will bring readers by boat to Timbuktu, to Cameroon to deliver a gift to a grieving polygamous family and to a dangerous Malagasy bus station after midnight, when even an independent woman admits she’s vulnerable. I tested the saleability of these stories through my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, which garnered 50,000 hits in just six months, an impressive figure for an independent start-up.

Please let me know whether you’re interested in looking over my 29-page proposal, plus two sample chapters. I’ve provided a self-addressed, stamped postcard for your response.

Thanks for your consideration,

Alexis Grant

After hearing on Twitter that agent Jessica Faust would critique several queries on an Editor Unleashed forum, I jumped at the opportunity to submit mine. Faust is on my list of agents I plan to approach, so having her feedback would be useful. She’ll critique my query and four others during a live online discussion on Editor Unleashed on May 13 at 11 a.m. I’ll let you know what she suggests!

In the meantime, I’d love to hear YOUR suggestions. Is this short and sweet enough? Does it get my point across? What can I do better?

Morphing a good title into the perfect title

Thanks for all the feedback on my working title, Madame or Mademoiselle? A Woman’s Solo Journey Through Africa.

Here’s the consensus: Readers seemed to like the subtitle, A Woman’s Solo Journey Through Africa. But not everyone was satisfied with the first half of the title, Madame or Mademoiselle?

It’s too long, some critics said. It’s not easy to pronounce out loud. And it might discourage potential male readers from buying the book.

This was helpful criticism. More than anything, it reinforced my gut feeling, that the first half of the title is decent, but not perfect. And that’s what I’m looking for — the perfect title.

The theme behind the title, however, seemed to go over well. So I’m sticking with the theme, continuing to write and hoping a title will come to me as I put words on the page. If it doesn’t, I might just be back here asking y’all to participate in a brainstorming session.