Posts Tagged ‘Non-fiction’

What it takes to be a professional writer

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on October 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

It looks so easy.

Write, hit send.


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:


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.


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!


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


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.


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


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

In books, Crime, culture, History, journalism, politics, urban life, US, women on October 15, 2014 at 12:06 am

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.


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.

malled cover HIGH

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”?

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, entertainment, film, journalism, life, movies, television on October 7, 2014 at 12:04 am

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.


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.


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…

In behavior, books, culture, journalism, Media on May 25, 2014 at 1:43 am

By Caitlin Kelly




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

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on February 3, 2014 at 1:43 pm

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.)


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

Why editors still matter

In books, business, culture, journalism, work on December 16, 2013 at 12:38 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Publishers Weekly, (a must-read publication for any truly ambitious author), by a career editor:

A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, “We don’t pay you to edit.” The real message was: “Editing is not
crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.” After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, “Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.” In other words, “If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.” One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time. But that has been true since I went into the business 28 years ago.

As a freelance editor, these models no longer apply to my work. I no longer have to jump on every promising submission overnight. I no longer need to be looking over my shoulder, hoping for the approval of the marketing, publicity, and sales departments. I no longer have to determine the worth of any particular project a year before publication (and we know how often publishers get that right!). The burden on the freelance editor consists solely of helping the author write his or her best possible book.

The dirty secret of contemporary publishing — any author quickly learns — is that the verb “to edit” may not mean what you thought or hoped it would.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” was acquired by a very young and hungry editor who handed me back barely a page and half of notes on my final manuscript. I rocked! (Or did I?)

It quickly became clear to me that any editor was very short on time. There would be no long lunches (or even short ones) to discuss the world of letters. We maybe spoke to one another four or five times from acquisition to publication date — a span of more than two years.

The one time we did hang out — bizarre but true — was when I took her shooting in New Jersey and we spent the afternoon firing handguns at a local gun range. She wanted (which I really appreciated) to better understand the subject of my book. Our book.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” came back to me with a suggestion that Chapters 1-10 more closely resemble the final two. Holy shit!I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it.

That editor, whose strong ideas about structure and tone were invaluable (if daunting) had previously worked for NASA — maybe great editing was rocket science!

I’m working on yet another book proposal right now and, if this one sells, (no guarantee, as ever), I sure hope I find a terrific editor. I owe Courtney, my editor for “Malled”, a deep debt of thanks for her willingness to push me as hard as she did, even making final edits as the book went into production in September 2010.

A great editor will save you. We all need them!

Yet it’s very odd when you find a publisher for a non-fiction book — essentially an intellectual blind date.

Whoever chooses to publish you assigns an editor you have likely never met and know nothing of. Yet you’re bound, (maybe more an arranged marriage?) for the next few years to one another’s taste, personality and schedules. It requires a great deal of mutual trust between strangers whose careers can be enhanced or seriously damaged if the book soars or tanks.

I’m dying to read this new book, “My Mistake”, by editor Daniel Menaker whose career included The New Yorker and Random House  — if only for its spectacular conflagration [ba-boom!] of an editorial bridge most New Yorkers still genuflect to — legendary power couple Tina Brown [ex-editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the Daily Beast, among others] and her husband Harold Evans.

The review in the Times is by Meryl Gordon (who kindly blurbed my last book) and whose own next biography comes out next spring.

Journalism and publishing — certainly in New York City — is still a hothouse of interlocking egos, power and (artfully disguised) terror.

Worried about global warming? Q and A with Linda Marsa, author of “Fevered”

In behavior, books, cities, culture, Health, journalism, nature, science, urban life, US, Weather, world on August 7, 2013 at 2:25 am

I couldn’t put this book down.

Fevered cover image (1)

Initially, I decided to blog about it because I know Linda professionally and I like her — I try whenever it feels right to support other authors. I know what it takes to get a book commercially published!

But when this book arrived, I started reading it dutifully, prepared to be bored or overwhelmed.

Instead, I found myself touring the world, from the outback of Australia to my birth city of Vancouver, from the condo towers of Miami to Manhattan’s High Line, from Amsterdam to New Orleans. Linda found great interviews everywhere, with people whose eloquent passion for this issue make this potentially grim and tedious topic completely compelling.

This book is really a tour de force and I urge every one of you to read it, today.

She’s done something truly remarkable and damned difficult — taking one of the most complex issues facing the planet today and making it completely relatable, from little kids in L.A. whose asthma is out of control due to dusty, dirty air to victims of “Valley fever”, a disease now spreading through the U.S. Southwest.

You’ll also learn a whole new vocabulary: fierce winds such as derechos and haboobs and diseases like dengue fever and cocolitzli. You may have heard of El Nino — meet the Indian Ocean Dipole, and why it’s hurting Australian farmers and threatening its cities.

Here’s my Q and A with her; her book, “Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health — and How We Can Save Ourselves” is on sale as of today.


Tell us a little bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts of things you typically cover.


I’ve lived in Los Angeles since the 1970s, after growing up and attending college and graduate school in NY and Pennsylvania. I became a journalist after stints as a labor organizer, inner city school teacher and waitress.   Not happy with any of these jobs, I took night school writing classes and found my bliss and began my career at a scrappy local city magazine in LA’s beach cities.  I stumbled into science and medical writing in the mid-1980s, and discovered I had an unexpected knack for science.  I like to rake the muck—and the heavily research driven stories are ones that galvanize me–but writing about scientific discovery is a welcome palate cleanser from digging up dirt.


Where did you get the idea for this book and when?


My “beat” for a long time was the pharmaceutical industry.  But I had gotten pretty burned out writing about bad drugs and Big Pharma malfeasance.  I thought hard about where I could focus my energy in a productive way that would also be intellectually satisfying and I realized that climate change was the most important science of story of our times.  So much had already been written on the topic but when I saw a study in the Lancet in 2009 about how our health will be affected by climate change, that fell directly in my wheelhouse and I thought there might be a book there.  I did a cover story for Discover on the spread of vector borne diseases in a warming planet which won some awards and became the springboard for the book.


Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?


I already had an agent, who was on board with the idea.  So after doing the Discover story, I spent much of the summer of 2009 writing the proposal.  After some revisions, the proposal went out right after Thanksgiving and the book was sold in January of 2010.  I think what sold the book was that this was a fresh take on the climate change story.


What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?


The most challenging aspect of writing the book was taking an abstract idea—climate change—and breathing life into it in a meaningful way.  I searched long and hard to find compelling stories to illuminate key points and to drive home the point that climate change is affecting our health right here in the U.S. and right now.


Tell us a bit about your research for the book – where you went, who you spoke to, how you found sources.


I did tons of reading to bring myself up to speed on what had already been written, and started talking with the usual suspects—i.e., scientists who are doing research on climate change and public health doctors who are witnessing the effects of a warming planet.  But I realized about halfway through my research that I needed to get beyond the science and talk to real people whose health is already being harmed by a changing climate.


I went to places where we’re starting to feel the effects of hotter temperatures.  In California’s Central Valley, for example, outbreaks of Valley Fever have become endemic because of hotter temperatures and the air has worsened due to the increased heat that’s cooking particulates, creating that smog which contributes to skyrocketing rates of asthma, allergies and respiratory ills.  I spent over a week in New Orleans to see what happens to the public health system in the aftermath of extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina.  I was in Australia—which is on the front lines of climate change–for nearly a month to see the effects of wild weather in an advanced, industrialized democracy.  Aside from the cities, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rain Forest, the world’s most ancient rain forest (one of the high points of my career), I drove about 1,500 miles in the bush– on the “wrong” side of the road–visiting rural communities that have been flattened by floods, fires and droughts.  And I visited New York and Vancouver, which are way on their way to becoming sustainable cities, and are pioneering model programs that will smooth the transition to a cleaner, greener future.  


How I found people to interview was where the hard work came in—scouring newspaper stories, talking to people like the PR person at the Rural Doctors Association in Australia—who was a tremendous help; signing up for ex-patriate blogs to find Americans living in Moscow during the heat wave in 2010; querying friends and social networks for personal contacts, (how I found many of the real people anecdotes for the New Orleans chapter).  Journalist pals helped a lot, too, and generously shared sources and contacts.



How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?  Three years.




Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?


Much slower for a number of reasons, mainly family issues that required my attention.


What did you enjoy most about working on the book?


Hitting the road and interviewing real people—although the prep work for research trips often took many weeks.  When I’m talking to regular folks, I’m always reminded of why I became a journalist—to give voice to the voiceless and to bear witness to human suffering.  And the writing itself was a sheer pleasure—taking all the pieces I had gathered, distilling them down to their essence, and assembling them into a seamless and engaging narrative. 


What was the least fun part?


Sorting out the complicated science—sometimes my head hurt.  I had to come up to speed on ocean currents, atmospheric physics, water management, insect life cycles, farming techniques and on and on.  It was challenging and difficult, and because climate change remains controversial here in the U.S., I was careful to make sure everything I wrote was based on solid science.


Who do you see as readers for this book?


Everyone.  Climate change threatens the very underpinnings of our civilization.  The fate of humanity hinges upon the steps we take in the next decade.  This is not a fight any of us can sit out. 


Initially, when I began my research, climate change wasn’t on most people’s radar screens and I despaired that we were heedlessly careening into the abyss. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that civic leaders across the country take climate change very seriously and many cities were implementing innovative programs.  We can fix this—and preparing for climate change may be a catalyst for creating a better, more livable society–but we must start now.  That’s the message I want to get across.


If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?


The other book I wrote, Prescription for Profits, was about how the commercialization of academic research threatened public health.  While interesting, I think that book was too “inside baseball” for the general reader.  The timing wasn’t good either as a spate of books on the subject came out soon after. 


Fevered is targeted much more towards a general audience and is about a subject that has an immediate impact on their lives.  And the timing, unfortunately, could not be better.


What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?


Books take a long time to write. Consequently, you’ve got to find a topic that will hold your interest for—literally–years.  Plus, you need to determine if your topic is worthy of a book, or is simply a long magazine article. You also need to immerse yourself on what’s been written on a subject to see if you have something fresh to say and if it will be relevant in three years—which is the normal time lag from idea to publication.  And finally, you need to find an agent who not only believes in your idea but believes in you.


Why write a (nother) non-fiction book?

In books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on July 24, 2013 at 4:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...

New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

From American business author/blogger Seth Godin:

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least
a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate…

A more heavily-researched approach to writing [is] exhausting, but the work is its own reward…

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).

I read Godin’s blog every day. His advice here is spot-on.

I’ve written, and published commercially with two major NYC houses, two well-reviewed works of non-fiction.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Journalism” was just published in China, which is pretty cool, and a first for me. Now I’m seeking someone to read it and compare it to my original to see if they censored my section about appalling labor conditions in Shenzhen, China where they make parts for Apple and others at Foxconn.

After two books published by major commercial houses, I’ve lost my innocence about how bare-knuckled a business publishing is, that’s for sure. I have no illusions — which many  yet-to-be-published writers naively and deeply cherish — like the publisher will: 1) be my new BFF; 2) that they will pick up the costs of designing and maintaining my website; 3) send me on a book tour.

The only way I got my own book from China was having it sent by a photographer there my husband knows, who did us a personal favor and Fed-Exed two copies; my publisher still hasn’t sent me any.

But I still really love the process of writing books, if not the selling of books. Trying to tell any truly complex story in an article is like trying to shoe-horn an elephant into a matchbox — articles are too short, too shallow and pay poorly.

You can’t dive deeply or widely enough, even in a 5,000-word+ story, (which very few people assign now).

You need to write a book.

This week I finally sent in the proposal for my third non-fiction book to my agent. I’m nervous as hell. I hope she likes it. I hope she doesn’t require more work on it as I’ve already spent about a year creating it (in addition to all my other paid work.); it’s about 10,000 words.

The real challenge will be finding a publisher to pay me enough to actually make writing it worth my time financially. Let’s say — hah! — I got a $100,000 advance, a sum extremely difficult to attain.

If I did, and if we could negotiate it into three payments, (also difficult now) — on signing the contract, on my delivery of the manuscript and publication — I’d get about $28,000 to start out with, (after the agent’s 15 percent cut, always taken off the top.)

From that, I also have to fund all travel costs and research; (I’ve already started looking for researchers.)

Many non-fiction writers have full-time jobs and/or teach as well. Few writers can actually support themselves, and their families, only by writing books.

So….why write another?

Surely the world is full of books already?

Not this one!

Cross your fingers, please.

“Her Best-Kept Secret”: American women and alcohol: Q & A with author Gabrielle Glaser

In aging, behavior, books, culture, domestic life, Health, History, journalism, life, Medicine, news, US, women on July 2, 2013 at 12:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the pleasures of being a non-fiction writer is knowing others who write well-written, well-reviewed serious non-fiction.

Glaser jacket

I met Gabrielle a few months ago at a social event and immediately loved her energy and sense of humor.

Her new book, her third, examines a key change in how American women are relating to alcohol use. Says Kirkus Reviews, famously stingy with praise: “an important addition to feminist literature.”

It is — but it’s also a lively read as well. As someone with female alcoholism in my own family, I read this one with specific interest.

Here’s an excerpt that ran in The Wall Street Journal and a WSJ video interview with her.


Here’s my Q and A with Gabrielle:

Tell us a bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts of things you typically cover.

 I’ve been a journalist for 26 years, ever since graduating from college. I had hoped to get a Ph.D. in Brazilian history, but a friend who worked as the assistant to the late, great New York Times writer Johnny Apple invited me to a dinner party at Apple’s house. My friend was going to law school, and Apple needed a new assistant. I didn’t  even know who he was — I’m from the West Coast and just happened to be in Washington for a brief stay. But we started talking, and he offered me the job. He told me my nice Oregon parents would be happier if I took a “real job” instead of worrying about me living on ramen for the next four years. (He definitely had a point!)

I loved the newsroom, the energy there, and just didn’t look back.

 Since then I’ve covered a lot of things – crime in Baltimore in the late 1980s; the shift from communism to capitalism in Poland in the early 1990s; and basically since then, how health and health trends intersect with our particular culture. I’ve written two other books, including one that examines how our noses and scent affect our lives.

 Where did you get the idea for this book and when?

 I moved back to the East Coast from a six-year stay in Oregon in late 2008, just as the economy was tanking. Newspapers and magazines were laying people off, and it was really hard to find work. I had lunch with an acquaintance who is an editor at Simon & Schuster and all around us, women were drinking.

 I drink, too, but drinking at lunch puts me out for the day. We started talking about women’s drinking habits, (and our own), and the cultural shift we’d seen around us.  She suggested I look into it. The proposal hit her desk the same day as the news of a terrible accident in which a suburban mom killed herself and seven others when she had the equivalent of 10 shots of vodka in her system.

Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?

 No, because I was lucky to have already had her interest. I had written other books so already had an agent.

 What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?

 At first I thought the book would be a straightforward trend book, about women drinking more than in previous generations, and why. But then I started researching how they got better if they got into trouble, and I found some really interesting new options. I hadn’t had exposure to harmful drinking in my life, and I assumed that the traditional 12-step methods we rely on in this country were effective. I was stunned to learn that they had a very low success rate and were designed by men, for men at a time when the knowledge of brain chemistry was at its infancy – and that it was used by the courts, employee assistance programs, and the medical establishment as a gold standard.

 So digging into that was challenging – but fun. It’s always exciting to shift your thinking about something you’ve accepted, or taken for granted -– sort of like you did with “Malled.”

 How did you research the book? Tell us where you went, who you spoke to, how you found sources.

 At first I started looking into statistics, which as a reporter is the easiest starting place. Drunk driving among women was up; hospitalizations for alcohol overdosing were up among women; the number of older women who checked into rehab had spiked. The number of women who said they were regular drinkers was up.

 Once I had those figures, I could sort of move backwards – contacting the researchers and interviewing them. Researchers typically know the others in their areas of expertise, and a lot of them are really generous. One man told me, “Oh, I’m nothing in this field – you should talk to so-and-so and so-and-so.”  Those so-and-sos turned out to be amazing sources who were patient and funny and helpful, and pointed out where I had holes.

I also did a lot of searching online for women who would be willing to talk to me about their issues. It is a dicey thing to ask people to discuss a topic that is shameful or embarrassing to them, but I’m a good listener and sometimes that’s what people need. Talking helps a lot of us process our “stuff.”

 How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?

 Three years.

 Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?

 Much slower. I thought it would take me a year! That’s crazy.

 What did you enjoy most about working on the book?

I loved learning about our history with alcohol, and how our habits have shifted so dramatically over the years. I loved meeting people, and making new friends, but I also loved diving into the history of why we treat alcohol so oddly in this country. We went from Martha Washington, whose collection of 500 recipes included 50 for boozy drinks, (plus some hangover cures), to wild-eyed prohibitionists to Girls Gone Wild.

 What was the least fun part?

Some chapters were torture. Reducing the history was particularly hard for me, because I found it so fascinating. At one point, I had about six pages on how the women who crossed the Oregon Trail drank whiskey and wrote about how it helped calm their nerves and sadness in their diaries. My editor, God love her, wrote, “I know this is fascinating, but I think we could carve this down to a sentence or two.” What? All those diaries I read to a sentence? Sometimes you need cold water on your face to knock you to your senses.

Who do you see as readers for this book?

 I think any woman who has ever thought twice about their drinking would be interested in this book, and anyone who has ever thought twice about the drinking of a woman they love would be interested in this book. I tried to bust a lot of myths. I also think it would be a good read for anyone interested in women’s history and women’s studies. It traces the arc of female power through our relationship to alcohol in ways that are quite surprising.

 If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?

This was much better conceived and executed than my other books, because it had a tighter focus. I used history as a guide, and medical research as a foundation, whereas my nose book was a sort of kooky history – cool stuff you didn’t know about your sense of smell, the history of Kleenex, nose jobs. My first book was a starter book, on interfaith marriage. It was too long and not focused enough.

What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?

 Develop a good working relationship with your editor. That is absolutely key. If you don’t see eye-to-eye from the beginning, you aren’t going to see eye-to-eye at the end. I’ve had a great experience this time with a patient, wise, and incredibly generous editor who helped reel me back in when I needed to be. I haven’t always had that experience. Chemistry matters. My best working relationships have always been with editors I really admire and love. In other words, don’t try to force something that isn’t there. And also: don’t be afraid to lose your good material in order to save your great material. Nobody wants to read six pages about something only you find amazing.


And for 2013…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, US on January 1, 2013 at 12:12 am
Now you finally get to meet Jose...

Now you finally get to meet Jose…

I wish you all the best!

Excellent health, steady income, many cups of Earl Grey tea, glorious sunsets and ferociously enveloping hugs. Whatever your dreams may be, I hope you’ll take the first (or second or fifteenth) steps toward attaining them.

For those of you who have not yet read my Welcome or About page, I’m Caitlin Kelly, a New York-based author and journalist, who writes frequently for The New York Times. Some of my journalism, and my two non-fiction books, are here. I grew up in Canada, and moved to the United States in 1988.

My new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” will be published in China — !! — in March.

Broadside continues to grow daily, with a variety of readers that leaves me gobsmacked — high school students to seniors, Spaniards and Australians and fellow Canadians and Indonesians, a Ghanaian charity, a pastor-to-be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a yoga teacher from Cobourg (coming to take your class later this month!), a journalism professor from Iowa, a photographer from Perth, an immigration attorney from Houston, a Jordanian medical student, musicians and artists and writers and moms-of-six. More than 3,300 people have joined so far.

I met Michelle, author of The Green Study, in Minneapolis in October, and hope to meet Elizabeth, who writes Gifts of the Journey about her life in rural England, and C, moving to London, and author of Small Dog Syndrome, in England this summer.

Mrs. Fringe and I have a coffee date in a few weeks as well; a thank-you to her, to Rami Ungar and to C. for their comments, (which my annual tally from WordPress tells me makes them the most prolific here.)

More comments from those who’ve yet to speak up, please!

We’ve enjoyed much lively, intelligent debate here, and I’ve really appreciated your input. With so many readers worldwide — especially when I blog on American political or economic issues — we have a chance for some serious dialogue.

In a global economy, the smartest choice we can make is to connect across borders and ideologies and truly try to understand how the world looks to others many time zones away.

Please email me, or comment here, on what you’d like to see more of at Broadside (or less); one reader has suggested interviews and Q and A’s with some of the interesting and accomplished people I know in various fields, which is a neat idea, so I’m working on that. Also, possibly, more reviews of cultural events (books. shows, art) I think you’d also enjoy.

I’m also always looking for amazing blogs to follow — please share a few with us that you find consistently fab? What do you love about them?

My professional hopes for this year include selling two new non-fiction books, creating a woman-only, invitation-only conference next fall, working with a new assistant, telling more interesting stories and doing more well-paid public speaking.

Personally, enjoying as much time as possible with Jose, (as we head into our 13th year together), some travel (Newfoundland is on our list, as is Paris and London), deepening my friendships and staying healthy. My father is still super-healthy at 83, so we’re heading north to Ontario this month to visit him and see dear old friends.

What are some of your hopes for 2013?


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