Reporting a big story — a how-to

IMG_20150909_131638156
The NYC food bank — which I visited in 2015 while working on a story about it

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t reveal the details for a few months, but for those of you interested in how big newspaper or magazine stories come to be…

I’ll be doing a fair bit of my reporting on-site, these days a luxury.

After months of editorial rejections, I found an outlet interested in the subject.

So it all starts with an editor saying yes to an assignment, agreeing to a length, fee and deadline, and the scope of the work.

A lot of my recent work has been frustratingly short — pieces of 300 or 500 or 1,300 words. Journalism — Dickensian! — usually pays by the word, so you can immediately see why a 3,500 word story is, in some ways, more valuable, even if it takes a lot longer to produce.

And today “longform” can be as short as 1,500 words, which barely scratches the surface of any complex topic.

To even begin setting up interviews with the right people — as you always have somewhat limited time — means visualizing the many pieces of the story:

 

Who are the primary characters? Secondary? Tertiary?

What powerful visual scenes can I offer readers to get into the story and keep following it to the end?

What about anecdotes?

Data and statistics?

Podcasts on the subject?

What else has been written about it?

How should it be illustrated visually — graphics? charts? maps? Photos? Illustrations?

Does it also need a video component?

Is there film, video and audio of the subject and its experts?

What about their tweets or YouTube videos or TED talks?

Books and white papers and academic studies to read?

 

Essential to the process is simply understanding the scope of the story….and sometimes that means finding a few generous insiders, often fellow journalists on the ground who are expert on the topic, to help orient you. Much as this is a very competitive business, I’ve been fortunate so far on this one to have gotten some extremely helpful insights from the beginning.

As you start to contact sources, especially experts, there’s a bit of an unspoken game happening as, when you speak to them, they’re taking your measure — are you smart? respectful? well-prepared? Are your questions incisive or banal?

I recently spoke to a major source who suggested I speak to X and Y, major players in the field. When I told them I already have an interview set up with them soon, I knew I had won some more of this source’s confidence in me — and they sent me a tremendous list of new contacts and background reading.

Every interview is in some way an audition for the next — if a source decides you have enough street cred, they’ll refer you on to well-placed others they know can be helpful as well. Or not! It’s a bit like walking out onto ice, knowing it can crack or continue to support you on your journey.

 

IMG_20150213_163711842_HDR
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

 

Especially now — in an era when the cynical scream Fake News! and yet every journalist I know lives in mortal fear of losing their job — being transparent about our methods and motivations is more important than ever,

When I speak to “civilians” — regular people who don’t have a PR firm or communications team, or who have never spoken to a journalist before — I’m careful to explain, before we start an interview, the rules of engagement:

I need to identify them fully.

I will quote their words unless before they speak we agree that those words are off the record.

They will not get to read my story ahead of publication but I will make sure to clarify anything I am not sure I understand.

So far I’ve done a few 60 to 90 minute phone interviews to better understand this story and am now setting up dozens of additional ones, some face to face whenever possible, some by Skype and phone. The worst is email, since it doesn’t create the spontaneity of conversation.

By the time I’m done, I expect to have spoken to dozens of people and read a few books on it; some of those people won’t be quoted or visible to the reader, but their ideas and insights have helped to guide me.

 

Then…oh yeah, writing!

 

Where do story ideas come from?

 

 

catbookstore

Love this bookstore kitty! Sometimes my best ideas come to me from taking a hooky day, fleeing the apartment and computer

 

By Caitlin Kelly

By this, I mean ideas for blog posts and for journalism and non-fiction.

Broadside now has more than 2,000 posts, beginning on July 1, 2009, when I chose to make reference to my native Canada, as it’s Canada Day.

Since then, as longtime readers know, I’ve touched on a wide range of subjects; the two posts readers choose every day (!?) are about my meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard the Royal yacht Brittania at the end of my covering a Royal Tour as a Globe & Mail reporter and what it was like to be sent away to boarding school when I was eight, the youngest child at my Toronto school.

My theory about why those two are so steadfastly popular, day after day, year after year — both are highly specific life events many are curious about and few, certainly meeting the Queen, will experience.

I blog a lot on writing, journalism, travel and how and why people behave as they do, inspired by pretty much anything: an overheard remark in a cafe, a walk in the woods or a conversation with my husband.

My goal, here, is to engage you and, when possible, spark a bit of lively conversation.

Some of my journalism work arrives as assignments, i.e. an editor chooses me to write a story for them. But much of the time it’s up to me to gin up some fabulous idea and sell it to someone with a decent budget, for me usually no less than $1,200 to $1,500. I do occasionally write for less, but it has to be quick and easy.

 

 

IMG_5010

Our recent trip to Santa Fe gave me some fresh ideas

A few stories I came up with and how:

 

In June 2018 I got a diagnosis of DCIS, an early and treatable form of breast cancer. Like many events in my life, it became fodder for several stories. This one, in The New York Times, about medical touch and this one, on the UK website, The Pool, about how many people have no idea how to talk to people who get cancer.

I watch Jeopardy a lot and enjoy the variety of contestants; one man mentioned a highly unusual Brooklyn children’s charity he volunteers with; I recently sold a story about it to The New York Times about an after school program focused on boat building.

 

 

IMG_4797

 

 

As someone who loves to travel but hates turbulence, I did a lot of deep research on it for this piece (again) for The New York Times’ travel section. I got the idea because, as they say in journalism, three’s a trend — and I’d noticed three recent reports of commercial flights having to divert from their original destination because of turbulence.

For Marriott magazine, I focused on one of my passions, setting a beautiful table for entertaining.

And, because so many journalists get fired — 1,000 lost their jobs recently across a number of digital platforms and print media — I pitched this fun piece about the long-standing friendships that often evolve and last for decades from these crazy workplaces. It ran on the website for the Poynter Institute, which teaches journalism skills to working professionals. It came about because my very first staff job, in my 20s, led to a friendship with the now only remaining staff photographer for the Globe & Mail — when the building we’d worked in together was torn down (of course) for new condos, Fred grabbed a souvenir white brick for me.

I’m still trying, so far without success, to sell a fantastic story from rural France, about a family run manufacturer in business 155 years.

In the past week — whew! —  I pitched five story ideas: one came out of a personal experience (what’s called a “service piece”, not very alluring but of service to the reader through practical tips) to Real Simple magazine; a personal health-focused essay to Self; a big deep dive (i.e. lots of original reporting) to American Prospect; two ideas to The New York Times Magazine and another to a Times editor in the Metropolitan section.

I also did six interviews by phone for my first story for cjr.org, the digital side of Columbia Journalism Review; the idea came out of a new book my former book editor tweeted about.

How I got my latest NYT story

IMG_4797

The poor kids! It poured rain all day….but they went out anyway!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

So, I have no kids and I don’t live in Brooklyn and I’ve never attended school in New York nor visited a middle school here.

Yet I found this terrific story for The New York Times about an after-school program for students who, in their classroom, build a wooden boat by hand from scratch — then set sail on an inlet of the East River, with huge boats passing and the skyscrapers of Manhattan as a backdrop.

How?

Jeopardy.

I watch the game show often and, a year or so ago, a contestant said he volunteered with Brooklyn Boatworks, a non-profit program founded by two naval architects.

As a lifelong sailor, I was immediately intrigued — when you think of Brooklyn, you don’t necessarily think first of boats or sailing.

So I did some digging and contacted the program’s executive director and asked her enough questions to pitch the idea, which was accepted. I do this a lot with my potential stories, pre-reporting them enough to create a compelling pitch — that means persuading people to talk to me even though I don’t yet have a definite assignment.

I knew I had to watch a team of students working on the boat so I visited MS (Middle School) 88 on February 14 for two hours and again for two more hours on April 18, the length of each week’s building session. I observed, listened, eavesdropped and took far more notes than I would ever be able to use — I was only allowed a maximum of 1,500 words for the story.

How would I be able to encapsulate this amazing adventure?

I took photos with my phone for later reference and interviewed several students and their two teachers. The students were friendly and easy to talk to. It was great to watch their teamwork and self-confidence easily handling tools as they built a boat together, my favorite being two young Muslim girls in hijab working with cordless drills.

 

IMG_4794

The boats are seven foot, six inches — those buoyancy bags help keep them afloat!

 

Few of the students had ever even been on a sailboat before and, likely, none as tiny as the Optimist, aka Opti. It all seemed like some sort of dream. Would it ever really be a boat? Was it possible? Would it sink?!

 

IMG_4793

Students wrapped in plastic tried to stay dry while cheering on their team-mates. That’s the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The orange thing in the photo is a PFD, a personal flotation device every sailor needs to wear in case of capsize.

 

IMG_4775

Program director Marjorie Schulman was the soul of patience for the many, many emails and calls I needed to report the story. This was June 10, the day of “graduation” when every student who participated got a certificate and public recognition of their months of hard work.

 

Launch day was June 10 — a day of non-stop rain!

The event was held at Pier 2 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with speeches beforehand and a few special guests. I met the freelance photographer there for the Times and introduced her to some of the people I needed her to focus on; typical of my freelance work, I had never met her before yet we would have to work well together quickly and under uncomfortable conditions.

That’s journalism!

 

Here’s the story, and an excerpt:

Dana Garcia, a sixth-grader, said she really enjoyed building the boat. “I sawed many pieces of it and we got to use epoxy, which my parents thought was pretty cool,” she said. “Sawing is actually pretty hard. You have to practice a lot. You have to be safety conscious and patient. We wear gloves so we don’t get cut and safety glasses so no sawdust gets into our eyes.”

Students also had the opportunity to use math and science in the workshop. “When it came to our measurements, we were always trying to get everything right and we had a lesson in the science of sailing, how to use the wind,” Dana said.

Dana, it seems, has caught the building bug. “I’d like to do a sculpture or another boat or a treehouse,” she said.

Other students felt empowered from the experience, too.

“I love learning new stuff,” Karla Miranda, a seventh-grader, said. “Before I was just doing basic girl things —- I’d watch TV, go outside, do homework. I got more comfortable using tools and how to control them,” she continued. “I didn’t know I could do all this.”

 

 

More notes on freelance life

IMG_20171007_114548325

By Caitlin Kelly

It happens to all of us.

This time, it’s The Pool, a popular and terrific five-year-old UK website aimed at women, now “in administration” (i.e. bankrupt) and screwing lots of furious freelancers out of the payment we earned and are owed and rely on.

Here’s a story about what happened.

But here’s the tricky part:

You don’t think to check the records at Companies House in case an outwardly successful, much-loved, well-read website is in fact £760,000 in debt, has an outstanding personal loan of £40,000, borrowed £250,000 against the company’s assets and lost £1.8 million in the previous financial year. As a freelancer, you can’t possibly be aware of office politics, or worrying signs such as the fact that the entire board bar one resigned in August 2018. None of the staff tell you. Why would they? Maybe they don’t know.

Besides, they need your copy. They keep commissioning you, right through the Christmas period and into early January, only stopping — or so it seems — once they are outed first on Facebook and then on Twitter by a mounting number of freelancers who haven’t been paid.

I’m out about $300 — a hit we can afford to take (reluctantly!) because we have savings and a fairly low overhead. But many others relied on The Pool for our due payments — to pay for rent, food and other necessities.

Creditors don’t care why we’re suddenly and unexpectedly short.

They just expect to be paid on time.

 

IMG_20150106_134932581_HDR

I learned young to be wary of others’ glossy appearance or promises of payment.

I’ve been selling my photos and writing as a freelancer since I was 19, when, one summer, I sold my photos on the street in Toronto. I was so flattered when a smooth, well-dressed, charming woman ordered a large color print of my work — and sent me a rubber check. She assumed I was ill-equipped to fight back.

I sent her a lawyer’s letter and got paid in full, quickly.

I see too many people now desperate for emotional or professional validation — “I’m a writer! I got published!” — when some of those commissioning this material are shysters or going broke and no one tells us this — until, suddenly, we’re all screwed.

As soon as I started to fear (and hear rumors of this disaster at The Pool) I might not get paid, I Googled the company and found everything I needed to know; senior editors quitting months ago en masse, financial chaos, huge debts.

No one selling their skills to strangers — basically what we do when we work without a steady, secure salary and benefits –– can afford to be wilfully ignorant about the ethics and financial health of their clients. It’s why finding and using reliable networks of writing peers is crucial — intel!

 

Everyone who wants to freelance needs savings!

 

 

 

IMG_1536

 

 

In other recent freelance writing news…

— Was excited to write about a cool new Montreal company last year — it, too, just went bankrupt. I successfully re-pitched as “What happened to this great idea that sucked up $17 million in investments?”

— Was coaching a young writer for about six weeks but that work (and income) abruptly ended when the student ran out of money.

— Picked up a new anchor client (i.e. steady income!), and now scrambling to meet weekly deadlines for them.

—  Made the error of politely disagreeing on Twitter with a highly opinionated science writer who went batshit on me until I blocked her. Later, privately, a writer who knows her (and her shitty temper) reached out to comfort me. Both were strangers.

— Interviewed a fellow journalist/author via Skype about his new book, gobsmacked by the opulence of the room he was sitting in. Was this a luxury hotel? Was that his living room? Good Lord, what am I doing so wrong?!

— Last fall I’d hoped to pitch a great little story perfect for The New York Times’ Metropolitan section, one of the few sections left there I haven’t written, for but my radiation treatment/exhaustion scotched that. I finally traveled to Brooklyn to interview middle school students for it, with Jose as my chauffeur. It’s so comforting to have him help me!

— Finally emailed an editor with whom I feared we’d had a rough ending last fall. He wrote back immediately to say, No, not at all. Whew!

— Have a new book idea. Will have to see if it’s even worth writing a proposal.

— Sent an unsold book idea to a colleague and now await news if her agent is willing to read it or even rep it.

 

The usual hustle!

A week in the life of a freelance writer

By Caitlin Kelly

saying

It’s not what you might think, or expect.

I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2006.  You’ll notice how little time I actually spend writing –– compared to marketing, follow-up, networking and admin.

I sure don’t sit around awaiting my muse — the UPS guy, maybe.

Errands

To the post office, sending off, sometimes via snail mail, LOIs, aka letters of introduction. Their goal is to introduce me to a new-to-me editor or client, enticing them into working with me.

The return rate, i.e. paid work, isn’t terrific, but it must be done. I sometimes enclose a copy of my latest book, along with my resume, letter and business card. Sending one package from New York to London (I sent two), would have cost me $22 (!) each. I argued with the postal clerk and got it reduced to $10.

That’s a business deduction.

IMG_20150106_134932581_HDR
I write for money. Pleasure, too, but mostly for money.

Invoiced

I have a new ghostwriting client, for whom I produce two blog posts a month. Staying on top of invoicing is key, since some clients take forever to pay, even “losing” your invoice. Working carefully, I now avoid most deadbeats, and have used lawyer’s letters when needed to successfully get the payment I was owed.

20131114105242

I teach writing classes here to professional designers — I attended school here in the 90s

Pitched

The necessity of freelance journalism, for all but the fortunate few, is pitching — i.e. coming up with ideas and finding markets to pay you (well) for producing them. That also means sifting through dozens of email pitches from PR firms, most of them completely useless and of zero interest to me.

Total time-suck!

Pitched two ideas to a university alumni magazine, one of which piqued their interest, but hasn’t yet produced an assignment.

I find most of my ideas through pattern recognition — noticing cultural, social and economic trends and offering an idea when it’s timely and in the news. Stories without any time hook are called “evergreens”, and are harder to sell.

Pitching also means plenty of rejection. A health magazine said no to three ideas, (asking for more.) A psychology magazine ignored my pitch for a shorter essay and asked if I’d write it at twice the length — but insisted I show clips (published work) just like it, which I don’t have. An editor I’ve already worked with hasn’t replied to two more pitches.

Pitching also means following up, dancing the razor’s edge between being annoying (too soon, too often), and being ignored.

We rely fully on my income as well, so I can’t just sit around hoping for weeks on end.

malled china cover
The Chinese edition of my 2011 book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail

Negotiated

Offered a brief, easy assignment, into the city to cover an event for a trade magazine in another state. They offered one fee. I negotiated it 30 percent higher.

Negotiation is always nerve-wracking, but it’s essential. Many women writers fail to ask for more, and end up broke and annoyed because we don’t.

Researched

Have a phone meeting next week with a new-to-me editor in Canada, so need to read her website’s work carefully to make sure my ideas are a potential fit.

I’m heading to Europe in June for four to six weeks, and already have several feature ideas I want to pitch, so I can write off some of the expenses, dig deeper into that country’s culture in so doing and earn some income to offset the costs of the trip.

Without some solid data and proven contacts, it’s harder to sell a story, at least one worth $5,000 or more, a very rare bird to catch these days.

I’ve already found an interpreter in Budapest, so that’s a start.

Persisted

Hate this.

Have been chasing a PR official in Europe on a story for more than three weeks, my deadline long past. The editor is easy-going so we can wait, but the income I relied on for a finished/accepted/invoiced story? That’s now weeks away.

Coached

My favorite activity. A new blogger hired me to coach him, and we worked via Skype from my apartment in suburban New York to his European home, a seven hour time difference.

I also worked with a four-person team at a local art film house to help them better shape their pitches and press releases to journalists.

IMG_20150213_163711842_HDR
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Read

Two newspapers every day. Twitter newsfeed. Social media. Books. Magazines. Websites. (Plus NPR, BBC radio.)

If I’m not reading constantly, I don’t know what’s going on and could miss something crucial I need to know to pitch and write intelligently.

Wrote

The least of it!

Blogging keeps me writing between assignments.

Networked

Without which, nothing happens.

Connected with an editor in Canada (thanks to a referral.)

Connected with a Toronto entrepreneur (we met through Twitter) with whom I hope to do some long-distance coaching for his clients.

Connected with a fellow writer I met last spring at an event of fellow writers who all belong to the same on-line group — she might have assignments to offer.

Spoke to a freelance photographer in California about writing and editing her new website.

Spoke to a PR exec in Seattle about possible blog writing and a white paper.

Scored!

Two new assignments from a new-to-me editor at The New York Times, a place for whom I’ve been freelancing steadily since 1990; here’s my most recent, about the odd things people find when they renovate a home.

You gotta have a posse!

By Caitlin Kelly

MSDBRCL EC016
THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

It started — of course — as a term in medieval Latin; posse meaning power.

Today, it’s a group of people, more commonly, you can turn to for help and aid, people who literally have your back.

In the military, there’s a great expression — “I’ve got your six” — from fighter pilots who had a fellow flyer behind them.

I’ve been working alone from home since 2006, and have done it many times in my career. It can be lonely! It can feel isolating!

There are days when the millions of us working independently think — HELP!

Which is why, more than ever, you gotta have a posse!

They’re not fighter pilots, nor do they wear spurs and Stetsons, but they’re people I like, trust and admire, people I turn to for all sorts of advice — how to find a mortgage broker, what to charge for a seminar, how to wrangle a testy editor two years out of college.

They call me, too. I had a long phone conversation yesterday with a younger colleague as she drove from Alabama to Tennessee. We met earlier this year at a writers’ conference and immediately liked one another, sitting in the bar for hours.

Today I’ll be Skyping with another posse member who lives an ocean away.

I find it, literally, heartening and encouraging to hear how others are doing, helping one another through our inevitable ups and downs. Those of us who work without any safety net, (unemployment insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation days, a company-matched retirement plan), really need one another’s wisdom and insights.

 

My posse — and I as one of theirs — is global, thanks to social media.

 

But the essential elements remain timeless. You only want people you trust absolutely, who are discreet and smart. They can be decades younger or older. They can, (and often should), be someone from a very different background or industry.

Fresh eyes. Fresh insights.

When you don’t work in an office or belong to an organization, with coworkers, managers, HR and set policies, (no matter how frustrating they can be sometimes), figuring it out is all up to you.

 

When you work independently, you’re the cook, janitor, CIO, CFO, CMO and CEO, switching roles constantly.

 

When you work alone, it’s even more essential to know what’s going on in your industry — how to read (and alter!) a lousy contract, how to negotiate rates, what others are being paid, which deadbeat clients to avoid.

Much is being written about the “gig economy” (a phrase that makes me crazy every time I read it) — but very little about how difficult it is to do everything by yourself.

Sometimes you just need a smart, tough brain to bang up against, to test out a theory or see if you’re really brilliant this time, or heading off a potential cliff.

I enjoy my autonomy but there’s still a lot I don’t know and a lot I can help my peers with.

Do you have a posse?

Does it help?

How “news” happens: my latest NYT piece

By Caitlin Kelly

carr service01
The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.

No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!

 

Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)

Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.

It can be something we overheard or saw.

Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.

That’s how The New York Times got wind of Trump’s federal income tax shenanigans, as reporter Susanne Craig described:

Friday, Sept. 23, was different.

I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.

I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.

The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.

Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.

FullSizeRender(3)
One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

What makes something a “story”?

— it’s new

— it’s making a ton of money for someone

— it’s the first time this event has ever happened

— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)

— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it

— it’s happened near the story’s audience

I’ve spent weeks on this new New York Times Arts & Leisure story, told to me last spring by  an editor I’ve known for many years and have written for, about someone she knows.

It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:

Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”

With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”

She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.

My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.

20131111171501

Key to this piece? Serendipity!

I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.

In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.

The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?

The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.

It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.

I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!

Sharpening the saw — off to D.C., then Toronto

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20150720_122409382
Time for refreshment!

OK, laugh…but I do, occasionally, read self-help books, especially those focused on business.

I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2005, and have done so several times in my career. Which means I have no boss or manager to, ideally, train and guide me, or mentor me or help me get better at what I do.

And being a freelance writer is — very rarely — about the quality of your actual writing, but about your ability to sell, close deals, hustle, to create and sustain profitable new relationships.

So I need to seek, and to find, people and ways to help me stay fresh, smart and sharp.

IMG_1529
New horizons!

A classic of the business self-help genre is Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”, originally published on August 15, 1989, which I read and enjoyed.

Here’s the seventh one, which he calls sharpening the saw:

Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:
Physical: Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Social/Emotional: Making social and meaningful connections with others
Mental: Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spiritual: Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service

As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpen the Saw keeps you fresh so you can continue to practice the other six habits. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you.

 

Those of you who read this blog regularly know how deeply I believe in and evangelize for a life filled with joy and connection and rest, not just a hard charge from cradle to grave.

 

In that spirit, I’m heading to D.C. this weekend for a firehose of data on writing about retirement. I’ve been writing often for Reuters Money on a variety of personal finance topics, from taxes to how to establish a scholarship. This three-day D.C. fellowship, offered to 20 journalists from across the country, will, I hope, better prepare me to pitch and write smart, incisive stories.

IMG_20140629_162435177
Lincoln Center, New York City — where my friend invited me, as a young journalist, to perform as an extra in Sleeping Beauty with the National Ballet of Canada. I did eight shows, terrifying fun, and wrote about it for the Globe and Mail.

While in Washington, I’m also meeting editors at two major publications and hoping for new work from each of them.

I’ll take three days to rest, recharge and enjoy the city, which I’ve visited many times; favorite spots include the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Sackler Museum, the elegant, serene Asian art wing of the Smithsonian.

I’ll get home, have a day to unpack and repack, then fly to Toronto, my hometown, to attend the wedding reception and brunch of one of my dearest and oldest friends, a woman marrying after decades of independence and financial success running her own business.

I’m super excited for her and her fiance, a distinguished author and professor, and thrilled to be there to share their joy; she spoke at my second wedding, in September 2011 in a small church on an island in the Toronto harbor.

She has known me, and nurtured me, from the very start of my journalism career, when I — a wildly ambitious writer in Toronto — apparently (!?) pestered her for free tickets to the ballet, which she represented for years as their press officer.

We quickly became good friends, and she has welcomed me into her home many, many times. I later wrote several times about the National Ballet, and had some great adventures as a result; I was honored to write an essay for their 35th anniversary souvenir program as well.

She is more family to me than anyone to whom I’m related.

It’s also been a busy spring with no out-of-state travel since early January, so I’m really ready for a break, physically, emotionally and intellectually.

How have you been “sharpening the saw?”

 

The true meaning of collegiality

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160315_164111114_HDR

Writing for a living can be lonely!

 

Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.

As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.

It’s a real loss.

 

We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.

 

We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.

And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.

 

Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.

 

I attended, along with 599 others, the annual meeting the of American Society of Journalists and Authors, held every spring in midtown Manhattan at the Roosevelt Hotel.

The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.

IMG_20151027_081113939
The writer and I have become Twitter friends — but have yet to meet in person. Terrific book!

After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.

The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.

Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.

I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.

 

We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.

 

On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.

Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)

BLOWN AWAY COVER
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

Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!

A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.

That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.

It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.

We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.

How and where do you find true colleagues?

How badly do you want to be a writer?

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160409_103106979

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:

IMG_20160315_164111114_HDR

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.

 

IMG_20151107_150131203
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.

 

 

IMG_7776

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.

IMG_20151027_081113939
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?

BLOWN AWAY COVER
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.

malled cover HIGH
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.)

11-cover-large

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.

images-3

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?