The writer’s week — mine anyway

By Caitlin Kelly

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Asked by journalism students for writers I admire, I named this great book by a British Airways 747 pilot

 

WHEW!

 

So much for the Labor Day weekend; a client expected a full revision of a 3,000-word story due first thing Monday. Holiday? What holiday? Good thing I had no plans.

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One of my sales this summer was my first story for House Beautiful

 

Chased a story all week that I think could be a terrific one, but will also require an editor to pay some travel expenses, which many hate to do. It’s not, like most stories I work on now, something I can report by phone or email, and will be in a different U.S. city. The process of getting to a story is rarely linear; this one involves someone I know who made an introduction to the publicist for the event who will decide if I can have access to it. If she says yes, then I still have to write up a persuasive pitch and sell it to an editor who can pay me enough money to make the story even worth doing financially. It’s a fun story, but I have to make money at this.

Journalism is my business, not a hobby!

 

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

 

I was invited to address a room full of graduate journalism students at CUNY, in midtown Manhattan. I joined a sports reporter/editor and a radio news reporter whose voice I’ve heard on-air for many years. That was cool! The host of the event is a man who lives in D.C. who I “met” via Twitter and had only spoken to once by phone. So much of our industry is finding like-minded souls with solid credentials. He and I met for breakfast and had a great time getting to know one another.

I found it amusing and telling that — when he asked all three of us to offer three pieces of advice to new journalists  — we all agreed that get some sleep was key.

 

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My suburban New York train station, Tarrytown

 

I do a lot of this sort of thing — for no payment. My trainfare just to get into New York City was $31, plus cab fare plus lunch. The day was pretty much shot for getting any work done, but I really enjoy meeting new people and seeing my friends so it’s all a good investment of time and energy. I like working alone at home but it gets really lonely!

 

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Met a fellow journalist friend, (now job-hunting), for lunch, a late lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, Keen’s Chophouse, in business since 1885. I love its black and white tiled bar-room floor, the rows of 50,000 clay pipes wired to the ceiling, its frosted glass windows making the noisy, bustling city outside disappear. We each had a busy summer — she went to Israel and I went to Europe.

 

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Last year, a young friend of mine worked in Asia as a photographer and, in Thailand, met a young woman who read (!?) my blog. Unlikely, but true. This week, we spoke via Skype as we discussed a project she hopes to work on independently, now that she’s back in the U.S. and working at a newspaper in a western U.S. state. I love coaching other writers, so if you need help, check out my webinars and classes here.

 

Called the French farmer I’m going to interview, to confirm our meeting. I love being able to work in French but haven’t done it since I was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. I normally don’t use a tape recorder but will take one this time for back-up.

 

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Spuyten Duyvil train station, as the commuter train heads north along the eastern shore of the Hudson River

 

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Took Amtrak from a station near our home to Montreal, a city I lived in in my late 20s and for a year when I was 12. It’s a fun city to visit, with great food and lots of charm. I went north to report a story, working in French, for an editor in Alabama. Met a new young friend for brunch at Beautys a classic Montreal diner, in business since 1942 — she’s someone I heard speaking at a conference in New York last spring and stayed in touch with. (FYI, Beauty’s should have an apostrophe — but Quebec language laws insist that all signage and names be in French.)

Found my little gray coin purse where I keep my Canadian money and my Canadian bank card; I grew up in Toronto and Montreal and we go back at least once or twice a year. I miss my home country, especially now when every day in the United States offers yet another political and/or environmental disaster.

 

Got an update regarding the late Kim Wall, a 30-year-old fellow freelance journalist, whose death I blogged about here:

The Kim Wall Memorial Fund was established by her family and friends to honor Kim’s spirit and legacy. The grant will fund a young female reporter to cover subculture, broadly defined, and what Kim liked to call “the undercurrents of rebellion.”

The funds collected will be directed to the International Women’s Media Foundation, a steadfast ally to women journalists, who have agreed to support and administer this grant

 

 

A freelance journalist’s week

By Caitlin Kelly

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The New York Times newsroom

If you’ve never tried working freelance — i.e. no job, no salary, no paid sick or vacation days — it can look cool.

Freedom!

I’ve been doing it since 2006 (and for periods before then as well), and enjoy it.

It’s rarely dull.

 

Here’s some of what this week has been like:

 

I pitched a story to The New York Times, realizing, two weeks after returning from an overheated, often non air conditioned Europe, that it’s an uncomfortable, even dangerous, situation for travelers and hotel owners.

And one only likely to worsen with climate change.

I’ve been writing for the Times since 1990, and had previously written for that specific editor, so he quickly replied to my emailed pitch — but I had barely four days in which to find all my sources, interview them and write the story.

Thanks to my active life on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, I soon found what I needed.

Here’s the story.

I’m working on a big (3,000 words) story for a local university about their school. Have been doing interviews for weeks, some by phone, some in person. It’s a challenging assignment and one I’m enjoying, but it has a lot of moving parts. Did seven interviews, in person, in one day on campus — pooped! Slept 10 hours and took the next day off entirely to recover.

During one of the interviews, heard a deeply distressing story of murder in someone’s life. I didn’t react much, which — to those who don’t know any journalists personally — can make us look cold and unfeeling. Not so! One of the keys to success as a journalist is being able to manage and control the most powerful of emotions, even in the moment, and stay focused on your goal — reporting the story. It can, and does, lead to some trauma later as you process it eventually, or don’t.

 

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I speak fluent French,  so I was asked to interpret between an editor in Alabama and a French-speaking farmer in Quebec to determine if there was enough to produce a story. There is, so I’ll be heading north to Quebec soon to report and write it.

A former client in Chicago sent me an assignment they needed done right away —- and had to turn it down because they needed it fast and, for once, I’m too busy at the moment.

I emailed editors in New York City and London to follow up on personal meetings to see if there’s work I can produce for them — no answer, so far. It’s normal for even people who know me and my work to take a while to respond. You can’t freak out or take it personally.

Pitched another idea to a new client who loved it — have to constantly be pitching ideas or the income stream dries up fast! Bills never stop arriving, funny thing.

Jose and I took a day off to explore the North Shore of Long Island, about a 2.5 hour drive from our home. In our years together, we’ve been to Paris together a few times — but never there.

Found this astonishing Spanish chest — 17th century? — in a local antique shop.

 

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This area is gorgeous and we loved it, including this amazing general store, built in 1857, now on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

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The writer’s week

By Caitlin Kelly

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An ongoing, occasional series, a glimpse into the life of a full-time freelance writer and career journalist…

It’s been a week!

And it’s only Tuesday

I spoke yesterday to a class of freshman students at New York University, invited by a friend, Sarah Dohrmann, a highly accomplished writer who’s been published in one of the Holy Grails of American journalism, Harper’s; here’s her story about Moroccan prostitutes.

She and I met for the first time last summer through a group of women writers who joined an on-line group and some of whom have trekked out to lunches and dinners to meet one another face to face. So fun!

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Jose (my husband, a freelance photographer) bought this book — I look forward to reading it!

One of the toughest challenges of working freelance — i.e. with no fixed income or employer — is how lonely it can be. Many of us, as I am writing this blog post, are at home in our sweatpants or gym clothes. Maybe in a co-working space (which costs precious income) or in a coffee-shop or library for a break from midwinter cabin fever.

So making a new friend, and someone with whom you can really share the ups and downs of our field, (and frank details of the places we’ve worked or want to work or think we want to work) is a joy.

It’s also the only way to make a living at this level of the game. Sarah and I are peers, with credentials and experience. We’ve won prestigious fellowships and traveled the world. We’ve taught writing at New York City colleges.

We’re still figuring it out.

 

When you work for yourself and have creative ambitions — like winning a fellowship (or another and another), or a writer’s residency or selling a book (or your second or third or eighth) — you’re constantly juggling short-terms needs for income with longer-term needs for growth and learning.

 

How many conferences to attend? Who’s speaking? Who will I meet there? Is it worth it?

How much time can I afford to “waste” on a passion project for whom no one has assigned an economic value (yet)? When will I sell it and to whom? What if no one ever buys it?

Should I take (keep) a part-time job to stay afloat? For how long? Doing what?

 

That same night I attended an event designed to teach me how to better make use of LinkedIn. It was a firehose of data and exhausting, although I met some nice new people and learned a lot.

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

I’m also in the middle of pitching several stories to several outlets and fielding requests for more details on them — among them The Wall Street Journal and a major national magazine I don’t want to name yet.

I feel like the hotel clerk in an old-fashioned hotel, the kind with real metal keys and numbers engraved on them, or a sorter in an old post office, popping letters into the right boxes. Deciding who to pitch, when and why is an art, not a science, and it requires skill, nerve, research — and self-confidence.

Rejection is normal.

 

If you want to crawl into bed in the fetal position when your work is rejected, cowboy up! Not an option.

 

Figure out what didn’t work and move on.

Freelancers live like Sheherazade, spinning tale after tale after tale to save our lives, to simply earn enough income to pay the mortgage/rent/groceries.

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My husband’s retirement cake; I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a former colleague)

We also teach, online and in person; I offer individual webinars ($150, skedded at your convenience) and coaching at $225/hour. Details here!

 

 

Our health insurance bill recently jumped — from an impossible $1,500 per month to a WTF $1,800 month. So this week I’ll also be ditching a plan I like and trust, but which is killing us financially, for one I hope will give me what I need most.

Peace of mind.

I’m also trying to figure out what to do about a book proposal I wrote in December but is stalled; my agent isn’t happy enough with it to send it out. And no one wants to read a proposal without an agent’s imprimatur.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — blogger Jen Iacovelli in the bow of a dugout canoe. This is where I was two years ago. Hungry for my next adventure!

I’m also endless revising and fact-checking my latest story for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for many years; some clips here.

Readers have no idea how heavily edited — and questioned and challenged, by multiple tough editors — each of their stories is. It takes a lot of time and energy, even after I interviewed eleven sources and, oh yeah, wrote the story.

Next month, I’ll once more be a finalist judge for Canada’s National Magazine Awards; I won mine in 1998. I speak fluent French, so some of them might be en francais.

That’s another way we give back to our industry, an honor when asked.

In addition to my daytime work, this week includes a variety of social and professional evenings out as well.

One is an event where an editor I need to meet face to face, (and who I’ve already written for), is speaking. Another is a new-to-me market, invited by a friend who’s already well-known to them and who generously asked me along.

The third is a retirement party for a friend, colleague and neighbor who’s leaving The New York Times.

We’re a tribe.

Without it, we’re toast.

 

 

 

The writer’s year — life working full-time freelance

By Caitlin Kelly

The NYC food bank -- which I saw this year while working on a story about it
The NYC food bank — which I saw this year while working on a story about it

Some of Broadside’s almost 16,000 followers are also writers.

Some wish they were.

(I used to offer here an irregular column, The Writer’s Week, but haven’t done it in a while.)

I’ve been working as a journalist for a few decades — sadly that now feels like being a polar bear on a shrinking ice floe, with fewer and fewer slabs of ice to hop onto.

Since 2008, 40 percent of us have lost our staff jobs and many will not find another, certainly those of us who are older than 40, let alone 50.

Some writers boast about their “six figure freelancing” — i.e. earning $100,000 a year. But virtually none of them are making that money from writing for journalism clients but from a mix of corporate, teaching, custom content and other much more lucrative but less glamorous or visible revenue streams.

I call it the Income Iceberg, the invisible work many of us never discuss publicly but which also buys our groceries and kids’ clothes and fills our gas tank and sustains us.

The dirty secret? The Big Name Outlets writers love to boast about writing for can take months to edit (and pay for) our work, sit on it until it becomes unusable and/or kill it outright, costing us thousands in anticipated and budgeted-for income.

And the Freelancer’s Union recently posted a lousy statistic — that the average freelance is stiffed out of $6,000 in payments a year, 13 percent of their income.

This is what my writing life looks like now…

London -- much more my speed!
London — much more my speed!

January

In England, I spend a day reporting on a non-profit group in a small town about an hour outside London. The teens are welcoming and friendly, and I spend an hour in an unheated warehouse interviewing one of them. To maximize efficiency and lower food/hotel costs, I do all my interviews, about six of them, in one marathon day.

I stay overnight in a gorgeous small inn, 200 years old, and enjoy an excellent meal. Perk!

Back in London, I interview their major funder, sitting in the lobby of the Goring, the hotel where the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) slept the night before her wedding.

This toggling between totally different worlds — the men around us whispering, wearing gold signet rings and bespoke suits — is typical of my work, and one reason I enjoy it, talking to the poorest and the wealthiest, speaking to both (or their rep’s) to tell my stories.

Journalism’s appeal for me, and for many others, is the entree it gives us into many lives we would never encounter any other way.

I  learn something new almost every day.

I arrive home in New York, ready to start revising a major national women’s magazine profile, 3,500 words, of a local woman whose work I’ve long admired. I spent eight hours with her alone, taking notes, and spoke to a dozen others to learn more about her.

She spoke really quickly and, because I don’t use a tape recorder, I needed physical therapy for my right wrist from note-taking for hours on end at top speed; I use voice dictation of my notes for the first time.

Then I read a story in The New York Times that her organization is now embroiled in a scandal. My story is killed. (Luckily, I’m paid in full, a sum that will represent almost 25 percent of the year’s income.)

February

I turn in the British story to Reader’s Digest, excited to have my first story published with them. But my emails and calls to the group in England for fact-checking, (a standard part of the publishing process for major magazines), mysteriously go unreturned.

They’ve shut down —  barely two months after we met.

Magazines pay what are called “kill fees”, a negotiated amount they offer when a story can’t be used. I lose $900 of anticipated income.

The campus is lovely...
The campus is lovely…

March

I’m teaching at a private college in Brooklyn, a writing class for freshmen and a blogging class of mixed-year students. Both classes are small, but they’re night and day in terms of the students’ enthusiasm and level of commitment to the work.

Like many adjuncts, I have no office or faculty connections, and no institutional support at all. When I encounter difficulty with several students, I have no one to turn to for advice or help; the dean has made clear we’re not to bother him.

And my commute means I leave home in the freezing dark at 7:00 am, drive 90 minutes in rush-hour traffic, then wait another 90 minutes for class to start. If I leave any later, traffic is so bad I’d be late for my own class.

Two of my fall students come to the cafeteria to hang out with me before their classes, I’m glad that at least a few of them enjoyed my teaching. I also visit before my first class with a new friend, a woman who teaches painting there.

April/May

I also coach fellow writers by phone and Skype, and meet a few of them here in New York City, usually at a quiet tea room or coffee shop. They take one of my webinars or buy an hour of my time and advice, $225.00

I really enjoy one-on-one teaching and the variety of my adult students.

 

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June/July/August

I teach a one-night class at the New York School of Interior Design to six designers, all women, a totally different experience teaching adults than undergrads. As a former NYSID student, it’s an honor to be invited back to teach there.

Jose and I take our longest vacation in a decade, three weeks in Ireland. I do a bit of research for possible stories, but mostly relax and recharge.

Thanks to some work I did for her at another publication, writing about watches, of all things, an editor contacts me with a huge project, 15 1,000-word profiles of non-profit leaders for the Case Foundation. The work will carry my byline, a long commitment to a project I find compelling.

Thanks to a friend’s generosity, we spend 10 days at his home in Maine and I conduct some of these interviews there from the dining table; as long as I have access to wifi and a telephone, I can work anywhere.

A story finally runs in The New York Times I’d written months earlier. Writers for the paper are only paid after the story is used, so any piece that sits unused equals (long) deferred income.

It’s a problem for many freelancers; like everyone else, our bills arrive monthly but our payments are routinely late, sometimes for months — a real, ongoing source of stress.

September

Sometimes the best story ideas show up in somewhere as banal as my Facebook feed.

One woman described a terrible day when her husband took their dog for a walk in broiling summer heat and the dog almost died of heatstroke — even though the car was air-conditioned and her husband stopped several times to give the dog water.

I wrote that story for The New York Times, grateful to find a good story so easily and one that my friend was willing to share more widely.

 

My last book -- published in 2011. Eager to write the next one!
My last book — published in 2011. Eager to write the next one!

October/November

Now working on a book proposal, a process every non-fiction writer must go through. It’s an intellectual blueprint, a layout of what the book would be, why it matters, why now and to whom. It’s a shit-ton of unpaid spec work, in addition to my paid work.

I become co-chair of a volunteer board of 13 fellow writers. I have no training or experience running a board, although I’ve served on two of them for years.

The ongoing freelance challenge each of us faces, finding interesting, well-paid work you might even enjoy and can also do well and quickly enough to pull in significant income every single month.

December

Marketing!

People who want to write for a living fantasize that they’ll…write for a living. In reality, much of my time is spent marketing my skills and ideas to past and future clients. Some of those ideas never sell.

I write two brief stories for a personal finance website.

A friend I met a decade ago when she was a foreign correspondent for the Times invites me to lunch. She has a fantastic staff job doing investigative work. It’s comforting to talk to someone who really understands what producing high-quality journalism demands, with its joys and frustrations.

We both crave tough editors to keep up sharp and readers who respond to the finished work, some of which consumes months, even years.

I email my agent to ask how the proposal is going. He wants to strengthen it and says we need to hold off submitting it for a month or so. No book proposal gets read without an agent’s cover letter. He knows the current publishing market. I defer to his judgment.

I head north to Toronto by train — a 12-hour journey — to spend the holidays with family and friends.

If you celebrate holidays during this season, I hope you enjoy them!

Thanks for making the time to visit, read and comment here on Broadside.

I really appreciate it!

 

Ten Reasons I Love Housework

This is a picture of a stiff whisk broom, a ge...
Image via Wikipedia

What else would I be doing at 8:45 a.m. on New Year’s Day?

Why, washing our ancient, battered hallway kilim (a flat-weave antique rug) in the bathtub, of course! (No, really….Woolite, warm water, handle gently as wet wool, especially old fibers, is fragile. Think of it as a very large sweater. After it dries, it has the softness and sheen of new wool.)

I am ferocious about doing housework. I do it daily. I share and work at home in a one-bedroom apartment: no kids, no pets, one partner, who is a pretty tidy guy.

But the dust! The grime! The shmutz!

OK, I admit it….housework combines a variety of totally alluring qualities, especially in combination, which is why I like it so much:

— It’s a free activity. All I need is some Windex, Pledge and paper towel. In a recession, on a budget, this is a relief.

— I can (and do) do it any time the mood strikes me — 6:00 a.m, midnight, whatever.

— It makes me feel virtuous. I’m inarguably doing a good thing.

— It’s exercise. (And I don’t have to leave the house to do it.)

— It produces immediate results.

— Which offer — yay! —  immediate gratification.

— I know exactly what I’m doing. It’s hard to screw up scrubbing the toilet, shining mirrors, cleaning the bathtub. Unlike all the pieces of technology that keep piling up in the house (for which I am grateful), that so often confound me and tangle in a mess of charge cords, I know how to clean. I’ve been doing it for decades. I’m good at it!

— The place looks great when I’m done: shiny silver, gleaming wood, fluffy pillows, freshly ironed linens.

— It gets me away from the computer and moving.

— Work? Work? For those of us who work alone at home all day, there are very few ways to break up the day that aren’t a total, remorse-inducing time-suck. Suddenly realizing the laundry must be done thisveryminute is, I fully admit, a highly effective way to procrastinate.

I’m not doing nothing.

I’m doing housework!

Freelancers' Resolutions: More Income, Less Stress!

Cover of "My So-Called Freelance Life: Ho...
Cover via Amazon

Came across this smart and helpful list of ten resolutions for freelancers — whatever your field.

I’d add to this list a terrific and helpful book by Seattle-based blogger Michelle Goodman, whose book, “My So-Called Freelance Life” is, like Michelle, smart, funny, wise and helpful. I read it last year, after many years’ freelancing, and learned a lot.

I grew up in a family of freelancers. No one had a job, or paid sick days or paid vacation days or a pension. My Dad made films, my step-mother wrote for film and television and my mom was a film-maker and print journalist. It taught me a few good lessons as well:

Save money consistently. Don’t rely solely on credit cards or a line of credit.

Live below your means no matter how fantastic a year, or month, you’re having. Clients can disappear or cancel a project overnight.

Pay your taxes! If you can’t do it in the same year (and some of us just can’t), at least keep up with them. Penalties and interest are no fun.

Take “hooky days” to recharge your spirits and break the terrible isolation, especially in a cold winter, of working alone at home all day. Look at art, go to a movie (or three), do volunteer work, take a class in something totally unrelated to your work, for sheer pleasure.

A part-time job, even a day or night a week, can be a great help. I recently quit my retail job after more than two years. It gave me many things beyond an OK paycheck every other Friday — a place to go, nice co-workers, a fun boss, decent products and, at best, really interesting customers.

Set some very specific goals for your year. I tend not to make mine $$-based but focused instead, within journalism, on cracking a few new-to-me and well-paid markets. I’ve done this in the past and it’s really satisfying to read goals06 or goals03 in my computer and see that I have made progress, something not always easy to measure.

Journalists Losing Jobs At Three Times The National Average: Welcome to Entrepreneurial Life

Migrant Worker by David Shankbone, New York City
Image via Wikipedia

You know there’s a recession and you’ve sent out dozens, maybe hundreds of resumes. You know no one’s returning your calls.

What I didn’t know — until I read this report from Unity, a national group representing minority journalists — is why so many journalists are suddenly on their own. In one year, from September 2008 to August 2009, 35,885 of us lost our jobs — 24,511 of them in print media. While the economy on average lost jobs at a rate of 8 percent, for us it’s been 22 percent; almost three times the national month to month rate.

I got canned by the Daily News in June 2006, so had already been freelancing full-time again for a while by the time the hurricane hit. Even then, starting last August, I lost $2,300 to one deadbeat who declared bankruptcy, another $1,000 when a newspaper special section cancelled that issue, and my assignment, and another $12,000 when an editor who swore I could count on a year’s worth of columns in 2009 changed his mind. Many of us felt like cartoon characters who keep running even while they’ve run out of cliff and are falling fast into a steep canyon.

For many of us, and I’d say most over the age of 40 who’ve lost those print jobs — and I know some other T/S contributors are in this group — that’s it. You’re going digital or you’re leaving journalism entirely. That’s what a panel of four New York City headhunters told a standing-room only, wait-listed room full of journos last week. They ranged in age from fresh grads to gray-haired men and women clearly in their 50s, 60s or beyond. One headhunter with 20 years’ experience in New York publishing, Karen Danziger, (who once placed me as editor in chief of a trade magazine), said 80 percent of the jobs she is now asked to fill focus on producing digital content. Until you snag that next full-time job, that sound you hear is the steady squeak of the hamster wheel, pulling in paid work wherever you can find it.

The larger issue for anyone who fantasizes about the freelance life, as many cube-crushed souls still do, is making it pay. In journalism, at least, anyone can sit at a computer, make some calls, send some emails, have a few clever ideas. The barriers to entry as a journalist are so low as to be invisible. But when many articles still pay $500 or $1,000 or $1,500 — a very few will offer $6,000 or $8,000 — that’s a whole lot of hustling (while paying 15% to FICA and finding and affording full-cost free-market health insurance) to match even a salary of $40,000 or $60,000. As every entrepreneur knows, unpaid sick days are annoying while uncompensated holidays and long weekends, when no one you need answers their phone, can be an intrusion into your need to keep cashflow from slowing to a terrifying trickle.

Here’s a Washington Post piece, written by a grateful staffer, about what life is like as an entrepreneur.