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Posts Tagged ‘authors’

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.

Why write a (nother) non-fiction book?

In books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on July 24, 2013 at 4:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...

New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

From American business author/blogger Seth Godin:

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least
a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate…

A more heavily-researched approach to writing [is] exhausting, but the work is its own reward…

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).

I read Godin’s blog every day. His advice here is spot-on.

I’ve written, and published commercially with two major NYC houses, two well-reviewed works of non-fiction.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Journalism” was just published in China, which is pretty cool, and a first for me. Now I’m seeking someone to read it and compare it to my original to see if they censored my section about appalling labor conditions in Shenzhen, China where they make parts for Apple and others at Foxconn.

After two books published by major commercial houses, I’ve lost my innocence about how bare-knuckled a business publishing is, that’s for sure. I have no illusions — which many  yet-to-be-published writers naively and deeply cherish — like the publisher will: 1) be my new BFF; 2) that they will pick up the costs of designing and maintaining my website; 3) send me on a book tour.

The only way I got my own book from China was having it sent by a photographer there my husband knows, who did us a personal favor and Fed-Exed two copies; my publisher still hasn’t sent me any.

But I still really love the process of writing books, if not the selling of books. Trying to tell any truly complex story in an article is like trying to shoe-horn an elephant into a matchbox — articles are too short, too shallow and pay poorly.

You can’t dive deeply or widely enough, even in a 5,000-word+ story, (which very few people assign now).

You need to write a book.

This week I finally sent in the proposal for my third non-fiction book to my agent. I’m nervous as hell. I hope she likes it. I hope she doesn’t require more work on it as I’ve already spent about a year creating it (in addition to all my other paid work.); it’s about 10,000 words.

The real challenge will be finding a publisher to pay me enough to actually make writing it worth my time financially. Let’s say — hah! — I got a $100,000 advance, a sum extremely difficult to attain.

If I did, and if we could negotiate it into three payments, (also difficult now) — on signing the contract, on my delivery of the manuscript and publication — I’d get about $28,000 to start out with, (after the agent’s 15 percent cut, always taken off the top.)

From that, I also have to fund all travel costs and research; (I’ve already started looking for researchers.)

Many non-fiction writers have full-time jobs and/or teach as well. Few writers can actually support themselves, and their families, only by writing books.

So….why write another?

Surely the world is full of books already?

Not this one!

Cross your fingers, please.

Who are your favorite authors? A few of mine

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, education, entertainment, journalism on May 5, 2013 at 2:55 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The stack of books I’ve brought with me for a week’s rural vacation is nine high, from Joseph Stiglitz’ The Price of Inequality to Michel de Montaigne’s Travel Journal, from September 1580, during which the Pope greets him warmly and helps him become a Roman citizen.

On this journey, we are nestled at friends’ cottage in a cove on the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Time to read for pure pleasure!

I recently decided to finally read the Patrick Melrose novels by British writer Edward St. Aubyn. I’d heard and read so much about them and thought they just couldn’t be that great. But acerbic, cold-eyed, tart-tongued — they absolutely are.

They are not books for everyone! If you like shiny, happy stories about people deeply in love, optimistic and fulfilled, move on! His main character — a heroin-addicted hero, if you will in one of the novellas — is Patrick Melrose, wealthy, aristocratic, caustic. Sounds horrible. But so not.

This author knows his stuff inside out — the bitter, odd, deeply private behaviors of people with a lot of money and very deep secrets. Here’s an interview with him from 2006 from the British newspaper The Independent. And a Q and A from this year from The New York Times Book Review.

I also saw The English Patient, from 1996, on television again and felt in love once more with its creator, Canadian-Sri Lankan author Michael Ondaatje. His writing is exquisite, like entering a dream, so that when you put down the book again you almost have to shake yourself back into the room, here and now. I’ve so far only read two of his books, but loved both, In The Skin of a Lion, set in my home city of Toronto, and Divisadero, set in rural California. He has also written many books of poetry.

Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English ...

Michael Ondaatje, author of “The English Patient” speaks for the Tulane Great Writer Series presented by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English. Dixon Hall; October 25, 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Michael Ondaatje from Gulf Coast magazine.

I liked Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, (hated the next one), and Monica Ali‘s Brick Lane and Claire Messud‘s first book, The Last Life, (loathed The Emperor’s Children.)

If you have never read Alexandra Fuller, run! Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight is a beautifully written account of her growing up in Zimbabwe — as is Peter Godwin‘s When A Crocodile Eats The Sun.

Alexandra Fuller - We gaan niet naar de hel va...

Alexandra Fuller – We gaan niet naar de hel vannacht (Photo credit: Djumbo)

I realize my list is already heavily loaded with writers who are either British or partly educated there; many years ago, I loved the novels of Margaret Drabble and Nadine Gordimer as well.

I usually prefer non-fiction, and some of my favorites include the brutal but incredible war accounts, The Good Soldiers, by Pulitzer Prize winning American writer David Finkel and My War Gone By, I Miss It So, by Anthony Loyd; from amazon:

It is the story of the unspeakable terror and the visceral, ecstatic thrill of combat, and the lives and dreams laid to waste by the bloodiest conflict that Europe has witnessed since the Second World War.

Born into a distinguished military family, Loyd was raised on the stories of his ancestors’ exploits and grew up fascinated with war. Unsatisfied by a brief career in the British Army, he set out for the killing fields in Bosnia. It was there–in the midst of the roar of battle and the life-and-death struggle among the Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims–that he would discover humanity at its worst and best. Profoundly shocking, poetic, and ultimately redemptive, this is an uncompromising look at the brutality of war and its terrifyingly seductive power.

Cover of "My War Gone By, I Miss it So"

Cover of My War Gone By, I Miss it So’

Here’s a longer list of my faves, from my website, with both fiction and non-fiction.

I don’t read chick lit, celebrity stuff, romance, horror or science fiction but am always on the hunt for great, lesser-known fiction, memoir, biography, history and belles lettres — maybe from 50 or 150 years ago.

Any suggestions from your bookshelf?

My tribe

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, work on April 26, 2013 at 4:51 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I spent yesterday at the annual conference in New York City of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,400-member group founded in 1947. There were writers there with Pulitzer prizes and best-selling books and HBO series and made-for-TV movies and options and…

A girl could feel mighty small in that crowd!

The New Yorker

The New Yorker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not to mention editors from publications like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic and the New Yorker, four of the — arguably — most desirable markets for magazine writers in the U.S. (Only one of whom, from VF, was female.)

Instead, it was a terrific day of fierce hugs and nostalgia and excited shrieks over new books, and books currently being looked at by Major Publishers, and awards and pregnancies and a friend’s daughter accepted to a good (if costly!) college.

English: proportion of MRSA human blood isolat...

English: proportion of MRSA human blood isolates from participating countries in 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was Greg, who writes great stuff about nature and the outdoors, and Maryn, whose book Superbug, about MRSA (flesh eating bacteria) is absolutely riveting and terrifying, and Dan, with his new book about endangered wildlife of Vietnam.

In the hallway, I bumped into a woman with a suitcase and recognized Helaine Olen, whose fantastic book about how we’ve all been conned by the financial services industry I gave a rave review a few months ago in The New York Times.

Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen (Photo credit: New America Foundation)

I served on the ASJA board for six years and still volunteer as a trustee of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can write a check of up to $4,000 — a grant — to a needy non-fiction writer within a week. (If you can ever spare even $20 for the cause of decent journalism and the freelancers who produce so much of it, I’d be thrilled if you’d donate to WEAF.)

So I know lots of people through that, and have given back some of my time and talents to the industry I’ve been working in since 1978.

I went out for dinner that night with Maryn and three new-to-me women writers, all crazy accomplished and of course the conversation quickly turned to — female serial killers. That’s what happens when you get a bunch of newshounds at the same table; four of us had worked for major dailies and all miss the adrenaline rush of working a Big Story. So we do it now for magazines and books and newspapers and websites.

It was, in the most satisfying and nurturing way, a gathering of the tribe — people who had come from Geneva and Paris and San Diego and Toronto and Atlanta and Minneapolis and Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine, all hungry to be in some small, crowded stuffy meeting rooms to talk about what it is we do and how to do it better.

We write. We tell stories. We wake up bursting to share the cool, moving, sad, powerful, holy-shit-can-you-believe-it? richness of the world, all the untold tales that surround us every day, just there, waiting for us to capture, pitch, sell and tell them.

That’s my tribe.

What’s yours?

Dream of becoming a published author? Read this

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, entertainment, journalism, life, US, work on April 2, 2013 at 5:00 pm
"The Sower," Simon & Schuster logo, ...

“The Sower,” Simon & Schuster logo, circa 1961 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, it’s great. It’s really exciting. It is.

But then there’s this:

Drug-addicted beauty writer Cat Marnell has landed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for her memoir, “How to Murder Your Life.” Marnell, who has been in and out of rehab for her addiction to prescription drugs, famously told us she’d rather “smoke angel dust with her friends” than hold down a full-time job after being fired from Jane Pratt’s Web site, xoJane.com. Now she has chronicled her sexual and narcotic adventures in a book, to include her life as a spoiled rich kid of a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst and her drug-fueled rise through Condé Nast, xoJane.com and Vice magazine…The proposal details her numerous sexual conquests [and] four abortions.

Because, you know, get-up-wash-face-work-hard-sleep-repeat is so…..vanilla. Who cares?

And then there’s the inevitable email I got yesterday, giving me 25 days to buy back several thousand unsold hardcover copies of my second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published on April 14, 2011 in hardcover and July 2012 in paperback.

They’re being offered to me very cheaply, but I don’t have a spare few thousand dollars right now, nor the deep desire to fill every square inch of our garage with unsold books.

This is stuff you rarely hear about publicly because who dares admit envy of an advance orders of magnitude bigger than yours? For self-indulgent shite?

And no one will even publicly admit that their book didn’t sell out, because then…OMG….you’re a failure! Facebook is like sticking pins in your eyes every day if any of your friends — and this is common among established writers — have indeed become best-sellers. “Friends” being, you know, a word with some variance.

One of them keeps crowing and crowing and then another and then another and you start to think the only thing that seems obvious: “I’m such a loser!”

Um, no.

My publisher, (bless their enthusiasm!), printed too many. Partly because that’s just when e-books began taking off and we sold many more (cheaper) e-books out of the gate than hardcovers. We’re also still in a recession and my book is about low-wage labor so many of my would-be readers might have balked at shelling out the dough for the hardcover; there was a four-week wait list for it at the Toronto Public Library, a friend there told me.

Score!

Hardcover book gutter and pages

Hardcover book gutter and pages (Photo credit: Horia Varlan)

The publishing industry is a moving target and every single book they choose to publish is a gamble, a guess and some tightly-crossed fingers.

Yes, some authors — Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, et. al. — are safe bets. They’ve become like major league baseball teams, winning franchises. But I know of one best-selling author (I’ve seen the numbers) whose two previous books barely sold more than 1,000 copies before she Hit It Big.

So you never know.

So, this week, feeling foolish and weary and yet, and yet, and yet…working on my book proposal. I will never get $500,000 for any book I propose. To even get $100,000 would be a lovely thing, but also nothing I can expect.

So, as my new agent said, “If you’re really burning to write this one”…

And I said, “Yes, I am” and she said:

Burn, baby, burn!

Writers aren’t circus bears!

In art, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, entertainment, journalism, life, Media, work on February 23, 2013 at 12:32 am
Canada Reads 2013

Canada Reads 2013 (Photo credit: gorbould)

Here’s a thoughtful recent essay from Canada’s National Post:

There is a clause on page five of my book contract that states, “The Author must make herself available to the media to promote the work.”…Not only does literary life seem to require a new kind of written personal transparency, the obligations that follow publication seem to have become increasingly more invasive.

How is “available” defined when we can reveal our private lives in real time via a variety of different digital outlets? When accessing almost any author with immediate, unfiltered comment and criticism is a click away? How much does the media, and the public, want, need or even deserve?

As writers feel more and more pressure to be 24/7, real-time public figures, we need to consider those who are disclosure-averse, who prefer to hide away and let their work stand as they have constructed it.

Writing is a solitary act, while publishing is a shared one, and skill at being a likable public figure who gives great readings and interviews is in no way a quality of producing quality literature.

It’s certainly not news that the Internet is not exactly a bastion of thoughtful dialogue and critique — it’s a vile, abusive place that no amount of “haters gonna hate” can ease the blow of. The result of putting oneself “out there” is commonly getting badly beat up, shattering your confidence in yourself and your work…

Exposure can be a terrifying and exhausting process, the demand for the author to step well out into the fray constant…

Being good at self-exposure and promotion doesn’t make you a better writer, it makes you a more popular one.

This resonated deeply for me.

As you read this, I’m at an assisted-living facility about 10 minutes’ drive from my home, doing another public event for my retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I’m not being paid for it, which I sometimes am, (usually $50 to $250 for a small, local event.) A local indie bookseller will be there with a box of my books and a credit card machine. (If I sell them, they don’t count for royalties, i.e. lowering the initial advance payment with every sale, albeit a tiny fraction of the cover price the publisher actually pays the author.)

It’s showtime, folks!

This, my second book, came out April 2011 in hardcover, July 2012 in paperback, but  — like many authors — I’m still out there selling it to the public and press when possible. If it doesn’t keep selling, it will disappear from bookstores, go out of print and die. Staying silent and invisible seems unwise.

Before almost every event I have no idea, really, how many people will show up, or in what mood, or with what level of interest in me or my topic. Someone in the crowd might get nasty. I might fill the room — and not sell a single book. (My book discusses low-wage labor, and both times this has happened was after addressing library audiences in two very wealthy towns, Scarsdale, NY and Westport, CT.)

Frankly, it’s stressful.

The last event I did was in January at a local library on a bitterly cold night. I was suffering terrible bronchitis, my barking cough frequent and loud. To my delight, a friend came, as did a woman who had heard me months earlier, and she brought two friends. One man blurted “I love your book! I stayed up til 1:30 last night reading it.” Which was, of course, all lovely.

Then I asked one audience member, working retail, what she sells: “Clothing, to women your size.”

Holy shit. That hurt! I smiled my usual bland, friendly, I-didn’t-feel-a-thing smile. But her impertinent and bizarrely personal remark still hurts, weeks later.

Writers are hungry to be read, to communicate our ideas and passions, but we’re not schooled or trained — nor eager for, or desirous of, sustained public attention and unsolicited, often anonymous, commentary.

We do this public song-and-dance because we have to, because we’re proud of and love our books and want them to be read as widely as possible. But many writers are ambivalent about, even resentful of, the misleading and false sense of intimacy our public appearances create with audiences.

You don’t know us.

You just know what we wrote. 

When doing public and press events, no matter how stung or annoyed you feel, you have to react quickly and calmly, as I did on live radio with 2 million listeners on The Diane Rehm Show.

And I won’t rant here about the public, permanent and often anonymous “reviews” on amazon, some so vicious they’ve left me shaking: “Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy” wrote one.

Many writers are desperate to be published, and would kill for the chance to garner lots of media and/or public attention. For their work, yes, of course!

But you personally ? To have your looks, personality, clothing, diction, mannerisms and family discussed (and quite possibly dissed) by curious strangers?

Maybe not so much.

If you’re interested in writing-as-process, here’s a two-part interview I gave recently to fellow writer Nancy Christie, whose many questions were intelligent and thought-provoking.

Who inspires you?

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, nature, work on February 6, 2013 at 12:08 am

I’m lucky enough, for now, that the basics are covered: income, savings, health, good marriage, interesting work, a few new and intriguing projects, good friends.

It’s a lot, I know, and it’s come after a few years of fairly terrifying hanging on by the fingernails as the recession hit — my third in 20 years in New York.

What I crave now, possibly more than anything, is inspiration.

It’s been a word in use since 1300 and, technically, means to draw breath into one’s lungs — something I’ve been doing with difficulty for three weeks due to bronchitis. So I do badly want to breathe deeply and easily, but I also want the other sort, seeing something great in others and finding a way to incorporate it or emulate it in my own life.

Over the past week, I’ve been reading some books about the craft of writing. I was really looking forward to learning something so cool and compelling it would re-new my excitement about writing. Something, (forgive how arrogant this sounds), I didn’t already know after 30 years of writing for a living.

Meh.

It’s like trying to appreciate the exquisite beauty of Satie or Chopin or Couperin by practicing scales. Yes, all the notes are there, but they’re not making you sigh in appreciation and awe at what someone has done with them.

So I picked up a book written in 1986, “Arctic Dreams”, by Barry Lopez, which won the National Book Award.

Topography of the Beaufort Sea area

Topography of the Beaufort Sea area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that’s inspiration!

He writes with tremendous delicacy and insight and I’ve already learned a slew of new-to-me words, like crang and flensing and saxifrages. I never read books about nature or natural history, so I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but I do love the Arctic, a place I visited for a mere 24 hours, on assignment for the Montreal Gazette, in December 1987.

I’ve never experienced anything so alien, beautiful and mysterious and have been dying ever since to return.

Lopez so skilfully limns this place, with observations both simple and profound.

On the tiny, stunted trees one finds so far north:

Much of the tundra, of course, appears to be treeless when, in many places, it is actually covered with trees — a thick matting of short, ancient willows and birches. You realize suddenly that you are wandering around on top of a forest.

I love the naked delight he shares with us, the startled realization he felt and wants us to feel as well.

Or this:

Imagine your ear against the loom of a kayak paddle in the Beaufort Sea, hearing the long, quivering tremolo voice of the bearded seal. Or feeling the surgical sharpness of an Eskimo’s obsidian tool under the stroke of your finger.

These sentences are, to my ear, exquisite. They make me want to read and re-read them. They make me want to close the book so I can savor them and think about them.

His word choices are deliciously specific: tremolo, the alliteration of “surgical sharpness”, the naming of obsidian (gorgeous word!), not the vaguer “stone”. And the “stroke of your finger” — not the pad of your finger (which I think he might have written.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such good writing it makes me want to de-construct it so see why it moves so smoothly and efficiently. So much of what I read is a broken-down jalopy — Lopez opens the door to a smooth, seductive ride in a literary Bentley.

Arctic whaling in the eighteenth century. The ...

Arctic whaling in the eighteenth century. The ships are Dutch and the animals depicted are Bowhead Whales. Beerenburg on Jan Mayen Land can be seen in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m envious of his skill — but also (yay!) inspired to try to whatever I can, whenever possible, to reach this level of excellence. (I was also amused, and delighted, to read the name of a friend’s husband on the very first page of Lopez’ acknowledgements, Kerry Finley, a Canadian expert in bowhead whales.)

In your personal life or your professional life, who inspires you and why?

Is it someone you know personally or someone you admire from a distance?

How can you learn to write better when all you do is write?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, work on January 20, 2013 at 8:48 pm

I ask all of you this question — since the vast majority of you are bloggers and some are very serious and determined producers of journalism, non-fiction and fiction.

Next week I am not writing. Next week, to borrow my favorite of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective People, I’m shutting down the intellectual production line to “sharpen my saw”.

Selfridges has a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop wh...

It’s time to NOT make the doughnuts for a while! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I plan to do everything but write: sleep, watch the sky, talk to my Dad, hang out with Jose, see my high school friend Sally and pat her dog Lucy and watch the fire glow in fireplaces and attend my favorite small-town auction. We’ll eat some good food, sleep late, go for long walks through Toronto streets and along Lake Ontario.

I will also read a number of books by career writers and editors and teachers of non-fiction that I hope will help to improve my writing. I’ve been cranking copy for a living since 1978, decades before some of you were born. It is a rare and essential luxury to withdraw and really think deeply and broadly about process. About how to do it even better.

I recently finished On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, who is still teaching in Manhattan, at the age of 88. It is a truly stellar book. I cannot recommend it too highly! Don’t simply trust me — it’s sold 1.5 million copies since he wrote it in 1974 (revised many times since.)

I’m going to read this book, by New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose brief pieces are lovely, clean and graceful.

And this one, by Roy Peter Clark, whose session last September in Decatur, at the Decatur Book Festival, was sold out, a huge auditorium where they wouldn’t let me, a fellow speaker, even sit on the floor to hear him.

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...

New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

I’m eager to read this new book, Good Prose, another guide to writing well, reviewed recently in The Wall Street Journal:

Messrs. Kidder and Todd claim that one reason their relationship remained productive for so many years was that “we shared a code common to men of our era, which meant that we didn’t expect much, or feel like offering much, in the way of intimacy or ‘sharing.’ ” Maybe so, but in a sense they were exceptionally intimate: One of the secrets of Mr. Kidder’s success is that he is not afraid of writing badly in front of his editor, which frees him from the paralysis of writer’s block. I’ve worked as a magazine editor for 20 years and done some writing on the side, and I’d say that the relationship you have with your editor should be like the one you have with your urologist—you should feel comfortable showing him unspeakable, embarrassing things and trust that he will not recoil but endeavor straightforwardly and discreetly to help. (The writer-editor relationship should also have a confidentiality akin to attorney-client privilege or, perhaps more aptly, to that of the psychiatric couch.)

One of the things I very rarely talk about here at Broadside, when I talk about writing for a living, is my relationships with my editors, without whom I would starve in a month. Unlike blogging, my writing for print and books always goes through multiple layers of editing by others, often people I will never meet and may not even speak to.

These relationships have tremendous power and weight:

— I have to retain my voice

— I have to insure my material remains factually accurate

— My stories need to retain their rhythm and tone; like a piece of musical composition, none of my word choices or sentence lengths or paragraph lengths are arbitrary

— I need to be sure the many underlying themes are carried through and clear to my readers

But, I also need

— to retain long-term relationships in a small industry where people move around a lot, but stay in the biz for decades

— be well-paid

— keep, as much as I can, a reputation as someone that agents, editors, assistants and publicists really want to work with again

This is the single greatest inherent weakness of blogging. Other than your followers, who is editing you and forcing you, on every single story, to up your game?

I recently read the post of blogger who said — and I could not tell if she was serious — that she expected an agent to find her and publishing success would follow.

Well, maybe.

Journalism and commercial book publishing is a team sport! I cannot emphasize this enough. For someone who may have zero writing training or work-shopping experience, who has never been heavily edited — which means answering a lot of questions from a lot of people who now control some or all of your career and income and reputation — it will be one hell of a shock.

When fellow blogger Mrs. Fringe and I met for coffee a while back, I learned how serious and determined she is to publish fiction. But she’s also shown it to some of the nation’s toughest editors and they were encouraging.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” got some terrific reviews; Booklist (which librarians read to decide what to buy) called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.” But it was very lightly edited so I had no true feeling for a hands-on editing job until I got my editors’ notes back on “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I was alone, in a motel room in Victoria, B.C., visiting my mother. I read them and panicked. Totally panicked.

Basically, my editor — who was, of course, half my age — said “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.”

What about Chapters One through 10?

Suffice to say that 30 years, three big newspaper staff reporting jobs and thousands of freelance articles had still not prepared me, emotionally or intellectually, for this intense level of trust, revision and sheer hard work.

What are you doing these days to sharpen  and grow your writing skills?

A writer’s week

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, work on December 1, 2012 at 12:04 am

Here’s my desk, messy as usual…

In the middle of American Thanksgiving, last weekend — at 12:30 on Saturday — I got an email that made me cry.

Having applied for one of the country’s most competitive journalism fellowships, for which hundreds try each year, I was told I’m one of 14 finalists. They will only choose six, so it’s far from a sure thing. If I win, I’ll receive funding for six months. I go to Washington, D.C. Dec. 10, with only 15 minutes in which five judges will question me further, to determine who will win.

Wish me luck!

I worked this week on two very different projects, another 2,500 word feature for The New York Times business section, my fourth for them since April. I also finished up a 20-image slideshow for the DIYnetwork, an on-line branch of HGTV, focused on interior design; writing wasn’t the skill needed here but a strong visual sense as I pored through dozens of images, chose the ones I think best, then contacted architects, designers, photographers and manufacturers to get their permission.

I pitched a few ideas, but didn’t hear back. I’m still “saving string” — accumulating clips and sources — for my next two non-fiction book ideas as I’ve found a new agent to work with. I hope to write both book proposals in December, unpaid work I never like much but the only way to sell books to publishers; a book proposal, for those who have never written one, is essentially an intellectual blueprint, laying out clearly what you hope to say, to whom and in what detail.

I have to hire a new assistant, something I’ve been putting off, a little — a lot — weary of having to train new people every few months. I’m aware that if I paid $20/hr+ I’d keep them longer, but I’ve yet to see any difference in skill or attitude between people I pay $1o to $15 an hour.

I read a thriller for fun, and am halfway through a great new business book (yes, really) about personal finance, trying to find someone to pay me to review it. I speak next week to a local women’s club, hoping to sell copies of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I have a few story ideas I need to pitch to magazine and newspaper editors. This is the part of my writing business I enjoy least, busy enough juggling immediate, short-term and long-term projects as it is.

Our only car was in the shop all week for a viciously costly — four-figure — repair, the second one that size in a month. Double whammy, as living in the ‘burbs without a car is hopeless. The good news? I walked my hilly neighborhood at dusk, savoring the terrific Hudson River views, cutting through people’s backyards and made all sorts of discoveries I’ve never noticed in 24 years driving quickly along the same streets. I was inspired and moved by this terrific blog post, featured on Freshly Pressed, about how much the writer saw during his hour-long neighborhood walk.

The trees still have many of their red, orange and yellow leaves and I could shuffle my feet through huge piles of them on the sidewalk, happily feeling like a five-year-old.

As we head into the final month of 2012, I’m trying to plan ahead for 2013. The business of journalism and publishing is changing so quickly, though, it’s hard to know where to best expend my energy.

Next year, if all works out as I hope, I’ll sell two books to publishers, take a six-month break from this hustle with my fellowship income, do more paid public speaking and find more new markets for my work; this year I found nine, three of which didn’t last long. I always prefer, whenever possible, to create long-term relationships with repeat business.

But people change jobs and sometimes a new working relationship fails to pan out for either side.

How was your week?

How to give a great speech (Hint: be authentic)

In behavior, books, business, education, entertainment, journalism, life, Media, work on November 15, 2012 at 4:01 am
Audience

Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

Here’s a great post recently featured on Freshly Pressed, from Nancy Duarte:

The number one thing, I think, is to be audience-centric…Develop all your material from a place of empathy toward them. You’re asking them to adopt your idea, which means they may have to abandon a belief they hold as true — and that’s hard. So, know your audience — take a walk in their shoes. What keeps them up at night? How are they wired to resist your message?

Understand your role in the presentation…that of a mentor — you should be giving the audience a magical gift or a special tool, or helping them get unstuck in some way. You have to defer to your audience. When you put your idea out there for an audience to contend with — if they reject your idea, your idea will die. You have to think of it as, “The speaker needs the audience more than the audience needs the speaker.”

And then the third thing — wrap your content in story.

I recently gave a speech to 200 people, the largest I’ve had so far, students of retail at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and about 20 retailers. It went very well, and I stayed an additional 90 minutes to talk to students, sign books and answer more questions. They were folding up the tables and chairs by the time we were done.

If you’re curious, here’s the link; I’m not suggesting I was great! It’s 1 hour and 22 minutes, the final 22 minutes are Q and A.

In the past two years since Malled was published, I’ve done a lot of public speaking: at public libraries, to college students, to retailers at conferences.

Do I get nervous? Speaking to a group of regular folks at a local library? No. To a room filled with fairly senior executives from major retailers, (some of whom I hope will hire me to address their own companies or conferences), who have paid me well to be there, yes.

Especially if it’s being videotaped!

Writers write.

But if you really want to sell books, you also have to be consistently public, visible, audible and articulate, even if we don’t know how to structure a speech or presentation. We may not own the right clothes or haircut or haircolor or glasses or manicure. We may have a horrible voice or stutter or pure stage fright. We often earn a small fraction of the incomes of those listening to us, who assume (wrongly) we must be making good money because (hah!) we have been interviewed on NPR or CBS and our books are in stores.

In 2011, I hired a speaking coach, DC-based Christine Clapp, who taught me how to structure a speech and get calm before delivering it; I did this the day before I did an hour, live, with call-ins, on The Diane Rehm Show, which has two million listeners and is NPR’s largest show. This is a link to the audio.

“Be emotionally naked,” Clapp advised.

I’ve watched many experienced speakers at conferences and some are awful, no matter how much they got paid. They use PowerPoint (zzzzzzz), they use slides and video (unless their content is visual, why?), they drone onandonandon, they say really boring shit  and some wear all black in some tired attempt to look edgy and cool.

One, who is very famous and should know better, strode onto a Manhattan stage in 2010 carrying a rubber chicken and wearing an overcoat.

I stand still. I use some notes and no visual aids.

(Obviously, some of these tips are not useful if your presentation is purely academic, scientific or technical.)

Tips:

— Are the references you’re making going to be familiar with your audience? I learned this the hard way when I referred to an airline, (an example of amazing customer service, Open Skies) to an audience of American business executives, forgetting that an airline with only one route (NY-Paris) wasn’t something many of them would know.

— Remember how differently others feel about some issues. I learned this the hard way with the same audience, telling them, proudly, how a former customer had asked me for referral to a therapist (everyone goes to therapists in NY!), which provoked guffaws from brawny macho Midwesterners. In Minnesota, knowing this is a NY thing, I prefaced that same story with a local reference, and it worked fine.

— Read the news, up until minutes or hours before you speak, to allow for including something timely and relevant to your subject.

— Humor is tough. If it’s safe enough to not offend anyone, it’s probably really dull.

— Dress stylishly. If you’re sitting behind a table or standing at a podium, people only see you from the waist or chest up. If you’re female, get a blow-out so your hair looks fab and you feel fully confident. No jewelry that clanks or might flash distractingly under bright lights.

— Make sure you have a watch or cellphone with you on the podium. Some podiums have a built-in timer, others do not. Do not lose track of time!

— Chill out, alone, for at least an hour before your presentation. Don’t waste your time and energy on anything but your sole reason for being there. Presenting well requires a lot of emotional, physical and intellectual energy.

— Always make sure you have 20-30 minutes for audience comments and questions.

— Anticipate questions and prepare your answers.

— Write out your remarks. Practice! Time it carefully so you don’t run out of time, or run out of things to say.

— Smile!

— If someone asks you a really tough or challenging question, stay cool. Take a breath, smile, say: “I’m glad you asked that question.” It shows you’re confident, not rattled, ready to answer thoughtfully. The audience is watching you handle yourself and your questioners.

— Always have water at hand, in a glass or cup, with no ice. Slugging from a water bottle looks tacky, and ice will slide into your face and make you look like a wet fool. I once completely lost the ability to speak, in front of a room full of people paying to be there. I had to wait for someone to run and bring me a cup of tea. Not good!

— No dairy products (milk, cheese) or hot/cold drinks beforehand. They’ll screw up your speaking voice.

— No matter how nervous you are, eat a small high-protein meal beforehand to fuel you through.

Do you do public speaking?

How’s it working for you?

Who’s the best — or worst — public speaker you’ve ever heard?

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