The arc of a guidebook gig – or the fleeting, sexiest parts about being me

I think by now that I’ve managed to drive home the point that, while totally awesome at times, on most days travel writing is about as sexy as answering phones and data entry at the National Center for Statistical Reporting of Barley Yields.

There is copious unsexy downtime and tedium in travel writing and, sadistically, even those intervals can be mentally draining. Although I’m certainly biased, there are few jobs that I’m aware of, or can imagine, that demand the same full-on analytical, detail-oriented, creative, clerical, organizational, financial, social, cultural, physical and diplomatic requirements as travel writing. This holds true whether you’re writing a 500 word article or updating a 60,000 word guidebook. Well, it should hold true at any rate, but the evidence in certain (in-flight) magazines, newspapers and blogs suggests that you can get by without most of what I’d consider the bare minimum of effort or ability.

From the list above, you can extrapolate how much of travel writing involves being dropped out of a helicopter to ski down the Andes Mountains, right up to the VIP entrance of a luxury spa and then ending the day with copious booze and an eight course surf and turf banquet with the mayor and how much of it involves sitting in front of a laptop researching, fact checking, networking, beseeching, weeping and sometimes writing the perfect introduction.

Travel writing isn’t kind of like a rollercoaster ride, it’s exactly like a rollercoaster ride: waiting in the interminably long and slow moving line surrounded by yokels, drunks and idiots; climbing onboard; the slow, chugging and neck-snapping climb; the mind-bending crest; the electrifying plunge causing primal screams and blood to pool at the back of your skull; the disappointing final straightaway, largely dull with undulating, minor thrills, but already making you nostalgic for the seemingly distant plunge; and finally coming to a stop and staggering to the exit with your head spinning, minor injuries and occasional vomiting.

In less metaphoric terms, the general arc of a guidebook job goes something like this:

Week 1: Unsexy pitching (read: begging) for work

Week 2: Unsexy fee negotiations and, in my case, insomnia spike

Week 3: Getting the gig (OK, that’s kinda sexy), followed by the unsexy realization of the true scope of the gig, which always turns out to be way bigger than you realized, and stirring up Freelancer’s Remorse at having been too supplicating during Week 2

Weeks 4 & 5: Receiving unremitting, unsexy piles of documentation, guidelines, the product manual, the old text, maps, the map guidelines, and loads of random emails all crammed with essential information and tasks that you must satisfy during the gig, then copying, pasting and geographically organizing this litany of data into one document (which, if you ask me, should have been done in the first place), so that nothing gets overlooked during the controlled chaos that punctuates on-the-ground research and, if there’s any time left, cramming vocab and lost language skills

Weeks 6-?: Very sexy, though often grueling, on-the-ground research, which, depending on the scope of the project, lasts anywhere from three to eight weeks, and frequently includes one or more unsexy, near-disastrous obstacles like bed bugs, food poisoning and car accident(s)

Write-up (6-8 weeks): Arguably the most jarring, dispiriting and unsexy part – shifting gears overnight from travel, hyper-socializing, and a steady sensory overload of cool and singular experiences to sitting alone in your anti-stimulating home, surrounded by stacks of notes, tattered maps, brochures, business cards (usually proffered by friendly, enthusiastic people who will then never answer any of your emails) and embarking on the task of transcribing all that information into a logical, concise, triple-checked, layout-friendly and pleasant-to-read format

As some of you have probably surmised from the recent laziness on this blog and my one-track tweets, I’ve been wholly absorbed in the weeks 3-5 part of the process. While everyone else I know has been hooting it up at SXSWi or standing bewildered at the gorgeous weather in Minnesota these past few days, I’ve been locked inside my Condo of Solitude, doing prep work that I call ‘prudent’ and others call ‘batshit obsessive-compulsive’.

fiatpandaBut all that is about to change. Tomorrow, via layovers in Cincinnati (Three hours! Someone please tell me there’s free wi-fi!) and Paris, I’ll be rocketing to Pisa, getting into a 2-door Fiat Panda, powering up the GPS on my loaner Nokia N85 and heading into the exceptionally sexy world of researching Tuscan towns, food and wine. Even after you subtract the significant Sexy Points I lose by driving the Panda and wearing nothing but Old Navy t-shirts, cargo pants and trainers, I’m expecting amorous people to fall all over me as I flash around my official letters of introduction in two languages from both Lonely Planet and the Italian Government Tourist Board, not to mention carrying the current edition of Tuscany & Umbria that already has my name and sexy picture in it.

I have the added advantage of having already done this gig, so the lengthy and unsexy discovery process and being hopelessly lost for several hours a day will be removed from the equation. I’ve also had (slightly) more time to prepare this time around, allowing me to track down and make contact with a small army of officials, informers, friends and handlers throughout the region. I’m not gonna jinx myself and say it’ll be easy, but it’ll certainly be easier than last time. And even if it’s not, it’s difficult to complain about researching a guidebook in Tuscany – and even more difficult to gain any sympathy.

With that, I’m signing off. Blog readers will be hearing very little from me in the next month, though Twitter followers should see self-satisfied, giddy tweets almost daily, hopefully augmented with random pictures, assuming in the past two years that someone in Tuscany has finally gone around and introduced proprietors to the cutting edge technology known as ‘wi-fi’.

As a preview of what’s to come, or to fill the gapping Killing Batteries void in your life, you can review my Tuscany Lists from 2007, where I detailed the best and worst of my trip and TMI details like how many times I did laundry in a month (one). Heck, rereading some of the posts, pretty much anything from April or May of 2007 should give you a firm idea of what I’ll be getting into starting Tuesday morning.

Thanks for sticking with me and I look forward to being the target of your wretched envy for the next month.

Agonizing over travel insurance? Maybe I can help…