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Wonderlanded in Berlin with British expat Paul Scraton, founding editor of the new “Elsewhere” journal

Welcome to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and inspire many of us who lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
d
o
w
n
the hole with Paul Scraton to Berlin.

Paul Scraton Wonderlanded for TDN 3

Paul says he isn’t intimately familiar with Lewis Carroll’s classic work—this despite having had a mainly English childhood. He was born and spent his early years in a market town just north of Liverpool; and, though his family moved around a fair bit in Paul’s early years—Wales, Canada, the south of England—they settled in Lancashire once he reached school age. At 18, he crossed the north–south divide to attend the University of Leeds.

But I feel justified in including Paul in this series first because he is most certainly displaced. Upon graduation from Leeds, he moved to Berlin, Germany, which is where we find him today, living with his German partner, Katrin, and their daughter. Apart from a summer spent in Dublin, the German capital has been Paul’s “home” for the past 14 years.

In addition, having studied Paul’s creative output, I think it is fair to say that for him, “elsewhere”—by that he seems to mean the great outdoors—is a kind of Wonderland. He never tires of exploring the area where he lives. He has served as a tour guide for Slow Travel Berlin and written two short books based on walks he has led in and around his adopted city.

Another place to which he has formed a deep attachment is Germany’s Baltic coast. Katrin spent much of her childhood on the the island of Rügen and in the Hanseatic city of Stralsund, and for about a decade, Paul has accompanied her on trips to the region.

Paul writes a regular series of “dispatches” about his various outdoor adventures—whether in Germany or the UK (which he still visits frequently)—for his blog, under a grey sky…

And now he has just released the very first issue of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, of which he is the founding editor.

Without further ado, let’s find out what it’s like to be “wonderlanded” with Paul.

* * *

Paul Scraton: Although it was quite a few years ago now, I can remember what it was like when I first arrived in Berlin and needed help with everything, from registering an apartment to opening a bank account. It was certainly challenging, even though Berlin is a city where many people speak English. And it is often only in the moving that you realise what aspects of life are different or not easily accessible compared to “back home”…and that can certainly make you feel lonely in a new city, a new country.

I did not have an internet connection in my first couple of Berlin apartments, and the English newspapers were expensive, so I relied a lot on BBC World Service. It is funny that this is not that long ago, but I imagine it is a different experience now with widespread internet access, social media and Skype.

I think the reason I first resisted the idea of Berlin or my life in another country as “wonderland”, besides a lack of familiarity with the books, is that by the definition of the Displaced Nation I am so often in this wonderland that it would never occur to me to frame it in that way. What I mean by this: when I am in Berlin I feel like I don’t quite belong, but when I go “back” to England having lived abroad for 14 years then I feel just as out of place. So it is something of a permanent state.

Despite this I can recognise that there are elements of life and my experience in Berlin (and beyond) after all these years that I still find curious…

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”

Having just finished university with no real idea of what I wanted to do except to write, I did wonder whether Berlin was the right place for me in the sense that I felt a long way away from any community or other people doing something similar in English. But several of us built our own little network, and, with the influx of still more international creatives over the years, there is now a small but thriving community of English-language writers and other like-minded folk.

“But what did the Dormouse say?” one of the jury asked.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Berlin was its history and the stories contained within these streets. One of the questions I would often ask people when I met them was whether or not they had grown up in the east or the west, and their experiences of living in a divided city and country and also what they thought about the process of reunification. In more recent years I was involved with running eyewitness history talks with people who told their personal stories of living in the city during the Nazi era or the Second World War, or living under communism in East Germany or in the “island city” that was West Berlin. Sometimes people in the audience, who were mainly visitors from outside Germany, would ask questions that would make me worry that the speaker would be offended, but actually it never happened. The Germans were happy to answer even difficult questions about their past or that of their families. In general, this is one of the strengths of the German society—the extent to which they have acknowledged, come to terms with, and discussed, debated and learned from their history; and you see it with individuals as well.

“Curiouser and curiouser…”

I think what really struck me about moving to Germany was not any sense of culture shock, but that the differences to back home were subtle and needed time to be discovered. In Berlin especially people can be very direct… there is very little tip-toeing around the subject, which can be a bit disconcerting. The main thing I still haven’t really fathomed is Schlager music, and the assorted television shows that showcase it. Finding yourself in the middle of something like that is one of those moments where you really realise you are living in a place where there are certain cultural traditions you have no grasp of, and to which you may never have access.

Acquired tastes Paul Scraton

German tastes you may never fully acquire. Photo credits: “Wenn die Musi spielt,” by Bad Kleinkirchheim via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Giant gherkins, by Caitriana Nicholson via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice…

My partner introduced me to good German pickled gherkins, and without her prompting I doubt I would ever have touched them. Now I quite like them.

“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail…

I am fascinated by Germany’s Baltic coast. One of the reasons is that I am fascinated by the coast in general, I think because it is a place that combines (a) the sense of escape that comes with family holidays, the seaside resorts, and the break with everyday life; and (b) the danger, myths and legends of the sea itself. Most seaside towns have both beaches where people have spent many, many happy hours, as well as memorials to shipwrecks and lifeboat crews… This contrast or contradiction applies, by the way, to the coast of the UK as much as here in Germany. (See for instance my blog post about our visit to Lindisfarne, Northumbria.)

The allure of the coast: Heimat, Germany (top) and Lindisfarne, Northumbria, UK. Photo credits: Paul Scraton and K.

The allure of the coast: Heimat, Germany (top) and Lindisfarne, Northumbria, UK. Photo credits: Paul Scraton and Katrin Schönig.

Another reason the Baltic is special is that it’s the place where my partner grew up. In the past ten years or so she has been taking me and my daughter up there. We are writing new stories for ourselves in a place that was very much a part of her childhood.

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

Now that you’re Wonderlanded with me, I must throw you a Mad Hatter’s tea party. This being Berlin, I will serve beer and bouletten (meat balls), a Berlin specialty, at the big table in our living room. We will listen to music and chat…and the guests will be friends, those who I don’t see enough of because of the way life seems to be. Not only those who are in England, and who I don’t see because of distance, but also those who live in the same city but somehow life gets in the way. But before we sat down for beer and meatballs we would have done a long walk together through the city or perhaps out at the lakes and the forests on the edge.

Bouletten and a walk. Photo credits: Bouletten mit Senf, by  Michael Fielitz (CC-BY SA 2.0); Grunewalk Forest by Paul Scraton.

Bouletten and a walk. Photo credits: Bouletten mit Senf, by
Michael Fielitz (CC-BY SA 2.0); Grunewalk Forest by Paul Scraton.

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Inevitably, you are a different person at 36 years old than at 22, and these changes would have no doubt happened whether I was in Berlin or had stayed in England. And if anything, being with my partner and our child probably had a more profound impact that simply the act of moving away. But I would say that work wise, in my writing and in creating our journal, Elsewhere, living in Berlin has been an endless source of inspiration. The number of interesting places and the stories they contain feels inexhaustible. I don’t think I would have become the writer I am, pursued the projects I am doing, or developed my work in the direction I have, without living in this city for the past decade and a half.

Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass

If you are like me, you will find yourself feeling out of place in your new home and out of place when you return to the old one. But there is nothing wrong with being slightly on the edge of the scene…that’s where the interesting stuff happens.

“I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth!”

Paul Scraton books and journal

Paul Scraton’s two short books and the first issue of the new journal he edits, Elsewhere.

Aside from the journal, the first issue of which we are launching this week, I am writing a book about memory, exploration and imagination on the German Baltic coast. As I mentioned, this is the area where Katrin grew up, and so the book combines my own travels and discoveries in the area with the myths and stories of the places along the coast as well as Katrin’s family history. I think coming at these places and stories as an “outsider” gives me a different perspective that informs and shapes the writing. Ultimately everything I am working on right now is concerned with the idea of “place”, and again, I think this interest has developed as a result of never quite feeling I belong wherever I may be…

* * *

Readers, I wonder if you feel like me, that you’ve enjoyed being “elsewhere” with Paul so much you feel a bit bereft now that our “tour” has ended… Do you agree the time went quickly? And what did you make of his Wonderlanded story? Please let us know in the comments. ~ML

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Paul writes about place.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits for opening image (clockwise from top left): Paul Scraton (supplied); image from “A line of wild suprise: Prespa, Greece,” one of the articles on the first issue of Elsewhere; “Alice,” by Jennie Park via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Hutschenreuther Garten Eden Cup & Saucer via Chinacraft.

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For this Swiss ethnographer with a fondness for remote parts of China, a picture says…

Gaetan in China Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Gaetan Green doing fieldwork in Xishuangbanna, a region of Southwest China squeezed between Laos and Burma; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 33-year-old Swiss national Gaetan Green, who has spent the last 12 years between China, Europe and North America. After graduating university, Gaetan studied and conducted ethnographic research in remote parts of China. He went back to do field work in the country’s ethnic borderland when pursuing a master’s degree in geography at a university in Vancouver.

For the past three years Gaetan has lived in one of China’s mega-cities, but he always grabs the opportunity to travel in the countryside, where he can indulge in his current passion for the  ancient and ethnic villages of south and southwest China, with a “minor focus on Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta.”

Gaetan keeps a fascinating blog, Travel Cathay. He posts about his off-the-beaten-path travels to parts of China most of us wouldn’t know existed.

* * *

Hi Gaetan. I have been following your blog for a while now and am very pleased to have the opportunity to interview you for the Displaced Nation. Let’s start with some background on you, shall we? Where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
I grew up in a ski resort in the middle of the Swiss Alps and I started travelling as soon as my parents would allow it. My first trips were to Southern and Eastern Europe with classmates—that started when we were around 16 years old. But my travels became a lot more serious when I left Switzerland for my first trip around the world, at age 20. This trip changed my life for good.

So your wanderlust dates from an early age. Why do you think that was?
There were essentially two things that inspired me to travel. The first was a map of the world that I discovered at home when I was an inquisitive eight-year-old. The map made me realize the world was much bigger than the valley surrounded by big snow-capped mountains where we lived. I was itching to discover the reality behind all the exotic place names. The second source of inspiration was my home country. With its pure air, snow-capped mountains, green valleys and quaint mountain villages, Switzerland is beautiful—but way too small. The boy I was then saw a world so big, I knew I had to leave.

Which countries did you travel to?
Besides southern and eastern Europe, I visited Australia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. And of course, eventually, China.

And now China has become a second home for you.
Although I have traveled to other countries, China is the one I know best because that is where I have spent most of my time so far, and I have only five provinces left to discover. My love story with China started at age 20: I spent three months of my round-the-world trip traveling within its vast terrain. When I returned home, I started to learn Mandarin (some of my friends thought I was seriously deranged!!). Then one thing lead to another: I studied for two years in Chongqing (a city of 15 million people in central China), worked as an ethnographer in remote parts of Yunnan province, taught English in Kunming, and conducted academic research between Vancouver and Xishuangbanna. Although China is a country, it gives the impression of being a continent because it is very diverse. Contrary to what many people think, China does not have a monolithic culture. I speak Mandarin, so that makes travel easier. I can venture into the countryside knowing I’ll be understood.

“Let’s all go up to the mountain to be close to the flowers and songs.” – Dong folk ballad

I’m sure that speaking the language gives you a huge advantage. Tell us more about the life you now lead in China.
I am currently working as a sourcing agent and living in one of China’s megacities. Recently I have developed mixed feelings about the megacity life. Megacities can be convenient places to live, providing easy access to food, entertainment, communication and transportation; but I find them overcrowded. Dangerous levels of pollution and food hygiene are growing concerns and also the reasons why some of my expat friends have already left.

Old woman in a Tibetan Catholic community; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

An elderly woman pushing barley alcohol in north Yunan; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Some friends of mine have recently moved to China to work in Shanghai but they refuse to live in the city for the same reasons you mention. But let’s get away from the megacity and take a look at your first three photos, which take us far away from that scene. Can you tell us what makes each of these photos so special?
This first photo reminds me of the time when I was doing ethnographic research about Tibetan Catholic communities in remote regions of north Yunnan province. On that particular occasion, I had the opportunity to witness a ceremony during which villagers prayed that it would rain on the graves of French missionaries who’d been assassinated at the beginning of the 20th century during anti-Christian violence in the region. There was a steep hike to reach the graves. At end of the ceremony, this woman started giving everyone barley alcohol in a paper cup. I remember going back to the village half-drunk after she challenged me to a second glass of firewater.

Wind and Rain Bridge, Tondao. Photo credit: Gaetan Green

Blown away by the Puxiu Wind and Rain Bridge in Tondao; photo credit: Gaetan Green

The second photo was taken after I’d missed the last afternoon bus and got stuck in the small town of Tongdao (southwest Hunan province), which I’d never heard of. I eventually ended up hiring a taxi driver for the afternoon to show me around. We went to a few ethnic villages and by 4:00 p.m., we had arrived by this amazing covered bridge, which is an example of a “wind and rain” (fengyu) bridge common to the Dong ethnic minority region. Missing my bus was the best thing that happened to me that day.

Taoist Temple, Macau; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The Jade Emperor’s generals on their joss paper thrones; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The third photo records the time I got lost in Macau somewhere between the Ruínas de São Paulo and the Camões Garden, I went to a Taoist temple. In one hall, I noticed that some statues had uneven stacks of joss paper (spirit money) under them. I asked the temple caretaker: “Why?” He explained that there were, in that particular hall, the statues of the 60 heavenly generals who help the Jade Emperor to supervise human life on earth. There is one heavenly general for each birth year, and the more joss paper there is under the statues that matches your birth year, the luckier you will get. I decided to boost my luck and bought stacks of joss paper to boost my heavenly general higher. The temple caretaker gave me three sticks of incense to burn; he said a long prayer in Cantonese and gave me a red talisman. I definitely enjoyed doing business with the gods, though I didn’t feel any luckier afterwards.

“Who can rob me of the songs I learned?” – Dong folk ballad

I love all three photos, and, yes, you are right, missing the bus and staying in Tondau must have been divine providence. Now, I’m keen to know where your favourite places to take photographs are, and why these places inspire you and how that shows in your next three photos?
Now that I live in a big Chinese city, the places that inspire me the most are the ethnic and ancient villages. In the cities, many historical buildings and old streets have been knocked down to give way to shopping malls and skyscrapers. Ethnic and ancient villages are real windows on the past and the cultural diversity of China. I chose the next three photos to make this point.

Cizhong Catholic Church; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

A Roman Catholic Church in an unexpected spot: by the Lancang (Mekong) River at Cizhong; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The first is of the Catholic church at Cizhong, a remote village of north Yunnan province that is home to a community of Tibetan Catholics who were converted by French missionaries more than 100 years ago. The church seems out of place in this land of Buddhism. The mountains surrounding the village make it a picturesque spot.

Yunnanyi Gaetan Green

If these walls could talk: Yunnanyi village on the Tea Horse Road; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The second photo is of Yunnanyi village, in Yunnan province, which was an important stop on the Tea Horse Road that linked Southeast Asia to the Tibetan plateau. Horse caravans carrying tea, spices and other goods stopped in Yunnanyi. In 1936, the communist armies of Mao Zedong stopped in Yunnanyi to rest during the Long March. Then, during WWII, the rice fields behind the village were transformed into a U.S. airfield. Planes that had flown from India over the Himalayas (to avoid the Japanese-controlled Burmese airspace) landed in Yunnanyi with supplies for the Chinese armies. The history of this unknown village is inspiring. The mud-brick courtyard houses have seen a lot. I wish these walls could talk.

Stepping back in time in Qianyang; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Stepping back in time in Qianyang; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The final photo is of Qianyang, in Shaanxi, an ancient regional political centre that has been forgotten in China’s rush to develop. The streets are lined with dozens of temples, an ancestral hall, and courtyard mansions that belonged to local officials. Most of the city’s walls and four out of fives gates are still standing. There were no tourists when I visited. It felt like stepping back in time and taking a walk in China’s past.

What I find amazing in these pictures is the beautiful architecture and the pristine condition of such old buildings and the cleanliness of the streets. Tell me something, I notice that many of your photos are of buildings or streets. Do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I do feel reserved about taking pictures of other people so I rarely do. The exception is when I have the opportunity to witness a ceremony or special event.

I know this is a similar question but do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs and how do you get around any problem of language?
Since I now travel mostly in China, I ask in Chinese. If I am in a region where people do not speak Mandarin, a hand gesture is usually enough.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
It is indeed. I would add that photography also has the ability to monitor change. In a country like China where everything is growing and changing so fast, photography can be a tool to record how the landscape is transforming.

That’s a very pertinent point, particularly when applied to China. Was there a particular moment when you realized that?
I thought about it a lot while on a business trip to Ningbo, a city of nine million people that is just a couple of hours by train from Shanghai. I had been able to take an afternoon off and wander in the city. I discovered an entire neighbourhood of stone houses built during the late Qing Dynasty (late 19th century), all of which were empty. They were going to be knocked down to build a shopping mall and high-density residential buildings. In China I am constantly thinking that what I see today may be different or not even exist tomorrow.

If someone wants to learn from me, I’ll teach him songs as melodious as cicadas.” – Dong folk ballad

I know exactly what you mean. It almost feels like you are running out of time. I have many old pre-digital photos (35 years old and more). I didn’t realise until now how precious they are. Moving on to the technical stuff (I’m not too good at tech but getting better). Some of our readers will want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I use a very simple point-and-shoot Sony camera.

I must say it works really well and the shooter has a good eye! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
I think I am in the same position as you. I need advice.

Gaetan, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell the story of your exciting journey and for sharing so much interesting information. You may not consider yourself to be a good photographer, but your “point and shoot” pictures embellish your narrative beautifully. Keep following your way and I am sure you will inspire other young people to travel the globe as you are doing. I, for one, will be checking your progress.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Gaetan’s experiences? Do you have any questions about his photos or his travels? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Gaetan, don’t forget to visit his excellent blog, Travel Cathay. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TravelCathay.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post!

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For this Filipina with a passion for immersive escapades, a picture says…

Jean Alaba Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Jean Alaba in front of moat surrounding Osaka Castle, Osaka, Japan. Photo credit: Jean Alaba.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My February guest is 20+ Filipina Jean Alaba. An extrovert who describes herself as a “God-fearing human being” and a “firm believer of living vividly,” Jean is, without a doubt, fulfilling her passion in life: TO TRAVEL. As she explains on the About page of her blog, The Eager Traveller, travel affords her an opportunity to move outside her comfort zone and grow as a person.

Jean was motivated to start up her blog just over a year ago, as a space to record the re-collections of her travels—which she modestly calls “my humble escapades”—in hopes of inspiring others to “nurture their zeal for new adventures” and of promoting the joy of immersing yourself in “the vibrant cultures across the globe.”

Why am I not surprised that Jean has gathered a considerable following in just over one year? My interview with her may provide a few clues as to why other avid travellers are drawn to Jean and her suggested itineraries.

* * *

Hi Jean. I know it has taken us a bit of time to connect, but I’m glad we finally managed to find some time to discuss your photo-travel experiences. Firstly, I see that you are 20+ (I am also 20+: 20 + 50!!), and for one so young you have travelled a fair bit. Can you tell us where you were born and when did you spread your wings to start travelling?
I was born in the Philippines. This may sound like a cliché but my first source of inspiration for travelling was a National Geographic magazine I saw in our school library.

National Geographic is a wonderful publication. I love it.
But I didn’t spread my wings until I made my first trip to West Coast USA. The Strip struck me the most because everyone there seemed to be having the time of their lives. There was such a lot to experience and yet the time was way too short. After that, I developed a passion to immerse myself in new cultures, interact with unfamiliar nationalities and engage in overseas adventures.

To a fearless person, no fence is high enough.—Filipino tagalong proverb

I assume you mean the famous Sunset Strip that has featured in so many movies over the years? I want to know more about your travels, but let’s start with what it’s like to be a solo female traveller.
So far I’ve travelled for pleasure and for business but as yet have never travelled alone. That’s a hurdle I hope to cross this year. I realize it can be risky, but from the inspiring articles I’ve read online, it’s clear it can also be rewarding.

Even though stepping into the unknown by yourself can sometimes be difficult, even for seasoned travellers, I believe preparation is the key. I’m sure you will be fine. Next I would love to know what what countries you have already visited?
So far, I’ve only been to the United States, India, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. I lived in Singapore as an exchange student for four months, which gave me a a sense of independence and responsibility. Another highlight was my six-week business trip in India, where I had the opportunity of visiting Mumbai, Agra, New Delhi and Jaipur. Here are two photos I took on that trip:

Q9-Taj-Mahal

The Taj Mahal in all of its intricacy. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

The first is of the Taj Mahal. I immediately fell in love with its intricate design. By pure luck, a bird flew across at the moment when I snapped this shot. It was only when I was viewing my photos on my laptop that I realized I had captured such an amazing moment. For me, the bird is special: it symbolizes freedom from all the worries in one’s life and from whatever is holding you back from achieving your dreams.

Q9-Bhawani

The jolly Jaipur driver Bhawani. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

The second is of Bhawani, the driver assigned to my group during our two-day outing to Jaipur. It reminds me of his kindness and positive disposition in life. He had to take us around Jaipur in the burning hot summer, but never once did he become irritated or impatient. He always had a smile on his face, and that kept us all in a good mood during the trip. In fact, the following week when we went to New Delhi, the company driver assigned to us was totally rude and inconsiderate. At one point he left us in the car sleeping (engine shut off!) while he had his dinner. Worse, when we lightly honked the car to signal that we were awake and frankly not amused, he completely ignored us.

I loved your photo of the Taj Mahal when I first saw it on your blog’s Home Page, but I have to be honest, I never noticed the bird until you pointed it out just now. Maybe that’s good as I was able to appreciate the intricate carvings. Now I’m worried I’ll miss the building and concentrate on the bird!! You’ve captured Bhawani exactly as you describe him; perfect.

One finds a way, or finds a reason to do something.—Filipino tagalong proverb

You are very modest to say you’ve been to “only” eight countries. That’s a lot more than most people visit in a lifetime. So tell us about where are you right now and why.
Well, as you know, James, I am currently in my country of birth, the Philippines, but I’m working out a deal that will hopefully pave the way for life in a new place. I’ll keep you posted.

Q9-Baler

Baler, nicknamed the Philippines’ surfing capital. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

So you are keeping the secret for now, but I’m sure your blog will be give the game away when you are on the move again. The Philippines is a beautiful country and I see you have included one picture in your selection.
Yes, I’ve included this photo of Baler, which is in Aurora province. I like it because it reminds me of my first time attempting to surf and for someone not sporty, I didn’t do too badly. This was also my first time to go beyond my comfort zone in my own part of the world: I travelled for six hours just to catch the waves. It was a spontaneous weekend that proved to be pretty rewarding.

For me, the Baler surf lapping the shore looks just like a welcoming carpet in someone’s lounge.

If you plant, you will harvest.—Filipino tagalong proverb

I know you take a lot of photos but where, so far, are your favourite places to do so? and Can you explain why these places inspire you and how it shows in your next three photos?
My favourite places to take photos so far are India, Japan and Hong Kong. I’ve included one photo of each.

Q10-India

Indian women in colorful saris. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

I like taking photos in India because Indians are very proud of their heritage. This was apparent everywhere we went in India, regardless of the people’s social status.

Q10 Japan

Portraits of Japanese people. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

Japan is a favorite of mine because the people are so organized, disciplined and polite. I never run out of things to see and admire.

Q10-Hong-Kong

A Hong Kong eatery. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

Hong Kong inspires me because of the food! I should think its vast array of local dishes are enough to inspire anyone!

I like that you manage to get a handle on people from the different countries you visit, without actually living in that place. You are clearly a good observer of people, as well as a keen researcher. Tell me, do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious you are doing so?
Not really unless I see they’re offended. But so far, no one has reacted angrily when they see me taking their photo. This is a good thing since I like shooting people. Capturing their unique expressions enables me to glimpse who they are and the kind of lives they lead. I must have taken a thousand portrait shots while in India. Perhaps I’ll get some of these printed and make it my wall art.

I’m the same. I hate to take “posed” photos so never get into a discussion with my subjects. I either take the pic or I don’t. So you like shooting people? Don’t worry; I know what you mean! I think the wall art is a great idea. I know this is a similar question but do you ever ask permission before taking people’s photographs. And how do you get around any language barriers?
Most of the time, I don’t ask but when I was in Japan, where permission needs to be secured for taking photographs of infants and kids, I would politely approach one of the parents and ask them in Japanese—of course with the help of sign language (pointing to my camera and their kids).

Thanks to you, I won’t get into trouble if I ever go to Japan. Would you say that you are motivated by the possibility of capturing something unique, which will never be seen again?
Definitely. You always have to live in the moment, and there is nothing more rewarding than being able to capture the special moments that, unless you have a time machine, you’ll never be able to bring back. Those photos may give you inspiration just when you need it most.

I have to agree, as I think most photographers would. So when did you first realize the power of photography, and how has it changed you?
I first realized it after borrowing a decent SLR for my trip to Hong Kong in 2008. I was able to take high-quality photos to serve as a memento. Ever since, I’ve made it a point to capture moments with my camera, whether during a vacation or simply at a gathering of family or friends—moments I’ll be wanting to view when I get old and grey.

I know what you mean. The picture for me is like a diary of an event in visual form. The photographer can write about it but no one else could.

When the sheets are short, one needs to make do.—Filipino tagalong proverb

Most readers will know by now that I’m not too good on the technical stuff but some of our readers will want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I’m still using the borrowed camera; it’s a Canon 450D. I use the kit lens and a prime lens. It’s outdated equipment now.

You sound a bit like me except that I haven’t managed to borrow any equipment yet. And you aren’t asking me for technical advice. That’s great!! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
I don’t feel I’m in a position to give advice since I haven’t really achieved anything noteworthy. But I would say from my experience, don’t hesitate to take as many pictures as you can while travelling. Before embarking on a journey, research and learn from the professionals online. You can try copying them, using a trial and error process.

I actually think that is very good non-technical advice, Jean. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your story so far in this interview. On your blog you say:

It has been a spectacular life so far but there is so much more to be seen! I have yet to find that life-changing opportunity which will allow me to do my passion for travelling and blogging as a living.

I have no doubt you will find that opportunity. I’m booking you in for a follow up interview next year to check your progress!!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jean’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos and/or travels? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Jean, don’t forget to visit her excellent blog, The Eager Traveller. You can also follow her on social media:
Twitter: @eagertraveller
Instagram: theeagertraveller
Google+: Jean Alaba

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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JACK THE HACK: Expat authors, once you have a blog, it’s schmooze it or lose it (3/3)

Jack Scott and his partner, Liam, set up home in the Turkish port town of Bodrum in the late aughts. They were seeking sanctuary from a pressured existence in London. In the event, the expat experience proved to be something for Jack to write home about, as in a book! The pair have since returned to the UK, where they are living the life of Riley in Norwich. Some time ago, we suggested that Jack reinvent himself as Jack the Hack and submit monthly columns targeted at those of you who are still displaced and hacking away at travelogues-cum-memoirsor, in some cases, autobiographical novels. Warning to non-Brits: Don’t be put off by his wry sense of humo(u)r!

—ML Awanohara

In my last two columns, I banged on about the art of blogging and how it is one of the most important tools in an author’s PR box, particularly for indie authors or those with a small publisher and only a few shillings in the marketing piggy bank.

You’ll be relieved to read that this is third and final episode.

FACT: most blogs run out of steam after two years. So, giving your blog legs will keep it in the race for longer.

Here’s how.

Win friends and influence people

So, your gorgeous new blog has hit the ground running and you’ve fallen under its spell. Now you want others to be captivated, too. The single most important thing you must do is engage meaningfully with your audience and your blogging peers, often and in every possible way.

It’s good to talk and networking pays big dividends. Allow your readers to comment on your posts. If someone takes the time to drop you a line, always reply. It helps develop your popularity and credibility.

A word of warning: make sure you’re set up to approve comments before they are published to keep the trolls and spammers at bay.

If you disagree with a comment, unless it’s abusive, offensive or loony tune, let it stand (polite rebukes are fine). That’s the unofficial blogger’s protocol.

Participate in the blogosphere by talking to your peers. Leave comments on their blogs and list your favorites on your site. Many will reciprocate, and the backlinks will help drive traffic your way. Be generous and promote others. Join blog directories. Most are free and some specialize (book bloggers, women bloggers, expat bloggers, for example).

Faceache and that Tweety thing

Cross-fertilization with social media is a must these days. At the very least, create a Facebook Page for your blog, join Twitter and post and tweet your content.

Facebook may like us all to think that it’s just a nerdy way to keep in touch with friends, but we all know it’s much, much more. Take advantage of its power.

Many blogging platforms can auto-post to the main social networks and this takes some of the pain out of the merry-go-round. While you’re at it, you may as well post to Google+, Pinterest (for images), Linkedin and any other social network you join. All this activity will increase your visibility. It worked wonders for me.

Fans can be fickle and lazy. Make it easy to follow you by adding social network links to your blog. It’s all about seamless sharing and following. And don’t forget to set up a subscription to your great works by old-fashioned email.

It’s not all about numbers, of course. Go for quality not quantity. Try not to obsess too much about your stats. (I should talk—I check mine several times a day.) Remember, your hit rate will be low at first. Don’t let it get you down. With a little careful nurturing and a lot of networking, your audience will steadily grow.

Is there any brass in it?

Blogging may be an important promotional tool but unless you’re attracting hundreds of thousands of readers a week (and some blogs do), you’re very unlikely to make any real money from your blog directly. My advice is not to plaster ads over your site. It will turn people off.

Beware blogging fatigue

Blogs do have a natural lifespan and there’s no point flogging a dead horse. Sometimes the cupboard is bare and there are no words left. Even the most enthusiastic and verbose writers may throw in the towel at some point.

Just like real work in the real world, take a short break or a long sabbatical. A nice holiday can work wonders for the creative juices. When I packed up my drag in my old kit bag and paddled back to Blighty, I was convinced that Perking the Pansies would wither on the vine like a piece of dried-up old fruit. Still, this old fruit soldiered on and much to my relief, the change of scene gave the blog a welcome shot in the arm.

In the end though, nothing lasts forever; when it’s done, it’s done. And that’s okay.

And finally…

BLOGGING TIP FOR EXPAT AUTHORS NO 3:

Blogging can be a hugely powerful tool for writers. It really can. It isn’t for everyone but if you decide to give it a go, have fun with it. If it’s a chore, it won’t endure.

Here endeth the blogging gospel according to Saint Jack. Season’s greetings and good luck from old Norwich town.

* * *

Readers, any comments, further questions for Jack the Hack? He will be following his own advice and taking a break from this column in the new year as he’ll be busy moving house with Liam (within Norwich) and publishing/promoting his sequel to Perking the Pansies—watch this space for a review!

Jack Scott’s debut book, Perking the Pansies—Jack and Liam move to Turkey, is a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay couple in a Muslim country. For more information on this and Jack’s other titles, go to his author site.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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JACK THE HACK: Expat authors, time to build a great and powerful blog (2/3)

The expat experience Jack Scott and his partner, Liam, had in the Turkish port town of Bodrum—they were seeking sanctuary from a pressured existence in London—proved literally to be something to write home about, as in a book! They have since returned to the UK, where they are living the life of Riley in Norwich.  Some months ago, we suggested that Jack reinvent himself as Jack the Hack and submit monthly columns targeted at those of you who are still displaced and hacking away at travelogues-cum-memoirsor, in some cases, autobiographical novels. Warning to non-Brits: Don’t be put off by his wry sense of humo(u)r!

—ML Awanohara

Last month I extolled the virtues of blogging as a way of spreading the word about your words—and, in the process, flogging that box of books you’re using as a door stop.

This month, I want to take you further down the yellow brick road to blogger glory, with answers to the following Frequently Asked Questions.

Where do I start?

First things first. Choose a blogging platform—called a “host.” This will be your blog’s home. The biggest free applications are:

  1. Blogger—easiest.
  2. WordPress—slightly more technical knowledge required.
  3. Tumblr—attracts a younger crowd and great for short posts, video and pictures.

Your host manages all the back office stuff so you don’t have to. Once you’ve signed up, you can roll out a new blog in no time. You don’t need to be technically savvy but it does help to have mastered the basics. All the blogging platforms offer online help and/or tutorials. WordPress, in particular, has a large and active user community. You will learn as you go along and this is all part of the fun. WordPress also offers a free self-hosting package through WordPress.org, providing total freedom and endless possibilities to the serious blogging geek (I’m bad but I ain’t that bad).

What’s in a name?

More than you might think. Choose a title for your blog that reflects its subject matter. Simple is best. For example, the Turkish Travel Blog does exactly what it says on the tin and works well for searching. I also like What’s for Tea Tonight, Dear? because it’s obviously about food but has a witty title.

Don’t ask me why I chose the rather obscure title of Perking the Pansies for my own blog. It’s caused endless confusion, especially across the Pond. All I can say is that it came to me in the night and seemed like a good idea at the time.

How do I make it a looker?

All blogging platforms come with a variety of appealing templates to add a dash of style. Select one; furnish it with your personal touches in words, images and music; accessorize from a menu of widgets and plugins; and, hey presto, you’ve got yourself a blog with punch and panache.

Some fancy features come at a premium but they aren’t necessary.

Your blog will be unique, so move the vases and furniture around to see what works feng shui-wise—rather like flicking through an IKEA catalogue.

Add an interesting “About Me” widget or page. The most successful blogs reveal something of the writer’s personality.

Will I be chained to the computer?

Not unless it turns you on. Posts can be written in batches and scheduled to be published over time. Try to post at least once a week, though. It’s good for what’s called search engine optimization (SEO). Don’t be spooked by this. This is just how Internet search engines index and rank your site— it’s all done in the background. Over time, posting regularly will push up your assets better than a Playtex 18-hour girdle.

What will give my blog the kiss of life?

This is the original million-dollar question. The short answer is, whatever floats your boat: something that interests you will help you write something interesting. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life—so choose a broad theme to write around.

Many authors will post book reviews or write about the writing experience itself. That’s fine and dandy, but just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean that you have to write about writing (I rarely do). And it does no harm to go off-message now and again. Surprise your audience with the occasional left fielder.

The blogosphere is an incredibly hyper-active arena. Bloggers through WordPress alone published more than 35 million posts during September this year, attracting more than 4 billion hits (yes, billion). Obviously, you’ll want your posts to stand out from the crowd. Try to ensure that the titles of your posts spark an interest. If your blog is mostly text, make the first few sentences of each post leap from the screen and get the juices flowing. Break up your words with interesting and relevant images.

In our visual, coffee-on-the-go, no-time-to-read age, the right picture can be more eloquent than a thousand words. Keep your pages clean and uncluttered. Fussy, multi-coloured fonts and busy designs can hurt the eyes and put the reader off. Don’t forget to use relevant categories and tags for each post. They’re good for SEO, too.

And the kiss of death?

If you’ve a book to flog, promote it lightly—otherwise, your readers will change channels quicker than you can say “click here.” By now, I reckon most of my regulars have either bought my book or would rather read the back of an envelope, so there’s little point banging on about it (until the next one, of course).

Don’t use your blog as a daily diary (use Facebook for this if you must). Even your dear old Grandma won’t be that interested in what you had for breakfast or that you broke a nail taking out the rubbish (unless something funny or profound happened on the way to the tip).

If you want to be seen as an authority on something, you need to write with authority.

So, until the third, and last, thrilling installment, I leave you with this final thought:

BLOGGING TIP FOR EXPAT AUTHORS NO 2:

While it’s important to blog regularly, it’s okay to take a break because real life is, well, real. If you have nothing to say, don’t say it.

* * *

Readers, any comments, further questions for Jack the Hack? He’ll be back next month with the third, and final, installment in his blogging advice trilogy: “Making Friends and Influencing People.”

Jack Scott’s debut book, Perking the Pansies—Jack and Liam move to Turkey, is a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay couple in a Muslim country. For more information on this and Jack’s other titles, go to his author site.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images from top, clockwise: Hand with pen / MorgueFile.com; Boats in King’s Lynn, Norfolk / MorgueFile.com; Jack Scott, used with his permission; Turkish boats / MorgueFile.com

JACK THE HACK: Expat authors, let’s reopen that blogging can of worms (1/3)

JACK THE HACK _writingtipsA pressured existence in the UK led Jack Scott and his partner, Liam, to seek sanctuary in the Turkish port town of Bodrum. This expat experience was literally something to write home about (as in a book!), after which the pair returned to the UK, where they are living the life of Riley in Norwich.

We have invited Jack, now reinvented as Jack the Hack, to submit a monthly column targeted at those of you who are still displaced and hacking away at travelogues-cum-memoirsor, in some cases, autobiographical novels. Warning to non-Brits: Don’t be put off by his wry sense of humo(u)r!

—ML Awanohara

As far as the book malarkey goes, unless you’re lucky enough to bag a big boy in the publishing world, you will carry the can to get the word out. These days, this means developing a strong and dynamic online presence.

To some, this seems like a step too far. I’ve worked with a number of new authors who just don’t have the time, skill or inclination to do what it takes.

“I wrote the damn book. Isn’t that enough?” I’ve been told.

Well, no, it isn’t, I’m afraid, not by a long chalk.

So I work with them to take the pain away. You see, it doesn’t need to be a can of worms. Those who regularly dip into Jack the Hack will know that I’m a passionate advocate of blogging—for fun and for glory. With a little effort and imagination, you really can make the Web work for you, and blogging is a very good place to start (cue Julie Andrews, the old Dame who tragically lost her fabulous soprano timbre).

Still not convinced?

Then let’s start at the very beginning…

So what is a blog?

The word is an abbreviation of “weblog”. Put simply, a blog is a journal where the entries (posts) are published online, with the most recent first (the reverse of a traditional hand-penned diary). A blog can take many forms and is a perfect vehicle to reflect our multi-media world of words, music, video and images.

Importantly, blogs differ from standard websites. They are dynamic (rather than static) and constantly evolving (assuming they are kept up to date).

Why do people blog?

It may sound grandiose, but blogging is an important democratizing force, giving a real voice to those who might otherwise not have one. It’s a great social leveler tooanyone can do it, no qualification required. There’s no editor to correct your flabby grammar and no one to censure your words (unless, of course, you live somewhere with lively Internet police).

While this means a fair amount of dross is floating round the crowded blogosphere, there are roses among the weedsand you could be one of them.

Bloggers blog for all sorts of reasons and to continue the tenuous Sound of Music theme, here are a few of my favo(u)rite (things):

• Because they have something to say about an issue they care about (the campaigners and spleen-ventors);
• To tell their world what they’re up to and to keep in touch with friends and family (a common topic for expat blogs);
• To help others (health-related blogs are often written for this purpose);
• To be seen as an expert or influencer in a particular arena or place (the Arts, politics and travel leap to mind);
• To connect with like-minded people (this blog, The Displaced Nation, is a good example);
• To flog a service, brand or product (oh, like a book).

Most successful blogs tend to focus around a particular theme or niche. I know a blogger who writes about knitting patterns. It’s hugely popular, attracting thousands of hits a week.

Among the big hitters are travel, politics, food, family life and…ta-da! books and creative writing.
Blogs are a boundless, no-to-low-cost way to lay out your stall in a way an ordinary Website might not. Why so? Because Internet search engines like Google love content that’s new, fresh and frequently updated.

Even well-established businesses take blogging seriously these days. So why wouldn’t you?

Has Jack converted you to the cause? If you’re hooked, let him reel you next month with tips to launch your blog with bang.

BLOGGING TIP FOR EXPAT AUTHORS NO 1:

Blogging increases the chances of getting your mug shot on the first page of Googleand that just might sell a book or two.

* * *

Readers, any comments, further questions for Jack the Hack? He’ll be back next month with the second in his blogging advice trilogy…

Jack Scott’s debut book, Perking the Pansies—Jack and Liam move to Turkey, is a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay couple in a Muslim country. For more information on this and Jack’s other titles, go to his author site.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images: from top, clockwise: Hand with pen / MorgueFile.com; Boats in King’s Lynn, Norfolk / MorgueFile.com; Jack Scott, used with his permission; Turkish boats / MorgueFile.com

JACK THE HACK: Expat authors, let’s review the reviewer situation

JACK THE HACK _writingtipsAfter an expat experience in Bodrum, Turkey, that was literally something to write home about (as in a book!), Jack Scott traded in the dream for a less pressured existence back in the UK, than the one he was originally escaping from. In his monthly column for the Displaced Nation, he attempts to give back something to the poor souls out there who are still displaced and hacking away at travelogues-cum-memoirs or, in some cases, autobiographical novels. Jack the Hack has been there and done that and can lend a helping hand. Warning to non-Brits: Don’t be put off by his wry sense of humo(u)r!

—ML Awanohara

There’s no doubt that a sparkling set of reviews is one of the most potent ways to market a book (or anything else for that matter). Conversely, bad reviews (or no reviews at all) are poison.

So, how difficult is it to elicit those five gold stars everyone’s chasing?

Apart from emotionally blackmailing your nearest and dearest (something I assume you’ve already done), there are a number of little tricks you can try when it comes to beefing up your scrapbook.

Tricks of the trade

Here are three basics:
1) Whenever someone writes something positive about your masterpiece on social media or on your blog, do the right thing and thank them. While you’re at it, ask if they wouldn’t mind posting a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Some won’t but some will.

2) Search out book review sites online. Some review for free, some for a small fee—and all will expect a freebie. Many of these sites will post their review on the major bookselling sites as well as their own website.

3) Raise your game even further by approaching the Amazon top reviewers. Click on a reviewer, check out their interests and if they have listed their contact details, drop them a begging letter. This won’t guarantee you a good review (or one at all)—and be careful to select someone who is interested in your type of book. Someone into soft porn vampire romps is unlikely to rave about your expat escapades, however worthy and well written they are.

Damning with faint praise

There’s a downside to all this. Reviewing can be a rum business. Amateur hacks, often anonymous and sometimes with an axe to grind or with lofty literary pretensions, can damn with faint praise or go nuclear with their toxic pen.

Naturally, no book appeals to everyone. Literature, as with art, is in the eye of the beholder.

Even writers at the top of the heap get mixed critiques. Someone once wrote that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was “…the worst book I’ve ever read.” Sure, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea—but the worst book ever?

Was the author, Louis de Bernières, much bothered? Not with a fat cheque for the film rights in his back pocket, he wasn’t.

Should a review like that count? Well, here’s the rub. Mass appeal retailers who positively encourage reviews as part of their business model are far too egalitarian. There’s very little discernment and no filter. Generally speaking, every comment carries equal weight. (A notable exception is something written by one of Amazon’s top reviewers, as mentioned earlier. These guys do have clout).

Hoisted by their own petard? If only…

Have you ever read a book review that’s so badly written, it’s barely readable? I know I have. Talk about irony. It’s like a playground brat screaming “I don’t like you so there!” just because he can.

For my part, if I don’t have anything good to say, I tend not to say it at all. It’s bad karma.

Like it or lump it, mixed reviews are an occupational hazard. People are entitled to express their view about something they’ve paid hard cash to read. Good, bad or indifferent, as long as it’s honest and not gratuitously offensive, it’s fair comment even when you think it’s unfair. Just hope the good drowns out the bad.

As for me, I’ve gotten off lightly. Reviews for my book have been very positive, but I’ve had the odd wobbly moment, too. Someone once joined Goodreads just to trash my book and make sure it dropped down a reading list by voting up every other title. Who was the literary troll? I will never know. Was I hurt? Sure was.

Rogue reviewers? It reminds me of why dogs lick themselves—because they can.

Which leads to—

WRITING TIP FOR EXPATS NO 6:

The best you can do is rise above the din, turn the other cheek and keep you own counsel. It doesn’t do to spit back even when sorely provoked.

* * *

Readers, any comments, further questions for Jack the Hack? He’ll be back next month with some more writing tips…

Jack Scott’s debut book, Perking the Pansies—Jack and Liam move to Turkey, is a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay couple in a Muslim country. For more information on this and Jack’s other titles, go to his author site.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images: from top, clockwise: Hand with pen / MorgueFile.com; Boats in King’s Lynn, Norfolk / MorgueFile.com; Jack Scott, used with his permission; Turkish boats / MorgueFile.com

JACK THE HACK: Expat writers, now to deal with fame and fortune … or the lack

JACK THE HACK _writingtipsJack Scott is back with his monthly column for all of you wannabe authors who are hacking away at travelogues-cum-memoirs, or autobiographical novels. After an expat experience in Bodrum, Turkey, that was literally something to write home about, Jack and his partner, Liam, traded in the dream for a less pressured existence back in the UK.

—ML Awanohara

So your labour of love is out there on the virtual shelves (and a few actual shelves with a fair wind and a bit of luck). After an initial flurry, it’s all gone a bit quiet on the sales front and you’re dropping down the Amazon rankings like a stone.

It can be disheartening, depressing even.

We all want a little recognition for our art and a few shillings for our trouble—but don’t let the dream carry you off with the fairies. Let’s face it, very few authors make a decent living from writing and even fewer reach the premier league (if only I had that idea about a boy wizard called Harry).

So don’t expect literary agents to vie for your attention or film moguls to beat a path to your door. Hell might freeze over before that invite to the daytime TV sofa drops on the mat. Nor will you be batting off the paparazzi with a stick—even well-known writers aren’t photo-fodder for the Sunday rags. Instant celebrity is generally reserved for the young and fresh faced.

Writing’s just not that sexy.

Will it even pay the rent?

Sure, writing can provide a useful extra income stream but it’s unlikely to pay the rent.

Unless you’re tapping into that trust-fund set up my your dearly departed maiden aunt (the one everyone knew was a lesbian but no one mentioned it) or have a partner who doesn’t mind indulging you (that’ll be me, then), don’t give up the day job just yet.

Even a book that does well won’t buy you that Maserati. If you’re lucky enough to get a publishing deal, expect a royalty rate of between 10 and 50 percent. This sounds a lot (particularly at the upper end) but remember, that’s a percentage of net sales after pretty much everyone else has taken their cut.

You will be last to be fed.

But, not to despair!

All is not lost. You might be able to supplement your royalties by writing for Websites and magazines because, as a published author, your street cred will improve and you’ll be seen as someone with something interesting to say.

Not to mention the chance to promote your book.

Trouble is, most don’t pay very much or don’t pay at all. Another option is to sell your soul to the Devil by writing general copy for a huge range of internet sites desperate for content. Again, they pay a poor return and you may not get any credit for your words.

Whatever you earn, whether you’re a minnow of a big fish, remember to declare your income to the nasty taxman. You don’t want a stink in the clink, do you?

What’s it all about, Jack?

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t the reason I got into this writing lark. Cherish your writing for what it is, something you enjoy and have a passion for.

Be careful though. It’s very easy to get lost in the scribbling moment (I know, I’ve done it). It’s intoxicating. Suddenly you snap out of it only to realize that you’ve sat by the computer all day long in your nightie, haven’t washed, haven’t brushed your teeth—and you’ve forgotten to pick the kids up from school.

Quick, stick that ready meal in the microwave and get to the kids before social services do.

So, savour the unique voice writing gives you but remember to look up occasionally. A little ambition and self-belief is a good thing. There’s no need to lower you expectations, just keep them in check.

Which leads to—

WRITING TIP FOR EXPATS NO 5:

Be realistic. You never know, you might hit the jackpot. But, until that day comes, write for the right reasons.

* * *

Readers, any comments, further questions for Jack the Hack? He’ll be back next month with some more writing tips…

Jack Scott’s debut book, Perking the Pansies—Jack and Liam move to Turkey, is a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay couple in a Muslim country. For more information on this and Jack’s other titles, go to his author site.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images: from top, clockwise: Hand with pen / MorgueFile.com; Boats in King’s Lynn, Norfolk / MorgueFile.com; Jack Scott, used with his permission; Turkish boats / MorgueFile.com

JACK THE HACK: Expat writers, time to crank up the PR machine!

JACK THE HACK _writingtipsJack Scott is back with his monthly column for all of you wannabe authors who are hacking away at travelogues-cum-memoirs (or cum-novels?). For those who don’t know, he was a Random Nomad for the Displaced Nation way back when we started this site. After an expat experience in Bodrum, Turkey, that was literally something to write home about, he and his partner, Liam, have traded in the dream for a less pressured existence back home in the UK.

—ML Awanohara

There’s a firm knock at your door and a postman in a tight uniform (well, we can hope!) hands you a box. You rip open the carton like an over-wrought five-year-old on Christmas morning, pull out a copy of your book, lift it to your nose and smell the pages. It’s intoxicating, better than recreational drugs. You’ve done it. For the very first time, you feel like a proper author.

Savour the moment. It may not last.

Unless you want to be stuck with a stack of books propping open a door or languishing unloved and unread in the attic, you’ll need to start phase two of your cunning marketing plan: making sure people know about your minor masterpiece.

But how do you get the message out there these days? Just what are the rules of engagement?

1) Start a blog.

As I have said many times before, blogging is a great auditioning process for writing, and the best way to experiment and grow your fan-base. In the crowded blogosphere, content is king and the best content is fresh, new and frequently updated. Aim to blog at least once a week and break up your words with interesting and relevant images. Keep your page clean and uncluttered. Fussy, multi-colored scripts and busy designs can hurt the eyes and put the reader off. Fans can be fickle and lazy. Make it easy for them to follow you by adding your social network links and the chance to subscribe to your pearls of wisdom by email.

2) Engage with social media.

Plaster the good news everywhere. Join social networks and make friends. Facebook and Twitter are the most popular and influential, although Pinterest is starting to give both of them a run for their money. Create a Facebook page and solicit “likes.” Give Linkedin a go. After all, you are a professional author now. If social forums exist for your area of interest, join them and participate meaningfully. A word of warning: Engage gently and be careful not to over-promote; otherwise, people will switch off.

3) Join book sites.

There are hundreds of book sites out there and most of them allow you to add your book. Goodreads is the biggie and most respected, Join their author programme and add your profile and book. There’s also AuthorsDen, LibraryThing and WritersNet. Make friends and become an active member of the groups you join. Reviewing the work of other new authors will help garner support and build a “bookie” network.

4) Solicit Amazon reviews.

If you’re selling your books through Amazon—an organization set on a path to either a) world domination or b) break-up by the Monopolies Commission—make sure the selling page is attractive, accurate and informative. Add an author profile, encourage people to submit positive reviews and if you do get the odd bad review (and you will) don’t spit back, it’s really not worth it.

5) Think about search engine optimisation.

Don’t be spooked by this. Search engine optimization (SEO) is just how a page is ranked on search engines and by this I mostly mean Google (another monolith on the path to world domination). If your blog doesn’t appear in the first few pages of Google then you might as well not be on the internet at all. There are many companies that claim they will increase your ranking for a fee. Don’t waste your money. Follow a few simple steps and you’ll soon by up there with the pros:

  • Reply to comments left on your blog. It’s the polite thing to do.
  • Engage with your blogging peers with comments and guest posts.
  • Add share buttons to your posts so your readers can spread the word effortlessly.
  • Create reciprocal links by listing your favorite blogs and Websites on your blog.
  • Join blog directories. Most are free and some specialize (women bloggers, expat bloggers, for example).
  • Post to Facebook and Twitter (at the very least).
  • While you’re at it, you may as well post to Google+, Pinterest and Linkedin (and any other social network you join). All that activity will help you clamber up the rankings and increase your visibility.

6) Get yourself interviewed.

Online interviews are a great way to increase your profile. Expat and book sites (notably, The Displaced Nation!) are always looking for interesting people to chat to. It provides them with content and you with exposure—a perfect double whammy.

7) Create a personal Website.

Creating a personal Website isn’t the expensive faff it used to be and the days of paying top dollar for large-brained web-designers to give birth to your labor of love are over. These days, get the right help and you can end up with a fully functional and integrated site for a fraction of what it used to cost. (PLUG ALERT: You could do worse than checking out author2author, my new low cost Website, blogging and social media service for authors.)

8) And finally…keep chipping away at it!

Exhausted? You will be. This PR lark takes a lot of graft. I know. I’ve never worked so hard. The good news is that once you’ve set the wheels in motion, you just need to keep a light touch on the tiller. Then before you know it, you’ll start getting that exposure you’ve always dreamed of and, who knows, the agents and distributors knocking at your door instead of the pretty postman.

Until then, I’m afraid there’s no substitute for
WRITING TIP FOR EXPATS NO 4:

Master the rules of engagement!

* * *

Readers, any comments, further questions for Jack the Hack? He’ll be back next month with some more writing tips…

Jack Scott’s debut book, Perking the Pansies—Jack and Liam move to Turkey, is a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay couple in a Muslim country. For more information on this and Jack’s other titles, go to his author site.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: from top, clockwise: Hand with pen / MorgueFile.com; Boats in King’s Lynn, Norfolk / MorgueFile.com; Jack Scott, used with his permission; Turkish boats / MorgueFile.com

Getting carried away with author Lisa Egle on a magic carpet, or is it a chicken bus? (Win a copy of her travel memoirs!)

Lisa E Collage for TNBack in the days when my nieces were small—and I’d just repatriated to the United States after quite a few years abroad—I got to know them again through long bouts of playing make-believe at my mother’s (their grandmother’s) house.

We particularly enjoyed Magic Carpet. We had our own home-made version. Adorning ourselves in Grandma’s silk scarves, we would plonk down on her quilted bedspread for a flight of fancy, à la Arabian Nights (not for us the Disney version!):

Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon other site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place nearhand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.

I trust this anecdote will explain why I’m so excited about hosting new author Lisa Egle today. It’s Magic Carpet time again, and this time I get to be the kid, listening to Egle tell of the off-the-beaten-track adventures that are captured in her travel memoirs, Magic Carpet Seduction.

Hey, we even have prizes! Two of our readers will be the lucky recipients of a copy of Egle’s book (see giveaway details below). The giveaway is now over! 😦

Hmmm… The only thing is, I suspect that before we board the Magic Carpet, Egle will ask us to ride on a chicken bus. (Leave the silk scarves at home, girls!)

* * *

MagicCarpetSeduction_cover_pmHi, Lisa! I won’t need too much persuasion to be seduced by your writing. I’m already a follower of your travel blog, ChickyBus. And I know you’re an American like me, living in New Jersey. Why made you decide to travel in the first place?
After taking short solo trips in the U.S. back in the 1990s, I went on a two-week group tour of Egypt and thought it was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. I then went on another tour, of Ecuador, which turned out to be a life-changing experience (for many reasons, including the fact that I moved there a few months later). While living in Ecuador, I began to travel independently and realized how much I enjoyed it. From that point on, I entered the ranks of “travel addicts.”

How many countries have you been to at this point?
In total, I’ve been to 36 countries, on five continents. I was an expat twice: in Ecuador for a year and half and in Spain for a year. Recently, I spent two months in Indonesia.

And home is now New Jersey?
Yes. I’m a full-time ESL professor at a two-year college in Bloomfield.

I don’t get it. Is a “chicken bus” magical?

Where does the epithet “Chicky Bus” come from?
“Chicky Bus” is the name of one of the stories in my book. It’s about a quirky 12-hour “chicken bus” ride I took in Central America that led me to have epiphanies about living in the moment. When I started my blog, I thought “ChickyBus” would be a cool domain name—one that related to travel and one that people would remember. I also liked it as a blog concept. I’m the “driver” taking readers—”passengers”—on “rides” with me, allowing them to experience the same random moments and unexpected journeys that I do.

There’s also a deeper meaning, however. “Chicky bus” is a metaphor for my unique style of travel—being in the moment while venturing off the beaten path and taking risks (nothing too crazy, of course). It refers to that place of magic and self-discovery that I find wherever I go.

Why did you decide to publish some of your travel stories as a book?
Years ago, while blogging about general topics on a site called http://www.gaia.com, I began sharing travel tales. The feedback was incredibly positive; people were inspired and entertained by what I wrote and said they felt like they were right there with me. After a while, I decided to go all the way with it, to write more stories and to compile them into a book—four major “rides” to different regions of the world (and a total of 9 countries: China, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon).

Are any of your chapters based on blog posts?
Interestingly, none of the stories are based on blog posts. I wrote most of the book before I started ChickyBus. There are, however, a few stories (simplified versions) on the blog that came from the book.

Mostly magical connections

We like to talk about “displaced moments” on the Displaced Nation. We can see you’ve experienced your fair share: from close encounters with Carpet Casanovas in Turkey, to meeting with a hermit in the Lebanese mountains, to experiencing political intrigue in a Chinese classroom, to receiving a marriage proposal on that infamous chicken bus in Nicaragua. But we still have to ask you: which is the MOST displaced moment that you’ve included in this book?
The moments you mention were truly unique ones and—believe it or not—I didn’t feel as displaced as one might think. Because I was in the moment and going with the flow, I felt quite comfortable and that I was where I needed to be.

There were a few instances, however, in which I did have that “displaced” feeling—the most extreme of which occurred in China.

It was 1999 and I was teaching English at a university in Changsha in Hunan Province, which was definitely considered off the beaten path back then. For most of my time there, I was in a deep state of culture shock. I struggled with many things, from freedom of speech issues to getting to know my students. There were many “displaced moments”—and even days. Fortunately, after a while, things leveled out and went more smoothly.

So from what you’ve just said, I guess there is a lot of competition for your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you actually belonged with all of these characters you discovered off the beaten track?
One of my least displaced moments (and possibly favorite) was when a friend and I ended up spending the night with a Mexican family we barely knew. They’d invited us over for lunch. We were planning to take a bus to another city that night because we had to fly home from there the next day. It got later and later and because we were so comfortable, we didn’t want to leave. We ended up staying (and sleeping in two very tiny beds, slightly larger than coffins) and having a wonderful time being part of the family.

P.S. A little Boone’s Farm wine went a long way in helping make us even more comfortable…

Don’t exit until the rug has made a complete stop!

Okay, time to get off that chicken bus and onto that magic carpet. On your post announcing the book’s publication, you say:

So imagine that my book is the equivalent of an invitation to a Bedouin lounge of sorts. If you decide to join me, we’ll get comfy on the cushions and share some tea (or coffee or whichever beverage you like). When you’re ready, I’ll start telling you my favorite travel tales—and together, we’ll take a magic carpet ride.

Why did you choose this metaphor, and indeed use “magic carpet” in your title?
When I was a kid, my friends and brother and I used to sit on the front porch and listen to my mother telling us stories. Years later, I found myself doing the same thing with friends and later, on a blog. Then, I spent time with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, Jordan. We told our own stories while sharing tea and sitting on the sand under a tent or on a cushion inside a house. In retrospect, I believe that the “invitation” into the Bedouin lounge has something do with each of these experiences.

Re: the title, when people see the words “magic carpet,” the freedom to travel anywhere, magically, usually comes to mind. Also, “Magic Carpet Seduction” is the name of one of the stories in the book. It’s about two men, seemingly different, trying to sell me a carpet and what happens I see through their each one’s sales pitch/ploy.

Also in your blog post announcing the book’s publication, you confess to being exhausted. (I confess to having had similar feelings after long games of Magic Carpet with my nieces!) What was the most challenging part of the writing process?
Mostly, it was finishing the book, editing it and formatting it while maintaining my blog and my full-time teaching job, and being on social media. At times, it was difficult to prioritize and I often felt burnt out.

Overall, however, I would say that editing took a lot out of me. There were a few times when I thought I was finished with a certain stage of the process; then, I’d realize that I wasn’t. Having said this, that is where I learned the most and what helped me become a better writer. So, in the end, it was a positive experience.

Capturing the magic of self-publishing

Why did you self-publish the book?
I took this route mostly because I wanted creative control; I believe the book is unique and slightly nichey. Also, I didn’t want to have to spend a lot of time pursuing an agent and traditional publisher. Mostly, I wanted to get the book done my own way and on my own schedule.

Can you offer any tips for others who are contemplating going down this path?
My best tips for anyone who’d like to self-publish are:

• Hire a professional editor and a proofreader—two (even three) people. Also, get a critique done before you pass the manuscript on to an editor. It’s important because each editor has his/her own specialty and will probably catch something another didn’t.

• Have a cover professionally designed. I know there are ways to do this cheaply or yourself, but it’s worth spending money to do this right since the cover is first thing that people see when searching for a book.

• Have your blog (and social media accounts) set up/established before you publish the book. I’ve seen many people do it the other way around. They finish and publish their book, then set up a blog and join Twitter. Many aren’t sure what to do—they just tweet about their book and don’t interact with others. This tends to hurt them more than help them.

• Don’t give up. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I wanted to quit just because of the sheer amount of work (blog, social media, the book itself, etc.) You can burn out very easily and, if you’re not careful, your health can suffer. Keep going, though, and you’ll cross that finish line!

What audience did you have in mind when writing the book?
I’ve always envisioned the audience as:

  • armchair travelers and those who take tours and fantasize about breaking away
  • other independent travelers/expats
  • non-travelers with an interest in countries often in the news
  • anyone curious about the cultural perspective/insights of a female American traveler.

Is it reaching those readers?
I don’t know the customer demographics yet, but I know that a few men have written reviews on Amazon—and that makes me happy. As is the case with ChickyBus, the book is for people of all ages and both genders. It’s definitely not just for women.

I see you’ve opened your own publishing company and are working on some more ambitious travel-cum-writing projects. Can you tell us some more about that?
I set up a small publishing company for a number of reasons, including accounting and taxes. More than that, I thought it made sense because I will be publishing more books and hopefully, a collection of travel tales written by others. This is a longer-term goal, but definitely something I’m considering for the future.

Are you already working on your next book?
I’m currently working on a trilogy about Native American-style healing journeys in the U.S. (in the Northeast and the Southwest). After that, I’ll hopefully wrap up the rough draft of a book about life-changing experiences I had in Ecuador. That, like the trilogy, would fall under a “spiritual travel” genre.

10 Questions for Lisa

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Grey Wolves and White Doves, by John Balian
2. Favorite literary genre: Political thrillers; travel literature.
3. Reading habits on a plane: (what kinds of things do you tend to read and by what means?) Now, because I own a Kindle, this is much easier. I usually have several books to choose from: one I’m sure I’ll love and lose myself in and—a few that I’m curious about. One thing I love to do on a plane (and during my trip) is keep a journal. During my return flight, I re-read the journal and re-experience the trip. I almost always do that and love it!
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Hmmm. That’s a tough question. Maybe my book? I’d want him to see that there are Americans who embrace the rest of the world, despite the media’s distortions of it. Also, I think my book would show him how travel, the way I approach it—focusing mostly on meeting the locals—can help people to connect in a very real way and to overcome cultural misconceptions, ultimately helping make world peace more attainable. Another reason I’d want him to read it is because I think it would provide good escapism since it’s quite humorous. He’s got a tough job and might enjoy it for the entertainment value alone.
5. Favorite books as a child: The Outsiders, a coming-of-age novel by S.E. Hinton; and Go Ask Alice, by Beatrice Sparks.
6. The writer, you’d most like to meet, who is no longer living: Aldous Huxley
7. The writer, you’d most like to meet, who is still alive today: Daniel Keyes
8. Your reading habits: I have a pretty short attention span, so there are many books that I start to read that I don’t finish. However, if a book really gets my attention, then I can’t stop. It becomes something I look forward to and put aside other things to do. Unfortunately, since I started my blog a few years ago, I’ve been reading less than previously. I spend more time reading other blogs and articles than reading actual books. When I seem to read the most is when I’m traveling and find myself without Internet. I end up loving it, too.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: A cyber suspense I’ve written about two women who “meet” on the Internet and what happens when the bond they’ve formed takes a dysfunctional and frightening turn. It’s now in rough draft form (about 15,000 words), but I’m hoping to publish it on Amazon (just for Kindle) in a few months.
10. The book you plan to read next: Actually, there’s a book I’m itching to finish reading—and that’s Shantaram. I always start it and then get interrupted. It’s a very long book (over 900 pages). I think Gregory David Roberts is an awesome writer. His storytelling ability—the way he writes dialogue, how he describes characters, settings and situations, and the way he uses metaphor—makes his experiences incredibly real to me.

* * *

Thanks so much, Lisa! That was absolutely magical, a carpet ride to write home (to my nieces) about! And that chicken bus? It wasn’t half bad! 🙂

What about you, readers? Has she seduced you?

Lisa Egle writes a blog, Chicky Bus, the concept of which is “finding yourself off the beaten path.” Over the past three years, it has been recognized on two “Top 100” lists of independent travel blogs. Egle is also Assistant Professor of ESL at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey, where she teaches students from all over the world, especially Latin America and the Middle East. She holds a BA in Social Sciences from New York University and an MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Lisa recently published a humorous piece in OH SANDY! An Anthology of Humor for a Serious Purpose (sales of which help victims of Hurricane Sandy), and an article on one of her quirkier adventures in Indonesia in LifeLift, the Oprah.com blog. She received an honorable mention in the 77th Annual Writer’s Digest Contest, in the Inspirational category.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, by guest blogger Elizabeth Liang, who will be updating us on her one-woman play about the TCK life, Alien Citizen.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images (clockwise, starting top left): Lisa at the home of her Cirassian-Jordanian friend, Souzan, with whom she was staying before the latter’s move to New Jersey(!) [this photo is in the book]; Lisa at a wedding in a Minangkabau village in Sumatra (hey, you can’t attend without posing with the bride and groom); Lisa camping in San Blas, Panama, during rainy season and a full moon (a displaced moment, to be sure, as the local Kuna indigenous believe that a full moon equals a curse); and Lisa after being recruited to be on a famous TV show in Damascus, which aired during Ramadan afforded an opportunity to meet one of the most famous actors in Syria—Qusai Khouli (she is wearing a late 1800s outfit, in case you were wondering). The painting in the center is “The Flying Carpet,” by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880), courtesy Wikipedia.

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