Q&A with Laura Munson, a Modern Love success story

If you’ve ever thought about giving up as a writer, this Q&A is for you. Laura Munson wrote 14 books over the last 20 years, while juggling responsibilities as a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer. But not one of those books was published — until now.

Laura Munson

Laura’s a Modern Love success story. Her book, This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, garnered interest from publishers after her piece ran in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. I’m slightly obsessed with Modern Love, which is why Laura caught my eye. The column features short, narrative nonfiction by a different writer each week, and those who are lucky enough to get a byline often end up with a book deal.

Laura lives in northwest Montana. You can find her at her website (I love its look), on Twitter and on Facebook (fabulous interactive page).

Welcome, Laura! Tell us about your book. Why should we read it? What sets your memoir apart from others on bookstore shelves?

My book is called This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness. Though a marital crisis is the entry point, true to its title, it’s not an angry, victim-stanced rant. Rather, it’s a book about empowerment. It’s about being responsible for your own well-being, even and especially when you’re in crisis. You don’t have to be married to relate to this book. It’s about a person’s commitment to end her suffering and you can plug that into any or no religion, and any relationship, namely your relationship with yourself.

What writing experience did you have before Modern Love picked up your column?

I’ve been writing for 20 years, and have completed 14 unpublished books. My short work has been published in literary reviews and regional magazines prior to my Modern Love piece. Since then, I’ve been published in The New York Times Magazine, O. Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Week, and The Huffington Post.

What prompted you to write the column for Modern Love? Did you know when you submitted it that writers who are published there often land book deals?

It’s really important in this economy and in the current publishing world for an unknown author to have a platform. I didn’t have one and my books were falling through the cracks even though a few of them almost went all the way. My agent, with whom I’d been signed for several years, told me about Modern Love and that it was a great platform for writers. I’d submitted to ML before, but gotten rejected. While I wrote This Is Not The Story You Think It Is in real time and felt it was ready to submit to editors, my agent felt that this might be a great platform for my work, so I decided to write the short version of my memoir, and send it in to ML. I heard back immediately that they wanted it, it was published a month later, the comments crashed the New York Times website, that Monday my agent sent the book out to editors who had liked my work in the past, and two days later I had a publishing deal. It was a total shock. I never dreamed there was such a need for the message of empowerment in the context of marriage.

You’ve got a great Facebook page, Twitter feed and website. Were you always into social media? Or did you pick it up to publicize the book? Do you have advice on this front for other authors looking to promote their work?

I’ve always been a social person and an extrovert. Not all writers are. Social media comes naturally to me, and while I think it’s so amazing that writers can reach their readers without publishers these days, it can be very distracting. It’s so important for writers to structure their time, and if you don’t already have a strong work ethic or if you get easily distracted, then social media could be a downfall. Luckily I had my writing life in place long before social media existed, so for me it’s a great way to feel connected, especially living in a remote area of the country. It’s also a great marketing tool, but more than anything, I think it’s about connecting and generosity. I’ve made some great friends online.

A reader wrote on your Facebook page, “I cannot believe you messaged me back.” Do you get a lot of e-mails, Facebook comments and tweets from readers? Do you try to respond to them all? How much do you think this helps the sales of your books?

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Q&A with Indie author Stephanie Lee: solo travel & e-books

Not only do we have an awesome Q&A today with a traveler and writer, we also have my first-ever giveaway! A copy of The Art of Solo Travel. I’ll explain how to enter after the interview.

Stephanie Lee's new book.

The author of that book, Stephanie Lee, is here to share advice on traveling solo and tell us about her experience publishing an e-book.

Stephanie’s a life-long traveler; she grew up in Kuala Lumpur and San Francisco, then studied architecture in Sydney. After six years of working at architectural firms, she left everything behind for an around-the-world trip. When she returned to Sydney, where she now runs a private architectural practice and sells eco-friendly homewares, she wrote her first book, The Art of Solo Travel.

SoloFriendly.com reviewed the book, and Stephanie recently launched a Facebook page for fans.

Thanks for stopping by, Stephanie! Can you start by telling us about your travels? Where’d you go? How did you fund your big trip? Why’d you decide to go solo?

Author and traveler Stephanie Lee

To date I have travelled to over 100 cities spread over 30 countries and four continents. Travelling solo was something I had always wanted to do but I was constantly sidetracked by something or other — long architectural studies, relationships, career, the usual expected milestones in life. After obtaining those things, I felt in limbo and began to think about my dreams of solo travel again. In the end I decided that I would really regret it if I never did it, so I needed to live that dream. To do that I needed to let go of my conventional life, so gave everything up to wander the globe with a free mind and spirit.

In terms of funds, I prepared and saved for almost 11 months in order to have enough money to travel without worrying about looking for work. I understand most people would not be in the position to do this, but I only managed it because I started late (30) and by that time I had enough disposable income to travel how I wanted to.

Why’d you decide to turn those experiences into a book?

As any solo traveller will tell you, it gets really lonely and boring at times. Keeping a travel blog and documenting all my new experiences and sensations really helped with combating both loneliness and boredom. In the middle of my trip I thought it would be fun to write more stories and tips about my travels, and approached Indie Travel Podcast with some pitches. They graciously accepted me and I started writing monthly articles for them. At the end of my travels, I realized that there were so many new things I learned that could benefit other aspiring solo travellers. These slowly developed into a manuscript. After months of pro bono contributions to ITP, I pitched my book manuscript to them, and they were keen to work together publishing it. The rest is history as they say.

So is it more of a how-to book or a memoir of your experiences — or both?

It’s more of a how-to book, or a guide to inspire and help other to-be solo female travellers.

What are your top three tips for women traveling solo?

1. Be organized. There are many logistics involved with solo travel, especially transport and accommodation. It’s a good idea to plan at least two weeks ahead when it comes to accommodation. If you’re not sure where you want to stay until you get to a new place, at least have the details of two hostels/hotels just in case.

2. Pack light. When you’re alone, the last thing you want to do is worry about lots of luggage. As discussed in my ebook, keep it to one bag only, preferably 15kg or under. I managed to stick to this weight while travelling for well over nine months by sticking to my tight packing list (which still allows for an acceptable level of hygiene and comfort, so don’t worry, there’s no need to dry yourself with a t-shirt). You’ll be able to access the full list in my ebook.

3. Keep an open mind and heart. You’ll meet lots of people and encounter many situations on solo travel. There will be good and bad times. The important thing is to remember that these experiences will stay with you forever, so stay positive and embrace any possibilities.

What would you tell women who are looking to travel alone but worry about their safety?

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Zoe Zolbrod on publishing with a small press

Most of the authors I interview on this blog write nonfiction, either memoir or travel writing or a combination of both, travel memoir. But today we’ve got a guest who has used her travel experience to inform a different type of writing: fiction.

Author Zoe Zolbrod

Zoe Zolbrod‘s first novel, Currency, which is set in Thailand, was released this month. I’ve invited Zoe here not only to celebrate the release, but also to shed light on publishing with a small press. You can buy her book at Amazon.

Zoe lives outside Chicago and works as a writer and editor of literature and language arts textbooks. She blogs at The Next Youth Hostel.

Thanks for joining us, Zoe! To begin, tell us about your book.

Currency is a literary thriller set mostly in Thailand, where an American woman backpacker and a cute Thai guy get involved with each other and an endangered animal smuggling ring. It was just released by Other Voices Books as the first in their Morgan Street International Series, which celebrates novels set outside the United States by writers from any nation.

Where does your travel experience fit in?

In the mid-90s, I backpacked solo around Southeast Asia for about six months. That experience was my inspiration. While writing, I went back to Thailand on a shorter trip to do research for the book.

Why did you decide to go the novel route instead of non-fiction?

My solo travel experience affected me profoundly, but I didn’t think it was unique enough to warrant a full-length treatment. I wanted to tell an exciting story — my characters get in a lot more trouble than I ever did or, hopefully, will — and have the freedom to use literary elements to explore certain themes.

Currency was released May 16.

What challenges did you face in publishing the book?

I faced the challenge of not giving up in the face of industry indifference. And I’m not even sure I succeeded! It took me a long time to find an agent. Then, after the initial flurry yielded only rejections, she quit working for me. (She did try to talk me into co-writing a book with another client of hers, but I passed.) Then I found another agent, who eventually did the same thing. I also tried a couple smaller presses on my own, but by then the many years of rejection had weakened my spirit. It was bittersweet to be told by one of the editors that this was the best novel he’d ever turned down, and I didn’t pursue the small press angle very hard.

Eventually, I gave up and put the manuscript under the stairs in the basement. It wasn’t until a couple years later that Gina Frangello, an editor at OV Books who had read Currency in a writer’s group years ago, asked me if I would consider submitting it for consideration as a Morgan Street International title. That was in 2008, and I had just had my second baby. When they accepted the book for a 2010 release, I was almost disbelieving. There were a few more small ups and downs after it had been accepted, and it took a while to trust it was really going to happen. But it happened! I now have boxes of books in my foyer.

For those of us who don’t know much about small presses (like me), can you explain the basics? Are the standards as high as traditional publishers? Do they edit your book? Do you need an agent or can you approach them directly? Do authors make money?

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Jumping on The Lunatic Express with Carl Hoffman

When I tell people I traveled by myself through Africa, they often ask: Were you ever really scared?

They’re expecting a story about being attacked by men with machetes or feeling alone in my hostel at night. But the truth is, I was most scared when packed into overcrowded bush taxis on dangerous roads. Every time I got into one, I thought about how I’d get out if we were in a wreck.

Author and journalist Carl Hoffman

So when I heard about Carl Hoffman‘s new book, The Lunatic Express, it shot to the top of my to-read list. Lunatic is a modern-day adventure, Carl’s story of traveling the world via its most dangerous buses, trains, planes and boats. But he says the tale is not about defying death. It’s about seeing the world the way most people do, about experiencing transportation that the poor use every day. His book trailer offers some interesting photos and videos of that transportation.

Carl has a lot of traveling and writing under his belt. He’s a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, Wired and Popular Mechanics magazines, and also writes for Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Men’s Journal. He’s of the increasingly rare breed who has never worked a full-time job and makes his living freelancing. His first book, Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II, was published in 2001.

While I was in D.C., I sat down with Carl to pick his brain about traveling, writing and the book (on sale at Amazon). Now I’m sharing the best of our conversation with you.

Alexis: How’d you come up with the Lunatic idea?

Carl: I’d been traveling a lot for the last 15 to 20 years. I go to weird places a lot. And everywhere I go I just see buses, boats full of people, so crammed. I’m a curious person. I wanted to know, who are these people? Where are they going?

Hoffman's new book

I’ve always loved bus plunge stories [in newspapers], 100-word stories like, Ferry Sinks, 600 People Drown. Who are these people? It says so little about them. In that little 100 words is a big tale. It’s a tragedy, peoples’ lives. But you never know anything about it.

There’s a lot of talk about how everybody wants to go to the end of the earth… I had this thought that I could escape, but not to the end of the earth —  into the heart of the earth, to the very heart of the people, and to put my finger on something and see the world. The danger made it more salable, and I thought it would be an adventure for sure, an unpredictable adventure, but it was always less about me trying to defy death, [and more] about seeing the world and understanding the world.

Traveling for months in packed vehicles — that’s a nightmare for a lot of Americans.

The unknown is scary, always. Things over which you have no control. When you get to that train in Mali, in Bamako [Lexi’s note: Carl’s referring to a train in West Africa we’ve both taken], you’re just sort of throwing yourself into the mercy of another world and a bunch of people you don’t know, and that’s scary for people. In the end, I find that doing that can be quite liberating and fulfilling, and people are wonderful and gracious and take care of you.

Where would you like to go that you haven’t been?

I think I’ve been to 60 or 65 countries… I’d like to go to some more remote places. I like the weirder corners of the world. I’ve never been to Argentina or Buenos Aires. Africa, I’m fascinated with. I’ve been to about 10 or 12 countries in Africa, but there’s a lot more I’d like to go to.

How did you decide how to thread this story together?

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Marianne Elliott turns peacekeeping into memoir

I’m always on the look-out for other writers of travel memoir. So I was psyched to connect with Marianne Elliott, who’s working on a book about peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

Marianne’s from New Zealand, and she’s living there now while editing her book and building her yoga practice. We became Web-friends while she was looking for a literary agent, so I was able to share in her excitement when she signed with one in February.

Marianne’s joining us today to talk about her book, advice for querying agents and the intersection of writing and yoga. You might also check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.

Welcome! Can you tell us about the book you’re working on?

Marianne Elliot

I’ve written a memoir about my time working in Afghanistan as a human rights officer with the United Nations, called Zen Under Fire: Learning to Sit Still in Afghanistan.

Very soon after I took up my post I was left in charge of a regional office of the UN mission. Almost as soon as my boss walked out the door, all hell broke loose. Within hours tribal fighting in the region had killed dozens of people including children. I was in well over my head, and I was drowning.

Zen Under Fire tells the story of my descent into hopelessness in the wake of our failure to protect those children, and my slow return to a belief in the possibility of peace, even in the midst of war. It’s a very personal story but told in a context that I hope readers will find gives them a new perspective on Afghanistan and the conflict that’s playing out there.

What’s your writing background?

As a human rights lawyer I’ve spent my entire career writing. I learned early that a good story, well told, had much more impact on powerful decision-makers, so I learned to tell a good story.

I have never written a book before, but I have written book-length reports on human rights in places as diverse as New Zealand, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and East Timor.

When did you start thinking your experience would make a good book? How long did it take to write?

I wrote a blog about my experiences in Afghanistan and many of my readers encouraged me to consider writing a book based on those experiences. I had always wanted to write a book and I thought that I finally had a story worth telling so I decided to give it my best shot.

I wrote bits and pieces of the book while I was still working in the humanitarian sector, but eventually I realized that the job was so all-consuming that I would never get the book done that way. So in September last year I quit my job and wrote almost full-time for five months. I was obviously working a little through that time to pay my bills, but I wrote for at least three to four hours every day. Five months of writing every day got me a complete manuscript that was good enough to land an agent.

One of the things that some aspiring memoirists struggle with is finding their story arc and/or theme. What’s yours? Was it obvious to you from the beginning, or did it evolve with your writing process?

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Alastair Humphreys: Make a living doing what you love

Figuring out how to make a living doing what you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. But Alastair Humphreys has made it happen — and he’s our guest today.

Alastair calls himself an “adventurer” — a title that makes me oh-so-jealous. He has biked around the world, an expedition that took him four years. Completed the Marathon des Sables, a 150-mile race through the Sahara Desert. Canoed the Yukon River. Walked across India. And more.

Alastair Humphreys: adventurer, author & speaker

Alastair, who lives in Britain, has written three books about his experiences. (He self-published, but one book has since been picked up by a traditional publisher.) Yet he makes most of his money through public speaking, giving motivational talks about his adventures and inspiring groups to challenge themselves. The reason I invited him here for a Q&A is because I think many of us could make money by speaking like he does, and I wanted to learn more about how Alastair makes that work for him.

Great to have you here, Alastair! You talk about making a living doing what you love. How have you managed to do that?

The key thing is to do what you love and do something interesting. Worry about the money-making afterward. I have managed to make a living out of traveling by:

a) doing interesting things
b) documenting them well (I hope) through my blog and books
c) working hard at marketing myself
d) doing a good job when people pay me to do something for them.

From this a positive reputation can slowly begin to grow.

What kind of audiences do you speak to? Do you seek out most opportunities or do they come to you?

I speak to a lot of schools and some corporate audiences. The talks come about through a lot of hard work, cold calling and occasional spamming! I seek out the majority of my talks. However, with time, I am now starting to find that some people come directly to me, mostly through the effort I have put into in making my blog good and current.

What do you talk about? How do you keep it fresh every time?

It depends what the client wants. The essence though remains the same: exciting adventure stories and good photographs. The relevant message varies, from geography lessons to religious studies to corporates wanting to learn what difficult really means, setting high goals, etc.

Alastair cycles in Sudan

Are you naturally a good speaker? If not, how did you learn?

I would say that I am naturally articulate. But I am not naturally self-confident enough to stand up and speak to large audiences. I have gotten used to this though. The knowledge that I am the world expert on my subject (“me”) helps give me confidence. And once an audience laughs in the right place you quickly relax.

I spend a lot of time studying other speakers and trying to improve. The TED talks are great for this. I have also started doing some Pecha Kucha talks — they are very unforgiving!

How do you know how much to charge? Did you start out speaking for free?

I started for free, and then crept my fees up over a few years until I reached a level that both the client and I were happy with.

You’re a big fan of print-on-demand. Can you tell us about your writing journey? Do you sell your books when you speak?

I had the usual round of rejections from normal publishers so I self-published my book. I sold it on my site and at talks (a large advantage I have over some POD authors). On the back of a few positive reviews a mainstream publisher came along and asked me to work with them.

The biggest difficulty of becoming an author is not writing, or even publishing your book. It is selling it. Marketing and distribution are so hard.

What tips do you have for authors looking to grow their audience, promote their books or make money by speaking?

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Restless writing with Mary Morris, travel memoirist

I have this fantasy of writing not just one travel memoir, but many. Of traveling and writing for a living. Of making this journey into a lifestyle.

So I was thrilled to interview a woman who has done just that. Mary Morris has written four travel memoirs. Four! And she’s done it without becoming a complete nomad; she teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and also writes novels. Her most recent book is The River Queen. And her most well-known: Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone (1988), which, in my mind, is one of the premiere memoirs written by a woman traveling alone. Mary also has a fabulous blog.

Mary, thanks for being with us today.

Author Mary Morris

On your Web site you write, “Somebody once told me that my travel writing isn’t really travel writing, it’s a story that takes place during a journey.” Can you talk about the difference? Why does the latter work better for you?

That comment was said to me in Japan by a Japanese writer and it has stayed with me. I think that first and foremost I am a storyteller. And by that I mean anything I write involves some kind of a story. Something with an arc. Some kind of beginning, middle and end. I began by writing short stories and I still write them all the time. But many of my stories happen during journeys.

For example, my family and I have done house swaps for years and I have a whole series of stories that involve house exchanges. Travel and narrative for me go hand in hand. I am always thinking about how one thing leads to another. You go on a journey and get a flat tire. You take a wrong turn. You miss a flight. And things unfold that were not anticipated. To me real travel writing is predominately about place. But in my travel writing it seems to be more about people (and often I’d have to admit myself) as some story is unfolding.

I so admire the writers who write eloquently about place. Henry Miller and Pico Iyre come to mind. I am just rereading The Colossus of Marousi and I am dumbstruck by certain passages when Miller speaks of how he sees Greece. My writing is more restless. It’s more about what’s happening than where it is happening. Or as I once told someone, you won’t learn how to get from San Cristobal de las Cases to Panajachel in my travel writing.

When you begin a travel memoir, how do you approach it? Is your theme clear from the start, or does it emerge as you write? How long does it take you to write each book?

Mary Morris' latest book.

All my work begins in journals and, when I travel, I am constantly writing things down, recording, making notes. Often I travel with a main journal, which usually has good paper because I also do watercolors, and lots of small notepads. During the days I might wander around with my notepads. Then at night or in the early morning I write things down in a more elaborate way. Or some days I just sit dreamily in cafes, writing in my journal, drawings, painting. Days can go by like this. I never know what the theme is going to be and it always emerges from the writing itself.

In my earlier work everything was in the journals and I didn’t even know if it would become a travel memoir or not. But with the last memoir, The River Queen, well, I needed a contract for that book  because I couldn’t afford to go down the Mississippi in a houseboat without some financial assistance so I had to at least put the theme down on paper, but the final book  in fact has little to do with the proposal that got me the contract. But that’s another story.

The theme always really emerges in the writing. I almost never know what I’m writing about until I am writing it. So it takes me a long time to write a book. Often three-four years. Or, in the case of Nothing To Declare, I thought about that book for a very long time and then it wrote itself very quickly. This is also true of a novel of mine that I particularly like called Revenge.  I thought about that story for a decade, but wrote it in six months.

How has your writing process changed since Nothing To Declare came out more than twenty years ago? What have you learned since then?

When I lived in Mexico, I didn’t know that it was going to become a book one day. I just kept me diary and when I got home, I had all the notes in journals, and Nothing To Declare emerged from those notes. I had no idea it was going to become a book. And I didn’t actually sit down and write it until a decade after living in Mexico. But that’s another long story. I have to say that perhaps of all my travel memoirs it is the one I like the best because it didn’t know what it was going to be while it was happening to me. I was just living my life south of the border.

I’d love to be able to return to that innocence again. I wish writers didn’t need time or money. I wish we could all just take off and do whatever we want. But, of course, we can’t. Very few people can. But I think if I’ve learned anything it is this: writing isn’t a premeditated act. Rather it should be a crime of passion. Something that bursts out of us; nothing we’ve planned. And we should be surprised by its ferocity. This is the most honest kind of writing I know.

You write both fiction and nonfiction. What skills do you use to approach each genre? Which do you prefer?

As I said above, I see myself primarily as a storyteller. In a sense it doesn’t matter if I am writing fiction or nonfiction. I’m always looking for the story. And the voice. Writing has to have a voice. Whatever I write has to have these elements – as well as good scenes, dialogue, a sense of place. The same skills apply to both, I believe.

In terms of fiction versus nonfiction I suppose I’d have to say that I prefer writing fiction because I can give my imagination full rein. And I don’t have to be accurate. On the other hand, many thoughts and ideas lend themselves to one genre or the other. A couple years ago I broke my leg and I wanted to write an essay about it, entitled Disability, which is about traveling with a wheelchair. I knew that was going to be nonfiction, but I had a lot of fun with it.

Can you share a few pieces of writing advice that you give your students?

The main piece of advice I give my students until I am blue in the face (or they are sick of me) is write in scene. I make my students really learn what a scene is (my definition: a single action that moves the story forward). I know it’s so boring to hear, but showing does work better than telling. And I make them practice writing scenes. You get up in the morning, you take a walk, the path diverges, and so on. There are certainly moments to step back from your narrative and reflect, but first, get me into your story.

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