Q&A: Travel Writer Doug Mack on Importance of Voice

April 11, 2011 · 11 comments

Whenever you have a goal, one of the best ways to succeed is talking to people who have already done it. Their road map might not be right for you, but you’re likely to gain at least one piece of insight that will help you on your own journey.

That’s why I’m always psyched to hear from Doug Mack, who is several stops ahead of me on the travel memoir train. His book — “a story of straight-up, clichéd tourism, a journey firmly on the beaten path” — will be published by Perigee Books in spring 2012.

Doug Mack

Soon-to-be author Doug Mack, traveling on Rome's beaten path.

Doug’s a freelance writer who specializes in culture, food, architecture and design and, of course, travel. Living in Minneapolis, he works part time in marketing at an architecture firm and has a side gig as a freelance graphic designer. He blogs at www.douglasmack.net and tweets as @douglasmack.

In this interview, Doug tells us how he landed a book contract and offers advice for those of us hoping to do the same. And while I love all the helpful information he puts forward here, I’m most impressed by the example he sets. He doesn’t just talk about the importance of voice, he lets his voice shine through even in this interview (which we conducted via email) — which makes me hungry for his book.

Welcome, Doug! You're living proof that an unknown author can sell a memoir on proposal. I'm hoping you'll walk us through the process that worked for you. How'd you come up with the idea for the book?

The whole process was a combination of lucky breaks and just struggling through, putting in the hours.

The biggest lucky break was the idea, which came from a classic “Eureka!” moment. The short version is that I was at a book festival with my mother when I happened across a 1963 copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day — and when I showed it to my mom, she launched into this giddy babbling: she’d been LOOKING for that! For YEARS! Because it was the book that SHE’D used during her ten-week Grand Tour in 1967! And did I know that she still had all of her correspondence with my father—shoe boxes full of postcards and letters? (I need you to imagine this entire conversation taking place in about ten seconds, in excited-mother-speak, while my face is turning deep red and my mind is racing to figure out what she’s saying.) When I dug through the letters and paged through the book, it struck me that they offered amazing views into both my mother’s life but also travel and life in a very different era.

I knew right away that this could make for an interesting book — that I should to retrace her journey and use her letters and that book and nothing else. Also worth noting: we were at that book festival to hear Julie Powell read from her memoir Julie & Julia. So that put me in sort of a stunt-journalism mindset. But I also wanted to go beyond that and give some of the social history of tourism in the last generation, figure out how and why all those changes had occurred, how the beaten path got so beaten.

So that’s the back-story. I went to Florence and Paris first, as a sort of proof of concept, and my plan was that I’d then write a proposal, get a book deal, and go back and finish my Not-So-Grand Tour with my huge advance. Also fall in love with a gorgeous contessa, become rich and famous, buy my own private island, live happily ever after, etc. Apparently, this is not how life actually works. I couldn’t even get an agent. I queried and queried and got good responses and requests for the full proposal, and then a desk drawer’s worth of rejection letters. Various reasons, among them the fact that, you know, I hadn’t done all the travel, and therefore didn’t have a full narrative and emotional arc.

But Europe kept calling me, so the next year, I basically drained my bank accounts and maxed out my credit cards—praying that the investment would pay off in the long run—and headed back to Europe for another six weeks. And sure enough, I did have some interesting experiences, and I did get that full narrative and emotional arc. Once I got home, I reworked the proposal and sent out more queries — and this time, I had more success.

How'd you interest a literary agent in the project? How many agents did you pitch, and who'd you sign with?

After the Florence/Paris portion of my Not-So-Grand Tour, I did an audio slideshow for WorldHum.com about my experiences in Paris, and I used that was sort of my proposal-trailer-slash-calling-card; I always included a link in my query letters. I think it helped, too, that I’d already had several travel articles and essays published in various publications, so I had at least the beginnings of that all-important platform.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit how many agents I queried. If we were speaking in person, I’d mumble it into my collar: uhmaybepossiblytwenty-five. Yep. Nearly all of those were before my second trip, meaning before I really had a narrative or, for that matter, fully understand how to write a proposal.

So, picking up my story again: once I returned from round two of travel, I reworked the proposal and then started sending more queries. I always did a lot of research before approaching agents, to make sure we seemed like a good fit for each other, and one night I found one who seemed especially cool. She liked my letter… and then she liked the proposal… and then we talked on the phone and she totally understood what I was trying to do with the book (whoa!)… and then she offered representation (quadruple whoa!).

Her name is Elizabeth Evans and she’s at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency and she’s all-around fantastic. Also, she’s another native Midwesterner, so she gets bonus points there.

A lot of my readers are at the query stage. What advice would you offer them?

Well, I trust that everyone here is smart and well-informed (not to mention charming and friendly and incredibly attractive), and I’m honestly not sure I what I can add that you all haven’t heard before. Read through Alexis’s posts! Nathan Bransford’s blog is another excellent resource.

I’ll reiterate a few things:

  • Voice. Voice. Voice. This will set you apart. Find it. Work it. Own it. And don’t be afraid to show it off in your query letter, too — don’t just be dryly professional (though do be professional, obviously).
  • Really focus your hook and your emotional arc. Why would a broader audience be interested in this book? And how did the experience change you (or not) as a person? It’s great that you spent a year teaching alpacas to ride unicycles, but you need to tell a story. What’s the narrative arc? And what’s the broader issue/theme? (Triumph of the human/alpaca spirit?)
  • Have something else going for you already — that is to say, have at least a small existing platform. Get some stories published. In particular, if you can point to something directly related to the book — an article, a popular blog, a viral YouTube video — that’s best. In my case, I made that audio slideshow for WorldHum.com, and used it as a calling card. Prove that there’s an audience for your story.
  • Keep persevering and polishing. I love that Samuel Beckett quote: “Fail better.”

Can you tell us about how the book deal came about? How long after signing with your agent did you get that offer?

My agent was amazingly helpful in getting my proposal into better shape. The revision process took about three or four months, I think. Once she started sending the proposal out to various imprints, it was about a month until we got an offer. I’m told is is actually pretty quick, although it was the longest, most agonizing, sleep-deprived month of my life. I ate a lot of pastries and wore through a brand-new set of wheels on my Rollerblades, because I’d go out and skate for hours, trying to distract myself.

When's the book slated to release? What stage are you at now?

The book comes out in a year, Spring 2012. I’ll pause for you all to put that on your calendars — just write it big across March through June of next year. Done? Great. Thanks.

I turned in my manuscript on March 1st, so now… well, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure exactly what to expect next or when to expect it. There will be some revisions, of course, because I’m sure all of my brilliant, artful prose is, um, not entirely brilliant or artful. We’ve also started to talk a bit about the design of the inside and the cover, which suddenly makes this whole thing seem very real and Official. And at some point soon, presumably, we’ll start hashing out the marketing and publicity plan, which I’m hoping will involve skywriting and/or commissioning Jay-Z and Alicia Keys to record a follow-up to “Empire State of Mind” titled “Tourist State of Mind.”

One actual idea I have is to do something that that combines social media and old-fashioned dead-tree correspondence, since that’s such a central component of the book — like, I might set up a PO Box and have people send me postcards and letters with their favorite beaten-path stories or photos or sketches, and then I’d post them in an online gallery or blog. I really ought to start working on that.

Why do you think your publisher wanted to buy your book? What impressed them?

As it happens, my editor recently blogged about why she says yes to certain proposals… and why she says no. Her posts are worth reading in full over here, but in my case, I think that one of the stronger pieces of the proposal was the combination of a few different angles: the obvious hook is the gimmicky stunt (using an outdated guidebook), but then it serves as a lens into broader issues (social history of tourism), plus there’s the personal element (following in my mother’s footsteps). Also, because I’m telling both my own story and my mother’s, the book has a pretty broad potential audience, age-wise.

I’m also trying to break some of the tropes of travel writing: this is decidedly not My Year In a Quirky Sun-Dappled Village With Eccentric Locals. I’m staying firmly on the beaten path and, for the most part, loving it. It’s also kind of the opposite of Eat, Pray, Love — not a lot of enlightenment or profundities here. I’m a tourist. Not a “traveler” or “nomad” or “vagabond,” much less some swaggering adventurer. Totally a tourist — albeit an inquisitive one who spends some time trying to figure out what that term even means anymore. Anyway, I do think that, for once, being kind of contrarian probably helped my cause by setting me apart and adding a new perspective to the travel conversation.

It seems to me that you wrote the manuscript fairly quickly – or maybe that's just my view looking in from the outside. What's your writing background, and how did that prepare you to tell this story?

Secret of writing quickly: abandon your social life and don’t sleep. Easy! Kidding (mostly…). No, the real secret is that even though I wrote nearly all of the manuscript in about eight months, I had spent a couple of years thinking about it, and I had a solid outline and copious notes and photos — the overall process wasn’t quick, not at all. And since I did have a decent amount experience as a freelancer for various publications, I knew how to balance the day job with writing, [Lexi chiming in here to clarify: Doug worked part time while writing his manuscript] and also how I worked best — knew, for example, that I’m typically long-winded and digressive (can you tell?), so I’d need to plan for extra time at the back end to pare it all down.

Right after I got the book deal, I sat down and blocked everything out. In a spreadsheet, I wrote down all of the scenes I knew I wanted to include, along with target word counts for each (which, of course, I then vastly exceeded). And then, on a calendar, I figured out my deadlines for each chapter, knowing that some would be slightly trickier or longer than others. I built in extra time at the end to take a couple of weeks off from looking at the manuscript before editing and turning it in. I’m horrible at editing my own work without some distance, so that brief break really made a difference.

A couple of small things helped. One was this graph that I made to track my emotional arc:

Doug Mack's emotional arc

The green line tracks my general mood: delighted in some places, jaded in others. The blue line tracks my self-confidence. I had so many notes and so many things I could write about that I need some way to figure out what to keep. There were plenty of scenes that were interesting but just not relevant to advancing the story. This graph helped keep the narrative moving and my writing voice focused; everything I included had to move at least one of those lines along.

That said, I also knew that there were certain scenes that just had to be in the book. My friend Dennis had a great blog post about this — figuring out those “tent-pole moments” that define your story, and working those out first. I had about one per chapter, and they helped set the stage, emotionally and narratively, for everything else.

Are there any authors you look up to, or who have influenced your style?

Um, how much space do we have here? The big ones are Bill Bryson and Calvin Trillin — I grew up reading them, and I like to think there’s a least a tiny hint of their humor in my writing voice. And I have to give credit to Julie Powell, of course. Pico Iyer and Rolf Potts were two major influences in helping me discover the joys of finding the offbeat angle on the beaten path. And I’ve spent many an hour fruitlessly trying to reverse-engineer various travel-plus-narrative-nonfiction books by the likes of Tony Perrottet, Sarah Vowell, and, maybe most of all, Bill Buford — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read and re-read Heat, trying to figure out how he weaves together all the threads of the story.

What are you hoping to do next? Do you envision yourself writing another book or returning to the world of full-time work or doing something else altogether?

For now, I’m still working out all the behind-the-scenes details of this book — for example, the aforementioned promotional plan, because as much as I like the idea of just plain being published (Oooh! My name! On a cover!!), it would also be very nice if one or two people actually bought it. To that optimistic end, there are a ton of things that have to happen between now and next spring.

I do still have a part-time office job, which I have no intention of dropping in the foreseeable future. I sort of like the balance between freelancing and office work—I enjoy the camaraderie and comforting routine of my current day job, and I’d miss it (also the health insurance; nice perk, that).

That said, I’d love to do another book soon. In the balance, I genuinely enjoyed the research and writing process, and my brain seems to be wired for big, expansive projects. I have a few ideas floating around in my head, involving diners, airports, house swaps, and poutine. Not all at once.

Anything else you want to share with my readers that you think might help them on their own writing journeys?

Assorted thoughts:

  • If you’re as easily distracted by the internet as I am, there are several (free) software programs that will limit your access — I use StayFocused, but there are other ones called Freedom and Self-Control.
  • Seriously, work on your voice. I honestly think that’s the biggest thing that’s going to set you apart.
  • The contrarian in me needs to get on his soapbox for a sec: Social media is important, but it’s actually not THAT important (says the blogger, in a Q&A on a blog…). A blog is a great supplement to everything else — it can be a part of your platform — but if you don’t have strong writing and a great story, it probably won’t help you much. On the other hand, if you have all the other pieces, you might not need a blog at all. If it’s a book deal you’re after, spend more time polishing your writing and less time worrying about SEO and unique visitors.
  • And a self-indulgent request: we’re thinking about changing the title of my book, so if anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear ’em!
  • Good luck! Keep the faith. There are still book deals to be had — I guess I’m proof of that.

Thanks, Alexis — and everyone for reading! Please come and say hi during the book tour (ahem, Spring 2012).

Thanks for all the insight, Doug! We’ll be watching for your book.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Emma April 11, 2011 at 10:26 am

Great post full of insight! Good luck w/ your book, Doug. It sounds like a really interesting read.

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Todd April 11, 2011 at 10:45 am

Nice interview Doug and Alexis. I’m sitting here sipping my coffee and laughing at the thought of 100 hungry travel memoirists burning a hole in WoldHum’s servers with the next greatest slide show 🙂 I have been on the camp of finish my book and then query but as my writing time fades into the shadow of my blog I wonder if it’s time to start. I have the narrative arc and am emotionally stunted (that’s what you recommended right?) so I might as well 🙂

I’d be happy to have the pressure of deadline!
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Doug Mack April 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Thanks, Todd! If you (or anyone) do want to give a shot at an audio slide show, I highly recommend the software SoundSlides–it’s the rare program that’s actually fun to use. Also, before you start querying, you should at least have the full proposal ready, even if not the whole book–but I’d say if you’re at that stage, start sending some letters and see what happens!
Doug Mack recently posted…The European Tourist Trap FinalsMy Profile

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Nicole April 11, 2011 at 10:53 am

I’ve got it penciled across my calender! Can’t wait to read Doug’s book! Really like Doug’s graph, think I’ll go make one. 🙂
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Alexis Grant April 11, 2011 at 11:58 am

I love it, too! I think it’s a great way for writers to see their narrative arc/growth. Cool idea.

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alisha April 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm

This is a fantastic interview! I especially liked being privy to your emotional arc graph — I love seeing how other authors plot their arcs. Congrats on your book and well done for all your hard work!

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J Q Rose April 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm

What a fun, informative interview. Hey, I’m there with 1967…you are so right…this book will appeal to a wide audience. I am anxious to try a clever graph like yours too. Best wishes for success with this creative story!
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Jillian April 11, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Thanks for the great interview, it’s really helpful to see how others have worked through the process. Congrats and best of luck Doug!
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Sandra Foyt April 12, 2011 at 8:16 am

Laying out the elements of your book with charts & graphs seems so scientific – and effective.

DM: How did you decide on the word count for each section? At that point, did you know the book had to be an overall length?

By the way, thought very seriously about tackling the triumph of the human/alpaca over chupacabras. We’re thinking of calling it the “alpacacabra.”
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Doug Mack April 12, 2011 at 10:40 am

Sandra, I would like 100 copies of the alpacacabra book. Perhaps you could also work a magician into the story, in which case the title could be Abracadabra Alpacacabra …

So, word count. Yes, at that point I had a mandated length, so I knew how all it all had to add up. I started by figuring out roughly how long each chapter should be, knowing that I’d spent more time and/or had more Interesting Experiences in some cities, but also knowing that I should mix up chapter lengths to keep things interesting for readers–follow a really long chapter with a really short one, for example. And I used the same general tactic for sections, keeping those “tent-pole moments” longer and surrounding sections shorter. In Amsterdam, I visited the Anne Frank House, which was just jarring and haunting. You can’t follow that with a scene in a bar or some big set piece; you have to bring the mood back up gradually, cautiously. So there’s one more relatively short scene after that, and then the chapter is over.

My general goal was to keep sections below 800 words, because I don’t trust modern attention spans to stay locked in much longer. I also tried to keep the background/researchy sections around thirty to forty percent of the entire book. I had a list of those Big Picture pieces to discuss, and it was sometimes tricky to figure out where and how to fit those in while keeping the flow of the story going.

… Mind you, as I said, those initial word count targets were basically just a goal, not a rule, because we all need completely unreasonable goals to laugh at as we fail to meet them. Some sections listed in that spreadsheet got cut entirely; some swelled to several times the anticipated length. Much like this comment.
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