Tag Archives: travel writing

New release: Blue Ice, White Powder, by Jack Moscrop

This free travel story, in which the author summits Mont Blanc with his friends, is a recent release. I was developmental editor.

Jack, an English adventurer with a personality that radiates goodwill, came my way via Shawn Inmon. Shawn is one of the rising stars in self-published fiction, a field in which the reader has to kiss a lot of toads. (Believe me, because I’m the guy who gets the job of test-smooching.) Shawn seems to meet a significant number of people who are like him in that they have sincere desires to improve their writing work, and I’m honored when he suggests me as someone who could help them.

It was especially great seeing Jack walk through the shop doors because I’m a travel writing enthusiast. Not that I have to enjoy the subject matter to do my job, of course, but it’s nice when I do. Jack had me work on a couple of shorter pieces, and upon evaluating the first one I dropped a large bomb: I wanted him to change the verb tense of his presentation. In many cases, such a dramatic recommendation results in an answer like: “Or I could change editors, in hope of finding one who will tell me more what I want to hear.” Not Jack. Presented with the reasoning, he buckled down and did as I suggested. Now his voice was clear, and we could get somewhere.

What Jack didn’t and doesn’t need is help with describing the natural world. Early on it became obvious: he was the hands-down champion of descriptive language. Not even most well-known travel authors do it as well. All right, Mr. Editor, what do you do now? I asked myself. How do you give guidance to improve a talent that well exceeds your own? That’s why I like my work. It has the potential to present me with situations that will require me to elevate my own game if I hope to be relevant. I could not assist my client much in shaping his best weapon, but I could help him decide when and how to wield it.

I came to understand that Jack had expected a harsher experience from editing, because at one point in the first story he in essence asked if I’d pulled any punches. This is the sort of question to which one has at least some grounds to take umbrage, but I don’t believe that one should. Especially in the early stages of the relationship: if what the author gets is not the pummeling he or she expected, what is there but for him or her to ask the question? I answered in the firm negative. In the first place, I explained, this would be a gross dereliction of my duty, my profession’s equivalent of treason. Jack is a British accountant in real life, so it was easy to supply the stigmatic analogue to embezzlement. In the second, I’d just told him to do a complete recast of his first story before I could even render an opinion. Didn’t “go rewrite the entire thing before I can even begin to help” convey sufficient pain?

My reassurances pierced the fog of uncertainty, but it’s a useful thing to know about editing. Some writers are not expecting much in the way of kind words from us, and may not know how to take them. While I’m prepared to be waspish where I think it will help, I’m not here to crush someone’s soul. I’m here to help someone improve. In some cases, that is best done with wry humor, such as: “Now may we all rejoice. Your characters have learned the secret of teleportation.” The moral is to do it for effect, for camaraderie, for a desire to help–but don’t do it just to be mean, nor to look all properly grumpily editorial. ‘Needless jerk’ does not qualify as a professional philosophy. Just because the world has a stereotype of editors as the bean counters of literary products doesn’t mean that we must prove this true. Some doctors are like Charles Emerson Winchester, some are like Hawkeye Pierce, and some are like B.J. Hunnicutt–all of which M*A*S*H characters only resembled the medical stereotype to some degree. Yet on the show they were all superb doctors. Thus with editing: one keeps one’s eyes on the prize. If one believes that the author’s initial paragraph guarantees that the story will fail, one must so state. If one believes that the author has just written a loathsome sentence, one does not need the word ‘loathsome’; one might use one’s own writing talent to say, “This sentence simply must be rethought afresh, and this time lacking in flaws X and Y.”

In any case, Jack now believes that I’ll throw a tomato when he needs it, and that’s all to the good, because he also believes any praise he receives.

One great challenge facing the author of any narrative, fiction or non, is the decision of descriptive depth. How much detail does the reader want and need? Not everything needs exhaustive detail, or is worth the investment of crafting prose that conveys subtle shadings from rose to periwinkle or magenta. A primary character needs enough defining detail that the reader may fill in the rest of the picture. The traveled landscape needs enough that the reader camera can imagine a place on the trail where something of note occurred. A special sight, one the reader’s mind would not concoct, needs the kind of description that is in Jack’s power when he takes off the governors and lets rip.

In the case of Blue Ice, my first look focused on the areas where there wasn’t enough detail. This is why it’s hard: the author remembers the scene as it was, the story as it occurred. Now he or she must reconstruct it for someone who begins with no visual, no sense of dimensions, nothing. How does one place one’s mind back into the mindset of knowing nothing, then filling in the features as the author mentions them? It is very easy to underdescribe, to forget what the reader does not know. It is another pitfall to overdescribe, to take away all mystery and reach the Plane of Pointless Blather. That’s where I come in, because I’m also a reader. If I can’t figure out what the author means, I go back and re-read it. If I still cannot, I suspect the reader also could not, and I note that for my client. Often it helps to note the picture that my mind did paint, which may be erroneous, but that mails the missing piece that my client needs to supply.

The second look focused a bit more more on details of people, and there was some need to re-stitch some of the seams of continuity that now became apparent, but Jack had brought the tale a long way. I knew this was going to be good, and we moved toward publication. We still didn’t agree on the title, but if the reception continues to be good, this may not have been a detractor. Outcomes speak for themselves, of course. About the biggest thing I had to get out of him was a full-on description of what it looked like at a breathtakingly climactic spot in the narrative where, for some reason, he had chosen that spot to keep his marvelous descriptive facilities in the psychological camera case. After a polite version of “What the hell were you thinking? Of course they want to see this!”, he remedied it exactly as one hopes when one tells a real artist: “No limits. No guidelines. Create. Let’s see what you can do without restrictions. Own this.” Oh, he did–and he makes it look easy.

If you like adventure travel, I am confident you will wish to keep an eye on Jack’s work. Bill Bryson doesn’t even come close; Jack’s unpretentious humility and signal good nature leave Bryson choking on clouds of powder snow. It’s a different style from Tim Cahill’s or Tim Severin’s, thus fresh and interesting for its own sake.

This one is free, and can be had in numerous formats. Enjoy, for I think it quite likely you’ll say: I would have paid real money for this.

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A question about talking about travel writing

The ‘Lancer has a numerically small but engaged audience, otherwise known as ‘a few people who seem to like much of what I post.’ This audience, being mine, deserves my solicitude and affection.

Here’s the question: if I wrote about travel books, would it be out of bounds if I didn’t do up links, and let people search them out the marginally less easy way?

I ask because all the following are true:

  • Travel is the most overrepresented category in my library. In very few areas does my library dominate the shelf selection at Barnes, and this is one of the few.
  • You could learn a shitload about the world from reading these books. That’s how I did it.
  • A lot of the best travel books are not done by Frances Mayes, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, or someone else who has done a lot of well-paid, pompously-reviewed writing. Nothing against any of those, but your typical travel writer is a one-off who doesn’t write any more. You will never find them without my help.
  • There is a reason that I positioned the travel endcap nearest my recliner in my library (though making sure that history was in clear sight). If I’m going to grab anything to re-read, odds are it’ll be travel.
  • If that’s going to happen–and it will, since I have no intention of being a book hoarder, and am very happy to re-read books–I could turn my readership on to a whole bunch of great stuff. Most of it probably didn’t sell, but the readership of the ‘Lancer is well aware that ‘didn’t sell’ does not mean ‘book sucks.’ It means ‘author couldn’t or wouldn’t market, and publisher didn’t bother.’
  • For me, writing is easy; getting links right is hard. I have to dig it up on Amazon, pare out the extraneous stuff in the link, highlight, copy, highlight link area, paste, hope that the paste was the correct thing, and then test to see if it works. I hate this.
  • I would write more about travel books if links weren’t a basic expectation, and if I didn’t dislike them so.

I solicit commentary on this subject. If I said “screw the links, look it up if you’re interested,” would that be a good trade for more writing?

Eat, pray, love?

This book is not the sort of travel book that draws me in, but I ended up starting to read it anyway while unpacking our library (a lengthy, back-wrenching task at our house). It is by Elizabeth Gilbert, and in case one can’t read the stuff on the cover telling one that they made it into a movie, there’s a picture of some actress on the cover. I know I’ve seen her but I don’t recognize her name. Erin Brocovic, maybe.

Eat, Pray, Love. Three things a lot of us do every day without high drama, though it’s a more promising title than Pee, Swear, Groan.

Not sure what makes me recoil from books whose titles sound like idylls. I am sure that Frances Mayes is a delightful lady. Even so, when I wrote a manuscript about travel in Ireland, my working title parodied that of Under the Tuscan Sun. It all sounds so effete, so fragile, so froufrou, so gritless. I am far too affected by names in this regard. I battle this weakness; in fact, I forced myself to read Mayes’ book simply out of respect for what I was going to parody. And it was about like I thought it was: another book about fixing up old Mediterranean properties and cooking food in them. Not a thing in the world against an author who seems like a very nice lady that can probably spend an hour preparing an artichoke in just this special way she learned from an old grocer named Beppe so that it tastes like ambrosia delivered by angels and served by cherubs, but if I’m going to read about idyllic Tuscany, my kind of travel book is Dario Castagno’s Too Much Tuscan Sun, a Sienese tour guide writing about how ridiculous some of his clients are. The highlight of the dude’s life is when his social fraternity wins an annual horse race for the first time in decades. (Imagine: “Hi, my name is Joe, and I am a Ravens fan whose team won the Super Bowl last year.”) He actually puts that in the blurb; how much class does that require? A true character, and if you think about it, a much sharper cultural portrait of his region than you imagined you might get.

So I’m not much impressed by ‘now a motion picture!’ or an idyllic title everyone’s heard of, much less a picture of a Serbian actress. Most of my travel library, most of you haven’t heard of. Imagine someone who has combed used bookstores for ten years, and in each one, has bought only the single most unique, interesting travel biography. Paul Theroux? I read a couple and liked them well enough, but he’s nowhere near as fun as Tim Cahill. Bruce Chatwin? Couldn’t tell you. I read one and nothing about it stands out in my memory, which is not true of the incredibly ballsy and laconic Tim Severin. Redmond O’Hanlon? Another one whose titles turn me off, this time for pretension. ‘No Mercy.’ ‘In Trouble Again.’ Not only do those tell me nothing, I can’t help thinking the author considers himself a vast badass. Maybe he does. Maybe he is. If so, I won’t need the title to tell me that. A real travel badass is Tony Horwitz throwing up in a bucket on a tall ship, or the Australian woman who went on a camel trip and just stopped wearing clothes at times. She has the guts to describe how she just let her menstrual blood seep down her bare thighs, out in the middle of nowhere. I forget her name, but I’m not done with my coffee and I can’t remember it offhand; I’m hiding out here from the twelfth annual 9/11 garment-rending, sort of hunkered down for the day. A search for “Australian camel travel woman” should fetch her.

At least I don’t judge the book by a cover. If Mayes had pictured a stack of hockey pucks on her cover, or a shot of herself in a bikini, it wouldn’t have changed a thing for me. Titles affect me abnormally.

Of course, you can’t review a book based on reading a quarter of it, nor merely its title, and you can’t hold against it that it was popular enough to be a movie. I fought off all my biases and started reading, because I needed something to read, and this was something I hadn’t read. So far, it’s basically: woman who serially gives too much until she can give no more, then gets all depressed about it and finally decides to spend a year doing something good and selfish for once as therapy. It’s a much better Lifetime plot than most of what they show, that I’ll grant you, because to me Lifetime movies are a steady stream of shows about women being hurt, abused, scared, cheated and killed. I’m not sure how that helps anyone to watch, but evidently those are very popular themes with some women, or there wouldn’t be a movie channel devoted to them. Then again, I’m not sure how an annual self-laceration helps a whole country, but evidently once again I’m in the minority there as well.

I’m sure the events in the book are very interesting and formative to the author, and probably to people who have been in similar situations and wished they could just hare off somewhere else for a year. To me, maybe not so much. It does beat hell out of the rest of what I’m reading around the net this morning.

William Least Heat-Moon: my unintentional stalker

I say that with great affection. Let me be perfectly clear that I am sure Mr. Heat-Moon never set out to have his travels continually intersect with my life. He is a very pleasant, benign man as well as one of my favorite travel authors.

And until Roads to Quoz, no matter what he wrote, he did some form of drive-by on me.

I first became aware of Heat-Moon through his American travel biography Blue Highways, in which he drove around the country while avoiding nearly all freeways. In so doing, he spent a little time in the town where I went to high school. There’s a photo in there of people I knew in those days, picturing a scene I remembered well–it was across the highway from a classmate’s family farm, and up the road from my first serious girlfriend’s house. This town has less than 1000 people and is in no way on the beaten path. What a coincidence, eh! Okay, big deal. Then…

One fine day back in the 1990s or so, I received a generous and thoughtful present from my grandparents (maternal). If you read the series from the carriage-room earlier this year, well, that was when these grandparents were still managing the family ranch back home in Chase County, Kansas; my grandfather remodeled that carriage-room gods know how many times. It was a very nice gift: a hardback, signed copy of Heat-Moon’s new travel biography PrairyErth, a study of Chase County. Now, of all the counties in the United States that our esteemed author could choose–there must be at least five thousand–he picks the hardscrabble, low-population-density county from which my family comes? Okay, great. Statistically, I guess it was unlikely but not astronomical. I Got Over It.

At the time, I was living in Seattle. If you are in Seattle and you like Greek food, one of your heavens is Costa’s Opa in Fremont. It’s very close to a cool harp shop where the door chime is a guitar pick fixed to the top of the door, which strums a mounted dulcimer as the door opens or closes. Costa’s is right on the ship canal near the Fremont Bridge, with many quaintnesses and impossible parking. Well, I’d taken my (platonic) friend Barb out to Costa’s, and we had the usual wonderful dinner of Hellenic delights. And then I happened to glance over her shoulder, and guess who’s sitting in the next booth?

Yep. If you’ve ever seen a photo of Heat-Moon, he can’t be mistaken for anyone else. Now, of course, I’m going to say hello, but of course, I’m not going to butt in on his dinner. When he and his companions made ready to go, I approached him and explained my Chase County connection. He was very gracious, interested in what part we were from, quite a polite fellow. One senses he was rather delighted to be recognized two thousand miles away from his Missouri residence, since he was less well known then. I later wrote him a letter, and he sent a friendly postcard back.

Well, it was getting weird, and from then on I came to anticipate Heat-Moonery in my world. Of course, I was a lock to purchase his next book, River-Horse, his adventure travel story of a boat journey from New York City, NY to Astoria, OR. With only seventy miles of portage. By this time I was living in Kennewick, on the eastern side of Washington. I snapped up a copy as soon as it hit print, and sure enough: he’d gone right past us. His boat almost swamped in Lake Wallula, maybe seven miles away, and he hit Clover Island not long after. If I’d known, I could have made a three-mile drive down to the river and brought him home for a restorative dinner.

Then Heat-Moon switched tack on me completely, the clever fellow. His next wasn’t even a travel biography, but an historical study: Columbus in the Americas. I have never once been to any place where Columbus landed, stole, enslaved or let his men fornicate. Surely this would break the chain. Surely there could be no connection.

If you are of an age to remember the 1960s, you remember the Monday Holiday Law. This moved most of our national and bank holidays out of mid-week, preferably to Monday, so people could have three-day weekends. It was a good law and idea. It was also my first introduction in life to the uses of power, and how it would simply brush aside small inconveniences without caring. You see, I happen to have been born on Columbus Day, or what was once Columbus Day. It was kind of fun, my birthday being a holiday. And then one day the government made a law, and my birthday wasn’t a holiday any more. I took guidance from that. Nothing’s safe, ever, not even your birthday.

Except for the lesson it embedded in my developing psyche, I’d forgotten about that until Heat-Moon’s book. While I’m no more an admirer of the old slaver than Heat-Moon is, the day is the day. Of all the topics, of all the days…

When Roads to Quoz (a mosey in search of the unusual) came out, therefore, I more or less assumed that somehow he’d end up someplace important to me, or that had factored in my life, or would have some other connection. At that point, however, the well went dry. Nothing in the book connected to me, and I haven’t run into Heat-Moon anywhere else (though I would like to). With a little luck, he’ll run across this post and say hello.

He can stalk me any time.