Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Trip to Travel Writer

What a beautiful Sunday afternoon! The weather is so crisp and the sky is that actinic blue color that I love to see this time of year. I feel so good that I strolled over to the coffee shop for a change. When I got here, I saw that the Sunday morning crowd had already come and gone leaving pieces of their Sunday papers strewn about on the tables for others to share. At the top of the stack on our table is the travel section. I love to kick back in my easy chair and pretend to visit the exotic places featured in the travel section of a Sunday paper.

The next best thing to going to an exotic place is to read a travel book written by someone who lives there. To spark your imagination for writing about the exotic place where you live, we are beginning a series of posts by Marsha Moore. Be sure to enter her contest.

Confessions of a Travel Writer

I must make a confession, here and now: when I started my whole writing journey, I was dead-set on fiction. In fact, I almost turned down a publisher because I was so sure fiction was what I wanted to do. Not for me, this writing about reality lark. No, I wanted to create, to fashion story lines from the depths of my mind, to make what's inside my head come alive.

I still do want my fiction to be published. I've got four novels waiting for my attention, ready to be polished and submitted. But right now, despite my oh-so-clear plan of action, I'm really enjoying writing non-fiction. Or, to put it more accurately, travel writing.

Ever since I was young, I've loved to travel. My parents were both teachers and were keen to show my brother and me the world. We journeyed all across Canada (my home country), the States, and even to Europe. My mum collected items along the way and encouraged us to make scrapbooks, writing little vignettes. I think that's where it all started. By the age of nine, I'd already written one travelogue -- the dramatically named 'Disasters in Florida' -- where our week-long trip was catalogued in agonizing detail.

Years later, when I moved to Poland to teach English (a quarter-life crisis), I rediscovered how much I loved to write about the different smells, sights, and ways of living. And when I settled in London, it only seemed natural that when it came time to pitch a publisher, it would be travel related.

My new book (launching 4 November 2009) is a London guidebook, 24 Hours London. While it's quite daunting to compete with biggies like Lonely Planet or Fodor's, I like to think it's a guide book with a difference: all the listings are organised hour by hour, from 5 a.m. to midnight and back again. All you need to do is flip to the hour you're free, then take your pick! It was loads of fun to write and research, and it completely rekindled my London love affair (not that it had ever really ended -- after five years, I'm still enamoured with the city).

If you want to win a copy of the book (and a lovely T-shirt), please head over to my blog at Write On!. All you need to do is write about 24 hours in your location, (Read this for complete details: 24 Hours In Your Neck of the Woods.) then post it on your blog or send it to me in an email:

My thanks to Lynnda for starting this space and I look forward to trading thoughts with you!

p.s. If you want to have YOUR 24 Hours In Your Neck of the Woods posted on this blog, send it to lynndaell[at]live[dot]com before November 4, 2009.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What Idea Do I Research?

Last week, Ethel Herr wrote a great article on researching. I definitely wanted to look up something – anything – to discover new facts. Then I ground to a halt; what should I research?

Today, Mary Jo Rhodes, who successfully published a series of nonfiction children's books, describes how she chose sea animals for her subject. You can see her books at Thank you, Mary Jo for taking the time to tell us your story. Maybe this article will give me some ideas for my research…

*Lynnda kindly asked me to write a few guest posts about my experiences writing the Seahorses and Sea Dragons and the other books in the Undersea Encounters> series for Children's Press/Scholastic. Her first question was:

Why did I choose to write nonfiction books for children about sea creatures?

Writing about sea creatures wasn't an obvious choice for me. I'm not a marine biologist, teacher, or scientist. Both sons, however, loved science and animals. My younger son was obsessed with sharks. We visited lots of aquariums and science museums. I became fascinated with the amazing variety of undersea creatures. One family trip was especially memorable: we watched a sea turtle lay her eggs at night on a beach in Florida. Over the years, we've also gone snorkeling and on whale watching trips.

One day in the gym, I was wearing my seahorse t-shirt from the San Elijo, California, campground. It was an old and ragged t-shirt, but I was sentimentally attached to it because I got it on one of the last trips I took with my mother before she passed away. A friend noticed the shirt and mentioned he loved seahorses. I rattled off some interesting facts about them—seahorse fathers give birth to the babies, not seahorse mothers; seahorses are the only fish that swim upright; seahorses have prehensile tails like monkeys. Later I went home and Googled seahorses. I found an interesting site called Project Seahorses devoted to protecting seahorses, and I continued to research and learn about them.

A couple of weeks later (coincidentally), my husband suggested we go to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where there was a major seahorse exhibit. Of course, I said yes, and in fact, I had already decided to write about seahorses even before we got to Baltimore. It all clicked into place.

So how does this relate to you? I would suggest when you look for ideas you don't necessarily gravitate to the obvious choice for you (you love music so your book has to be about music). Sometimes those topics we're personally obsessed with might not be that interesting to other people. Be open to receiving new ideas. Think about what fascinates you and what you'd love to learn more about—and what might make an appealing topic for others.

I've been to college and graduate school, but I'm a big believer in self-education. I spent three or four years in my forties learning about octopuses, whales, kelp forests, and so on, yet I was an English major in college. All I needed was a library card and a decent library system where I could order books via interlibrary loan.

I also think firsthand experiences are so important for gathering ideas. Supplement your book learning with "field trips." For example, this past summer, we went on a tour of a 17th century-house in Massachusetts. The tour guide knew all kinds of fascinating details about the house and the people who lived there, the kind of tidbits you might not find in a book, or that you might skip if you were reading a book. You don't have to travel to exotic countries. I imagine there are historic sites near where you live that you've never been to. (I grew up on Long Island, an hour from New York City, but I didn't go up the Empire State Building until I was 23!).

Keep files of interesting ideas that you might want to pursue. Not every idea will pan out. But one of these ideas might lead to something that you'll want to research and write about.

Who knew that wearing my seahorse t-shirt to the gym would eventually lead to a published book!*

Friday, October 16, 2009

Break Out to Discovery

Welcome to our table this fine Friday morning. We have a special guest. I am so excited that Ethel Herr, author of An Introduction to Christian Writing has agreed to write a few essays on the thrill of researching. (Remember, anyone joining our group before midnight on Oct. 31, 2009 is eligible to be in a drawing for Mrs. Herr's book.)

Mrs. Herr, you have our complete attention.

Lynnda has asked me to write to you about a subject that can get me pretty excited. I love research so much it can threaten to keep me from ever getting my writing done. Some folks hate it and drag their feet or never make room for it. But their writing suffers when they fail to gather the authentication that everyone's writing needs in today's information-saturated world.

So, where do we begin?

You have a compelling idea for a powerful book. Unique, practical, earth-shaking. If you pull it off, it could encourage thousands of struggling souls out there. It might become a bestseller. It could even change the world.

One problem: Have you done enough research to make it crackle with authenticity? To grab your readers with sensory details, word pictures and believable stories? To corroborate your theories and observations with strong, memorable quotes?

Research puts a key in your hands that can unlock the doors to your readers' hearts.

But the piles of information and materials available on even the smallest topic are enormous. How shall you tackle the challenge? Where shall you look?

Experience has taught me that research is discovery and discovery demands at least four kinds of skills:

  1. The skills of an archeologist—the ability to dig through dust and hard packed dirt with patience, persistence and a refusal to stop till you reach the bottom. Never stop telling yourself, "There's a diamond in here somewhere. I will find it."
  2. The abandon of an adventurer—an obsession with going to all the places where the little jewels you need may be lodging. Some likely, some absurd, all (to you) unknown frontiers where you can submerge yourself in the journey. Don't be afraid to tackle unexpected and sometimes dangerous obstacles, to meet people and ask questions and be flexible enough to learn new ways of thinking and doing and experiencing things related to your topic.
  3. The calculating mindset of a detective. Never stop asking "Who would know the information I am seeking?" "Why would they know it?" "Who would they divulge it to?" "Where would they hide it?" "How can I get my hands on it?" "How can I be sure it is authentic?" "What further information does it lead me to?"
  4. The addictive paradigm of a curiosity seeker. Ask questions without end. What is it? Why did he do that? Where did it happen or where is it going? When was it or will it be? Who said this before? What does it mean? How does it feel? What is the mood? Why does it matter? What does it do to my senses—taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing, movement? What are all the theories about this? How might this turn out? Has it been tried before? With what results? Is it a viable suggestion? How will it change my life? My community? My world?...

Research is

a discovery

a fresh wind sighing into the soul

a surprise morsel to chew and savor

a rich full resonance

a hushing spell

an epiphany

creating insatiable appetite for


See you next month!

Ethel Herr

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Day 7: Not Reinventing the Wheel

Hi everybody, sorry I'm late. A traffic jam at the one major intersection between my house and the coffee shop held me up. Being late is better than not arriving, though. That was the result for one driver. She was killed and so was the mail carrier who was sorting mail at the back of his mail truck when one of the cars plowed into him. Please drive carefully. We all want to be here to celebrate the holidays that are just around the corner.

OK, that was not the most cheerful way to start my post, so let's talk about something else. Today, I want to welcome two new writers to our table. The first is Wendy Love. Wendy maintains two blogs, but she is actively writing only on Dipsy Doodling Around Depression . She and her husband live in Ontario, Canada. Welcome, Wendy!

The newest member at our table is Lindsey Martin. Lindsey blogs at Keep Your Eyes on the Son . She is in college in the beautiful state of Arkansas. Welcome, Lindsey! Both Wendy and Lindsey are eligible for the drawing for the second edition of An Introduction to Christian Writing.

Part of brainstorming is to decide what NOT to do in our community. If this blog works only as a place to explore other resources for writers of nonfiction books, then I will consider it a success. Thanks to a suggestion Wendy made, I have an entry for a new category of links: Wheels Not Invented Here. In the business world, some companies find it difficult to use ideas that do not originate inside their own company. See the Wikipedia explanation: Not Invented Here. Our community, on the other hand, wants to find the best the Internet has to offer to writers of nonfiction books and provide links to them.

Wendy pointed me in the direction of ProBlogger.(Thanks, Wendy!) This site is for serious bloggers, but beginners can find information of value, too. If you join the forums ($1.95/month) you can ask questions and receive plenty of answers. Blogging is an important tool in building a platform and in practicing your writing skills. Doing it well increases the potential for delivering your words to a satisfied audience of readers.

After I set up the category, I immediately thought of several other sites I wanted to add: Rachelle Gardner's blog Rants and Ramblings for all things about agents and publishing etiquette, Writer Beware Blogs! for wary writers who want to keep a whole skin and protect their wallet and Terry Whalin's Right-Writing for interesting reading on many nonfiction writing topics.

Finally, I am adding a site inappropriate for nonfiction writers, the NaNoWriMo link. In case you are unfamiliar with this site – as I was until Wendy got me interested – NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. This is the tenth year where writers try to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. While the focus is fiction, no one reads what you write. No prizes are given; you could even write the same word 50,000 times and no one would be the wiser. This led me to the idea to write 50,000 nonfiction words on a book I have outlined. I would follow all the rules, which are few, and enjoy the challenge. What do you think? Could you write around 1,700 words a day for a month? Check it out and get back to me.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Introduction to Writing School

My preparation for school began in December 2008. I was ready to become a professional writer, instead of writing as a hobby. I spent the next nine months learning everything I could find about the craft of writing and about the business of publishing over the Internet and through books. My perceptions changed; even though I learned as fast as I could absorb the information, I began to see that my writing skills had as many holes as a washed out street. I discovered that one problem with trying to educate myself was that I didn't know what I didn't know.

About the time I discovered my problem, The Christian Writers Guild had a half-price special on their Guild Critique Service. I had a children's story in the best shape that I could make it, so I sent it to them. Six weeks later, I got back a cover letter and four pages of in-depth review. What a value for the price!

The cover letter prepared me for a critique that would be difficult to read – setting my expectations that my story would be trashed. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised; the tone of the review was positive even when the message being delivered was negative. Believe me, that tone can make all the difference in how easy it is to hear criticism.

The review was divided into six sections: purpose, planning & pacing, persuasive content, proper language usage & general presentation, personalization and potential.

This is what I learned from the critique:
Purpose: They missed the whole purpose I had in writing the story. Either I was too subtle in the way I wrote it or I don't understand the definition of purpose in writing.
Planning & Pacing: The lack of passive verbs was good; so was asking questions. The plot was too straightforward; I needed to add some twists.
Persuasive Content: My story had clichés - both the figure of speech kind and clichés of scene and character. I used too many exclamation marks. (Just for reference, don't used eight in the first three paragraphs; that's enough for a whole book!) :>)
Proper Language Usage & General Presentation: They thought I did well here, since my manuscript was formatted right, (Check out The Chicago Manual of Style.) and was correct in spelling, word usage and grammar. I had the usual problem with "telling" instead of "showing."
Personalization: This was my weakest point. I did not create a way for the reader to make an emotional tie to my main character. What was worse was that I have no idea how to do that.
Potential: The reviewers complimented me on my solid start and good voice. They also told me to strive for clarity and remove anything that could be confusing.

Some of their comments were easy to implement; some were impossible simply because I didn't know what they were talking about. It was at that point I made the decision to learn the skills I need in the most systematic and efficient manner possible, by going back to school. After spending a week studying the review and praying about it, I signed up for the Apprentice program that The Christian Writers Guild offers. Next month, I'll tell you about my first two lessons.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Day 6: Walking In Sunshine

What a beautiful day, here in the world of our virtual coffee shop. October is definitely one of the best months to feel alive right down to your fingertips. The sky has turned that shade of blue that proclaims "No more muggy days!" The trees and bushes are putting on their annual fashion show in a burst of energy that will fade all too soon. I will cherish every minute of this exhilarating season.

My days in the community blog have gotten more exciting, too. I have some cool news to share with you.

First, I want to welcome Juan Lopez to the group at our table. Juan blogs at A Pen Itching to Bleed Onto Paper. He lives in northern California, is a youth pastor and works at a crisis center. Juan writes from a desire to share what God is doing in his life. Welcome, Juan!

Which moves me right into the next news: Juan, Marsha, and Jennifer are eligible for a drawing at the end of October. The winner of the drawing will received an autographed copy of An Introduction to Christian Writing, second edition, by Ethel Herr. The front cover rightly announces that this book is "an in-depth companion to the complete writing experience." If you want to be eligible for the drawing, join us at the table by following the blog before midnight on October 31st. I will announce the winner the following week.

Moving right along with the good news, Ethel Herr has agreed to write a few pieces on doing research for our blog. Her book has a great chapter, Lesson 7, Part 2, that should jump-start anyone on researching. She has not picked a date, yet, for the pieces to be posted, so stay tuned.

Finally, I wanted to alert you to an opportunity to be published. Barbour Publishing is currently seeking writers for a new publishing project:  Heavenly Humor for the Cat Lover's Soul. Click through to see the Guidelines(73KB). They need 75 entries, 500 words each, for this book. If you can write humorous cat stories—drawing some inspirational Christian thought from each, they welcome you to submit entries for possible publication. You will be paid a small fee and receive some free books if they select your work to include in the book.

Come back tomorrow. I will begin a series on my experience as a student of writing.

Happy writing and walk in the sunshine.