Blogosphere

The future of Down the Road

If you take my monthly newsletter, Back Roads, you read this a couple weeks ago. The main point of Back Roads is to give subscribers previews of what I’m working on and let them be the first to know when I publish a new book. I’m also a little more personal there than I am here. If this sounds good to you, sign up here!

On February 7 my blog will turn 14. When I started it, I had no idea where it would go or how long it would last. I wrote about whatever I wanted and hoped I’d attract an audience. I paid attention to which topics got the most interest, whether in pageviews or in comments. I wrote about those topics more, and l left behind topics that readers ignored.

My blog has had four phases over the years:

  • the “I’m not sure what I want this blog to be” phase
  • the “I hope to become Internet famous by writing about old roads” phase, which failed
  • the “I hope to become Internet famous by writing about old film-photography gear” phase, which is how I became best known, though it falls short of full Internet fame
  • a phase where I gave up on Internet fame and leaned instead into building community around the topics I’m interested in, which has succeeded

It feels like this blog could be entering its fifth phase. I don’t know what it is just yet, or what to call it. But I’m starting to lean harder into publishing books of my photographs and writing, and that has implications for this blog.

NO

My next book will be of photographs I made last summer around my neighborhood. I never wanted to live in a modern suburban neighborhood like this one. I’m a city boy through and through. But it made practical sense to move here when I married Margaret, as she was already here and it let her youngest finish at his high school.

Egad, but do these houses ever feel flimsy. Even a moderate wind makes my house creak and pop. In a strong wind, you can feel the house flex and twist, especially upstairs. It’s appalling.

But that’s not what my next book is about. Instead, I’ll show you what you see as you walk this neighborhood. From the front, every street looks fresh and cheerful — stiff neighborhood regulations ensure it. But walk this neighborhood, especially the main road that loops around it, and you’ll see that everything’s not so pretty. An Interstate highway borders it, bathing half the neighborhood in the sound of heavy traffic. A high-voltage electrical transmission line cuts through, its towers visible from most angles. A natural gas and a petroleum pipeline also cut through, creating wide gaps between houses. Houses back up to the main loop road; a low fence isn’t enough to obscure all the backs of those houses. Because of the way the houses are arranged, and because of the electric and gas lines cutting through, the backs of lots of houses are exposed. A private back yard is hard to come by here. From the back, these houses just look cheap — too few windows, huge swaths of vinyl.

I really noticed the beauty and banality of my neighborhood last spring and summer. I worked from home thanks to COVID-19, and to keep active I took walks and bike rides around the neighborhood. I brought cameras along to document what I saw. I felt sure there my photographs could be arranged to tell this neighborhood’s story.

Also, I want to work on another book of essays and stories culled from this blog. I don’t know if I can deliver both books in 2021, but both are on my mind.

I also have an idea for a book about how to use a blog to share your creative work, find other people who do similar creative work, and build a community. Who knows, I might slot that in before the next book of stories and essays.

Sometimes I experience a creative flurry and write a whole bunch of posts in a short time. That happened to me in November and December last year. By last Christmas I had written posts for this blog through my blog’s anniversary date. I wrote most of this newsletter on Christmas Eve!

Other times I burn out a little on creative pursuits. That’s happened to me this month. I had hoped to produce the photo book by now, but I’ve done very little.

I have only so much time to work on my blog and my books. I have a full-time job and a family. The more I lean into books, the less time I have for blogging.

For now, I’ll keep my blog’s six-day-a-week schedule. I know the world doesn’t hang in the balance of me publishing as often as I do. But when I publish this often, you respond with the most visits and comments. When I publish less, I get less of both. When I publish more, interestingly I don’t get more of either. Six a week is the sweet spot.

Besides, this blog is how most people know me. And I love writing in it. I can’t imagine stopping. But depending on how my budding publishing career goes, I can imagine writing in it less often someday. Or maybe I’ll be incredibly fortunate and end up like Mark Evanier and John Scalzi, who both write for a living and write in their blogs several times a day. Oh, probably not; I love what I do for a living and am not looking to change it. But it’s a fun dream.

I will keep writing about the same things. Sometimes I’ll publish something on the blog that I know will end up in a book someday.

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Essay

Ship Mode: Recognizing when it’s time to stop polishing your work and just ship it

Every creative project has three phases: make the thing, polish the thing, deliver the thing. The polish step is where you remove errors through testing, editing, inspection, or other review. The deliver step is where you put your work in people’s hands.

It’s so easy to get stuck on the polish step. You keep looking for and fixing little things until you’re sure it’s perfect! This is all about fear. When your work is in the world, they can judge it. They can even ignore it. We want to avoid how bad that feels.

Also, perfection is expensive. You can spend as much time rooting out every tiny flaw as you did making the thing. Those tiny flaws will be embarrassing. But they won’t really hurt anything, and they won’t keep anyone from clicking Buy Now. Crucially, eliminating every last minor flaw keeps you from working on new projects that create new value.

When you’ve applied reasonable polish, when you feel the fear of rejection, it’s time to enter Ship Mode.

In Ship Mode, you single-mindedly do the tasks that put the work in people’s hands. You’re not looking for problems anymore. You choose to think of your work as a finished product. You might notice an error while you’re in Ship Mode, but unless it’s truly egregious, you keep shipping.

My new book was good enough to ship — but it’s not perfect

I self-published my book, A Place to Start (available now at Amazon and Leanpub). I did the whole job: writing, editing, creating the print-ready and e-book files, and (now) marketing. I saved money doing it all myself, but I’m skilled in only some of these tasks. Also, there came a point where I’d looked at my book so much I had become blind to it.

I’m a recovering perfectionist and I’m mildly OCD (officially diagnosed). It was hard for me to learn to let go and enter Ship Mode. But I’m glad I learned it many years ago, or I would still be making myself nuts perfecting my book. I have a day job. There’s only so much time to work on side projects. If I polished this one to perfection, it would not be available for several more weeks yet.

Curse you, Page 50!

I saw it only in the last step of the submission process to Amazon: this ungraceful flow on page 50. No publishing company would allow a paragraph on one page to spill three words onto the next right before an illustration.

When I saw it I gritted my teeth. I probably said a four-letter word. But not only is this problem not egregious, but most readers won’t even recognize it as a problem. Nobody will demand a refund because of it. I clicked the Approve button to finish the submission. That’s Ship Mode!

I edited every story as I assembled the book, and then made two proofreading passes. But when my author copy arrived I found two typos in five minutes. How frustrating!

But I will be shocked if you find something really messed up, like garbled sentences or missing paragraphs. During the polish phase I sweated out everything that would have seriously damaged your experience with the book.

And then I got on with shipping it so you could read it and, I hope, enjoy it.

Ship Mode! Because there’s a point past which polish doesn’t pay.

Here’s how you can get my new book:

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Blogosphere

Do you write? Would you like to write? Would you like to write more and better?

A few years ago I took an online writing workshop that taught me how to write more words in less time with no loss in quality. That was huge for this blog: my six-day-a-week schedule was taking far too much time. I couldn’t sustain it. But thanks to that workshop I was able to dramatically cut the time it takes to write this blog.

That workshop is being offered again starting this October 5, and I want to recommend it to you. It runs for five weeks, one session per week, plus homework.

Johanna Rothman created and leads this workshop. She makes her living in large part through her writing, both non-fiction and fiction. Her non-fiction writing is how I came to encounter Johanna; she writes a great deal about software project management, a topic I care a lot about in my professional life. She’s bright, engaging, and funny. She made this workshop great fun.

This workshop also helps you build a strong writing habit, structure an article that draws readers in and keeps them engaged, edit your own writing effectively, and find ways to get your writing published beyond your own blog.

After the workshop, Johanna will invite you to join a private Internet forum for everyone who’s ever taken this workshop. It’s a place to continue the conversation from the workshop and to share your work and seek feedback.

There’s a fee for the workshop, of course, but I got far more value from it than it cost. If you’d like to write more, and write more engaging and interesting stuff, give Johanna’s workshop a look. She limits the workshop to 12 participants at a time, so if you’re interested, act fast! Check it out here.

Recommended: Writing workshop

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Blogosphere

How to blog every day

Recently someone asked me how I manage to post every day. (It’s really six days a week.) I’ve built up a lot of blogging speed since I started in 2007, and I thought you might like to know how I did it.

Foremost, I’ve committed to it. This is something I do; it is not optional. At least that’s the attitude I take toward it. There are exceptions, such as the one-week break I took last October, and a few days missed due to extenuating life events. But I make those choices deliberately. Six-day-a-week blogging is my default.

I give my morning breakfast time to blogging. I’m either writing or processing photographs while I sip my coffee and eat my eggs. I give it 45 minutes to an hour every weekday and Sunday morning, and on Saturday I spend all morning at it except for doing laundry and other minor chores. Sometimes I work on the blog during my lunch hour, too, and I even do minor edits to posts on my phone when I have ten minutes to kill.

I work very hard to keep 2-3 weeks of posts queued and ready at all times. Sometimes life gets hard, as it did in June when I had so much awful insomnia, and I can’t manage my morning ritual. Queued posts help keep the blog going during those times.

Me
Even taking photographs is working on the blog. Why won’t this camera fire? -oh.

I didn’t start at six days a week — that’d be like running a marathon at a 5K pace, never having trained. I built up to this frequency and have kept it for about five years now. Before this I posted three days a week, and before that 4-6 times a month.

Each time I increased my posting frequency, my pageviews and comments went way up. And all the writing practice keeps improving my skills. I like both; they reinforce my choice to do this.

Still, to post six days a week and still hold down a full-time job and raise my children meant I had to learn how to write faster. I’m pleased to say that I spend about as much time now posting six days a week as I used to spend posting three days a week.

To do this, I learned a great technique of freewriting on a topic for 15-30 minutes, without editing, and then stopping. I go back later, usually on another day, for 15-30 more minutes and edit it into shape.

In freewriting I just let the words come however they may. I sometimes surprise myself with the things I write! If during freewriting I find my ideas don’t flow naturally I let myself rearrange sentences and paragraphs a little until they do.

In editing I worry about which words to use, how to spell them, what order to use them in, and where to punctuate them. If I do this during freewriting I bog myself right down, and every post takes five times longer to create.

Using this technique means I often have many posts in progress at once: some in freewriting and some in editing. As my 15-30 minute block ends I wrap up loose ends as best I can and maybe leave myself some notes for what I still want to do with the post, but then leave the post for a later session.

Another key to my frequent posting is that I have some easy post types. My Saturday Recommended Reading post is easy: I just add to it all week as I find interesting articles to share. I barely edit those posts because they’re all about the links.

My “single frame” posts are also fast to write. I look for a photo that makes me want to tell a story or make a point. I freewrite two to six paragraphs about it in one session, and then edit the paragraphs in another.

Another fast post to write is “here are a bunch of photos about a subject.” My travel posts often fall into this category. I write a couple introductory paragraphs and then just write to the photos: here’s what you see, here’s some interesting stuff I can think of about it.

At the end of my recent bout of insomnia I found myself with almost no posts in the queue. I needed five easy posts to build a week’s cushion, so I shared the series of photos I took of the same subjects, e.g., the Wrecks Inc. sign and the sunsets through my back door. Those took 30 minutes each to put together. Because I post so often I find my creative muscle is strong, letting me generate ideas like this quickly.

My camera and film review posts have fallen into a format that makes them faster to write, but especially the camera reviews can take several hours to finish. They often need a lot of research about history and usage, which I try to do in 15-30 minute sessions just like freewriting and editing. I write my research into the post as rough notes, and build the opening paragraphs around it. Then I share a bunch of photographs I made with the camera, and write about my experience with the camera as I made those photos.

I write ideas for more substantive posts, such as my essays and personal stories, on sticky notes and leave them around my desk. As I think of things I want to say in those posts, I create the draft post if I haven’t already and record my notes there. These posts take real time to write, so I tend to work on them only when I have 2-3 weeks of posts queued. I work on them bit by bit over weeks and, sometimes, months.

I write about whatever I want — it’s a personal blog after all. Anything is subject fodder. I write about photography and cameras a lot because it’s a lifelong interest and I’ve found my largest, most engaged audience there. Yes, I pander shamelessly to you film photographers!

If you blog, what tips do you have for keeping it going?

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Essay, Photography

Few people make real money following their passions, and you probably won’t be one of them

(Originally published 7/26/2016) I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever thought about making photography my living.

A portrait of the artist
Nikon D3200, 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Nikkor, 2016. Margaret Grey photo.

It sure sounds wonderful to spend my days driving old roads or looking at historic architecture, making photographs as I go — and getting paid for it!

The other question I get asked, a lot, is whether I’ve ever thought about making writing my living.

And my answer is not only yes, but I’ve done it. For many years early in my career, I traded my written words for my supper. There I learned a crucial truth:

The kind of work you do for yourself is very different from the kind of work that pays.

I hadn’t dreamed of being a writer when I landed my first writing job. I wanted to be a software developer. But the country was in a recession then and jobs were scarce. I was willing to do any job I could get in the software field. I wound up writing manuals, and it turned out that I really enjoyed the work. I did it for more than a decade. I even contributed to a few published books on popular software products. It’s a rush to see your name on a book’s spine!

In that field I met a lot of talented people who had dreamed of being writers. They came with degrees in English and poetry and journalism, and extensive portfolios filled with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software — not remotely their dream. For the kinds of writing they wanted to do, the supply of talent far outstripped demand. And then they found that the software industry paid well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing something, anything for good pay.

It’s much the same in photography. Many of us who shoot probably dream of creating great art and making a living through sales, or maybe patronage if that’s even a thing anymore. But most working photographers shoot things like weddings or consumer products. My first wife is a talented photographer, but when I met her she made her living in the United States Air Force shooting portraits of officers seeking promotions.

Photographers can find this kind of work rewarding, just as I truly enjoyed writing software instructions. But who dreams as children of being technical writers or wedding photographers? We back into these jobs because they leverage our skills and pay our bills.

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Nikon F3, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Foma Fomapan 200, 2016

Those jobs pay because they create clear value. This blog creates value, too — you wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t find my words and images to be valuable in some way. But the amount of value that captures your attention is much lower than the amount of value that opens your wallet.

If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, most, if not all, of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. Even the big players struggle to make online content pay.

There was a golden time when personal blogging could be lucrative: approximately 2004. Several talented early bloggers found large followings and made good money with online ads.

But in about 2011 online ad revenue dropped off a cliff. The bloggers that didn’t have to find day jobs again created other revenue sources: writing sponsored posts (where the blogger writes an ad and tries to make it sound like it’s about them or their interests), creating product lines, and offering services such as personal coaching and workshops in an area of skill or expertise they have.

These are great, legitimate ways to make money. But notice how these things aren’t personal blogging. They’re not the passion that made the blogger start blogging.

If your passion is something like managing hedge funds or starting tech companies, and there are really people with passions like that, well heck yes those passions can pay, and handsomely. But for most of us, we just want to make something that represents us or showcases our talents, and put it out into the world and hope people come to see.

Is that you? That’s me. And so I persist. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’ve dabbled in ways to generate a little passive income and hope to pay this blog’s costs and maybe some of my photography. But I have no delusions that this will ever let me quit my day job. The same almost certainly goes for you.

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Personal, Photography

The well is never truly dry

This isn’t a post about being a Christian, but I’m going to start with a story related to my Christian faith. Bear with me, it sets up my point.

Early after I started following Jesus a preacher talked to me about prayer, which is a foundation of the relationship we Christians build with Christ. He said, “People come to me all the time and say, ‘I’ve been praying, but I’ve lost the feeling. I feel like I’m just going through the motions. What do I do?’ I tell them to just keep on praying. If you keep praying, sooner or later you’ll find that connection with God again.”

It’s been good advice. But the underlying principle has also been good advice in my two main hobbies, writing and photography.

Sometimes the words don’t flow easily. Sometimes I just don’t feel like making photographs. The best thing to do at those times is, paradoxically, to write or to make photographs.

Doing these things primes the well’s pump. The well of creativity is never truly dry. When you keep trying, the good words and photographs eventually come back.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my family is living through some difficult challenges. I haven’t usually felt like writing or making photographs.

Allied Appliances
From the last time I shot my Nikomat FTn. 50/2 Nikkor H-C on Arista Premium 400.

But I’ve been making myself do it. I just finished a roll in my Nikomat FTn and I have film in my Olympus XA now. I have pushed myself through a few photo walks of my usual subjects, things and places easily reached. I feel sure that there will be no portfolio-worthy shots on those rolls, one of Kodak Portra 400 and one of Ilford FP4 Plus. What matters is that I’m shooting.

And I’ve been making myself write. That’s where the recent post about my grandmother (read it here) came from. It was hard to write, not because of any emotional impact of the content, but because I strain to find the words.

Have you ever been “in the zone” with anything you do? Where you act with easy fluidity? Where good results materialize easily from your efforts?

I know that if I keep at it, soon enough I’ll be in the zone again.

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