The writing life

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Just saw a great new film starring the fab Melissa McCarthy, in a serious role, as the late New York City writer Lee Israel, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

More than any film I’ve ever seen, it shows the reality of life for an ambitious-but-stymied writer in a city full of the inevitable confrontations with those who are glitteringly and gloatingly more successful. In one scene, she attends a party filled with them and her simmering rage is palpable.

I still remember the woman, (living as an adult in her parents’ townhouse), who ran into me at some NYC writing event and cooed: “Are you still with the Daily News? Haven’t seen your byline much recently.”

Like that.

Israel, who found forging literary letters her financial salvation when her career stalled, also had a prickly personality that guaranteed her few allies and alienated the few who tried to get close to her.

The scenes where she both confronts and begs her agent to get her a deal are painful to watch — and so honest. The inequities here are legion, like the Classic Six, (a huge, much coveted style of Manhattan apartment) her agent inherited; Israel lives in a dingy walk-up with her cat.

 

Writing for a living is often a deeply frustrating path to frustration, envy and low wages. Those who tell you otherwise are hoping to make some money from your idealism and naievete.

But…

 

Since I generally update you on my writing life, here’s the — cheerful! — latest:

 

— Nice reception for this essay published on The Pool, a UK website, about the odd reality of getting a cancer diagnosis and having to keep explaining it to people who know nothing and can’t be bothered to Google your condition.

 

With so many medical appointments and seven physicians, and tests and treatments that would consume more than five months, I kept trying to flee cancerland whenever possible. Where I live, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid being confronted by ads on radio, TV, buses or even a debit-card machine for a cancer hospital or drug. When healthcare is a competitive, for-profit enterprise, the word “cancer” is annoyingly inescapable, leading some who’ve yet to face it to think they understand what those facing the disease are going through.

They don’t.

One of the many lessons I learned quickly is how deeply individual breast cancer and its treatments are. At the radiation clinic, where I lay face down for 48 seconds a day for 20 days, I made two new friends – none of us with the same condition or treatment regime.

 

— Loved the chance to report and write this piece, a profile of the new coach for the New York Rangers, a hockey team that practices in my suburban town. The coach, David Quinn, was warm, down-to-earth and had his dreams of the NHL or the Olympics dashed at 20 when he discovered he is hemophiliac.

 

Ice as unyielding as concrete. Razor-sharp blades whizzing past with abandon. Slap-shot pucks flying through the air. Boards dented and dinged from bodies slammed hard into them during every game. Ice hockey and hemophilia are not a good match. But for David Quinn, an ice hockey rink is where he feels most at ease. On one hand, this is no surprise. Quinn, 52, is the new head coach of the New York Rangers, one of the National Hockey League’s most storied franchises. On the other hand, it’s a bit startling, because the rookie NHL head coach and former hockey player has hemophilia B.

 

— Wrote my first piece for a new website aimed at people in their 50s and 60s, considerable.com, after meeting its editor for a long lemonade this summer. It’s so rare these days anyone makes time to meet writers face to face; I’m now working on my second piece.

 

Coached a writer who hopes to sell to The New York Times, discussing and refining her pitch.

 

— Coached a D.C. college journalism student in her final year, who found me on the Internet and hired me to work on her skills. It’s an interesting relationship and a challenge to try and transfer decades of knowledge, but fun and gratifying. We’re meeting face to face in New York for lunch this week.

 

— Started work on my first piece for an engineering magazine, which will be the fourth time (!) I’ve written about engineering education. As someone who didn’t enjoy most of my formal education, am fascinated by the skills and aptitudes required to succeed in that field.

 

– Negotiating with several new clients and editors for work in early 2019. When you’re wholly freelance, paying (soon) $1700 a month for health insurance, it’s a constant hustle to find (and ideally keep) new relationships with people who pay well, pay quickly and don’t drive you insane with demands.

 

My writing life, recently

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

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

 

Some of what I’ve been up to:

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

— Blogged, as usual.

 

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

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

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

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

Leaving this week for a 12 day break in Ontario!

A week in the writer’s life #MissingAZero!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

Coping with rejection

By Caitlin Kelly

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What will you do if that door stays closed?

 

It happens.

It stinks.

It hurts.

 

You want(ed): a job, a friendship, a sweetie, a fellowship, a grant, a book or film or music deal.

When you or your idea face (repeated) rejection, it can feel annihilating.

It shouldn’t.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, who wrote television shows and directed films and series and wrote and shot magazine articles. I saw, firsthand, what it’s like — emotionally, intellectually and financially — to put in a lot of hard work and hope only to discover that your ideas won’t receive funding.

Rejection is a powerful sorting process, quickly winnowing out those who really want it — and may still not get it! — from those who don’t. Maybe they’re ambivalent or don’t work hard or missed the deadline, again.

When you “fail”, (which to me is only temporary; if chronic, that’s not good), what’s your back-up plan?

Aircraft manufacturers plan for failure, creating planes that can still fly and land safely if an engine malfunctions.

Football coaches have a playbook, and everyone, everyone, needs a Plan B, C and D.

You?

If we’re not thinking ahead to the next step, and the one after that, defeat can feel permanent.

 

How badly do you want it?

 

Here’s a wise blog post on what to do next…

 

I spent the past six weeks working on a book proposal.

Thanks to referrals from generous colleagues, I found top New York agents who replied to my email within hours. I worked with one for several weeks, but we quickly saw — to our mutual regret — this wasn’t a project he felt invested in, and I did. With the best humor and grace we could each muster, we parted ways.

The next agent replied to my email within half an hour — with tart, tough analysis of my idea’s weaknesses (yes, plural) and the intense competition it would face.

To say that — in British terms — these two men were  chalk and cheese, is an understatement. Whew. One was lovely, kind and gentle and encouraging, even if I could tell this wasn’t probably going to work out.

The second was brash, abrasive and cutting.

But neither was a fit.

So, for now, I’m putting that goal on hold; both taught me about the current marketplace (useful) and, essentially, reminded me of the kind of person I want to do business with.

 

None of this, sorry to say, is unusual within the cruelly competitive world of journalism and publishing.

Pretty much every creative field I know — art, music, dance, design, film, theater — is equally filled with smart, talented, well-trained, determined thousands who want the same things we do: money, attention, a job, a gig, a contract.

Recognition!

In my decades in this business, I’ve been rejected so much it just feels normal — I tried for eight years before I was hired as a reporter at the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper.

I tried multiple times, never successfully, for the Alicia Patterson fellowship, (one of 14 finalists among 387 applicants that year.) The latest winners of the McGraw Prize, awarded to seasoned business writers  — all three of them — beat out the 77 others who sent in their ideas.

Both of my previous books were rejected 25 times before finding a major publisher.

 

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

 

 

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My second book, published in 2011

 

 

Whether we welcome it or not, rejection offers us information we have to process.

Simply stamping your foot, shouting”It’s not fair!” or pouting in a corner won’t get it done:

What did you fail to include?

What skills do you need to strengthen?

Could you have prepared more thoroughly?

Would additional training or education help you succeed?

Is your network powerful enough to guide, mentor and promote you?

 

I would never dissuade anyone from following their dreams.

 

I would strongly suggest having a thick, strong coat of armor — for your bank balance and ego — if you do.

A week in my life as a freelance writer

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Ohhhh, so glamorous!

Not.

At the moment, which is blessedly almost unheard of, I actually have no assignments at all. That means, no income for this month. That means, (thank heaven we have one) dipping into our emergency fund. At least my husband, a freelance photo editor, does have steady work.

For those new to Broadside (welcome!), here’s my website.

I’ve been fighting a cold, sleeping 3.5 hours one afternoon to give my weary body a rest — but also heading 25 miles into Manhattan to meet with friends visiting from far away: a retail expert I’m Twitter friends with and hadn’t met before, from D.C.; a former New York Times story source, who then lived in the Middle East and now lives in London and who I last saw at my birthday party in Paris in June, and a bilingual young friend I met at a writing conference in New York who’s from Montreal and is (yay!) moving to Paris.

I’m excited for her — ditching a well-paid corporate career, selling her condo and most of her belongings — and, single and bold, heading into a great new adventure. I had a life-changing year in Paris when I was 25 on a journalism fellowship so I hold tremendous affection for that city and what spending some focused time there can produce.

Next Monday I’ll meet a talented writer who lives in Mexico City and with whom I’ve only, so far, traded notes with in an on-line writers’ group. Then have coffee with another younger writer, a New Yorker back home after years living in Berlin.

So many writers’ relationships now, working alone at home or in a co-working space or library or cafe, are virtual that I’m eager to meet face to face whenever possible.

 

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My second book

 

I also sent a book idea recently to an agent — whose name and phone number a writer I’ve never even met shared with me. This is, at is best, what a successful career in this business will produce — sufficient affection and respect for one another that we boost those whose work and ethics we admire.

People often wonder: How do you find an agent? Once you’re established, often by a referral like this.

To my delight, the agent called me back that same day saying: “I know your work.” Whew!

 

Because, honestly, there are days, weeks and years it’s too easy to feel invisible and hopeless, watching the Big Name Writers win awards and grants and fellowships and adulation, especially here in New York where people are, ahem, quite vocal about their success.

 

Being modest can feel weird and self-defeating.

So I burbled out my idea to this agent and he listened and said: “Tell me more.” I sent a bare-bones outline.

He didn’t like it, but said, “Let’s keep talking.” So I thought hard and brainstormed with five smart women friends, several fellow writers and a few who aren’t, to help me refine my thinking and expand it.

One of them thought the idea not useful at all, which was worth hearing — and offered an insight I hadn’t considered that was valuable and which I incorporated into the second iteration.

It worked!

 

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This book is by one of the friends whose wisdom I consulted…

 

I’m meeting my new agent, the sixth I’ve worked with, next week.

But, now comes even more unpaid hard work, a larger gamble for both of us, as I produce a full book proposal, which is much less literary than a hard-sell document filled with promises — our goal to win an offer from a major publisher and one big enough I can actually afford to stop most other work for a year or more. Book advances are now paid out in quarters, (thirds if you’ve got some clout), which means a long, long time between payments, from which your agent first deducts 15 percent.

So, if you’re really lucky and get, say, a $100,000 advance (rare!), you’ll net about $28,000 (pre-tax) per instalment — which, in a place like New York, really won’t even sustain a year’s living costs. I know Big Name Writers with full-time well-paid jobs who turn down a book deal because they can’t afford the drop in income.

 

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

 

I’m eager to write more books, though, as basic story-telling already pays poorly and, isn’t sufficiently challenging. I’ve been doing this work for decades, and want to produce deep, smart work — which very few places now have the space or budget for.

I also applied last week for a cool staff job at the Washington Post, because, what the hell? Why not? I asked a friend who’s a writer there who encouraged me, and then (deep breath) took what for me is a huge risk and asked someone for their help. She’s a Big Name Writer at the Post who I deeply admire and met in person in June 2016. We follow one another on Twitter, but that’s the depth of the relationship.

She said she would mention me to the hiring editor and say good things.

I was grateful as hell, stunned at my good fortune. It’s very difficult for me to ask others for help.

I also, being ill and exhausted, sent out some LOIs (letters of introduction) to editors, spoke to one by phone about possible assignments and emailed back and forth with several others.

Still waiting for payment for work already published.

 

So much of this business isn’t writing, but finding and nurturing relationships with the people — agents, editors, fellow writers, grant and foundation judges — who need to place their trust in you: to be accurate, to be ethical, to be a decent person to work with, to not miss deadline.

 

I listened to three interviews with writers and editors from the Longform podcast, one of them the editor of a Big Fancy Magazine which emboldened me to send him a pitch.

If you’re interested in journalism, writing, publishing, media, this series offers 277 podcasts and you will learn a lot, and gain some useful insights into who wins the Big Fancy Jobs, when, how and why.

So, even though I haven’t earned a penny this month (!) it’s actually been great.

 

As we say in New York, go figure!

 

 

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!

 

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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

 

 

Kim Wall, talented young journalist, found dead in Copenhagen waters

By Caitlin Kelly

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Columbia Journalism School

It’s every writer’s worst nightmare — to head off reporting what appears to be a cool, fun story  —- and end up dead.

From The New York Times:

The Copenhagen police announced on Wednesday that a torso found this week in local waters was that of Kim Wall, a Swedish freelance journalist who disappeared after boarding a Danish inventor’s submarine.

The announcement, which followed DNA tests of samples from the torso, turned what had started as a missing-persons case into what Christian Jensen, editor in chief of Politiken, Denmark’s largest daily, called “the most spectacular murder case in Danish history.”

The inventor, Peter Madsen, 46, has been held on preliminary charges of involuntary manslaughter. It is not yet known how Ms. Wall, 30, died, nor how or why her body was dismembered.

Her torso — missing its arms, legs and head — was found by a cyclist on the edge of Amager Island on Monday afternoon,

Kim Wall, a talented 30-year-old freelancer, educated at prestigious and demanding schools like Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia Journalism School and the London School of Economics, headed out aboard a submarine with Danish inventor Peter Madsen.

Like many ambitious journalists, she decided to do the reporting first — and sell the story (one always hopes!) later, i.e. “on spec.”

Full-time freelancers like Kim, (and me), work with no institutional protection, often with no danger training or back-up.

We hope to, and must, quickly sell our stories — as she did to The New York Times and other publications.

I didn’t know Kim, nor had I read her work, but her death — her appalling, terrifying end while at work — is hitting my tribe, journalists, and especially bold women like her who venture alone into funky places alone around the world, very hard.

Freelance work, de facto, can require a sort of bravery, initiative and decisiveness that’s unique to our industry:

No one sits around waiting for the day’s assignment from a boss.

No one revises a press release and hits “send” and calls it journalism.

No one has a paycheck, nor even a guaranteed sale, let alone a well-paid one.

We work alone, often without the witness or putative aid and protection of a fixer, translator or photographer.

Those who, like Kim often did, work overseas, must cover their own expenses and arrange all their own travel and accommodations.

And, as this story did, it demands that we trust others, often with our safety and our lives.

You gin up a great idea, and, sometimes without a definite assignment, (i.e. a sale, income, let alone your travel costs repaid, and an editor invested intellectually and financially in what we produce) — and go.

Like Kim, I’ve gone to a few places to report a story that others told me not to. Nothing as truly scary as a war zone or natural disaster, but — like her — working alone with or around men I had never met before.

At 25, I jumped into a truck with a French driver I’d never met, 10 years my senior, and traveled with him, sleeping in the truck cab every night, for eight days, from Perpignan to Istanbul.

There were no cellphone then, no GPS to track our location, no Internet.

It was — as Kim’s decision to board that damned submarine — a decision I made, eagerly, on a common and basic calculation in our field:

 

adventure + exclusivity + access + firsthand reporting = terrific  (saleable) story

 

And, for many women I know, like one who ventures repeatedly into a nation riddled with vicious crime, I made a bet.

Like female freelancers who cover war and conflict zones, places where women are often raped and slaughtered.

The same bet I made when I traveled alone, also at 25, into a small Sicilian town to report on a complex topic, not speaking a word of Italian, relying on men I had never met for translation and lodging and transportation.

The same bet I made when I walked, at dusk, into Brixton, then a no-go area of London, to interview a male squatter.

In every case, thank God, I got my story, and came home.

Safe — and alive.

We bet, each of us, every time, that we will return unharmed.

 

Tonight at 7pm there is a candlelight vigil being held at Columbia Journalism School, in upper Manhattan, in Kim’s honor.

 

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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A reminder from your host…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Now that Broadside is closing in on 18,000 followers worldwide — eight years after I started writing it — it’s time once more to remind newer readers who exactly they’re reading!

Based in Tarrytown, New York, a gorgeous little town on the east bank of the Hudson River 25 miles north of Manhattan, I’m a published non-fiction author and career journalist, with staff experience at three major daily newspapers, several magazines and numerous digital outlets, from Reuters Money to bbc.com.

Here’s my website, with sample articles from my thousands of published stories — in outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, MORE magazine, Marie Claire, House Beautiful and many others.

A generalist, my work in June ranged from a profile of an L.A. designer for House Beautiful, a story about 3D printing for farmers for a custom publication and this story, about the growing dangers faced by truckers working across the United States.

 

I’m always seeking new clients with a clear sense of what they need and a budget to support a high level of skill and experience

 

A two-time author of nationally reported non-fiction, I also teach other writers and bloggers, through specific webinars of 90 minutes, (30 minutes reserved for your questions),  at $150 and individual coaching, also arranged at your convenience, at a cost of $225 per hour, payable in advance through Paypal.

I work with clients in person, by phone or Skype.

 

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My second book, published in 2011

I’ve helped dozens of writers and bloggers worldwide — from Germany to New Zealand to Singapore to Maryland — and my students are delighted with the results and improvements they see, quickly, as a result.

 

One of my coaching clients was published in The New York Times, and another in The Guardian — and neither one are professional writers.

 

I also help public relations professionals better understand how to tell their clients’ stories more effectively, and have worked with teams in New York and California.

 

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com!

Writing for money

By Caitlin Kelly

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“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.

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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.)

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

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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!

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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.