Ideas on how to write a Peace Corps book
February 23, 2007 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I need help putting together a book about my Peace Corps experiences, though I have no idea where to even begin. Any ideas?

I'm aware that a number of books already exist but still feel like I have a fresh direction which to go in.

I kept a blog and an off-line diary of my experiences, kept track of every book I read, have a list of the music I listened to and have a lot of art and pics from that time. I want to do something a little different with all my records but don't have a clue where to begin. Do you have any ideas for me?
posted by brokekid to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea where to even begin.... I have a fresh direction which to go in.

This is the best question ever.
posted by rkent at 10:52 AM on February 23, 2007

Well, I think it might be helpful if you first figured out what kind of theme you were going for. Peace Corps: Life Amongst the Noble Savages? How to Peace Corps? PC: A Giant Rip-Off? Join the PC and Debauch Your Way across Eastern Europe? My Wacky PC Sexcapades?

Once you've determined the general thrust of your tale, you can start figuring out the formats in which to tell it.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 10:55 AM on February 23, 2007

Ok, I don't imagine that comment is going to last long, but seriously: please realize what an eye-rolling, "oh my god you aren't serious" question this is.

If you're convinced that your story is so much more interesting than all the other Peace Corps books that exist, but you need someone else to tell you what to write, then call up a publisher, see what direction the Hipster-Goes-Abroad genre is going in right now, and at least write something marketable.
posted by rkent at 10:58 AM on February 23, 2007

I think first you need to think of some organizing principle for the memoir (and it does sound like you are trying to create a memoir of that part of your life). Some that come to my mind:

-Chronological. Day #1: I arrive. Day #2: I meet the village elders. Day #3: They need a bridge. etc.

-Character Driven. Chap. 1: The people that got me into this. Chap. 2: The people who thought they taught me what I'd need to know. Chap. 3: The people that discovered what I didn't know. etc.

-Event Driven: Chap. 1: My arrival in Timbuktu. Chap. 2: How my laptop fell down the village well. Chap. 3: I am rescued from drowning by a passing water buffalo. etc.

-Narrative. Chap. 1: Why I wanted to do good. Chap. 2: Doing good is not necessary to doing well (why I chose the Peace Corp). Chap 3: In picking the Lesser Maldives, were they picking me? etc.

Once you have the organizational principle in mind, make a simple 3 part sketch: Beginning, Middle, End. Refine that into sub parts: Prologue, Introduction, Start of Adventure and In Country, The Average Day, Unseen Trouble and Homesick, Unfinished Business, Goodbye and Good Luck, or something. Breaking down from major topics to minor keeps some symmetry, and suggests how topics in smaller sections (chapters) should relate. Once you get down to that point, start writing something, somewhere. Keep doing that, a couple hours a day, until you get a sense of where the thing is heading, and how well.

First thing you know, you'll have your manuscript completed. Put it aside for a week, and then pick it up, and start your revisions/rewrite.
posted by paulsc at 11:03 AM on February 23, 2007 [5 favorites]

Take a few writing workshops. Many are specifically geared for people like you.
posted by JJ86 at 11:04 AM on February 23, 2007

The Peace Corps Writers website might be useful to you.
posted by gnomeloaf at 11:11 AM on February 23, 2007

Give the guy a break. It's an unfocused question but it's hardly a hanging offense to be someone who feels like they Have Something Worth Saying but not know how to say it. He feels like he has an interesting direction - he just doesn't know where that will have him end up.

We have actual published authors who hang out here and their advice is certainly worth more than mine - I hack things out on a blog and don't have to be concerned with things like over-arcing focus, where a book does. That said, I have one piece of meta-advice and one observation that works for me.

The observation is that I have found "writers write, always" to be true. They don't always write well, or things anyone else wants to read, but the process of writing eventually yields results. The result might be discovering that what you think is your unique offering it's unique or doesn't work, or it might be that you discover you do have something unique to offer but what you have already doesn't fit into that at all.

My meta-advice fits into that - if you think you have something unique to offer, try to figure out what the manifestation of that would look like and sketch it out. Not everyone has to outline before they write but if you have a lot of existing material you want to fit into something larger then you should decide what that something larger is, preferably a something larger that you yourself would want to read. It's hard - if not impossible - to create a good piece of art that you yourself don't like.

So I guess my answer is "just start writing."
posted by phearlez at 11:34 AM on February 23, 2007

Oops. "The result might be discovering that what you think is your unique offering isn't unique or doesn't work" I meant to say.
posted by phearlez at 11:36 AM on February 23, 2007

If I was going to do this (haven't wrote a book ye, I just "in a way" sell them), I would figure out what was special about my Peace Corps story and condense it down to a paragraph.

That's your pitch.

Then, I would write 60-100k words that tell the story you said you were going to tell in the single paragraph.
posted by drezdn at 12:26 PM on February 23, 2007

Thanks for the tips. I was an IT volunteer serving in the capitol city of South American country. I want to write from the perspective of a web connected volunteer trying to nudge PC into an online world. The country I served in was very wired, but peace corps wasn't about to jump into anything they couldn't spin/control/subvert. Peace Corps is a dinosaur I was trying desparately to teach new tricks to aid the volunteers and our communities. They weren't interested, still aren't and almost booted me out a number of times but I ended up making it through the experience.

Along the way, I chronicled my projects, my experiences, books I've read, basically my entire online experience. I've been featured on BoingBoing, Waxy and among other places trying to get projects moving. It was tough as hell and PC interferred every step of the way.

That's my angle.
posted by brokekid at 1:30 PM on February 23, 2007

Do you want to publish your story as a book? Or do you just want to publish your story? Because you can reach an audience quite easily through the Internet. Here's one example, Philip Greenspun's Travels with Samantha.
posted by russilwvong at 2:02 PM on February 23, 2007

My one comment is that the best autobiographies are both self-reflective and self-critical. Your short description, as described, reads as not very self-reflective.

I think that there have always, from the beginning of the organization, been volunteers such as yourself who find the organizational culture extremely frustrating and a "dinosaur." (Note some of the characters in that book about the murder by a Peace Corps volunteer in the south pacific, written about events in the 1970s, if I remember correctly.) Certainly when I was a volunteer, there were a subset of volunteers who had the experience you describe of frustration and discomfort. Some quit, some were fired, and some finished their service. What they shared, however, was a lack of perception about how they were perceived by others, and a lack of perception for the reasons odd organizational behaviors have persisted over the last four or so decades.

That is, the volunteers I knew who spoke like you were not always as effective and insightful as they thought they were, and were not always as in touch with effective models of both development and organizational culture as they thought they were. I say this as someone who can detail the thousand ways in which Peace Corps, as an organization, has problems and could be better --- I haven't "drank the Koolaid," as it were, and I'm sure that I share many of your criticisms of the organization.

So I would hope that the "special something" your book would provide is an really honest and deep look at yourself, which is what we read autobiography for. I would suggest looking at the best and the worst of the travel and memoir literature to see what works and what doesn't, and to find a model for how you will structure your book. Yours will not the be first critical memoir about the Peace Corps, but it will could be one of the first to make a serious exploration of the impact and importance of the internet. (Of course, you could have written this in 1975, saying "As one of the first telephone-connected volunteers, I found Peace Corps to be stuck in the teletype age...")
posted by Forktine at 3:25 PM on February 23, 2007

The current (Mar/Apr 07) issue of Poets and Writers has an interesting column about Peace Corps novelists by Tony D'Souza.
posted by booth at 3:50 PM on February 23, 2007

Should have mentioned that the P&W column is not available online, unfortunately.
posted by booth at 3:50 PM on February 23, 2007

At the point of being trite I would suggest that you adopt Stephen Covey’s 2nd Habit of Highly Effective People “Begin with the End in Mind.” What exactly do you want the end result of your manuscript to be? Do you want it published and distributed? Are you creating a gift book for friends and relatives? Or is it a personal journey? From the tone of your question, I imagine that you want a wider audience. That being said, take a sober look at your situation as you learn that very few first time authors are snagging agents – must less publishing deals without a compelling, innovative, and most importantly, marketable manuscript. Would it be better delivered in a multi-part newspaper series in your home town? Does it lend itself to a website? Is it a play that might be underwritten and locally produced – or does it have the mass appeal to be picked up by network or cable television?

If your goals are more personal, what message are you truly trying to convey? With the end in mind, write your story. You’ll then have the peace and satisfaction of having honored your vision.

posted by peace_love_hope at 7:44 AM on February 25, 2007

« Older Recommendations for watch repair in Seattle?   |   Name that dream tune Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.