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January 12, 2006

Thinking Aloud on "Hate Mail"

The first pass of Hate Mail is completed, and clocks in at about 120,000 words. Given that I suspect I'm going to write between 5K and 10K of introductory and commentary material for the book, this means I'm going to have to trim off about a quarter of what I've selected for this first round. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's "kill your babies" time. Actually, some of the word reduction will come from editing the existing posts themselves. Some of the posts repeat information from earlier posts, which can be excised because those earlier posts will be there in the same chapter; other posts need to have information rearranged because to date hyperlinks don't work in paper form. Even so, some culling will need to be done, which is fine. Chop chop chop.

As I noted before I'm arranging Hate Mail by themed chapters. Here's an early chapter line-up -- I say "early" because I may merge some chapters later, depending on culling, and will almost certainly give each chapter a more interesting title than the one word descriptors you see below. In any event, the prelim chapters, arranged alphabetically (i.e., not in the sequence they will be in the book), are:

Birth
Bush
Clinton
Confederacy
Disclaimers and Declarations
Election 2000
Election 2004
Et Cetera
Fictional
Gay
Iraq
Jesus
Money or Lack Thereof
Parents
Reader Requests
Writing

Off the top of my head, I'd probably say the political chapters are very likely to be merged in some way; I'll probably lump Willie and Dubya together into one "Presidents" chapter, and probably the elections into a single chapter as well. The writing chapter, on the other hand, may need to be parted out in some way; I need to think about that one some more.

Within the chapters I think material will be presented primarily but not exclusively in a chronological order, which is to say that if there's a particular piece I think is a strong lead-off for a chapter, I'll bring it to the front regardless of where it is in the timeline of pieces in the chapter. For example, in the "Parents" chapter, the lead-off piece is likely to be "The Child on the Train," the piece I wrote about Krissy's miscarriage, even though there are several pieces that I wrote before those. But damn it, I'm not time's slave, and I think it's important to start each chapter strongly.

I should note now that even at 100k words there is a lot of popular material that's not going to make the cut. A number of pieces that rely on visuals (like the "Cracking the Flag-Burning Amendment") didn't make the cut because I'm pretty sure the book is not going to have in-line photography (and even if it's possible I don't know if I want to bother with the hassle). Also fairly scarce, and probably ironically so: pieces on ID and evolution. I don't know, they just didn't seem to work for the overall framework. Pieces on Athena are also likewise kept to a minimum in favor of parental articles of a more general nature (although, of course, she pops up in the context of those more general articles).

And -- this kills me -- I don't have any of the "That Was the Millennium That Was" pieces I wrote in the book yet, although I'm giving some serious consideration to trimming down the political pieces further to make room for a few of those. I'll have to give that some serious thought; I don't want to underweight the politicial pieces but on the other hand four chapters out of 16 does seem to be a lot.

Compiling these Whatevers does make me aware that online writing is indeed different from other sorts of writing. As I'm sure most of you are aware, I originally started writing the Whatever to stay sharp in the column-writing format for a newspaper, because I'd written a newspaper column before and hoped to again. And even when Bill and I were first discussing this book, the "book of newspaper columns" metaphor was the one we used to wrap our brains around it. Be that as it may, it's pretty clear that whatever intent I had in starting the Whatever, it outgrew that intent pretty quickly. The Whatever couldn't be a newspaper column, and especially not a newspaper column today. Newspaper columns are 800 words on a specific topic. The Whatever is 800 words, or 2000, or 350, or 60, on any topic. Newspaper columns are not particularly personal; The Whatever is (within certain limits) and I strongly suspect has to be. Newspaper columns are mediated; the Whatever isn't. Newspaper columns can't allow immediate reader response; the Whatever can.

Now, in all these cases, the differences are neither inherently good or bad; being able to write at any length at any topic doesn't matter if you're boring, for example. Likewise, and speaking from experience on both sides of the editing equation, good editing is a boon for nearly every writer, and the lack of it can be a detriment. Although I've obviously benefitted from writing online, I'm not pollyanna about its nature; indeed, on a sheer volume basis, I'd suspect that more bad writing has been made publicly accesible through the Internet (and specifically through blogs and their antecedents) than through any other media, ever. When you consider the first things we'd recognize as "blogs" crawled out of the primordial HTML swamp a mere decade ago, that's a fairly astounding rapid accumulation of crap writing. So yes: Online writing can be great. But let's keep a grip -- in itself it's not better or worse than other media.

What the differences between online writing and other forms present for the Hate Mail book is a challenge. We don't want to just market the book to people who already read online; we also want to get the book out to the (still) majority of people who don't read blogs or journals and say to these folks, this is an example of how people who are writing online are doing it. We want to give these unfamiliar readers a metaphor for the book's contents that will be useful familiar, but doesn't lead them to expect something the book is not. If you were to come to Hate Mail expecting a collection of newspaper-like columns, I don't know if you're going to be entirely happy with the book. But it's also not just a collection of observations about my cat and what I had for dinner last night, which I suspect some non-blog-reading folks still suspect all online writing is about (I had cabbage rolls for dinner last night, incidentally. And my cat's breath smells like cat food).

Anyway, these are the things I think about while I'm putting together this book: How to make it accessible and interesting to as many humans as possible while still keeping it a managable book. Hopefully we'll get the balance right.

Posted by john at January 12, 2006 01:30 PM

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Comments

Djscman | January 12, 2006 03:56 PM

John wrote:

"But it's also not just a collection of observations about my cat and what I had for dinner last night..."

That said, I hope the cat observations that *did* make the cut include how got his name.

Anne C. | January 12, 2006 07:28 PM

You mention good editing. How much editing do you do on an average Whatever post (not the additional editing that will go into the Hate Mail content)? I've found I end up doing a good pass or two of editing on every blog entry, every comment post, and every email. I think it yields a better product and so the time is well spent, but I was curious how you see/experience everyday editing.

Djscman | January 13, 2006 03:10 AM

My mistake, I put "Fluffy" in pointy brackets, and those were mistaken for HTML tags. Anne C is right about editing! So what I meant to say was: "I hope the cat observations that *did* make the cut include how [Fluffy] got his name."

Hey, in Ghost Brigade, do you have any html jokes to go along with the :Thought over IP: conversations?

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