Crash, burn, recover

By Caitlin Kelly

When was the last time you failed?

The sort of shit-storm tempting you back into bed for a week, whimpering?

Crash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some recent challenges include:

— An editor killed my story — which cost me $2,200 in budgeted-for and relied-upon income.

One of the dirty secrets of journalism is that, no matter your skills level, some of your stories get “killed” — i.e. they are commissioned, a contract signed, a fee and deadline agreed upon and the editor can simply flap his or her hand and decide “it doesn’t work.” You don’t get to stiff the airline of its fee if the plane is dirty, crowded or late. You don’t get to pay your plumber, dentist or barber a fraction of their fee because…you feel like it. It’s almost always a surprise and it’s expensive and very few of us can just re-fill a four or five-figure income hole in a flash.

— My book proposal didn’t sell

My agent was upbeat and excited. They always are, at the start. But after the rejections piled up, it became clear to both of us this was a no-go. Editors who loved it, and there were a few, couldn’t sell it to the rest of their staff. I spent a year gathering the information and sources for it, and months writing and polishing it. Tant pis, mes chers, tant pis.

— Another editor decided to turn a 2,000-word story with five sources into…captions

That’s a really crappy first in my career. They’re going to pay the original fee, but there’s another piece to that story — having to explain to my patient and helpful sources I interviewed back in August that all the time they spent being interviewed by me is basically wasted. I was so gobsmacked I didn’t argue the point with the editor. Preserving that relationship has meant sucking up a lot of frustration.

— We got whacked with a surprise income tax bill, a big one

We married in September 2011 and my new husband changed the witholding of his income. To…not enough. Holy shit. Add that pile of debt to the kitchen over-run.

— Journalism’s fees remain stubbornly low, stagnant or falling

Everywhere in journalism today, writing has really become just one more commodity, like gas or orange juice. Cheapest wins. I have to fight harder with every single editor on every assignment for a decent contract and higher fees. I hate feeling embattled. It doesn’t build great client relationships, but feeling taken advantage of doesn’t work either. My costs are rising almost every month, but my income will only rise as much as I position myself and argue effectively for my value.

On the plus side of the ledger:

— My individual coaching and webinars have found favor

This is a new venture and one I’m enjoying. When I lost that $2,200 overnight, I vowed to make it up through my own efforts. The hell with snotty editors. I’ve almost done so, thanks to the enthusiasm of students in Chicago, Connecticut, Brooklyn, upstate New York, New Zealand, Australia, Virginia and San Francisco. Thank you! I’ve missed teaching and the pleasure of helping others. One student told me she was having “aha!” moments. I hope you’ll sign up, too!

– I made a contact with a Very Big Magazine’s top editor, one I’ve wanted to write for for a decade

Some magazines feel like Everest, even to someone with a lot of great experience. They’re career-changers. They pay a lot of money. At a recent lunch with someone I met at a party, I discovered she’s related to a top editor there and I was bold enough to ask for an introduction and she made it.

— Reaching out to new clients in PR has shown me there’s some significant enthusiasm out there for my skills

Of the first three local agencies I contacted, two showed immediate interest.

— I’m trying out new ideas and new markets

Next week, I’m meeting with a younger writer who’s broken into corporate writing and making boatloads of cash from it. It’s an interesting lesson in networking with people much younger, as we’re all working in slightly different says, some more lucrative and less visible, some more prestigious but poorly-paid.

— My agent likes my new book idea

Book ideas are difficult. You have to be able to create a narrative arc with 80,000+ words and be able to persuade a publisher to pony up an advance you can actually live on. But from the embers of the still-cooling rejected proposal came this more focused, more positive iteration of one of the ideas in it. Now I have to go…sigh…write another proposal.

People love to think that writing is a cool, fun easy way to make money. You stay home in your PJs, crank out some copy, then head off to Bali for a few months.

I wish!

The reality is a constant hustle and scramble: for new clients, new markets, negotiating better pay and treatment, finding and wrangling sources for your stories…

Crashing is nasty, (and inevitable.)

But there’s no time to sit and snuffle.

Bills, baby, bills!

21 thoughts on “Crash, burn, recover

  1. There seems to be a literary theme running… in Thursday’s Washington Post, an article ran on the NY Review of Books turning 50, saying,”…This sort of depth, and the quality of the people writing for it, has made a Review byline a resume’ definer. If one wishes to be thought of as a certain type of writer- of heft, of style and a certain gravitas- a Review byline is pretty much the gold standard.”

    Writing is hard work, and sorely under-valued. It’s a wonder we have anyone left with the fortitude to become a writer.

    Good for you that you added recover to your title today. We live to die another day.

  2. Fail, fail, fail, and never, never, never give up. That’s my twist on Winston Churchill’s quote. My sister’s a comedian, actress, and writer in LA LA Land so she goes through this on a daily basis. It’s the crap we deal with in order to keep our sanity by writing and loving what we do. But, you should know that you are one of my heroes.

    1. Good heavens. Thanks! 🙂

      I actually think there are times it’s wiser to give up and walk away and look for a better use of your time, energy and skills. Noble poverty gets really tedious after a while.

      This has been the first month in a long time I have not written anything more than the blog. It’s been a refreshing break.

  3. What a fascinating insight into life as a full time writer and journalist. I had no idea. You should be living on your nerves with all that kind of stress. Makes be very glad of my steady but not-so-flash income from my day job.
    Excellent post.

    1. Nerves? Moi? 🙂

      Nah. I’ve been doing this work since I was 19, so I am used to it. I hate the ups and downs financially. It’s stressful as hell — but I always have $ in the bank (retirement funds, tappable if totally necessary), a line of credit, food in the fridge and usually 2-3 months’ income earned and due. So it’s not that terrifying. You learn to manage your time and resources VERY efficiently and that’s a useful skill for everyone.

  4. Oooh, I wish writing WAS cool, easy & fun, followed by a holiday in Bali! A couple of weeks back I approached a publisher I’d never dealt with before with an introductory note suggesting a possible title. I got a one-line reply in (wait for it) 11 minutes. Don’t bother. Kind of quick, for a rejection – if they’re indifferent, usually they sit on them a few days before getting a flunky to send a form reply. I responded; perhaps I could offer something else. I didn’t define what. Instant response – no need, my material was better suited elsewhere. Except that I hadn’t actually proposed anything. I was left with the impression that the guy I was dealing with (the head honcho, in fact) knew very well who I was and that I’d tripped over a prior decision – one in which, apparently, I was not only not to be dealt with, but I wasn’t even going to know WHY they’d made the decision. Nice to think there are people out there, total strangers, who can apparently accuse, judge, condemn and then execute me – all without my even being aware of their existence. Sigh. I have a slinking suspicion I know what happened, though (let’s just say that academia, in New Zealand, is viciously hostile to intruders).

    Plus side? I found an alternative – old martial arts trick, if one tactic doesn’t work, try another. Works in writing…

  5. Well, after having a landlord render me homeless earlier this year, I’ve more or less decided that Bali is in my future. I am not looking at it quite the same way, though; I am thinking of a house outside of town close enough to the water to walk but still within reach of the internet, and I am thinking it will cost me $500 a month or less, which is a third of what anything comparable would go for in North America. So it’s not impractical; you just have to realize not all of Bali is resorts.

    1. I like this idea. There are many beautiful and affordable places to live if we’re willing to make the leap. I’m really sorry about your landlord (!) but this might be a fantastic adventure for you.

      I had a brief (lost) chance at a cheap Berlin apt. for 6 weeks…hoping to snag it again.

  6. I’m having similar issues from time to time. Commitments from others don’t always work out, but I’ve had similar bright sides in both my personal and professional life.

    Good luck. I’m glad you’re enjoying the mentoring thing. The industry needs more mentoring, that’s for sure.

    1. I’m glad. It’s tough to maintain one’s equilibrium sometimes, or the optimism that things will turn around. But I always keep a bunch of irons in the fire and that insures a few will heat up sufficiently…

      I really enjoy mentoring. Freelancing gets very isolating, so connecting and sharing about work is a good break from that…and I’ve seen that journalism schools really fail to teach some essential skills.

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