In Travel Writing, Stop Me Oh Stop Me, Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before

Secret Thai Beach

It’s 10:30am and I’m sitting at my desk, laboring over the lead–or what we in the industry call “the hook”–for a sweeping 2,500-word feature story commissioned by a glossy travel magazine. The creaky air-conditioning unit in my Bangkok apartment creaking, high-pitched whistles of traffic cops on Phetchaburi Road piercing the thin-glassed sliding doors separating my bedroom from the balcony, I’ve written and deleted and rewritten and redeleted again and again, trying to get the crucial hook just right.

In the lead, we–or what us industry folks call “travel writers” or “travel journalists” or “digital nomads” or “egotists”–must set the scene. We must pull the reader into the story, make them smell and hear and feel a distinct sense of place. Yes, we must put them in our shoes! (Perhaps we must put them in our flip-flops, if it is a secret beach with sugar-white sand about which we are writing, but the specific type of footwear is not what’s important here.) We must take the reader by the hand and whisk them away to this wonderful place without delay, like Peter Pan escorting Wendy to Neverland through a serene, starry sky.

We must take them there without delay! We must not hem and haw with irrelevant minutiae that bogs down the action. We must, indeed, get straight to the story–that is our job in the lead, or what we call the hook, of the glossy travel magazine feature. “Thrust your reader into the action,” they say, “leading them down a path of which they are uncertain, but one of which you are in complete control.”

Sense of place… complete control… character…. Peter Pan… action… digital nomads.

These tenets of rock-solid travel writing–or what we in the industry call “travel journalism” or “nomadism”–swirl through my head as I sit at my Bangkok writing desk, sipping 100-percent pasteurized mangosteen juice from an Ocean Thailand glass decorated with perfect yellow and orange and white circles. I’m wearing cut-off jean shorts and a red, White Pony-era Deftones t-shirt, early afternoon light filtering through poop-brown window blinds.

Let’s say the glossy 2,500-word feature concerns an, oh, let’s say a magical four-day parachute trip–or what we industry folk call “press trips” or “press junkets” or “souls for freebies” or Travels by Satan™–to a secret Thai island boasting sugar-white sand, friendly locals, and tattooed Western chefs making rustic, authentic Thai cuisine in contemporary resort restaurants. During this unforgettable trip I met so many interesting people doing so many interesting things, like Dave Woziak, a thirtysomething tattooed chef from Brooklyn playing with traditional Thai recipes in markedly nontraditional ways.

How can I best hook the readers of this glossy travel magazine into this glossy story about this special place and the special people doing special things there? That’s the conundrum as I bandy about the details, typing and erasing, erasing and typing, watching through my window the warm hues of late-morning twilight turn to a snow-white glare of early afternoon.

“It’s 8am and I’m standing on a deserted beach, blinded by its impossibly sugar-white sand.”

No, no, that’s not right.

“Morning breaks as I, a fascinating thirtysomething writer writing about their quirky adventures on a secret Thai beach, step onto a sugar-white sand beach, palms blowing in the breeze as I think about my travels around the world.”

No, on the right track, but a touch too personal. Think, man, think! Character; story; sense of place; nomad; surprise.

“I’m sipping coconut juice on a deserted beach too secret to tell you about when Jane, a famous travel blogger, and Joe, another famous travel blogger, amble over to talk to me, young coconuts, so sweet, so delicious, in hand.”

Almost, but not quite.

“You won’t believe where I am or what I’m doing, in part because I’m nowhere. This beach is secret, and if I tell you anything more I’ll have to kill you.”

Sassy, sweet, and secretive… I like it, I really do, but it’s not enough. For fuck’s sake, this is a glossy travel magazine!

“It’s 10pm and I’m dancing around a beach bonfire, drunk on the moment, drunk on a strong alcoholic elixir the local Thai villagers call “Captain’s Whiskey.” In the distance to my right, I can see the moon shining on my luxury beach bungalow; to my left, I see scores of pictures of me, taken during these past four days, clustered on a large pictureboard. It’s a gift from the friendly locals who live on this secret Thai beach; for all the things they’ve given me, from cherished memories to cherished freebies, it’s this gift–this gift of me–that touches me most.”

Bingo. The travel journalist’s life isn’t easy, but take it from me: When you hit it–when you really nail the hook–it’s more rewarding than you can possibly imagine. Trust me.

Lead beach photo courtesy of Flickr user Praveen.

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