broadsideblog

How badly do you want to be a writer?

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on April 22, 2016 at 1:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.

 

For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.

Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.

Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.

Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.

There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.

There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.

There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.

Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:

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It takes talent

 

Yes, it does.

Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.

Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.

 

It takes training

 

You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.

They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.

They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.

The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your  craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.

 

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STUDY THE GREATS!

It takes practice

 

I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.

They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.

We all crave success and admiration.

It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.

It takes social skills aka charm

Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.

Charm is an under-rated skill.

Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.

Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.

Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.

 

It takes skills

 

If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.

You are not An Artist here.

You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.

You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.

We’re hired help.

Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.

Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.

For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.

You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.

If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.

 

I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.

 

 

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This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…

It takes studying the greats

“You can’t write without reading.”

If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.

Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.

 

It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source

 

It doesn’t matter what the work is.

T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.

Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.

J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.

If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.

Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.

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Isn’t this cover gorgeous? The author is a 747 pilot for British Airways. Fantastic book!

It takes patience

No one writes a perfect first draft.

No one.

 

It means being edited

If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.

Just don’t even bother.

Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.

A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.

A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.

How badly do you want to improve?

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

It means being read

Obvious, right?

That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.

You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.

A thick skin is key.

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My second book, published in 2011. Some of the Amazon reviews were truly vicious. I stopped reading them years ago…

It means being — publicly –critiqued

Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:

Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.

BOOM!

The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.

(Several other reviews were much kinder.)

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It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.

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It means being lucky — or not

 

This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.

It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.

Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.

It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.

(See a pattern here?)

It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.

Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.

The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.

Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.

How badly do you really want it?

 

Some insider views of my New York…

In beauty, cities, culture, design, life, photography, travel, U.S., urban design, urban life, US on April 16, 2016 at 3:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

You can always see the famous icons of New York City, on postcards and T-shirts and in movies and television.

It can make you feel like you know the city even if you’ve never been here.

But, like every major city, it’s a place of many facets, most of which tourists will never see.

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One of the coolest aspects of New York — and one so easy for pedestrians, drivers and tourists to forget — is that it’s a busy, working harbor.

The East and Hudson Rivers are as crowded with marine traffic as there is vehicular madness on the FDR (highway on the East Side), the BQE (heading out to Brooklyn and Queens) and the West Side Highway.

 

Every day dozens of tug boats are pushing barges somewhere — or guiding enormous cruise ships through a harbor filled with treacherously narrow and shallow channels.

 

I spent one of the happiest days of my work life here aboard a tug boat and came away in awe of these workhorses, each worth a ton of money and able to keep the city moving in ways no other craft can.

What many people don’t know is how crucial tugboats were to us all on 9/11, a day of utter terror and chaos. Here’s a story about their amazing, unsung role.

One of my favorite sights is seeing a tugboat at night, its lights stacked high like a mini wedding cake as it chugs along the river.

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Broadway is still a real treat.

Despite crazy-high prices and the impossibility of getting tickets for some shows like Hamilton, seeing a performance in one of these classic, small, intimate theaters is well worth doing and can create a lifetime memory.

My favorite? Attending, of all things, Mamma Mia, with my husband’s Buddhist lama (yes, really)…Namaste on Broadway!

 

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And Lincoln Center; this is the David Koch Theater. What a pleasure to wait for the house lights and the jewel-shaped lamps fronting each balcony to dim, the hush as the curtain rises on another ballet.

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The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior

The entire building is delicate and lovely and ethereal — very early 1960s with all that white marble and gold — and makes an event there feel, as it is, like a special occasion.

 

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Now this is how to sell clothes!

 

This is a classic! One of my favorite shopping streets, East Ninth.

 

There are, still, a very few streets left in Manhattan, (more in Brooklyn now), that are funky and filled with quirky independent shops.

Rents skyrocket daily, forcing many long-time renters and businesses to shut and leave, sometimes to close for good.

The latest?

A gas station at Houston and Broadway, one of a very small handful of gas stations in Manhattan, is soon to be torn down and replaced with….what else?…more million-dollar condominiums.

Hey, who needs gas anyway? Just thousands of working cabbies, to start with.

One of my favorite cafes, Cafe Angelique, (now on Bleecker’s eastern end) had to vacate its spot in the West Village when the landlord jacked the rent to…$45,000 a month.

Find — and support — the indies while you can!

 

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The NYC food bank — which I saw while working on a story about it

 

Never forget — this is a city of incredible, rising income inequality.

 

The photo above, of a space that dwarfs airplane hangars, is filled with food, all of it destined for the city’s poorest inhabitants, many of them elderly.

You can enjoy the High Line and Times Square, dear tourists, but it’s only one tiny sliver of New York City.

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

The film-maker of The Wolfpack literally found her documentary subject on the sidewalk — passing this group of handsome young men — and wondering who on earth they were.

Their story is almost unimaginable, raised inside their Manhattan apartment by a fiercely controlling father.

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Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue

 

If you like shopping, you might enjoy a visit to Saks Fifth Avenue. I like eating lunch there, and enjoying this view.

 

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One of the most fun things you can possibly do — dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

 

Or, getting up to dance with 800 strangers at 7 in the morning.

 

Yes, I’ve done it, several times.

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If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see all sorts of elegance and beauty in the least likely places. This is a lamp on a private college campus in Brooklyn.

 

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Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

 

And this tea and coffee shop, here since 1907, makes me happy. I stagger out every time laden with pounds of beans and tea.

 

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The pattern of a metal plate on a Soho street…This is a city that still truly rewards a close look and sustained attention.

 

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The back of a store on Spring Street in Soho. Speaking of quirky…

 

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My birthday month…a facade in midtown Manhattan. Note the twins of Gemini.

 

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A firehouse. How gorgeous is this?!

 

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Nope, not Rome or Florence or Paris…Soho, Manhattan. The cast-iron facades downtown are a terrific reminder of the city’s past, not just the gleaming multi-million dollar condo towers.

 

And for those who still dream of becoming journalists…Columbia Journalism School.

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Columbia Journalism School — there’s a lot they still don’t teach you in the classroom!

 

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I studied here in the 1990s — now I teach writing there!

 

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How can you resist? The city is filled with delicious bakeries and temptations…

If you come, make time to walk sloooooowly and savor all these sights.

 

A hundred million miracles…

In beauty, life, nature on April 13, 2016 at 12:26 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

A hundred million miracles

A hundred million miracles are happening every day

And those who say they don’t agree

Are those who do not hear or see…

— Flower Drum Song, musical, 1958

 

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Take a walk now, anywhere there’s spring.

The light.

The wind.

The warming sun.

I love the in-between-ness of spring, how tentative and hopeful it is, all those delicate green shoots bursting forth from the pale detritus of last fall’s dead leaves and twigs and scattered acorns.

And I know this path so well, after decades of walking it in every season, so I know when the light is low and slanting, and highlights every bit of moss and lichen and leaf.

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I wait each year for a nearby lilac tree to blossom into purple fragrance. My favorite smell!

And what a basic, taken-for-granted miracle to hear the wind, to feel the sun, to walk easily and without pain. Mobility itself is a great gift.

I think of the many people who lie in a hospital or hospice bed, or waiting in a crowded and noisy and dirty refugee camp, or beneath the bombs of war…and walk in grateful silence.

It is such a simple thing, for some of us, to have a clean place to walk freely and safely, as a woman alone.

Here are a few of the lovely things I spotted on a recent walk near the reservoir in our town, 25 miles north of Manhattan:

 

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And a very persistent little leaf who came along for the ride…

 

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