Thursday, August 16, 2012

WRITING IN A SMALL BOX

From a story about the markets
of Aix en Provence ...

I write a lot of travel articles in a year that require me to, well, travel. Sadly, my 2012 has been spent at home so far. Two major expeditions - one to the Middle East and another to Guyana - were cancelled, leaving me with little new material.

So what to do to earn a livelihood?

Obviously I've found markets for reprints of previously published articles, but I've also discovered some markets for "shorts."

I usually write 1000-1200 word creative nonfiction features for travel editors and a few for departments or newspapers that run about 800. I endeavour to avoid writing basic destination articles, preferring to utilize something unique to make them pop and lift them out of the ordinary.

However, constraining a travel piece that "pops" to no more than 500 words is difficult, limiting, mainly because it's not my comfort zone. But that's exactly what I've been teaching myself to do this summer. Sure, I can hack out fifty percent of  my 1000+ word efforts; sometimes it works. But mostly it doesn't because the throughline evaporates. The articles, frankly, turn from "popping" to "boring."

What works then? Here are a few approaches that proved worthwhile for me:
  • Sharply narrow the focus from a town to a restaurant; from a journey to an experience on the way, etc.
  • Take a different angle - from a whole safari to only a lion hunt; from a wine region to one signature wine - and build the destination anew around this different angle.
  • Write reviews of hotels, restaurants, and attractions, which are even shorter than 500 words. Not very creative though and the pay is meagre or zero.
  • Undertake a treasure hunt: I re-read my longer articles and pour over all my images of a trip to trigger memories of the visit. I'm looking for small items of interest, unusual sights, a strong emotion, an artifact, a local person, or a spontaneous event that I had to omit the first time round or simply forgot to include. This approach has been the best source of ideas for my "shorts." I've been continually amazed at how much and what turns up. It's a very pleasurable exercise too.
However, I quickly learned that the actual writing of a "short" takes practice and ruthlessness! I've had to force myself to write in a box that contains 500 words by:
...to a "short" about
Provencal pottery
  • Taking longer walks than usual! I spend more time thinking and reflecting about the theme and identifying a throughline, and they don't always come easily.  
  • Cutting to the chase quickly and reducing the intro to a phrase or sentence right up front. 
  • Incorporating some story, however small. 
  • Taking infinite care with word choices, writing as lean as can be.
  • Conveying hints of my reactions to the unique experiences of the place.
When I just can't achieve it in 500 words, I know my focus is still too broad; I'm trying to do too much. Then it's back to the beginning again with a smaller aperture....

Related articles: 
Throughlines for Articles from the Beacon Blog for Writers

Images:
© Photos by Pharos (Julie H. Ferguson) 2011

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