8 Writing Lessons from Book Passages Travel Writing Conference

I’d only seen their bylines before and now they were here in front of me. George, Benning, Farley, Mandel, Cahill, Hesse…just to name a few.  It’s a little intimidating to see them and about 20 other writing and photography powerhouses in person, sitting with legs casually over benches and folding chairs joking amongst each other. At the 20th Annual Book Passages Travel and Food Writing & Photography conference in Corte Madera, California, they also mingled casually among aspiring writers during meal times and between classes, offering caring advice, encouragement, and their own stories.

I attended the conference as a beginner – to absorb some collective wisdom and their experience bundled in a way so I can shape my own dreams of becoming a travel writer. These are just a few of hundred lessons and memorable experiences found at the conference. (My apologies on the photography – all I had was my iPhone 3G.)


Start with a Catching Lede

Tim Cahill

A rare Polynesian flower dines at El Bulli, after rafting on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and volunteering in Kolkata. Wait, I’m blending the topics of my and fellow students’ stories together to get your attention with a catchy lede!

Travel writing legend and author of over 10 travel books, Tim Cahill has been telling travel stories of his adventures for close to 40 years. “Stories are the lens through which we look to make our world more clear.”  At the conference, the story telling guru taught story structure to nine lucky students in the advanced travel-writing workshop. With a simple train drawing on the classroom whiteboard, he illustrated the necessity of bringing the reader into the story with a good lede. The lede is the cowcatcher on the engine, meant to clear the way for the story and get the reader interested enough to pay for the next paragraph and page. The caboose is the takeaway and closes the story for the reader. Fellow student Erin Byrne helped the class by bringing 20 examples of Tim’s own ledes for reference and inspiration. For capturing the details, which can lead to a good lede, “take contemporaneous notes.”

A Good Story Starts with a Vision

Michael David Lukas

At the first night’s dinner, I purposely looked for the name card of Michael David Lukas, the author of  The Oracle of Stamboul. Sitting among book stacks, we started talking writing and authors over the Mediterranean-themed dinner. He shared with me that the idea for his novel started with an image of a girl at a backgammon table with two men. For years while traveling in the Middle East, Michael let this vision germinate and story develop. Not knowing where to set it, he waited. Over the years, living in Tunisia and Cairo. When he finally visited Istanbul, his answer was there. In an antique shop, there was a picture of a “young girl, with very knowing eyes.” He knew then that this was where the story would take place.


In 1963, Georgia Hesse went to her bosses at the then San Francisco Examiner and told them that there’s an opportunity for a travel section and could she be editor. I pictured a petite perfectly-dressed woman in a Mad Men-like setting going to her bosses, all with cigarettes in hand, and making the request.  At the conference’s opening panel, she stood up and shared travel stories from her many years in the business. Later, I asked her if she had any advice for an aspiring travel writer. Speaking from more than 50 years of experience, Georgia shared her advice with me for making travel writing work – “Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance”

At the Core of it… Love (Don George Style)

Every attendee and faculty member was there because of love… love of writing, love of books, love of each other. No one personified this more than Conference Chair Don George. Throughout the conference, every speaker who co-emceed shared an amusing story and adoration of the pleasure of knowing editor Don George. At the end of the conference, the winners of the travel photography and travel writing contests were announced. Emcee and National Geographic photographer Jeff Pflueger shared that the prize included beautiful photographic prints AND a hug from Don George. The idea of being encased by this ever-smiling editor wizard seemed to elicit just a touch more excitement and applause than the other prize.

Go on a Trip and Write a Story

Andrew McCarthy

Andrew McCarthy, Bratpack actor-turned-very good travel writer, spoke about how he got into travel writing. He read about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, went on it, had an epiphany about life, and started writing travel stories. He had also just called up Keith Bellows, the editor of National Geographic Traveler and started to him pitch stories. That’s a lot simpler than the actual journey, but on the last night of the conference Andrew McCarthy shared it succinctly and simply. He also shared that his writing technique is like his acting, he goes deep, takes advantage of happy accidents, and constructs the stories – scene by scene.

Market Yourself

The self-proclaimed “Poster Child” for the conference, Janis Cooke Newman introduced her bold personality to the audience by sharing her impressive resume and this advice for aspiring travel writers, “Editors are not going to knock on your door wondering what stories you have. You have to pitch to them.” She had been a past attendee at the conference and her article on Mad Men tours in New York City was that weekend’s cover story for the San Francisco Chronicle’s travel section. Throughout the weekend, Janis weaved in and out of workshops giving kind advice, encouraging words and asking the question travel writers should always ask when selling a piece, “Who’s the market?”

Workshop Workshop Workshop

“When is it time to send the book to an agent?” a participant asked during the literary agent round table. The answer: “When you feel it can’t get any better and at least 10 non-family members say they like it.” The takeaway for this writer: get as many eyeballs on the piece and make sure it’s objectively received as “good” before sending out to agents and editors. In the spirit of this helpful advice, I took advantage of the one-on-one consultations offered at the conference with David Farley and Larry Habegger. I received a one-on-one critique from the some of the best in the travel writing business. They personally reviewed my prepared pieces and gave advice to tighten words, create tension with the perfect arc, and go deeper.

Know Thy Publication

Los Angeles Times travel editor Catherine Hamm moderated a pragmatic and star-studded editorial panel to help writers and photographers prepare their pieces for the travel publications. If ever there are hopes of having these editorial eyeballs consider your piece,  soak in this advice from San Francisco Chronicle’s Spud Hilton, Sunset Magazine’s Peter Fish, and AFAR’s Julia Cosgrove.

  • Read the past two years  of the magazine. Know the coverage, the sections, the audience, and voice. This way, one will know if their angle has been covered and what types of pieces get published.
  • Read the editor’s writings, their favorite author’s work, and their inspiration’s pieces. Your editor will find familiarities and affinities in the writing style. (Hint: Spud likes strong and startling ledes that encourage him to go past the first three paragraphs.)
  • The “Front of the Book” is where new writers and photographers should start.  These feature short, service-oriented content that are typically under 500 words can show editors your skills in a less risky way.
  • When pitching, sell the idea and a publication-worthy 100-word description. Follow it up with an author bio that sells you as a writer – where published and links to relevant clips.
  • Never, ever, ever make up stuff. Validate all facts and be accurate. Julia Cosgrove’s big pet peeve? Plagiarizing yourself – no copy and paste jobs!

Some other memorable quotes and lessons that need little elaboration:

  • “To be a travel writer, read great travel writing.” – Conference Chairs Elaine Petrocelli and Don George
  • “Back up your blog.” – Kaye Cloutman and Lulu Del Rosario of Cloutandabout.com
  • “Take one for them and one for you,” – Photographer Liza Gershman
  • “Travel writers are like snake charmers, they bring the art out of the depths with the music of their keyboards.” – Author Jeff Greenwald

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3 Responses to “8 Writing Lessons from Book Passages Travel Writing Conference”

  1. September 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    Wow Kristin, you absorbed a lot! Great advice and words of wisdom there, thanks for sharing.

    • Kristin
      September 11, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

      Thank you Kim – I think you’d really like it, but you’ll be traveling (!!!!!) next year at that time 🙂

  2. September 12, 2011 at 2:47 am #

    Sounds like a great conference, we’d love to go sometime.

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