So You Want to Be a Lonely Planet Author?

(If you haven’t already seen it, I posted an amendment to this piece in June of 2011. This post is pretty dated now, but still largely accurate. And I apologize in advance for the length. As is all too common with me, once I started writing, I completely lost control. If I were being paid to blog by the word, I’d be a squillionaire.)

I thought I’d take a break from my lengthy complaining and ongoing tales of woe to write down a little personal insight on being an LP author, both for you, the curious reader, and for me when (if) in the future I find myself considering another LP gig and I want to refresh my memory about the highs and lows of this work.

Very early on – post-contract, pre-road research – I got a little taste of the supposed glamorous part of this life from other authors. One told of frequent encounters with “Lonely Planet Disciples”, who either went limp with veneration or very nearly peed themselves from excitement once their cover was blown. Another author described ‘travel writer’ on the list of all-time coveted vocations at number four, below ‘rock star’, ‘movie star’ and ‘TV star’.

So far I’ve seen very little of this sentiment, but then you don’t run into too many impressionable travellers when you’re researching the most obscure parts of Romania in February and March. (Incidentally, I plan to compensate for this during my summer travels in south-eastern Europe, when I intend wear my “I’m a Lonely Planet Author” sandwich board day and night.) The thing is, at least in my case, when on the road I don’t have the time or energy for leisurely socializing anyway. Indeed, if I spend too much time in any one hotel, restaurant or museum, I start to have anxiety attacks about how much time I’m losing. This is probably a symptom of my inexperience compounded with Deadline Dread, as I simply have no idea how long it’s going to take me to complete my obligations and I don’t want to be the guy that blows it on his first time out. Even if much of Romanian accommodations weren’t socially inhibiting hotels and pensions (which are largely deserted in Feb/March), with few if any common areas, judging from the levels of haste and exhaustion I’ve been experiencing on the road, there’s very little chance I’d have the strength or occasion to spend lengthy intervals with fellow travellers, other than to urgently ply them for their own experiences. Certainly not enough time for them to amply worship me, get me drunk or seduce me as I was whole-heartedly assured.

On the subject of freaking out from delays; the doting attention that I so dearly enjoyed as a magazine writer is cramping my style as an LP writer. Hotel and restaurant managers often assume that I have the whole day to spend with them, touring their establishment, taking absurdly detailed notes about their menus/amenities and hanging on every facet of their careers, experience, big name contacts and qualifications in the travel industry. All this schmoozing was tolerable while I was staying for free in their five star rooms, gobbling down sample platters from their elegant restaurants and washing it down with exquisitely selected wine. With LP being staunchly against authors accepting freebies with a monetary value greater than a cup of tea, now these productivity robbing, self-indulgent sessions mean I have to stay awake that much later that night, driving in the pitch-black countryside or paying surprise visits to startled hotel clerks at 8PM. These situations are thankfully rare as all LP visits are surprise visits, giving little chance for a manager or marketing representative to be summoned, but occasionally these individuals happen to be standing right there and I’m captured before I know it, forcing me to forget the task of information gathering and instead go into extraction mode.

These same people can also be ludicrously pushy about how LP presents them. I’ve had people brazenly request that their establishment be listed in larger print, highlighted and/or marked with a special prominent icon on the map, while helping themselves to my sample maps to offer suggestions on which establishments I should be delete from the book because their owners are assholes.

Alternately, I have had equal numbers of encounters with lovely staff at hotels, restaurants and tour offices that have stood with me for an hour, giving honest and helpful suggestions about (and even directions to) their direct competition and new establishments that warrant my attention. I usually manage to find one of these selfless people in each city and it’s a day maker, not to mention incrementally improving the overall quality of the book.

On the subject of being continually stressed, exhausted and having the sensation of being minutes away from a nervous breakdown while doing road research, it’s become clear that I’m not alone in this regard. With Lonely Planet offices and authors being scattered all over the planet, news and a general sense of community are shared in an online discussion group. The subject of on-the-road hardship comes up frequently. One author lamented that that each research trip takes two years off his life, a claim that I tend to agree with. Even my co-author Robert Reid, for whom I hold no shortage of reverence, who was the model of relaxed confidence when I met with him in Bucharest, confessed in his latest email that he was “very, very, very tired.”

Anyone who has travelled for extended periods of time can relate to more pronounced levels of fatigue, not only from the physically taxing ordeal of travel itself, but also from the mental distress due to jetlag, culture shock and being in perpetually unfamiliar surroundings among other things. Well, now jack up those feelings three-fold. Depending on the assignment, deadlines and the author in question, it’s not uncommon to keep a maniacal pace allotting two days for a large-ish city, about a day for a medium sized city and maybe two hours per small town/village. Each stop has varying degrees of obligations, including but not limited to; visiting tour offices, an assortment of hotels and restaurants, museums, churches, theatres, internet cafes, nightclubs, sports facilities, bus/train/ferry stations, transport agents, embassies, foreign councils and a potpourri of lesser sights, landmarks and oddities. Keep in mind that a large number of the hotels, restaurants, clubs, internet cafes and tourism offices will have closed in the two years since the last author visit or some have just plain gone to pot, and you are now on the hook for finding quality replacements.

It’s a gruelling tempo to maintain, sometimes for up to six weeks at a stretch. My longest LP road trip so far has only been 12 days and I returned home in such a state that I could barely get the wits together to feed myself for the first few days.

Obviously something as delicate as your body clock takes a serious spanking in all of this. I’ve been alternately start-stopping research trips and consistently rising early while at home in order to satisfy endless Romanian bureaucratic duties (which, distressingly, all tend to take place at 7:30AM). As a result, I can no longer comfortably sleep past 7AM, no matter how tired/hungover I am or how perfectly peaceful my surroundings may be. My body just won’t do it. I managed to tough it out until 8AM yesterday, but that’s the best I’ve done since February. Only a few months ago, if left alone, I’d sleep serenely until 11AM and much later if I’d had a late night. Now, even if I have nothing to do all day (a rarity), my body is compelled to rise early and snap into high-speed action mode whether I like it or not.

Which brings me to the workload. It’s massive. No surprises there. Indeed I was plenty warned about it. I felt I might be better able to cope with this schedule than the average newbie seeing as how, essentially, I invoke a modest form of this schedule on myself even when travelling for fun. Writing down epic travelogues and taking countless photos didn’t just start when I dove into the travel writing milieu three years ago. This urge, particularly the writing, has been a constant since my early 20s, mostly to compensate for my generally atrocious long term memory. After my first few trips, in my late teens and early twenties, when the time came to reflect back on the names of hostels, museums located in particular cities, or even a vague travel itinerary, I simply could not piece it all together. Wanting to hang onto these memories for more than a few weeks after the conclusion of my travels, I started writing everything down. First as quick notes, then as an open letters and finally in the form that I prefer today; painfully long, anecdotal, absurdly detailed (yet, laugh-riot hilarious) journal entries. The only difference now is that I post this stuff on a web site. I’ve done this now for three years, for periods of sustained travel lasting up to nine months. Rather than join hostel-mates each night in the bar, I was the guy hiding in the corner furiously typing stories, labelling digital pictures and crafting basic web pages. To a certain degree, I thought this experience would make the transition to the LP workload a little easier, but so far, like virtually every other time I have ever felt confident and prepared for a challenge, I’ve been proven to be deeply deluded.

Travelling and writing simultaneously in these conditions simply does not work for me. I’m told that on less challenging assignments, where one isn’t driving themselves all day, in dangerous, spirit-sapping wintry conditions, authors often have enough left in the tank at the end of the day to sit down and write for an hour or so and even, gasp!, go out for a beer with other travellers. The best I can do is take basic notes and a million digital photos and then beautify everything back at my desk.

The frenzied travel that I was forced to do in Romania left me with precious little time to actually slow down and do a little touring of my own. Essentially, taking all the fun out of it. But I’ve been assured that my circumstances have been exceptionally demanding and unusual and normally authors can enjoy themselves a bit more. I’m going to give this a try when I go to Moldova next week, allotting more time for this tiny country than I did when I raced through 2/3 of Romania. I hope to come out of this leg of research with a much improved attitude.

Finally, I’m happy to report that the writing itself has been quite enjoyable. Sure, long and often fruitless sessions of research just to check a couple facts and calculating exchange rates from Romanian lei to euros is tedious, but the straight writing has been a joy as the LP voice and style is very much in line with my own. This may be the closest I have ever been to using my own voice for a paid assignment, making the work infinitely more fulfilling.

Well this brain dump has persisted far longer than I planned and I should darn well be editing my pathetic notes into something more closely approximating flair and authority. More to come after my return from Moldova.

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