Crash, burn, recover

By Caitlin Kelly

When was the last time you failed?

The sort of shit-storm tempting you back into bed for a week, whimpering?

Crash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some recent challenges include:

— An editor killed my story — which cost me $2,200 in budgeted-for and relied-upon income.

One of the dirty secrets of journalism is that, no matter your skills level, some of your stories get “killed” — i.e. they are commissioned, a contract signed, a fee and deadline agreed upon and the editor can simply flap his or her hand and decide “it doesn’t work.” You don’t get to stiff the airline of its fee if the plane is dirty, crowded or late. You don’t get to pay your plumber, dentist or barber a fraction of their fee because…you feel like it. It’s almost always a surprise and it’s expensive and very few of us can just re-fill a four or five-figure income hole in a flash.

— My book proposal didn’t sell

My agent was upbeat and excited. They always are, at the start. But after the rejections piled up, it became clear to both of us this was a no-go. Editors who loved it, and there were a few, couldn’t sell it to the rest of their staff. I spent a year gathering the information and sources for it, and months writing and polishing it. Tant pis, mes chers, tant pis.

— Another editor decided to turn a 2,000-word story with five sources into…captions

That’s a really crappy first in my career. They’re going to pay the original fee, but there’s another piece to that story — having to explain to my patient and helpful sources I interviewed back in August that all the time they spent being interviewed by me is basically wasted. I was so gobsmacked I didn’t argue the point with the editor. Preserving that relationship has meant sucking up a lot of frustration.

— We got whacked with a surprise income tax bill, a big one

We married in September 2011 and my new husband changed the witholding of his income. To…not enough. Holy shit. Add that pile of debt to the kitchen over-run.

— Journalism’s fees remain stubbornly low, stagnant or falling

Everywhere in journalism today, writing has really become just one more commodity, like gas or orange juice. Cheapest wins. I have to fight harder with every single editor on every assignment for a decent contract and higher fees. I hate feeling embattled. It doesn’t build great client relationships, but feeling taken advantage of doesn’t work either. My costs are rising almost every month, but my income will only rise as much as I position myself and argue effectively for my value.

On the plus side of the ledger:

— My individual coaching and webinars have found favor

This is a new venture and one I’m enjoying. When I lost that $2,200 overnight, I vowed to make it up through my own efforts. The hell with snotty editors. I’ve almost done so, thanks to the enthusiasm of students in Chicago, Connecticut, Brooklyn, upstate New York, New Zealand, Australia, Virginia and San Francisco. Thank you! I’ve missed teaching and the pleasure of helping others. One student told me she was having “aha!” moments. I hope you’ll sign up, too!

– I made a contact with a Very Big Magazine’s top editor, one I’ve wanted to write for for a decade

Some magazines feel like Everest, even to someone with a lot of great experience. They’re career-changers. They pay a lot of money. At a recent lunch with someone I met at a party, I discovered she’s related to a top editor there and I was bold enough to ask for an introduction and she made it.

— Reaching out to new clients in PR has shown me there’s some significant enthusiasm out there for my skills

Of the first three local agencies I contacted, two showed immediate interest.

— I’m trying out new ideas and new markets

Next week, I’m meeting with a younger writer who’s broken into corporate writing and making boatloads of cash from it. It’s an interesting lesson in networking with people much younger, as we’re all working in slightly different says, some more lucrative and less visible, some more prestigious but poorly-paid.

— My agent likes my new book idea

Book ideas are difficult. You have to be able to create a narrative arc with 80,000+ words and be able to persuade a publisher to pony up an advance you can actually live on. But from the embers of the still-cooling rejected proposal came this more focused, more positive iteration of one of the ideas in it. Now I have to go…sigh…write another proposal.

People love to think that writing is a cool, fun easy way to make money. You stay home in your PJs, crank out some copy, then head off to Bali for a few months.

I wish!

The reality is a constant hustle and scramble: for new clients, new markets, negotiating better pay and treatment, finding and wrangling sources for your stories…

Crashing is nasty, (and inevitable.)

But there’s no time to sit and snuffle.

Bills, baby, bills!

The freelance writers’ life, continued…

Vancouver Canucks vs Calgary Flames
Vancouver Canucks vs Calgary Flames (Photo credit: iwona_kellie)

I’ve never done this before, but yesterday’s post has, happily, proven popular and provoked some terrific convo…

So here are some additional thoughts:


You gotta have it, possibly more than almost any other quality. For four years, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer, a sport I took up in my mid 30s, and had a two-time Olympian as my coach. He pushed me to my limits, and beyond, for which I’m forever grateful. Fencing a tournament means no matter how tired or sore or cut or bruised you are you keep on going. If you drink or drug or stay out late on school nights, you will simply be unable to compete effectively with the boring people like me who are lucid and well-rested enough to eat your lunch.

Freelancing usually means you work alone from home. It doesn’t mean you go all boho and sleep in until  2pm when you maybe make a call or two.

EQ rules

I can’t say this too often; emotional intelligence is the new black.

If you’re unwilling or unable to man up for difficult/scary/terrifying conversations — whether with an editor, your agent, a source, a PR gatekeeper — you will starve. I guarantee it. You must locate your cojones and use them whenever necessary. The challenge is knowing when to be a total bitch, (I was told I made one personal assistant cry. Puhleeze), and when to be a sweetie and a cajoler and a charmer. Because you will need to be all of these, quite possibly within the same hour!

Today I made a call that I’d been putting off for weeks, to my current agent, with whom some things have been sub-optimal. She also just buried her father, having lost her mother in May 2009. So I waited, and sent a condolence card, because no matter what other shit we’ve been through, she’s a human being and losing your parents is sad and painful.

But I still pressed hard on the many issues that we have to get a handle on right away. You gotta figure out (it’s not easy) how to be tough enough to consistently look out for your interests professionally — and how to be kind, but not a doormat people take advantage of all the time.

If you’re too scared of rejection to make the call or take the meeting or send the email, you will not make a living in this game.  Handling conflict, disappointment, deceit and sudden turns of fortune are all part of this lifestyle (as they are in any job!)

Know what’s happening in this industry, today

I learned a lot from a conversation with my agent this afternoon. It wasn’t a lot of fabulous news, but I needed to hear it and I need to know it in order to sell this book and my next one and, I hope, the one(s) after that. Read industry blogs, newsletters, journals, books, magazines. Go to conferences and pay attention (or buy the CDs or podcasts.)

What did I learn? Ugh….the book industry is totally screwed in new and fresh ways. Paperbacks are not selling. Hardcovers are barely beating them. Because e-books rule.

Make friends in your industry and keep them for decades

Do not make enemies. Once you’ve found a wise and helpful pal, be good to them. Remember their birthday and anniversary and know when they’re celebrating or mourning and send flowers. Yes, it’s expensive — hello, that’s a deductible business expense!

If you’re young, get to know some older veterans and vice versa

The very first thing I did, when I was 19 and starting out as a freelancer, (I had a column in a national newspaper before I left college), was volunteer to help put out a book of interviews with some of Canada’s most established journalists.  I wanted to hear their wisdom, but also, selfishly, wanted to get my name out there, early, as someone passionate about the biz and willing to show up and be useful.

Barely two weeks ago, I interviewed a woman for my financial blog whose husband remembered me from that gig.

Do not be a suck or a user or a sycophant.

But I’ve seen time and again that forging cross-generational alliances is often a very good thing for both people involved. I got a young friend (30, maybe) a fantastic job in Ottawa a year ago while he was still living in Vancouver — because the hiring manager who needed someone smart, stat, took over my apartment in Montreal in 1988 and reconnected with me on LinkedIn. (See above.)

I got my young journo a gig because he’s classy, smart and presents well; the other day, completely desperate on deadline for a source I called him. He came through for me. Yay!

Keep your nose clean

Do not lie, steal ideas, cut corners, plagiarize or “forget” that you heard that great book idea from someone you met last week at a conference. It’s a small world and we have elephantine memories. Someone once tried to spread a lie that I’d been canned from a job. A journalist visiting India from Canada told a local stringer — ie. young, powerless, unconnected — that lie. She, actually being a pal of mine, defended me and told him he was a nasty asshole.

Like that.

Glad this has been helpful….feel free to ask any questions you like!

Ex-Reuters Writer New U.N. Spokesman — From Hack to Flack

The U.N.
The U.N. Image by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Dream job or career-killer? The new spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is Briton Martin Nesirsky, a former correspondent for Reuters in London, Berlin, Moscow and Seoul.

The move from hack to flack is one many journos take, by choice or at the end, sometimes sooner than expected, of their journalism career — more than 24,000 U.S. print journalists have lost their jobs in the past year. Many of those are likely now working in, or seeking a job in, public relations. The transition from one side of the microphone to the other looks like a natural and easy one. It’s still communications, deadlines, explaining complex issues, some assume. Not really.

Journalists are pit bulls, leashed only to their master-of-the-moment, with zero allegiance to any interest other than — at worst — the bottom line of their employer. They/we are out to get whatever we need as soon as possible and, hopefully, exclusively. The PR person’s job is to keep their boss(es) happy, looking good, protected. We want all the information we can get, yesterday. To them, even the most banal and trivial information is too often like a rare form of truffle — dearly valued and well-hidden. The antagonism and mutual frustration with these competing agendas is one of the most unpleasant, and consistent, parts of the job.

It’s sometimes amusing, sometimes really annoying watching flacks spin the worst possible data into happytalk, deflecting your questions or, at worst, ignoring your calls and emails entirely. The very best are sophisticated, skilled and understand viscerally what journos need and how to keep both sides of the table satisfied.

The U.N. has always struck me as one of the most byzantine bureaucracies in the world. I wish him well.