Writing “longform”: 12 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

My 5,000 word story for The American Prospect is by far the longest I’ve written in a decade.

My book chapters are usually that long, but a book is a very different animal.

Today’s journalism too often demands writing “light, bright and tight” — jamming a story into 700 or 900 words.

So reporting and writing at length demands a wholly different approach and strong skills.

 

Some tips:

 

1. Who is your (ideal) audience? How much do they want to know? What are their most burning questions? Who else has so far answered them poorly — and how much better can you do?  How will you achieve that?

2.  Make sure from the very start, after you’ve found an editor who wants this story, that you’re both clear on expectations: story length (is there wiggle room?), date of publication, what illustrations or graphs or charts or photos does it need and who will be responsible for obtaining those, who’s handling social media, payment (how many days after acceptance? after invoice?), what about a kill fee, who owns copyright and make sure you will be given a chance to read the edited story with enough time before publication to make sure it is accurate.

 

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Get clear on your story’s direction!

 

3. Check in with your editor — and don’t be annoying. If the story, for any reason, might be delayed or is changing shape or focus, they need to know now. On my healthcare story, I sent my source list early on.

4. What is the key issue your story will address? The clearer your initial focus, the clearer your roadmap of who to interview, what documents to read, what videos or podcasts you need to listen to, etc. Time is money and you have to be efficient.

5. Who will you interview? Stories develop as you go, but you should have a solid idea of your key characters before you start. And bear in mind that senior/high-level sources are super-busy with work, teaching, conferences, travel. You may need weeks or even months to get some of them to agree to speak with you. Be strategic.

6. If you need help — a fixer, translator, researcher — use them, and give them clear direction. Pay as much as possible, ideally no less than $20-25 an hour; 20 years ago I was paying $15/hour to my researchers. Quality costs!

 

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Coffee stains optional!

 

7. It’s a line of dominoes. Every source you speak to on a lengthy and investigative story of any true complexity will be assessing you…not just vice versa! Are you smart, well-prepared, asking intelligent and incisive questions? Are you polite and patient? Every source who decides you, too, are of value may then refer you — often unasked — to others at their level of wisdom, access and insight.

8. Share as much as you can with your sources. Some writers refuse. It’s totally personal, but I typically share quite a bit. In my decades of experience, I find that it establishes trust, credibility, a human connection. Sources aren’t gas pumps! Some will appreciate being included and feel respected.

9. How will you structure your piece? What’s your “lede” — the opening few sentences that have to lure your reader in at once? Do you have a terrific “kicker”, the final few sentences that leave your reader thinking, remembering, moved? Here’s an excellent and helpful book, “Follow the Story”by a legendary American journalist. What are your “golden coins” — bits of material (a great quote or anecdote, a compelling data point) that will continue to lure your reader deeper and deeper. You can’t lose them!

10. Find at least three “first readers” whose fresh eyes on your copy will immediately see what’s missing, what’s over-written or under-explained. These should be people whose solid judgment of the issues and how to write well you know and trust. They will help you polish your story even more before it goes to your editor.

 

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11. Pace yourself! My interviews are usually at least 60 minutes, sometimes 90 and sometimes even (whew!) 120. By that point, we’re just pooped. Two a day doesn’t seem like much, but these days it is. So if your story — like mine — includes 30 sources, do the math and plan our your time accordingly. Same for writing. I write quickly, and produced this story within maybe three days, plus revision time. But everyone works at a different pace. Do what works best for you.

12. Savor the result! It’s a serious accomplishment to win an assignment of this length and to complete it to the editors’ satisfaction. 

The lost art of listening

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Great essay, in The New York Times.

An excerpt:

High schools and colleges have debate teams and courses in rhetoric and persuasion, but rarely, if ever, offer classes or extracurricular activities that teach careful listening. You can get a doctorate in speech communication and join clubs such as Toastmasters to perfect your public speaking, but who strives for excellence in listening? The image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a lectern. Giving a TED talk or delivering a commencement speech is living the dream.

The cacophony of modern life also stops us from listening. The acoustics in restaurants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for diners to clearly hear one another. Offices with an open design ensure every keyboard click, telephone call and after-lunch belch make for constant racket. Traffic noise on city streets, music playing in shops and the bean grinder at your favorite coffeehouse exceed the volume of normal conversation by as much as 30 decibels, and can even cause hearing loss.

This past week was hectic and one day was sunny and clear and I needed some silence! I headed to our local reservoir and went for a walk — the only sounds the distant tapping of a few woodpeckers and the rustle of dry leaves as gray squirrels chased one another.

Bliss!

I really enjoy interviewing people, key to my work as a journalist, but — obviously — it demands close and careful and sustained attention, because I don’t use a tape recorder. I don’t want to waste unpaid hours transcribing or paying $1/minute to have someone else do it nor ever fear that the recording didn’t work.

A pen and notebook are fine with me, and force me to pay very close attention, not only to someone’s words, but their silences, pauses, hesitations, sighs, laughter.

My interviews are usually 30 to 45 to 60 minutes and after an hour, I’m tired! More than that gets really tiring — but it also creates a better bond, deeper conversation and, typically, better results in the form of great quotes or insights.

We’re rarely brilliant from our very first sentence!

A bit more from the essay:

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. This is partly because it’s human nature to return courtesies, but also because good listening improves your chances of delivering a message that resonates.

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough.

I also coach other writers, in 60-minute sessions by phone, Skype or face to face. They, too, are a challenge because my role is to help, quickly! I’m both diagnosing and prescribing solutions on the fly. I love it, but whew! Listening so intently and responding helpfully is serious work.

It’s fair to acknowledge that listening and paying attention are tiring, and so it can be tempting to tune people out, nodding but not really there. I’ve realized that journalism is a good fit for me because so much of it is experiential, and why studying interior design — as I did in the ’90s — was so joyful: it was tactile!

I didn’t have to just sit still and listen.

But I also listen carefully wherever I go, whether to silence in the woods or music on the radio or the distant honking of passing geese.

We’ve also had some recent moments in our 20-year marriage that have revealed how differently each of us listens and hears, and what very different language we choose to express how we see the world.

And, thanks to my recent healthcare story, I’ve received some very long and critical — albeit polite and smart — private emails from a reader, an American living in Canada. I could have dismissed her, or not replied, or been defensive but we actually exchanged several very long and thoughtful emails, even though we’re politically quite different!

 

We chose to listen to one another.

 

In today’s headphones-on, “lalalalala I can’t hear you!” deeply divided culture, that’s now a radical act.

 

Where do you listen most closely — and what do you gain from doing so?

The big story: writing it!

thumbnail-7Drowning in data!

This shot of Niagara Falls snapped during my return trip to New York after three weeks in Canada, 12 hours by train back from Toronto

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

Five notebooks full.

Reports and books read.

Thirty original interviews completed, some by phone, some face to face.

Five towns visited in five days to meet and interview sources in each one.

Here’s my post from August 13, as I was starting to work on my biggest story in years:

https://wordpress.com/post/broadsideblog.wordpress.com/52759

I had a maximum of 5,000 words.

Here’s the link to my story about Canada’s healthcare systems— there are several — and how they work. It’s for The American Prospect, a liberal quarterly publication.

I spent more than three months on it, and lost money in the process, as the basic cost of a room in Toronto alone cost twice my allotted travel budget and I spent four days there working.

 

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Love these Muji notebooks, $1.70 apiece.

 

But, rarely, a story is worth it and I hope this one is.

 

There were some challenges along the way, which is normal, some of them less so:

 

— I knew from the start this would cost me money, not earn nearly enough to cover three months’ exclusive attention, plus travel. I applied for grants from two American organizations offering them to journalists and was denied by both. The ugly truth is that I’m making less than a third of what I would have earned for this story in the 1990s, back when journalism paid well, and when my health insurance cost $500 a month, not $1,700.

— I suddenly developed gout (!), an excruciatingly painful right toe condition, making every step painful for weeks.

— At the same time, I got a bad leg infection on my right shin, so bad it really scared me. I finally saw my doctor when I got back home after a three-week absence, and knocked it out with antibiotics. The pain, at its worst, was breathtaking, That, plus gout, made it  hard to focus on interviews that lasted up to two hours. I popped plenty of painkillers!

 

 

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The son of a friend of mine, David Dennis, proved a perfect interview subject, and the lede (top) of the story. photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— As often happens, I set up a few interviews fully expecting to discuss X…and Y proved to be much more interesting. Gotta roll with the punches!

— One key source remained, even after months, hopelessly elusive, so overworked that his secretary and I got to know one another well, and he sent many apologetic last-minute-cancellation emails. Fortunately, I found two long and helpful videos of him speaking and quoted from them instead.

 

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Sitting in a cafe in Picton, Ontario, interviewing Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada. Photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— The top-level sources I spoke to all know one another and realized that my reporting was deep and serious in including them all.

— You do eventually reach a point of total saturation, when you think you can’t possibly do another interview, but someone urges you strongly to do so and recommends someone else. I did, and the guy was astounding, possibly the best of the lot.

 

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I got off a bus at 3:30 after an hour’s ride to/from a source to meet another at this downtown Toronto hotel bar at 3:45 so he could run for his train at 4:15. Gotta do whatever’s possible!

 

— I rarely went into each interview with a set list of questions, but kept them more conversational, which allowed for unexpected and welcome diversions and insights.

 

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— I bought a huge white-pad to help me visualize what to do next. I decided to structure my story around the Four Ps: patients, providers, pundits/academics and policymakers/politicians.

— Others’ generosity and good humor made this very challenging project not only manageable but a pleasure to work on; every source was helpful and smart, referred me deeper into their expert networks and shared their insights and wisdom.

— Three “first readers” helped me as I revised: a veteran American health and science writer, a young, progressive writer in D.C. and a Canadian editor. Fresh eyes matter!

 


 

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Smaller towns are having a rough time attracting and keeping local physicians…Photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— It took a lot of self-confidence to tackle this complex topic. So I felt much better when a man who’s an acknowledged leader in this field, when I admitted that I felt a bit overwhelmed by it, said that after decades studying it, he sometimes is as well.

Here’s a fantastic piece — written in 2005 for the journalism website Poynter — on the iceberg theory of journalism…that only a tiny fraction of what you’ll see, hear and read will actually be visible in the final public version, no matter all the invisible hard work that preceded and informed it:

 

What makes a story powerful is all the work — the process of reporting and writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that give writing its greatest strengths.

As someone prone to turning every story into a project (only because it lets me postpone publication, which will reveal all my inadequacies), I have to keep reminding myself that you can never over-report but you can under-think, under-plan, under-draft and — worst of all — under-revise.

The social media dance

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Let’s keep it civil!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I bet some of you remember life before Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter.

It was a time of  social interaction that was, de facto, personal. We spent time sitting with someone, or walking with them or dancing or fishing. Not sitting at a keyboard and staring into a screen.

So we’re basically talking to total strangers and trusting in their goodwill and intelligence to respond civilly and calmly.

These days, that feels like more of a gamble.

I do see a lot of good thanks to social media.

You, for example!

Knowing that people still find value here — after ten years! — is heartening indeed. I really value the conversations and insights and humor and global perspective you bring.

I enjoy Twitter and have also made new friends from it, meeting them face to face, people I really enjoyed after months of tweets-only.

But a few downsides are increasingly diminishing my pleasure in using social media, and competitiveness is the primary driver.

In my business, of journalism and coaching and writing non-fiction, the LOUDEST voices seem to win, There’s a tremendous amount of chest-thumping, crowing over enormous success. Frankly, even with decades of my own accomplishment, I find it intimidating and exhausting.

I also see, increasingly, a sort of competitive victimhood, with millennials and Gen X vying for the title of whose life is most miserable — and it’s all thanks to those greedy Boomers. (My generation, of course.)

There is no legitimate argument to deny the challenges these two co-horts face. There are many and they intersect: high student debt, low wages, intermittent work, climate change…

I read some of those threads on Twitter, where even the calmest and most reasonable objection or alternate point of view is blocked for being unkind and invalidating — when it’s an alternate view.

I don’t dare mention on Twitter that Boomers like me have weathered three recessions, each of which slowed our careers and damaged our incomes. Then the crash of ’08.

 

This “lalalalalalalalala I can’t hear you” equivalent online is a disaster.

 

There’s little point in “connecting” with an enormous global audience, potentially, only to whine and rage and stamp your feet insisting your life is the worst ever.

For you, it is.

I get that.

 

But until or unless we can cultivate modesty and empathy, compassion and a clear understanding that we each see the world through our own filters of age, race, income, education, political views, sexual preference, gender identity, cultural norms….it’s a dialogue of the deaf.

And here’s a powerful plea about how to better handle other’s bereavement and grief on social media.

 

 

On not buying things

 

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Love this waffle-weave throw we brought home from Paris

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a privileged point of view, because for so many people, just affording the necessities of food, fuel, medication and clothing — for themselves and their families — is tough enough.

But once you’ve passed that point, if you’re fortunate enough to do so, the questions arise:

 

What do I need?

What do I want?

Why?

When?

Can I afford it?

Really?

 

I think about this a lot because I’m extremely frugal, willing to splash out on two items consistently — our home and travel. We have no one financially relying on us, which eases the situation, but we both work full-time freelance, which means we have no utterly reliable income; even an anchor client of many years can suddenly cut their budget or disappear.

So living on credit, and paying “later” is not a smart choice. Last spring, two steady clients bringing me $700+ a month went bust.

We recently went to a less expensive health insurance plan at $1,484 a month. Madness! But this is the American drill of the self-employed: you either pay a fortune every month or you pay a lot and still face enormous “deductibles” and “co-pays”, bullshit ways for health insurance companies to screw us even worse.

A co-pay is charged when you actually use the service — see a physician or go to the ER. Imagine paying an additional fee every time you used a frying pan to cook or drove your car to work!

 

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Experiences beat things!

So, we just have a lot less “disposable” income as a result of the putative “liberty” of self-employment.

It certainly curbs our spending; as a couple, we splurge on eating out maybe once a week and occasionally seeing a play or a concert.

As for buying things? Luckily, we have 99 percent of what we need, maybe even 120 percent!

Our SUV is now 20 years old and we have to get rid of it because its repairs are breaking us and our leased new car is done October 1, so we’re scrambling to plan for that.

I also spend more per-item, always preferring better quality I’ll enjoy and use for at least five to 10 years than shopping all the time — helped by scoring thick cashmere and designer brands at consignment shops and flea markets.

We also live in a suburb, where the only places to buy anything are gas stations, grocery stores, bakeries and drugstores. That makes it simpler.

When I want to shop — and I don’t really enjoy on-line shopping and refuse to use Amazon because of its corporate greed and how poorly it treats warehouse staff — I have to get in a car and drive somewhere or take a train into New York. Spending becomes a highly deliberated decision, not a quick impulse.

My planned purchases for 2020?

Some new fragrance; a few new pairs of shoes; replacing several worn-out frying pans, new dishtowels. Some replacement make-up and skin products.

 

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My go-to store for clothing and accessories (also Canadian)

 

If money really improves, I have my eye on a stunning ring on this website…I love everything on offer and jewelry, for me, is something I treasure and wear every day.

I’m most hoping to be back to Montreal, am speaking at conferences in D.C.  and Ontario (so may shop while away) and, key, really hoping for a month away this fall in England and maybe a week in Paris.

One pal blogs quite often about spending and not spending…

 

Are you a big shopper?

 

What do you splurge on?

My decade: 2009-2019

By Caitlin Kelly

Another one gone.

It was a decade of some major triumphs and some really tough challenges…probably like yours as well!

Here are some of mine:

 

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2009

 

I began working as a retail sales associate in September 2007 for The North Face. I worked one day a week at $11/ hour, no commission. In the holidays, I worked three days a week to make more money, still no commission — even when selling a $400 ski jacket.

I wrote about it for The New York Times, which drew the attention of an agent who helped me polish a sample chapter about this experience. We sold the book to Portfolio on Sept. 11, 2009 and I was sitting at the counter of diner on Lexington Avenue when she called to give me the news.

Now, with a book deal in hand, I took much more detailed notes — not easy when you work under the watchful eyes of security cameras. I would scribble down dialogue or an event on a yellow layaway card and tuck it into the pocket of my uniform sleeve.

I quit that job on December 18, 2009, grateful by then to be earning $450 a month blogging for a website.

 

2010

 

My left hip is in agony, with severe arthritis. It hurts to walk even a few steps. I even resort to using short crutches for three months to get some relief. A surgeon gives me steroids to reduce the inflammation — and they destroy the bone in my hip. Now I will need full hip replacement.

 

I turn in my book manuscript in the summer of 2010 and get “notes” from the editor, who says “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.” I panic, and think I can’t possibly fix all of it. But I do.

 

 

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2011

 

In April, my second book is published and, luckily, wins nice reviews from People, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today and others.

I get married, for the second time, in a small wooden church on an island in the harbor of Toronto.

 

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Me, a cover girl — even at size 16

 

Hey, I’m a cover girl…in Arthritis Today! I’m given an outfit to wear (and keep!) and a whole photo crew jams into our small apartment. The photographer (of course!) who flies in from Atlanta to NY is the husband of a friend of mine.

 

2012

 

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The day after surgery…

 

 

Hip replacement gives me back my mobility.

 

2013

 

Finally — our renovated kitchen! My design. Seven years later, still loving it.

 

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The left is before; the right is after. I designed the kitchen myself

 

My book is published in China!

 

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Malled’s Chinese version

2014

 

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

 

I get a teaching position at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn. I have to be up at 6:00 a.m. to get there by 8:30 and wait 90 more minutes before my class to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic. I teach a blogging class and a freshman writing class. The pay, for an adjunct, is good — $4,500 per class, $18,000 for the calendar year.

Knowing we have a solid income to rely on, I spend a month in Paris and London, three of those weeks staying with friends.

 

 

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One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua — now still friends with these three

 

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Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!

 

 

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On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

 

In March, all expenses paid and a healthy fee for writing three stories, I fly to Nicaragua with a multi-media team from WaterAid. We work for a week in 90-degree heat and long days. It’s by far the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time, thanks to the high energy, skills and warmth of our team.

Not to mention the dugout canoe!

2015

 

 

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Time to just sit still and enjoy the beauty all around us

 

 

After 31 years as a photographer and photo editor — covering the White House for 8 years, two Olympics, Superbowls and more — my husband retires from The New York Times. He is not retired, but has chosen to take their buyout offer.

 

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Our amazing local bakery, Riviera Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY, made this great cake — on two days’ notice. I wrote the headlines; (Arthur was the publisher; Zvi, a colleague)

 

In June, we rent a cottage in Co. Donegal and visit friends in Dublin, taking a three-week break in Ireland.

 

 

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I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls — so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret…

 

2016

 

New curtains for the dining room! The floral.

 

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2017

 

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Istria, Croatia

 

 

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Budapest

 

Thankful for decent savings, and celebrating a milestone birthday, I spend six weeks, mostly alone, in Europe visiting Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zaghreb-Rovinj-Venice-London.

 

2018

 

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48 seconds a day for 20 days. The radiation machine

 

Just in time for my June birthday, I’m diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, but will not need chemo. The summer disappears in a blur of tests-anxiety-decent results, then surgery (and decent results), then infection, then radiation.

My husband gets a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.

 

 

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I finally go to the Met Opera and am dazzled by its beauty.

 

2019

 

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We revisit my husbands’ hometown of Santa Fe, NM for an eight-day vacation, badly needed and totally restorative.

I get a magazine assignment that’s the most difficult-but-welcome of the past decade. I travel far and wide and spend three months on it, nervous as hell about the final product.

“First-rate” and “great work” are the editor’s reply.

Whew!

 

And you?

Highlights?

Disasters?

 

The creative life has never been easy

 

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The bright lights of Broadway

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine needing a job.

Imagine having 20 children to support.

Meet Johann Sebastian Bach, who in 1721 presented six concertos — now named the Brandenburg Concertos, named for the Margrave for whom they were written — to a local official he hoped would offer him a job.

Today, these much beloved pieces resonate still.

The Margrave did not hire him and it’s possible he never even heard them.

The 1946 Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, is equally hailed as a great of the film classics.

It failed at the box office and the original story met with such rejection that its author decided to self-publish and send it to 200 friends instead.

At museum shows of the legends Michelangelo, Charlotte Bronte and the Japanese print-maker Hokusai — whose Great Wave is one of the most familiar of all images — I learned the more nuanced truth of these lives, of penury and struggle, their lost and cancelled commissions.

It’s tempting to think that all the great art and music and literature we still enjoy today was produced from warm homes filled with good food, with healthy children and wives and husbands. In fact, there was much sorrow to endure.

 

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Bronte’s dress and boots

 

Bronte suffered the early death of all her siblings, married late (37) and died the following year.

 

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Bronte’s writing desk

 

I so admire anyone who chooses the creative life.

My father made films and documentary television shows. His second wife wrote and edited television scripts. My mother worked as a print and radio journalist.

I get it!

We lived its ups and downs, emotionally, intellectually and financially. Rejection can feel annihilating, most often wielded by people with salaries and pensions, unwilling to take creative risks themselves while harshly judging those of us who do.

Without a wealthy family or partner (and some have this) it can mean many years of financial struggle, and the endless hope of recognition.

No one needs a new novel or oratorio or painting!

So I gave my husband — a freelance photo editor and photographer this book for Christmas.

 

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One of my favorite sources of inspiration is Tharp’s first book, The Creative Habit; she’s a choreographer, but the challenges she faces, and her wisdom and practical advice, are just as fitting to many other creative efforts.

 

If you’re working to create something new, keep going.

The world needs it.

You need to make it.

 

Christmas shadows

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

For Jose and I — now 20 years together — Christmas is a time of very mixed emotions.

Now, gratitude for health and friendships, for work and for savings when there’s less work!

 

But Christmas 1971 was a life-changer for me, and 1995 for him.

 

I was living in Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother, in a quiet residential neighborhood, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, in the area of Lomas de San Anton, named for a small, nearby waterfall, Salto San Anton.

I walked uphill a few short blocks every morning to school. Two tall narrow windows framed the most unlikely of images — two extinct volcanoes, Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl.

I had few friends, then 14. We had no telephone. We knew no one, really.

My mother was attending CIDOC, and also had some students there; my mother had never attended university, so I have no idea what or how she taught.

 

Have You Re-Visited Your Childhood Home? What If It's Gone?
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

 

She is bipolar and, as Christmas came closer, was clearly losing her mental health. I had no one to tell. My father was in Toronto, long divorced from her.

She totally de-compensated on Christmas Eve, driving to the airport in Mexico City to pick up a friend of mine, arriving from Toronto for a two-week stay. It was terrifying.

The evening ended with her minivan stuck in a ditch, in an industrial city nowhere near home. Her 19 year old female student, luckily with us, took Laura and I to a hotel. We then spent the next two weeks alone and unsupervised.

I moved back to Toronto later that month to live with my father for the first time in seven years, and never again lived with my mother. I wasn’t going to risk it twice.

 

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New York Times photographer Jose R. Lopez (my husband) in Bosnia on assignment

 

Jose was then an ambitious single guy working for The New York Times as a photographer — asked with two weeks’ notice to go to Bosnia over Christmas for an indefinite assignment.

In the depths of bitter winter.

He accepted.

 

Mine explosion on road

-01/03/96–On Military Route “Arizona”– An anti-personnel mine explodes after it was safely detonated by members of the Croatian army. Soldiers from the Croatian army were clearing the mines along this route that the US Military will use when they take up the peace keeping duties. PHOTO: Jose R. Lopez/New York Times

 

This would include sleeping one night in an unheated shipping container and getting caught in a blizzard while trying to get from Split to Tuzla, with Neevis (their translator) and the reporter, Raymond Bonner.

The worst part of a former war zone? Destroyed infrastructure. Their car, a Nissan Altima, got stuck. You don’t want to get stuck in a blizzard anywhere, let alone a bombed out Bosnian road.

 

stain glass damage in church

12/17/1995–Bugojno, Bosnia-Herzgovina–The stain glass windows of the Catholic Church in this small village reflect the damage done to this house of worship during the three year war. Residents of this small village packed the church on the first Sunday service after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed on December 14, 1995, bringing an end to the 3 year-old civil war. PHOTO: JOSE R. LOPEZ/NEW YORK TIMES

 

At the very last minute, shopping for his supplies back in New York, Jose had bought a large metal carabiner, the sort used for mountain climbing.

When a UNHCR truck pulled up and Wolfgang, a member of their team, stepped out to help — if only there was a way to attach their car to his truck –— the carabiner did the trick.

Coworkers had created a care package for him, which he opened on Christmas Day — a pair of nylon stockings wrapped around a pack of Marlboroughs (“These worked for my Dad in WWII,” the colleague wrote.) There was chocolate. A flashlight.

 

mine sign in field12/27/95–On Military Route “Arizona”- A sign warns of mines that were planted in a field during the Bosnian war. In a report published by the Bosnian and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, it stated, ” In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is still remaining more than 80,000 mines/ERWs. Mine problem is present in 129 municipalities/cities, or 1,398 affected communities/settlements. PHOTO; JOSE R. LOPEZ/NEW YORK TIMES

 

 

Christmas Day he was all alone, staying in a Tuzla hotel.

In the dining room, alone, he ate a bowl of chicken soup, all there was to eat.

We never eat on Christmas now without a deep understanding how fortunate we are.

 

Wishing you the merriest of Christmases — happiest of Hanukkahs!

 

How journalism happens

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Written by a documentary film-maker, daughter of the late, great NYT journalist David Carr

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s ironic — we each have more access now, thanks to the Internet, to thousands of media sources from across the globe than ever before.

Yet I see such tremendous ignorance of what journalism is.

What we do. Why we do it. What we earn. Our many constraints and challenges.

So, as we close out this decade, this is my stake in the ground, a sort of Media 101. (If this is all overly familiar, sorry!)

 

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Where does a “news” story come from?

The textbook definition of news means it’s new (something we haven’t seen or heard before); it affects the outlet’s audience (whether local, regional, national or global); it affects someone wealthy or powerful (a sad metric, but often used); it marks a significant change from prior experience; a natural disaster; a major crime.

It also, ideally, covers all levels of government. Ideally, also we cover major issues like income inequality/poverty, health, education, environment, etc.

Do journalists pay their sources?

No. This is common in some British tabloids, but not in North America, where it’s taboo. It demands cooperation from sources, yes, but it means (ideally!) that money doesn’t buy access or coverage.

Do sources pay to be in a story?

No! There is now the absurd belief — based on “journalism” like Forbes’ blogs — that you just pay to play. I’ve been offered payment many times by sources to write about them. Unscrupulous journalists accept, creating the fantasy this is normal. It is not.

 

 

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How do I know who or what to trust?

This is now a huge and troubling issue — I recently attended a powerful and sobering event at the New York HQ for Reuters, with terrific panelists addressing this very question.

The first speaker, who flew in from London, showed the audience five videos and asked us to vote on whether they were fake or real. Some were fake, and so carefully created it was really difficult to tell.

In an era of such deceptive deepfakes, question carefully!

 

Who writes the headlines?

Not the reporters! Every outlet has a series of editors above the reporters and they will oversee the headlines and write them. No reporter writes their own headlines; freelancers can and do suggest one when pitching, and some will be kept.

Same for book titles; I named my first book and my editor (thankfully!) named my second.

Who writes the captions for photos?

Editors. Sometimes the photographer.

 

How much do reporters make?

Hah! So much less than people imagine. In 2019, the American average was $40,081. To put this into context, I earned $45,000 as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette  — in the 1980s. If you’re fortunate enough to get hired by a major national outlet, like Reuters wire service or The New York Times, you might get $90,000 or more.

How much do TV reporters make?

A lot more, depending if regional or national. Those working at the national level — sometimes more experienced and skilled — will make more. Locally, $56,455.

 

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How much do authors make?

Some, millions. Some, pennies!

There are many, many tiers of book publishing, from academic houses to small indies to the mega’s like Simon & Schuster or Harper Collins, able to offer enormous advances to those they think worth the investment — like Michelle and Barack Obama, who got (reportedly) $65 million.

An “advance” may be divided into three or four parts: one on signing the deal, one on acceptance of the manuscript; one on publication and one (!) a year or more after publication. Hardly “advance”!

Every payment will likely lose 15 percent off the top to the agent who sold it.

Every book sold means more money, right?

Nope.

If your advance is $100,000, you must “earn out” that sum before getting another dime from the publisher.

And the game is rigged, since every book sold does not give the author the cover price!

We get eight percent of the retail price.

So this belief that a TV or radio or podcast appearance means a huge boost to our income from our books is wishful fantasy.

What exactly do TV and radio producers do?

There are “bookers” and producers who find and pre-interview people they think will be good on-air. You may have noticed a predominance of white men. People with no discernible accent.

 

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How do people actually end up getting interviewed by the media?

A variety of ways. Some have in-house communications departments or PIOs (public information officers) to handle requests formally. Some have a public relations firm pumping out press releases all the time! Some know a journalist or producer personally.

If it’s a major news event, like a shooting or natural disaster, we speak to as many people there as possible — traumatic for them, often.

 

How do you get access to documents?

Some use a Freedom of Information Act — FOIA — to get at them. It’s been in American law since 1967, the legal right to access any document from any federal agency.

Sometimes we get them offered to us by an internal whistle-blower.

 

How are freelance writers paid?

Bizarrely, by the word. Sometimes a flat fee. These range from $150 to $10,000 or more. No rules. No guidelines. It’s every-man-for-himself. So a story of 500 words at .50 cents per word will pay less than a magazine piece at $2/word for 3,000 words.

We are not paid until the story is accepted — and that can take months. It’s a huge problem.

Stories also get “killed” — not used and maybe not even paid for, maybe 25 percent of the original fee.

 

A glossary:

 

Hed

The headline.

Sub-hed

A sub-heading within the body of a story, often used to break up copy and keep the reader moving.

Pull-quote or call-out

A phrase or quote that’s memorable, meant to entice the reader into the story.

Dek

A brief description of the story.

Lede

The first sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Kicker

The final sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Graf

A paragraph.

The 5 W’s and H

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How….every story should answer these.

B-roll

Images to illustrate a TV story or video that aren’t the main event. Sometimes shot in advance.

Nut graf

High up in a story, the graf that explains why the story is even worth reading.

Explainer

A detailed story to explain a complicated issue.

Presser

A press conference.

On the record

Everything you say is now for permanent, public consumption. (Off the record means it’s not — but only if you preface your remarks with this phrase, not afterward.)

Writing is lonely! Solutions…

 

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There are some great words in there somewhere!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Sure, some people can write well in a noisy and crowded coffee shop.

Not me.

For truly focused, uninterrupted work, I need quiet, either at home alone or at a library.

Writing really means often wondering — does this sentence/paragraph/chapter even make sense?!

So I’m fascinated by two recent reports of writers meeting face to face to help one another thrive, one in Hollywood and many others more private.

The one in Hollywood is called Rideback.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Lin is betting that Rideback will strengthen and accelerate the creative process. It is a Hollywood twist on WeWork, the shared office space company. Mr. Lin said he was also inspired by Pixar’s “brain trust” sessions, in which directors and writers candidly critique one another’s work, and by “The Medici Effect,” Frans Johansson’s 2004 book about the ignition of the Renaissance.

“If you put a bunch of creative people from different backgrounds into one space, something magical will happen,” Mr. Lin said. “Studio lots used to be just that. You would walk around and everyone would be there. But studio lots aren’t as much fun anymore. They can feel corporate.”

Mr. Lin has 15 employees of his own. They work on the Rideback campus, where they are focused on finding a way forward for the “Lego” series, most likely with a new studio partner. (Universal is one option.) Other front-burner projects include an “Aladdin” sequel and a television spinoff; “Lethal Weapon 5,” with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover signed up to return; movies based on Cirque du Soleil shows; and a remake of the TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

 

 

Writers also meet face to face with trusted peers:

 

Writing is often considered a solitary act, but some writers have figured out a way to make the process more collaborative even before editors, agents and other publishing professionals get involved. Zhang’s group, which includes Alice Sola Kim, Karan Mahajan and Tony Tulathimutte, has been meeting about every month since most of them were undergraduate students at Stanford University. Their sessions are highly structured, with deadlines for submitting drafts and detailed manuscript notes, while other groups gather more informally to talk about their careers, commiserate over deadlines or gossip about the publishing industry.

“You will feel like writing is very lonely and very difficult and very frustrating and that you don’t really know what you’re doing,” said the Chicago-based writer Mikki Kendall. But in a writing group, “you can talk to other people in that place and that are feeling their way out.”

 

I don’t belong to any such group, but I do belong to at least six on-line writers’ groups — and have done so online for many years, still close friends with a few people I only initially knew that way. One, a writer now living in California, and I shared a room at a Boston writing conference never having even met in person, launching a long and treasured friendship.

It really cuts the loneliness to be able to talk your ideas and challenges through with people at the same level of skill and experience and, if you’re lucky, those a few steps beyond you, willing to be generous.

One such group (many are private Facebook groups), is small — only 200 — and only those with a decade’s experience can join. I know, even if I don’t like the answers, I’ll get a quick and candid reply from someone else who’s been around the same block a few times.

 

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Writing books makes me really happy — but also very nervous!

 

The challenge of all writers’ groups, in any form, is the classic writers’ combo of insecurity and ego. I’ve seen several such online groups explode in outrage and vicious bullying. It can get weird and ugly quickly.

And to share, let alone publish your work — poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays, journalism — demands the courage to have a voice, to put it out there for comment, criticism and potential disagreement. That opens you up, de facto, to potential hurt.

So I have what I consider a bit of a brain trust; to gather feedback on a recent story of 5,000 words — my longest and most complex in a decade — I enlisted the fresh eyes and expertise of three people whose judgment I trust. One is a man half my age who’s very good; one is a woman my age whose writing I deeply admire and the third is a professional book editor. These “first readers” are so helpful and so important.

After revising your work over and over and over and over — you’re tired! You have blind spots. The material has become so familiar you’re likely to miss places that it’s still confusing to someone who has never read it at all. So these trusted peers are so valuable.

I’ve done this for others, of course, helping to review their stories and book manuscripts. I’m honored to do it.

If you’re lucky and talented and persistent, you will find a peer group and they will help steer you through.