To whoever Googled “best travel memoirs by women…”

… and landed on my blog, you made my day. Thank you!

Best women’s travel memoir comin’ right up.

This photo may have been taken when I was in high school, but it's how I feel right now.

Talking about tense: past vs. present

It occurred to me this week while revising: Would my story feel more alive if I wrote in present tense?

I wrote my manuscript in past tense without giving it a thought. That’s the tense I’m used to from my journalism background, the kind that comes easy to me.

But I’m reading Mary MorrisThe River Queen, and it’s in present tense. That discovery prompted me to go through my bookshelf of travel memoirs to see what tense those authors wrote in. (I’d done this once before, but now that I’m farther along with my own writing process, it has more meaning.)

Turns out the jury is split. Eat, Pray, Love and Tales of a Female Nomad are written in present tense, as is Under the Tuscan Sun. But Somebody’s Heart is Burning, The Great Railway Baazar and The Lunatic Express are all written in past tense. So is another book by Morris, Nothing To Declare, which makes me wonder: why did she choose past tense for one travel memoir and present for another? (I’ll send this to her and see if she might answer in the comments.)

I remember reading Eat, Pray, Love for the first time and feeling like the present tense was slightly awkward, but perhaps that’s because the types of books I read — mostly narrative nonfiction — are usually written in past tense. Now I’m looking at her book again and wondering whether that present tense helps the reader feel like she’s on Gilbert’s journey with her right here and now.

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So now I’m asking you: What works best for you as a reader? What tense do you prefer to write in?

Quick plug for @travelmemoir

If you’re writing a travel memoir or enjoy reading them, hope you’ll follow @travelmemoir on Twitter. We’ll offer tips, helpful links and book recommendations, as well as notes about what’s going on in the Travel Memoir Writers Ning group.

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Should be a good resource.

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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.

Calling all writers of travel memoir! Join the party.

UPDATE: I’ve created a Ning group, Travel Memoir Writers, where we can continue this conversation, share ideas and learn from one another. If you’re writing a travel memoir, please join us!

Forgoing today’s Writers’ Roundup for something more fun: a blog party!

We’ve had blog parties here before. In fact, if you didn’t attend the last one, you should check it out. Lots of cool writers to meet.

But today’s party is slightly more exclusive. Today, I’m extending a special invite to writers of travel memoir.

Through this blog, I’ve connected with many writers and travelers — and a handful of people who write in my specific genre, travel memoir. Now I want to introduce you to each other! And perhaps a few lurking travel-memoir writers will come out of the woodwork, too.

We have a lot to learn from one another. If another aspiring author of a travel memoir was sitting beside me, I’d ask tons of questions. How are you structuring your book? Which travel memoirs already on shelves are your favorites? Are you finishing the manuscript before you query, or hoping to sell on proposal? What’s your theme? Which literary agents will you query?

So. If you’re writing a travel memoir or hoping to write one, how ’bout introducing yourself? Tell us:

*Your name
*What you’re writing about
*Where you are in the process
*A link to your Web site or blog
*Your e-mail (if you’re comfortable making that public)

Hopefully we’ll all meet a few new friends!

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!

Putting it all out there (my book, that is)

For the first time yesterday, someone other than me read Chapter Seven of my travel memoir.

Well, I guess it wasn’t really the first time. Before I sent the chapter to my critique group, I had a slight panic attack, realizing I was about to make myself vulnerable by throwing my work out into the world. I felt like I was preparing to stand on my front lawn, naked, as cars drove by taking stock.

So I enlisted my mother for a confidence boost. “Will you read this?” I asked, holding out 25 pages I had worked hard to produce.

She did. And like a good mother, she said she loved it.

A few friends have read pieces of my book, too, scenes here and there. But they all know me. They followed my travel blog, so they already have a sense of the deliciousness of my adventure through Africa, which taints (or enhances, perhaps?) their experience as a reader.

So it was a big step to sit at Panera Bread with my writing group, writers I met just a few months ago, while they critiqued Chapter Seven yesterday. (They had critiqued scenes before, but never an entire chapter.) I was out there, naked. And it actually felt good, in a nerve-wracking, freeing sort-of way.

Did they like the chapter? I think so. They offered awesome feedback about building more tension in certain scenes, eliminating a few characters so others can grow and turning French translations into more fluid dialogue. Now I’ve got to incorporate that advice.

Since I’ve written several consecutive chapters — albeit in the middle of the book — this same group will vet Chapter Eight at our next meeting three weeks from now. And at the following meeting, Chapter Nine.

Not long after that, I’ll be looking for a few brave souls to read my entire manuscript before I hire a professional editor. Because by the end of August, I’m hoping to finish a draft of the book!

Brainstorming a brilliant title

A friend recently asked me, “When you find the right title, will it hit you over the head? Will you just know?”

I hope so, because I haven’t felt smacked by one yet. That’s why I’m turning to you: Wanna help brainstorm a title for my travel memoir?

You’ll first need to know what my book is about. (That’s easy for loyal readers of my travel blog.)

Some titles have automatic resonance, which means the reader understands automatically what the book is about. In other words, the title is self-explanatory. Others don’t acquire resonance until after you’ve read the book. I’ll use Eat, Pray, Love as an example because it’s the same genre as my book and many of you have probably read it. When I first picked up the book, I had no idea what the title meant. It wasn’t until after I read her story, and understood that each of those words represented a leg of her journey, that the title had meaning for me.

Why does this matter? Because thinking about titles through these prisms has helped me understand what might work for my book. As I’ve explained in previous posts, I’d like my subtitle to be something like, A woman’s solo journey through Africa. Since that explains the essence of my travel memoir, the main title can have either automatic or acquired resonance.

Several scenes in particular seem like they would lend themselves to a title with acquired resonance, including a few I described on my travel blog: Seeing a bright Milky Way in rural Cameroon; celebrating in that same Cameroonian village when I offer the gift of school; making a special delivery in Madagascar.

Some ideas in my brainstorming file with that don’t quite work:

  • Bush Taxi Adventures: A woman’s solo journey through Africa
  • Madame or Mademoiselle? (too complicated, readers of this blog decided)
  • In Search of Pizza (too light-hearted, though I like the idea of a funny title)
  • My Mozzie Net and Me
  • Bumpy Roads
  • Milky Way Meanderings
  • Dancing with Glowsticks
  • Please Send Pants
  • FuFu for Breakfast
  • African skies (too close to Under African Skies)
  • The Path Left by the Moon
  • Digesting Africa

You get the idea. Plenty of authors wait until they’ve written their entire book to come up with a title, and I may end up doing that. But for now, brainstorming is where it’s at.

So throw your ideas out there! Drop them in the comments section below. Even titles that aren’t perfect, like the ones listed above, help get my brain juices flowing.

What should I title my book?

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You asked for it: More about my book

Readers of this blog increasingly ask: Can you tell us more about your book?

Most of you know I’m writing a travel memoir about my solo journey through French-speaking Africa. It’s based on my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa.

I’m recounting my backpacking adventure, which took me overland through West Africa — across Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana — then to Cameroon and Madagascar. Traveling alone as a woman in these countries was empowering, humorous and, at times, scary.

Part I: West Africa. A three-day boat ride up the Niger to Timbuktu, an inspiring AIDS-infected teenager in Burkina Faso, a drug deal in Ghana. Seeking independence through adventure, I end up connecting with new friends.

Part II: Cameroon. Delivering the gift of school to a polygamous family makes me appreciate everything I have: my running shoes, my education, and my financial and personal freedom as a woman.

Part III: Madagascar. Watching the world watch my country elect a historic president, then finding myself vulnerable in a dangerous bus station at night, and finally feeling high on travel, I learn that I can do whatever I want on my own. And that even traveling solo, I’m never really alone.

What my book is not: My beef with most women’s travel narratives is that the author usually finds love at the end. Sure, this makes for a romantic, feel-good ending, but it also reinforces the illusion that the only way to reach gold at the end of the rainbow is through a relationship. I adored Eat, Pray, Love until the woman who claimed for 300 pages that she was looking to discover herself finally feels fulfilled in part because she finds a man.

I’m out to fill what I see as a gaping hole in modern stories about women’s solo travel: the tale of true self-exploration. I did my share of flirting with men in Africa, but I didn’t need — or want — one professing his love to me to feel complete. (Although, ironically, I often fended off would-be suitors by telling them I was married.) Instead, my book is about seeing this beautiful yet poverty-stricken continent through my own eyes, learning to depend on myself as I push my limits and eventually, coming to love traveling avec moi.

Coming soon: At your request, I’ll post a few short excerpts from my work-in-progress. The trick is offering enough of a tease without giving too much away!

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Sex? Redacted.

While working on my travel memoir this weekend, I wrote this paragraph:

He softly kissed the corner of my mouth, then my jawline, then inched toward my ear, where he began whispering sweet nothings. At least, I assumed they were sweet nothings – his French words weren’t clear enough for me to understand.

Then I thought to myself: Oh my God, my parents are going to read this!

Mom and Dad, don’t be surprised if your copy includes entire paragraphs of blacked-out text.

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