I enjoyed hearing Tim Cahill speak last night at the 18th annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, where he let us in on the secret to travel writing. We all know the secret, right? Tim said. “Something goes wrong.” That’s what makes the story interesting.

What if nothing goes wrong? “Have a spiritual experience! Spirituality is the last resource for the travel writer.” As soon as I see that the author is going to have a spiritual experience, I know nothing is going to happen in the story.

Ha ha.

Other notes from Tim’s talk:

  • Have a quest. It doesn’t matter whether you achieve it or not; the quest is a good way to structure a story. Pull your reader in, so s/he cares about your quest as much as you do.
  • Writing doesn’t get easier with experience, because you can’t solve a problem the same way over and over again. If you do, you’ll be like the songwriter who writes the same song over and over again. (Whereas a plumber can learn how to solve a particular problem, and use the same solution effectively to solve the same problem for his whole career.)
  • The hardest part? Start. You’ve got to get it down on the page before you can make it good. Tim’s phase one in writing is the vomit phase: He just writes down everything. It’s good to start with what you want to write about. (Don’t worry about writing the lede first.)
  • Everybody’s first draft sucks. That’s the real challenge to writing: getting through that bad first draft. If you have some experience under your belt, you realize that—with work—you’ll craft your bad story into a good one. (“It’s not writing; it’s rewriting.”) If you’re a beginner, it’s easy to get discouraged, because you don’t realize that the great stories you read pretty much all started out as bad first drafts.
  • The best part? Flow. (Or “flow-be,” as Tim calls it.) On a good day, I’m somewhere else. I’m connecting with some mystical thing that’s up there, that’s helping me write the story. Maybe it’s the same thing Eastern mystics connect with; I don’t know. Things happen in this state that you didn’t know were going to happen. Ends tie themselves up.

    Cahill says that Western writer Louis l’Amour made a similar point when l’Amour’s daughter asked her father why he wrote so fast. L’Amour replied: I want to find out what happens.

  • For an effective query, consider the blurbs on the cover of a magazine. If your query letter doesn’t enable to editor to immediately visualize what the blurb will be, you haven’t done your job.

  • Humans are natural storytellers. Stories are the way we see the world, organize our ideas, and make sense of things. It’s like when you go to the optometrist’s office, Cahill explained, and they keep putting different lenses in front of your eyes until things appear clearly. “A story is a lens that makes the world clear for us.”


2 Comments so far

  1. Mariella on August 15, 2009 1:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing! I wish I could have been there Thursday night, so I enjoyed at least getting to read your re-cap.

  2. Cheryl McLaughlin on September 4, 2009 9:15 pm

    Hey Laurie,
    Great recap! You captured Tim’s spirit. His tips were great and his truthfulness about what he’s learned from his writing experience is so valuable. Thank you for sharing them with us!

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