Archive for the Advice from the Pros Category

The Master of Suspense

Posted in Advice from the Pros on November 23, 2009 by Lizzie

A few months ago I stumbled across a book sale at my county library and picked up a silverfish-nibbled copy of Stories to be Read with the Lights On, compiled by none other than the magnificent Alfred Hitchcock.  My obsession with British crime dramas – film or print – led me to this quote by the ego-driven genius himself:

With a characteristic lack of modesty I have allowed myself to be billed as a Master of Suspense.  The description is indeed accurate, and you must admit, fully justified.

As with all so-called experts my counsel is often solicited by interviewers seeking definitions.  Just what is this business of suspense, they inquire.  Well, years ago I consulted one of those massive unabridged dictionaries one lifts only with the aid of a derrick.  It defined suspense as uncertainty accompanied by apprehension.

Fair enough.  In my films I try to intensify this apprehension to a point where it becomes unbearable.  That is the name of the game.

With monumental films like Rear Window and Psycho, Hitchcock undoubtedly deserves the Master of Suspense title in film, but his advice can be easily adapted from movie reel to printed page.  He insists the key to writing suspense is in architecting spine-tingling anxiety until it becomes “unbearable” to the reader.  So many authors build and build their complicated plots only to rush the endings and ruin the books.  Hitchcock’s method is tried and true.  Build the suspense slowly . . . and deliberately . . . until your audience cannot take another moment . . . and then give them a real Hitchcockian ending.


The Gypsy in Us All

Posted in Advice from the Pros on November 11, 2009 by Lizzie

Only those closest to me know what makes me quake in my boots.  Spiders are merely an annoyance and are easily dealt with under the heel of my shoe.  Skydiving is on the top of my to-do list.  A solitary stroll down a dark alley sounds like great material for a murder mystery.  Not too many things in life scare me, but my palms sweat and my throat constricts at the thought of staying in one place for too long.  Irrational but true.  Blame it on my personality, my age, or my love affair with atlases, a life of travel writing sounds like paradise.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that dreaming is easier than putting dreams in action.  Small steps are small, but at least they get you somewhere.  Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, understands this fact, and he’s distilled travel writing advice into ten practical tips for those starry-eyed individuals just waiting for the opportunity to hop a plane to the Amazon (read: me).

1. Travel a lot. There’s simply no way to write about travel with any kind of authority unless you get a basic sense for what life on the road is like. Also, it will help if you travel in a dynamic way—opening yourself up to the unknown and interacting with the local cultures. I also advise—for anyone who is really serious about travel writing or even just experiencing the world in a more vivid way—to work a few years in a foreign country (keep reading Transitions Abroad for information on how to do this). This kind of expatriate experience immerses you in a culture in a way that mere travel cannot. Plus, it conditions you to interact with folks, even if you don’t fully understand their language or customs.

2. Write a lot. The best way to get published is to write well. The best way to write well is to write often. And, even if you don’t get published, you’ll have the satisfaction of capturing your experience on paper and intriguing your friends.

3. Read a lot. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and you can’t write good travel stuff unless you read good travel stuff. Definitely study your history books and your guidebooks—but don’t overlook literary travel narratives, be they in books or magazines. Pay attention to technique as much as content, even when reading novels or general nonfiction.

4. Don’t quit your day job. Very few travel writers support themselves entirely on their writing—and those that can support themselves rarely get rich in the process. Find (or keep) a “real world” job to keep yourself in the black. The secret, of course, is to find work that allows you the freedom or option to travel. My own travel-writing budget was initially augmented by funds saved from two years of teaching English in Korea.

5. Read up on the trade. For the basic nuts and bolts of travel writing, go to your local library or bookstore and check out titles such as The Travel Writer’s Handbook by Louise Purwin Zobel or Travel Writing by Louisa Peat O’Neil.

6. Surf up on the trade. Good practical information on travel writing is only a click away. Be sure to check several search engines for a breadth of travel writing information. A good starting-point for beginning travel writers is Jen Leo’s Written Road blog (

7. Research your destination. Travel writing always benefits from a good knowledge of the region or culture. Even if you don’t use specific information in your article, research can help you write about a place or culture with confidence. Once you’ve arrived in the country, read the local English-language newspaper for details, quirks, and tidbits.

8. Research your markets. If you are writing for friends or a weblog, you probably know your audience already. But if you’re writing for magazines, newspapers, or web sites, make sure you’re familiar with the publication and its needs. Never approach an editor with an unclear or inappropriate story. Target small, non-paying markets first to build up a body of work. Publishing stories at online travel communities like BootsnAll ( can be a good way to get started and find an audience.

9. Be patient. A travel writing career is something that develops over many years. Grow a thick skin and get used to having your stories rejected or ignored. Remember that editors are extremely busy people, and don’t take their indifference as a personal insult. Once you establish a relationship with an editor, don’t let it slide. Be friendly, show your competence, work hard, and don’t take things for granted.

10. Nurture your passion. Whatever you do, remember that travel—not travel writing—should be your priority. Always keep traveling and experiencing new parts of the planet. Even if you never get a single story published, you’ll most likely discover that you have fallen in love with the world and made your life richer in a way you never could have imagined.

Read Rolf Potts’ full article, “Advice to Travel Writers.”