A week in the writer’s life #MissingAZero!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

IMG_20171007_114548325

What a week, kids!

Here’s some of it:

Negotiated with three different teams of PR people to set up a phone interview with (shriek!) shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. They shift the time of the interview, meaning I have to suddenly shift three competing events in my day to accommodate. This is all very normal in the world of celebrity PR, which is why I generally avoid it. (They called me from London and he was so nice! What a thrill!)

Pitched a new-to-me editor on a story that would require, ideally, a trip to a distant and remote Canadian destination. It’s a great story, but so few outlets have the budget for travel now, (let alone pay enough or offer enough space for a longer piece), and the ones that do are focused on luxury and high-net-worth readers — which attract lucrative ads from companies like Gucci and Vuitton. One reason there are so very few stories about the poor and struggling — you can’t sell ads against those pieces.

Pitched another new-to-me editor whose ideas are quite different from mine. “We’re getting closer,” she said. Not sure how much more energy I want to pour into a speculative project.

Checked the pay rate from The Independent, a British newspaper, when an editor called out online for op-eds. $150. #MissingAZero! Our health insurance costs $1,400 a month.

 

L1000469

So much wasted time!

 

Asked three fellow journalists, two good friends, one an acquaintance, to participate in a book project. I anticipated their eagerness to help, and instead was met with resentment by one and silence by another and reluctant agreement by a third. Disheartening.

Invested half an hour interviewing a guy whose social justice work might make a great story — if I can find someone to buy it. Asked him where he attended university, (since successful alumni profiles are often an easy sell.)

The editor of his college alumni magazine says, yeah, we use freelancers — and offered $250 for a story.

The editor of a story I submitted more than three weeks ago, (who I had to email three times to follow up), asked me to hold it for another few weeks for a timelier story to run first. The only acceptable answer? “Sure” — which means another month before I get paid. I only get paid after it’s used.

 

L1010211

Back to Montreal!

 

I set up a meeting for early May near Montreal to interview a farmer, my second such assignment for a farming magazine. Glamour! In fact, it’s a lot of fun and I’m delighted to get outdoors, work face to face, and get a paid trip back to Canada.

I taught my final two writing classes, of four nightly classes, of this semester at the New York School of Interior Design, where I studied in the ’90s. The class only had four students enrolled and one never even showed up. Another skipped the last class and didn’t do the work. I found this depressing. The one diligent student, luckily, was terrific. She worked really hard and is a lovely writer. But seriously?

Honored to be included with other women journalists, and called both smart and generous in this piece, which ran on a very high profile site in our industry, Poynter.com, on how to survive tough times in journalism.

Read this deeply depressing article on Columbia Journalism Review, about how frequently editors simply “kill” stories — and pay a fraction of the agreed-upon fee when they do. This deeply cuts the income a freelance writer relies on, and is a practice I know of in no other business.

In my 30-year career, I’ve had very few stories killed, (thank heaven) but it hurts. The last one, January 2015, cost me $900 in lost income. What we often end up doing, (angrily and quietly), is taking a financial hit to retain the working relationship. The editor keeps collecting their salary while we scramble to replace income we expected to earn — that we’re not going to receive.

From the CJR piece:

My ultimate hope, as a person from a family with deep roots in organized labor, is that one day freelance writing will be sold through a kind of union hiring hall, similar to that utilized by unions in the building trades. But that goal will entail a lot of self-help: holding other writers, particularly academics writing solely to burnish their “brands,” accountable for writing for exposure; sharing information about pay rates and editorial practices; and ensuring that all commissioned stories, however small the offered rate, come with contracts that specify detailed procedures about kill fees.

The sad truth of my business is that few work well with others, sometimes instead cutting their own very best deal — and the hell with everyone else. I rely on wide, deep networks of people to be honest with me about what they’re getting paid, or not. Only then can you discover (to your horror) how badly you might be getting screwed — and how much better you need to negotiate.

Coached a fellow writer by phone, my happiest and easiest income of the week, $225 for an hour of my advice. (Interested? Details here!)

 

The best part?

 

Took a hooky day! I visited one of my favorite museums in New York City, the Neue Galerie, a gorgeous Beaux Arts mansion on East 86th. Street bought by Ronald Lauder, (he of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune.) It contains, among many other items, a legendary  portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907 by Gustav Klimt, for which Lauder — in 2006 — paid a staggering $135 million. I went to see a powerful show of German and Austrian art before and after the rise of Hitler.

The show ends May 28; if you can get to it, go!

Having recently watched the TV series Babylon Berlin, which I blogged about here, I’m a tad obsessed with the Weimar Republic and want to learn more about it.  Treated myself to a cake and coffee in the museum’s popular and elegant Cafe Sabarsky, one of the prettiest rooms in New York. Bought three books on the Weimar period — ready for the next two weeks’ break, visiting friends and family in Ontario.

 

 

A freelance journalist’s week

By Caitlin Kelly

carr service01
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.

 

IMG_20170411_131322486

 

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.

 

IMG_20170811_114059331

 

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

 

IMG_20170811_115214223

 

 

IMG_20170811_115654165_HDR

Writing for money

By Caitlin Kelly

stackbooks

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”

— Samuel Johnson (died 1784)

Few subjects will so quickly divide a room than writers talking about how much money they make from their work.

If you write blockbuster fiction, made into Hollywood movies, you might own a lovely home, or several, and shiny new cars.

If you write non-fiction that hits a cultural or political nerve — like over-rated “Hillbilly Elegy” — you might also hit it big.

If you write poetry, you might get “paid” with a copy of the journal that deigned to accept your work.

If you’re a full-time freelance writer, as I am, you probably earn a fairly wide range of fees, unless you’re primarily writing for Hollywood, or the elite tier of top-flight magazines and/or producing a Niagara of material, with very little time off.

saying

There’s also a steady oversupply of people desperate to say: “I’m a writer!”

Blogging doesn’t pay most of us, (unless sponsored.) And yet, blogging here since July 1, 2009, has brought me more than $10,000 in income, teaching my skills to others. (I offer webinars.)

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 obsessions

I began writing for money — for national magazines and newspapers — in my second year at university, in Toronto, where I was doing an English degree. It’s the center of Canadian publishing, home to most major newspapers and magazines. I just had to gin up the nerve to start approaching them, and one of the magazine publishing houses was, literally, a block south of campus.

I got my first assignment for a national women’s magazine after writing a furious letter to the editor, asking them to run better material. That editor, (bless her!) called me in for a meeting, and said: “I’d rather have you writing for us than to us.”

Yes, a hugely lucky break.

But I already had two years’ experience writing every week for our demanding university newspaper, so I brought developed skills.

The money I earned writing helped put me through university and paid my rent and groceries, living alone from the age of 19 in an apartment.

That taught me to negotiate for better pay, early and often.

I also overheard an editor pleading with a fellow writer, (a man, older than I), out-earning me for the same kind of weekly column by 50 percent, not to quit.

malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011

So when I see — and I see it every day — writers accepting shitty pay, or no pay, and refusing to even try to negotiate for more, or to build their skills to a level they can ask for more and legitimately get it, I lose it.

I also see some Big Name Writers telling the world they have no savings and no money put aside for retirement, as if to glorify the de facto penury of being a writer.

Bullshit!

IMG_20160617_102113083 (2)

If you have no savings and are perpetually broke, even while earning your full-time living as a writer, consider:

Your skills are weak and no one will pay you properly for them — since so many competitors do it better, or say they can.

You’re unwilling or unable to negotiate higher rates.

You’re living beyond your means, possibly sabotaged by high rent/mortgage in an expensive city; (Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver.)

You didn’t realize that writing for a living is no less serious — and often just about as glamorous — as sanitation work. Just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. (Sanitation workers, at least, have a union, paid sick days and a pension.)

You haven’t done enough work yet to acquire a consistent track record of achievement, when it’s more reasonable to ask for higher pay rates..

You have a weak or inexperienced network — or people don’t like and trust you enough (yet) to refer you to their decently-paying contacts; most of my work now comes through referrals.

You need to improve your marketing and sales. While people think writing for a living means actually writing, about 75 of my time and energy is spent finding and qualifying new clients.

You need more help with domestic chores or other tasks. It takes time and energy to find well-paid markets for your work, often in addition to teaching.

You write only for low-paying outlets, almost all of them digital, offering $50 or $100 or $300 for long, reported stories, (some writers think this is a lot of money). No one can earn a living at these rates, or work a healthy number of daily/weekly hours to do it. Aim for a higher-paying mix — agency work, print work, non-profit or custom publishing or branded content. 

You might need a job, part-time or full-time, until you have a decent financial cushion and can turn down low-ball offers. You can’t refuse lousy jobs and terrible payment if you’re always desperate for the next gig.

You’re too slow! You have to know your minimum hourly rate and stick to it. If you waste  time or work inefficiently, you’re cutting into your profit margin. It’s a business!

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

10 must-dos for freelance writers

By Caitlin Kelly
I've been writing for them since 1990
I’ve been writing for them since 1990: sports, business, real estate, you name it!
A few thoughts — I have been fulltime freelance, (this time, have done it many times before for years on end), since 2006; I live in the spendy NYC suburbs. I write for a wide range of publications, from The New York Times to Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, More and websites like Quartz.com and Investopedia. (I also teach freelancing, writing and blogging, privately to individuals.) Samples and rates here.
I won’t talk here about your need to be a great writer or boost your “brand” but the array of other skills you also need to succeed in a highly competitive business.
A few thoughts:
1) If you’re simply not making enough money to meet all your costs, (and save money as well), take on part-time work and make sure you remain solvent by so doing. Babysit, tutor, dogwalk, retail — do whatever it takes to keep your credit score stellar and your bills paid, always, on time.
I took a part-time retail job in Sept. 2007 when the recession hit hard and stayed in it for 2.5 years until I had replaced that income and doubled it (monthly); people (i.e. ego-threatened writers) kept saying to me (since my previous job had been as a NY Daily News reporter)…”Oooooh, I could never do that.” Oh, yes you could. Get over yourself and make the money you need. Your landlord or mortgage company couldn’t care less if their payment money comes from the NYT or from….anything else. And, oh yeah, that grueling, low-status, low-wage job experience became my well-reviewed NF book , “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and won me a TV option from CBS for a sitcom.
malled cover HIGH
2) See point one — you never know what will happen if you dare to step off the well-trodden and safe/comfy path of: “I’m a freelance writer.” Detach your ego and status anxiety from your income, always. Yes, of course, be excellent, but do whatever work you take on to the best of your ability. Excellence shows and people appreciate that.
3) Do everything you can to separate yourself from the pack. There are thousands of us; one “secret” women’s writing group I belong to online has — (yes, really) — almost 2,000 people who self-identify as freelance writers. So figure out what you do better than anyone or more quickly or more efficiently (not more cheaply!) and seek out clients who really value those skills and will pay you well for them.
I speak two fluent foreign languages, have published my photos in major media, and have no kids or pets and have been to 39 countries, often alone — so I can travel easily and work in other languages. Many people can’t or have never done so. That wins me good work.
4) Be a human being. When possible, get to know your clients/editors as people — they, too, have pets and kids and birthdays and illnesses and surgeries. Send them nice cards and/or flowers. Check in with them every few months, and just ask “How’s life for you these days?” I did that for one editor facing very serious illness, someone who had not assigned me work for several years and I wondered if she ever would again. She did. I would have done this anyway. Your clients are just as human as we are; in other words, create and nurture your professional relationships with care and sincere thoughtfulness.
5) Don’t expect (too) much too soon. By which I mean, get a very clear sense of your current and true market value and work from there. Just because you want to be in a Big Name Magazine right now doesn’t mean you’re ready or the editor agrees. Ambition matters, but realism and a little healthy humility also have value, (says this native Canadian.)
6) Be positive, upbeat, friendly and confident. The economy is still shitty and shaky for many people and working with someone smart, capable and who will not let them down — no matter what! — is appealing to clients, some of whom may, realistically, fear losing their jobs if you screw up.
7) Live as low/cheaply as you possibly can. The less overhead you carry, the more creative freedom you have to take on and do interesting work more slowly — i.e. work of serious long-term value, not just buying this week’s groceries.
I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment this year in rural Nicaragua
8) Reach out for new non-journalism opportunities, every day: online, by phone, through social media, at events. Two of the most life-changing, fun, challenging and well-paid opportunities for me in 2014 came because I simply took a chance and reached out (i.e. cold-called) two major organizations I never thought might welcome my skills. They did and I’ve never been happier as a result. Just because we’re “freelance writers” doesn’t mean we only have to work for really crappy pay from struggling/cheap media companies.
9)  If you keep comparing your income to the Big Stars making Big Bucks, you’ll die. Just focus on what you can do, well and consistently. There is always going to be someone making a lot more $$$$ — and crowing loudly and tediously about it. Just do great work!
photo(31)
10) Have fun and take very good care of yourself — go for long walks, alone or with your dog or a good friend. Get plenty of deep sleep, including naps. Go see a movie or spend an afternoon at a gallery or museum. Eat your vegetables! Being a freelance writer can be terrific, but also lonely, isolating and wearying, leading to burnout. This is a sort of job that requires mental, physical and emotional stamina. Rejection is normal. Get over it!
Want to learn more? Want to boost your your freelance income?

 

Want The Writer’s Life? Here’s My Week…

English: Scout at Ship's Wheel by Norman Rockw...
Image via Wikipedia

So you want to be a freelance writer?

For many people, it’s a cherished dream: work at home, no commute, wear PJs til noon, no crazy boss or office politics!

I’ve been writing for a living for 30+ years, and have been freelancing, this time, since 2006. Here’s what my week this week — typical in some ways, very unusual in a few others — looks like:

Sunday

I normally don’t work on weekends but I’m facing multiple deadlines and have to interview people this afternoon — including boys ages 8 to 11 for a story for Boys’ Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts, for whom I’ve been happily writing for years. With no kids of my own or nephews, I need some great quotes from these boys, one of whom has a shrieking sibling in the background during our conversation. I email several clients to track down late payments and invoice a few others.

I check in with the Hollywood scriptwriter who’s been writing a pilot script for “Malled” for CBS for months. It’s now, finally, with the network executives who can give it a green light — or not. How weird it might be to have a television character based on…me.

Monday

Eight hours at the hospital getting every bit of my body tested for upcoming hip surgery.

I’m home by 4:00 p.m., worn out from listening carefully to so much complex information. Terms like “blood loss” don’t help my nerves.

I still have to finish up my Boy Scout story; invoice Reuters.com for an op-ed I wrote last week; try to find out the status of two stories I pitched to The New York Times (for whom I’ve been writing since 1990.)

Working freelance means wearing a dozen hats at once: marketing, coming up with ideas, finding editors to buy them (at the right price!), billing, pitching, researching, interviewing, reading, writing, finding sources and — the worst! — chasing down late payments. One client screwed up so badly I still haven’t been paid for a story that ran in November.

So, like every freelancer I know, I hustle for work constantly — and use a line of credit to pay every bill promptly. My bank charges 19 % APR (!) and $12 every time I use the overdraft protection, which these late payments force me into.

I can only afford, finally, to get this surgery because I’ve saved enough to take 4-6 weeks off entirely for my recovery. Freelancers have no paid sick days!

The anesthesiologists’ office warn me that a typical bill for my two-hour operation is $3,800, of which our health insurance will pay, at most, $1,000. I’m in no mood to wake up facing a $2,800 bill. One more thing to try not to worry about.

Tuesday

Into New York City for a haircut. Next week my husband, (a professional photographer and editor), will take my new headshot, which I need for my websites, blog, book events, speaking engagements and other professional gigs. I get asked for it a lot, and everyone who runs their own business should have a good, recent, flattering one.

I’ve tried to clear the decks of work almost completely, so I can go into this major operation without worrying I will disappoint someone or miss a deadline. I still have two paid blog posts left and five days to get them done. I’ve been trying to sell a story about the surgery, but no one has bitten. (Yet!)

Wednesday

I fly to New Orleans, where I’ll attend a cocktail party at a conference of retail business owners. I’m excited but nervous. I hate turbulence and my last flight (home from Chicago in November) was horrible. I enjoy doing public speaking, but writers generally like to have our words speak for us, and giving a great speech isn’t a natural or obvious talent. Last year I hired a terrific speaking coach whose advice and tips made me much more confident.

Thursday

At 1pm eastern time, I join an hour-long conference call of 15 fellow writers all across the U.S. who serve on the board of the American Society of Journalists And Authors, a 1,400-member group that advocates for writers’ rights, improved working conditions and pay. I’ve served on the board for five years and am leaving it in July. I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m pooped. At 3:30, I’m speaking on the topic of how to hire, manage and motivate low-wage employees, something I learned firsthand when I worked for 27 months as an associate at The North Face, an outdoor clothing company, and which formed the basis of my latest book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

Friday

Play day! New Orleans is one of my favorite cities to visit. I’ve been there twice before, once in the spring of 2002 to interview men and women for my first book, about American women and guns. It makes a city a very different place when you’re there to work and try to get to know even a little of the political and economic structure and whose opinions matter most there.

Wanna Hear What I Really Think? Got $6,000?

Money
Image by AMagill via Flickr

So much for “free” speech.

Just got off the phone with an agent who sells “E and O” — errors and omissions insurance — as I start to figure out how to protect my ass(ets) as a writer. He’s sending me several applications, one of which, the multimedia version, is really long. Of course it is!

The joy of “independent writing”? Anyone can sue us anytime. The latest darling of the suit-happy are SLAPP suits — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Which means, unless you work on staff for a Big Media Company (with in-house staff attorneys whose highly-paid job it is to protect you and, more importantly, your employer) you’re toast, baby.

More and more, writers are strong-armed into signing contracts that leave us holding the bag in case someone we cover sues the media outlet for whom we’ve done the — freelance — work.

There’s no better way to make sure we write about puppies and kittens and rainbows than knowing one false move can mean our IRAs are going to get garnisheed in a settlement. The saber-rattling by those with very deep pockets — hmmmm, the wealthy and powerful? — means many of us slap duct tape over our mouths every morning, no matter what madness and malfeasance we discover.

“Independence” is a relative term.

One lawyer I spoke to, knowing the writing life, (beyond lucrative TV and film), delicately inquired, “Do you have any assets?” The answer, having worked long and hard and been really disciplined about driving clapped-out old cars and wearing (mostly) consignment shop shoes is “Yes.” I save 15 percent of my income every year, even when that income is so small I think: “Why bother?”

And, this being the U.S, a nuisance lawsuit is both nauseating and much more probable than I’d like.

Suiting up, then, is quite the challenge, requiring the (paid) services and advice and expertise of my accountant (becoming a company); an attorney (making sure it’s all done properly) and an insurance agent. Unlike car or home insurance, I can’t cough up that dough each month — it’s one lump sum, on my income, a fortune. There is cheaper insurance but — funny thing!– it’s capped at a much lower amount.

Why should you care?

Every day, there are posts I don’t write — or write and don’t publish — because, who needs it? Like many of my colleagues, I’ve got other things to worry about without some $$$$$-mad aggrieved plaintiff ruining my life. That costs you, dear readers, because there’s all sorts of (interesting) stuff it simply isn’t worth mentioning, for fear of such a suit. I know, personally, other independent writers backing away slowly, if regretfully, from smart, incisive, tough, investigative work for this very reason.

Believe it or not, not every writer wants to focus on all-fluff-all the time. But without a safety net, you can’t safely leap too far.

I’m thinking of setting up a Paypal account — you really want my unvarnished opinions? Help me speak truth to power, and not lose my home/assets/savings in the process.