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Posts Tagged ‘authors’

“North of Normal”: Q and A with best-selling Canadian author Cea Person

In behavior, books, children, culture, domestic life, family, journalism, life, parenting, women on January 13, 2016 at 3:03 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sometimes you read a book and think…how did the author survive this?

The best-selling Canadian memoir “North of Normal” was that book for me in late 2015. I immediately started following its author, Cea Person, on Twitter.

I told her how much I admired her memoir and her ability to survive a childhood spent living in tipis in the Canadian wilderness with a family with very few boundaries.

An only child, she also had few friends and very little contact with others beyond the chaotic and isolated world her family created.

Cea, whose book was optioned as a possible film, and whose next book, “Nearly Normal” will be published by Harper Collins in early 2017, very kindly agreed to do a Q and A with me for Broadside, which we conducted via email.

When did you first decide you would write this book?

I first decided in my teens that I would write it — one day. I knew I had a crazy story to tell, and I just trusted that the right time to write it would reveal itself. I was finally prompted to start writing it at age 37, when my mother was ill with cancer and my marriage was falling apart. I knew I had to look into my past to find answers to my present.

(Her book is somewhat similar in tone and experience to the American best-seller The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.)

Did Glass Castle strike you as a better/worse/wholly different sort of childhood than yours?

I think our childhoods were equally hard in that we had to struggle to have dignity and get our basic needs met every day, and to try to make our parents realize how misguided they were.

Jeanette had siblings, which in a way was probably both a comfort and added burden to her troubles, whereas I was on my own — so I think we were probably equally challenged. I would love to chat with her one day, but haven’t had the opportunity yet.

Was it hard to remember and to recreate your early life?

Yes, I had a hard time with some memories, my mother and family members helped me fill in a lot of details and straighten out the chronology before they died. I also used photos, but I didn’t keep journals. Also, I used storytelling devices to recreate some scene details and dialogue, as remembering every detail is of course impossible.

Did you ever study writing?

I did not take any writing classes — I just wrote and rewrote my book (about 25 times!) until I got it right! I would not recommend this method to others who want to write their memoir, however ;)

 What other books like that one were helpful in conceiving of and structuring your own narrative?

My structure and narrative came from many drafts of trial and error, trying many different voices and structures until I found the right one. I was a lot like a person feeling my way through the dark with no idea where I was going! But I must say that all that experimentation really benefitted me in the end, because I really know what does and doesn’t work for me now — and I was able to complete my second book in a fraction of the time it took me to write my first.

I remember being greatly inspired by Angelas Ashes, White Oleander and Shes Come Undone. As I read them, I dreamed that I could one day write a book that would move people as much as I’d been touched by them.

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 Can you describe the writing process — how did you decide what to include and what to exclude? It’s a tough job with memoir to know what’s (most) important to the reader as it may have felt most important to us, the writer.

For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up.

This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing.

I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book.

Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.

For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude.

 How did you find an agent?

I actually queried for agents four times over the six years it took me to write the book. On my second round of query letters I actually got one, but he wasn’t able to sell the book. I went back and rewrote it many times after that, and when I finally did get it right I had offers from five agents. After so much rejection, it was exhilarating! I got my dream agent, Jackie Kaiser, who has been the best thing to happen to my writing career.

 Was this a difficult book to sell?

As I mentioned, I had some false starts and difficult times when I wondered if I should just give up. The whole writing/querying/selling process was extremely hard to go through. But I always had this feeling that if I just stuck with it, I would find success.

When I finally got my agent, she sold it in Canada within 24 hours and then in the US in a bidding war between three publishers. So, I have experienced the full range of writer’s dismay and joy!

How long did you take to write it — and what were some of the toughest challenges in doing so?

Six years of writing, and besides the challenges mentioned above, there was the tough part of wondering how my family would react to it, reliving difficult memories, and mostly just finding the time to write at all.

When I started writing it I had a toddler, no childcare, and a business I ran from home, and when I finished writing it I had three small children and no childcare. I wrote the book in ten-minute increments and during stolen moments on the weekends when my husband would take the kids to the park for a few hours. I still think it’s amazing that I got it written at all!

 What sort of reader reaction did you get and do you still? Do you get personal emails from people with similar untold stories?

The reader reactions have been by far the most amazing and rewarding part of this whole experience. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who related to my story in one way or another—the mental illness, counterculture family, young single mother, little girl who never fit in—all of these are elements that people have related to.

I’ve also been shocked by the number of people out there who’ve told their own stories to me that are similar to mine. And I’ve been humbled by the friends and acquaintances I assumed had led “normal” lives who revealed their own troubled pasts to me after reading my book. It’s funny, because when my book first came out I was expecting some negativity, but it’s been completely positive. My readers were my inspiration for writing my second book.

 Were you at all concerned (many memoirists’ fear) how your own family would react? How did they?

Of course it was a concern to me. But I also knew that I had to tell my truth, and that if you tell the truth fully and show your characters as human, both good and bad, there isn’t much people can get upset about. I think that if we are upset about being written about, we should probably take a look at ourselves and the choices we’ve made and why.

In my case, because it took so long for my book to be written and published, most of my family had passed away by the time it came out. My father was the only family member who was in the book that was still alive and/or that I was in touch with, and he embraced it wholeheartedly after he got past his guilt. There have been a lot of people who knew me and my family when I was young, who stayed with us in the tipis or knew my grandfather in more recent years. I was afraid they would find my writing about my past too unvarnished, but they have come forward to tell me how well I captured the Persons in all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s been amazing.

 What were your happiest memories of that childhood?

Riding my stick horses through the meadows, close moments with my mother and grandparents when the rest of the world wasn’t yet a concern to me.

Your worst?

The constant instability I felt, never knowing what was coming next, fear of losing my mother to the cops or to her boyfriends, the open sex and drugs, feeling I didn’t fit in, feeling like a freak from the wilderness, knowing my mother and I were reliant on her boyfriends for our survival, wondering how I would ever escape and find the life I wanted.

 What strengths do you think it gave you long-term?

Definitely resiliency and courage.

I’m very proactive — if something isn’t working for me, I change it. I’m always striving for something better for myself and my family. And I have a deep appreciation and gratitude for the life I’ve created now — the stability, my wonderful husband and children and friends.

Wisdom can be slippery for me, because the little realizations I have don’t always stick with me long enough for me to change my habits, and I think a lot of my current happiness comes from the reality I’ve created for myself rather than the lessons I’ve learned from my past.

I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I know for sure, except that I value courage, strength and the ability to laugh at life and oneself perhaps more than anything else in people. I have learned that I can do anything if I want it badly enough — I wanted to have a normal life, to have a modeling career, a happy marriage and to write my book, and I achieved all that by being tenacious.

I have my grandfather to thank for that — he succeeded at the lifestyle he wanted against all odds, and though I wanted the exact opposite of him, it was his courage that inspired me. Also that we so often repeat the patterns of our family members despite our best efforts, and recognizing those patterns are key to changing them — but they are sneaky!

Thank you, Cea!

Your book is extraordinary and I’m so grateful you made time to talk with me for Broadside.

The tribe meets…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, work on May 4, 2015 at 3:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book

My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.

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People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

Buy my books! (The gentle art of self-promotion)

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, US, work on June 16, 2014 at 12:43 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Here’s an interesting discussion, from The New York Times Book Review, about whether or not authors should run around promoting themselves and their products books.

Here’s James Parker on why it’s such a bad idea:

She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.

Having written two non-fiction books, one before the age of social media — “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, published in 2004 — and Malled, in 2011, I’ve been around that block.

He’s right.

People who choose to write for a living generally prefer to withdraw into their own heads and work at their own pace.

If we were super-chatty extroverts, we would have gone into PR.

If we really loved having our photo taken or being witty in two-minute soundbites, we would have chosen a career in television. Trying to boil down nuance into seconds is difficult and scary as hell — and I’ve done a fair bit of television and radio promotion for my books, whether BBC radio and television, NPR or Al Jazeera America.

And “the public” can be brutal, (see: amazon “reviews”), ignorant and brutally ignorant of what it takes to even get a book commercially published. Authors often get asked to speak at someone’s lunch or alumni group or women’s club, unpaid.

Yet if your book sells poorly — fewer than 10,000 copies — your odds of an agent repping you, or any publisher touching  your next attempt shrivel very quickly.

So we feel compelled to sing and dance and do blog tours, even if that’s about as appealing as gum surgery.

Here’s Anna Holmes taking the opposite view:

Book promotion can offer a feeling of agency for authors trying to find their way in an industry that can seem otherwise fickle, opaque and unmeritocratic…

And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?

Holmes is being super-polite; “unmeritocratic” is Times-speak for:

How did that piece of shit ever find a publisher?!

I have two friends who head the publicity departments of two major American publishers. I love them as friends, but to hear their insiders’ view of this business is blood-chilling. One told me recently she read a proposal so incompetent she said, “Not a chance.”

Yet the house bought it for a lot of money, because the writer already has a huge following for her website — i.e. demand for her product.

I was intrigued when I started to follow writer Sarah Salway’s British blog, Writer in the Garden, and decided to follow her on Twitter — and read the bio’s of the many highly-accomplished UK writers she follows. Their self-presentation was almost uniformly witty and self-deprecating, a style I used to employ when I moved from Brit-inflected Canada to the U.S. — and to chest-thumping New York City, aka Braggarts ‘r us!

If you’re shy and quiet and reserved about your work here, hang it up kids, because you’re probably going to stay invisible and powerless.

In our noisy, crowded, you-only-get-six-seconds’-of-my-attention culture, introverts can have a tough time getting their books attention, reviews and sales.

I have to say, on balance, I side with Holmes. I’d rather initiate a convo with my readers than sit around waiting for someone to find my books.

Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, Money, work on April 11, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you dream of becoming a published author — and some of you already are.

It’s a very cool accomplishment and one to be proud of.

I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books and I still love sharing them with audiences. I really enjoy public speaking and answering readers’ and would-be readers’ questions and hearing their comments.

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But, while it’s terrific to get out there and share your story, and that of your book, you’ll also get a pile ‘o invitations to speak for no money.

A new service (and I’m not A Big Enough Name for them to want me, sigh) is paying NYC-area authors $400 (and pocketing $350 of the $750 fee) for bringing authors to local book clubs.

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.

Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.

I make no money selling books

Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?

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Your audience is too small

Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.

The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.

Your audience isn’t my audience

Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues  I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.

It costs me time and money to do this for you

You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.

If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.

Your competitors pay!

I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up  by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.

If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.

Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?

I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance

I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.

malled china cover

I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

In art, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Money, work on March 8, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.

It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.

malled cover HIGH

The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!

I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.

The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if  they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.

One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.

Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.

Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.

Not, sorry to say, the United States.

It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.

Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.

Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books  — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.

And another, focused on business books.

There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong.  A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.

Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.

That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue  — I knew that when I chose my subject.

My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.

Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?

Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.

Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?

Priceless.

Helping writers in financial crisis: please donate to WEAF!

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, Money, US, work on December 6, 2013 at 3:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, many journalists now work full-time freelance. Some do so by choice, while many have been shut out of an industry going through almost daily re-invention; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and many of us did not find another.

Add to that a difficult economy in the U.S., and some writers — even the most talented and productive throughout a long career — can find themselves in a terrifying financial crisis, with no alternate source of income and few savings if your anchor client shuts down or a few reliable editors suddenly leave and/or you get a bad medical diagnosis and you’re too busy getting surgery and treatment to keep working.

Typically, it’s a medical emergency, theirs and/or that of a loved one, and its out-of-pocket costs that shove a writer into fiscal desperation — in the U.S. (a sad and ugly truth), most bankruptcies are the result of overwhelming medical bills.

Writer Wordart

Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

I serve on a volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund. Since 1982, we’ve given out more than $400,000 to help qualified, deserving non-fiction writers through tough times. Our board is made up of veteran writers and editors, current and former, including Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Caputo and novelist Betsy Carter.

Books behind the bed

Books behind the bed (Photo credit: zimpenfish)

Unlike most charities, there are no administrative costs, so every penny you give goes only to the writers who seek our help.

When a needy writer asks for a grant we quickly read their application and — within a week — send them what we agree is a fair amount, usually the maximum, up to $4,000.

The money you give us is also tax-deductible, as WEAF is a registered charity.

I’m proud to help others in my profession. I hope you’ll do so as well this year. Writers — whether we’re producing unpaid blog posts or paid books, articles, scripts or other media — enrich our shared culture, explain the world and help us all see things a little more clearly.

Here’s a New York Times story I wrote about funds like ours, including WEAF.

I hope you’ll consider giving even a small amount.

For every $50 donation to WEAF — and please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com to let me know you’ve made the donation, with your name and mailing address — I’ll snail mail you a signed copy of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, my most recent book. USA Today called it “a bargain at any price” and Entertainment Weekly described it as “an excellent memoir.”

I’m happy to sign it to you, or to someone else for a holiday gift.

Thank you!

Writers, beware: 10 caveats before you publish your book

In art, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Medicine, work on November 25, 2013 at 1:20 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Logo of french publisher Léon Vanier

English: Logo of french publisher Léon Vanier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a wise/sorrowful reflection on publishing, by former lecturer in French at Cambridge, blogger Victoria Best:

Nowadays you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the world writes and harbours some secret dream of superstardom. And publishers seem (and this may be an illusion) to have become more and more cagey and restrictive about what they will put out…And paradoxically, the more platforms that appear for writers to publish on, the more problematic it all becomes. There are people out there drawing flow charts now to account for all the different choices that can be made. And still the question remains: who will actually read us?

It seems to me that the basic problem is that publishing is way too emotive a subject for writers to be allowed near…Many writers talk about publishing before they have actually experienced it. In the same way that newly-formed partnerships fantasise romantically about having children, and university students imagine being rich, writers think about publication as a joyous event, and quite possibly one that will solve all their problems – financial, moral, existential. Whereas most of us who have published limp bloodied from the arena, humiliated by having failed to make the crowd go wild. My premise in this post is that – like so many modern phenomena – publishing is an awful experience and yet still we want it beyond all reason.

Here’s the inside dope from NYC career editor, Daniel Menaker, in the blog Vulture, an excerpt from his new book:

Approximately four out of every five books published lose money. Or five out of six, or six out of seven. Estimates vary, depending on how gloomy the CFO is the day you ask him and what kinds of shell games are being played in Accounting….

To make matters worse, financial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-­seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior.

The entire blog post is a must-read for anyone who really wants to hear what goes in inside publishers’ hallowed halls. Not for the naive or foolish. It’s funny, sad, bitter — and true!

And, from The Nation:

the work of writers is traded in three currencies: money, meaning book sales and author advances; status, meaning reviews, awards, fellowships and general cachet, which are not strictly quantifiable but pay dividends nonetheless; and a third, which I can only describe as the actual life of a book, which is its movement through the world after it is published. Sales do contribute to this third currency, but only so much, because it is intangible, uncountable and ultimately unknowable, and yet still entirely, wonderfully real.

What do authors hope for with publication of their work?

Fame

Defined how? Ten people beyond your immediate family? A cover story in People magazine?

Fortune

Most writers receive an advance, from a commercial publisher, of $5,000 to $50,000 for their first book — maybe even their seventh or twelfth. The advance is typically paid out in thirds, at best, more often in quarterly payments: upon signing of the contract; upon delivery of the first few chapters or full manuscript; upon publication, (typically at least a year after signing), and — yes, really! — a year after publication.

Which somewhat re-defines the word “advance.”

Every payment is sent through your agent who claims their 15 percent fee for representing you before they forward the rest to you. Most mid-list authors, (i.e. not best-sellers), will never “earn out”, i.e. repay the publisher their advance and thereby receive any additional payment for their work. This is because we receive a tiny fraction of the cover price and because publishers make sure to claim their profits before we see ours.

Foreign sales

Pleasant, but rarely lucrative. Citic Press bought the rights to publish my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” in China, paying $3,000. It simply went to pay down my advance. They re-named the book for their market, (“The Greatest Saleswoman in the World” — hardly!) and gave it a crisp new cover, with a photo wholly different from the American version.  I’ve received no reply from them to my repeated emails asking for information about how it’s doing there.

Thousands of passionate readers

Many books find fewer than 1,000 buyers, in any format. Ever. A book selling 10,000 or more copies has done well. (My second book, “Malled”, did. Whew!)

A movie deal

I know someone whose book — published in 2001 — is now in production as a major motion picture. Many books are optioned, (which usually means you get a nice five-figure check), but few make it through the process to become a finished film. Here’s an interview with Orson Scott Card in the current issue of Wired magazine, author of the award-winning 1985 book Ender’s Game — now in theaters after more than a dozen scripts were rejected over the decades.

A television series (with residuals!)

Sweet! My book Malled was optioned by CBS as a sitcom and I was swooning with excitement. I was paid $5,000 — but lost $1,000 to the two agents who repped it. Many emails went back and forth between me and the script-writer, a Hollywood veteran. But CBS’ top executive said no to the final version and CBS now owns the script.

A job offer

Maybe. Certainly not a sure thing.

For posterity

Everyone’s dream.

Rave reviews

OK, these days, any reviews! While many online sites review books, and you can read dozens on amazon.com, it’s difficult to win an inch of serious reviewers’ space. The competition is ferocious.

Awards

Oh, the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments! We’d all like that “XYZ-award-winner” on the cover of our book, but only a tiny fraction of us will ever get it. I was really honored when Malled was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award, given to “those who pursue deep storytelling and investigative reporting in the service of the common good.” (A professor won it.)

So…why the desperate compulsion to publish a book?

For some people, it’s the pure satisfaction of having done it, knowing they can.

For others, it’s a strategic move, to build or bolster their brand or authority.

For academics, it’s a must, without which they can’t win tenure.

And yet, despite all of the above, I’m glad I’ve done my two books, and am now working on a proposal for another, fully aware of the pitfalls (and pleasures) if someone does make an offer on it.

I enjoy writing non-fiction books because journalism today offers few places in which to deeply explore serious ideas at length. A book gives you 80,000-100,000 words to plumb the depths of a complicated story. For me, that’s the draw.

Will anyone review it or buy it after a year or more of consistent effort to produce it? No idea!

Here’s a brilliant bit of writing advice, (there’s more if you follow the link, from Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction Paul Harding, in the one publication every ambitious writer must read, Publisher’s Weekly:

Get your art written any way you can. It’s tempting as a teacher to present your own method as normative. It’s maybe even more tempting as a student to look for a method that sounds good and austere and disciplined, with a dash of charming self-deprecation thrown in, and conform to it in the hopes that it will work for you, because writing is hard, after all, and it’s nice to think that if you follow a prefabricated set of rules you’ll get a story or a poem or a novel out of it.

But a huge part of being a writer is discovering your own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy, and how you best get the best words onto the page. The musician Tom Petty tells a great anecdote about working with the producer Jeff Lynne. Petty was in the studio making an album and being very doctrinaire about some recording method or another, much to Lynne’s exasperation, and so Lynne finally said to him, “Tom, no one gives a shit about how you make your records. They only care if the record sounds good.”

Outside of writing workshops and seminars, no one cares if you sit facing the blank page for six hours every day beginning at sunrise, or if you loaf around frittering away most days like a bum, or if you write your book one line at a time on the sly in between typing your boss’s business letters at the office. What’s important is that your reader holds a thrilling, amazing work of art in her hands.

How about you?

What would it mean to you to finally publish your book?

Those who have self-published, is it what you hoped for or expected?

THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR IS “CRAFTING THE PERSONAL ESSAY”; 4:00 p.m. EST Nov. 30. I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.

What writers really wish you knew

In behavior, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on August 22, 2013 at 12:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Attention Icon.

English: Attention Icon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fun life being a writer, which is why so many people are lining up, still, to do it.

I just spent a fun/tiring eight hours in Manhattan at a freelancers’ conference. But if you make your living at it, (and or dream of it), some frustrations become routine.

Here are a few things writers really wish you knew:

— It’s not a hobby. We attend conferences and take classes, (or teach them), and network and spend time and money and attention improving our skills. Assuming it’s something cute we do “just for fun” is ignorant and disrespectful.

— Working alone at home can be really lonely and isolating. Come meet us for coffee or a drink!

— We need feedback on our material, especially works-in-progress, aka WIPs. If we get up the nerve to ask you to read or review it, that’s a big gesture of trust on our part. Please say yes, please offer specific feedback and please do it.

— We need blurbs for our books. If you have a connection to A Big Name who might help us, please make the call or send the email. Asking for blurbs can be one of the hardest parts of writing and publishing a book.

— If you ask me for help, do not blow off the phone call I booked time for. Let alone twice.

— If you ask me for help, be classy enough to offer me some as well, if not today, then down the road.

— Don’t ask me to hand over the names and contacts of my editors. If I feel like that’s the right choice, I’ll offer.

— Don’t ask me for an introduction to my agent. I may not think you’re ready for prime time. I may not think you are a good fit for their list or their personality. Don’t put me on the spot. If I think it’s right, I’ll offer.

— Don’t ask to “pick my brain.” It’s annoying and presumptuous.

— Don’t ask me how much my advance was. It’s really annoying. I don’t ask your salary!

— Don’t whine about how hard/lonely/difficult/poorly-paid it can be, especially at the beginning. I know. Go do something else…like retail or fast-food work. That’s misery, kids. Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon; a messy, necessary part of every working day. Get used it or don’t be a writer.

— We’re insecure. Did you really like that story/pitch/book/screenplay? Say so!

— Repeat business is the sweetest. When you find a writer whose work you like and you enjoy working with, throw them as much work as they can handle. You’ll win our loyalty.

— If you’re a client, and we bill by the hour, don’t cheap out and ask us for a 30-minute consultation. It can take that much time to even read your two-page material thoughtfully, let alone formulate helpful ways to improve it.

— If you’re an editor, and like what we’ve done, say so! We’re hungry for praise and enthusiasm, no matter how experienced we are. The check is what we work for. A thank-you or other additional thumbs-up is what we hope for.

— Just like you, we’re all juggling multiple projects every day, some competing for the same time you think you’ve bought exclusively. Don’t demand immediate replies, revisions or turn-arounds on a moment’s notice. If you need our undivided attention, say so, explain when — and pay properly enough that we’re willing to back-burner other things for you. Snapping your fingers at us just means we’ll never work for you again.

— Pay us promptly with no excuses! There is nothing more irritating than meeting every deadline, even beating it, then waiting weeks or months for payment. You got paid. The lights are still on in your office. The office rent got paid. Our turn!

— Make the time to get to know us, even a little bit. We, too, have kids and hobbies and new puppies. The more we know, like and trust one another, the better our working relationship is likely to be. We’re not robots. We don’t want to be treated like one.

— Let us get to know you a bit as well. We don’t need or want to be your BFFs, but people work best with those they like and respect. You can’t like and respect a cipher. I recently found out all the jobs one of my editors is expected to do. Jesus, no wonder she sounds so stressed and tired!

— Follow up. If we’ve pitched you an idea after a meeting or phone chat, or we’ve been introduced to you by your boss or someone you trust, don’t ignore us. It’s rude! These weren’t cold calls. We’ve done our due diligence to get a good referral. You’re dissing them and us.

— Be explicit about what you need, expect and in what order. If your publication normally expects three revisions, say so at the outset and we’ll budget that time, or not work with you. But insatiably grabbing more unpaid time on a set fee is greedy.

— If you’re my agent, and we’ve agreed to work together, please answer my phone calls and emails promptly. I won’t drive you mad, but I expect you to pay attention; you’ll be claiming 15% of every check I earn from our books together, so I expect you to earn it.

— If you wish to sever our working relationship, do so. Don’t be passive aggressive and neglectful. Just get it over with.

Here’s a great post, from Freshly Pressed, (which inspired this post), by a theater veteran about what actors really feel but are often afraid to say out loud about their working conditions.

The (price of the) unconventional life

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, education, life, Money, US, women, work on July 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of Broadside’s readers are in their teens and 20s, in college or university, or probably headed there. Some are thrilled at the prospect of acquiring more formal education, possibly all the way to a Phd or professional degree.

Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in g...

Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in graduation/presentation ceremonies of Ph.D’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Others, like me, are wary of school, chafing in classrooms, weary of authority. Wondering how else — is it possible? — to acquire the credentials and skills they’ll need to make a living.

This recent blog post, by a student at Brown, one of the U.S.’s  most prestigious and costly universities, asks some serious questions about what “success” looks like:

i have a goal. it’s farfetched, extremely open-ended, and it might be fleeting. my goal is to refocus. my goal is to revisit this idea of being human and reinterpret the meaning of success. success has looked only one way for as long as i’ve known the word: a big house, lots of
money, a nice car. success has been the american dream. as a child of babyboomers, i’ve seen the american dream take hold and manifest itself in a lifestyle that is hard to say no to. it’s a lifestyle of security and certainty. but what i’ve learned is that this lifestyle, as enabling as it may be, has forgotten a lot of things that i find extremely important. it has forgotten how to be simply human and has focused on how to be monetarily prosperous. i’m down with the good life, don’t get me wrong. i’m just thinking that i might have a different path in mind for myself. know i have something else that’s ticking inside of me, and it can’t just sit at in cubicle and work for 8 hours then to go home to frozen potstickers and minute-maid lemonade. it wants to run wild, rampant, and ridiculously free.

I appreciate her passion and her questioning of what constitutes the “good life.”

By the time a student has been admitted to Brown, or any other super-competitive school costing $30-50,000 a year, they’ve likely been groomed from infancy to focus solely or primarily on the achievement of visible, conventional goals.

Everyone they’ve known — in prep school, at summer camp, in their SAT prep classes, on their sports teams — is expected to head in the same direction.

Up.

How about….sideways?

Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream

Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream (Photo credit: cesarharada.com)

The problem is, if your parents/friends/family have all bought into the same dream — moremoremoremoremore — it’s lonely and weird to step off the track, let alone figure out a way to do so and not live in a box beneath a bridge.

I attend a church with some very wealthy parishioners, so I’ve seen some of their assumptions of what their children will do. One woman, whose husband and daughter were safely ensconced as corporate attorneys, had a son, 28, who had not even — facepalm! — finished college.

He was not an addict, in prison or chronically ill but unfocused, and had traveled the country doing a variety of odd jobs.

English: This is a diagram depicting the perce...

English: This is a diagram depicting the percentage in US who have no health insurance by age. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But her dismay at his wandering was intense, and, to my mind, bizarre. I finally met A., assuming he was a gormless wreck. He was funny, smart, observant, charming, curious about the world. I immediately saw he’d make a terrific journalist.

When I mentioned my idea to a church friend, she gasped in horror, sniffing: “You can’t make a living as a  writer!”

I was furious — and told her how much this reaction offended me.

This, while I was coughing up $1,200 a month for my apartment and an additional $500 every month for market-rate health insurance — a yearly sum of $20,400 before car insurance, gas, groceries, dentist’s, haircuts and the rest of life.

Yes, it’s far from the $150,000 to $300,000+ that a young banker or lawyer can earn. The sort of work that young ‘uns from wealthy precincts are de facto expected to choose.

But it is a living.

It is a life.

If you want to pursue creative, non-corporate work, you will pay the price. You will earn less, far less, than many people you know or meet. You may never own a home, of any shape or size. You may never own a vehicle, or a new one. You may find yourself shopping for most things in thrift or consignment shops or on sale.

To lower your living costs, you might share space with others, or live in a rural area or work several part-time jobs.

It’s fine. It’s a choice.

But it’s a way of life you will rarely, if ever, see fetishized on television or in popular media. It is not a life filled with designer luxury goods or vacations in places your wealthier friends have ever heard of. Your social circle might be much smaller, filled with people who truly share, understand and live the same values as you.

And you may also feel very out of step with your co-hort; many people my age now own multiple homes. They drive $90,000 vehicles and run major companies or organizations.

I recently contacted a young editor about freelancing — the daughter of one of my high school friends.

If I had stayed at that newspaper, my first staff reporting job, I might be her. I might well be her boss.

Yes, that felt extremely disorienting.

But I also relish my creative freedom, deeply grateful for a husband whose union-protected, full-time office job frees me from cubicle life. I’ve had well-paid staff jobs, in offices in Manhattan buildings, working for name-brand publications.

I didn’t especially enjoy them.

Working hard, with steady clients, I make a decent income, enough to save 10-20 percent every year and still enjoy some of the things I love: fresh flowers, pedicures, travel. It’s still far less than I made in 2000; my industry is a mess and pay rates are lower than they were then.

But one-third of Americans are me, now — working freelance, contract, temp. Millions of Americans, certainly my age, will never have a job with a paycheck again. Here’s a searing New York Times story today; make time to read some of the heartbreaking 125 comments and take them to heart.

We have no “benefits” from an employer, no paid sick or vacation days. We have no access to unemployment insurance if our work dries up.

The choices we make affect our lives, now and later. The decisions we make have consequences.

Make them, freely.

But know their costs.

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