I went to j-school after college not knowing whether I wanted to be a journalist. I thought I did; I’d interned with a newspaper, t.v. news station, and public relations department. But I didn’t have any formal journalism training at that point, and I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my liberal arts degree. I figured even if I didn’t go into journalism, a j-degree would serve me well. Turned out I loved reporting, interviewing, learning. Getting to write was a side perk.
After j-school I worked for the Houston Chronicle for three years. I loved that job, but I knew if I didn’t take this backpacking trip I’d been dreaming about, eventually the desire would wear off; there are only so many years of your life when riding in a crowded bush taxi sounds like fun.
Journalism hasn’t only changed the way I travel, it has changed the way I live. I look at everything with a keen eye because of my reporting background. I see stories on the street, I hear them in conversations. They leap out at me like the bolded words in this interview. I’m never afraid of asking questions; I figure if I’m wondering about something, someone else probably is, too.
At my writer’s residency in Georgia in September, one of the artists made an observation during dinner. He had noticed that most of our conversations had a similar pattern: one artist would talk about his encounter with a bear, then another would chime in with her bear encounter, and so on.
But I never did that, he said. Instead of adding my own stories to the mix, I always asked a question about someone else’s story, dug deeper into their tale. Why did the bear do that? How did you feel? Did that ever happen again? Until he brought this up, it had never occurred to me; I didn’t do it consciously. But I’m sure it’s a function of being a journalist.
Not at all! I’m interviewing for full-time journalism jobs right now.
When I left my job at the Houston Chronicle in May 2008 to travel and freelance in Africa, I thought I was taking a temporary hiatus. I didn’t expect to take a year away from full-time work after my trip to write a book (although I’d always wanted to write a travel memoir) and I certainly didn’t expect a recession, which hit the fan while I was traveling. I didn’t know it would be this hard to get a job when I was ready for one — but I still don’t regret leaving to experience Africa.
Of course, the job outlook around the country combined with the woes of journalism might make it impossible for me to find a reporting job I want — which means I may eventually need to look outside of that box. But for now, my preference is certainly journalism.
Have a good lede that hooks readers right off the bat. If you fail at this, you fail at the entire story. Make the reader want to continue past the first sentence or first paragraph. This applies to blog posts, articles, books, everything.
Also check out this post on my blog: Writerly lessons I learned from journalism.
My book is about backpacking solo through French-speaking Africa — what that was like as a woman and how it ended up being more difficult than I expected. I wasn’t the traveler who started out timid and realized through my journey how much I was capable of. I was the over-confident, independent-to-a-fault woman who thought she could do everything on her own and recognized, through travel, that it was okay — and sometimes necessary — to lean on others.
Rather than writing an entire first draft and then revising — which is generally what authors seem to advise — I revised as I wrote. A big part of writing a book is figuring out what works for you, and that’s what worked for me.
I wrote the book entirely out of order, starting with my favorite parts of the journey, then circling back around to the beginning and filling in holes. Along the way I shared chapters with my critique group, but they were reading them out of order, so they weren’t really critiquing the book as much as they were individual stand-alone stories.
A big part of my revision was tying all the chapters together, taking pieces out and adding parts in to create one narrative with themes. When I thought the manuscript was decent, I handed it over to five editor-type friends, who offered ideas for how I could improve it. I incorporated those ideas in a final revision.
I’m not sure I would write my next book in the same way, but this was what worked for me on my first round. It was the only way I knew, to follow what felt right.
That I’m better at journalistic writing! This type of first-person writing did not come easy to me. I enjoyed it and I’m glad I did it — and I’m psyched to revise once the right agent offers to take me on. It also inspired me to write more short-form personal essays. But I’m looking forward to getting back to writing about other people.
A huge role. Publishers now leave most of promotion up to the author, and I think I have a leg up in that realm compared with other new authors who aren’t famous. I’ve got a solid online presence between my blog and Twitter, and I’ve cultivated a lot of relationships both online and in person with people who I’m hoping will help me.
I also have an advantage being a journalist; not only do I have contacts in the media world, I know how to approach reporters because I am one. I’ve tossed enough PR pitches into the trash that I know what works and what doesn’t. A big part of my book proposal is dedicated to how I will use these skills and contacts to promote the book.
But none of that matters unless my book is awesome — which I think is the lesson here for writers. The bottom line: you’ve got to tell a good story, and tell it well.