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Posts Tagged ‘freelance journalism’

The writer’s week: Skyping Holland, grading papers, waiting for news of….

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, life, work on September 21, 2014 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

For those of you new to Broadside, every six weeks or so I describe my working life as a full-time writer living in New York. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites, anyone whose pay is sufficient, whose work is challenging and can use my skills; details and samples here.

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com if you’ve got some!

Monday

Juggling three assigned stories, two for the financial website Investopedia and one for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing freelance for many years. Having a terrible time sourcing the Times piece though and have shaken every tree I can think of: my LinkedIn contacts, LinkedIn groups, Facebook friends and Twitter. I need to find couples living, or soon to live outside the U.S. and reach out to my many friends worldwide, from Austria to Germany to Bhutan to Britain.

Finally! I find a couple who fits the bill and schedule a Skype interview with them from Holland for next week.

An editor I’ve been working with for years, but have yet to meet face to face, offers me a rush job for a very nice fee. Luckily, I have a spare few days in which to take it on. Another story with elusive sources finally comes together as I find enough people and pitch the editor; we haggle over money and I now await the assignment.

It’s a constant balance of how much time to invest in putting together a pitch (i.e. an idea for a story, not the finished thing) and when to hit “send” to an assigning editor.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955

“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Tuesday

I teach two classes this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 3pm Tuesday is the deadline for my writing students. It’s interesting to see who sends their work in soonest and who waits til the very last minute. I’m really enjoying their writing, but it’s also strange to be so vulnerable to their subjective opinions of me and my teaching — their evaluations  will determine my fate.

Pitching more stories to Cosmopolitan, USA Today, More magazine. Reached out to editors I was last in touch with a few months ago to see if they have anything for me to work on.

Check in with a Toronto writer whose agent is supposed to pitch a collection of essays, mine among them. The book proposal still hasn’t gone out yet; it’s nice to be enough of a “name” that my inclusion might help sell it.

And yet…I share a name with a younger writer at The New Yorker. A Manhattan headhunter emails me to tell me about a job opportunity. Sweet! Several emails later, it’s clear the headhunter has no idea who I am and thinks (!) she has been emailing the other one. For fucks’ sake.

Our rings

Our rings

Wednesday

I hear about a terrific editing position — in Toronto. I live in New York. I apply for it and my husband says, of course; a great job is a rare thing in my industry these days. Most journalism jobs don’t pay enough to justify a commuter marriage, but you never know.

Awaiting the results of a fellowship I’ve applied for in Chicago. The topic I’ve proposed — to study gun violence there — interests me, as it was the subject of my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

I go for my usual Wednesday morning walk with a friend, who thinks there’s money in writing books. Sadly, there really isn’t for most writers.

Today is my third wedding anniversary, so Jose and I meet for drinks and dinner in Manhattan at The Lion, whose back room is gorgeous and welcoming. The room is buzzing, filled with 20-somethings.

In a table near the front sits actress Susan Sarandon — almost as pleasant a surprise as finding a free/unpaid parking spot directly in front of the restaurant, saving me $30 or so for a garage.

The New York subway is more....interesting...but driving is quicker

The New York subway is more….interesting…but driving is quicker

Thursday

It’s a good two hour drive from our home to Pratt’s campus. We live north of Manhattan, and I drive down the FDR, the highway on the East Side of Manhattan, intrigued by the city’s mix of poverty and wealth. Under one of the bridges, homeless people still sleep in their blankets and sleeping bags while helicopters arrive at the helipad, gleaming Escalades waiting to ferry the 1% crowd to wherever they’re headed. Police boats and barges and working vessels pass on my left on the East River.

I climb the four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Lunch in the college cafeteria, meeting with a student, then 2.5 hours’ downtime before I teach blogging there at 4:30 to 6:20. Tonight is a faculty reception at the president’s home, which is spectacular, the original mansion built for the founder of Pratt, a 19th century industrialist. I chat briefly with two other professors then head off into the night — and get lost. I swing around Prospect Park twice in frustrated, exhausted horror. I can’t read my map, (the print is too small), and just keep driving until — finally — I find my way to the highway I need.

Friday

Into Manhattan for a meeting of the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to a non-fiction writer in financial crisis. We were getting many requests in the past few years but, luckily, many fewer these days.

Long discussion, with no clear resolution, as to what now constitutes a “freelance writer” — when so many people write for so little payment or even none at all.

I hop a city bus downtown to the East Village and discover that my Metrocard has expired; the driver kindly lets me ride anyway.

It’s a gorgeous sunny fall day and I wander East 9th Street, only to discover that one of my favorite shops has closed.

Gone!

Gone!

I drop into another, a fantastic vintage store where I scored big last winter, and decide against a chocolate suede hat for $88. In a sidewalk cafe, I watch European tourists and models and just….sit still for a change, enjoying calm, carrot cake and mint tea.

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Finally meeting a source — an American woman living and working in Bahrain — for dinner. I interviewed her by email a few years ago, and we’ve been following one another on Twitter. We’re meeting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street, once a legendary hangout for writers but now a more-polished upscale version of itself. I’ve been coming here for decades and have seen it through three (so far) renovations.

The evening is a bit of a blind date for both of us but we’re laughing like mad within minutes of meeting one another as we discover a raft of unlikely common interests. Like me, she’s a quirky, feisty mix of ideas and entrepreneurship.

It’s rare to become friends with a story source, but it’s nice when it happens.

 

Meta post: my webinars, classes, blogging schedule — welcome new followers!

In behavior, blogging, books, journalism on August 25, 2014 at 11:41 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment this year in rural Nicaragua

Just a few housekeeping notes, for followers both longtime and new (thanks!)…

For the past five years, I’ve been posting faithfully three times a week, sometimes more.

Pooped! (Hint: please spend some time poking around the archives, where you’ll find plenty of material, often on books, writing, publishing and freelancing, often titled The Writer’s Week.)

For the nex few months I’ll likely be posting once every four or five days — not every two days — as I’m now teaching three college classes and will be spending a lot of my time preparing for them, teaching and grading students’ work.

So please don’t feel neglected and/or abandoned!

I also offer six webinars on various aspects of writing, blogging and freelancing, details here. They cost $125 for 90 minutes via Skype or phone and satisfied students have come from, literally, across the world — New Zealand to Germany.

I can schedule these any time that suits you, including days, evenings and weekends.

I also coach other writers individually, answering pretty much any question you’d like to throw at me about journalism, writing, publishing non-fiction commercially, memoir. Happy to read your pitches or work-in-progress, be a “first reader”…

I charge $150/hour (with a one-hour minimum), and will be raising that rate to $200/hour in January 2015.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

I’m teaching writing this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the New York School of Interior Design; I have also taught writing at Pace University, New York University, Concordia University and Marymount College. As the author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, for places like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, I know what it takes to succeed in this highly-competitive business.

What can I do to help you? Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Five reasons to freelance — and five reasons not to!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, photography, work on June 7, 2014 at 5:46 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I went freelance, for the third time, in 2006 after losing a staff job at the New York Daily News — but I also freelanced, by choice, full-time for four years right out of college, so it wasn’t a terrible shock to lose an office, colleagues and a paycheck.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, people who wrote for print and television and my father was a film director. No one had a steady paycheck or pension to look forward to and rely on. So it all felt normal to me.

You can attend a mid-week matinee!

You can attend a mid-week matinee!

Five reasons to go, or stay, freelance:

You’re very intrinsically motivated (i.e. you don’t need a whip over your head to get it done)

Autonomy ‘r us! Some people are just a whole lot happier not having a boss. And any organization, no matter how small, is going to impose policies and procedures, some of which are usually inane and some of which you might deeply disagree with.

All of which come with someone else’s paycheck.

You want more control of your work/life scheduling

Maybe you have children and/or pets and/or an ailing loved one who needs your attention as well. Maybe you prefer to work from 4pm to midnight or 2am to 8am…or whenever it suits you. Freelancing allows you tremendous freedom, within limits, to set your own hours and schedule.

I take a jazz dance class on Monday and/or Friday mornings, from 9:30 to 10:30 or 11:00 a.m — and no staff job I know of would allow for that. It’s fun and social and gives me tremendous pleasure and keeps me healthy. And I like knowing this is a bonus no job would offer.

I also take as much vacation, whenever possible; my husband, even after 30 years at the Times, must request his vacation time in early January and defer to those (!) with more seniority than he.

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

You can choose a wide variety of clients and projects

Staff jobs, de facto, have set roles and responsibilities they have hired you to perform. Freelancers can freely pick and choose our clients and types of work, from quick 300-word stories to 3,500 word features to 100,000 word books. We can fly to another country to do some reporting or spend a week at a conference meeting cool people who can help our careers.

If you’re getting bored or have a difficult client, switch it up!

Intellectual challenge is up to you

If your personal life is crazy and all you have energy for is lighter projects, that’s your call. That’s a huge benefit when our personal lives go haywire and we need to lighten our loads for a while. When you work for someone else, it’s all up to them. Plus, your professional opportunities for advancement and growth (and pay) are largely within their budget, schedule and control.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Your income is your choice

Key! If you want to double or triple your income — or even just boost it by 22.3% — that’s also within your control, not something at the pleasure of your boss or company CEO.

Freelancers see a very direct and satisfying correlation between our energy, stamina, skill and experience, and the zeros on our tax returns — with no office politics and no bullshit excuses why you still, somehow, don’t deserve — or just won’t get — a raise, commission or bonus.

Five reasons to stay on someone’s payroll

You’ve got huge overhead you can’t quickly and easily reduce

If you’ve got multiple children expecting you to pay for their educations, freelancing is going to be tough. If you’re crushed by student debt yourself already and/or credit card debt (especially with a high APR), freelancing — i.e. not having a reliable income each month — can be really stressful, certainly as you are just getting started and cannot command the highest fees.

And many clients pay late (45 to 60 days after invoice) while some try to screw us out of our fees.

I know some people earning $100,000 to 130,000 a year freelancing, but they are not, certainly as writers in journalism today, in the majority.

You need someone telling you what to do, and when to do it, and how to do it right

If you’re the sort of person who craves routine and a structure and people making sure you have done the work correctly, freelancing may feel too loosey-goosey. Every single day’s productivity is completely your own responsibility, so if you’re someone who likes to watch daytime TV or Candy Crush, good luck with that.

Your ability to make enough income to gas the car, feed your family and take your dog to the vet are often the primary or exclusive measure of your success. Your primary goal is to find, nurture and keep ongoing and profitable relationships — not please your superiors and colleagues.

A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!

A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!

You really need the company (and input) of other people

Working alone at home is lonely and isolating. If you treasure your office pals and going out for margaritas with them, freelancing all day by yourself may drive you nuts. Yes, you can rent a co-working space, but you’re still there to work and paying for additional space, and not necessarily surrounded by like-minded folk.

Hustling scares you (to death)

Freelancers eat only what we kill. No, not literally! But we start many weeks, or years, with no clear, definite idea what our income is actually going to be. Sure, we set income goals — but clients die, turn into insatiable monsters we have to fire, publications suddenly close or trim their budgets and mayhem just happens sometimes.

Yet those monthly bills keep coming! If the idea of constantly seeking out, and nurturing, new client relationships fills you with dread, keep the day job.

You crave the validation of “I work at…”

A phrase that drives me crazy is “Who’re you with?” I’m with myself, actually.

The constant status-check of ascribing your value and prestige to your Big Name Employer seems, to me, sadly antiquated now that 30 percent of Americans work for themselves, or as temps or contract workers only.

But if you really like saying “I work for BNE”, then get and keep a job there.

The downside? If or when you’re laid off from a staff job, your identity — and your income, of course — may take a serious and unexpected whack.

How about you?

Which lifestyle suits you best?

He worked himself to death

In behavior, business, Health, journalism, Medicine, men, news, travel, work on April 13, 2014 at 1:25 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The world of journalism is full of competitive, ambitious, driven people. I’m one of them.

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But a recent death — that of 39-year-old New York writer Matthew Power — raises questions for me that remain troubling and unanswered. He died in Uganda while on assignment of heatstroke.

On Facebook I read, and joined, a discussion with other journalists why his decisions seemed normal. Not to me.

From Bloomberg Businessweek:

And yet there was something else, too. Matt may have been a free spirit, but he paid a New York mortgage and worked hard to afford it. Reviewing Matt’s itinerary—red-eye, trans-Atlantic flight followed by a seven-hour drive to the trailhead the day of his arrival, then joining the expedition on his second day in country—I got a shiver of recognition. I’d have made the same mistake. Not just failing to give heat the respect I do altitude. Failing to give it more time. Departing from New York, where there is never a moment to lose, there’s no way I’d think to schedule an extra couple of days—much less the week Casa recommends to top athletes—to let my body adjust. No one has that kind of time….

It took Wood, Beka, Florio, and the rest several hours to get Matt’s body to the village of Arua. They lost most of Tuesday trying unsuccessfully to secure a helicopter to transfer his body to Kampala. By the time of his postmortem exam on Wednesday morning—36 hours since he’d passed away early on Monday afternoon—his body had begun to decompose badly, making it difficult to determine whether a preexisting condition or other factors had contributed to his collapse. To Florio, at least, his death poses no great mystery. Matt, he says, failed to acclimate to Uganda. The temperature as his flight departed New York was roughly 20F—had been, it seemed, for months.

“No one has that kind of time.”

This was not a breaking news story. He was not covering a war or conflict or election, nor competing head to head against dozens of other reporters on deadline.

If you’re working for so little money or on so tight a budget or feel so frenzied that you can’t afford even an extra day or two so take care of your body’s very real needs, what purpose does this faux frenzy actually serve?

To save your editor’s magazine $100 or $200?

I didn’t know Power or his work or the person who wrote this story about him. Power seems to have been universally loved and admired, so my comment is not meant to disrespect him or his skill. Let’s be clear about that.

But his judgment — and the encomiums of others mourning this set of decisions to race ahead at all costs — is not something I wish to emulate.

In the vastly diminished world of journalism, in which pay rates are lower than a decade ago and well-paid assignments rare for many, pushing back to defend your needs is now seen as suspect, grabby and weird; I was recently offered a contract that would only pay me 25 percent of the original $4,000 fee if it didn’t work out as we all hoped.

It didn’t, after two full revisions.

But, knowing this can happen on certain sorts of stories especially, when I asked for a better deal, I was called “difficult.”

I hate this.

Freelancers live in a state of perpetual professional and economic vulnerability. Caving immediately to editors’ “needs” — typically for more profit — is considered normal behavior.

Power died a few days before I left for Nicaragua to work in a five-person team, interviewing locals in 95-degree heat in 12-hour days, sometimes in the remote countryside. We often worked in full sun, drenched in sweat, frantically seeking whatever shade we could find; there was little to be had.

One morning, after walking and climbing in full sun for a few hours, I told our group leader I needed to soak myself at the well to cool down even though we were supposed to leave right then. I refused, politely but firmly, and told him I needed to lower my body temperature. We left 30 minutes later, and didn’t miss anything we had planned to do.

Of course I felt embarrassed being so demanding — no one else asked for this. But I’d almost gotten heatstroke when I was Power’s age, while hiking alone in the Grand Canyon. I’d written about it and knew how serious it is.

It killed Matthew Power, a young, healthy man who had done many tough overseas assignments before.

We are human beings — not machines. We are fragile. We get ill.

We can die from making the wrong choices.

Pretending otherwise, that we are somehow invulnerable — that an extra few hours of rest or an additional night in even the most basic hotel to acclimate — is an undeserved or greedy sort of luxury is madness.

His death appalls me.

But reinforcing the idea that ignoring your own needs is the wisest and most admirable choice is even worse.

 

Mourning two journalism greats: Anja Niedringhaus and Heather Robertson

In beauty, business, culture, journalism, news, photography, travel, war, women, work on April 7, 2014 at 3:01 am

By Caitlin Kelly

We recently lost — we being the global community of journalists — two women who made profound differences in the lives of their many grateful editors, colleagues and readers.

Too often, journalism appears to be a business dominated by men: publishers, editors-in-chief, front-page bylines.

Talented, brave women also shape much of what we see, hear and feel.

One, shot dead while sitting in a car in Afghanistan, was Anja Niedringhaus, 48, a news photographer from Germany; in the car with her, also shot (but recovering) is Associated Press veteran correspondent, and Canadian, Kathy Gannon.

Heather Robertson

Heather Robertson

The other, Heather Robertson, is a Canadian journalist who led a life-changing lawsuit against Canadian publishers who, in a land grab, decided to “re-purpose” thousands of articles and earn handsome profits from them — without bothering to share those profits with the writers who had actually created them and their economic value.

Two lawsuits took decades to move through the Canadian courts, but they gave many writers fantastic windfalls; I got two five-figure payouts thanks to her work, which allowed me to breathe more easily in lean times, which every freelancer faces at some point.

Here’s Heather’s obituary from The Globe and Mail,written by my friend, Toronto writer David Hayes:

“Heather was a Canadian nationalist and a feminist,” says her friend and fellow writer, Elaine Dewar. “Her voice was clear, honest and rigorous in a way that was uncommon at the time.”

She embodied her grandfather’s crusading convictions outside of her writing life, too. Aware that writers were underpaid and often treated churlishly by publishers, she co-founded both the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. Her biggest coup, though, came in the 1990s when she became the lead plaintiff in two lawsuits against the country’s largest media corporations, including The Globe and Mail, over the electronic rights of freelance journalists. (Ms. Dewar remembers that Ms. Robertson was smart enough to be afraid of the responsibility and brave enough to ignore her doubts.) The eventual settlement of more than $11-million remunerated many freelancers for lost income and established that publishers could not simply re-purpose a writer’s work on databases or the Internet without credit or payment.

Here’s a long, thoughtful appreciation of Anja — with many of her photos — from The New York Times’ Lens blog:

She was long accustomed to the field, and to the dangers getting to it, and back to it. She wrote an essay, ‘Emotions Speak Through Images,’ for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, in which she wrote of her compassion for civilians she met in Bosnia, Iraq, Gaza and elsewhere. She said she wanted to ‘understand the situation through their eyes’ during an American raid on a house in Baghdad in 2004. But she was also struck by the youth of the American Marines, ‘just out of school, young boys.’

In a passage, she described how after the 2003 invasion of Iraq she slipped across the border from Kuwait into Basra by hiding inside a Kuwaiti fire brigade truck, then joined up with her A.P. colleagues.

“I remember watching a fierce battle around the city’s university. Shells started to land nearby, and most journalists left the scene,” she wrote. “I had just put on my bulletproof vest when another shell landed so close to me that it injured three of my colleagues. I escaped with bruises and was able to drive them to safety in our Jeep, even though it was also hit, and two of its four tires were flat. One of my colleagues, a Lebanese cameraman, had shrapnel close to his heart and was immediately operated on by a British Army doctor in a makeshift tent. We were flown out to Kuwait for further treatment. Three days later I returned to Iraq in a rented Jeep from Kuwait.”

And, another, from AP colleague David Guttenflelder:

I honestly don’t think that the AP could have covered that war without her influence. Our entire staff was raised in her image. I’m sure that even now, when they go out the door with their cameras they ask themselves “What would Anja do?” I think maybe every AP photographer has asked themselves that at one point…

“She was one of the best people I’ve ever known. I was so lucky to have known and worked with her. I’m just one of countless people all over the world to have loved Anja. We are all totally devastated,” Guttenfelder said.

The writer’s week: vaccinations, revisions, vacation!

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on February 22, 2014 at 12:31 am

By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you new to Broadside — welcome! — this is an occasional look into my work week as a full-time freelance writer, which I’ve been doing since 2007.

Warts and all!

Sunday

Headed to church. We hadn’t been in ages, with mixed feelings. I attend maybe every four to six weeks, enough to feel connected but not claustrophobic. I’ve been attending this small Episcopal church since 1998, so have some friendships of long standing and some powerful emotional connections there.

Jose and I carried the Communion elements — wine and wafers — up the red-carpeted aisle to the altar, the chilled, polished gleaming silver of the ewer and bowl cool in our hands.

A friend has sent me her memoir, which arrived in a box from L.A. I’m eager to read it. One of the things I enjoy about writing is the community it creates, globally. I’ve had “first readers” help me out by reading the final manuscripts of my books and have done it, happily, for others. We all need fresh eyes and honest feedback.

Last week I also founded, (by accident, by mentioning the idea on-line to a listserv I belong to), a new writers’ group that promptly swelled to 34 people, from India to Austin, Texas, to talk about the craft of writing. So many of us work alone, with little to no guidance from our busy editors, and have no place to discuss the skills it takes to create excellent non-fiction work. I’m curious to see where we take it.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Monday

In the U.S., it’s a holiday — Presidents’ Day. Even after 25 years of living here, I always forget American holidays! Embarrassing. For me, it’s work as usual.  Working freelance often means feeling out of step with people whose days off are dictated by their bosses. I take time off when I can and often prefer to keep working on a holiday; Jose is working today, earning overtime pay. (Yay!)

I file a story to The New York Times, with two more cued up for March. As we accumulate our 1099s, (freelance income statements sent to the IRS) for tax time, I see how reliant I’ve become on them as a client — 50 percent of last year’s income. Unwise. I lost an amazing market there when my most appreciative editor got promoted. His replacement hates every pitch I’ve sent. But people there are always moving about, so every few months a new opportunity arises.

I read my friend’s memoir in two huge gulps, all 311 pages of it. I sent her long emails with my feedback, and wrote editing notes on some of the pages.

Tuesday

I saw two job ads last week that made think “Ooooooh.,” one in London and the other in New York City, both for major organizations. After seven years alone at home, endlessly chasing income, it would be pleasant to just have a paycheck, and a large one, for a while.

But I’m spoiled by the variety of skills I use in my work now. The minute you take a job in someone else’s office, it’s their agenda, ethics and principles. Aaaah, the price of independence. The one place that looks appealing is the revived Washington Post, recently bought by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, and on a hiring spree. Can we afford a commuter marriage?

I call my doctor to arrange vaccinations — for Nicaragua! I’ve never been there and am going in mid-March, as part of a team, to do some reporting and writing for a non-profit aid group. I also need to find and order a mosquito net, powerful bug repellent and loose, long trousers.

Plus rehydration salts and additional health insurance that will (!), if needed, re-patriate my “mortal remains.”

The opportunity came about as so many do for me, by taking a chance. I suggested having a panel of freelancers discuss how to pitch us most effectively to a group that works with public relations agencies worldwide; 75 PR people got on the call last summer. One of them was the woman who has hired me for this project.

This sort of sales cycle — six to eight months — isn’t  that unusual for me. It’s one reason I pitch almost every day, either to people I’ve worked with for years, or those I hope to. As long as enough work comes in every year, and I meet my income goals, or exceed them, it works out.

This life requires patience, persistence and faith.

Wednesday

I filed a profile last summer for Cosmopolitan and a new editor sends over her questions to answer. I re-interview the subject, who lives in Arizona, and gather a lot more detail, hoping it will be enough.

I go to the post office where I run into our accountant and, after chatting with him, get a great story idea. I buy a new phone — my first upgrade in about four years — and one of the store associates’ ex-girlfriend’s parents would be a perfect source for my new idea.

I pitch it to Quartz.com, (my third sale to them) and they’re in. Cool. Idea to sale — about 30 minutes.

I beg one of my editors for more time to work on a New York Times piece that came back with a lot of questions; when I get back from our week off, I have three revisions and a story to complete before I leave again 12 days later. Oh, and pitching…

I’m offered a last-minute assignment by a regional publication but the negotiations bog down. Just as well. The magazine pays 30 days after publication. Grotesque terms.

I spend an hour on the phone with my friend, in addition to making notes on her manuscript and sending two long emails with advice and suggestions for it. I think there’s a powerful story there, and writing memoir is damn hard.

FINGERS ON KEYBOARD

Thursday

I scan my passport for the Nicaragua client and review their revised contract for the work.

Hair appointment in the city — then a new headshot taken by my favorite (free!) portrait photographer, my husband Jose. (Check it out on my welcome and about pages here.)

Dinner out with a couple of married friends, one of whom works with Jose, the other a retired journalist now doing French translation work for the United Nations. The couple met in Tokyo and worked in France and Turkey. We take this sort of globe-trotting for granted among our journo friends, and it gives us a great network. As soon as Nicaragua became a real assignment, I emailed a friend in Colorado who has written several guidebooks to that country for his advice.

This is what we do.

This is what we do.

Friday

Submitted my headshot, bio and class description for next fall’s  blogging class — I’ve been hired to teach two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’m relieved to have income lined up, excited to be teaching at college again after a 15 year hiatus, nervous about facing freshman.

Vacation!

We’re spending five days on an island two hours’ drive from Tallahassee, the capital of Florida at a house my father has rented there. No plans but sleep, read, take photos, draw, relax.

Jose and I have never, in 14 years, taken a warm mid-winter break. But this interminable winter, which has pounded the Northeastern U.S. with endless snowstorms and bitter cold, is really tedious. It will be wonderful to not wear boots and a down jacket and hat and mitts for even a few days.

Can’t wait to read for pleasure! Two of the books I’m packing are the new biography of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian folksinger, and the second volume of African memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.”

Exhausted and overwhelmed

In behavior, blogging, books, business, domestic life, journalism, life, Media, women, work on September 13, 2012 at 12:32 am
Hong-kong, from Kow-loon.

Hong-kong, from Kow-loon. I hope to make it there! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

E and O, kids!

The past few months — probably like many of yours as well —  have been an emotional and financial roller-coaster:

– a new-to-me client decided my story was unacceptable. I lost $1,300 of the income agreed to and expected.

– another new-to-me client assigned an on-line slide-show that sounded easy-peasy, even though I’ve never done one. Hardly. Learning how to work quickly and efficiently for web clients is a learning curve.

– I’m on my third New York-based assistant since May and she’s getting busier with competing projects. Bright, ambitious people, (bless them!), move up quickly. My Toronto-based assistant is good, but really busy and costs $3/hour more.

– I decided to up my speed while walking to burn more calories, (the endless weight loss drama), and woke up crying in pain at 4:00 a.m. I’m fine, but it meant a week of zero exercise while my new hip calmed down again.

– My gynecologist put me on the scale and I hadn’t lost an ounce since my GP told me to shed lots o’ pounds few months ago. I’m torn between frustration/anger and fuckitIdon’tcarenanymore resignation. I loathe dieting and am so scared to injure myself by pushing my new hip too hard, with another five months before it’s 100% healed.

– I’m applying for a competitive annual journalism fellowship again, fearful I won’t even make the finals. But you can’t win what you don’t try.

– I decided against applying for a local award that required a $100 entry fee. Sure, I’d like that line on my resume, and I had a great story worth entering. But $100?

– I’m really getting fed up with the old-school thinking in my industry. Several of these awards and fellowships refuse to accept book chapters in lieu of printed clips from magazines or newspapers clips. Few freelance journalists can afford to write much for print anymore. We’ve had to migrate to writing for the web to make steady, ready cash.

– My toughest challenge? Guessing when, how often and how hard to push, whether for payment, a sale, higher rates. For every editor who says, gratefully “I’m so glad you reached out. I’ve been too busy but I’ll get back to you next week” another snarls “We’re closing three editions at once.” With 90% of our interactions by email, not phone, establishing any sort of a more personal, collegial relationship sometimes feels impossible.

Push too hard, lose a client. Play doormat, go broke.

– Late payments make me insane. I have a five-figure line of credit, at a usurious APR, which I try to avoid using. So I try to schedule my workflow and payments to insure that every single month, enough checks arrive, (they’re almost always on an out-of-state bank) in time for me to pay my bills promptly. One check arrived recently almost seven weeks after invoice. None of my creditors will wait, but I’m expected to.

– Balancing my short-term, medium-term and long-term goals often feels unmanageable. On any given day, I’m juggling all three: make money, line up more work, apply for awards and fellowships with hard deadlines, manage two assistants, squeeze in a personal, social and athletic life, keep a home that’s clean, tidy and attractive, keep my marriage happy, nurture professional and personal relationships. Oh, yeah and lose a ton of weight.

– Promoting my book to keep it visible and selling. Between October 24 and January 24, I’ve got five speaking engagements, one in a distant state. Every day I spend a few hours trying to think of other venues for this, preferably ones that pay. I was so o and e I managed to fill out and return the wrong contract to one group. Boy, that looked professional!

– Still, a year later, trying to finish the proposal for (what I hope will become) my third book.

– Trying to figure out when and how to re-balance our investments so we might actually, one day, be able to get off this hamster wheel and afford to retire.

– Reading newspapers, magazines and on-line to know what’s happening in the world and what markets I want to sell to as a writer have already published.

– Another freelance friend, 10 years younger, tells me she’s putting away $20,000 to $30,000 a year for retirement. How is this possible? Our expenses are cut to the bone as it is and we have no kids, while she has two.

– Trying to re-sell “Malled” to a Hollywood agent to snag a film and/or television deal. My agent is handling that, but I need to keep on top of her activities.

– Coming up with ideas for stories (see: cashflow.)

– Refining and developing every idea into something salable, with emails and phone calls to make sure that sources are on-board, available and interested (all unpaid time), before I make the pitch.

– Planning (hah!) a long foreign vacation for 2013. Hoping to hike the Grand Canyon with my Dad in May, then Europe with my husband in June. The money for this will come from….? Freelancers get no paid vacations, so every non-working hour has to be earned/saved in advance.

So, I’m fleeing!

I’m heading back up to Canada next week for 10 days alone in the desperate hope of some true relaxation. I’ll house-sit for my Dad (off sailing [sigh] with my two younger brothers in Turkey.) I’ll go biking. I’ll head into Toronto to see dear old friends and enjoy a few good meals.

How’s your life these days?

Are you equally E and O?

Can you offer any coping tips?

Wanna Hear What I Really Think? Got $6,000?

In business, Crime, Media on May 13, 2010 at 3:06 pm
Money

Image by AMagill via Flickr

So much for “free” speech.

Just got off the phone with an agent who sells “E and O” — errors and omissions insurance — as I start to figure out how to protect my ass(ets) as a writer. He’s sending me several applications, one of which, the multimedia version, is really long. Of course it is!

The joy of “independent writing”? Anyone can sue us anytime. The latest darling of the suit-happy are SLAPP suits — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Which means, unless you work on staff for a Big Media Company (with in-house staff attorneys whose highly-paid job it is to protect you and, more importantly, your employer) you’re toast, baby.

More and more, writers are strong-armed into signing contracts that leave us holding the bag in case someone we cover sues the media outlet for whom we’ve done the — freelance — work.

There’s no better way to make sure we write about puppies and kittens and rainbows than knowing one false move can mean our IRAs are going to get garnisheed in a settlement. The saber-rattling by those with very deep pockets – hmmmm, the wealthy and powerful? — means many of us slap duct tape over our mouths every morning, no matter what madness and malfeasance we discover.

“Independence” is a relative term.

One lawyer I spoke to, knowing the writing life, (beyond lucrative TV and film), delicately inquired, “Do you have any assets?” The answer, having worked long and hard and been really disciplined about driving clapped-out old cars and wearing (mostly) consignment shop shoes is “Yes.” I save 15 percent of my income every year, even when that income is so small I think: “Why bother?”

And, this being the U.S, a nuisance lawsuit is both nauseating and much more probable than I’d like.

Suiting up, then, is quite the challenge, requiring the (paid) services and advice and expertise of my accountant (becoming a company); an attorney (making sure it’s all done properly) and an insurance agent. Unlike car or home insurance, I can’t cough up that dough each month — it’s one lump sum, on my income, a fortune. There is cheaper insurance but — funny thing!– it’s capped at a much lower amount.

Why should you care?

Every day, there are posts I don’t write — or write and don’t publish — because, who needs it? Like many of my colleagues, I’ve got other things to worry about without some $$$$$-mad aggrieved plaintiff ruining my life. That costs you, dear readers, because there’s all sorts of (interesting) stuff it simply isn’t worth mentioning, for fear of such a suit. I know, personally, other independent writers backing away slowly, if regretfully, from smart, incisive, tough, investigative work for this very reason.

Believe it or not, not every writer wants to focus on all-fluff-all the time. But without a safety net, you can’t safely leap too far.

I’m thinking of setting up a Paypal account — you really want my unvarnished opinions? Help me speak truth to power, and not lose my home/assets/savings in the process.

Writers Finally Win Million-Dollar Settlements In Canada And U.S. For Copyright Infringement

In business, Media on March 3, 2010 at 11:16 am
SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 14:  A man holds money tha...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Writers are finally getting redress.

From The New York Times:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday resurrected a possible settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought by freelance writers who said that newspapers and magazines had committed copyright infringement by making their contributions available on electronic databases.

The proposed settlement was prompted by a 2001 decision from the Supreme Court in favor of six freelance authors claiming copyright infringement in The New York Times Company v. Tasini. After the Tasini decision, many freelance works were removed from online databases. Most publishers now require freelance writers to sign contracts granting both print and online rights.

After the decision, the authors, publishers and database companies who were parties to several class-action lawsuits negotiated a global settlement that would pay the plaintiffs up to $18 million.

The publishers in the suit included Reed Elsevier, The New York Times Company, the Thomson Reuters Corporation, Dow Jones & Company, now owned by the News Corporation, and Knight Ridder, which the McClatchy Company bought in 2006.

The suits involved two groups of authors — those who had registered copyrights in their works and those who had not. The second group was by far the more numerous. But the federal copyright law allows suits claiming copyright infringement only after works are registered.

I’ll be filing my more than 100 claims in Canada this month for my work that was used there, unpaid, in similar fashion. The judgement, made in May 2009, gave us a total of $11 million; $5.5 remains after legal fees and the deadline for filing is March 30. Each writer there can win as much as $55,000, the monies awarded on a point system by an administrator.

It will, if it actually happens, be pleasant indeed to receive full payment for my works’ re-use after decades of such easy abuse at the hands of the few corporations who now control information distribution.

This is huge.

Writers live, literally, by their wits. The consistent use of them, selling our ideas and the skills with which to execute them, earns the cash that fills our fridges and gas tanks. It’s what buys our kids’ clothes and shoes and diapers and piano lessons. For the most successful, it puts those kids those through private school and college. It pays for — we pray — a retirement and decently-funded savings, short and long-term.

We have been ripped off for decades. The fees we are paid for our freelance work have remained stagnant for 30 years for many, many outlets or have recently been reduced. Many of us have left the industry, and/or write corporate stuff, teach, write books, do whatever combines to make enough income to make writing for a living worth doing.

Freelance writers work also alone, no matter how many groups or organizations we join. Every single time we call or email an editor  with an idea (or they contact us), we’re entering into a financial and intellectual property negotiation fraught with issues: pay, expenses, length, editing demands, kill fee (they “kill” it and pay us pennies for our time). Not fun.

And every editor knows it’s a mano-a-mano game, one the writer almost always loses. The editor has a job and a paycheck. The writer, until s/he has an assignment, does not.

It takes guts to step forward and take a stand, to fight long and hard for the rights of others.

Thanks, in the U.S., to Jim Morrison, past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and in Canada to Heather Robertson. Both were seasoned veterans when they decided to step up.

Every writer owes them.

Gerald Posner's Plagiarism Apology — And Why It Doesn't Work

In Media on February 11, 2010 at 9:20 am

Gerald Posner, a writer I haven’t read and don’t know personally, has resigned from his spot at The Daily Beast for plagiarism. Part of his explanation:

Readers of my writing over 26 years, 11 books and over a hundred articles, have the right to trust that I have personally vetted and corroborated the facts I present, and that I can vouch for them. Plagiarism is insidious because it rightfully violates that trust. Just the mere use of the word raises the idea that the accused journalist has broken one of the cardinal rules of writing and is somehow cutting corners on research, facts, or original reporting.

Since June 1, when I accepted the full time staff position, I have published 72 articles (8 were published freelance before accepting the full-time reporter’s job). That averages about 2 articles a week. They all required intensive reporting, and the subjects ranged from the Michael Jackson death probe, CIA morale, Teddy Kennedy’s fortune, whether there was a John Doe 2 in the Murrah bombing, exclusive interviews with Afghanistan’s Karzai brothers, Roman Polanski, probes into domestic and international terror, and the Tiger Woods story, among many others. At least a dozen stories that I spent time researching did not pan out, and never got published.

I realize how it is that I have inadvertently, but repeatedly, violated my own high standards. The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.”

I’m not buying it. As a writer of his vintage, who has written hundreds of articles, likely more than a thousand by now, and only 1.5 books (the second is in progress), I know he knows the rules of the game.

What he’s not telling us, nor does he need to although it might better explain his need for speed, is the payment method that dragged him into this mess. Why was he working so quickly and cranking out so much copy? Because his editor(s) asked him to? Because only then would he make more/enough income from his Beast material? Because that’s what his competitors do?

Every ambitious writer who works in the game of intellectual piecework known as freelance journalism faces growing economic pressure.

Very few  — either because they’re making $8,000 or $15,000 or $25,000 per story can thereby earn $100,000+, which — after 11 books and 26 years’ experience — would barely match what a staffer of that level is making at a decent magazine or newspaper job. Pay rates in journalism are risible. Many major magazines have reduced their freelance pay rates in the past two years and also reduced the number of stories they are assigning. In addition, very few want a story of 3,500 words at $2/word (i.e. a $7,000 check) or $3/word (generally considered a high rate).  When you are paid (as we are) by the word, your income is going down, not up.

Pay rates haven’t budged in 30 years — a payment of $700 or $1,000 or $1,500 is not unusual for those writing even for prestigious outlets like The New York Times, for whom I’ve written since 1990. Do the math. Unless you have a steady gig, or make $3/word+ every time you turn on your computer, it takes an insane amount of production to scrape together a middle-class income, or more.

The pressure to keep up, both intellectually and financially, is enormous.

But…blaming this issue on the acceleration from the slow lane of writing a book to the express lane of blogging doesn’t work for me as a reason. I’m doing it, and others are as well. Every day I’m swerving between those lanes — blogging here and writing a non-fiction book on deadline. Last night I wrote a blog post and spent two hours on my book.

They are totally different creatures. They do require quite disparate ways of thinking, writing and connecting with your audience.

Frankly, and maybe it shows — there are only so many hours in a day — my book will take precedence until the final manuscript is accepted. It is tougher and tougher to get a major publisher to commit to a book, so it’s not something you can or should, take lightly.

I’ll blog here as often as I can intelligently. The pressure, now, for writers to grow their digital “brand” is also enormous and not one we can afford to ignore. But the revenues aren’t there. Books generally don’t pay well either, (maybe for writers of Posner’s stature), but using the excuse of shifting from one slower writing style to another faster one, arguably for some voracious, insatiable audience dodges other issues.

Maybe Posner, like many of us, simply placed inordinate pressure on himself to produce a lot of copy. Two stories a week, of the sort he describes, is a lot of work when thoughtfully reported and well-written. Why two? Why not one? Blaming the “warp speed of the net” clouds the issue.

It’s the warp speed of trying to keep up, to keep up your standards while keeping up.

Like every writer doing the wearying, challenging dance between the old, slower world of print and the newer, faster world of blogging, we have to make choices.

Let your standards slip? Write fewer stories? Fall out of the elite slipstream?

Which is worse?

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