Right now there are a lot of people on a lot of bicycles doing lots of trips in various parts of the world, and this has been the case for some time. Cyclists get everywhere - you can pretty much guarantee that no matter where it is you might want to go, an intrepid rider will have been there before you (and probably kept a blog about it.)
Inevitably then, there is a lot of travel writing out there based on these two-wheeled journeys. I've read quite a number of those books. Most of them do a fairly decent job of giving a flavour of the raw, visceral adventure, and most share similar themes - the author is discontent with regular life, curious about the wider world, has lots of time, little money. There are some bike trip books amongst these are truly wonderful and a real joy to read - I'll compile my favourites in a follow-up blog post.
Unfortunately though, I've found that there are also a lot of cycling books that aren't that great at all. Many fall into the trap of giving too much banal information (endless descriptions of kit and routes) while others are poorly written and fail to ever really paint a picture of the adventure or conjure up images of characters and landscapes for the reader. The worst of all these (in my opinion) are those that are full of spilling errors and gramatical typo's.
Everyone has the right to write a book, and I commend all cycling authors for the discipline and desire that it takes to put their story to paper. That said, I think there are a few basic rules I've learned from writing my first book, The Road Headed West, that apply to all travel writing- and especially cycling stories - which make for a better work. If you're going to put time and effort into something as monumental as book writing, then it's definitely worth making it the best that it can be.
Here, then, are the questions I asked myself when I was writing. Perhaps you'll find them useful if you're considering working on your own book. (Note: I'm aware I'm a first time author and still have much to learn myself!)
1. What is the story of your book?
You know what happened on your adventure. You went from X to Y and Z happened (more or less.) Your adventure story and the narrative of your book, however, are not the same thing. If you simply write down everything that happened, as it happened, you'll have a very long, very boring book. Figure out what the story is. What is the 'hook' - what is the event or angle to your trip that made it unique or exciting, and will entice someone to begin (and keep) reading?
2. What are your themes?
Your story will probably focus on a journey or experience in a mostly linear fashion. This is your main narrative, but within that you need a variety of themes to add various dimensions and depth. If your story is about cycling from A to B, then perhaps your major themes could be the spirit of exploration, the rite-of-passage experience you go through, the changing of the landscape or culture around you and so on. I was first given this advice by author/adventurer Rob Lilwall before I began writing The Road Headed West, and it helped immensely to make a list of my major themes really early on. As I progressed through the manuscript I could refer back to my list and see which were working, which weren't, which needed some additional writing and which should be cut down. The end result of this process (when done well) is a story that appeals to the reader on a number of different levels - the mark of a really good book.
3. Who is your audience?
You can't be all things to all people. Your story will inevitably affect some people more than others. Even more amazingly, there will probably be some folk who have absolutely no interest in you or what happened to you on your adventures (I'm still coming to terms with this myself!) Decide on your audience - are you writing for cyclists? Travellers? Historians? Retirees? School kids? Some of these audiences can overlap, of course, but if you come from a road cycling background and want to write for similarly minded people, then you're well within your rights to include lots of details about the mechanics of your bike, your RPM and all other sorts of stuff that would very quickly drive away a reader keen to learn more about the cultural side of your trip. The idea of your audience is ultimately tied into your goals for the book, too. What do you want to achieve by writing it - to change the world? To impress your friends? To inspire others like you? Think hard about who you want to write for, and why you want to write it, and factor this into the next point...
4. What is your voice?
This is essentially another way of describing your writing style. It's crucial to find the best and most natural way for you to tell your story. One thing I found very hard was keeping my voice consistent. One day I'd sit down to write when the sun was shining and I was in a good mood, and light-hearted jolly prose would flow out onto my computer screen. Another day, perhaps in darkest winter and in the middle of all sorts of other stressful life scenarios, I'd begin typing and my stories would come out like storm clouds, reeking of impending doom. Work hard to find out what is natural for you, and try to stick to it. I've heard it said that it helps to imagine you're writing to a good friend - that encourages dropping any assumed augmentations to your style. It's important to read widely within your genre for inspiration, but don't try to imitate anyone. It's much better to be a top-quality version of yourself than a poorly-written carbon copy of one of the greats. Don't try to be Jack Kerouac!
5. What is unnecessary?
If you've done well with points 1 + 2, then hopefully there's not too much superfluous material in your finished manuscript. If you're like me, however, you'll have written 160,000 words - about twice the length of a 'normal' travel book (my final draft was just under 80,000 words.) Whatever your situation, you're going to need to edit hard. I recommend getting help with this if you're self-publishing, and if you're lucky enough to have a publisher, then I recommend listening very closely to your editor! You're going to be very attached to certain annecdotes. Maybe they work really well when you tell them down the pub - that doesn't mean they have to stay in your book. Everything that remains should in some way further the narrative or add weight to one of your themes. To overuse an overused phrase that sums this up well, you need to murder your darlings. Slice and dice your precious work until it is a shadow of it's former self. The more you cut and edit, the better it gets (usually!) Get feedback from (honest) friends and colleagues on the work, and see what they think is unnecessary. Finally, don't despair at this stage. Ernest Hemingway has great, if slightly demoralising, advice for anyone at this stage. We're all in the same boat. As far as I'm concerned, if you've made it this far, then you've done incredibly well - you're nearly there! - and it's worth the next stage of painful editing to make your book the best it can be. It's absolutely worth it.
My book, The Road Headed West, was released earlier this month. If you'd like to see how it turned out, you can get a signed copy from my website here. If you'd rather hedge your bets, then why not download the free sample on Kindle via the Amazon store?