My writer’s life — mid-pandemic

 

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From my last group experience, attending and speaking March 8 in Fairfax, VA at the NSC 2020

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

We haven’t yet received our badly-needed $1200 per person from the Federal government, nor even tried to apply for unemployment payments (which freelancers are entitled to) , nor pandemic payments of $600/week….all of which we could use!

A lot of outlets have cut back on their freelance budgets, so it’s easy to panic, but panic never paid the bills.

Work, thankfully, continues to show up.

This past week offered three fantastic windfalls — all of them totally unexpected — and for which, even more now, I am so grateful:

— A woman writer who follows me on Twitter booked me for a coaching session from across the country for this weekend.

— A doctor I helped a few weeks ago (months?), discussing his amazing Twitter story-telling and whether it’s book material, suddenly dropped some very real cash into my PayPal account.

— I posted a question in one of the private writers’ groups I belong to on Facebook, asking for peers’ advice on where to place an unusual personal essay. An editor saw it and commissioned it.

And, always, the usual searching for more work…

A few months ago, I began working with an intern, (now home from college in Brooklyn at her parents upstate), and she and I are still, slooooowly, plugging away on a potential book proposal. I keep kidding around on Twitter with a few agents and book editors, hoping to get it to them if/when we ever get back to a more thriving economy.

I applied April 8 for a Canada Council grant, asking for the maximum of $25,000 (Canadian) to research another stalled book proposal. Only 20 percent of applicants win one and it might not be the full amount and I won’t know til August….but at least I tried. It’s open to Canadian citizens, not only residents.

 

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I’ve pitched a number of COVID-related ideas, but others have beaten me to it, or they failed to find favor.

My latest assignment — of all things! — is for Mechanical Engineering magazine, and required me to interview the nation’s top experts in their fields. PANIC! “You have a knees-quaking English major who has never studied physics or chemistry”, I wrote the editor, when he made the assignment.

But it went well and I learned a lot and the scientists were all fantastic to talk to — warm and down-to-earth. I ended up talking turkey hunting with one of them, a female legend who hunts on her Texas ranch on weekends. Of course! Turned out I had two very unlikely things in common with another scientist — we’d flown the minuscule domestic aircraft of Nicaragua and eaten at the same Indian restaurant in Montreal, across from the McGill campus.

It’s these moments of shared humanity that make all the learning implicit in journalism — even a very steep curve sometimes! — still so enjoyable.

I caught up by phone with a pal in California who I met more than 20 years ago when, having never met before, we shared a room at a Boston writing conference to save money. She’s now doing a podcast on education and invited me to talk to her about my last story for Mechanical Engineering (out in June) on STEM.

 

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Having read a pal’s story in a magazine I get, I asked her for the favor of an introduction to her editor — which she very generously made and which elicited an immediate and enthusiastic reply to my email and resume. Writing LOIs (letters of introduction to potential clients) is often a total waste of time, and one I avoid for that reason. Hoping for work!

I wrote to two editors of the FT’s glossy magazine How To Spend It. No reply. Will chase further; same for their House & Home editor, who follows me on Twitter.

Advised a Georgia MD up in NYC volunteering at a local hospital, who I follow on Twitter, about gathering details if he hopes to write a book about this pandemic.

I’m always months and months behind on my own reading, so have used some downtime to reduce the piles (three of them!) of Financial Times, NYT magazine, Architectural Digest, Vogue and the now-defunct Photo District News.

Writing is lonely! Solutions…

 

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There are some great words in there somewhere!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

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

Not me.

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

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

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

The one in Hollywood is called Rideback.

From The New York Times:

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

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

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

 

 

Writers also meet face to face with trusted peers:

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My writing life, recently

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

This summer has meant dodging endlessly between various doctors, hospitals and offices, so the time and energy I’ve had for making a living has been limited.

 

Some of what I’ve been up to:

— Tried again to see if there might be a staff writing job for me at The New York Times, since there’s a new editor on a section that could use my skills. I got a nice, quick reply so we’ll see if it turns into anything more serious.

 

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— Twice revised a 1,000 word profile of a French farmer, working in French, to insure accuracy.

—- Found/interviewed 11 people for a 1,500 word story about how fitness has become something aimed largely at the affluent. Editors, both of them new to me (always a nervous moment) both liked it a lot.

— Pitched a story set in British Columbia to a Canadian business magazine (no decision after 3 weeks.)

 

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— Invited to a conference in northern Ontario, decided to head up for a break.

— Pitched two ideas to Amtrak’s magazine, which had asked for pitches. Twice. Crickets.

— Sent an LOI to someone who does content marketing, (the only source of true income now for writers), and got a quick, positive reply but no immediate work.

— Checked in with an Atlanta editor, (thanks to a friend’s referral), to see if she’s got anything. Stay tuned, she tells me. (Again.)

— Took a story killed by the Times (which cost me $500 in lost/expected income) and re-framed it as a pitch to a business magazine. Three weeks later, still awaiting an answer after an initially positive reply.

— Pitched a story about an unusual Canadian arts program to The New York Times Magazine (twice); no answer.

 

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— Met with editor of a brand-new website focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and chatted over lemonade about story ideas. We hit it off, and I hope to produce two stories a month for her.

— Was interviewed twice for a job as editor in chief of a small weekly newspaper in a very wealthy town in my county. Very odd experience! We decided, cordially, this was not a fit for me.

— Pitched/wrote/revised a story for The New York Times about one specific element of my recent medical experiences.

— Got a surprise assignment to interview the new coach of the New York Rangers hockey team, whose offices are a 10-minute drive from my home. Met him on a Wednesday and turned in 1,200 words by Friday morning.

 

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— Reading a book of letters written by Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s best female journalists and war correspondents, (and one of Hemingway’s wives.) She knew everyone, and many of her letters are to her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938 she was paid $1,500 by Collier’s magazine for a story — the equivalent today of $26,000. I get paid $1,500 today — 80 years later! — for some of my stories — and my monthly health insurance alone costs $1,400. Do that math.

— Joined a new-ish online writer’s group, StudyHall, which has proven surprisingly civil, friendly and extremely supportive of one another.

— Blogged, as usual.

 

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— Read, as usual, the NYT and FT seven days a week, plus several books, plus NPR, plus magazines, (mostly for leisure, like Vogue and House Beautiful and Bon Appetit.)

— Send out four LOIs (letters of introduction) to what I hoped might become new clients. Crickets!

— Applied for staff jobs at the L.A. Times, The Independent, Globe & Mail and a local business newspaper. The Globe responded quickly and kindly, (I used to work for them), but, as I suspected from the start, will likely send someone down from Toronto as a plum gig. Applied a while back for a reporting spot at ProPublica — 700 resumes received. Form letter rejection.

— Helped a younger writer (who pays me for it!) navigate some tricky bits of freelancing.

Leaving this week for a 12 day break in Ontario!

The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

The pleasures of writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been slinging words for a living, since my sophomore year of university.

I’ve never formally studied writing, except for a degree from a demanding faculty in English lit.

I originally wanted to be a radio DJ, but knew I wanted to write for a living from a very early age, maybe 12 or so. Over my career, I’ve worked as an editor for three magazines and a reporter for three major daily newspapers, all of which has helped me think more clearly and write (I hope!) better; my website, if you’re interested, has some of my work.

In 1998, I won a National Magazine Award in Canada for a humor essay about, (what else?) my divorce.

I’ve derived so many pleasures from writing, for decades, including:

You!

As Broadside heads into its eighth year, I’m grateful for everyone who makes the time to come by, to read, to comment, and to return, some year after year. I know you’ve got many other ways to spend your time and attention, so thank you!

I first posted here on July 1, 2009, terrified. I write for a living, but thought no one would ever bother to read my own private thoughts. But we’re now at 16,635 followers.

Broadside has also been chosen for Freshly Pressed six times, a real honor.

Civil, lively conversation

One of the main reasons I write this blog, and continue to enjoy producing it. While I do wish more people “liked” and commented, I really value those who make time to speak up.

The Internet is so full of verbal violence. Not here!

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions
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My second book, published in 2011

Ongoing readership for my two books

I grew up in Canada, which runs something called the Public Lending Rights program, essentially royalty payments made by Canadian libraries to books registered through their program. Every year they send me a check, usually about $450, based on how often my books are borrowed and read, which tells me readers are still reaching for my work and still finding value in it.

That’s why writers write: to find readers!

Here’s a link to Blown Away; and one to Malled if you have a book club that would like to read and discuss either of them (i.e. buying at least a dozen), I’ll Skype in for a Q and A.

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Friendships

I recently went out for lunch in Manhattan with a friend who’s 20 years my junior, a woman who now lives in London but who was working in Bahrain when I first spoke to her, as a source for a New York Times business story.

She seems to live in an airplane, but we share unlikely passions, like fragrance. It’s a rare thing, but sometimes a source becomes a pal, as have some fellow bloggers, as have many of my colleagues throughout the years, whether staff or freelance.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015.

Learning about the world

I get paid to learn.

It’s a real privilege to meet or speak to such a range of people, from a British female bank CEO to a female Admiral to Olympic athletes to convicted felons to a Prime Minister to a neurosurgeon to an FBI firearms instructor.

Journalism is no way to become wealthy, but the joy of encountering so many different people and hearing and sharing their stories is worth a lot to me.

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Me, a cover girl?!

Being of service

It’s not waitressing or working retail, but journalism really is in many ways a service industry — if what we produce isn’t useful or meaningful to our readers, viewers and listeners, it’s time to hang up those skates!

I’m delighted when I hear from readers that they’ve learned something new and useful from my work; one Canadian woman said a story of mine had saved her life, as I covered a weird side effect of a medication that doctors kept dismissing when patients complained. Her mother read my story and shared it with her daughter who pushed back harder on her physician.

Telling great stories

The world is simply brimming with hundreds of amazing, untold stories.

Some are deeply unsettling, and it’s our role as reporters to bear fearless and intimate witness to war, crime, natural disaster, social injustice, racism.

Others are lying inside people who have simply never before been asked to talk to a reporter. Their untold tales are powerful, bursting with the energy of something finally unleashed.

It’s a huge responsibility to try to carve story from the raw material of reality — choosing the right characters, setting scenes, evoking emotion, choosing just the right words, in the right order, at the right length.

It is never easy.

It never should be.

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Malled’s Chinese edition

Adventure!

Not every journalist can count on a life of adventure, but it’s there for the taking if you choose your jobs and assignments carefully.

For work, I’ve been to the Arctic circle, to visit a tiny Inuit village, spent eight days in a truck with a French trucker going from Perpignan to Istanbul, taken class with the Royal Danish Ballet, have climbed the rigging 100 feet up and worked on a foot-rope aboard a Tall Ship, taken the helm of a multi-million America’s Cup contender.

I’m grateful for all these paid adventures and hope to have a few more before I’m done.

How badly do you want to be a writer?

By Caitlin Kelly

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His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.

 

For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.

Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.

Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.

Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.

There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.

There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.

There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.

Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:

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It takes talent

 

Yes, it does.

Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.

Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.

 

It takes training

 

You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.

They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.

They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.

The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your  craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.

 

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STUDY THE GREATS!

It takes practice

 

I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.

They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.

We all crave success and admiration.

It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.

It takes social skills aka charm

Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.

Charm is an under-rated skill.

Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.

Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.

Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.

 

It takes skills

 

If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.

You are not An Artist here.

You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.

You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.

We’re hired help.

Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.

Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.

For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.

You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.

If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.

 

I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.

 

 

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This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…

It takes studying the greats

“You can’t write without reading.”

If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.

Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.

 

It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source

 

It doesn’t matter what the work is.

T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.

Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.

J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.

If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.

Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.

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Isn’t this cover gorgeous? The author is a 747 pilot for British Airways. Fantastic book!

It takes patience

No one writes a perfect first draft.

No one.

 

It means being edited

If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.

Just don’t even bother.

Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.

A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.

A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.

How badly do you want to improve?

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

It means being read

Obvious, right?

That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.

You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.

A thick skin is key.

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My second book, published in 2011. Some of the Amazon reviews were truly vicious. I stopped reading them years ago…

It means being — publicly –critiqued

Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:

Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.

BOOM!

The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.

(Several other reviews were much kinder.)

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It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.

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It means being lucky — or not

 

This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.

It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.

Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.

It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.

(See a pattern here?)

It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.

Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.

The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.

Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.

How badly do you really want it?

 

So, what are you reading these days?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Check out this great post, by a Halifax librarian, about the 164 (!) books she read this year.

I’m the only person I know who loathed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which she, too, adored and names in her top three favorites.

I probably shouldn’t admit this here — I’ve only read five of her 164. I, too, loved White Teeth and The Paying Guests, which I picked off a bookstore table.

There are several on her (fiction heavy!) list I’m curious about, including Yanigahara’s much-praised A Little Life.

But the vast difference between her choices and mine is also not surprising to me, because the books we choose, and love and rave to others about, are so deeply personal.

I know that some of you love (and write) horror, romance and science fiction, three genres I never touch.

I veer, always, to non-fiction, essay, memoir and biography.

Of course, being a writer, I gave and received books for the holidays this year; one of the ones I received is on the above list.

I gave my father the gorgeous new cookbook Vegetables by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I gave my half-sister, an ambitious amateur writer of fiction and poetry, a book of 365 writing prompts and I gave my husband, who grew up in (and misses!) Santa Fe, New Mexico, a book about Mimbre pottery.

I dropped into a great Toronto indie bookstore, Type, and impulsively picked up three new books — one that examines the use of language in poetry (a genre, embarrassingly, I never read), a book of essays written by women who work in technology and a memoir.

I also (always a question posed with trepidation) asked if they sell my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and they used to but did not re-stock it.

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011

Ouch!

The glamorous life of the writer means, unless your book was a huge best-seller, the odds of it appearing in a bookstore a few years later are slim-to-none.

I still, very gratefully, receive emails from readers for both my books and also have received a healthy check through Canada’s Public Lending Rights system — a sort of royalty paid out to writers when their books are well-read through library copies.

(Much as it’s very satisfying to know my books have sold well to libraries around the world, every borrowed book, obviously, means one less sale.)

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist -- much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

I love to read, for all the reasons many of us do:

— to discover and enter new worlds, fictional and real

— to learn about a new part of the real world and how it works (or doesn’t)

— to better understand history

— to learn how to use and structure a compelling narrative

— to be inspired by lovely language

— to share someone’s story through memoir or biography

I grew up as an only child with little TV time, so reading was my default pleasure and source of amusement; I was reading and loving Greek myths when I was seven.

Sent to boarding school and summer camp for many years, I disappeared into books there to gain much-wanted and ever-elusive privacy and some sense of personal power.

I was in deep shit for laughing out loud reading my math textbook in supervised study hall — when inside it was Gerald Durrell’s classic My Family and Other Animals.

Before leaving for summer camp for eight weeks, I’d head to a long-gone Toronto bookstore, Albert Britnell, and choose eight yellow-covered Nancy Drew books. Every week, a fresh one would arrive in its brown padded envelope. Heaven!

Right now I’m reading John Keegan’s The First World War, which was a best-seller, and I can see why — tremendously researched but clear and detailed.

When back in New York, soon, I’ll be revising the proposal for what I hope will become my third work of nationally-reported non-fiction. But who knows? It’s difficult to sell a book proposal and there’s no guarantee.

Some of the recent books I’ve read and enjoyed, include:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This doorstop won her the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly. I was given this book by a friend for my birthday in June 2014 but didn’t read it until the fall of 2015 daunted by its size, that it’s fiction (which I often enjoy less than non-fiction) and what many smart friends said — it’s too long! It definitely could have used a trim at the end, but I loved it. Much of it is set in New York City, a place I know well now after living near it for decades, and she perfectly captures feelings and characters you find there.

North of Normal, Cea Sunrise Person

I’ll be offering a post soon that’s a Q and A with her; I reached out to her on Twitter to rave about it. If you’ve read and enjoyed the American best-seller The Glass Castle, this will resonate for you — a story of a little girl who survived a crazy and isolated childhood, in this case in a tipi in the woods of northern Canada. It is simply astounding to me that she survived it with such grace and lack of self-pity.

Isn't this cover gorgeous?
Isn’t this cover gorgeous?

Skyfaring, Mark Vanhoenacker

I previously blogged about this gorgeous book, written by a British Airways pilot who flies 747s across the world. If you, like me, live to travel and love the smell of JP4, jet fuel, this one’s for you. Lovely lyrical writing.

What were your favorite recent reads, old or new?

 

 

Time to up your writing or blogging game?

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories
One of my first national magazine stories

As some of you already know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with clients ranging from non-profits like WaterAid to journalism for The New York Times and many others. I’ve been writing for national magazines and newspapers since my days at the University of Toronto, was a staff reporter for three major daily newspapers, a magazine editor and now work from home for a wide range of clients.

Here’s my website, with many published articles, including the one which won me a National Magazine Award.

Whether it’s a personal essay, a reported story, an investigative piece — or a blog post — I know how to do it and can help you do it better!

The basics of great writing never change: clear thinking produces clear writing. But sometimes you need a smart and helpful editor to talk it through. That’s me.

I love teaching and coaching and take great pride and pleasure in my students’ progress.

This year I taught freshman writing at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, and also taught blogging — where my students’ blogs helped them win prestigious internships and polish their writing and social media skills.

I also teach writing at the New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan, and recently helped six designers better understand the world of publishing and social media in my class “How to Catch an Editor’s Eye”. My classes there start again September 23.

Time to make some money with your writing?
Time to make some money with your writing?

As someone who’s been writing for demanding editors in Canada, Britain and the U.S. for decades — also author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books — I’m able to help newer or less-experienced writers refine their pitches, conceptualize ideas for a book proposal, think through your next steps in building a writing career.

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011

As I did for this piece, I can also read a first draft of your story, offering many helpful, constructive editing comments, (tone, reporting, structure, etc.)

I met its young author at a conference in New York a few years ago and, since we’re both from Toronto, stayed in sporadic touch. She sent me a draft of her challenging and complex piece — about a murder by a former high school classmate of hers — and I helped her with it.

It’s since gotten a lot of attention, including from the Washington Post, Jezebel and others.

My first book, published in 2004
My first book, published in 2004

I often coach fellow writers — in person, by phone or Skype — as I recently did for one English journalist when I was on holiday in Dublin; I charge $225/hour (U.S.), payable in advance by Paypal to focus on anything you’d like advice on: blogging, journalism, online writing, non-fiction writing, pitching…

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

My webinars, which I can do by Skype or phone, are $150 for 90 minutes and I schedule them according to your convenience one-on-one — you’ll find testimonials from satisfied students from New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the U.S., Canada and England.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid

Interested?

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com and let’s get started!

The writer’s week: mice invasion, a huge new assignment, a bad fall

By Caitlin Kelly

What’s it really like to work as a full-time freelance writer in New York?

Strap in and hang on!

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

Monday

My husband flies home today to New York from Texas, where he attended the memorial service for his half-brother. I meet him at Laguardia airport, a journey by car that costs more than $16 in tolls and $12 for parking. Some people wonder why I set my rates so high — costs like this are one reason.

I’ve been asked to come up with a projected budget for my expenses for an assignment in England in early January. It’s easily done, thanks to Google, but imagine life without it. We take quick, ready, free access to information totally for granted now, but I began my career long before there was an Internet or email or Google.

I call a client I last spoke to in August, and for whom I’ve set aside most of November to work on her organization’s project. That also means I am relying on the income from it. I call her — and she blithely tells me, with no prior warning, they won’t be doing it until February.

Another client referred to me who said she had almost $600 in her 2014 training budget to hire me tells me I had to have invoiced her last week. Now it’s too late.

Not a good start to the week, or month.

IMG_20141021_161704879_HDR

Tuesday

I read and grade the papers of my 12 freshman writing students; I teach two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’ve decided to mix things up and gave them a visual writing prompt, a photo of a WWI soldier and a photo of a WWI uniform. I gave them total freedom to produce 500 words, and the results are stunning: original, moving, evocative.

I confirm with my two guest speakers, one for the writing class and one for blogging, that they’ll be coming this week.

We have a mini-invasion of small brown mice. We lay traps, which I hate, but we live in a small apartment and I work at home. Co-existence is not a realistic option.

Wednesday

I start the day with my usual walk, with a friend who lives across the street. The fall leaves are at their glowing peak, so it’s a gorgeous way to kick off the day. I live 25 miles north of New York City, so have the best of both worlds, ready access to it, but leafy, quiet and more affordable life just beyond its borders.

More questions on one story from an editor. Sigh.

I teach my last writing class at the New York School of Interior Design, where I was a student in the 1990s when I considered leaving journalism for design. I’ve only had two students here, but have really enjoyed both of them, one of whom is working on a renovation of the Plaza Hotel and shows me some photos.

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

Thursday

It’s pouring rain so I’m in the car by 7:00 a.m. to drive to Pratt, which usually takes 60 to 75 minutes. This time it consumes 2.5 hours.

My guest speaker for the writing class fails to appear and I scramble to fill that hour by discussing the week’s reading — an excerpt from “Hella Nation” by Evan Wright.

My friend, in a neck brace (!) has traveled 90 minutes by subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but arrives just as class is ending! We pivot, and seven of my 10 students sit around a cafeteria table downstairs so they can still have a chance to hear him and ask questions. He and I catch up personally for the next hour before he heads back to Manhattan.

Another guest speaker, a friend of a friend, also arrives from Manhattan to address my blogging class. I’m so grateful for their expertise!

I’ve been negotiating a profile of a local lawyer for a major women’s magazine and scheduling time with her through her assistant; my editor and I chat by phone and email about what she needs and when I will file a first draft, December 1. It’s not much time in which to research and write 3,500 words! But I’m really excited. This is the biggest assignment I’ve had in a while.

I drive home, and arrive exhausted; as I’m walking across our driveway in the dark, I slip and fall — hard. My laptop (not in its padded case) skids across the wet cement and I bruise and scrape my bare right knee. Ouch!

I watch an extraordinary film on TCM from 1941, Meet John Doe, in black and white. The film begins with a newspaper publisher firing half his staff and bringing in cheap, new, desperate blood. Too ironic — my husband’s employer of 30 years, The New York Times, needs to have 100 employees accept their offers of a buyout by December 1.

Plus ca change…

Friday

It’s a cold, blustery day with thick gray clouds scudding over the Hudson River, which I can see from my bed, where I spend the day reading, napping, listening to the radio, drinking bright pink herbal tea and eating popcorn.

Sometimes you just need a rest!

How was your week?