The flow state

Yesterday, someone directed me to these “flow state” videos on YouTube. Right away, the description of what the flow state was resonated with something I have felt when I’ve really been in the groove when I am writing something. In that moment, everything just seems to fall away from me and I really can’t even feel any external sensation of sitting in my chair or typing. It actually feels like I am pulled out of my body. Getting there is so very very rare, but when it happens it is a feeling like no other. Almost like you are floating up to the ceiling. After a while, you come back and realize an hour is gone.

The first video I watched talked about that sensation and my ears perked up. It was neat to hear that it’s not just me who has had this experience when conditions are just right.

The video then went on to talk about how you can maintain this state of mind when you follow the narrow intersection of challenge vs. skill level. As long as you inch each one up a little bit at a time, your productivity takes the path of a wave, instead of jutting up into anxiety and shutdown or dropping down into boredom and apathy.

I think it was a good piece of information to get, especially now as I’m trying to start another podcast with a different topic and I am realizing that the learning curve is very steep and it just results in total shutdown. I bit off more than I could chew and expected everything to be perfect, with the metric of success being that people would download, comment, and love the content. When at the time, I didn’t even like doing the content. It felt forced.

The opposite end of that is when I have been writing copy for law firms, I am apathetic. I am bored. I know nobody but Google is reading it for SEO hits, and all I care about is the potential income. When they are slow to pay, I wonder why I’m even bothering. The money is the only joy I get out of writing that kind of stuff, and if they aren’t paying up, there is literally no motivation to continuing to write for them. Among other reasons I am sick of writing these kinds of posts is because I wrote 1,000 words about why dogs eat grass and got a rejection. The reason for the rejection was for “tone”. I listed a lot of biological reasons why dogs eat grass (having the experience of having had several dogs in my life) and was told “Dogs just like the taste.” Yeah, 1,000 words that would just sound like an Apple Jacks commercial. “We just do!”

Anyway, boredom. Ennui. Appathy. Sometimes the copywriting job feels like a French art film. Today I have a 2000 word post on trucking, which I hope is more fulfilling and actually pays. Later today I’m going to be working on improving my skillset and challenging myself. The goal for the evening is to record a podcast episode. Maybe work on my website too.


Monetization and the plan for shameless self-promotion

I’ve been kicking around the idea of starting a YouTube channel lately for my travel writing as well as exploring my life as a full-time writer. There’s not a lot of information out there, other than the Hollywood movies which are just meta-fiction about how the main character is a writer or wants to be a writer.

There is always that part of the movie when the would-be writer has a friend read something they’ve written and they say, “This is good. You should show it to someone.” And BOOM! instant fame and success and living in a $6000 a month loft in Manhattan is the next act (and doing very little writing). That really doesn’t happen. Nothing close to that happens unless the niche is just so starved of talent or someone knew somebody who knew somebody. Like Anthony Bourdain and his success with the New Yorker.

Consider the urban legend of how JK Rowling (yes, I know everyone is supposed to hate her now, even though they grew up on her books) got 29 rejections before Scholastic took a chance on her. So, there are 29 publishers who turned down the goose that laid the $Billion (with a B) industry. And we are supposed to consider “making it” in publishing as a metric of good taste and what it takes to be successful.

Anyway, most books/movies/articles these days come with a fan base built in. That way the publisher/producer/etc. know that they aren’t taking much of a risk. They want to hedge their bets, because with an already established fan base, they don’t have egg on their face by being one of the 29 idiots who turned down Harry Potter. This is why Disney is going whole hog with cranking out Marvel and Star Wars shows. Both of those are “too big to fail.” Even if 75% of the fans hate the product, you still have a couple million people who watched it, bought the Lego sets, and are arguing about it on Twitter.

From what I’ve been learning about monetization of a blog, podcast, or YouTube channel, typically you are drawing attention to a product or a service. In some cases, you are being sponsored by a company. Big sponsors or affiliates are web-design companies, camera companies, or in my case I shilled Origin Boots on my other blog. (use code Harris10 to get 10% off). But if I want to diversify my income streams, I need to focus on what product or service I offer beyond being a shoe salesman.

Both podcasting and YouTube allow for sponsorship, but you have to hustle and make calls to find those. But it’s all part of diversifying your income stream. Hopefully my content will appeal to sponsors, but I’m not going to bet the farm on it. If you look at a lot of successful podcasts (like Joe Rogan’s) he brought in a fanbase of people who enjoyed watching him dare people to eat pig anuses. The draw wound up being him using his connections with interesting celebrities to have long format interviews. The rest just snowballed.

Really, my writing is the product I am offering, but there isn’t a lot to be gained from that on the surface. Blogs no longer get the kind of clicks they used to to make a decent paycheck from just telling a story. So, like Disney or any good publisher, what I’m doing is calling attention to my work and creating a fan base.

My product is the books I write and a podcast or YouTube channel would be the commercial. By interacting with subscribers, I am building a fan base for my books which I will be publishing myself. If you like the kinds of stories I’m publishing on my blogs, then you might buy the books that are coming soon too. It’s not what I would call instant gratification (unlike the boot money) but I’m hoping it leads to something. Otherwise, how the hell are you going to even know what I’m writing? How do you pick a book from a whole slew of others on the shelf at a store and commit your hard earned $15 and several nights of your time to reading it if you don’t know what it is about?

My services might even be “Hey, I can write stuff. Hire me to write stuff for you!” And give me a big travel expense budget while you are at it.

So, yeah. I think the podcast/YouTube/blogs are eventually going to be the commercial for the stories I am trying to sell. Maybe I’ve got it backwards, but really the books are the merch. It’s about all I can think of right now. I doubt I’ll have as many subscribers as a guy screaming at a video game or a kid opening a box of something they got in the mail. If you knew how much money people made on CPM (clicks per minute) these days, it would make you throw up. (Like 20ยข per 1000 clicks). I’m lucky to get A click on a post. Affiliate links are harder to come by. I got lucky with the boots, but not everybody is rushing out to buy a $400 pair of boots (no matter how cool they are). The old method of linking Amazon as an affiliate is next to impossible to make money from, much less get approved. Their code doesn’t play nice with WordPress anymore, especially when you self-host.

A lot of what I want to talk about in my podcast or YouTube channel is challenges such as these. These are the real questions facing a freelancer these days. Gone are the days where the “Chief” gives you an assignment and a nice expense fund and you can do those deep dives to get the story. Most of the time you are paying your own way and hoping to God and little green apples that the magazine doesn’t fold before they pay you for your story–if they accept your pitch, or even responded to it in the first place!

I want to promote an honest look at it, and I also don’t want to starve to death in the process.

More to come!!!

Changing focus with freelancing

For the most part, we are expected to get an education, then chuck all of that out the window to work for an employer who will train us with an entirely different skillset, and bestow upon us a schedule, a wage, and whatever benefits don’t cut into their profits. We are supposed to take pride in being worked to death by someone else as they get the glory and the gold. We are in charge of our lives at home, but never at work. Even at home, if the police or some middle-management code enforcer from our HOA shows up, we are also reminded just how in charge of our lives we are.

Whenever someone asks what I do for a living, I provide just enough information to justify my existence in polite society. The short answer I often give is that I write content for websites. This pays the bills and child support. It isn’t much, but it helps me get by. Content mill work.

The long answer about what it means to work for a content mill is that whenever someone Google’s a question or does a search, the search engine pores through the vastness of what is published on the internet, searching for keywords, phrases, and metadata in search of what statistically aligns best with what you were looking for. For every website that Google comes up with, there has probably been someone like me who wrote the copy for that site. There’s a good chance that like me, they don’t even know much about what they wrote. They just included enough key terms and related information (probably ripped off from another website, press release, or general knowledge) to get locked into Google’s tractor beam of relevance to make it to page one of your search results.

The information is secondary to driving web-traffic to the site. That’s why all the medical sites strongly suggest consulting your doctor and all the legal sites say to contact the attorney. It’s a “call to action” but it’s also a get out of jail free card when it comes to liability. It’s called SEO or Search Engine Optimization. A client requests a bunch of keywords to be packed into a blog post so Google looks for it. Length of the article also weighs heavy on whether or not the post lists on page one. There’s a saying that if you ever need to hide a dead body where it will never be found, put it on page two of your Google search results.

As long as the page keeps listing as page one, the customer is happy. I get paid. Not a lot, but I get some money for writing something that sounds convincing enough to a search engine to put on your screen. I’ve written legal posts, medical posts, tourism for places I’ve never been, product descriptions for things I have never held. And the poetic justice of this is really nobody but Google is even reading any of it.

I actually beat myself up quite a bit about that last part. That isn’t to say that the client doesn’t read the posts. They usually read them, put them through their SEO checker, and judge whether or not I’m going to get them placed on page one. Most of the fuss I’ve gotten has been “Needs to used active voice. Change all passive voice to active” because the SEO checkers figured out that Google likes when you are doing something, rather than if something is or isn’t.

There are times I really hate writing this stuff. Especially for law firms. Bloodsucking bastards that they are.

Last night I hit a wall. I struggled for six hours to write one 2000 word post for a law firm. I had three more due by 10pm today. It wasn’t happening. There’s a scene in that movie, Shine, where the main character is playing a Rachmonimov piece and al he hears is the keys hitting wood as he plays the notes. There is no music. Then (spoiler alert), his brain short-circuits and he collapses from the intensity of the experience. But he is no longer playing music, he’s just hitting keys. Last night, that’s how it felt to write another legal post nobody is going to read, and nobody is going to buy for at least another month. But of course, everything is DUE RIGHT NOW. It was just word salad, with a bunch of keywords, active voice, and pandering to a goddamned algorithm for views.

I waved off the other three.

Recently, I’ve been reading about freelancing and how to increase your success in the field. One of the things that keeps coming up is diversifying your income streams. Somehow I feel like writing for content mills is polishing brass on the Titanic. The jobs are coming less frequently and more associated with what makes the algorithms happy, instead of thoughtful, compelling content actual people might read. I’m considering branching out into other media that allows me to write stuff I want to write, stuff I would want to read even, and somehow get paid to do it.

I think it’s the only way that makes sense for the long term when it comes to making a living doing this. So when I give people the short answer of “I write copy for websites” it doesn’t cover what I really do. I am editing a book I wrote, I’m working on establishing myself as a freelance writer, more specifically a travel writer. I’m a published author who needs to do his own marketing and sales but has to figure out how to dedicate more resources like time and money to that whole process.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how traditional publishing is on the way out. Publishers used to help an author edit, produce, publish, and market their works. The writers got paid pretty well for it too. Nowadays, publishing is a mess. If you do get an advance it isn’t that much. The publisher expects the least amount of work to edit and get the book perfect for publication, and once that is done, they expect the writer to do their own marketing. A lot of publishing contracts are given to either celebrities with a fan base (and these tell-all autobiographies are usually ghost-written by some schmuck like me), or are just tag-a-longs with popular intellectual properties/themes/trends that are a sure thing when it comes to making a profit.

When people complain that movies are nothing but remakes, lately the same is true of books. It’s either post-modern rehashes of books we read when we were growing up, or Kirkland brand copies of successful series like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Ad infinitum. You would think it would be easy to just write something like that, but usually a publisher already has someone in mind to write this crap. They usually know them–a friend of a friend, or a family member.

Traditional publishing is circling the drain. Especially with magazines. So, the interesting thing is that the best way to make money is to just do it yourself. Run your own publishing house. I mean, why not if you are going to have to do all the marketing anyway?

So, I’ve been researching other things today. Podcasting. YouTube channels. Monetization. I’ve come to realize that nobody is going to open the gate for me, so I might have to do it myself. We are living in some strange times for this. It used to be that the writing was the horse that pulled the cart of advertising and merchandise. Now it seems to be the other way around. Crazy.

I gotta say too that the learning curve is steep. But it all makes better sense than hoping I can approach things with a dying model of industry as traditional publishing and expect success.