- By Harry Bingham
- Published 04/9/2013
I’m a writer. Novels mostly, but I’ve written plenty of non-fiction too. It’s how I earn my living, or how I mostly earn it anyway. I’m also a climber. Not a very good one, I’ll admit, and these days I’m a little too old and wise for anything really hairy. But back in the day, I liked adventure. Heading into the unknown, with a rucksack loaded with tent, rope and food for a long expedition. These sound like two opposite things: making money and spending it. And those expeditions aren’t cheap. It’s not just the flights. It’s the equipment. The time away from work. The risk of injury. But there’s no reason why you can’t make money from your trips. It’s not easy, of course, but if you wanted easy you wouldn’t be reading this article, right? OK. So the big idea is this. Write up your trip and sell the story to someone. Local newspapers are probably the easiest outlet, but they won’t pay much. Specialist magazines are better, but again pay rates will be modest. Major newspapers and publishers, though: they’ve got cash and they’re looking to spend it. Help them to spend it on you. The first essential if you want to cash in on your adventure is to make sure that your trip is genuinely exciting enough. A family trip to the Rockies? OK, that’s fun for you and the kids, but it’s not going to get Random House reaching for its checkbook. An attempt on an unclimbed peak in Alaska or the Himalayas? OK, interesting. Taking a family, including young kids, on a five month ocean yachting adventure? A publisher will want that story and will be happy to pay for it. The second essential is just as tough. You need to be able to write. That means: get prepared. Just because you can put a sentence together doesn’t mean you can write a non-fiction travel book of publication quality. Unless you are already a professional writer, you should almost certainly take a creative writing course with an emphasis on writing from life. Writing courses aren’t there to teach you about punctuation, grammar and the like. They’re there to help you see, think and express yourself like a professional author. “It was a lovely sunset and the kids and we went to bed happy.” That sentence is functional but totally dull. A travel non-fiction book written like that would never be attractive to publishers. Say the same thing differently though, and publishers (and literary agents) would be sitting up with interest. “The sun faded like a sigh. We felt its afterburn on our skin, long after the glow had faded from the sky. Katie – her long hair caked in tiny crystals of salt – rose from the deck and said, ‘Daddy, I never want to go home to New York.'” See what I mean? If you do sign up for a creative writing course, it doesn’t have to be residential or take particularly long. A good online writing course, taught by a tutor with a strong track record in writing creative non-fiction him- or herself, will do you just fine. What matters is that your tutor has the right background, that you get plenty of one-to-one feedback and that you put a lot in over the duration of the course. Third, you need to write. You’re a good climber (or sailor, or skier, or whatever) because you’ve done it a lot, right? It’s the same with writing, except that you’re likely starting a long way behind the curve. So start a journal. Watch how you express yourself. Read plenty of non-fiction travel books. Start seeing the world like a writer. And fourth, travel! Go on your expedition. Big it up as much as you can. The larger, hairier, more intense the experience, the more publishers are likely to have an interest in your written record of it. If you can bring a “novelty” angle to your trip, so much the better. A five month ocean voyage on its own wouldn’t interest a publisher or literary agent. The same thing with two kids under the age of three, and you’re talking something completely different. And if you write well enough, your adventure doesn’t even have to be of the life-threatening kind. You want to buy a small vineyard in France and try to make a go of it? OK. Do it. That’s a different kind of adventure, but one that has laid the foundation for plenty of travel non-fiction. Or you want to visit the Middle East, talk to ordinary women, get their account of their experiences? Brilliant: do it. Write about that well enough, and publishers will be interested.
Take care – have fun – and get writing!