“Just tell the person next to you what they need to do about name tag and notes,” said Dea Birkett about 5 minutes after I had arrived at the Travel Writing Workshop in Bloomsbury, London. Oh heck, I could barely remember my own name, never mind tell someone else what to do. I was more nervous about this workshop than anything I had done in years. I was finally going to put my dream on the line, set myself up for a fall, take a walk on the wild side … plus any other cliche you can think of. (One of the first things we were told was to avoid ‘satanic adjectives’, as Rory MacLean calls them!)
There were 14 of us there to find out more about writing travel articles and books and gain inspiration from the talented line-up of presenters and contributing guest editors. The level of writing experience varied from beginners like me to those who have already been published. Lorenzo, from Italy had got an article in Real Travel that month and Sue from Australia has been a journalist for some years.
The diversity of knowledge in the room, combined with the way the day was planned ensured that we all got lots of invaluable input on writing style, how to pitch, what editors look for and the challenges that a travel writer in this age of internet and fast consumerism faces.
The toughest part of the day was doing a pitch to Frank Barrett, Travel Editor The Mail on Sunday. Dea had impressed upon us just what a privilege it was to have this opportunity – and I had no idea what to expect, never having done one before. I’d prepared a question to start with and so asked “What’s the connection between an Honorary Ghanaian Chief, a Beatles Song, and Barclays Bank?” “I don’t know,” said Frank – and therein lay my first mistake. Not a good idea to ask a smart-a**e question that you know someone might not have the answer to, and then expect them to look favourably on your pitch! Stumbling a bit, I told him “Liverpool” and went on to explain the link to the Slave trade and … well, I won’t bore you with it all but, suffice to say, when I got a rather withering “Oh, so it’s really ’10 things to do in Merseyside’ “, I knew you would not be reading my next article in his newspaper.
Andy Turner, Senior Commissioning Editor for the Rough Guide Books showed us their latest publications and outlined the rigorous criteria they look for. Rhonda Carrier of Take The Family shared experiences from her travels and encouraged us to look at different ways of getting our writing read. By the end of the very full-on day we had learnt how not to do a pitch, what makes for interesting and saleable writing, created an opening paragraph for a book and gained hugely from the informed feedback given to us all throughout the workshop. Dea, Rory and the other contributors were very generous with their time, advice and support – and we also learnt a lot from each other.
The two main messages I took away were “Do the writing – that’s the tough bit” and “What’s the story?” It was a really inspiring day and has given me renewed enthusiasm for this new journey, secure in the knowledge that everyone starts somewhere and that, if you have determination, some talent, and a thick skin to deal with rejection – you will succeed!