The writer’s week: PLM, stretch lace and late payments

By Caitlin Kelly

Occasionally, I review a week in the life of a full-time writer, me.



That’s a whole week ago, so I can barely remember. Finished up a fact-checking job for another writer, someone I’ve never met who lives in Florida, whose book is a series of brief biographies. A story I’d written for the Wall Street Journal — whose income, as always, I rely on — was abruptly killed, an overnight loss of $600. Shit.

In an online members-only writers’ forum, I saw the plea for fact-checking help and, for $25/hour, jumped in. I made up $500 of that lost $600 with a week’s phoning, emailing and on-line research, even though I’d never fact-checked before. Much of my work now means jumping, without hesitation or fear, into media and projects I have zero experience with.

But now I have to let all the people I interviewed for the WSJ piece know they’re not going to get the mention they had hoped for. One of the problems of writing for a living that’s rarely discussed publicly is managing your sources, without whom you have nothing to write about. I hate wasting people’s time and now have to share this disappointing news with them. I fear it make me look incompetent, when a killed story happens maybe 1% of the time.


Off to cover a trade show in Manhattan, at the (ugh) Javits Center, the massive conference center at the western edge of the city. I hate Javits! This is the third year in a row I’ve attended the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, an annual event that brings every possible vendor of anything interesting to a retailer — scanners, training programs, scheduling software, PLM (product life management) software. It’s basically an annual arms race, in which one or several Big Box retailers adopts a specific system, the vendor touts their win, and competitors think “Hmmmm, maybe we need this as well.”

The center is so huge that even walking to the bathroom or coat check is a hike; one vendor wearing a pedometer tells me she walked 10 miles there in one day.

malled cover LOW

I run around the place interviewing the eight people I’ve been asked to meet. Some use acronyms I’ve never heard — PLM, RFID — and I’m dancing as fast as I can. RFID turns out to be, (to me anyway), fascinating, radio frequency identification, which embeds every paper clothing tag with a device that can be read from a distance without opening a box to check inventory. (OK, I guess I’m a systems geek.)

Having worked retail for 2.5 years as an associate for The North Face — the subject of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” — and having to slash open huge boxes of clothing with a box cutter, (talk about inefficient and dangerous), I’m really intrigued by this efficient new system. But it’s expensive — 7 to 8 cents per tag — and I realize how much cost our clothing prices include that we never see or know about.

I leave Javits at 4:00 pm, into pouring rain. Of course, there are no cabs at the taxi rank and a long line of miserable people waiting. My feet are killing, me but I hoof it another four long, wet blocks to the bus stop to catch the crosstown bus to Grand Central to catch the train home.



So excited! Today I’m attending another trade show in the city, for the same editor, someone in a distant state I’ve also never met, (typical of my worklife). This show is a lot smaller, and a lot more fun, a combination of textile manufacturers and designers whose own paintings and digital prints designers buy, then use in their own collections. Glam-looking professionals, all in chic bits of black, cluster on the sidewalk clutching their coffees, waiting for the doors to open at 9:00 a.m.

Two dozen of us watch an hour-long video of spring/summer 2015 trends: pale colors, lots of mesh, netting, lace and transparent fabrics. Neon is out, kids! I run around the show until 5:00 interviewing the people on my list. Many are French, so I speak the most French I have in ages, which I love. I see spectacularly beautiful silk, lace, wool, mesh and satins and recognize the names of some Very Big fashion labels on the buyers selecting their choices. One designer of amazing patterns, which you can buy, own and use exclusively for $625, tells me that one of my favorite women’s activewear companies uses many of his designs.

I’ll never look at a piece of clothing quite the same way again. This is why journalism is so addictive. In one day, I’ve enjoyed: meeting a pile of highly creative people; gotten to use my language skills; learned a great deal about this industry and made some useful new contacts for future stories and projects. What’s not to like?


Time to bang out two 1,000-word stories, due this evening to my editor in California. No pressure!

I also call and email editors whose payments to me — as is now typical — have not arrived, even weeks later. While 30 days is normal, the pace of my production is much faster now, and waiting for a month for something I have to bang out within a day or two seems ridiculous. At this point, I have pennies in my bank account, bills are due and I have to start using my line of credit. (I have significant retirement savings and another emergency fund with six months’ expenses, but a short-term cash flow issue is not, in my mind, an emergency. I keep those funds in case, God forbid, I simply can’t work at all for a period of time, to be able to keep contributing the amount my husband relies on every month for our expenses and savings.)

A freelancer who can’t pay their bills on time is someone whose business, health and reputation are at risk. I’ve had a bank line of credit — $16,000 worth — for more than a decade. When I call and email editors, my tone needs to be breezy, relaxed, happy, not someone desperate for any assignment. (Even if it might be true!)

I email and call half a dozen editors, print and on-line, to check on the progress of my pitches to them. A pitch I’ve sent to one Marie Claire editor comes back, suggesting another editor there, and possibly a better fit for a competing magazine. I try the second MC editor and decide to give it a week before trying the competitor.



Exhausted. Between writing, blogging, tweeting and FB, I feel like my eyes are going to melt. I should jump at once into my next story, a long personal essay for Good Housekeeping, but I desperately need a day to myself and off the damn computer. I’m also physically spent from two crazy days of walking and non-stop interviewing.

I have an eye exam and discover — which I knew — I finally need reading glasses. The optometrist is a woman my age who tells me I’ve dodged that bullet a decade longer than most.

I get an email, out of the blue, from a source in California I’d interviewed last year for my (unsold) book proposal, asking me (!) to possibly speak at their annual conference. I give her an idea what that will cost and hope it will come through. I enjoy public speaking and it’s the easiest money I now earn.

I drive to Greenwich, a super-wealthy Connecticut town about 20 minutes east of us, to pick up a gallon of my favorite, spendy, British-made paint, Farrow & Ball. We’re having a new contact over for dinner — someone who might (!) send me on a very cool research trip for her organization — so we want the apartment spotless. I splurge on some gorgeous fresh flowers, white nerines, orange tulips and some greenery, and pick up the food for the dinner. I’d hoped to make filet mignon but at $29/lb. (!!!!) choose pork chops instead.


One of the great pleasures of living so close to New York City is being able to hop in for a few hours after a 40-minute train ride. I buy a 10-trip ticket — whose price has just risen again — now $83. I walk from Grand Central to ICP, the International Center of Photography to see a show of photos by Lewis Hine.Β  Admission is $14. New York City is really expensive!

The show is fairly large, and the images — of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1905, of child labor in 1915, of African Americans in the 1920s — are powerful, some of them very familiar. A former schoolteacher, Hine became the pre-eminent photographer of his era, capturing slices of life that were damning and which prompted social change. Yet he died broke and unknown.

I wonder what impels us to do the work we do, to care as deeply as we do, if this is to be our inglorious end.

Our dinner is a lot of fun; our guests have lived and worked in Europe, the U.S. and Africa, so we have lots of stories to share, from the White House (my husband was a NYT photographer there for 8 years) to Rwanda.


Pooped! A day to sleep, recharge, catch up with my husband, himself a busy, tired NYT photo editor, and read four newspapers — the WSJ, two days of the NYT and the weekend Financial Times.

I bang out this blog post, trying not to freak out about the coming week: bills due, no checks (yet) and a 2,000 word piece due on Thursday I haven’t had a minute to start work on.

28 thoughts on “The writer’s week: PLM, stretch lace and late payments

  1. Avery

    I think I am going to decline on the email to you. I don’t think I could handle it in all honesty…I can barely handle emails…..thank u for the reply though…still having email issues…..

  2. Wow! I had no idea writers have to hound publications to pay them. Good for you to have money away in savings for emergencies and retirement! My husband and I are trying to establish an emergency savings, too. I’m glad you pointed this out. It is very important to have.
    Your week was very busy indeed. Wednesday did sound nice. I hope you are resting well and your checks come in for you.

    1. Oh, we do indeed — I linked this post on my Facebook page, read by many freelance colleagues and one said she’s been owed $20,000 for more than two months..

      Today is a nice slow day, thanks.

      1. Wow! I am just shocked. I never knew this about writers. I’ve always wondered how freelance writers protect their writings and ensure payment.

      2. We all sign contracts — but some publishers break them of ignore them. I tend to do a lot of due diligence on a new client before working with them to protect myself. I also hire lawyers when needed.

  3. i am exhausted just reading this, caitlin. ) hope the coming week is a bit less hectic, but i’m sure the life of a freelancer is one where the activity and worry never ends )

    1. Hmmmm…and I think your life is hectic! πŸ™‚

      Most weeks are not quite that nuts. The less people pay (sadly) the harder I have to look for those that DO and push out volume for those that don’t…

      1. isn’t that funny? we each find a way to spend our week, and when we look back we see how much we’ve done and are surprised. i understand the math of the longer it takes them to pay or the less coming in, the harder you need to work to make up the difference. reminds me of my waitressing days, a freelance job of sorts.

      2. It’s gotten much much worse in recent years as contracts are downright punitive. I signed one for a BIG women’s mag that demands a 75% loss of my income (?!) if they decide they just don’t like my product. Who can afford to lose 75% of their anticipated income? And the minute I tried to negotiate it, I was dubbed “difficult.” They simply refused to negotiate.

        Jesus. Frankly, waitressing is simpler.

  4. Thank you for this glimpse of the realities of a freelance writer. I think many of us imagine writers sitting in their mahogany studies all day surrounded by books and journals while creating literary masterpieces. πŸ˜‰
    I would love to hear the typical day of a fiction writer.

    1. Frankly, there isn’t one.

      Each of us are working it out in our own ways. Some people have a part-time job to help with expenses; some teach; some get grants and fellowship income. Some get royalties from their work. That’s the challenge of looking to others for guidance — we can share a lot but it doesn’t mean your experience will be like ours.

  5. I love these posts, even though I know how much stress goes into your weeks. The design trade show sounds a blast, so I’m glad you got such an enjoyable assignment! I’m hoping this week is a bit less crazy for me when my latest client project wraps…but I’m hesitant to count on it.

    1. This made me stop and laugh a long loud bitter laugh.


      The whole reason these contracts are so damn toxic is that they place all the pressure and risk on the writer. It’s their way or the highway in most instances. The contract allows them — wait for it — 90 days (three months) to even decide if they want the story, let alone pay for it. I’ll be sure to tell my bills to wait.

      1. Iggzackly.

        So fun! πŸ™‚

        Our power comes in three forms:

        1) negotiation — it never hurts to ask. People can and **do** budge on pay and rights; 2) by getting to know plenty of other writers at your level of the game so you can share recon on who will bend and who will not. They need to be at your level becs more experienced writers (fair or not) are perceived as less of a risk and adding more value; 3) walking away from truly shitty offers. Just withdraw your labor. That’s the whole point of being freelance — making choices that work best for us. Sometimes a “no” is worth a lot more…while you seek out a much better offer. There always is one!

  6. As a former NYC girl, I can feel your feet hurting, and the long blocks in the cold rain to the safety (LOL) of the subway … the writer in me feels the angst of impressions to make, bills to pay and the search for more work. Still, as a former legal secretary and a somewhat newbie at living on my writer’s salary, the joy of avoiding snarky lawyers, after-your-butt office managers and fluorescent lit jail-cubbies, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’d rather do this every day than trade my soul back to the 9 to 5. I’m so glad I follow you – you keep it real and in perspective and your life sounds amazing. (QuickBooks is a great way to keep track of those pesky non-paying jobs, although I find most 30-day payers pretty reliable – damn that’s going to bite me in the butt – I just know it.) Keep writing and sharing – I love your blog. ~LJ

    1. Thanks so much!

      I see few working writers really willing to open the kimono — as it were — and share what it’s really like, day to day. I do enjoy it a lot, but — as you see — it’s a scramble.

      It’s also, as you say so well, a definite choice to flee the BS of office life. I write at our dining table, staring north up the Hudson River, in silence. Aaaaaah. My last job was the insane-o NY Daily News newsroom, where I sat behind THE most toxic SOB I have ever met in my life. So, I hear you!

      I’ve got a post cued up you might enjoy, 20 things NYers learn.

      Best of luck with your new life and so glad the blog is worthwhile for you. If you haven’t yet (?) joined ASJA or UPOD (feel free to email me for deets), both are very useful.

      1. Can’t wait to read the new post … and thank your for the ASJA/UPOD info – yes, I will email you for deets (love that word). I think my next post on my writing blog (not photo blog) will be about the pros and cons of going out on your own (whether by choice or not). Our generation has had its challenges – Thank the stars that we’re NYers! – it’s definitely a learning curve I appreciate. Writing you now (thanks for the reply too!!) ~LJ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s