It seems obvious that writers write, certainly when every word adds income — and our health insurance alone (God bless America!!) is $1,500.00
The truth, as every freelancer knows, is that before I write a word about anything, I also spend a lot of time, probably 80 percent, just finding and getting the work and negotiating payment and conditions. For one recent story, I had to read and sign a nine-page single-space contract.
This week involved no writing, but lots of meetings:
— My web designer, now living in Asia and who I’ve been working with since 1995, suggested my writing skills to a client of his, a physician in Virginia, to help refresh the copy on his website. I spent half an hour speaking to the doctor, a specialist, to find out if we might be a good fit. I was a little nervous, as he might have been as well. These initial conversations are something of a mutual audition. Do we speak the same language? Do we each have a sense of humor? Did we enjoy it? I also had to name an hourly fee and rough estimate of how much time I thought it would take, not knowing if this would be acceptable. It went great, so onward!
— A former coaching client who’s become a friend needs new freelance writers so we skedded a call to discuss.
— A new design website needs copy focused on antiques, something I know well and have studied many times, hence a call to talk about some ideas.
— I’m working on a very cool story for The New York Times, (I’ve written more than 100 for them), but it’s moving very slowly. My key source lost his mother very suddenly, so I stayed away for a while. This is a story where I think personal introductions to sources will prove more fruitful. There are different ways to find and approach people, some better for some stories than others, and some just take a lot more time to pull together. None of this time is paid for, just built into the one fee we get per story.
— A calm and civil conversation with the editor I had walked away from mid-story. I’ll get a kill fee, 25 percent of the original, instead.
— Emailed an editor in England I’d hoped to be working with on a story in July, but she warned me of changes at the company.
I recently did a Zoom webinar with Jose and counted up the number of clients I worked with in 2020 — 19.
This year, already, 19!
I enjoy this variety, but I admit it’s tiring adapting to 19 different people and their needs and their individual style.
I’ve had one boss before in many staff jobs. It’s a bit easier!
As readers here know, this is an ongoing series, usually every six weeks or so, updating you on the joys and sorrows of life as a full-time freelancer.
It has not been dull, kids!
The good news:
I’ve gratefully had lots of work, challenging and interesting and well-paid — the trifecta!
I was asked to ghost-write for someone I knew in freshman classes at University of Toronto, someone whose own creative life kept intersecting with mine over the ensuing years — as she also moved to Montreal then to New York City. I had never ghost-written for anyone before but it was deemed excellent and didn’t even require a second draft.
Still blogging occasionally about pancreatic cancer research for the Lustgarten Foundation. I still have never met my editor, even though we don’t live that far apart — thanks to the pandemic.
Worked more on a story for The New York Times, which I’ll blog about here when it appears, probably next week. I started work on it back in December so it’s been a while.
We leased a Mazda CX0-30 last fall, our first time in that brand, and love it. While at the dealership, I picked up the glossy Mazda magazine and emailed its editor, based in England, to say, truthfully, how much we’re enjoying the car — and can I write for them? She and I did a get-to-know-you Zoom a while back. Several pitches now under consideration, and we might work together again as a team, Jose and I, since he is a professional photographer. That would be cool!
My income from some of these has been good enough I can actually just rest for a bit. We get our Johnson and Johnson one-shot COVID vaccination this Sunday and plan to take Monday and Tuesday off if we need it afterward.
I’ve been busy with coaching clients. I spoke to a PR firm in Ohio this week and next week working with a writer pal on three of his pitches.
My bloody book proposal is still not finding any success — YET!
It’s been read by five agents and one editor.
I sent it this week to a Very Big Name in our industry, someone I’ve met twice a while back, who’s published 17 (!) books on writing. He was very generous and wrote back quickly and very encouragingly.
So I’m on a steep and tiring learning curve — still trying for an agent and a trade house; starting to research potential university presses and self-publishing. It’s a lot at once to manage and it’s really hard not to just give up.
But when people who know the subject say: “This is important and timely and I can’t wait to read it” I am going to take this as sincere.
My last book was published in 2011. The publishing industry has since massively shrunk and consolidated, meaning there are fewer and fewer smaller publishers. To sell a book to one of the Big Boys now means you have to have a subject they think will sell a lot of copies.
None will look at anything without an agent….and I’ve been through five already.
But — goddamnit! — I also see what books are being commissioned and I want to throw a chair. Some are so banal I simply cannot imagine that thousands and thousands of readers are going to rush to buy them.
I try to be a good soldier and cheer on all those others but it’s hard sometimes not to succumb to bitterness and envy. My first two books quickly found good agents and they worked hard to sell them to major publishers. Many agents now are not even accepting new clients and even those I am personally referred to or know personally can’t even reply to emails. It can feel very very depressing to keep banging on every door of every gatekeeper.
Poor Jose hadn’t unchained himself from the computer in a year.
My last break, three solo days in Pennsylvania, was in October, but I unwittingly landed (!) in Trump country before the election and cut short my holiday to head home.
So we were overdue for a chance to flee our one-bedroom apartment where — like so many of you — we’ve been working for a year.
Although we are both full-time freelance, which means no one gives us paid time off, we know we need it every bit as much as those who have salaries and paid holidays and paid vacation. We have to self-fund every minute we’re not working but without it, burnout and resentment looms! In a non-pandemic year, we would normally have already visited my native Canada a few times (by car) and probably gone to Europe or planned a trip there.
So the easiest option was to stay in-state and go back to a place we tried for a few days last summer and enjoyed.
We drove 90 minutes north to the town of Woodstock, NY, pop. 6,000, something of a hippie haven, with lots of shops selling tie-dye T-shirts and esoteric books. But also nestled in the Catskill mountains and we have two good pals who live up there who each met us for an an overdue catch-up.
The tower of Woodstock Town Hall, reflected in early wavy glass of the apothecary across the street
We stayed at a funky 1950s era motel that’s since been renovated and this time splurged on a large room that backed onto a rushing creek. Such a soothing sound!
The sky was full of stars we could actually see and we woke to lots of birdsong.
We also splurged on our first massages in a year (everyone masked) and ohhhhhhh, such sore muscles!
I slept 12 hours one night and only made it up to 11:00 p.m. one night, watching a favorite old (1981) movie on my laptop, Time Bandits.
Built in 1860 for painter Frederick Church, Olana is amazing. The interior is closed for now so I walked the grounds with two local friends.
The Catskill Mountains, seen from Olana, facing west
I took my ice skates and made a reservation to use them but instead just enjoyed a long lazy morning reading and savoring the sunshine and silence and the very high cathedral ceiling of our room (our mid 1960s apartment has 8-foot ceilings.)
We had a couple of good meals.
We each bought a pair of Blunnies, Blundstone pull-on boots I had long coveted.
I bought a bright and pretty spring-like coverlet for the bed.
I read some magazines that have been sitting around for a few months for which I rarely seem to have attention.
We loved the croissants and muffins and breads from Bread Alone, a somewhat legendary New York bakery.
It was good to sit still and stare at the woods.
It was good to be out of the apartment and our town.
It was good to not watch TV for five nights, for a badly needed change.
It was good to come home, once more, with a large shopping bag full of new books.
It was good to take some photos at sunrise, wandering a quiet town.
I also wrote for, of all places, Mechanical Engineering magazine, on STEM education and on water treatment. Both were challenging, fascinating stories to produce and — of course! — my editor then left the magazine. So we’ll see if there’s more work from them for 2021.
Thanks to Twitter, I was hired by the Lustgarten Foundation to blog about their work funding pancreatic cancer research. I’m not a science writer, so I was happily surprised to be invited to do this. It’s been quite extraordinary interviewing some of the world’s best scientists.
I also Zoomed into eight classes around the U.S. — undergrad college classes in Utah, Philadelphia and Florida and high school journalism classes in Florida, Michigan, California. Ohio and Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed it and the students were engaged and lively. It’s the only bright spot of this isolation — that there’s a need and a hunger for voices like mine in the classroom and there’s a technology that makes it quick and easy.
The year started with the best piece of work I’ve produced since my books — a 5,000 word examination for The American Prospect of how Canadians experience their single-payer healthcare systems. I grew up there and was a medical reporter so this was a perfect fit for me. Jose, my husband, accompanied me for two weeks’ travel around Ontario and shot the images, the first time we had ever worked on a project together.
Personally, it was a year — as it was for many of us — of social isolation, fear of getting COVID, of not seeing friends or family. Visits with several physicians made clear the urgency of my really losing a lot of weight — 30 to 50 pounds — which basically feels impossible. I started 16/8 intermittent fasting November 1 and plan to keep it up indefinitely. I swim laps for 30 minutes three times a week and am trying (ugh) to add even more exercise.
I don’t mind exercising, per se, but I really hate doing all of it alone.
Probably like many of you, because seeing people face to face is so complicated now, I’ve massively boosted my phone, email and Skype visits with friends — four in one recent week with pals in London, Oregon, California and Missouri. This pandemic-imposed isolation and loneliness is very tough and I’m sure even the strongest and happiest partnerships and marriages are, like ours, feeling claustrophobic by now.
I took a chance and joined something called Lunchclub.ai — which matches you with strangers who share your professional interests for a 45 minute video conversation. My first was with a woman in another state who was half my age — but lively, fun and down to earth. Despite my initial doubts, I enjoyed it. You can sign up for two a week and at times that suit you best, between 9 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. ET.
In a time of such relentless isolation, why not?
Stuck safely at home, I’ve watched a lot of TV and movies. Favorites, many of which I’ve blogged here, include Borgen, Call My Agent, I May Destroy You, The Undoing, Trapped, Bordertown and DCI Banks.
My mother died in a nursing home in British Columbia — very far from us in New York — on Feb. 15, my best friend’s birthday. She was cremated and at some point I will go up there to spread her ashes and claim two enormous pieces of art she left me. We hadn’t been in touch in a decade, even though I was her only child.
My half-brother who lives in D.C., a five-four drive south, had twins in May, (the only grandchildren my father will ever have from his four children), a boy and girl, but he refuses to accept my overtures to rekindle a relationship — having decided in 2007 he was too angry with me. I was not invited to his wedding and have never met his wife. Estrangement is very familiar within our family.
On a happier note, thanks to a much better year for work, we were able to spark up our apartment a bit — adding a new silver velvet sofa and throw cushions from Svensk Tenn, a vintage kilim bought at auction, new lampshades and framing some art. When you spend 95 percent of your life at home, keeping it tidy and lovely helps a lot with the inevitable cabin fever. The money we’ve saved on not going to ballet/’opera/concerts, let alone commuting (a 10 trip train ticket into Manhattan is $95) or parking in the city (easily $30 to $50 for the day) has been substantial.
We’ve bought almost no clothes or shoes — why?!
We have eaten out, usually once a week locally, and if the restaurant is large and empty, will do so indoors.
We only took two very brief breaks: in July two nights at a friend’s home in upstate New York and two nights’ hotel in Woodstock, NY. It was very much appreciated!
I tried in late October to take a solo respite at a small inn in rural Pennsylvania — and ended up deep in Trump country. It wasn’t my style at all and I left two days earlier than planned.
I’ve tried to read more books, not very successfully.
Here are two I did read and really enjoyed.
And I started re-reading my own work, my first book, Blown Away, published in 2004. It holds up! Now a 2021 goal is finding a new publisher to re-issue it and financing the time it will take me to update and revise it.
How was your 2020?
What are some of your goals, hopes and dreams for 2021?
— Pitched a fun idea I found (by reading the production notes of a recent documentary) to a Canadian magazine I admire, and was initially excited to write for, until they refused to push the pay rate into American currency, cutting a low rate ($500) to $380. Then their contract arrived and it was Biblical in length and demands. I did something very rare and backed out of the assignment. Then I had to manage the legitimately disappointed feelings of the person I was going to profile. But, when I discussed this on my Facebook page, several fellow Canadians suggested alternate editors.
— Negotiated with a physician about possible coaching.
— Did a bunch of Zoom classes with high school and college journalism students.
— Got back in touch with a few editors to try and start lining up assignments for January 2021. I always have to think at least two months ahead!
— Got some good news on a potential book project for which I need to speak to some very senior journalists.
— Connected two writers I admire, one in Nashville, one in London, to help one another on a project. I love connecting people!
— Wrote more blog posts for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds research into pancreatic cancer. The topic is challenging, as so many people don’t survive it, but it’s also been an honor to speak directly to the researchers working on so many different ways to detect and manage it.
— Managed money! I work so hard to earn what I do, it’s easy to forget that what savings we do have need to be properly managed. We expected the stock market to soar after Biden was elected, and it did. I jumped and pulled some of that windfall into cash. I’m damn grateful to have savings and investments, without which I’d live in monthly fear of not being able to meet all our bills. I tell every would-be freelancer this — if you don’t have at least two to three months’ worth of expenses in the bank, you’ll never be able to turn down work or walk away (as I describe above) from a lousy deal.
— Swimming three times a week, at 12:30 p.m. at our local YMCA. They allow only four people at a time, one per lane. It’s bliss. I get some exercise, some social interaction, some relief from sitting alone at home all day. I even found the perfect source for my NYT radio story swimming in the next lane. He connected me, after we chatted as we left, to a great source in Miami.
— Participated in multiple Twitterchats: #TRLT (travel), #CultureTrav (travel) #RemoteChat and #FreelanceChat. I really enjoy these lively global online/real-time conversations and have met some great people through them, like an Australian woman living in France or a Dutch woman in New York. Each session is about an hour and focused on discussing a specific topic. I always learn something new and — especially with the terrible loss of social life due to COVID — they help keep me going nuts from loneliness and isolation.
— Kept up with my normal media consumption. I read the Financial Times and New York Times every day in print. I may scan others, like The Guardian, online. I listen to CBC and NPR radio, for news and pleasure. I also read books (slowly!) and some magazines, although many fewer than we used to. I’m not loving Vogue these days but enjoy reading even old copies of Smithsonian.
I really miss working in our gorgeous local library, with its soaring ceilings and tall windows and enormous tables.
I miss seeing other people face to face!
But we’ve spruced up our apartment, thanks to a good year, and that’s helped: new sofa, new rug, framing some art.
Trauma is the only way to describe what happens when managers go out of their way to demean and shrink their team’s confidence. Nothing is the same. The safety humans need to thrive, especially at work, is gone. Three years into owning my own company, those bad managers still influence how I lead my team every minute. I go to extremes to make sure I’m never like those bad bosses.
I will spend hours writing and rewriting a coaching email to ensure that people know I see them. Why? Those moments when someone you admire makes you feel small are seconds you never forget. When the shame happens on a daily cycle, it’s a whole new world of mind games. I can’t do that to people.
I know first-hand that the mind games don’t end because you quit your job either. After I walked away from my worst managers, I caught myself questioning the intentions of everyone with feedback. Let me tell you – that is not a good way to live your life. I still get coaching on feedback to make sure I deliver and receive it with empathy.
I’ve been doing Zoom sessions with American high school journalism students and really enjoying it — so far, with Florida, Michigan, Ohio, California and with Texas and Pennsylvania ahead.
One of the questions — why freelance?
What are its advantages?
My first reply?
I enjoyed aspects of my three staff newspaper jobs — at the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national newspaper), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.
But each job carried some truly heinous challenges as well: cut-throat internal gossip and competition, stupid or lazy or rote-minded management, sexism.
I loved breaking stories (i.e. getting them ahead of all my ferocious competitors).
I loved the crazy adrenaline rush of reporting and writing on deadline.
I loved learning so many new things and having tremendous experiences — from meeting Queen Elizabeth to visiting a rural Quebec commune to flying into an Arctic village of 500 people.
I loved knowing that my work was being read by so many people and could, occasionally, prove helpful to them.
The Daily News job, as Katrina writes, was the last straw for me. I won’t bore you with all the details but here’s one — I started in June and by late September my direct boss stopped speaking to me. He never again spoke to me until I was laid off about a year later.
As the unofficial company motto said — Sink or Swim!
So I’ve since stayed freelance, which is basically intellectual piecework. We joke that we eat only what we kill — i.e. no paycheck or pension or paid sick days or paid vacation.
Holidays? Hah! Only when we can afford the time and cost of using them.
But it also has freed me from working with and for bullies and brutes, a huge advantage for me.
I’ve also found a few communities of fellow independents on Twitter and participate in weekly Twitterchats, like #remotechat (Wednesdays, 1pm EDT) and #FreelanceChat (Thursdays, at noon EDT.)
The range of people on them is terrific — with people arriving from across the U.S., Canada and Europe. It makes us feel less lonely!
I also really enjoy the wild variety of my work.
In the past year, I’ve written on:
— STEM education (for an engineering magazine)
— pancreatic cancer research (for the Lustgarten Foundation)
— A Finnish energy executive (Neste)
— Why some long-resident foreigners in the U.S. choose not to become citizens (The Conversationalist)
Working on your own — as so many are now doing because of the pandemic — is challenging, and next to impossible for women trying to manage multiple small children (800,000 have left the American workforce!)
It means being super-focused and self-disciplined, and not having an office with an appropriate chair, desk or lighting. (I write on a laptop on our dining table.)
It can also mean working to others’ needs and schedules — not, as some fantasize, sleeping til noon. My husband, a freelance photographer and photo editor, works freelance and his hours can start at 6:00 a.m. and sometimes go until 2:00 a.m.
My big story, January 2020 — three months’ reporting, 30 sources.
By Caitlin Kelly
Thanks to Twitter, of all things, my recent writing work has been plentiful, interesting and decently-paid.
I have no explanation for it, certainly in a year of enormous job loss for so many, but this year is proving far better than 2019 for me in steady work income.
I make my living writing journalism, content marketing and coaching other writers ($250/hour) through phone, Skype or, in happier times, face to face in New York City.
Recent work has included producing a series of blog posts, like this one, for the Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest devoted to fighting pancreatic cancer, after its communications officer found me on Twitter and asked if I’d like to do some writing for them.
Chasing money is an annoying part of my work, and that’s sucked up a lot of energy as well, with late payments from several sources — some $5,000 worth. No one wants to be a nag or a pest, but the bills don’t wait! Before the crash of 2008, I had a $20,000 line of credit with my bank and that made late payments less stressful — the bank killed it, with no warning or explanation, that year. Managing cash flow is every freelancer’s greatest challenge, since the economy remains tediously predicated on a 1950s model of payment showing up in our bank accounts on a regular, predictable and consistent schedule.
I keep trying to add more energy to my book proposal, but reporting is only best done face to face — and that now feels largely impossible. Very frustrating. It’s an idea focused on New York City, so I need to start making calls to see if anyone will even meet with me now.
Awaiting news of a grant application for $11,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts for another book project.
Still reaching out to new-to-me editors I’d like to write for at a few sections of The New York Times, Domino magazine (print) and the Weekend FT.
Also emailed a new content marketing opp — a magazine published for a major car manufacturer — and spoke by phone for 45 minutes with another potential client.
So much of a writer’s work, working for income, is seeking, finding and vetting new would-be collaborators. Do you like them? Are they ethical? Do they pay well? Do they pay quickly? Does the content actually interest me enough to commit to doing it well?
It’s a highly competitive business, but you have to know your value and always be your own best advocate.
I had a long conversation recently with a 26-year old freelance writer who’s fed up, as we all are now, with common (appalling) pay rates of $400 for a reported story — which would easily have paid $1,000 or more a few years ago.
Freelance journalism, as she said to me and I’ve said to many, has become an expensive hobby.
Which is ironic and terrible, since we need smart, deep analysis now more than ever — and it’s increasingly concentrated in the well-paid hands of a few staff writers. This is not good.
And this looks like it’s not going to change anytime soon.
I easily made two to three times my income in the 90s producing only journalism, as pay rates were much higher and demand as well. Some people, with specialized skills or very strong editorial relationships, are still making very good money, but if you want a glamorous, high profile clip from Conde Nast or Hearst the contract will be brutally demanding of all rights and expose you to total liability.
Content marketing requires the same skills — interviewing, research, reporting, writing, revising. But the end user is different, and the tone can reflect that and, some won’t carry my byline, like the Lustgarten posts.
As long as the pay is good and quick, management smart and the work interesting, that’s a lot!
If you fantasize about the glam life of a full-time freelance writer — no commute! work in sweatpants! no meetings! no office politics!— the quotidian reality can be…bracing.
I’ve been full-time freelance many times in my career, this most recent stint starting (again) in the summer of 2006 when I was summarily canned (no emails, no meetings, nowarnings) by the New York Daily News.
Bye-bye enormous laminated press pass!
It’s much more difficult now to earn a good living (like $60,000 year-plus) in journalism because so many magazines have shut down or gone to a digital-only version — which pay much less than print (I call it #MissingAZero, as they now offer $150 for 1,000 words [at worst] instead of the $1,500 to $3,000 that was once standard payment for that length. Yes, we are still, typical in journalism, paid by the word.)
Here’s some of my recent writing life:
— A pal on Twitter, who lives in Alaska but who edits for a magazine based in New York City, tweets out she seeks pitches on retail, the topic of my last book. Sweet! I like her a lot and trust her to be a good person to work with, so I pitch her.
— I pitch a religion-focused idea to a Canadian magazine and follow up three times to discover she never saw the initial pitch. Re-send it. I get an offer but it’s short and low, and the Canadian dollar is 25% lower than U.S. — and I pay my bills in New York. Unless they’ll go higher, I’ll pass. (They didn’t, but the email conversation remained cordial.)
— Phone interview for an amazing opportunity with a super-prestigious and interesting project, told I’m one of their top three candidates. This is rare! This is potentially very cool. Must wait now for further details.
— The print version of my American Prospect story arrives. I love seeing my work in print! I also get paid for it (after starting work on it in August 2019 and finishing work on it in November 2019.) This is the first time in our 20 years together that Jose and I worked together on a story.
— Phone conversation with an editor far far away seeking a daily editor for a major news-site. I am surprised to be in the mix (as I am so often not, now!) and ask why; as I suspected, my decades of news experience do have value. I find out I’m also the only candidate (of many) who followed up with a phone call.
— I apply for a reporting fellowship. Waiting to see if I make the finalists’ cut.
— I apply for a few staff jobs but get nothing.
— I report and write a 2,200 word story on STEM education, my first (and an assignment, not my pitch), for Mechanical Engineering magazine. Editor loves it and wants to work on more stories. Yay!
— I pitch several ideas to editors at The New York Times, to Air B & B magazine, and to a new website focused on interior design. The Air B & B essay idea is rejected but it’s a good one and I start thinking who else might want it.
— Need to come up with some ideas for The Wall Street Journal, as an editor there contacted me after my American Prospect healthcare story came out.
— Have found an intern, a college student, and assign her researchwork for two book projects. She found me on Twitter and we will meet this weekend in New York for lunch, face to face for the first time.
— A former Times colleague of Jose’s, who knows me and my work, suggests me to an editor there for a project.We’ll see!
— I lose a lot of energy and patience trying to get the two key sources for a magazine profile to give me the initial information I need. I finally get it, but after too much needless anxiety. This is the kind of story others would kill to have written about them.
— I practice and time my remarks for a workshop on pitching I’m giving on March 6 at the annual Northern Short Course, a 3-day conference for photojournalists, this year in Fairfax, VA. I book two nights’ hotel in a quaint town nearby beforehand and two nights’ hotel in D.C. to catch up there with friends as well.
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.”
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.
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.