Sunday, May 11, 2014

Where did we go wrong?


That's the best way to describe what it's like to leap into the world of book promotion after 30 years of reading and writing rather than publishing. Here are my observations of this brave and not-so-brave new world...

Traffic Jam

My Twitter feed is a rush-hour of weird abbreviations and self-promotion crammed alongside other abbreviations and self-promotions. 

It is a strange expressway; authors honking their own horns, flashing their blinkers and high-beaming anyone with an eyeshot:

"Treat Yourself...Erotica for Women Who Know What They Want... You Deserve It! #ASMSG #IAN1 http..."

"It was an innocent purchase. ANCIENT SPIRITS (Daisy Gumm, 6) by ...  #Mystery #Cozy #read #book #nook http:...."

"Wherever you live in the world - Take advantage of this valuable Book Marketing Training #PROMO http:..."

"Revenge is her only agenda CARNAL VENGEANCE by BESTSELLER ... #Romance #Suspense #book #Kobo htttp..."

"Temptation so strong you can taste it, now if #Audio http:... Tasting Temptation"

These tweets are symptoms of a smoggy horizon responsible for clouded vision and an acceptance of dangerous air.

Amid the haze, I've gained a clear view of three trends of devaluation that indicate the professional writing world is in danger of sinking into the midnight blue depths of hobbyism:

1. The devaluation of the term, "award-winning"

Nearly every author/blogger claims to be an award-winning writer. Always skeptical of these well-placed self-promotions, I like to validate these credentials. There are few liars here. Those who say they've won awards have won awards. But it's not the veracity of the claim that's dangerous; it's the awards themselves. 

Just this morning I  Googled an award-winning author. According to the writer's profile, she won a couple of first-places from a reviewer of paranormal books. The reviewer in question is a blog devoted to reviews of paranormal fiction. The award has no credibility.

I see the same trend in travel blogging, in which writer's include "award-winning" in their bio. The awards, like the author I queried this morning, are from blogging communities with no credibility.

My definition of "credible" does not include, "existence." Just because a blogging community, Google+ community, Facebook community or Twitter #insertyourownhashtag community exists does not mean it is credible.

We've too easily let these communities hijack the standards of excellence - and consequently, awards- that once defined writers.

Awards have become the grimy pennies scattered beneath the couch cushions: everywhere, and virtually worthless.

2. The devaluation of the word "author"

I used to work in the marketing department of a private university. Tasked with writing profiles of successful alumni, I contacted a woman whose credentials included, "author". Halfway through the interview I discovered she was a self-published author. Unfazed, I pitched the idea to my editor. "No way," he said. "If she published a book through a publisher, we could include her in our profiles."

That was five years ago when this kind of snap judgement wasn't offensive. There was no popular indie publishing market. The "How to Become a Writer" blogs were scarce.

My editor brought up a good, if not prophetic, point: There is a definite line between an author and someone who wrote a book.

A flag-football junkie is not a football player.
A guy who runs two miles a day is not a runner.
Someone who took hundreds of photos on their family vacation is not a photographer.

The word "professional" colors the line between author and someone who writes. "Author" carries with it the tacit precedent "professional", as does "football player", "runner" and "photographer".

Someone who says they are an author because they wrote a book is as destructive to the craft as someone who says they are a photographer because they documented their family vacation.

We, as a writing community, surrendered the line of professionalism all too easily. We surrendered the craft-saving distinction between professional and hobbyist. 

3. The devaluation of the word "writer"

Affirmation-craving millennials lead the charge in a writing world that resembles a quality-deficient cuddlefest.

I receive weekly emails from a prominent author whose primary platform is discovering and nurturing the writer inside you whom you were too afraid to embrace.  The assumption is that the writing world is not short on talent, but short on people who haven't discovered their talent. I admit this assumption is inspiring. However, I don't buy it.

This cuddly perspective on writing sells, and that's why it's popular. Selling an everyone-can-be-a-writer product is, to professional writers, nothing but snake oil.

To draw a parallel in sports, would you believe someone who told you they could turn you into a professional basketball player simply by going through their multi-week workshop? No, you'd say.

Why is the professional writing world any different?

The most troubling aspect of this devaluation is the result:. When affirmation becomes the focus of professional writing, quality suffers.

Athletes know they are athletes. Politicians know they are politicians. Doctors know they are doctors.  They don't waste their time wondering if they really are athletes, politicians or doctors. They spend their time perfecting their craft,.

Embracing your writing identity is completely different than embracing excellence. We must drop this silly act of desiring someone to label us "special" before we can pick up the proverbial pen. Professional writers write because it's who they are and it's what they do.

4. The devaluation of the rite of passage

I'll never forget the feeling of walking into the hallway of my college gym the day the men's volleyball team posted the post-tryout roster. Nerves. Anticipation. Fear. Then, celebration.

The following week, I stood with my teammates outside the doors to the gym as we waited for our coach to arrive. When he showed up, we stood in a semi-circle. He looked at us and said, "If you don't believe you are the best player in that gym, you have no business being here."

His point: Once you've passed the test, you no longer need to focus on making the team. You need to focus on making yourself the best player on the team.

A tryout was necessary not only to pick a team, but also  to confirm in each player that they reached a new level of personal achievement that demanded renewed focus on excellence.

The new world of writing has assassinated the rite of passage. There is no rite of passage. Awards can be won from just about any corner of the blogosphere. Books can be published by just about anyone. There is no proving ground.

We've too easily conceded the power of exclusion in the professional writing world. A bad word in a today's affirmation-laden writing landscape, exclusion is crucible of quality.

Every factory, no matter the product, utilizes quality control. Every professional sports team utilizes tryouts. Every professional job offering utilizes an interview process.  If you are good (or you have the right connection), you win. If you aren't good, look elsewhere. And, we accept it.

I reiterate the question once more: Why should it be different in the professional writing world? Why should we adopt an inclusive philosophy of writing when the inevitable result is a watered-down hobby?

To conclude, I'd like to address a few things.

First, I believe that there are good writers who self-publish. I have a friend from the newspaper world who self-published a book. He does not, however, consider himself an author. He considered himself a journalist who just happened to write a book. Authors, take note.

Second, I utilize sports references partly because I played sports, and partly because the sports world is a competitive one in which excellence (not fan opinion)  is livelihood. Writing world, take note.

Third, I do not always enjoy the Twitter/Facebook/blogging self-promotion grind, but I acknowledge that it is a necessary component of an author's marketing platform.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Lucky Ones

A reporter's best friends (not including copy editors and readers)

No, this is not a review of Nicholas Sparks' novel.

You are a writer. Therefore, you are lucky.

Today, I told my wife, "You know something? Writers are a bit different than other artist. They can work."

Okay. Before you painters and sculptors and dancers and singers get annoyed, hear me out.

Paying the Bills

I speak from experience. My resume includes two years in a marketing department, two years at a newspaper, a soon-to-be traditionally published book and seven months writing for a travel website.

As far as artists go, that's pretty lucky. I get to use my ability to make money.

So, writers, I speak from my own experience when I say, "We are the lucky ones."

"Wait a minute," you say. "I write novels. I'm an author. Writing newspaper articles is not what I want to do."

I say, "If you need a job and you can write, get a writing job."

Why? The world needs to read stories you tell. Plain and simple.

The best way to do that, I say, is to find a job at a newspaper. The pay sucks. The hours are long. The newsroom is stressful. But there are few places in this world that will pay you every two weeks for telling stories about other people.

Blogging for bucks

Now, you might be thinking, what about that one guy I read about who earns $100,000 blogging?

That guy is an anomaly, an outlier, a once-in-a-ten-thousand exception. Not to mention the hours it takes to build a social media presence, the constant pressure to blog, and, perhaps the worst drawback, the absence of face-to-face contact with real people.

That face-to-face contact, I believe, is what makes you a better writer. It makes you more human. It makes you realize storytelling isn't a mix of creativity and Google searches. It makes you realize listening is a seminal asset in a writer's arsenal.

Few things, and nothing which inspires on a more consistent basis. Your most formative experiences, good and bad, are the result of your interactions with real people.

Now, getting back to my realization. Get a job as a writer. The advantages are pretty amazing.


In a world anyone with a keyboard or blog says they're a writer, real experience in brick-and-mortar companies or profitable online business will give you credibility and set you apart from the "I'm a writer" crowd.

Mastering the Interview

Knowing how to ask the right questions at the right time often is what stands between you and a great article. Plus, the very interview itself (assuming it is in-person) reveals body language and facial expressions that are themselves a story.

Improved Grammar

Whether it's a newspaper, magazine or other publication, your work will have the luxury of enduring the ever-critical eye of professional editors. Proper sentences, brevity and new words and readability are just a few of the gifts.

Accurate Speed

Your ability to write on a deadline will skyrocket. When I took my job as a reporter, the idea of writing seven articles a week seemed absurd. I got the hang of it after a few weeks. I learned the mother of all writing skills (in my opinion): writing fast while writing accurate.

Career Change

Take a crack at reporting. It's the most awesome thing you'll ever hate.

Newspapers, of course, aren't the only writing gigs available to us. Check out marketing departments. Find copywriting jobs. Magazines are always looking for freelancers.

You have a gift. Use that gift in a job that requires you to write every day. Other artists do not have this luxury.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Simple Observation

We live in a world full of writers who can't write.

I believe this is a symptom of a the watered-down world in which we live. We pretend to despise labels, yet we incessantly crave them.

As a result, we live in a world full of writers who can't write.


Friday, November 29, 2013

L. L. Barkat :: Poet, Author

One of Barkat's six books, the award-winning
 "Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing."

"It's time for (many) experienced writers to stop blogging."

As soon as I read that, I was hooked. Others were too. The quote comes from the title of a guest blog post written by L. L. Barkat — a poet, author and the newest interview on Scribes United. Barkat is a writer of more than 20 years. She lives in the New York Tri-State area, and she has a Master of Arts in English and American Literature. L. L.'s writing ventures are many. She's the CEO of T. S. Poetry Press. L. L. is the managing editor for Tweetspeak Poetry, a website, she said, "committed to helping people experience a whole life through the power of writing, reading, and just plain living."

You recently wrote a post titled, “It’s Time for (Many) Experienced Writers to Stop Blogging,” for The title alone is enough for a spirited discussion. What prompted you to write this post?

As an author, I realized that blogging was not selling books the way writing for larger outlets was. That’s partly because I didn’t run my blogs like a business. But I believe it was also because my readers would happily read me for free and somehow neglect to go further and purchase my books. It was a cozy arrangement, in its way. Not sustainable though—financially and mental-space-wise. 

I was also watching many other authors who don’t prefer to run their blogs like hard-core businesses… watching them exhaust themselves, to serve maybe 300 readers per month, or less, hoping this would somehow further their careers. I had quit blogging and seen my book sales actually increase, so I wrote the post to encourage a lot of tired, frustrated, social-media-overwhelmed authors: you have permission not to blog.

Also, as a successful small press publisher with an Oprah-selected title to our name, I know there is not necessarily a correlation between blogging and book sales. Our highest-selling titles are all by authors who either have no blog or rarely blog. Instead, they have strong speaking and teaching platforms, or they travel and visit their fans at book clubs, or they write for big publications like The Atlantic.

Tell me about the reactions to your post. Were they what you expected?

I expected some pushback, which I got. Happily. The pushback was mostly focused on issues of running one’s blog like a business. In other words, the people who pushed back have had success that way and are wired for it. It was good for them to bring best-practice into the limelight, which is what happened along the way. That made for an excellent conversation. What I didn’t expect was the enormous relief of so many writers. The post got passed around a number of circles, including some big editorial circles. In some ways, I think these editorial people have also been wishing for permission to stop what feels like “madness” for a fair number of their writers and clients. 

What do those comments reveal about the mindset of today’s writers?

I think today’s writers are often harried. They lack space to do their best work. They feel pressured to develop a big platform of a particular kind (online). The rest are wired for fast-paced business and that’s fine; they seem to flourish in the online world of expectations.

You suggest writers head to Facebook and Twitter to help build a following and promote their work. How do you apply this, and what does this look like, on a week-to-week basis?

I should qualify that, about Facebook and Twitter. The ultimate goal is to drive people back to your website (not a blog, but a website), so people can see what you’re showcasing (this showcased work should be writing that is happening elsewhere besides on your blog). It’s also to make connections with editors. This can be done in three hours or less per week. Pick your days, pick your times.

I am actually more on the editorial side of this now, not the writing side. I am always interested in hearing good language, seeing good conversations. I do tend to tuck these impressions away, and over time I have often suggested that writers write for us at Tweetspeak Poetry or even proposed that they write books for us at T. S. Poetry Press (we don’t accept proposals; we generally do the proposing when we see a smart writer who is a good fit and has an angle that works for us). This happens organically. It also tends to happen when these writers come into contact with us, take our writing workshops, and really show us what they are made of in a context that has growth at its center.

Peer into the future of writing. In five years, how will authors’ Twitter/Facebook/blogging landscape change?

I think blogging will be a thing of the past in five years. Facebook is on its way out (be honest, you know you rarely scroll past the top three links anymore). Twitter, who knows. Good writers? I hope they will return from the exhaustion of this overwrought social media landscape.

Peer into the past. Do you think the emergence of public writing-platforms like Blogspot, Wordpress, Twitter and Facebook have advanced the art and craft of writing? Why or why not?

Hmmm. The business of it, maybe. The art and craft of it, not so much. Sit down with a really good book. I mean a really, really good book. Something artful. Sit down with five blogs, or ten, or twenty. How long can you stand it in comparison? There is little comparison. 

I’m not talking about great online magazines like The Curator or The Common. I’m talking about blogs. You know what I mean. (And that’s not to say there is no value in blogging—particularly how it can be a vehicle for expression and a source of community; I say this as someone who was a blogger for over six years, so this is not a “hit” against blogging as if from some outside elite voice).

But? Overall? I think it’s time for writers to sit on their back porches again. To get offline for whole weekends and feed their senses, their dreams. And then write.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sam Hart :: Songwriter

I know Sam Hart from my music days in the backwoods of San Diego, California. We've played together a couple of times at a church we attended. Recently, Sam started, a website that raises funds for church-planting through selling albums. We collaborated on "Hope of Glory," one of the songs on the first Missional Music album. Sam's been a songwriter for two decades. He's released several albums. He currently is worship leader at a church in Fresno, California.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? What was it about?
I believe it was called “Oh Mama” and it was a collaboration with my siblings about our mother being a stay-at-home-mom.

How has your songwriting evolved over the years?
My songwriting has gotten better...I hope! My motives for writing have certainly changed over the years. When I was younger I thought things like: “What might get me a chance at getting signed or played on the radio?” Now I think more along the lines of, “Is this song beneficial to anyone other than me? Is it worth writing? How can this song be the best it can be? Is this song authentic? Should I share this or is it something to enjoy privately?”

What’s the key, in your opinion, to writing good lyrics?
Mainly, constant input. I never have anything to write about unless I’m constantly listening, reading, learning, and then processing that information. Input leads to questions. Those questions often lead to a deep tension. That tension is often the soil where a good song grows because this inner tension can facilitate the exploration of our own beliefs, emotions, experiences, and observation of the universe around us.

Secondly, I think learning how to paint a picture with words is important. A picture is worth a thousand words. If we can paint a picture in someone’s mind with the right words, they’ll do the rest. The trick is learning how use words so that people don’t misunderstand us and translate lyrics however they want to...unless of course that’s what you’re going for.

How do your songs reflect your inner life?
They become a journal for me, a journal documenting the journey of questions and the discovery of God as the One with the answer to those questions. And I say that last part from a very personal place, because, so far in my life, I haven’t found meaningful answers elsewhere. If someone asked me to write a song about...fill in the blank...I could employ tried and true formulas to craft a great song. But, I’m less and less interested in that as time goes on. I want to write something flowing from my heart rather than something invented with my mind. At the end of the day, once I’ve finished a song, it’s got to move me on a deep level or I probably won’t feel compelled to share it.

Which songwriters influenced your growth as a lyricist? What is it about their writing that inspired you?
Many, many writers have influenced and inspired me. If I had to pick one,  Jesus-movement singer/song-writer Dallas Holm comes to mind. When I was a boy, I went with my family to one of his concerts and ended up getting as many of his albums as I could get. I wore out cassette after cassette of his 70’s and early 80’s stuff. What I connected with in Dallas’ songs was the way he could come across so conversational, yet his songs were so well-crafted. He stands out to me because, even now, when I listen to his music I hardly connect with him at all in a stylistic sense, but his songs suck me in and get me thinking.

Another Jesus-movement guy was Keith Green. He influenced me because his songs are drenched with belief; almost a prayerful tone. They are prophetic and authoritative, and yet they were written so well.

A modern songwriter who reminds me of Keith’s style is Leeland Mooring of the band Leeland. I think all three of them have had influence on my as a writer and also a worship leader. I’ve gleaned from dozens of other writers though including: Natasha Bedingfield, Chris Martin, Braille, Matt Bellamy, McCartney, Lennon, Joss Stone, to name a few.

How has songwriting changed over the years?
I feel slightly strange commenting on this since I don’t consider myself much of a pop-culture expert, but I’ll express a little of what I’ve observed. I’d say there are two main factors here. The first is money. Once money becomes the motivating factor for creativity, the creation is crafted based on how profitable it can be. You inherently lose a certain amount of artistic integrity because your consumer demographic determines your approach. We all know our society has been embracing individualism and sensuality at an accelerating rate for the past 50 years. If we want to sell music to the masses caught in that flow, then we have to create music they will want to buy.

There’s nothing wrong with maximizing your ability to communicate with your listeners by learning as much as you can about them and connecting with them on that level, but that’s something completely different. The music industry has taught us how to become pimps. We are willing to pimp our own artistry, our persona, even our identity, in spite of our convictions, for a share in the earnings.

The second factor is technology. As you go back in time I think you find music is more expensive to record, therefore more limited in its availability. It seems to me that there were more risks taken creatively so that there were less “safe-bets” made in order to get songs played or units sold. I believe there are creatives out there as talented and authentic as ever, but you have to swim through a much larger ocean to discover them.

Have these changes benefited songwriting? Why or why not?
If these changes have benefited songwriting it is because they've create a void. I think it would be the same for us if all we ate were granola bars, Cheetos, and milkshakes day after day, year after year. We’d start craving something with substance ... maybe more hot, home-cooked meals. This is why, for instance, we’ve seen a growing popularity in house concerts. They are intimate, personal, and have a real, experiential, tangible feel. I’m encouraged by this. But again, if creativity is simply a money-making engine, then we will find a way to make bazillions of dollars from house concerts. 

This void is what compelled my wife and I to start a non-profit. Missional Music seeks to partner with high-quality songwriters who donate music which we make available for download or streaming. The sales from the music then go to meet people’s basic physical and spiritual needs around the world. A huge motivation for us to launch this project was the desire to connect with other artists who want to be a part of accomplishing something more significant than fame or fortune.

What is the most alarming trend in songwriting these days?
It’s easier for me to pinpoint the trends that alarm me if, instead of analyzing the song, I analyze the songwriter and realize these songs tell us about ourselves as individuals and as a culture. These songs are penned from a particular worldview and are then consumed by lots and lots of people who relate to this same worldview. Even as I respond to your question I’m suddenly aware of the opportunity to ask the songwriter in the mirror, “How are your songs breathing life into the world around you?” Maybe that question will lead to a song.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Gary Corsair :: Journalist, Nonfiction Author

Gary Corsair is an old reporter friend of mine I knew when I wrote stories for the Daily Sun newspaper in The Villages, Florida. He is 54 years old and lives in Fruitland Park, Florida. Gary is a 39-year veteran of the newspaper business, and he's spent 10 years as a nonfiction author. I gravitated to Gary because, like me, he didn't have a journalism degree. Our friendship was brief — about two years — but profitable for me because Gary is a one-in-a-million reporter: extremely humble, extremely talented, extremely accurate and extremely dedicated to the craft of journalism and writing. You can find out more information about his most recent book, "Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four," at

You completed a nonfiction book called “Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four.” What’s this book about and, what inspired you to write it?
"Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four" is the first in-depth examination of what was known as the Groveland rape case in July 1949, when four black men were accused of abducting and raping a 17-year-old housewife. The book details the myths and facts of this infamous case that spawned rioting, murder by law enforcement officials, wrongful convictions and the actions of courageous attorneys who fought to save the defendants' lives. I was inspired to write the account after meeting Henrietta Irving, whose brother Walter Irving and brother-in-law Samuel Shepherd were implicated in the case. Henrietta helped me realize that the "official" version that had been accepted as fact for 50 years was not what really happened and that Groveland rape case story had never been examined from the point-of-view of the defendants, their families and defenders.

How did this book change your life?
It brought me another family. Through six years of researching and interviewing I came to know members of the Irving, Shepherd and Greenlee families, and have been accepted into all three. Henrietta and I talk every week. I sleep under her roof and do mother-son things when I visit Miami once or twice a year. I love Henrietta, and she loves me. I gained much satisfaction from being "the one" to uncover long-buried truths that might never have come to light. It is sobering to interview someone who kept their memories within for decades, eventually shared their deepest reflections and emotions after coming to trust me, and then passed on. It happened with Samuel Shepherd's sister Fannie and Charles Greenlee, the lone surviving defendant. To think I was the only person they trusted to share their pain with is an honor. I've also become more cynical. The fact that so many "good white folks" stood by and didn't intervene when the law ran amok is troubling. And I have no tolerance for racial prejudice. Then again, I never did.

Where does the magic of a story come from; the interview, or the writing process?
If the interview is magic, the writing doesn't have to be brilliant. Readers don't want to be wowed by our command of the English language; they want to know what the person we're writing about did, felt, desired, hated, loved. At least that's the case with non-fiction. If you don't think the interview is the engine that drives great writing, reinterview someone. Then reinterview them again. And again. Tell me you don't gain new insights each time.

When you are writing a story about an event in a person’s life, what do you try to focus on and what is most important to you in this process?
I try to focus on emotion and the "why". "I climbed Mount Everest in the nude" is interesting, but you have nothing without the "why". I love the challenge of finding what I believe is the moment that defined, or shaped a person. It might have happened at age 7, or 17 or 77. When I lock onto something unique and telling, I mine it relentlessly. I want to know every detail, what color the car was, what perfume she was wearing, whether the trees were oaks. If a person can recall the details, then the memory is worth building your story around. If the event is foggy, keep mining. And understand that the person you're interviewing may not know what the moment is. When I interview, I probe as much as the subject will let me. There's a lot of, "I don't mean to get too personal, but I'm curious about …" Or, "I know this is painful, and I hate to ask you to relive this, but I think you can help readers by talking about it …"

You’ve done thousands of interviews in your lifetime. Tell us about a memorable one.
The most memorable would be my first talk with Charles Greenlee, one of the Groveland rape case defendants. Charles had been sentenced to life in prison at age 16 for a crime he didn't commit, served 11 and half years before being paroled, and all but disappeared. I was led to believe he was dead, but I tracked him down after the fact and I became the first person to hear his first-hand account of the Groveland tragedy that happened 50 years ago! I wrote letters and left phone messages begging for an interview, but he never responded, so I drove 600 miles to the address I had and left a note in the door when no one answered to my knock. When I returned an hour later, the note was gone and this time Mr. Greenlee answered the door. Before I could say a word, he said, "I know why you're here, but I haven't decided if I'm going to talk to you." Wow!

Read the book -- the story is in the foreword. The interview that followed was draining. It's a terrible thing to have to ask a man, "I've been told that you were handcuffed to an overhead pipe, stripped, and beaten with hoses and blackjacks … and that broken glass was sprinkled under your feet so you would cut your soles every time your body bounced from a blow. Did that really happen?"

Second most memorable interview was probably with Dorothy Colton, who's son Reggie lost his leg when he was run over by a train. Reggie, who was 12 at the time, had disobeyed his mother by cutting through the railroad yard and hoping between cars of a moving train. I lost my composure when Miss Dorothy described what she saw when she ran to the scene. I think her words were, "And my Reggie was laying there, in his blood, and he had his head propped up by one of his legs. He was using it like a pillow … and he said, "Mama, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

I remember you telling me you’ve done research for newspaper stories on your dime, traveling hundreds of miles for interviews. What motivates you to do this?
I always want the whole story. It doesn't matter to me if nobody will notice. Good enough isn't good enough. My dad used to make what he called "tomato pies" -- pizzas without all the goodies. And they were tasty, but they were incomplete. They needed the cheese!

Writers have to follow their hearts, and that may mean breaking some rules. Sorry, but that's the way I feel. I once worked an investigative series about a bogus charity that was bilking senior citizens. I could only get so much from interviews and court records. When I found a building they had abandoned, I HAD to search through it … and the junk vehicles on the property. And I'm glad I did because I found piles of discarded records that led me to hundreds of people who had been taken. I had no idea the scope of the scam until I trespassed. Later, I picked up garbage bags the founder of the "charity" deposited for curbside pick-up. Unethical? Perhaps. But I doubt I would have learned that this bunch of crooks was "expanding" into another state if I didn't.

And editors can be wrong. One denied my request to travel from Florida to Alabama to interview a washed up football coach who gone from being the best high school coach in Florida in 1964 to a knock-down drunk by 1974. How could I write about the 1964 State Championship Team he led without interviewing him … and it had to be in person so I could see the deterioration and moral decay for myself. So I dropped a few hundred bucks I didn't have and went to meet the legendary coach who was a shell of a man. It was worth it. The series won several awards and I'm going to turn it into a book.

I believe writers do what they have to do. But then, I'm a little crazy -- I once dumpster-dived because I couldn't figure out all the ingredients to a sauce I loved at a Japanese steakhouse I frequented. You have to get to the source!

How has the meaning of the word “journalist” changed over the past two decades?
Not a lot. Four or five decades, is a different story. Journalists had power and prestige when I started in 1976 and lived through the heyday of Woodward and Bernstein. Then, news groups got fat on profits, liked the way it felt and now, real journalism is getting harder and harder to find. I work with a lot of young reporters and you'd be amazed how few understand how to gather news. Take away the Internet and they're done. Today, I horrified a young reporter by suggesting she go knock on the door of a source she's been unable to reach by phone. And now everyone's a blogger, so the lines are really getting blurred.

Do you see these changes as beneficial to the craft or detrimental to the craft? Why?
I fear that the hard-nosed journalist who understands the importance of wearing out shoe leather, working sources, following up, hanging out in diners to get the pulse of a community, will soon be a thing of the past. And that's too bad. The craft suffers when every Tom, Dick and Larry have a blog. Too much rumor and innuendo are passed off as fact. It used to be that a story wouldn't run unless there were at least two sources and someone had fact-checked the story. Now, the attitude seems to be, "Sources? I don't need a source. I got this information from a friend of a friend of the janitor who works in the building where the mayor works." We journalists started down a slippery slope when we began publishing stories based on unnamed sources.

Why do you love to write?
Because I get to have the authority. I decide what's important and what's not important. I have the power to inform, to move, to challenge, to shake, to entertain, to cheer, to boo, and hopefully, to change people … even if only a little.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

First Line, First Impression

Stephen King likes to make a good first impression. He'll readily admit that first impressions aren't everything, but they're important enough to demand hours, weeks, months or years of agonizing and revision. I read about King's obsession with opening sentences in this article by The Atlantic:

I love two things about this article. First, this quote by King resonated with me:

"An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection -- a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing. With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line."

Your voice is so important. Nobody else has it; just you. My encouragement to you is this: Protect your voice at all costs. Don't try to write like your favorite author. Don't try to write like your author friends. Don't try to write like your favorite journalist. The truth is, echoes never sound as clear as the voice which made them.

These days, voice has surrendered to style. I can't tell you how many reputable writing websites I've come across that promote the secret to writing for money. The secret usually is a formula, a style. That's fine if you are interested in making money, but it's a dagger to the heart of the art of writing.

Writers who expend their precious energy on conforming to style without voice rather soothing style with voice are scarecrows: outwardly they have the form of a writer and inwardly they have the heart of a ghost.

My second cherished aspect of this article is the point at which King talks about his favorite opening line. Why? Because for all this talk of voice, revision and practice, King's favorite opening line is so simple:

"You've been here before."

The line is from King's novel, "Needful Things." This is what he says about this line: "All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading."

The more I write, the more I cherish simplicity. As often is the case with writing, this opening line shows that writers who are familiar and secure with their voice are not afraid to use four words instead of fourteen.