Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Travel Writing Competition

So, it's past the 25th... I can now return this to the blog:

I recently came across a travel writing competition (through NAW) I thought I'd have a go at - by High Life magazine and judged by a panel that includes eminent traveller Michael Palin - which required a 500 word article on any aspect of travelling, and a 100 word review of somewhere I've stayed.

The competition closed 25th November, and the results won't be out till April 2008, so in the meantime I thought I'd share my endeavours. Since, writing is all about sharing.

But more importantly was how I approached the task? Firstly, I got a flavour of travel writing (I've not been a big fan of travel biographies or travel magazines - I've got too much else to be getting on with instead of reading about the joys someone else had in travelling). I borrowed a couple of magazines and Michael Palin's Sahara and read pages at random to get a flavour of the pieces and the styles.

First Person
Everyone writes in first person. These pieces are very personal to the writer (they went there and lived through their mini-adventures, or, in Palin's case, trek, and the reader wants to feel connected to the writer, to get their opinion, see, feel, smell, hear through them.

Present Tense
In order for the reader to feel a part of the action and to get them as close as possible to what is unfolding, the writer employs present tense. This gives a sense of immediacy. Were the writer to write in the past tense the reader is separated that bit more. Not only have the events already taken place and are part of memory, not the senses, but they've seemingly been written after the event, when memory has forgotten the colour and shape of things, and clouded the reality. Present tense is in the moment, and not as exhausting as one might expect (as per novels written first person, present tense).

The old adage. Travel writing is all about observation and the senses; feeling what the writer felt at the time.

Naming and Description
An offshoot of showing; the writer must set everything properly, giving specific name to people and places where ever possible. The reader wants to know where they are at all times, they want that grounding. Similarly nice, concise descriptions of locations, equipment, furniture sets the place, and fitting these descriptions in with action/observation/movement serves multiple purposes.

Much of travel writing is comprised of anecdotes - either things that happened to the writer on their journey, or to other people they meet, developed ideas of place and history, the people and what they've been through. These sifts reality to the surface and the reader feels as if they're learning of people, places and culture as they go

Unlike the works of say, WG Sebald, travel writing should be composed with a light style that has a humourous feel. It needs to be writ with humur, and the writer should make the most of their own immediate observations to certain situations they come across (and subsequently write), since these (and their reactions to them), are often amusing, and link in with the anecdotes. Extending from this is the choice of a humourous style. Since not all incidents are amusing/funny at the time they occur, they can still be written up with later observations that can set ironic/sarcastic tones, make witty contrasts to other situations/incidents, or simply choose to make light of the event in a light-hearted way.

Say what you mean - the Word Limit
As with other journalistic approaches, and the Litopia Short Story competition in particular, travel writing has a defined word limit. With that in mind, the writer must work as hard as they can to pair down their writing, to say exactly what they mean to say, and cull the extraneous information. In certain sections (for example, my 100 Word review) lists are preferable, and whilst there is room for one or two big words (ie: my choice of quiescient), the text should flow with an easy rhythm.

Let's see if I've succeeded, shall we?

Starting with a single idea - as all writing begins - I attacked at least three different aspects before settling on one focal point: the drive from JFK airport to Manhattan Island (May 2000). What was important was the drive itself, and I had to pick out elements that gave the story cohesion. I decided therefore to base the theme on young travellers being out of their comfort zone and not really having the balls to stand up for their fears. This gave me the opportunity for a flashback-like moment from which I could highlight my main point (lack of travel-savvy) - a nice show, and a comedic moment - which has a clearly defined open and end and which doesn't confuse the reader with the time change.

500-Word Feature

We can’t help wondering if our insurance covers this. For a start, we aren’t assured by our driver’s lack of uniform: a lanky, shirt and shorts guy with a shock of white hair and the brusque determination of a deliveryman. He squeezes us into his Dodge Ram; eight semi-compos mentis tourists on three rows of nylon seats, our Atlantic-addled minds urged along by his punchy Brooklyn manner. We scrabble around for seatbelts but, finding none, settle with embedding our nails in the seats in front as our luggage is heaved unceremoniously into the boot.

He slams the sliding door and seals us inside what we already fear will become our tomb, leaps behind the wheel with a toothy grin and gesticulates to the taxi tooting from behind. We lurch into rush hour…

It’s our first trip outside the UK without, what my fiancĂ© and I might term, a responsible adult. At 21 our travel experience has been restricted to family jaunts to the Cornish coast and school led excursions to Ypres and Le Somme. We aren’t accustomed to the art of decision making when faced with a crisis. For example, our current fix: wading through the cheerless professionals at immigration only to discover our names missing from our tour rep’s list. We’ve been abandoned at the first hurdle. The rep is minutes from the end of her shift and we, over six hours and three thousand miles from London, are stranded on Long Island with no means of reaching Manhattan.

Our lack of wayfaring wit had already proven itself even before disembarking the plane: on our final descent into JFK airport we were struggling with one of the questions on our visas.

‘What state is New York in?’ I asked the American who’d lucked out with the aisle seat beside me.

New York,’ he inflected.

‘Yes,’ I said, and then, calling on the first rule of British touristing when floundering in foreign parts, I repeated myself – slowly, ‘Which state is it in?’

‘New. York. State,’ he drawled.


This is how we’ve arrived: hapless, helpless, and, by the looks on our faces as we tear along the Belt Parkway, humourless. Ahead, the sun is setting beyond Staten Island, and on our left, Raritan Bay opens into the hazy expanse of the Atlantic, but we’re too busy praying for our survival to memorise the view. To our dismay our driver divides his time between thrusting the Ram from lane to lane and jabbering at us about the districts and landmarks he points out on the horizon: Long Beach; Jersey City; Liberty, Ellis and Governor’s Islands; Brooklyn and finally the twin towers that mark Manhattan. All the while he thumps his horn to spur other drivers from our wild trajectory and scrawls our details on the clipboard resting in his lap. Us – fearless – Brits cling on for dear life, upholding that typically indomitable British spirit to put up and shut up.

Well, no one else is voicing their concern!

100-Word Review

Nestled five miles west of the M6, amongst the hilly farmland northwards of Ullswater Lake, 2 Rose Cottages, Dacre, is a prime location from which to attack the best of the Lake District. This delightful, self-catering lodge accommodates up to six fell walkers and includes off-road parking, a power shower strong enough to beat out the worst muscular dents, and a local pub boasting a literally gut-busting menu. Cost-effective and quiescent, with a large kitchen, separate dining area, coal fire and a cosy huddle of sofas, this is an ideal stay for the serious hiker and casual stroller alike.

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