If you have been pitching (some of?) your ideas fruitlessly, this is a great and affordable opportunity to get smart, kind, helpful feedback from two busy full-time freelancers; I’ve sold more than 100 stories to the very demanding editors of The New York Times and Abby writes for a wide variety of outlets, some in their native Tennessee (i.e. local and regional news) but also for the Times, Teen Vogue, Washington Post and more.
Pitching isn’t easy!
So this webinar, which will be recorded, offers everyone a chance to either pitch their idea and get our candid-but-kind feedback or just watch, listen and learn.
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.
In the summer of 2017, Kim Wall, an adventurous, ambitious 30-year-old Swedish freelance journalist made a last-minute phone call to Peter Madsen, a Danish inventor in Copenhagen. She wanted to ride in his home-made submarine, a potential story.
It’s the sort of thing many freelancers do all the time, without deep concern about the risks, as the rewards are obvious.
It would be her last.
He killed her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.
Now, HBO Europe has released a six-part series about the hunt for her killer, The Investigation, on in the U.S.
The show never once names him, referring to him only as “the accused.”
If you, as I do, loved the Danish show Borgen, this brings back two very familiar faces — Pilou Asbek as the prosecutor (who played the spin doctor in Borgen) and Soren Malling as the chief of Copenhagen police (the TV director in Borgen.)
We never see or hear much about Kim herself except through the characters who play her parents, who were as committed to her independence and freelance life as she was. It’s never an easy life, and one many parents find too worrisome and penurious, so this is an interesting piece of the story.
The show moves slowly, with many setbacks and confusion and a lot of frustration — just as much detective work actually unfolds in real life. Madsen was not tried and convicted until April 2018.
I found the show emotionally hard to watch — (I didn’t know Kim)– as it could easily have been me or many other freelancers. Our lives are full of such crazy adventures — many quite risky — we undertake in order to find and tell compelling stories.
And we go alone.
At 25, for a story about the many challenges of trucking goods across the EU, I climbed into an 18-wheeler French truck, met its driver, Pierre Boue, and set off from Perpignan to Istanbul (eight days.) We had never met or spoken. We were both single and he was 35. We. slept on tiny bunks in the truck cab, with no privacy possible. There was no Internet then or cell phones.
It proved one of the best weeks of my life and my career.
Some audiences may balk at the ways the HBO show (now available in full on HBO Max) removes some of these standard elements of biographical crime stories. In staying as close to its title as possible, though, “The Investigation” managed to address a recent tragedy in a surprisingly clear-headed way.
Much of that stems from the way that “The Investigation” handles the passage of time. Though the season spans months, writer/director Lindholm resists putting down easy markers to wring tension out of breaks in the case. There’s a sameness to the way it unfolds, the kind where a whiteboard sits with words and diagrams written on it that no one’s bothered to erase because there’s nothing new to add, either from detective Jens Møller Jensen (Søren Malling) or prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Pilou Asbæk). Finding Wall’s body becomes the overwhelming part of their pursuit — if the show returns to the details of the retrieval process and an item-by-item timeline of everything that happened on the submarine, it underlines how singular their pursuit is.
It’s not an easy show to watch, obviously, and some of the details are very grim.
But what made it most compelling to me was the police’s shared dogged determination to solve this crime and the incredible teamwork it took — including months of diving to find her and her belongings.
Charlotte Bronte’s words, from an exhibit at the Morgan Museum in New York
By Caitlin Kelly
This is my ongoing series, a peek behind the curtain of a full-time writer.
I thought I had an agent!
I was wrong!
That agent (the fourth to see it) took three weeks to even read it — the previous one called my proposal “too narrow” — said he was interested, but when I pushed back on some of his ideas backed out and said we “don’t share a vision.”
Oh, and he read my 26,000-word proposal so carelessly he failed to notice I’ve already published two books.
For God’s sake — three weeks’ wait for this level of incompetence?!
So the search continues.
The good news is that I know a lot of fellow authors and some kind enough to offer editorial and agent contacts.
But it’s an ongoing slog, to be honest.
Rejection is really disspiriting and really tiring.
Rejection means trying over and over and over to make yet another new contact — and wait and hope — who might be excited about my work. I’ve also asked a few friends for their advice on how better to position and market this idea. One kindly offered to read over the proposal as well.
I found a potential agent who sold a book fairly similar to mine; the agency only accepts referrals. (We know one of their authors so I have asked them for a referral. I feel shameless at this point, but needs must.)
I also coach fellow writers and had three clients this week, repeat clients, which means a lot. My coaching isn’t cheap — $250/hour — so I know I need to bring value! I’ve booked two more clients for early March, both of whom found me through Twitter.
But wait….how can I possibly justify coaching others when I’m such a failure (so far!) selling my book?
Apples and oranges! My experience helps writers at all levels, sometimes polishing a personal essay or helping them think of new markets or sharpening a story pitch. So this very frustrating book slog doesn’t dent my confidence and nor should it.
This is the only way to survive writing for a living — retaining optimism and confidence and that of others.
I have yet another New York Times story in the can, (more than 100!), edited and with photos taken, so I’m just waiting for it to be published. In the meantime, I pitched four different Times editors — the Kids’ section, the Well editor, the Letter of Recommendation (NYT Magazine) and Styles. Three were rejected and still awaiting the fourth reply.
I’m still blogging for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds pancreatic cancer research, so I get to interview scientists. It’s a bit intimidating but also really challenging and interesting.
My friend Abby Lee Hood, in Nashville, convened a Google hangout and 22 fellow freelance writers and some radio people showed up from London and Amsterdam and Seattle and L.A. It was great! We are all so lonely and so isolated. There were perhaps three or four of us older than the rest — most were in their 20s and 30s, some even younger. But we have lots in common. I so enjoyed it.
I’m trying to read for pleasure and have started or am in the middle of four books. The one I’m most enjoying is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which manages to make even obscure science compelling. I will also ad that her chapter describing mania, from the inside, is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read; my mother was manic depressive and I witnessed several episodes. They were completely terrifying.
And this payment arrived!
The United States has no such system, but Canada and other nations pay authors a sort of royalty for library use of our books. The way most commercial publishing works means many authors — like me — will never ever see a royalty for our work. We got paid an advance of four or five figures (some get six!) and have to “earn out” with sales, but with each sale netting us a few dollars, never the cover price. It really is just a fancy and costly way to buy mass distribution.
So it’s deeply satisfying to know Canadian readers are still finding value in my work since Blown Away came out in 2004 and Malled in 2011. I did deliberately choose subjects that fascinated me but I also knew would hold longer appeal than a few years’ trendiness.
The amount I get annually is very little in relative terms — about $500. Some authors earn thousands from it.
And it’s worth 20% less because of the Canadian dollar.
I was convinced no one would ever find it or read it or comment. Happily, I was wrong — WordPress tells me 22,000+ people have followed it and my daily stats show people arriving from across the globe, a real compliment.
I also write for a living, so the 2,315 posts I’ve so far published here have been in addition to producing dozens of paid/published articles and a book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.
It’s very weird to…not write. For probably every writer, it’s how we process the world and how we feel about our time in it.
Our tools are simple enough — a device, our hands, our eyes/ears/brain, access to the Internet (not easy for many!)
But I’ve spent the past week not working for income but focused on a book proposal I’ve been trying to revive for a few years, about women and journalism. I’m being vague until/unless it sells. Writing a book proposal is a lot of unpaid work, done in the hope you will actually find an agent and a publisher and get paid enough to make it worth doing. Each step offers its own challenges — having an agent sounds so glamorous but I have been bitterly disappointed by quite a few, even Big Name New York ones.
Like dating, it’s a combination of intellectual and emotional fit — and knowing your agent will do their very best for you. Both of my books faced 25 rejections each before finally selling and today publishing is so much more consolidated it’s even more daunting for the mid-list crowd like me.
Two friends — within a week — including one who works for a major publisher recently urged me to write a memoir. So I bought a book on how to do that and might start writing bits and pieces. It’s tricky for every memoirist with family dramas and unresolved issues. (Likely everyone!)
My husband, Jose, is a photographer and photo editor, working freelance for the USGA and The New York Times; he’s also my transcriptionist! I never learned to touch type, as he did, so I bang everything out with only two weary fingers. At the usual $1/recorded minute one pays a transcriptionist, I at least owe him lunch!
So I’ll enjoy the next week or so, as many of you — I hope! — will as well: eating, napping, watching movies and fun TV, taking walks. Reconnecting with yourself and those you love, ideally at home!
Wishing you all a great Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa!
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.
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!
It’s been three long months of COVID-19 isolation for me now.
None of the usual pleasures and distractions of visiting a cinema, museum, ballet or opera. No bars or restaurants.
A good long time to reflect.
And a good time to purge enormous piles of paper, most of it the notes for previous articles I’ve written or the magazines in which those stories appeared.
I filled multiple enormous garbage bags with it, and ruthlessly tossed out several fat files with notes for my classes teaching writing, as I’ve done at several universities and schools.
It’s not Art or Literature.
It’s just journalism.
I enjoyed producing it and the money I earned from it paid plenty of bills — groceries and gas and health insurance and clothes and dental bills and haircuts.
But why cling to all this paper? Proof I existed? That someone read my work?
I’ve been writing for a living for more than 40 years, published many, many times, in Canada, the U.S., even in Ireland and France. At the tail end of any writing career, and I hope to stop in the next few years, it’s inevitable to look back — even at the 2,000+ posts here! — and think…what was all that about?
Did it help anyone?
I did receive some very powerful emails after both of my books, from grateful and appreciative readers. My last book — I remembered as I found the issue buried in one of my drawers — was named in People magazine (a big deal here) as one worth reading.
But the fact of being a writer-for-sale is that only the best-selling authors or screenwriters ever make enough income from one book or TV series that they can afford to slow down or even stop.
The nature of being a writer also means — it’s hard to stop!
We enjoy winning and keeping your attention.
We love finding and telling stories to strangers.
We see story ideas everywhere.
We like the recognition that what we’ve created has some emotional or commercial value.