Where do story ideas come from?

 

 

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Love this bookstore kitty! Sometimes my best ideas come to me from taking a hooky day, fleeing the apartment and computer

 

By Caitlin Kelly

By this, I mean ideas for blog posts and for journalism and non-fiction.

Broadside now has more than 2,000 posts, beginning on July 1, 2009, when I chose to make reference to my native Canada, as it’s Canada Day.

Since then, as longtime readers know, I’ve touched on a wide range of subjects; the two posts readers choose every day (!?) are about my meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard the Royal yacht Brittania at the end of my covering a Royal Tour as a Globe & Mail reporter and what it was like to be sent away to boarding school when I was eight, the youngest child at my Toronto school.

My theory about why those two are so steadfastly popular, day after day, year after year — both are highly specific life events many are curious about and few, certainly meeting the Queen, will experience.

I blog a lot on writing, journalism, travel and how and why people behave as they do, inspired by pretty much anything: an overheard remark in a cafe, a walk in the woods or a conversation with my husband.

My goal, here, is to engage you and, when possible, spark a bit of lively conversation.

Some of my journalism work arrives as assignments, i.e. an editor chooses me to write a story for them. But much of the time it’s up to me to gin up some fabulous idea and sell it to someone with a decent budget, for me usually no less than $1,200 to $1,500. I do occasionally write for less, but it has to be quick and easy.

 

 

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Our recent trip to Santa Fe gave me some fresh ideas

A few stories I came up with and how:

 

In June 2018 I got a diagnosis of DCIS, an early and treatable form of breast cancer. Like many events in my life, it became fodder for several stories. This one, in The New York Times, about medical touch and this one, on the UK website, The Pool, about how many people have no idea how to talk to people who get cancer.

I watch Jeopardy a lot and enjoy the variety of contestants; one man mentioned a highly unusual Brooklyn children’s charity he volunteers with; I recently sold a story about it to The New York Times about an after school program focused on boat building.

 

 

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As someone who loves to travel but hates turbulence, I did a lot of deep research on it for this piece (again) for The New York Times’ travel section. I got the idea because, as they say in journalism, three’s a trend — and I’d noticed three recent reports of commercial flights having to divert from their original destination because of turbulence.

For Marriott magazine, I focused on one of my passions, setting a beautiful table for entertaining.

And, because so many journalists get fired — 1,000 lost their jobs recently across a number of digital platforms and print media — I pitched this fun piece about the long-standing friendships that often evolve and last for decades from these crazy workplaces. It ran on the website for the Poynter Institute, which teaches journalism skills to working professionals. It came about because my very first staff job, in my 20s, led to a friendship with the now only remaining staff photographer for the Globe & Mail — when the building we’d worked in together was torn down (of course) for new condos, Fred grabbed a souvenir white brick for me.

I’m still trying, so far without success, to sell a fantastic story from rural France, about a family run manufacturer in business 155 years.

In the past week — whew! —  I pitched five story ideas: one came out of a personal experience (what’s called a “service piece”, not very alluring but of service to the reader through practical tips) to Real Simple magazine; a personal health-focused essay to Self; a big deep dive (i.e. lots of original reporting) to American Prospect; two ideas to The New York Times Magazine and another to a Times editor in the Metropolitan section.

I also did six interviews by phone for my first story for cjr.org, the digital side of Columbia Journalism Review; the idea came out of a new book my former book editor tweeted about.

Books I’m reading — and tossing!

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Loved this one!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our apartment building has a shelf near the laundry room where we exchange books and magazines. I’ve had some great luck, (“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn), but recently gave up on three books I found there — one by (of all people!) John Grisham, since the book was all scene-setting with no apparent action or plot to be found.

Another was one of those Scandi-noir murder mysteries (ditto) and the third (sigh) was “NW” by Zaidie Smith. I gave up within two chapters. I loved White Teeth but have been so disappointed by others of hers.

I’m still slooooooowly getting through “A Bright Shining Lie”, Neil Sheehan’s doorstop history of the war in VietNam. I’m meandering through “The Lay of the Land,” by Richard Ford, who manages to make the life of a middle-aged New Jersey realtor compelling.

A good friend keeps urging me to write a novel, as I’ve had the vague outlines of a murder mystery in my head for a decade. The idea is a little terrifying, even though many journalists have made a successful transition to fiction.

But I tend to keep returning to non-fiction as I am so often annoyed by fiction and resent wasting time on it.

Some of my fictional favorites:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Later made into a film, a portrait of a Parisian concierge and the upscale apartment building where she works.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell

Loved love loved this tale of 18th century Japan. His physical descriptions are beautiful and mysterious.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachmann

Written by a fellow Canadian journalist who once worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, apparently his portraits of his co-workers are pretty clear in this charming novel about…a newspaper in Paris.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Another doorstop, its size intimidating, I received this as a gift from a friend for my birthday two years ago. I’d been warned it was too long and the last third could well have used a heavy edit. But loved this one, set in New York City and elsewhere.

A Little Life, Hana Yanagihara

Not an easy read, but one of the most powerful and unforgettable books I’ve ever read, a tale of ongoing friendship, also set in New York City — written (in her spare time!) in 18 months by an editor at The New York Times.

In The Skin of a Lion, Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje

He’s probably best-known for “The English Patient”, (still one of my favorite films ever), but reading anything by this Sri Lankan-Canadian author is like entering a dream state, in the best sense. In the Skin is about Toronto (my hometown) in the 1920s and “Divisadero” about a California family.

I was recently given a copy of “Lincoln in the Bardo”, so that’s on the list.

I typically don’t read horror, romance, sci-fit, dystopian, Westerns or YA…

What have you been reading lately (or tossing?!)

 

How a book gets born

By Caitlin Kelly

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Ever stand in a bookstore, see thousands of books and think — how the hell did these even get here?

If you work in journalism, publishing or academia, writing and publishing a book is a big deal, a standard milestone of success and achievement that you’re expected to reach as many of your peers will, and sometimes sooner, and more successfully.

When it comes to trade non-fiction — i.e. books written for a general audience, not academic — the trajectory is fairly consistent.

 

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You, the writer, come up with an idea.

— Maybe it’s a historical figure who intrigues you enough to want to write a biography.

— Maybe there’s a trend in current culture you want to explore and have a specific and interesting viewpoint on.

— Maybe you have exclusive access to a compelling story no one else can tell.

— Maybe you’ve been working the beat and have so deeply understood a special subject that you’ve got amazing sources willing to tell you things they won’t tell anyone else and you can tell it best.

You need to know what else is out there, the comparables, what’s been published, by whom, in what voice, by which publisher(s) and, key, how well those competitors sold.

You need to think your idea through carefully, maybe check it with a few smart friends to hear their thoughts on it.

You must have a clear and consistent track record of writing well for demanding editors and audiences, especially if this is your first book. EVERYONE wants to “write a book” but not everyone (yet) has the skills and stamina to actually do it successfully.

You need to find an agent, without which you will have a difficult-to-impossible time trying to get a major publisher to read and consider it. You essentially ride in on their established coat-tails and reputation, since they are there to know the marketplace and who would potentially be most interested in your project and why.

You need to win their representation. If you’ve previously published and have a good and established reputation as a writer, you’ll probably know many other published writers, several of whom might be willing to introduce you to their agent(s.) Then you hope to find one who feels like a good match. That’s a delicate mix of personality, skills, experience, vision for your project, etc. (The agent I’m working with, who was recommended to me by a writer I know, told me he got [wait for it] 10,000 unsolicited submissions in 2017. He took one.)

You need to have an established “platform”, ideally a combination of expertise and track record writing on your subject and in that genre, and an audience hungry to pay money to read more of your work. That’s your blog, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn following.

You need to put out a fair bit of unpaid labor to create a complete book proposal, with marketing plan, your bio, your idea, table of contents and chapters outlined.

You need to decide what the minimum advance is you can afford to work with — if it’s $30,000 paid out quarterly, for example, how will you make up the additional income you need for living costs, let alone paying for travel and research help, if needed? Can you get a grant or fellowship to offset costs?

 

You need to hope…because there’s no guarantee anyone will buy the idea.

 

If they do (yayyyyyy!) you’ll sign a very lengthy contract, agree on the date to submit your manuscript and get ready to rumble.

They’ll also have done a P & L (profit and loss statement), which makes immediately clear(er) that acquiring and publishing a book is very much a business deal, not the imagined, unsullied realms of Art.

Along the way, your title may change, you’ll see a few possible ideas for its cover, (which you won’t have the power to change, only consult on), and work closely with your editor, making whatever changes s/he requires. Your manuscripts will be copy-edited and possibly checked by the publisher’s lawyers to make sure you and they can’t be sued successfully.

If it all goes well, within 18 to 24 months at the earliest, your book will be available to readers and you’ll sit there, gnawing your fingernails, waiting to see if they, and critics, like it.

Ready?!

 

 

 

My recent reading — and yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Partly to flee the daily insanity of life in the U.S., I’ve begun reading books much more than in recent years.

On a trip to rural Ontario, I made time one afternoon to browse a local bookstore at length and spent more than $200.

 

Here are some of my recent picks:

 

A Bright, Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan, 1988

Inspired by the recent PBS series about the Vietnam war, and with its images and names fresh in my mind, I plunged into it — after finding the book in an upstate Connecticut junk store for $2.

The writing is magisterial, truly extraordinary in its depth and breadth. While extremely detailed, it’s not boring or stuffy. If this war holds any interest for you, this is a great book.

 

The Risk Pool, Richard Russo, 1989

Loved this one! Russo writes about struggling working-class towns and the people, generally men, who live in them. I enjoyed his book “Empire Falls” and had had this one on my shelf for years. A story about a deadbeat father and his son, and the town in which they live, it’s a powerful portrait of how to survive an off-again-on-again parent, and eventually thrive.

 

Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann, 1901

It turns out I share a birthday, June 6, with Thomas Mann. This is the first book of his I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. The pace is slow, with little action, but a stately progression through the decades of a prosperous small-town German family in the mid 1800s.

All of which sounds really boring, right?

Not at all. Each of the characters is relatable and recognizable from spoiled, twice-divorced Antonie to her ever-questing brother Christian to the reliable head of the family, Thomas.

 

A Legacy of Spies, John leCarré, 2017

He’s a master of this genre and has been for decades. If you’ve seen the 2011 film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you’ll have the characters’ names in your head as you read this, his latest.

A career spy, retired, is brought back to account for — atone for — the very work he was expected to do without question or remorse.

 

Transit, Rachel Cusk, 2017

This novel, nominated for Canada’s Giller Prize, was a big fat “meh.” I read another of her books and found it equally…not very interesting. It’s received rapturous reviews, too.

I’ve given her work two tries. That’s enough for me.

I recently treated myself to even more books, so cued up are Reckless Daughter, a new biography of fellow Canadian, singer Joni Mitchell and Endurance, about his year in space, by astronaut Scott Kelly.

My tastes, always, skew more toward history, biography, economics and social issues than fiction, which I so often find disappointing. I don’t read sci-fi. horror, romance or much self-help and I recently bought a book written for self-employed creatives like myself, seeking inspiration — but after 33 pages of banal repetition gave up in annoyance.

This week I’m working on an outline for what I hope might become my third book of non-fiction, having found a new agent who’s expressed initial interest.

 

What have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed and would recommend?

Real journalism still matters — and it costs

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

It costs lives.

This week, once more, journalists across the world are mourning the deaths of two more tribe members, David Gilkey, a photographer for National Public Radio (and a veteran of several U.S.newspapers) and his interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.

To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.

I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.

It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.

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The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.

You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.

Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.

 

There’s no other way to tell these stories well.

 

Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.

Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.

They’re messy and can slow us down.

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I covered the unity march in Paris in January 2015 — I love breaking news!

If you can spare the time or have the interest, please take 25:03 out of your life to listen to this smart, impassioned commencement speech to the 2016 graduates from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism by Rebecca Solnit.

Here’s a print version of it.

An excerpt:

Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?

 

I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.

It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.

It’s called a press pack for a reason…

 

I hope, as you consume serious, smart  journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.

 

 

 

What it takes to be a professional writer

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

It looks so easy.

Write, hit send.

Done!

In an era when we’re inundated with a veritable verbal Niagara — blogs, websites, Twitter, legacy media (i.e. newspapers and magazines), television, radio and, oh yeah, books — writing looks like such an easy-peasy way to make your name quickly.

I’ve been doing this for a living since my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, where I started learning my skills — yes, really — writing for the weekly school newspaper. I never studied journalism, then or later. But I worked for demanding, smart editors. A lot.

I’ve since produced two works of nationally-reported non-fiction, won a National Magazine Award and worked as a reporter for three major daily newspapers; my website has details, if of interest.

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

Here are some of the skills and behaviors you need as a professional writer of journalism and non-fiction:

Curiosity

Without it, don’t even bother. If you’re the person who drove your teachers nuts — and maybe you still do! — with endless questions, this is a great skill. You’re not just being annoying. The best writers are endlessly fascinated by the world and the people around us, whether the woman sitting next to you in a cafe or the homeless man on the corner or the neighbor who never, ever smiles.

What’s their story?

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project
This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Tact — aka wrangling strangers

I tell would-be journalists that our job is much less that of writing well (which matters, of course!) than the ability to wrangle strangers. If you can’t make a total stranger immediately comfortable in your presence, whether face to face or over the phone or Skype or email, you won’t be able to gather the information, color, detail and compelling anecdotes your story needs to come alive.

Many people are afraid of, or even hate, journalists and their nosy questions. People are shy or scared and/or fear they’ll be misquoted or taken out of context.

It’s your job to soothe their fears — ethically! — and allow them to share their story.

Empathy

No functional journalist can do a good job without it. No matter who your subject is, or how different they are from you, you must seek to understand and convey their experience of the world.

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

Attention

We live in a noisy and distracted world. The greatest gift you can offer someone now is your undivided attention — and you theirs. People have much to tell us, but in order to hear them clearly we need to listen attentively.

Put down your phone!

Shut the door and eliminate all possible interruptions (dogs, kids, coworkers) while you’re conducting an interview.

Read others’ writing

Every ambitious creative makes time and spends money observing the best of their field — musicians, dancers, film-makers, artists. How else to appreciate the consummate skill and technique they’ve honed?

I now see younger writers sneering at the antiquated notion they actually need to learn their craft. They do.

I read many magazines and newspapers, a few longform websites, (Aeon, Medium, Narratively) and many works of non-fiction. I’m still hungry, even decades into my own successful career, to watch others being excellent and to learn what I can from them.

My first book, published in 2004
My first book, published in 2004

Listen to others’ interview techniques

Like the legendary NPR host Terry Gross; here’s a recent profile of her.

Social capital — aka connections

Essential.

It’s not as difficult as some imagine to forge connections with writers, agents, editors, even those with a lot more experience than you have right now. Attend every conference you can, like this one — for women only, in New York City, November 7 and 8.

Create and carry with you everywhere a handsome business card and be sure to collect others’.

When you meet someone whose work you admire, let them know. If you want to break into this world, reach out to other writers on Twitter, through their blogs, at classes and seminars and workshops.

Writers can be shy and introverted but no one makes it alone.

Patience

No one, I guarantee you, is an “overnight success.” You may only see their front-page byline or NYT best-seller tag, but it probably took them years to achieve the social capital, skills, experience and insights to get there. I weary of newer writers stamping their feet and expecting it all to happen on some accelerated timeline.

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011

Persistence

Both of my books, (well-reviewed), were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major New York house bought them, the first by Pocket Books, (a division of Simon & Schuster) and Portfolio, (a division of Penguin.) My agents (two different ones for each book) did not give up.

Many successful writers face tremendous rejection along the way to eventual success.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

Attention to craft

I can’t say this too strongly.

Learn your craft!

Take a class, find a mentor or coach, read books on how to write well — there are many, from Stephen King to Anne Lamott to Roy Peter Clark.

It’s arrogant and naive to think that simply pushing hard on the heavy doors of the publishing and journalism world will gain you access.

If they do swing open, you’d better bring a strong set of skills!

And now that editors are busy and overwhelmed, very few have the time, interest or energy to mentor you or help you improve your writing and reporting along the way.

So….how to conduct a terrific interview?

How to gather the reporting your story most needs?

How to come up with great, timely, salable ideas?

I offer webinars, (individually, scheduled at your convenience) and have coached many writers worldwide to improved skills and confidence.

One of them, a 22 year old Harvard grad traveling the world alone by bicycle to gather stories of climate change, hired me to get her work into The Guardian — with no prior journalism experience.

Here it is.

My two books — take a look! I also coach and offer webinars

By Caitlin Kelly

Every day, Broadside adds new followers, now at 11,893. Welcome, and thanks!

Some of you don’t know, though, that I’m also a non-fiction author of two well-reviewed books about national American issues and coach other writers.

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The first, published in April 2004, is “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, called “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential critic.

My goal in writing it was to approach the issue of gun ownership, and use, from both sides of the gun use “debate”.

I traveled across the country — New Orleans, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas — to interview American women, of all ages, races, income levels and political views, whose lives had been altered forever by gun violence, (by them and/or against them or a loved one),  and those whose firearms are an integral part of their daily lives and identities, whether they work in corrections, law enforcement, the military or choose to hunt or shoot trap, skeet or clays.

Some have also chosen to buy a handgun, some carrying it with them everywhere, as their “protection firearm.”

In rural Texas, I met women who had saved their own lives with a handgun and a woman running a lucrative hunting operation on land she had inherited, land too dry and isolated for any other profitable use.

On 9/11, a woman named Patty Varone saved the life of then-mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani — I was the only reporter she ever spoke to about that horrific day; she was his NYPD bodyguard and her powerful story is in my book as well.

I don’t own a gun nor have any desire to — although I did a lot of shooting and weapons training, firing everything from a .22 to a Magnum 357 to a Glock 9mm. But I now know why so many American women who choose one for self-defense, or for hunting or for sport, make that choice for themselves.

In the years since, I’ve appeared many times on television and radio, from NPR to NRA radio to Al Jazeera America to BBC’s radio program, World Have Your Say, to explain — as best anyone can — the ongoing allure of gun ownership in the U.S., where an estimated 30 percent of homes contain at least one firearm.

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My second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, came out in April 2011, and is three books in one: my own story of working part-time for $11/hour as a retail associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban New York mall; many stories from other associates, part-time and full-time, and a business analysis of why retail still pays so badly and treats many of its staff so poorly.

Fifty percent of those working in low-wage retail are gone within months of being hired.

They quit in disgust or are fired. No wonder — the work is exhausting emotionally and physically, the pay usually appalling, the number of hours ever-shifting and the odds of a raise or promotion to a better-paid managerial position slim-to-none.

Yet shoppers need and want smart, informed help, and an army of well-paid retail consultants line up at major conferences to yammer on about the “customer experience”. It’s a mess!

I worked the job not with any initial intention to produce a book, as many cynics alleged, but because, in 2007, the American economy fell off a cliff, and by 2009, when I quit, was deep in the throes of recession.

Like millions of scared Americans unable to find better work, I needed steady cash.

The book began with this personal essay I published in The New York Times, for whom I write frequently, and which received 150 emails from all over the world. People were clearly interested in the topic!

It was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award, given each year to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”

I’d love to write more books and am often asked if I’m deep into the next one. Not yet!

These days, I’m teaching writing here in New York where I live, at Pratt Institute and the New York School of Interior Design. My writing clients include The New York Times, Investopedia and WaterAid, a global charity that took me to rural Nicaragua this March.

I also offer other ambitious writers individual coaching at $150/hour, with a one-hour minimum — (that price will rise to $200/hour in January 2015) — and webinars focused on specific topics like:

freelancing, writing personal essays and finding and developing story ideas, whether for digital, print or books.

I schedule the webinars to match your needs, working by phone or Skype, and have helped satisfied writers and bloggers from Germany to New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, N.Y.

What can I do to help your writing?

Details here.

 

But what if you hate the characters — a la “Gone Girl”?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Ben Affleck as Nick in the 2014 film, Gone Girl
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in the 2014 film, Gone Girl

Have any of you seen the new film “Gone Girl”?

Or read that best-selling book by Gillian Flynn?

Some readers loathed “Gone Girl” once they realize what appalling people Nick and Amy really are. We discussed it in our small book club and I was the only person to have any feeling for these two, and only really because both are such deeply damaged people.

But I came home from the film, which is 2.5 hours, worn out from how terrifyingly toxic Amy became on screen, played by Rosamund Pike, a British actress who usually plays gorgeous, flirty ingenues (as in “An Education.”) Not here!

Have you watched the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “House of Cards”? It stars Robin Wright, as a tall, lean, stiletto-strutting, icy, power-mad NGO director, Claire Underwood. She lives in a red brick townhouse in D.C. with her husband, Francis, whose own ambitions are jaw-dropping, and which — over the first two seasons — ultimately prove successful.

I watched House of Cards again recently, after binge-watching it in one bleary-eyed weekend a few months ago. It’s a real struggle to find even one character you’d choose to spend five minutes with, let alone marry, have an affair with, promote or manage. I can think of only two, really: Adam Galloway, a talented New York-based photographer and Freddy, whose hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint is Frank’s secret escape hatch. Both are used whenever helpful to Claire and Frank, and their essential humanity and warmth offer a needed counterpoint to their nastiness.

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So, what’s the appeal? Some people like to hate-watch, eagerly awaiting the downfall, literally, of that scheming, ruthless young reporter, Zoe Barnes, or the drunk young congressman, Pete Russo, or the naive NGO director Claire hires, then soon screws over.

I can’t think of many books I’ve read where I’ve been able to sympathize with or remain compelled by a difficult, nasty, ruthless character — and there are plenty out there!

Oddly, perhaps, one of my husband’s favorite books, and mine, is non-fiction, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So,” by British journalist Anthony Loyd, who spends much of his time in that narrative addicted to heroin — but the rest of it covering war, and doing so brilliantly.

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I also loved, (and these are very dark books!), the Patrick Melrose novels, whose characters are almost all truly horrible. They’re written by Edward St. Aubyn, also British, and offer some of the most powerful and best writing I’ve read in ages. He, too, was addicted to heroin, and one book in the series — impossibly grim — details his life in those years.

Can you read or watch — or enjoy — fictional or non-fictional characters who disgust and repel you?

The (latest) book I just couldn’t finish…

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Gah!

The fines alone for keeping this book out of library too long — I could have bought it.

And, too ironic, the title: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

It’s not even a very long book. I tried!

I just didn’t care about any of the characters. I didn’t find the plot, such as it was, compelling. Nor was the writing especially beautiful.

And it won the 2011 Booker Prize. Oh, well.

I just saw a friend’s post saying she couldn’t finish Donna Tartt’s latest, The Goldfinch.

I’ve tried several times to penetrate Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett and gave up.

Yet I am still slowly reading, and enjoying, Atonement by Ian McEwan, one of my favorite writers and recently (somewhat) enjoyed The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.

I put off for years reading The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, but couldn’t put it down and loved it.

What book(s) have you simply given up on halfway through — and why?

This week’s webinars: How Reporters Think, Finding and Developing Ideas

By Caitlin Kelly

How do reporters think?

It seems mysterious to some, but — whether through training, school or experience — we process the world in specific ways. I enjoy journalism because one of its principles is challenging authority and questioning received wisdom.

We ask “Why? a lot.

It also means breaking many of the accepted rules of polite society: interrupting, demanding answers from the powerful, revealing secrets. That alone can be difficult for some writers to get used to.

Anyone who hopes to sell their journalism, non-fiction or books also needs to know how to quickly and efficiently find sources, decide which ones are worth pursuing and understand the underlying principles by which all reporters, and their editors work.

These include a deep and fundamental understanding of ethics, knowing when to push (and when to back off) and how to frame a story.

Having worked as a staff reporter for The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, and a regular freelance contributor toTHINK LIKE A REPORTER The New York Times, I can help you hit the ground running. To compete effectively with trained veteran reporters, you need to think as they do. We’ll talk about how stories are shaped and edited, and how to balance the need for accuracy, great writing, deep reporting — and hitting your deadlines!

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Saturday February 8.

Details and sign up here.

And anyone who’s blogging, writing and hoping to develop longer narratives for print — or for new digital websites like Longform, the Atavist, TakePart and others — needs to find and develop timely, compelling story ideas.

Ideas surround us every day, sometimes in the same room with us, at work, at the gym, at work, in your community or place of worship, or in conversation with friends, family and neighbors.

How to know which ones are worth pursuing? First you need to recognize them as potential stories, and know when, why and how to develop them into salable material.

Some of the hundreds of ideas I’ve conceived, pitched and sold:

putting my dog to sleep, (The Globe and Mail), the use of carbon fiber in yacht design, a devastating side effect of a popular medication, (Chatelaine magazine),  Google’s meditation classes, women car designers,  (New York Times) and returning to church after decades away. (Chatelaine.)

PERSONAL ESSAY

Finding great stories is like birding — once you know what they look like, you’ll start to see them everywhere!

Here’s a testimonial from Leonard Felson, a career reporter who took this webinar last fall to help him move from selling only to regional or local markets to national ones:

As a coach, Caitlin Kelly is like a doctor sending you on your way with just the right prescription. She read my clips and zeroed in on what I could do to up my game. It was time and money well spent, and well worth the investment in my career.

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Sunday February 9.

Details and sign up here.

Questions or concerns?

Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.