The Trials and Tribulations of Writing a Book While Traveling / by Dan Zambonini

A home made laptop stand

Photos and text by Dan Zambonini

I started a year long sabbatical from work in May 2010. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to write the technical book that was bursting out of me – the accumulated experience of growing a successful web company for ten years. It didn’t sound particularly difficult. 75,000 words is certainly a lot, but surely even a slow writer can muster 1,000 words a day and complete the manuscript in an easy three months? Okay, perhaps four months if the travel gets in the way...

Suffice it to say, that eighteen months later I’ve just completed the book (A Practical Guide to Web App Success), at an average of about 100 words a day. It turns out that traveling and writing aren’t made for each other, no matter how much Mark Twain’s writings had convinced me otherwise.

After a short relaxing start in Arizona, we headed south. Six weeks in a secluded Mexican fishing village sounded like the perfect getaway for a budding author. No distractions.

Also, however: no air conditioning. In July and August.

Before we arrived, I had pictured myself in a Twain-esque white suit, reclining on a wicker chair as I cheerily tapped out multiple chapters on my thoroughly modern MacBook. The reality [warning: remainder of sentence contains scenes that some readers may find disturbing] found me sitting on a plastic picnic chair in my underwear, with a t-shirt under my wrists to stop the steady stream of sweat from getting into the laptop.

Mexican Kitten
Mexican Kitten

The humidity would rise at night, making it impossible to sleep. Even on the ever-so-slightly cooler nights we would be tortured by the a cappella lizard family that lived in our wall, and the stray kitten who would bring us millipedes, egg-sac-endowed spiders, and whatever else she could find for her entertainment.

Sleep deprivation and extreme heat aren’t a good combination for accurate technical writing. I have a feeling that some of those early chapters originally sounded like Hunter S. Thompson reciting a Microsoft DOS manual from memory, before my skillful editor thankfully rescued them.

It didn’t improve much as we headed to South East Asia.

Laos became one of our favourite countries of the trip, but it’s not the best place to write a technical book. It’s one of the poorest countries in the region, with more than three quarters of the population living under the international poverty line of $2 a day. Deforestation is quickly destroying their spectacular environment, and unexploded ordnance contaminates more than half the country’s land.

Obviously I feel utterly ridiculous following those statements up with a complaint about not being able to effectively write my book while temporarily visiting their struggling country, but with that self-realisation and caveat in mind, I’ll continue.

The main problem for authors in Laos is not the heat or the sparsely sprinkled internet access, but the beer. For a start, it’s good. Beerlao Dark, in particular, is wonderful. And strong.

So what?”, you might say, “Georges Remi managed to knock out a few Tin Tins in his time and he lived in a country with an abundance of strong beer.” (Note to self: the phrase “knock out a Tin Tin” sounds usefully multi-purpose.)

The real problem is that not only is the beer good, but it’s also nearly always cheaper than bottled water – and it’s best not to drink the tap water in Laos. When you’re ordering lunch in the midday sun and you can quaff a huge bottle of delicious beer for less than the price of a small bottle of water, it’s difficult to decline. And that makes it impossible to get much done for the rest of the day. In my defence, we were there over the Christmas period, so it wasn’t quite as decadent as it sounds.

Amy and some Beerlao
Amy and some Beerlao

We spent the last two months of our trip in Thailand.

Bangkok is a technologically advanced city, with some of the largest shopping malls in the world. Of course, we decided not to spend the majority of our time in Bangkok, but on the outskirts of the jungles in the North.

This is a place where our local ice cream shop was technically open for twelve hours a day, but they would run out of ice cream about two hours after opening, every single day. They then proceeded to try to sell you some kind of ice cream ‘alternative’ - most often, a hamburger.

What I’m trying to get at is that it wasn’t particularly easy to buy things. The narrow desk in our room wasn’t designed to comfortably fit a laptop and keyboard, so we went looking for a laptop stand. Fat chance. I ended up balancing my MacBook on three toilet rolls – certainly the cheapest (and most environmentally friendly) laptop stand I’ve ever used.

A home made laptop stand
A home made laptop stand

It got to the point where, unable to find appropriate clothing to buy, Amy was making t-shirts out of… pillowcases. I’m not evil enough to post the photos, but the rectangular nature of pillowcases inevitably meant that the shoulders would have two large points sticking out of them, like a bad Gary Glitter costume. And the last person you want to be mistaken for in Thailand is Gary Glitter...

Now, go check out the book!