From Travails of a Guidebook Author

The mean streets of Addis Ababa.

2014: The High- and Lowlights

This whole past year, I have been considering retiring this blog, and I still am. But…it is a helpful memory bank.

See, I’ve been mentally concocting this post for a couple of weeks. And it was not positive: 2014 felt like Groundhog Year, because I had to massively overhaul my book, despite having made special efforts in 2013 and even earlier to avoid such a thing (gnash, gnash).

But scrolling through this year’s blog posts, I see that some other things happened–and some of them even represented progress, of a sort.

Granted, it’s not a great sign that two of my posts were cranky rebuttals: one telling Marc Maron to lighten up on his cast iron, and another telling a New York Times reporter to lighten up in Mexico.

But then there’s something genuinely good: The new edition of my Moon New Mexico book came out–in fabulous full color! It reminded me that, in eleven years of working on these Moon books, I’ve learned a lot about photography, and I now have a body of photos that I’m proud to see printed in color. The writing ain’t bad either, if I do say so.

This reminded me of a couple of things that didn’t even make it to the blog. I wrote another story for the New York Times, “36 Hours in Santa Fe,” which turned out well. I can even call myself a published poet now, because the entry for Ten Thousand Waves includes a haiku!

And, perhaps my proudest accomplishment of the year, I wrote an article for The Art of Eating on a couple in New Mexico who are making traditional balsamic vinegar. I’ve been thinking this would make a good story since I first heard about the Darlands, at least five years ago; I learned a ton; and The Art of Eating is an excellent magazine. Writing the story was a great experience all around, especially in the editing, which reminded me how helpful and inspiring that process can be.

The majority of my 2014 posts were dedicated to my trip way back in January, when I went to Rwanda and Ethiopia (and then Thailand, for frequent-flier-mile reasons too dull to go into). It was fantastic, and I am so glad I went, but Peter and I came back fried. Too many destinations, not enough time in each and certainly not enough alone time. I still haven’t quite recharged–I have never wanted to travel less in my life, which is unsettling.

[REDACTED. There was some more blerghy complaining here, but we’re all pretty tired of that, aren’t we?]

In 2015, I am taking the advice of a thirteen-year-old friend, who recently said, with the wisdom of an eighty-year-old, “Consider it a hobby, and it will be less troublesome.” He was talking about something else entirely, but still.

Not coincidentally, this is one of my favorite photos of the year, from the Itegue Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa.

rwanda 371

Bad art? Refresh by rotating 90 degrees.

Hello, 2015. May you be different and perspective-altering.

moonnm3

Another Book Update: Moon New Mexico

moonnm3Hey kids–the new edition of Moon New Mexico is out! Check it out if you’re planning a trip around the Land of Enchantment. I covered thousands and thousands of miles last year, in a dinky rental car, to bring you all the news.

There’s a new section on the bootheel of New Mexico, way down in the southwest, and a lot of other nifty little finds. I love that, ten years in to working on this book, there are still new places to explore in the state.

That link above leads to Amazon, which is not the greatest, I realize, especially now that Perseus, which owns Moon, has been acquired by Hachette. Consider the link for info purposes only–hit up your local bookstore instead.

Speaking of local bookstores, I will be at Bookworks in Albuquerque on August 17, at 3 p.m., to talk about the goodness of the guidebook, show some pics from recent trips, and generally answer questions. Mark your calendars!

file name crimson sofa

Book Update

“Can’t wait till your book comes out!”

“Let me know when your book is out!”

“Hey, when’s your book coming out?”

This post is for all my friends and acquaintances and great people I met while I was traveling, to answer their ever-optimistic questions.

First, the book (working title: The Crimson Sofa) is now scheduled for publication in fall 2015.

That seems a long way off, yes? This, alas, is the way book publishing works. And, you’re not imagining it, it has gotten further off since I started this whole thing. Thanks in part to my own failure to grasp how book publishing works. Despite having worked in the industry off and on for more than fifteen years.

Two pro-tips (which, in the spirit of all pro-tips, are screamingly obvious once you write them down and look at them):

PRO-TIP #1: In your proposal, don’t just guess what your word count might be.

It’s hard, right, that you have to say how many words a book will be, before you write it? And there’s no straightforward way to find out how many words there are in other, comparable books?

I understand, the publishing people have to do their own math, according to some arcane formula which mere writers don’t know. So when I first started writing, I emailed my editor as soon as I realized my estimated word count was way too low. Because I had, yes, just guessed in my proposal. (“Let’s see…Peter wrote a book that was 60,000 words? It could be longer than that. But what if nothing happens on my trip? Better be conservative… Um, 70,000? Yeah, that’s the ticket. 70,000.”)

Turns out, that was a problem. Turns out I should’ve been more careful at that stage.

Anyway…

PRO-TIP #2: 150,000 words is way too many words.

OK, I know it’s too many words. I mean, obviously some needed to be cut. I just didn’t know it was omg-my-head’s-exploding-I-can’t-even-deal-with-this too many words.

Which is a totally inaccurate paraphrase of my editor’s reaction, but an accurate depiction of the fallout. In order for my editor to be able to deal with my book, I had to cut it massively. My pub date got bumped, from next spring to next fall.

I spent the last few months alternately gnashing my teeth and cutting every fourth word of every single sentence. (Reading this post, you can perhaps sense how that kind of cutting would be possible, yes? Buh-bye, “just,” “really,” “perhaps,” etc. Buh-bye, parenthetical asides. Buh-bye, rhetorical questions.)

I spent a fantastic week in southern Utah, with no internet. I rode a train. In the end, I emerged with 92,000-ish words, which I just submitted today.

file name crimson sofa

Which is crazy to me, because I eat that many words for breakfast. The last Lonely Planet job I did, just the Cairo chapter of the Egypt guide, plus some front matter, was 82,950 words. (Maybe I should have considered this, at the proposal stage!)

So, long story short, the draft is on my editor’s desk. I have no idea if the short version is really tenable as a book. I’ve been stuck in the swamp of it so long, I hate nearly every word of it, and I can no longer remember what the point of writing it might have been.

I’m hoping a couple of months off, updating my Moon guide to Santa Fe (approximately 98,000 words), will restore some perspective. Time usually does that.

Which, I suppose, is the silver lining around book publishing taking so long–you need that time just to love your book again. And I hope you’ll all still be around, still asking about the book, when it does finally come out. Thanks for all the support, over this long haul.

The 2013 Highlights Reel

The last few years, I’ve really enjoyed doing the end-of-year wrap-up. This year…it’s a tiny bit of a strain.

That’s not because 2013 sucked. It’s because I stayed home a lot, with my butt in a chair, staring at a computer screen. (See previous post.) The “writer” part of “travel writer” was the main thing going this year.

To that end, Highlight #1: I finished my $%#$#$%#$–I mean, fabulously stupendous and thrilling!–book draft. It was a little anticlimactic. One imagines triumphantly running laps to cheering crowds. Instead, one presses ‘send,’ then turns to all the other crap that has piled up in months of neglect.

(Does this mean you will very soon see my book on store shelves? No. Getting a book into book form takes a good long time. Anticipated publication date is February 2015. Please keep your breath bated till then!)

I wasn’t in NYC for the entire year. I went to New Mexico several times, which yielded some great moments. Highlight #2 was doing one of my dream stories, eating my way around Silver City, New Mexico. Thanks to the New York Times travel section for publishing the results! The story was, for a thrilling moment, the seventh-most-emailed on the NYT site, and someone hated on me on Twitter for it! You know you’re coming up in the world when you’ve got a Twitter hater…

On my second trip to New Mexico (why so many? Because Jet Blue started direct flights to Albuquerque!), I camped out at my mom’s for a while and wrote, and then, Highlight #3, Peter and I spent a few days at Los Poblanos. This may very well be my most favorite hotel in the world, and believe me, I never thought I’d be saying that about anything in my hometown. They have the cutest damn goats. And a lovely restaurant. This is the first time in my life I’ve done what felt like a grownup resort vacation. Paid real money. Lolled around the pool. Drank wine with our friends. Visited the goats. I wouldn’t want to do it alllll the time, but I can see the appeal, when it’s somewhere with taste as good as Los P’s.

Then, Highlight #4, Peter and I traveled overland and car-less from Albuquerque to Vegas to California. Why? Just to see if we could. We took Amtrak to Williams, AZ, then took the tourist train to the Grand Canyon. At the Grand Canyon, we hopped on the return flight of a scenic-tour plane to Las Vegas. We were the only people on there with luggage, and top in my little file of smug travel moments now is the one where the pilot was like, “What? You flew one-way? You don’t have a car?” and gave us a thumbs-up. That made up for walking around Vegas in record-high temps. Then we flew to SFO (sorry, no snazzy workaround there), attended a wedding by bus due to the BART strike, and finally, took Amtrak to Los Angeles, on the fab Coast Starlight. The whole thing cost marginally less than if we’d rented a car, so that’s also in my file of smug travel moments. On the other hand, it costs a damn arm and a leg to travel in the U.S.! Now I know for sure that our trips to Thailand are in fact cheaper, including airfare.

Highlight #5 came on my third trip home (yup, on JetBlue), when I went waaaay down to the far southwest corner of New Mexico. That’s all in a post here. NM is my mainstay guidebook title (new edition from Moon coming in the spring!), and it’s great that there are still spots I haven’t seen. And they’re so damn beautiful.

After the last NM trip, I buckled down at home. Strangely, that was Highlight #6, writing–a very distinct thing from Highlight #1, which was finishing. In fact, the actual writing should be Highlight #1, and being done with writing (for now) should go farther down the list. After I managed to get myself focused and settled down, I really did enjoy spending a good six or seven hours every day messing around with words.

And my industrious fake-office-job schedule meant I had the evenings free, so I managed to do Highlight #7, painting my living room. My friend Amy picked the color, and it is beyond fabulous.

Benjamin Moore Venezuelan Sea, if you're curious.
Benjamin Moore Venezuelan Sea, if you’re curious.

(I also finally finished painting the dining room–astute readers of this blog may remember the Bollywood dining room as a highlight of, er, 2009.)

Oh, and Highlight #7.5, because this isn’t a design blog, but we got a new dining room table and chairs. The chairs I bought in Raton, New Mexico, and shipped home and still paid less than anything here in NYC. More and more, my guidebook jobs turn into shopping trips.

That’s about it for 2013. Today, as this posts, I will be on the way to Rwanda, followed by a few days in Ethiopia. Switching gears entirely.

Happy new year, and best wishes for all new destinations and ever-more-comfortable home bases!