Monday, April 18, 2011

Travelling with Pollyanna

I've been reading a pile of submissions to a travel writing competition that I'm judging for a writers' group and, as an English teacher trained in the mid-'70s, I have to say that all those "Of course, they didn't teach grammar in those days" comments we've been getting ever since were misdirected. Most of these hopefuls are ladies in their 60s and 70s, at school when the syllabus was much more prescriptive and yet - the dangling participles! The missing main verbs! Mixed tenses! Random Capital Letters! Swarms, of commas, and exclamation marks!!!

It's great that they're trying, I know, and all of them have something to say that's worth reading, but it's a hard row for my inner pedant to hoe, and I now have great sympathy for the travel editor of the NZ Herald, who says he gets 300 unsolicited submissions a week. Most of them would be like these ones, I'm guessing: either What I Did on My Holidays or Listen to this Funny/Scary/Horrifying Anecdote from my trip twenty years ago. Diverting enough, but not really travel stories.

And so many of them have wasted material: an attempted mugging on the Trans-Siberian dismissed in a couple of sentences, while there are paragraphs about tinned fish and hard-boiled eggs; getting trapped in a gondola on Mt Etna in a high wind ditto, with all the attention given to finding their hotel. What were they thinking?

It seems obvious to me that to draw and keep the reader's attention, you choose the most exciting/funny/scary moment of a trip and build the story around that. From a travel writing perspective, the more a trip goes wrong, absolutely the better (as long as you actually survive to tell the tale). So getting lost in Lima, dropping my camera down a scree slope on Skye, having jewellery snatched in Santiago? All gifts.

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