State of the Fourth Estate: One Year On

Happy Birthday! Happy Belated Anniversary! (Relax, it’s not a baseball post. Well, not much, anyway.)

March 22, 2013 was my last day as a corporate employee. That was a Friday; I spent a chunk of the weekend figuring out the basics of WordPress, and on the 25th, Koi Scribblings: The Blog made its official debut. That means no matter how you figure it, I’ve been a professional writer for a year. “Professional”? Yeah, more on that in a moment.

I marked the six-month anniversary with a post covering the “state of the fourth estate”: summing up what I had accomplished and what I planned to do next. A full year is, IMNSHO, more than twice as impressive as half of one, so it’s time to update that status report.

First, there’s the blog. It’s over 250 posts and–aside from a minor bobble due to The Great Kidney Stone Fiasco–has stayed on schedule. That’s a nice portfolio of work I can point to. I’ve attracted a small but growing crew of followers (currently 106–I’ll refrain from speculating about how many are trying to get me to boost your SEO rankings by following you back); thank you all for hanging around. Seeing your likes helps me remember that there’s a larger world than what I can see from my office windows; seeing your comments lets me know I’ve written something that engaged you. I said when I started that the goal of my writing was to “educate and entertain”. If I write something that affects you enough to do more than just click a button, that’s a pretty good indication that I’ve met the goal.

Second, there’s that “source of income” I mentioned in the first Sof4E post. I took a swing at content creation*. It wasn’t a rousing success. The publishers are interested in quantity and speed; to encourage writers to produce multiple articles, the price per piece is low. To successfully game Google’s rankings, the article need to adhere tightly to a house style and format. To put it politely, that wasn’t a good match for my skills. I did sell a few pieces, but… Let me put it this way: to cover my share of the mortgage, I would need to sell three articles every single day. Since it took me about six hours to write one article and push it through the editorial process, that would leave me six hours a day to eat, sleep, and do something to cover the rest of my expenses. Doesn’t leave much room for the writing I want to do, that “educate and entertain” thing, does it?

* What’s “content creation”? Here’s a piece of news that may surprise you: many websites are commercial enterprises designed to make money by encouraging you to buy something–or at least look at an advertisement. Quite a shock, huh? So how do they accomplish their nefarious goal? They publish “content”. Note my careful word choice here. In many cases, it’s not information, but an incredible simulation: something that looks useful at first glance, but proves to be too superficial to really accomplish anything. Such content is carefully designed so that it will appear in response to some particular search on Google. Google, for their part, is constantly tweaking their algorithms to push content down in the rankings and pull useful information up. Thus, the content sites are focused on sculpting their content through formatting and the use of key words to game the system. If someone clicks through to their site, they win, even if the reader immediately closes the window and moves on to something more useful. It’s a step up from telemarketing, but not a very big one.

Still, the exercise in content creation did result in a (small) paycheck. By the most literal definition, that does make me a professional writer. Sweet, innit? OK, it’s not going to give me any street cred or professional respect, but it’s a small step forward.

Note, by the way, that there’s a slightly higher class of content creation. Instead of contracting with a content creation company, the writer chooses his own subjects and writes in his own style, then uses a distribution service to market the articles. It’s the modern version of writing “on spec”. I class this as “content creation” because to succeed at it, the writer needs to do the same Google targeting that the creation company would do, but because the writer is writing in his own style and voice, there’s an opportunity to do more than produce a string of article-sausages, all alike and all devoid of taste. And yes, I did take a shot at this type of content creation as well. Over the course of a month, I wrote several pieces in the style I’ve created here on the blog and posted them for sale. None of them sold–until today. As I was writing this post, I got notification that one has sold. It looks like someone bought a large group of cat-related articles, and mine was one of them. It’s still not going to give me a lot of street cred, but it’s worth more to me in terms of personal satisfaction than the earlier content creation sales.

Third, there’s that writing I want to do. I’m making progress there too. I’ve got two short stories and one poem making the rounds of potential publishers (as always, you can check the scorecard of submissions, rejections, and acceptances in the menu up at the top of the page). There’s a third short story in the final stages of review and rewrite; I expect to start submitting it this week.) The big news is the state of the infamous “novel in progress”.

ybHere you can see Yuki guarding beta reader* copies of the book. Those went out last month, and their comments have been trickling in. While I was waiting, I started a second novel; its first draft is about 20% done. Now that the comments are all in, I’m bringing the second novel to a point where I can set it aside for a couple of months and I’ve started the second rewrite of the first novel.

* Ask three novelists what their process is, and you’ll get at least five different answers. Here’s the high-level summary of my current approach. Write a draft (get the story down without worrying about consistency or felicity of language). Rewrite it (fix the consistency errors and the truly awful bits of writing). Give it to the beta readers (a carefully-selected group whose opinions you respect and who you can trust to tell you the truth about the bad pieces). Rewrite again (fix the bad stuff the beta readers pointed out and upgrade the merely adequate bits of writing to sparkle. Put it aside for a month, then rewrite it again with fresh eyes.

So, yeah, still months away from trying to sell the first novel, but getting it into the hands of the beta readers was a major milestone. The second novel is moving faster than the first one did, which is encouraging. I’m never going to be a fast writer, but speeding the creative process up improves the odds that I’ll be able to tell all of the stories lurking in my head.