Lena Katz is the author of Travel Temptations, a full-color travel guidebook series published on Globe Pequot Press: SIP: California and SUN: California, released in July, and SNOW: California, which comes out in November.
Katz writes a weekly column for Orbitz; contributes regularly to Brides, MSNBC, and others; and is also working on a series with Britannica Online (formerly Encyclopedia Britannica); and developing three TV shows. Next week, Katz tapes a segment for That Morning Show, a new program on E! from 6 am to 9 am weekdays, and on Sunday, October 4th, will be exhibiting and lecturing at the West Hollywood Book Fair.
Write On! interviews Katz about her creative process and her foray from article-writing into the book world; she also offers tips for would-be travel writers.
Oddly enough, I fell into it. I started out writing travel guides as a way to earn money while I figured out what I “really” wanted to do (and where I wanted to live), and though I had other kinds of writing gigs at the beginning and actually still do, travel just was always a very good fit for me. My clients are happy, and I never have a shortage of work.
How do you get your ideas for articles?
I’m very character-driven, and whenever I meet an interesting person, they sort of imprint on my brain and I want to figure out what to “do” with them: “What is their story?” How should it be told?”
Actually that’s the way I process the entire world. Everything I experience, I have to figure out what kind of story it should go into, what outlets could be appropriate, and what media form. Then I file it away, where it either remains in the mental files for years, or sits front-and-center nagging at me till I actually sell it and write it.
It actually gets to the point where I can’t leave my house because I’m over-ramped on transmissions from the outside world and can’t handle any more. But there are hazards in the house too. I get many press releases, and I also am an avid reader, Facebooker, and eavesdropper. I’m always asking questions, collecting information, and looking for leads—it never stops.
What are the three things a writer must know if they want to pursue travel writing?
1. It’s one of the most competitive jobs in the world,and almost no one’s good at it. (I wasn’t when I started. My voice was cheesy.) You think you have a unique story to tell, but 99% of the time, you don’t. Learning to find the original angles and pitch them to the point where you stand out from the other 999 out of 1,000 people who are going for the same gig … that takes years.
2. It is a privilege to write in the first person, and you must earn it. (Or work for one of those weirdo non-paying sites who let their writers do anything they want … but I don’t know why any writer would do that.)
3. You need to have an area of undeniable, unparalleled expertise if you want the good gigs. Fly-fishing, religion, nutrition … it’s smart to specialize. Your other alternative is just to specialize in the travel field, which means having thousands of people and press materials from the past 5 years on file, knowing what everyone in the business is doing and writing about, and generally just being the quickest, most knowledgeable, most persistent, and most personable kid on the block.
How did the book series come about? What was your process for pitching it? Writing it?
I wanted to write a book so that I could stop doing everything work-for-hire, and so that I could get that extra prestige that comes with being a published author. I found an agent through a friend, and pitched it, as well as some other ideas. I knew I’d be able to sell a travel-concept, because I know the market really well. Plus, at that point I had become an “expert” in singles’ travel and quick getaways, which is a popular niche.
Pitching took me nearly a year because I spent eons doing the proposal. Selling it took three months, and writing the entire series took me a year. A hellish, grueling year of constant work for very little pay. I interviewed 500 people for the series, and many were famous (Olympians, winery owners, chefs etc). You can only imagine the amount of legwork that goes into that process alone. Then researching anad writing the venues. Each book was supposed to be 40,000 words max, and they ended up being 45,000, 65,000, and 70,000. Plus, I had to juggle editor copy-changes from one manuscript while writing the first version of another—AND my other regular gigs. By the end, I was a nervous wreck, my computer had blown out, and I was working from my boyfriend’s desk at home, having completely taken over his living room. If he hadn’t let me do that, I couldn’t have finished. And if he hadn’t cooked me bacon and eggs twice a day every day for three weeks straight, I may have starved.
What was your favorite part of the process? The greatest challenge?
My favorite part was finding all my wonderful sources. There are so many great people in those books. I got incredible material; I could spend the rest of my life writing about the people and places from that series.
The greatest challenge was, as I mentioned above, I crammed 5 years of work into 1 year. Not knowingly, but regardless, I stuck to it, and I’m not exactly sure why, except that I’m a workaholic.
How important is diversification for a writer?
Oh, that’s an ongoing debate. I would say, not at all, and at the same time, very important.
As I said before, I think it’s very important to have an area of expertise. Within that area, you should be capable ot great flexibility and innovation—whether it’s that you can find many angles for many audiences, you can create content in 10 different mediums, OR you’re always improving your client list … you need to span the full spectrum of possibilities.
BUT, is it important to be a writer who’s also a graphic designer, life coach, “blogger” (whatever the hell that means), and new media producer? NO! And is it important to write about ball bearings as well as write speeches as well as do catalog copy for Liz Claiborne? NO! It may put a bit of cash in the pocket short-term, but long-term I feel it dilutes your expertise and your potency.
How do you juggle all the different aspects of your career?
I keep lists. I work every day from those lists. I do maybe 5 to 10 things I’m supposed to—turn in an assignment, follow up on a couple pitches, do some press for my books, get in touch with people I’m working with, and bounce the ball back over to them. Then, the next day, I move on to 5-10 new things.
I only sleep between 3 to 7 hours a night. That’s bad. I’d like to change it. I would also loooove to hire an assistant. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that soon.
Additional advice for writers?
Don’t be so damn sentimental and protective of your stuff. Just like kids don’t grow up till you let them out into the big wide world, your work won’t grow up till you set it free and let a bunch of people bash on it and send it back to you … and then you sit down and process all their opinions; rewrite to their specifications; figure out how to pitch better; learn how to concede in your mind, “OMG you’re right that piece SUCKS what was I thinking?” and do a lightning-quick rewrite. Learn how to live at a short distance from your emotions—and from other people’s. Accept that passion-projects are usually the hardest to sell, and the subjects you feel the strongest about “giving a voice” to are usually the ones who will treat you like crap. Remember, being commercial isn’t being a sellout—it’s a skill. And being allowed to use your own voice and control your own storyline … that is a privilege, a gesture of trust from your client, and you must earn it.
Like anything else, writing is a business of relationships. Find people who you love, who nurture you, who will be on your side. Treat your editors well. Protect your sources. Pay it forward. Never forget when someone’s done you a favor. And NEVER get mad when someone’s done the best they can, and it just didn’t have the outcome you wanted. It ain’t their fault. Above all, be gracious and grateful and do unto others.
BUT. if someone’s not on your team, and you have that sinking feeling that they never will be, then f-ck ’em. Drop them, erase them … sometimes I go to work for their competition. (I know this sounds bad, but it’s actually a great way to align yourself with more people who are on your side, b/c I tend to notice that people of like minds stick together.)
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
That creatives are the ones with true value in a big company. That the less people pay you, the less they value you. That the best way to proceed is to make yourself as valuable a resource as possible, and then demand the very best for yourself. Underbidding is a quick and slippery trip to certain doom.
Tags: Author Q&A Debra Eckerling Globe Pequot Press: Lena Katz Travel Temptations / SIP: Califronia Travel Temptations / SNOW: California Travel Temptations / SUN: California Travel Writing West Hollywood Book Fair Write On! Writing