Writing with the Door Open

Back in 2009 when I wrote the final version of Mousetrapped, I wrote it all for myself.

In On Writing Stephen King talks about writing the first draft with the door closed (i.e. just for you) and the second with the door open (with the reader in mind), but anytime I wrote or re-wrote Mousetrapped, the door was always closed. I wrote the book that entertained me, and didn’t worry – or even think – about anyone else. And at times, this writing-just-for-me strayed into self-indulgence. I thought things like, well, I’m interested in this, so why wouldn’t everyone else be? And isn’t this my book? Can’t I just write whatever I want?

Now if you liked Disney, NASA, moving abroad totally unprepared and my personality and perspective, then you loved Mousetrapped. Some people really did. But if you didn’t like one or all of those things, you didn’t. My voice grated on your nerves, or parts of it read like a Wikipedia entry (apparently!). While I don’t regret the way I wrote the book or how it reads – why would I? 8,373 copies sold and counting, baby! – I do see now that while I’ll always write the book I want to read, it helps my cause if some other people might like to read it too.

What I’m getting at is that at some point in the writing process, you have to open the door.

So when it came to writing Backpacked, I opened the door. Heck, I took it off its hinges and propped it against the wall. I kept the end reader in mind all the time and so when it came to certain things that I could’ve gone on and on and on about for pages and pages on end, I asked myself, am I writing this because I like writing this bit, or because it adds to the book/story? If it didn’t add something, I scaled it back or left it out altogether.

I also had some bad reviews of Mousetrapped to rely on for constructive criticism. (Lucky me!) A few unimpressed reviewers complained about the first chapter where I explain how events in my life conspired to land me in Walt Disney World at the age of 24. I thought this had to be explained, but it probably didn’t need to be explained so much (!). In Backpacked, we get backpacking as quickly as possible. I also refrained from dumping paragraphs of history into the book so while I describe the places we visited, I don’t fill you in on everything that’s happened there to date. And Backpacked doesn’t try to be two or three different kinds of books at once – it’s just the linear story of backpacking trip taken by someone who didn’t want to go backpacking, plain and simple.

I think my writing has vastly improved as well – as it should’ve, considering that I wrote the first draft of Mousetrapped in the summer of 2008 and it was really the first proper thing I ever wrote, and Backpacked three years later, this summer,  and I’ve written a 97,000-word novel in between, as well as approximately 250,000 words worth of blog posts and a self-publishing guide totaling 110,000 words. I’ve also worked with editors, whose corrections help me write better and of course, I’ve been constantly reading. So if my writing hadn’t improved from all that, I’d be in real trouble.

A few Fridays ago I told everyone on my mailing lists that Backpacked was out, and then held my breath. I knew people who already liked my writing would like the book, but I wanted them to like it in a very particular way: I wanted them to say it was better than Mousetrapped

And they have said it.

For instance:

“Catherine Ryan Howard is our intrepid traveller, someone who prefers chilling in a 5-star hotel to backpacking through South America. But with no job, no home and nowhere else to be, Catherine figures going backpacking is going to be an adventure. And she’s going with her best friend Sheelagh, who can save Catherine from all kinds of terrible things since she’s a seasoned traveller herself! What follows is a 9-week adventure that is highly readable. At times when I was reading Mousetrapped (the predecessor to Backpacked) I found myself a bit bored with some of the longer ramblings from Catherine (I mean that nicely; the ramblings just weren’t my kinda ramblings!) but in Backpacked it’s as if Catherine has stream-lined herself and it all flows brilliantly. I was thoroughly ensconced in the book and couldn’t wait to see where Catherine and Sheelagh were going to next. Catherine is an excellent writer. She’s scaled back on the more information-heavy paragraphs, only giving us the bare basics from books about the countries they’re visiting and it’s a much more personable read than Mousetrapped was. Catherine injected such humour into the book that I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions, particularly when Catherine travels up a mountain on a HORSE! There are many brilliant moments during Backpacked and every page was brilliant. I felt as if I was part of Catherine’s journey and she writes about the places she and Sheelagh visited so thoroughly and with so much passion that I’m tempted to hop on the next flight to Guatemala. Backpacked is just brilliant, I thoroughly enjoyed it and despite Catherine was indeed a reluctant backpacker, you can tell she did on some level enjoy it and I enjoyed reading all about it.” —Leah, I Love Books and Football

It’s been selling steadily – with Amazon.co.uk sales higher than Amazon.com, for some inexplicable reason; it’s always the other way around! – and all feedback has been positive (so far, anyway!).

So: phew! Mission accomplished.

If you’ve read Backpacked, I’ll be your best friend forever if you can spare five minutes to write an Amazon review. It doesn’t have to be an essay – even three sentences will do the job!

If you want to read Backpacked, find out where you can find a preview and copies to buy here.

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