The writer’s life, lately

Charlotte Bronte’s words, from an exhibit at the Morgan Museum in New York

By Caitlin Kelly

This is my ongoing series, a peek behind the curtain of a full-time writer.

I thought I had an agent!

I was wrong!

That agent (the fourth to see it) took three weeks to even read it — the previous one called my proposal “too narrow” — said he was interested, but when I pushed back on some of his ideas backed out and said we “don’t share a vision.”

Oh, and he read my 26,000-word proposal so carelessly he failed to notice I’ve already published two books.

For God’s sake — three weeks’ wait for this level of incompetence?!

So the search continues.

The good news is that I know a lot of fellow authors and some kind enough to offer editorial and agent contacts.

But it’s an ongoing slog, to be honest.

Rejection is really disspiriting and really tiring.

Rejection means trying over and over and over to make yet another new contact — and wait and hope — who might be excited about my work. I’ve also asked a few friends for their advice on how better to position and market this idea. One kindly offered to read over the proposal as well.

I found a potential agent who sold a book fairly similar to mine; the agency only accepts referrals. (We know one of their authors so I have asked them for a referral. I feel shameless at this point, but needs must.)

I also coach fellow writers and had three clients this week, repeat clients, which means a lot. My coaching isn’t cheap — $250/hour — so I know I need to bring value! I’ve booked two more clients for early March, both of whom found me through Twitter.

But wait….how can I possibly justify coaching others when I’m such a failure (so far!) selling my book?

Apples and oranges! My experience helps writers at all levels, sometimes polishing a personal essay or helping them think of new markets or sharpening a story pitch. So this very frustrating book slog doesn’t dent my confidence and nor should it.

This is the only way to survive writing for a living — retaining optimism and confidence and that of others.

I have yet another New York Times story in the can, (more than 100!), edited and with photos taken, so I’m just waiting for it to be published. In the meantime, I pitched four different Times editors — the Kids’ section, the Well editor, the Letter of Recommendation (NYT Magazine) and Styles. Three were rejected and still awaiting the fourth reply.

I’m still blogging for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds pancreatic cancer research, so I get to interview scientists. It’s a bit intimidating but also really challenging and interesting.

My friend Abby Lee Hood, in Nashville, convened a Google hangout and 22 fellow freelance writers and some radio people showed up from London and Amsterdam and Seattle and L.A. It was great! We are all so lonely and so isolated. There were perhaps three or four of us older than the rest — most were in their 20s and 30s, some even younger. But we have lots in common. I so enjoyed it.

I’m trying to read for pleasure and have started or am in the middle of four books. The one I’m most enjoying is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which manages to make even obscure science compelling. I will also ad that her chapter describing mania, from the inside, is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read; my mother was manic depressive and I witnessed several episodes. They were completely terrifying.

And this payment arrived!


The United States has no such system, but Canada and other nations pay authors a sort of royalty for library use of our books. The way most commercial publishing works means many authors — like me — will never ever see a royalty for our work. We got paid an advance of four or five figures (some get six!) and have to “earn out” with sales, but with each sale netting us a few dollars, never the cover price. It really is just a fancy and costly way to buy mass distribution.

So it’s deeply satisfying to know Canadian readers are still finding value in my work since Blown Away came out in 2004 and Malled in 2011. I did deliberately choose subjects that fascinated me but I also knew would hold longer appeal than a few years’ trendiness.

The amount I get annually is very little in relative terms — about $500. Some authors earn thousands from it.

And it’s worth 20% less because of the Canadian dollar.

But none of that matters to me.

Most of us write, not for fame or fortune but for


12 thoughts on “The writer’s life, lately

  1. Just wanted to say I love your newsletters and don’t reply often enough. I know what you mean about being a ‘lonely writer’ and I’m glad you’ve found a remedy.
    I’m so impressed by your body of work and your commitment, rejections notwithstanding. It shows a kind of bravery I completely lack. But I write on, finally recognizing that when I go nowhere it’s me, not them. They would have to know I was there in order to reject me!
    Take care, and all the best to you. I’m energized whenever we cross paths.

  2. Jan Jasper

    Aaargh. My sympathies, and kudos to your tenacity. It’s interesting, albeit disturbing, to read of your recent experiences with publishing. The fact that that agent hadn’t paid enough attention when reading your proposal to even realize you already published two books is rather shocking.
    …And it’s completely appropriate that you coach other writers for a healthy hourly fee. You know the business inside and out.
    I find it very odd that US. libraries don’t pay some kind of royalty to authors the way Canadian libraries do. The respect could be at least as important than the often modest size of the check.

  3. I just got a rejection, too. Not pleasant to get, ever. Still, you try to find the bright side, even when there doesn’t seem to be any.
    BTW, there’s some sort of workshop in Michigan for writing and pitching to agents. I know you already know all that stuff, but they’ll have agents there you can pitch too. Mostly fiction, but I think there are some nonfiction agents too. Want me to email you the link?

  4. i’m sure that’s disheartening to say the least, especially since you have already proven yourself to be the writer you are. you are the perfect person to coach others, as you know your craft inside out, and others would benefit from your experience. you know personally how important mentors/teachers are in any profession. how frustrating that agents are not even giving a proper look at your work, this is what they are paid to do, and is less than professional to not even give a timely and informed response either way. nice that you could connect with other writers in the zoom format, and that you continue on, in spite of all of the negativity out there. a true professional.

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