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JACK THE HACK: Advice to all you expat writers: Publish and be damned!

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 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

After months of burning the midnight oil, neglecting the sprogs and denying your long-suffering partner their conjugal rights, your memoir masterpiece is finally done and dusted. Whether you’re pleased with the result of your hard graft or just relieved, pop a cork. It’s quite an achievement.

So what’s next? Well, obviously you want to launch your labour of love onto an unprepared world—but how?

Essentially, you have four choices:

1) The big boys—the Holy Grail

Who wouldn’t bite the hand off a corporate suit offering a fat advance cheque, certainly not me. It sounds tantalising. Let the big boys do all the work—edit, design, promote and distribute—while you sit back and watch the royalties land on the mat. And you get to feel like a ‘proper’ author. Easy.

Except, it isn’t.  I know of no traditional publishing house that accepts unsolicited manuscripts, so don’t waste your time and money.

Mainstream publishers have cosy relationships with literary agents who filter out the dross so they don’t have to.

So, your first task is to bag yourself an agent who’s willing to take a punt on you (and a cut from you).

That’s not easy either. Agents receive thousands of manuscripts every year and few make it past the receptionist’s in-tray.

Keep the Faith. There are things you can do to avoid getting your memoir filed in the bulging bin:

  • Carefully read what an agent is looking for. Select only those who fancy a trip down memory lane. If you send your book to anyone else, you’re toast.
  • Follow the submission guidelines to the letter. If they want it double spaced in Times Roman 12, a full book proposal and a copy of your grandma’s marriage certificate then do exactly what it says on the tin.
  • Develop the patience of a saint, do not expect a quick response (if any) and don’t hassle.

2) Half-way houses—stepping into the breach

As we all know, the traditional bricks and mortar bookshop is under seize from the growth of on-line retailers (particularly Amazon), print-on-demand services and electronic books and they are transforming the market. A number of smaller publishers have sprung up to take advantage of this brave new world. For an upfront fee (often with set menu and a la carte offers), these smaller outfits will work with you to prepare your book to a professional standard (both print and e-versions) and get it onto the virtual shelves.

In return for a higher royalty rate, you will be expected to do most of your own promotion.

The advantage of print-on-demand publishing is that you can keep a stock of books in your bedroom for direct sales (to local bookshops, through your Web site and by emotionally blackmailing your nearest and dearest). The disadvantage is that most major book chains won’t give them shelf room.

3) Vanity publishing—the blind leading the desperate

We’ve all seen the “Authors Wanted” ads popping up on Google placed by companies who trade on a writer’s desire to see their name in print. For the right price, they’ll print almost anything. I’m not saying they are necessarily unscrupulous or misleading, but the quality of the written word isn’t their bag. Unfortunately, the line between the vanity publisher and the half-way housemate is becoming increasingly blurred. For me, the main distinction is selection and control. Be careful.

4) Self-publishing—the DIY approach

If your story is fit for publication (that is to say edited, proofed and formatted with a snazzy cover), why not self-publish as an e-book? It’s easier than you might think. Open an Amazon Kindle account, upload your file and let them do the conversion and listing.

And there’s always Smashwords, which will convert and distribute your e-book to all the main online retailers (including Amazon). Formatting an e-book for Smashwords is a bit fiddly but they do publish a handy style guide to lead you by the hand.

The advantage of self-publishing is that you get to keep full control over your work, including the price, and you’re paid direct without a publisher’s cut.

If you really want to see your precious words in print (and there’s nothing like the smell of a brand new book), get a printer to set the presses running. Many offer their services online and deliver to your door so you don’t even have to leave home.

Amazon also provides a print-on-demand service called CreateSpace. This way, people can order a print copy direct from them and, if you get the look and feel right, no one need ever know you did it yourself.

Postscript: Bedtime reading

Especially for expats with UK connections: The Writers and Artists Association has a comprehensive list of UK and overseas agents and their requirements. You’ll have to register first but it’s free. Their site also contains a well of advice about all aspects of the publishing business.

Which leads me to …

WRITING TIP FOR EXPATS NO 3:

Publish and be damned!

With all of the options out there, what are you waiting for?

* * *

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 in our NEW vs OLDE WORLDS series.

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

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JACK THE HACK: How do you know whether you want to write a memoir or a novel, and what’s the difference?

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 (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 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

Hmmm… Is it easier to turn expat stories or travel adventures into a memoir or a novel, and how does one decide?

As with all such questions, the answer is a resounding “it depends”.

Let’s look at some definitions:

Memoir (noun) – a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge.
Travelogue (noun) – a film, book, or illustrated lecture about the places visited by or experiences of a traveller.
Novel (noun) – a fictional narrative, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters.

So it seems that travelogues and biographies can’t be novels because, by definition, they’re based on real events by real people in real places.

Does this matter?

I think not.

False dichotomies

For me, writing a memoir is like telling a story and every story, even a real-life one, needs order, pace, plot, a compelling blend of highs and lows and a sense of purpose.

I learned some valuable lessons from David Steddall, the English teacher at my South London grammar school back in the big hair, bell-bottomed Seventies.

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end,” Mr Steddall would say.

We’ve all heard the mantra, haven’t we?

Mr Steddall seemed to like my essays, even if they were sometimes a little risqué in a post-pubescent, hormone-raging kind of way. He would often give me top marks and have me recite my work in class. His encouragement gave me confidence—a confidence that lay dormant for thirty-odd years until a little sun-kissed nourishment breathed life into it like rains in a desert.

I’ve stayed faithful to Dave(as I now think of him)’s cause. My own memoir has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not a random series of observations like a diary. Who’d want to read that? Let’s face it, I’m not Anne Frank, Kenneth Williams or Samuel Pepys.

Make it work!

Here’s the trick. Just because a memoir can’t be a novel, it doesn’t mean it can’t be written as if it were. The greatest challenge is to give memoir a plot that readers will find convincing and engaging enough to make them turn the page.

For me, that meant very little fat. One of the first tips I picked up from my publisher was to dump storylines and characters that weren’t key to the main event or didn’t add interesting flavour. I tackled this by creating a story board, much like they do in the movies. This meant I could identify gaps in the narrative, ensure continuity and shoot down the flights of fancy.

Does this mean it’s not true?

Well, as I wrote at the top of my first book:

This book is based on actual events. To protect the privacy of the persons involved, and in the interest of narrative clarity, some names, characterizations, locations, conversations and timescales have been changed.

This was necessary to protect the guilty, avoid a brick through my window and keep me out of the courts. The end result is that all the characters are true, if renamed and heavily disguised, and all the events actually happened, though not necessarily as chronologically written. Once I accepted this, I could let my imagination run riot and had enormous fun assembling the pieces of my life abroad like one huge colourful jigsaw.

I admit, though, I may have left some little gems on the cutting-room floor.

It’s the risk you take.

Glossy travelogues and expat classics

Most people are familiar with the lavish and beautifully crafted travel book, heavy enough to stop a burglar or prop open the living room door. Every coffee table should have one.

But I don’t really think of travelogues as memoir as their primary purpose is to inform the reader about foreign places in words and (often) pictures.

As for the kind of expat book that has ended up appealing to a mass audience—Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons come to mind—the formula calls for lots of descriptions of majestic landscapes as well as a plot centered around building a dream home out of a hovel in the rolling hills.

Which leads me to …

WRITING TIP FOR EXPATS NO 2:

My advice to the budding expat writer: find your own angle; don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel.

In my case, I wrote about the (sometimes grubby) reality of expat life from the unique perspective of a gay man in a Muslim land. It’s something no one had done before, and why would they? There weren’t many of us there.

* * *

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 “Capital Ideas” post, by Anthony Windram.

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: You’re thinking about writing a travelogue or memoir. Should you start with a blog?

JACK THE HACK _writingtips

Today we introduce a new monthly column by Jack Scott, who was a Random Nomad for the Displaced Nation way back when we started this site. After an expat experience that was literally something to write home about, he and his partner, Liam, have traded in the dream for a less pressured existence back in their home country. We’re thrilled to have recruited Jack as a writing guru for all of you wannabe authors who are hacking away at travelogues-cum-memoirs — perhaps even as I type this?!

— ML Awanohara

Do you think it helps to write a blog with the purpose of publishing a travelogue or memoir in mind?

It’s a good question — and for me, the short answer would be a simple no.

But the long answer would be a qualified yes.

Let me explain.

When Liam and I first flogged off the family silver, jumped the good ship Blighty and waded ashore to Turkey, we planned to put our feet up and watch the pansies grow. Twelve months into the dream, we began to feel, well, a little bored.

It was a benign type of boredom — not the terminal kind that leads to low self-esteem, heavy drinking, chocolate binges and serial infidelity.

But it was boredom nevertheless.

Life before expat-dom

In the wicked world of the waged, I had been a busy bean counter, mismanaging a large public sector service. Liam had been shackled to a cut-and-thrust slash-and-burn private sector company, with a grueling 12-hour day as his reward.

My boss was off with the fairies, his was Lucifer in lace. Work gave me a routine on auto-pilot, while it nearly drove Liam over the edge.

In quite different ways, we were both fully (if unhappily) occupied.

In our brave new world of idleness and long Anatolian summers, lazy days in Eden turned into one perpetual holiday. Our old life withdrew into the fog of a hazy past.

The trouble is, life isn’t supposed to one long holiday.

Like so many before us, we parachuted into paradise thinking entirely of the destination. We gave very little thought to what we might do once we got there.

Not another beautiful day!

It’s an all too common mistake. For every able-bodied emigrey (well, those with brains and bones still in reasonable working order), the trick is to find a meaningful occupation: something to break up the unending monotony and keep them off the sauce.

It really doesn’t matter what it is: turning water into homemade wine, feeding the five thousand street dogs or raising your sex life from the dead — whatever gets the juices flowing.

For me it was starting a blog to tell an unsuspecting world about our encounters with the mad, the bad, the sad and the glad along the highways and byways of the whitewashed ghetto where we lived.

A book really never entered my mind.

Then, quite by chance, my irrelevant ramblings became one of the most successful English-language blogs in Turkey.

You could have knocked me down with a feather boa, I was that surprised.

It was only then that I began to think there just might be a book in me.

Remarkably, there was.

Re-energized!

It’s quite amazing how the fear of terminal boredom can re-energize a novice expat. In just 12 months, I created the blog, designed and published a Web site, and wrote my debut book. For most of this meandering expedition, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. A combination of trial and error, intuition, intravenous wine, gentle encouragement from an inspirational publisher and not-so-gentle cajoling from Liam turned an unplanned and uncoordinated series of chess moves into the production of a well-received book that I’m proud to have written.

My probation was illuminating and taught me a great deal — about writing, process, content, plot, characterization, networking, promotion and engagement.

You see, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Looking back, it seems only too obvious that blogging was a great audition for my writing. I had never written before (unless you count a series of unread and unloved business reports rotting away on dusty book-shelves in municipal vaults). Writing my blog was a safe and fun way to experiment and to build up an audience at the same time. Reading through my back catalogue, I can see quite clearly how I evolved as a writer.

WRITING TIP FOR EXPATS NO 1 (aka the long answer to the question at the top of the conversation):

It might be useful to start up a blog if you want to write a travelogue-cum-memoir. It’s not the Law, but blogging can really help.

And what about Liam in all of this? Did he develop suicidal tendencies or did he cope better with the ever-constant Aegean vista and nightly sunset show?

Well, apart from re-discovering a love of composing and tickling the ivories, he acquired a new skill of his own: cracking the editor’s whip, something he did (and still does) with rather too much pleasure than I (or he) would care to admit.

Us writers put up with so much, we really do.

* * *

Readers, any comments for 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, on NEW England…

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

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