Sunday, January 29, 2006

Oprah gets punk'd

Say what you want about Oprah Winfrey, if you’re a writer, there’s no better and quicker way to scale the best seller lists, than receiving her endorsement for your latest book. The afternoon (the show actually airs live in her home market of Chicago) queen of maudlin melodrama, Oprah has championed the literary careers of many semi-talented writers and former hacks.

Back in the fall, Winfrey featured the graphic memoir of a little-known writer, named James Frey. His book, A Million Little Pieces, chronicling a young life filled with crime, drugs, and jail time.

In typical overly dramatic fashion, Winfrey hailed the book, riddled with coarseness and graphic details of every aspect of Frey’s pathetic life—regaling readers with details about the texture of his vomit, his bowel habits and root canal surgery, sans anesthesia—details the modern reader can’t live without. She called the book, “a radical departure” and “like nothing you've ever read before. Everybody at Harpo is reading it. When we were staying up late at night reading it, we'd come in the next morning saying, 'What page are you on?’” Radical departure indeed! More like a departure from the truth, apparently.

After all the acclaim and hoopla lauded on Frey, it now appears that his non-fiction work is actually not even creative non-fiction, but instead, a work of fiction, as in, he made most of it up.

The Smoking Gun, a website that prides itself on cutting through the fog of lies and deception, has meticulously laid out the framework of Frey’s hoax. Caught in the middle of the mess, with pie on her face and the taste of crow in her mouth, is the high priestess of America’s reading lists for women—Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey has been forced to backpedal as swiftly as her handlers and PR machine will allow her to. Winfrey obviously had trouble believing that Frey could be so audacious as to lie to her, the diva of the self-help sisterhood. Appearing on Larry King Live, she at first stood alongside Frey and his fabrication, going so far as to label the hoopla and allegations, “much ado about nothing.”

When it became obvious to Winfrey and her team of handlers that she’d been had, she was forced to stand before audience of true believers and admit she’d mislead them and even, gasp, lied to them.

“I feel duped,” she said Thursday on her syndicated talk show. “But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”

While part of me feels sorry for Winfrey, particularly seeing her reputation dragged through the mud by an obvious poseur like Frey, my greatest indignation is directed at Nan Talese, and Frey’s publisher, Doubleday, the parent company that released the book.

Apparently, Winfrey’s staff put Talese on alert to possible discrepancies in Frey's book, only to be assured by the publisher that all was hunky-dory. Winfrey lectured Talese on her responsibilities: "I'm trusting you, the publisher, to categorize this book whether as fiction or autobiographical or memoir."

I find it interesting that Talese, an industry veteran who has represented many authors, including Ian McEwan, George Plimpton and Thomas Cahill, would allow herself to be duped by a two-bit con like Frey. She insisted that "A Million Pieces" received a legal vetting. Now, backtracking, Talese acknowledges that the book had not been fact-checked, something many publishers say they have little time to do.

The more I learn about the inner workings of publishing, particularly at the higher levels of the pyramid, the less impressed I am. Recent conversations with writers and reading various communiqués coming from organizations that track the trade, often reveal a veritable house of cards, easily toppled, if the right kind of pressure gets applied.

While Frey has received his comeuppance and a public tongue-lashing, I can’t help but imagine that his conscience receives a reprieve each time he looks at his bank statement. Dubious details or not, the young author has received perks from his lies and half-truths that most writers only dream of—millions in sales, as well as a $2.55 million Manhattan penthouse and a summer home in The Hamptons—all made possible by his ability to pull the wool over the eyes of people with a tad more integrity and talent, but gullible by their need to board the bandwagon.

As our culture continues to embrace the cult of personality and live vicariously through others riding the escalator of fleeting fame, this type of travesty will become more common. The only way to combat it is to be more careful and scrutinize the latest fad or “next big thing” coming down the pike.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The importance of good writing

The new website is up and finally, running at optimum efficiency. There was a minor glitch with redirecting traffic from my former site, to the new one. It was a minor issue, but one that involved the melding of professional minds.

Having a quality designer to partner with has been a boon to my businesses. My professional writing business and my publishing endeavor both have websites that I wouldn’t have been able to create on my own. Yes, I could have done a cookie-cutter, cut and paste site, but the overall look and professional touches would have been lacking.

Take for instance my RiverVision site. Being able to accept book orders allowed me to pre-sell close to 100 books before the finished product was off the presses. It gives the site an added feature (e-commerce) that would have been lacking if I decided to forego the services of a professional designer and web guru.

One issue that I encounter frequently, when marketing my professional writing services, is an attitude among certain business owners and managers that it is ok to produce shoddy copy and substandard writing. Many of these supposed professionals, who ought to know better, think it makes sense to write their own copy. Just because you wrote two term papers in college and write an occasional letter to the editor, doesn’t make you a writer.

I’m amazed at the amount of boring, unreadable content that I run across when I pick up brochures, newsletters and other materials, produced with the express purpose of promoting their companies. At least on the business side, they are more likely to recognize the need to use a professional for graphics and layout.

Frequently, non-profit organizations and other agencies scrimp even on the design end. Apparently, they’re content to have unappealing brochures and other marketing collateral that is also poorly written.

This isn’t intended as a slam, but offered out of courtesy to you. Promoting a professional appearance is important in every aspect of your business. Your company’s communications speak loudly and often about you, and whether others should transact business with you. The same applies to non-profits and other organizations.

Another issue with producing your own copy involves the matter of time. It takes time to write clear, concise copy. Frequent phone calls, meetings, sales appointments and fundraising, deprive your writing of the momentum required to write winning material. Also, if you are president, CEO, or an executive director, does it make sense for you to take three hours out of your day to try to pen that article or op ed, sitting, waiting for you to write? A professional writer can help free up some time for you to attend to other matters that are equally important.

Let 2006 be the year that you finally add a professional touch to your company’s writing and other communications. You’ll be amazed what a couple of well-written articles, a company profile, or a retrospective on your firm or organization can do to jazz up your newsletter, company brochure, or annual report. There might be places to shave a few dollars, but that area isn’t on the writing and communications side.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Does blogging really matter?

I’ve been blogging since March, 2004. It all came about because the designer of my first website concluded that since I was a writer, I should be given every opportunity to write. It was shrewd on his part. I’m forever grateful for his prescience, as I’ve been a regular blogger ever since.

Blogs have become increasingly popular since I started. While the numbers vary, Technorati, an authority on the world of weblogs (or blogs for short) currently tracks nearly 26 million blogs worldwide. Those sites represent over 1 billion links. That’s certainly a significant number.

What makes for an interesting blog? That’s a very subjective question and has more to do with each reader’s tastes and what they’re looking for, rather than specific traits or qualities. Personally, I have my own list of favorite blogs that I read. Some of them are topic-specific; others are oriented more to the personal whims of the poster.

My primary blog, Words Matter, which was blog #2 for me, is a place where I work out a lot of ideas and thoughts I have percolating. Most of what I write about there pertains to politics, culture, some Maine-specific events, and occasionally, just plain personal stuff happening in my own life.

I have my own criteria that I use in determining if a site is worth regular viewing trips. First and foremost for me is regular updating of content. A blog doesn’t necessarily have to have daily updates, but some regular interval and flow is important to keep me coming back. I also like original writing, not a lot of cut and paste. If you check out the links at Words Matter, you’ll get an idea of what I find most interesting in the blogosphere.

It seems intuitive to me that if you want to know how to do something, then you should look to the people who have the experience when seeking expertise. It always amazes me how many poseurs pass themselves off as experts in the areas of communications, content, PR and marketing and in particular, writing for blogs. These same people produce a fraction of the content that I’ve accumulated over the past few years. I guess if you repeat something enough, people will begin to believe you.

I’m surprised that more writers don’t incorporate blogs into their websites. Originally, I thought I’d forego having a blog at this site, but I find that I have topics that make sense to write about here—primarily related to my writing, or writing in general—that just seem awkward or cloying at Words Matter.

Whether you agree with every opinion and thought that I express (now there’s a scary thought), what I hope shines through in what I write about, is the passion that I bring to any subject that I tackle. Too many writers seem overly comfortable with producing minimal output. In my opinion that’s not a good sign for anyone looking to hire a writer. The best writers write. While mere volume of content doesn’t automatically guarantee quality, it is one indicator of how much fervor a writer has for their craft.

I think maintaining a blog makes sense for writers, businesspeople, public officials and any other person who has something to communicate to a specific audience. It’s a great platform to share your ideas and views, while also proving to be extremely cost-effective.

So does blogging really matter? My answer is an unequivocal yes, particularly if you have something to say. If you call yourself a writer, then you better be packing some content, otherwise, you’re not worthy of that designation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A writer's welcome!

I am a writer, and as such, an assumption that I would like to write should seem obvious. While I certainly do like to write and often find myself with more ideas than time to set them down, my experience tells me that for some writers, that isn't always the case. The writing landscape is populated by so-called writers who write sparsely, at best. Some go so far as to have a blog, but post so infrequently as to make visits for new content a waste of valuable time.

As someone who has embraced blogging with a vengeance, I hope you'll find visits here worth your while. First, however, let me lay out some ground rules.

Because I have another primary blog, Words Matter, which is where I write about politics, culture, sports, and whatever else tickles my fancy, I won't be posting here daily. I would suggest that you check this space weekly, as that is my plan and schedule for writing, right now. I'm sure I'll post more frequently than that at times, but as a barometer, weekly sounds about right.

Having said that, I'll try to keep the content here germane to my writing. That might take the form of articles I've freelanced to publications, an op ed I've written, details about an upcoming book project at RiverVision Press, or highlighting other Maine writers worthy of mention. I'll also occasionally post information and stories that relate to life in the Pine Tree State.

I hope you find this feature an interesting addition to the other content at the website.