Of calisthenics and kettlebells

This post originally appeared on Medium.

 

If you're taking a leap into the unknown, call Chris does Content.Like many men in trades that involve more sitting than spearfishing, I’ve overcompensated for my clean-hands job with a lot of physical stuff. I’ve snowboarded and sparred, climbed tall walls and swum cold rivers, fallen through clouds and wondered under the waves. But there’s a problem.

I play action hero wannabe for the same reason as other men in that affluent gap between youth and old age: to feel alive. To get that zing that stems from being active, of hearing your breath in fast gasps with your heart hammering a hole. Enriched and overjoyed with the blood-rush thrill of the NOW.

And you know what? (Deep breath): none of it matters.

It’s true that on every jump or dive, there’s one moment of perfect freedom. An utter happiness where the world shrinks to a bubble around you and everything you ever wanted is right here, right now. And for a few rare souls, those moments are enough. (I can list thirty jumpers and surfers who live under canvas on minimum wage, just to keep dropzone or beach up close and personal.)

But for most, these adrenaline-hyped extremes are drug, not food. Just a release valve for the bottled-up frustrations of the everyday. And as with any Class-A fool’s gold, living solely for the next hit shovels a high opportunity cost onto the rest of your life.

That was the problem: covering up life’s negatives takes a lot of time, needs a lot of effort, and uses a lot of equipment. It hides everyday frustrations; it doesn’t solve them.

So here’s a thought: instead of living for the release valve, why not focus specifically on what’s pent-up, and try to use that instead? Not work to push it aside, but to turn your pent-up negatives into positives?

Let us re-pent.

Targetting low wage earners...As anyone who’s ever clenched a fist or grit their teeth knows, pent-up is a physical sensation. A negative one. It’s frustration with the everyday that puts the ache in your head and the battery acid in your gut.

But it’s still energy. And energy can be redirected.

That’s why my change strategy didn’t lead me towards another degree or tackling a Great Books list: mind and body are one. And with a sit-down job that involves thinking, fattening up my brainpan wasn’t the problem.

Or rather — bear with me here — it was the whole problem, but working on it would’ve been the wrong solution. Because a great many mental problems stem from incorrect maintenance of the physical self. And given that many trappings of modern life — sitting in chairs, sleeping on mattresses, taking hot showers — are habits the human animal never evolved for, it’s fair to conclude that for most of us, our bodies are in greater deficit than our minds. (Affluent living gives us comfort; it doesn’t give us health.)

So about a year back, I went all Walden on extracurricular activities. Strip it back, start from nothing, find an “extreme sport” so sturdy and spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life. Starting with the question: what can you do starting with nothing?

Three principles guided me.

onwall-blackandwhite

First: build-up not wear-out.

A lot of extreme activities carry a health warning. You need to be fit to do them; they don’t make you fit. In fact, they wear you down. A professional boxer trains a thousand minutes outside the ring for every minute within it and takes a month to recover from twelve rounds. The actual fisticuffs are the why of her training, not the what.

So whatever I chose, it had to be something whose practice led to healthy, physical improvement: a means as well as an end. Not an activity that simply enabled another activity — building up in order to wear it down again — but a what, in and of itself. Not a why.

Second: no equipment.

I haven’t done any studies, but I’d bet money there’s an inverse relationship between what people spend on physical activity and what they actually get out of it. (Beyond that brief hedonic buzz of the buying decision.)

My purchase history is littered with gear and gadgets bought in the heat of fads: I’ve forgotten what some of them even do. Animated discussions about the merits of Widget A versus Add-on B may be fun, but they mistake the activity itself for an obsession with the stuff around it. And don’t get me started on big-box machines at the gym. (tl;dr: they don’t work.)

So it all got dumped. The ideal home gym doesn’t deck the walls with a dozen Yorks; that’s the ideal hotel gym. (The one nobody uses.) The ideal gym is in your head. All you need to go there is two square metres of floorspace.

So the second question I asked: what life-enhancing activity can you do without gear? (As you’ll see later: I cheated. But not by much.)

Third: no preparation needed.

Self-help gurus are big on motivation. But motivation has high barriers to entry. You swear you’ll get out for a run, but it’s raining outside. You make an exercise plan, then get disheartened because it was too much, too soon. You bought the gym membership — more fool you — but it’s a half hour drive…

…and then you subscribe to someone else’s bullshit. CrossFit? Dance party. P90X? Wasteful overkill. Insanity? Self-flagellation. The only exercise that works is the one you actually do. (CrossFit, in particular, follows the Reverse Fight Club Rule: you must never stop talking about fucking CrossFit. And when you’re talking about it, you ain’t doing it.)

In fact, the only thing worse than fluoro-clad infomercials on the late night channels is the way even professionals measure the purported goals of fitness. BMI (Body Mass Index) is bunkum; it doesn’t measure muscle, aka “the bit that matters.” (Yes, a measure so broadly accepted it’s on the website of Britain’s monolithic NHS treats muscle and fat as the same thing.) So is five-a-day; that was an ad campaign, not a health study. And so is most of “nutrition science”. (It focusses on what’s in food, not the far bigger question of how your body takes it up.)

I had a gym membership for years; the kindest thing I can say is that the juice bar served good coffee. So I went the other way on that whole motivation thing: I wanted an activity that needed no motivation whatsoever. No times and dates, no dress code, and nowhere to go. Just get up and get in the zone straightaway, stay there or leave as you please.

Marketing from its heights... to its depthsIn the living room, naked

What this meant was an activity that a) delivered the endorphin whoosh, b) led to greater health, and c) could be done in the living room. Naked.

I found one. In fact, I found two. And it started with…

… a fucking push-up.

Yes. A pushup. The opening salvo of progressive calisthenics.

That was my new extreme sport. And if “calisthenics” just conjured up images of fluorescent legwarmers and star jumps — as it will for anyone who remembers the 80s — reread progressive. The methods aren’t 30 but 3,000 years old, and if they worked for the Spartans they’ll probably work for you.

That’s why less than a year ago my latest “extreme activity” found me leaning palms-out against a wall, exerting an absurdly easy pressure to push myself standing.

A lifetime of levelling up…

Yes. It starts like that. Against-the-wall pushups.

10 reps with perfect form? Easy. 2 sets of 10? Still easy. But try 3 x 50, with the same textbook precision. It gets strangely hard. You will sweat. You will tire. You will lose form. So you need focus, and fitness, and fortitude. All of which prog cali builds over time.

Programmes vary between four and eight basic moves per workout, each move concentrating on one area but engaging the whole meat puppet. If you get bored, each move has isometric and plyometric variants (aka “planking” and “jumping”) and add-ons for small muscle development and fine motor control. Each variant enables the next; each set builds a base for those beyond.

fail3 copyThat’s the progressive bit: you start easy and build on each move, in a upwards sequence of steadily-harder variants and reps that will take anywhere from three months to a lifetime to complete. (If you thought gathering XP, unlocking perks, and levelling up came in with games consoles, think again.)

That’s the beauty of starting from zero: the only enabling equipment is your body, and the only goal is moving it better. It’s less about exercise than about training a skill. Doing it right demands no less mental dexterity than formation skydiving, but without the need to stuff two hundred square feet of cloth into a rucksack first. (Actually — goes a skydiving joke — you don’t need to do that to skydive…just to skydive twice. But I digress.)

At the peak are superhuman moves like the back bridge and the headstand pushup, of which fewer than one in 10,000 people could complete a single rep. And somewhere, in every workout done correctly — even a tra-la-la toe-balance in the supermarket queue — is that zero-point of Zen peace, a thrilling calm in a vortex of exhilaration. Waiting to be found.

And isn’t that what extreme activities mean to us deskbound action heroes? Doing stuff anyone could do…but few actually do?

…with the level cap modded out

I‘m not doing human flags or pistol squats yet. But the benefits along the way are no less extreme. I like being able to do one-handed pushups. I like having a grip strength not far off my bodyweight. The achievements and goals at each level and progression standard, the perks you feel unlocking as lazy flesh firms up and underused muscle sings, make the connection between mind and body overt.

Hey, it might take me three years to reach Level 10. But three years of ever-increasing health? I’m up for that.

Screen Shot 2012-11-04 at 11.43.28That’s what sets up the Zen moment in prog cali. The sense you’re climbing a hill whose gradient always matches your skills and where the summit’s always in sight. The knowledge there’s no “you” beyond the patterns of your nerves—that we have no existence outside our flesh-cradled bones — isn’t some abstract philosophism; you feel it, the way a child at play feels it. It’s obvious. We’re all just sacks of chemicals, and how they slosh around covers the sum totality of human experience.

Being self-actualised — the prime takeaway of any extreme sport — is nothing more than knowing what those chemicals can do…and how to give them a nudge.

And when you do, the torments and setbacks of everyday life simply get turned to a lower volume. Every moment of every day carries the opportunity for moments of supreme peace. In the chaos of a commuting crowd, you find yourself grinning. You’re among them, but somehow above them.

(Even physically. Like Yoga, only more so, the stretches and holds of prog cali pack dense muscle around your spine in addition to prompting you to stand up straighter. The average human can expect anything up to five centimetres in height gain within a year or so.)

Look for the nothing

Hey, I’m not saying prog cali will ring your bell. It just works for me. All I’m saying is, if you’re addicted to the rush-and-a-push of weekend adventure to dissolve the strains and pains of 21st-century life, try starting again from zero.

You can even cheat on the no-equipment thing. My daily moments of inner peace aren’t quite naked any more; I’ve got into these things:

chris_kettlebell

The inevitable kettlebell bit

I added these cannonballs-with-handles mostly because I boulder (it’s like rock climbing, but without the altitude) and wanted to boost my grip. But in my mind, it’s on song with the Zen of Cali. You still need focus, you still need form, and everything builds from a small number of moves. For me, just two do the trick. (If it matters, they’re called the Swing and the Get-Up.)

One ‘bell sized to you replaces more than an entire weights bench; it replaces most of the big-box machines, too, with something that actually works. If you’re doing cali daily, a ‘bell adds a bit of spice.

I love my kettlebells as if they were my children. Small, rough-hewn, cast-iron children. But never forget: if putting the zing in everyday life is your goal, you really don’t need anything at all.

So the kettlebell pic’s here for honesty. To show that once you’ve found your zero, you don’t need stay there. Few of us really want to spend our lives loincloth-clad on a mountaintop, and few of us need to. Life’s full of great pleasures beyond those moments inside your head; if you live in your head all the time, you lose the context that gives those experiences meaning. And that leads me to the best part…

Still extreme, still Zen

…changing your outlook on life like this doesn’t stop you doing the other stuff. It just changes its purpose, positively. And, of course, it makes you better at them.

I still love the taste of a cloud. I still thrill at the sightseeing sixty feet underwater. And wherever there’s a rough wall, I look for the holds. But I don’t do them for the Zen moment anymore, because now I can get that anytime.

I’m going race car driving next weekend. But don’t worry — it’s just for fun.

Screen Shot 2013-01-20 at 16.23.50 copy

Four guys I’ve never met kicked off my journey to the zero, one of whom may not even be a guy: Paul WadePavel Tsatsouline, and Al and Danny Kavadlo. Buy their books! (I’m not affiliated to them in any way.)

Societal discounting: why white male privilege doesn’t help me

I was chatting about white male privilege recently. Let’s start by stating outright: I know it exists. I’m pretty chuffed I was born male, middle-class and of european extraction. But here’s my hypothesis: it doesn’t help me as much as you think it does.

And a bit of research backs it up. But first, the theory.

White male privilege exists

It started with a throwaway thought: that the benefits of being white and male, while real, are already “priced in”.

Priced in is a finance term, meaning those who buy into a benefit aren’t getting as much value from it as you might think. Value is “priced in” when expectations of future profit are already fully reflected in the stockmarket valuation of a company.

In other words, buy that stock now and you’re unlikely to make a profit on it. The expected benefits are already part of the stock price.

But its benefits are “priced in”…

How does value get priced in? By a basic financial mechanism: discounting.

Since the benefits of buying a stock or share are in the future—and the future is unpredictable—investors balance their expectations of profit by applying a discount factor to those forecasts, usually a percentage.

The higher the risk of not making a profit, the higher the discount rate. A couple of percent per year for a Fortune-500 company, high double digits for an Internet startup.

Discount factors take expectations of profit down a peg or two. And that’s a good thing.

… and society, knowing this, discounts it

I’m arguing that society recognises the existence of WMP, and applies a discount factor to its treatment of white males that reduces the benefits of being white and male.

I call this balancing effect “societal discounting“. (Hey, it sounds nicely sociological—a bit fuzzy and obscure—so it’s halfway to academic acceptance already.) White males enjoy a status perceived as privileged… so societal discounting acts to “takes them down a peg or two.”

Which wouldn’t harm a lot of white males, me probably included. But how does societal discounting actually work?

One trait of societal discounting is the tendency to not take any protests of prejudice experienced by white males seriously—he’s a middle-class white male! What could he possibly complain about?—and seeing white males as fair targets for levels of bigotry unacceptable when expressed towards any other demographic.

That paragraph will probably make some people angry. If you’re one of them, breathe, because it’s not meant to. I’m not sure of the degree to which societal discounting reduces the benefits of being a white male, but I accept it probably isn’t 100%.

But you’re doing it. Even if you’re a white male yourself.

This discounting negates the benefits of being white and male

Societal discounting is why it’s okay to publish a blog titled “The White Guy Problem“, deriding a behaviour that’s entirely unpleasant, yet not at all confined to white males. (And which, happily, only an ignorant fraction of any community indulges in.)

It’s why Salon republishes a feminist post singling out white males’ inability to “listen to the experiences of others”. (I’m not going to diss the writing style: its author never intended it as more than a Facebook status.) If you make it down the page, one sentence jumps out:

“[you] are being infantilizing. . . You are not taking someone else’s reporting of their own, lived experience as accurate.”

The author is right as far as she goes. But would she listen to the “lived experiences” of white males with the same degree of open-minded empathy she wants from them? Could she have aimed this valid advice at any other group without being tarred as a bigot?

But she directed it at white males, towards which almost any degree of prejudice or racism seems to be okay. (Maybe she hedged her views at the end of the article, but these pieces tend to run long copy: I’ve yet to make it to the end of one.)

It also happened in the chat that inspired this blog. The conversation was civil, but when I mentioned my “priced in” idea, the consensus quickly arose as an implicit and unquestionable understanding: I was one of those white males. Part of the problem. In inevitable sequence came the accusations of misunderstanding (true) and trolling (false.)

This is societal discounting in action. Understanding that white male privilege exists, and taking actions to discount it back towards some more reasonable norm.

And if you’re surprised by that word “reasonable”, then you haven’t been listening.

Maybe societal discounting is the right thing to do. Maybe white male privilege really does create such a distorting effect that discounting it back towards the mean is entirely reasonable.

Next, some research findings.

Some non-academic, non-controlled, non-peer-reviewed research

Back-of-envelope research needs easily accessible data with a reasonable chance of finding something in it. What follows isn’t statistically valid (although it is statistically significant) nor qualitatively appropriate. In other words, it’s a judgement sample rather than a rigorously controlled one.

So I’ll note here: I have some training in econometrics, and use modelling and analysis every day. I do understand the limitations of a sample. So unless you know your CI from your SD: whatever your complaint about my data or findings, I’ll already know it.

TV sitcoms and semi-comedies were my data landscape. (Cue laughter track.)

Why? Because comedy tends to a) magnify societal mores, and b) lag a bit behind the times. (Statisticians might call them a judgement sample of society.) Sitcoms aren’t exactly a mirror of society; they’re more like a shaving mirror, emphasising further bits that already stick out. Soap operas would work too, but I’ve never watched any.

In an attempt at control, I chose them all from the last 20 years, from both the UK and USA, and with a mix of characters from diverse backgrounds. This meant classics like The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince got nixed, but The Simpsons and Buffy (known for strong female characters) made the cut. I found 61 in total.

Why sitcoms were no laughing matter

The results were startling. Of those featuring a white male lead character, in 84% of cases that character had a negative trait—and the trait was remarkably consistent, over two-thirds strongly biased towards a bumbling nature or loveable idiocy.

Just 18% featured a female lead character with a negative trait—and in 8 of these 11 shows, the trait came from a range of comedic stereotypes (the scatty blonde, the socially inept nerd) rather than a consistent characteristic of idiocy.

There was another finding. A random subsample of plotlines demonstrated that of the shows featuring a bumbling white male lead character, that trait substantially defined the plotline of many episodes. (Think of how often Homer’s idiocy is saved by Marge’s better nature.)

The cod conclusion: societal discounting against white males is an integral, unquestioned norm in the media we consume.

It’s okay to make fun of white males, in ways unacceptable about other ethnicities or genders.

White males reading this might feel aggrieved at this finding. I don’t. Because I understand why it happens. It’s just societal discounting, taking white male privilege down a peg or two. (Bear in mind most of these shows, including those featuring ethnic and minority characters, are written and produced by white males. British and US comedy shows aren’t exactly a feminist plot.)

And society hasn’t exactly collapsed because of it, has it? I laugh at The Simpsons too, you know.

But here’s the kicker: it’s okay

In discussions about sexism or racism, my experience is that of many white males: I’m either not allowed an opinion or seen as part of the problem. My own lived experience is discounted, by the same people who say I should be listening to theirs.

And you know what? Understanding societal discounting, I’m okay with that.

Because I am, after all, still white and male. Still defined by my ethno-cultural background. A quick scan of my Kindle reveals a great many white male authors and surprisingly very few women or people of colour. The writer most in tune with my personal philosophy was female, and I admire Toni Morrison, but I realise I’ve never read any of her books whole.

However, I did live overseas for a large part of my life, where I was a minority in race and mother tongue. I went to university in my 30s, on a course where white males were a tiny minority. Today, I live in one of Britain’s most diverse neighbourhoods; my (non-white) partner has suffered serious racism although she never let it slow her down.

So I do know a bit about this stuff. I’m not perfect, but hey—neither are you.

Modern society treats white male privilege as damage and routes around it. This blog won’t get lauded as a piece of social commentary, or even accepted as valid. Because if you’re non-white, non-male, or have ever experienced prejudice, you’ll discount it.

And that’s ok.

Adding a second dimension: the Nolan Chart

500px-Nolan-chart.svgThe Nolan chart gives form to what happened in the EU elections… and why those you’d think of as right of centre, like me, aren’t happy with its swing rightwards.

Politics isn’t a single Left-Right axis; it’s a boston box, with both small-state and big-state variants of Left and Right. I’m a hardcore libertarian (NOT “liberal”), at the extreme top-right: favouring high personal freedom and high economic freedom. On the left side, the bottom left would be socialism and the top left traditional liberalism.

The UK’s big three parties each occupy one quadrant: Lib Dems top left, Cons in the top right, and Labour bottom left. As nominally centrist parties, each is in the approx centre of its quadrant, with Ed Miliband’s lot maybe slightly further southwest and David Cameron a bit further northeast.

UKIP (and the other far-right parties that won on Sunday) often call themselves libertarian, but are actually pretty low on personal freedoms. (As we’d find out if they exercised real power.) So all belong at the bottom right, many of them at the extreme southeast corner.

Seen in this context, Nigel Farage’s success is easy to understand: he simply saw the open marketspace and moved into it. Politics, like life, can often be understood by the dynamics of marketing.

This mailing to a cold list got 19% response. Here’s how I did it.

It might not look much. But this one-page letter to a cold list (part of my 100 Days, 100 Grand project) returned an incredible response rate… between ten and twenty times what a snail mail campaign usually delivers. (And hundreds of times what you’d expect from anything beginning with “e-“.)

One director called it “the best piece of direct mail [he’d] received since starting the agency“.

As an exercise in navel-gazing, here’s the text of the letter… with my notes on why I think it worked.

Chris's letter to a self-built database of inbound marketing agencies.

The letter itself. Note extreme mailmerge fields.

Opening para: making friends

Nobody writes proper letters any more, do they? The kind you open without a click. Scribble notes in the margins. And delete with a crumple. When you do get a proper letter, you notice it.

Ah, the kick-off. It breaks most of today’s rules: no upfront offer, no call-to-action. It’s a preamble.

But… it interests you, doesn’t it? A straightforward truth: you don’t get personal letters any more. A real person wrote this, thinks the reader. And I’m guessing most of them got past this para without aiming it into the circular file. Takeout: before establishing your offer, first establish you’re human.

Body copy: setting the scene

I noticed «COMPANY». Because you're sky-high in SEO for "«CUSTOMPARA1»". (As I am for "London copywriter".) I'm writing in the hope you'll notice me. Because your "«CUSTOMPARA2»" approach syncs with what I do: custom copy for content marketers.

This para’s where I swing in the big guns: extreme personalisation in the mailmerge fields. (With a parenthetical riff on my own SEO rank.)

«CUSTOMPARA1» is the search phrase I used to build my list: the first few pages of Google results are, by definition, hot prospects. While «CUSTOMPARA2» is the agency’s (they were all agencies) approach to its work lifted from its website. (It’s usually a punchy portmanteau term like attract-convert-repeat.) So we’ve established rapport: I know what they do, and I took some effort to find out.

Callout 1

Add chrisdoescontent.com to your list of freelancers...

Now here’s the first part of the offer, centred and highlighted as if with a yellow pen. It only took two paras to get here, and it jumps off the page – most importantly, it tells the reader what they’ve got to do. Something a surprising number of mailings forget.

The support act…

Why use me? Because I've done a lot of what you want. My stuff combines fresh ideas (I'm an indie novelist on the side) with experience gained at top-10 ad agencies (200+ campaigns and 1000+ articles across Asia and Europe.) All backstopped by research methods from a top-1% MBA that keep the insights solid. That's why clients use me for years and stay friends forever. More at chrisdoescontent.com/what.

Once your reader’s interested you need to give them a reason to stick around, so I added the backup. Hard numbers and facts are what work here; your readers are getting down to business, and the touchy-feeliness of the intro is over. (Well, almost.) Yes, I do what it says on the tin. Now questions are forming, it’s also time for a link.

… with backing dancers

While I haven't worked for clients on your roster, like «CUSTOMPARA3» or «CUSTOMPARA4», I have created campaigns and programmes for big names like «CUSTOMPARA5». I'm mostly B2B, in tech /media /telecoms, finance, healthcare, automotive and aerospace. Know-how that may be of use to you: hit the ground running and all that...

Into the mailmerge forest again. The data here took ages to extract. <<3>> and <<4>> are the names of actual clients on the prospect’s roster. There’s no fast way to build metadata like this; until The Semantic Web hits its stride (at least another decade) trawling through websites by hand is the only option.

And <<CUSTOMPARA5>> is a handpicked selection of my clients – clients which match as closely as possible the sectors the prospect operates in. I’m moving in closer with every sentence.

...but it's pricey, right? Nope. Try £450 for a 1,000wd+ research paper or consideration content, less for snacks and snippets elsewhere on the nurturing pathway. Or £225 for a 500wd listicle with metadata. And turnaround times that can drop to 24 hours if your deadline's hot.

It’s time for go in for the kill. Content marketing – the point of this mailing – is price-sensitive, and while I try not to compete on price, it’s a reality of this space. I simply worked out what I need to work up a killer article (half a day min) and priced it in.

You can lean on me for teasers, pages, posts, blogs... Buzzfeeds, featurettes, infographics, and newsletters... microsites and Case Studies and White Papers. The whole kit and caboodle, with metas, tags and links whomped up and ready to go. I've worked on platforms from WordPress to HubSpot to Uberflip to SlideShare, in formats as diverse as PPC, ePub, and XML. I'm also conversant with 12 CMSs, HTML5 and CSS. See chrisdoescontent.com/portfolio for the exhibit.

Notice I used a couple of buzzwords in the previous para – listicle, metadata – to show I’ve got a grip on social and content marketing? They were warmups.

In this most verbose paragraph in the letter, I list the applications and formats I think they work with, and will expect me to know. It’s filler, but solid filler.

Callout 2

...and get your first content marketing brief answered for FREE

Again highlighted, the second of the 2 callouts communicates my offer without anyone needing to read the body copy. (As any good piece of marketing should.)

Closing para and call-to-action

But there's one thing you don't get: hassle. Contact me with a brief; I'll write you a sample you can use at no cost. I'm on 07876 635340 or chris@chrisworth.com; current availability's about 9 days/mth. Let's talk.

It’s time to sign off. All the boxes are ticked here: offer front and centre, with a note that subtly communicates further proofs (I’m available, but not too available, ‘cos that’d mean I’m no good.) Hammered home with a homily.

Do I need to mention the letter was personally signed? My wrist’s still sore.

Footer block

PS. You can download a PDF of this letter from chrisdoescontent.com/?attachment_id=«xxxx». (All right, proper letters don't work for everything. Let me know if you went all TL;DR on me.)

Every sales letter needs a PS. This one adds a neat trick: I uploaded each individual letter (not the template) to my site, and the reader can download the exact letter he received by clicking a unique URL. I finish the way all sales letters should: with a chuckle that gets the reader’s head nodding.

How could it be improved?

envelopesBeing self-critical is a good trait for any copywriter, so here’s what I think I did wrong.

First, I should have put the offer in the postscript somehow. People still scan down to a PS before they get into the body copy. And using the too long; didn’t read euphemism was borderline; while agency bosses are web-savvy, they don’t always speak geek.

Second, the transition between the opening and second paras doesn’t quite hit the mark. I talk about letters being noticed, yet when “I notice them” it’s not because I got a letter. Small stuff, but it’s lapses like these that make tears in a piece of copy’s overall fabric.

Third, the backup in the middle. Lengthwise it works, but I’m divided as to its density. Too much jargon? Am I sounding clever rather than intelligent? On the edge.

But ultimately, this letter worked for me, so you be your own judge. And if you’d like me to do some content marketing for you – or just write you a sales letter or two – contact me here.

New Gabe Rayner short story, “Worked Out”, up at Amazon

workedout_thumbA short story featuring my business consultant action hero, Gabe Rayner, is up at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk for your Kindle.

In “Worked Out“, Rayner’s in the mood for some R&R after a conference in Miami. The miniskirted nymphet beckoning him over gives him some ideas, but they might not be what you’re expecting…

… and if you promise not to tell, the ebook’s also FREE as a download in .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (iBooks) format.

Hundred days, hundred grand: a fun work goal

Hey there, marketers! I’ve had an idea today, and I’d like one thousand of you to listen. Broader upside is that it delivers £10,000 to charity, but let’s get the self-indulgent stuff out first…

…since turning indie novelist I’ve led a dreamy life. A cycle of eat-sleep-create, true to myself and answerable to no-one. I’m a solitary type who spends a lot of time inside his own head, so the last year – teaching myself the principles of narrative fiction then writing my first stories – has been one of the most enjoyable.

Only problem: your income takes one hell of a whack.

00_2birds_100px700,000 books are published each year. But worldwide, I’d bet fewer than a thousand authors scratch a living wage from fiction. And perhaps only 200 earn more than a top-tier copywriter in a major market. (That’d be me.) Writing the commercial prose used in a single campaign typically earns its creator more than Britain’s median earner makes in a week… while 99% of books sell fewer than 100 copies, making the author less money than would fold. (Er, that’d be me, too.)

So it’s been a great year, but with the principles of fiction now baked into my brainpan, every thriller novel and sci-fi short from now on – and there’ll be many – just counts as practice. (I can’t call myself “good” until I’ve got a million words out.) I need a fresh goal to rebuild my cashflow. And since this is me here – the guy who combines touchy-feely words and hard-quant numbers – every goal needs numbers attached.

Starting 01 April, I’m aiming for 100 days to reach an annualised income of £100,000.

It sounds a lot. But in a market like my hometown, the thing about a six-figure income is how small it is. A hundred grand could be just three clients. But it takes work. This isn’t get-rich-quick, folks.

Here’s how I plan to do it. And how you could do it, too.

Looking for clear market space? Take a walk with Chris.Any sales exec knows selling is a numbers game. There’s a mountain of skill involved in closing a deal, but most of the time, the guy with the best sales figures is the guy who made the most calls. To get the small number of retainer clients it’ll take to rebuild my roster, I’m counting on approaching 1,000. And since I can’t count on my scintillating personality getting me over the hump (I am the world’s worst networker) this means a campaign.

I’m not talking about a bought-in list; strike rates for cold names are below 0.01%. I’m talking about 1,000 individuals with a marketing budget, each connected to me by someone I know who’s consented to be used as a reference. That’s the In that gets me in their Inbox. So where to start?

It means work. And the place to start is LinkedIn. That’s 434 connections, roughly half in my native UK, connecting me to most of the companies I want to approach. And there’ll be an individually worded letter to each one, in my own voice.

This is where the resource costs start. Even the cheapest content mill I write for pays 20p a word, and these letters top out around 500 words a throw. So that’s £100,000 of effort going in. Which dwarfs the cost of printing and posting, even given some won’t go out on a proper sheet of paper.

I’m counting on averaging ten letters a day. More on weekdays to take weekends off. And they’ll be personal letters. There are some common paragraphs, but there are three or four paras that aren’t replicable page to page. Stuff like:

  1. A para on who you are, and what you want to do for them (THEM.)
  2. A para on how you heard of them – your contact, their job ad, whatever.
  3. A para showing you understand their business or sector, with proof.
  4. The separate email to your contact, telling them what you’ve done. It’s only polite.

That’s four custom paras, of maybe six or seven in total. (Not much space for anything else save the sig.) And I need perhaps a 1% strike rate. That’s all.

To see why, let’s look at clients I’ve had in the past. One paying £1000/mth for a 3,000 word article for their website. One of which pays an occasional £1500 for a small research project. Two paying over £2,500/mth for a programme of activity around a monthly marketing campaign. Two others paying £1,750 each to have 3-5 days/month reserved for them.

And with my max day rate of £600 – top tier, but not over-the-top by London standards – it doesn’t take too many of those to hit an £8k/mth run rate.

(When I was an agency creative clients paid upwards of two thousand Euros, and that was a decade-plus ago. (One or two advertising celebs charge two grand today, but you could probably count them without taking your socks off.)

And to add punch, I’m making a commitment: if I get there, 10% of that income for one year will be donated to charity.

Works starts today. If you’d like to support me – or do it yourself! – share this post on Twitter, with the hashtag #100days100grand. Here’s my Tweet to retweet.

SFF: one F too many

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s the way the fiction business conflates Science Fiction with Fantasy.

SFF is not a genre. Science Fiction is not Fantasy, okay? If Fantasy has a role, it’s as Sci-Fi’s less respectable cousin. A burger and shake for preteens before they graduate to something crunchy and interesting like a Dozois anthology. Sci-fi writers have worked for decades to be a genre that even has a less respectable cousin; that extra F hasn’t earned the right to be there.

I accept there’s an argument the other way. You could say a dwarf and an alien share conceptual DNA (now there’s an image to conjure with.) And when it comes to “magic”, Fantasy has its vanishing spells while Sci-fi has teleports and hyperdrive.

But I maintain that’s moot, because most SF at least tries to ground itself in natural law; the physics of a space/time warp, the excitement of photons in a death ray. In good SF, hyperdrive isn’t a get-out; it’s an integral part of the plot. It’s what allowed the human species to spread out over a thousand worlds without fragmenting into separate societies. Or, in other narratives, what caused it to fragment.

Sci-fi is rooted in realities. Even if that reality is a speculative extrapolation of engineering and physics. Much SF recognises the frailty and weakness of the human, and the greatness of applied learning that lifts us above our Earth and onto the surface of alien worlds.

By contrast, Fantasy’s characters draw heavily on cheat factors – lost kings and highborns, warrior tribes and evil overlords. They’re fairy tales, stories for children not adults, not worthy of respect the way a Bear novel or Dick short is when it explores the future of technology and returns a commentary on what it means to be human. (Of course, Star Wars was a fairy tale, but the point holds.) Sci-fi is self-aware, in a way Fantasy never seems to be.

Other worlds. The only one we've been to.Of course there’s a lot of bad SF out there, just as there’s a lot of bad Fantasy. (And bad romance. And thriller. And…) Because good sci-fi takes serious effort to write. You’ve got to create a believable storyworld that’s both complete in itself and consistent with the world we know, physical laws and evolution and cosmology. (Even at this early stage in the human adventure, we know a fair bit about physics.)

One of the few “good” Fantasy series – JRR Tolkein’s – is readable precisely because he grounded his monsters and magic in laws we feel hold true: the laws of living languages. The vast majority of Fantasy doesn’t feel the need, while almost every Science Fiction novel does. And Fantasy’s dragons and swordplay are a steaming pile of garbage as a result.

“SFF” is an abomination. Let’s drop that extra F, and leave Fantasy to the people who want to read about dwarves and buried treasure.