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On the Agonising Process of Sitting Down to Write a Book

I did a Skype interview recently with Joanna Penn whose website taught me all I ever knew about self publishing a book. I enjoy being interviewed by people who are clearly experts in their field. They challenge me to think hard about what I do. They also highlight for me the enormous downside of my insistence in life of being a Jack of all trades rather than becoming a real expert in one area.

As well as challenging me, Jo also makes a lot of effort in précising her interviews into helpful bullet points (for people like me who are too hyperactive to watch a whole interview!). Here then is the video followed by her thoughts.

If you are interested in becoming an author I highly recommend her website as a great procrastination from writing and an invaluable resource.

Interview Notes:

  • Taking action on dreams and getting past inertia. This is what differentiates people who actually end up achieving stuff, rather than talent of any particular type. Al talks about forcing himself to begin, noting that the first step is the hardest to take. Reading books about travel rather than traveling, or reading books about writing instead of writing.
  • Al’s writing technique is to procrastinate a lot and then finally sit down to write. He doesn’t start with the beginning, he starts with whatever comes to mind. Getting the first draft done is the hardest part. In writing travel, you are recounting what has happened so you can follow that flow and re-organize it later in the editing phase.
  • On editing, especially when there is much repetition in travel experiences. On taking the writing emotionally further by going beyond just what happened and into the deeper side of the adventure. On radical word cutting and making sure the story is interesting to other people. Alastair does actually still do the traditional – physical – cut and paste of his manuscript. [I recommend Scrivener!]
  • On writing the truth in memoir â€“ about real people, about what really happened, about raw emotion. Using the truth to tell a better story. Changing names is always a good idea, but the reality of travel is that there are conflicts and issues, especially when the journey is physically and mentally difficult. That’s an important part, but you can still be friends afterwards.
  • “All the right notes, not necessarily in the right order”. There Are Other Rivers is out of synch chronologically and is more about the experience, making it a ‘more truthful truth’.
  • On growth as a writer. Now Alastair has written 5 books, he has moved beyond the basic diary style approach to going deeper into the emotional experience. He took risks with the writing his last book as well as choosing to self-publish. It was a personal expression and he did it his way.
  • On persistence and discipline. The expeditions are much easier than writing books, which, for Alastair is an excruciating process. He only writes a lot once he has got really annoyed with himself! Once it starts to take shape, it is more interesting. There Are Other Rivers took several years, after giving it up entirely and then rewriting it in a new way. There’s no other solution – you have to sit at your desk and write. He wrote a lot of it in the middle of the night, sleep-deprived and high on caffeine and then was ruthless around editing.
  • Advice on writing memoir, and specifically a travel memoir. Make sure you have something worth writing about. People who want to do travel writing often need to actually do some travel first. Make sure it’s a journey you want to do, don’t just focus on the end goal. The journey has to come first. I mention Wild by Cheryl Strayed as a good example of a travel memoir that goes deeper into the emotional level. Give a lot of yourself on the page, rather than just recount things that happened. The more honest you can be, the better.
  • On writing for therapy vs writing for publication. We talk about diaries and then about blogging. Alastair writes a lot of personal thoughts on his blog.
  • On how blogging is critical for Alastair’s business as a professional speaker. It’s a platform that he uses to help people find out who he is, and a way to connect with people and share his experiences. [I also get all my speaking work from my blog.]
  • On making short films and developing story visually. Alastair takes a lot of (amazing) photos but started using films when it became standard functionality on cameras. He uses films to show the journey and give a personal connection. It is a way to stand out online as making videos is still not mainstream, although millions are now text-blogging. It’s all about getting started and learning as you go. It’s also about the principle of know, like and trust â€“ which leads to book sales over time as people get to know you. Editing video is the key to making it excellent – the latest video of the Empty Quarter is being cut from 26 hours of footage to 30 mins. Ouch.

Adventure = risk + purpose

  • On risk â€“ both personal risk as Alastair tackles on his adventures, but we also discuss the risk of embarrassment and fear of failure and judgement. The online trolls, the bad book reviews, the negative blog comments – these things are a risk and they hurt, but we can’t let them stop us from writing and getting out there.
  • If there’s something you want to do and it scares you, then it’s probably something you should be doing. You just have to get over the fear, and go do it. Breaking the inertia is difficult but well worth it.
  • #microadventures is Alastair’s latest project, which is about encouraging people to get out and do a small adventure – maybe just a night on a hill, instead of a huge adventure that takes a lot more commitment. He’s currently writing this as a book and you can also check out twitter #microadventures to see what people are up to.  Try writing a short story while you’re out there!

You can find Alastair at and on twitter @Al_Humphreys and using #microadventure.

there are other rivers

You can find There Are Other Rivers on Amazon in print and ebook format and more information about Alastair’s other books here.

Here’s my review of the book – 5 stars on Goodreads:

I’mm one of those people who devour adventure books because vicariously I can be out there experiencing it too. In this book Alastair takes us on an internal journey as much as describing parts of his walk across India. It resonated with me deeply in parts, the need to be someone extraordinary, the desire to shed all physical possessions and just exist simply. I identify with the need to keep moving – I move every few years but I’mm not as brave as Alastair. I also fell in love with India when I travelled there. It’s one of those places I felt at home in so it was great to revisit some of those impressions through the eyes of such a seasoned traveller.

I find myself strangely jealous of the freedom to sleep under the stars, to walk towards the setting sun, to take each day anew. If you sometimes feel this way, you’ll love this book. Highly recommended.

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