10 Blog Writing Lessons Learned from Authors, part 2

Yesterday, we covered the first half of 10 Blog Writing Lessons Learned from Authors. Here are the next 5 lessons I have learned from some of my favorite book authors.

6) Not everything is going to be a hit — Joseph Heller. Heller wrote 7 novels, and 6 of them sucked were not critical or commercial successes His very first one, Catch-22, is considered one of the best books of the 20th century, and is my 3rd favorite book. It was hysterical, absurd, and filled with enough satire to make George Carlin weep with envy. The rest didn’t do so well, but he kept writing. He wrote 3 plays, a series of short stories, and 3 screenplays, all of which had some success, but never reached the pinnacle of Catch-22. Anthony Bourdain's book The Nasty Bits
Still, Heller didn’t go all J.D. Salinger on the literary world. He kept trying and plugging away. You’re not going to hit a homer with every post you write, so don’t give up. (But hopefully you’ll have a better success ratio than 14%.)

7) Piss people off — Anthony Bourdain — The Nasty Bits. Anthony Bourdain is great at pissing people off. He will unleash his ideas and his venom on anyone who gets under his skin. I just finished reading The Nasty Bits, and he has a go at everyone from fast food burger joints to fat people on airplanes to pretentious food snobs like Woody Harrelson, who will only ever eat raw fruits and vegetables, no matter where in the world he is who it inconveniences, or which restaurant owner he insults. Bourdain doesn’t pull any punches, and is willing to put even his more acerbic views in writing. You should too. (And don’t be a such a raw food jerk, Woody.)

8) Know the grammar rules. . . so you can ignore them — Elmore Leonard. Someone once told me “you can’t start your sentences with ‘and.'” I pointed out that things had changed since she was in 5th grade English — like the invention of the printing press — and that people have been starting sentences with “and” for a few decades. And since I was the professional writer, I ignored her. I have since found this quote by Elmore Leonard, and keep it in my notebook for future encounters: “(I)f proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

9) You have to go to where the action is — Ernie Pyle. Pyle died doing what he loved: writing. He was a correspondent for the Scripps Howard newspaper from 1935 – 1945, when he died in combat. Pyle actually won the Pulitzer in 1944 for his work, and became the patron saint of newspaper columnists and the National Society for Newspaper Columnists(I was a member for a couple years). But the only way he could have done all this was by being where the action was. You don’t have to put yourself into dangerous combat situations to write your blog, but you do have to get out from behind your computer, and see the things you’re writing about. When you use photos, use your photos. When you write about places around the globe, write about your visits. It’s one thing to write about things you’ve found on the web, but try getting out in the world and see what inspiration you can get out there.

Dave Barry publicity shot

I once asked Dave Barry to read some of my humor columns. He sent me this photo instead.

10) Humor makes you memorable — Dave Barry. It’s the humor writers, not the political columnists who are the most remembered by their readers. I know people who still remember Dave Barry’s piece on the Lawn Rangers precision lawn mowing team or the time he played a corpse in the Eugene (Oregon) Opera’s production of Gianni Schicchi. No one remembers the piece David Broder wrote for the Washington Post about the guy who did the thing at the place. They remember things that are funny. So, if you can pull it off, use humor in your posts. If you can’t, avoid it, because otherwise people will remember you, and not in a good way.

10 Blog Writing Lessons Learned from Authors, part 1

I have a few favorite authors that I turn to again and again. Authors whose books I kept when I got rid of 600 other books over a two week period. And while most of my bibliophile friends 1) can’t imagine doing that, and 2) are wondering why I didn’t call them first, I’ve enjoyed being free of most of my old and unread books.

But I’ve kept these authors’ books because I learned something from them. A lot of these writers, and one singer, have imparted lessons to me, either through their writings or their interviews. So here are 10 lessons I have learned from 9 of my most favoritest authors (and 1 singer).

No Assholes t-shirt from The Nth Degree dot com1) Pictures speak volumes — Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions. Anyone who ever read Breakfast of Champions will remember the crude, childish drawings he included in his story, including a couple of drawings of people’s anatomy. I’m not suggesting you use these particular drawings, but rather, use pictures and videos to support your point and make your post more interesting to readers. Load your photos into Flickr or Picasa, or use Creative Commons or stock photos, and use them to add a little variety to your posts.

2) String together a series of ledes – Hunter S. Thompson. This is why Hunter S. Thompson was such a powerful writer. In journalism school, students are taught to write one lede (lead, if you must), and then supporting information, and the content gets less important and less interesting the further you go. But Thompson would just string together a bunch of ledes, one after the other — bam, bam, bam!! — and pummel you with them. Then he would calm down a bit before hitting you again with another series of body blows. That’s why he was so exciting to read. That, and all the crazy drug references.

3) Write short sentences — Ernest Hemingway, Big Two-Hearted River. I use this sample a lot in my writing presentations.

Nick was hungry. He did not believe he had ever been hungrier. He opened and emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan. “I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it,” Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again.

I checked this out once on the Flesch-Kincaid reading level, and it came back as a 3rd grade level block of text. Newspapers are written at about a 6th grade reading level, and your blogs should be too. Not because your readers are dumb, but because they have come to expect it. They want short, simple, and easy to understand.

A Moleskine notebook and Pilot G-2 .05 mm blue pen4) Write long, flowing, descriptive sentences — Roger Angell, baseball writer for The New Yorker. Yes, this contradicts my previous point. I’ve been reading Roger Angell for about two years now, and he is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His descriptions of baseball games are magical. I can feel like I’m there in the park with him, in 1965, watching a Mets game, or in 1969, watching the Detroit Tigers. His writing flows smoothly, like an expensive new pen on creamy writing paper. There are times your writing will need to be more like Angell’s and less like Hemingway’s.

5) Use metaphors —Tom Waits — Putnam County, Nighthawks at the Diner. I talked before about how Tom Waits uses metaphors to create very powerful writing. His song, Putnam County is rife with metaphors and a couple similes. Take a look at what he says about the morning dawn.

And the impending squint of first light
And it lurked behind a weepin’ marquee in downtown Putnam
Yeah, and it’d be pullin’ up any minute now
Just like a bastard amber Velveeta yellow cab on a rainy corner
And be blowin’ its horn in every window in town

My point is that you should sprinkle metaphors into your writing to create the drama, vivid imagery, and power that will make your writing stand out from everyone else’s.

We’ll cover the 2nd half of this list tomorrow.

What Tom Waits Can Teach You About Powerful Writing

Tom Waits isn’t just a musician, he’s a lifestyle choice. The growly-voiced singer-songwriter has created some of the most powerful, haunting music I’ve ever poured into my ears. Waits does it with simple, sad music, but more importantly, with a mastery of poetic language that would make Lord Byron pull his hair out with envy.

Especially the metaphor. Waits’ music is filled with metaphors, which gives it the emotional impact and depth you just don’t get with the Single Ladies and Poker Faces of the world. (Most of today’s music has all the emotional complexity of a high school prom, but Waits is an in-depth, all-night discussion about the meaning of life.)

A couple months ago, I wrote about why metaphors make for more powerful writing than similes. I said:

I don’t like similes. They’re weak. They’re the pencil-necked milksop of literary devices. They say things are similar, but not quite that item. Life is like a box of chocolates, but not really.

Take a look at (this) example: “Men’s words are bullets.” That’s a powerful phrase. It doesn’t say they’re like bullets, that they remind people of bullets, or “words can hurt people sort of like bullets can hurt people.” That’s just smarmy, wishy-washy pap.

“Men’s words are bullets,” on the other hand, makes you feel the the emotional damage that can be done by words, feeling the piercing, crashing power of a bullet fired from a large gun.

I’ve been listening to Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner album a lot lately. It’s my favorite Waits album, and carries my favorite Waits song, Putnam County.

Any writer who wants to learn about the power and grip of language should give this a listen, and pay careful attention to Waits’ use of language. A quick check showed only one simile in the entire piece, and the rest were metaphors.

If you want to master writing and create language that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you to pay attention, study these lyrics, listen to the song, and see if you can introduce this style into your own writing.

Putnam County, Tom Waits

I guess things were always kinda quiet around Putnam County
Kinda shy and sleepy as it clung to the skirts of the 2-lane
That was stretched out just like an asphalt dance floor
Where all the old-timers in bib jeans and store bought boots
Were hunkerin’ down in the dirt
To lie about their lives and the places that they’d been

And they’d suck on Coca Colas, yeah, and be spittin’ Day’s Work
Until the moon was a stray dog on the ridge and
And the taverns would be swollen until the naked eye of 2 a.m.
And the Stratocasters slung over the Burgermeister beer guts

And swizzle stick legs jackknifed over naugahyde stools
And the witch hazel spread out over the linoleum floors
And pedal pushers stretched out over a midriff bulge
And the coiffed brunette curls over Maybelline eyes
Wearing Prince Matchabelli*, or something
Estee Lauder, smells so sweet

And I elbowed up at the counter with mixed feelings over mixed drinks
As Bubba and the Roadmasters moaned in pool hall concentration
And knit their brows to cover the entire Hank Williams songbook
Whether you like it or not

And the old National register was singin’ to the tune of $57.57
And then it’s last call, one more game of eightball
Berniece’d be puttin’ the chairs on the tables
And someone come in and say, ‘Hey man, anyone got any jumper cables?’
‘Is that a 6 or a 12 volt, man? I don’t know…’

Yeah, and all the studs in town would toss ’em down
And claim to fame as they stomped their feet
Yeah, boastin’ about bein’ able to get more ass than a toilet seat

And the GMCs) and the Straight-8 Fords were coughin’ and wheezin’
And they percolated) as they tossed the gravel underneath the fenders
To weave home a wet slick anaconda of a 2-lane

With tire irons and crowbars a-rattlin’
With a tool box and a pony saddle
You’re grindin’ gears and you’re shiftin’ into first
Yeah, and that goddam Tranny’s just gettin’ worse, man

With the melody of see-ya-laters and screwdrivers on carburetors
Talkin’ shop about money to loan
And Palominos and strawberry roans

See ya tomorrow, hello to the Missus!
With money to borrow and goodnight kisses
As the radio spit out Charlie Rich, man,
and he sure can sing that son of a bitch

And you weave home, yeah, weavin’ home
Leavin’ the little joint winkin’ in the dark warm narcotic American night
Beneath a pin cushion sky
And it’s home to toast and honey, gotta start up the Ford, man

Yeah, and your lunch money’s right over there on the drainin’ board
And the toilet’s runnin’! Christ, shake the handle!
And the telephone’s ringin’, it’s Mrs. Randall
And where the hell are my goddamn sandals?
What you mean, the dog chewed up my left foot?

With the porcelain poodles and the glass swans
Staring down from the knickknack shelf
And the parent permission slips for the kids’ field trips
Yeah, and a pair of Muckalucks) scraping across the shag carpet

And the impending squint of first light
And it lurked behind a weepin’ marquee in downtown Putnam
Yeah, and it’d be pullin’ up any minute now
Just like a bastard amber Velveta yellow cab on a rainy corner
And be blowin’ its horn in every window in town

(Here’s a YouTube video of a different version of Putnam Conty than the one you’ll hear on Nighthawks at the Diner, but the lyrics are the same. Listen to it and read the lyrics again. You’ll get a sense of what Waits can do with language, and the power it can have to move people.

* Update: I have to thank Allison (see the comments below) for the correction on Prince Matchabelli. I originally had Prince Machiavelli in the lyrics, which I got from the original lyrics source, but apparently Matchabelli is an old dimestore makeup. I had always heard the name, but never paid much attention to it. And in the song, I always thought Waits was purposely butchering “Machiavelli,” (not to be confused with the Machiavelli (mock-ee-uh-velli) who wrote “The Prince”).