Author, journalist and adventurer Emma Bamford shares her experiences of writing a travel memoir, and offers her tips on turning your journeys into a book.
They say everyone has a novel in them somewhere. What I never expected, though, was that I would have a travel memoir in me.
I hadn’t lived a particularly interesting life up until recent years, so there wasn’t much worth committing to paper. I’d been to school, university, made friends, been in and out of love. Sure, my career – as a news editor on a national newspaper – sounded glamorous to outsiders, but really it was just a desk job and, chained to my computer for 12 hours a day, I rarely got anywhere near the kinds of stories that might be woven into an interesting autobiography.
But then I did something unusual – I answered an advert on the internet for ‘crew wanted’ and bought a one-way ticket to Borneo to live on a yacht with a man I’d never met.
Do something different
That’s when things got interesting – and when I became interesting. A colleague in the newsroom put me in touch with a literary agent. I emailed him, mentioning what I was about to do, and he was straight on the phone, asking questions. “Sounds like it could be the new Castaway,” he said, referring to Lucy Irvine’s 1983 best-seller that was made into a film starring Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe. “Keep in touch and let me know how you get on – but it all depends on your writing, of course.”
I didn’t think much of it after that. I was out in the beautiful wilds of Borneo, chasing wild pygmy elephants up jungle rivers and swimming with turtles. I was making friends with Buddhists up in Sri Lankan tea plantations, hiding from Somali pirates and hobnobbing with billionaires on the Amalfi coast. I was having too much fun to think about writing.
I kept a diary, though, and eventually, when the itch to do some work finally came back, I started to write it up, fast and quick, my notebook on my parents’ sofa next to me, my small laptop on my knees. I didn’t think much about what I was doing.
Speak to the right people
A friend of a friend, Brendan Hall, had published a sailing-related book, Team Spirit, and I managed to get an invite to the launch party in London. I felt overawed as I stepped over the townhouse threshold into the centre of Bloomsbury Publishing’s HQ. After building up some Dutch courage on the complimentary white wine, I wandered up to Brendan’s editor at Adlard Coles Nautical, Liz Multon.
“Borneo! …Journalist! …Stranger!” I slurred at her. Luckily, she finally worked out that I was trying to pitch a book to her and gave me her business card.
She asked for two chapters, ‘showing different styles’, a synopsis and sent me a detailed form to fill in, for which I had to research other similar books in the market (there weren’t any close matches).
I sent the same material to that agent I’d spoken to two years earlier. His response: ‘This is a mess, too much of a mix of style and genre. You’ll never get a publisher interested.’ Ah.
The publisher’s response: ‘Send me everything you’ve got’.
Excited, I did. Her feedback was disheartening, to say the least: ‘I’m afraid it doesn’t quite work. There’s not enough of a narrative arc.’
She was right. What makes a good memoir, first and foremost, is a good story. You need to have something to tell. Then it needs meaning, a message – you need to have something to say. Finally, it needs good writing.
Find the narrative in your story
While Liz said she liked my writing style, it was clear to her – and to me, now I had her feedback – that what I’d written was a 100,000-word-long ‘What I did on my summer holiday’ essay of the kind that nine-year-olds write each September.
Kindly, she promised to re-read it if I wanted to re-write it – and who turns down an offer like that?
So I set to work.
I worked on drawing out a stronger story line. Like a novel, I needed a beginning (deciding to quit my job and answering that advert), a middle (the adventures I had and how they affected me) and an end (a Hollywood-style happy romance ending). I decided that what I wanted to say, my theme, was ‘learning to let go’.
I went through the MS with a fresh pair of eyes and I looked for gaps where I could add inner thoughts, explanations for my actions and more detail about the romance sub-plot. I described the other characters more clearly, moved chapters to help the flow of the story and removed entire sections if I thought they weren’t adding to the flow of the story. I furiously pencilled notes in the margin and plastered the printed pages with Post-it notes.
Don’t be shy
Then I re-submitted
It took Liz an age to get back to me, but eventually she did. ‘I don’t know how you’ve done it, but it really works,’ she emailed.
She had to get it through two sales and marketing board meetings before she could offer me a contract, and then it was a case of two more drafts, proofs to go through and legal changes to make before Casting Off was published in July, to coincide with the summer holiday market.
Casting Off went straight to #1 in the Amazon chart for sailing books on its first day of release and reached #632 overall, out of 6million books. I started to receive kind reviews, both in magazines and newspapers and on Amazon and Goodreads. I was sent my first piece of fan email, and it made me cry to think I had touched someone that deeply.
And then people started demanding to know what happened next. I hadn’t thought about a sequel but now, due to popular demand, I have started to write it.
So that novel will have to stay unwritten inside me for a little while longer.
Emma Bamford is an author, journalist and sailor who has worked at The Independent and the Daily Express. Tropical settings and the seas inspire much of her writing, although she lives in land-locked Derbyshire. She teaches Life Writing at Nottingham University and is working on a sequel to Casting Off and a novel set on a paradise island in the Indian Ocean. Find Emma at www.emmabamford.com.