COLIN TODHUNTER ON WHY HE WRITES FOR HACKTREKS
Rescued on the Internet - a travel writers tale
a cold and dreary January and I was in a bookshop on a high street
in an English town, flicking through the pages of a travel magazine.
The front page had an inviting photograph of a red-sky sunset over
Darwin, Australia. Splashed down the left-hand side were the feature
contents for the month. It was highly polished and glossy, and arguably
the kind of publication to advertise in, to write for and to be
seen reading. A professional magazine for professional people. But
then I woke to find that it had all been a bad dream. I was not
surrounded by fabricated gloss on some faceless high street, but
in a one hundred rupee a night lodge in Madurai, South India. I
was across the street from the Sri Meenakshi Temple. Its soaring
gopurams (towers) were covered in a riot of carved and vividly coloured
godlike figures, and I was not freezing in bleak mid-winter, but
sweltering in the heat of a tropical January.
by using the jug and bucket method, I went along to a local internet
cafe to check out the website of the magazine that I had dreamt about.
The submission guidelines stated that what is required are factual pieces
on destinations - where to stay, what to do, costs, quality of service
and so on. The magazine only publishes one traveller tale type article
in each edition, but even then requires it to be less than eight hundred
words. The guidelines state you have a one in eight hundred chance of
being published, and that most people who appear in it will most probably
be better at writing than you are. What is more, it is implied there
is a good chance that they may also be better travelled! So they advise
prospective candidates to think very hard before submitting.
Some may argue that the editors are being realistic - others might say,
I have read the magazine in question, and yes, the standard of writing
is high. But then again I've read Hacks, Zine5, Topwritercorner and
a host of other webzines. The quality can be just as high, but, and
a big but here, they provide a forum for different writing styles, and
include a diverse range of approaches and opinions on travel ranging
from, life-changing trips, to culture-shock stories, to social comment.
Consequently, they are more of an interesting read. In certain magazines
"traveller-tales" have to conform to highly specific content
guidelines and provide little scope for diversity. But I suppose that
they are probably more soothing and therapeutic because you can feel
the glossiness of the pages and delude yourself that you are reading
"high" literature because you have paid a top price for an
self-labelled "up-market" mag.
It is not the intention of the editorial staff to discourage people
from writing or to undermine a writer's self-belief. After all, they
are caught in the competitive web of profit margins and markets. Unlike
electronic publishing, print publishing can be an expensive endeavour.
Although certain websites can have very specific requirements, many
do not. They actually encourage writers to write. Their editorial policy
states that all they require is "good quality writing". I
remember when I first stumbled across Hackwriters, during March 2002
in an internet cafe in the Triplicane area of Chennai. It was refreshing
to have found something that offered wide ranging opportunities for
writers, and you didn't have to be an established, big name.
In the world we live in, a prevailing belief is that if something does
not sell then it is no good. Or, in other words, if there is no profit
in it, then it is useless. This is the error of the age. In the writing
game, according to most editorial policies, your writing is not "good"
enough if it cannot justify itself in terms of quantifiable sales or
increased readership. Webzines have changed the rules. Many are run
by dedicated individuals or teams whose financial overheads are not
the same as the printed media, and who make little or no profit from
what they do. They are also less constrained by considerations to do
with space (number of pages). As a result, the whole process of getting
published is more democratic and inclusive. You do not have to be a
big-name, or to write solely for the market with the aim of boosting
Certain internet sites for writers accept good quality work on a huge
range of topics. Look at Hacks - travel, lifestyles, fiction, and reviews.
Zine5 is another site with an open-door policy, and Babylon Travel Magazine,
although concentrating solely on travel, is similar. There are a lot
of good writers - even exceptional ones - who can find it difficult
to get into print, but have found an outlet on the internet. Before
the advent of the internet, good quality writing and "publishable
quality" were much less mutually inclusive bed-fellows. Through
the internet, more people are being published and a greater diversity
of voices is being heard. Certain "glossies" lose something
through their policies of exclusion. Their loss can be a webzines
The internet has opened up a whole new world for people who write -
and who write well. Just because it is electronic and not print, and
there is usually no payment, does not mean that getting published in
various internet mags is in some way inferior or that the quality of
writing is poorer. Good writing should be valued in itself for being
interesting, pleasurable or thought provoking, and not be evaluated
solely in terms of its commodity value in the market place. Writing
for the pleasure and because you want to say something can be rewarding,
and if it earns a bit of money along the way, then even better.
The enjoyment of writing and having what you write made accessible to
the public are hugely motivating in themselves. And through the internet,
access to the public has increased. Financial gain isn't everything.
Sam North and editors of other webzines have at one time or another
noted that those who travel-write for their mags are ordinary people,
travelling on their own money and incurring all of the risks entailed
with independent travel. There is no support system, financial renumeration
or advantages accrued from being a big name writer or celeb. But they
share something in common - having something interesting to say (sometimes
a lot more interesting than the "celeb" writers), and saying
it well in the form of the written word.
There are no camera crews, expense accounts or photographers to accompany
me when I am travelling through India. I'm not Michael Palin! I stay
in grotty hotels, eat in dhabas (basic hole in the wall street cafes),
spend days on second class Indian sleeper trains and get dysentery,
down and out, exhilarated and stimulated. I am just an average traveller
who spends some time in internet cafes in India writing stuff to send
to Hackwriters and elsewhere. By spending between ten and thirty rupees
an hour for internet use, I have become lifted out of obscurity by the
internet. From a backstreet internet cafe in Delhi, Chennai or some
back of beyond town in Madyha Pradesh, my world becomes published. I
have something to say, have been given the opportunity to say it and
hopefully someone somewhere reads it. What can be more democratic and
empowering than that?
I have virtually replaced my camera with a PC and it feels great. I
could never really have hoped to had got my photos published. I know
next to nothing about photography and have a cheap point and shoot camera.
Poor quality in any field should not hope to cut the mustard; but something
of good quality should. Good quality writing should be published, particularly
if the writer has something original to say. It should not left on some
shelf gathering dust just because it cannot be commodified and falls
between the cracks in the market - not appealing to strictly defined
audiences who may rake in advertising revenue and whom advertisers can
"target". Now there is less chance that it will gather dust
thanks to the internet. What is more, webzines are immediately accessible
worldwide. I no longer have to be in a bad dream on a English high street
- just in an internet cafe somewhere in Asia.
© Colin Todhunter - The Madras Diaries - India August 2002
Todhunter in India
Aboard the Tamil Nadu Express: next stop - insanity!
Colin Todhunter in
met a woman in the hotel, and was totally mad about her.
Copenhagen to Byron Bay:
A tale of two women
India first you get married and then you work these things out",
he said with amazing casualness.
will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says...
Colin Todhunter finds himself the unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.
unique experience of going
to the gym in India
God and Jerry Seinfeld: spaced out in India
got the impression that he thought he was a living God. He was lost
Tax Office and the Trail of the Banana Pancake
people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they
didnt want to be there in the first place or at least want to
be somewhere else - somewhere better'.
to the Future on Triplicane High Road
women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair,
but not both together.
Rainbows in Chennai
on Indian TV
The gap between the glossy world of adverts and reality may be big in
the West, but in India it's gargantuan.
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