Monday, February 27, 2006

Becoming a hack

So I'm thinking about switching careers and becoming a hack. Churning out large quantities of formulaic prose purely for profit seems entertaining.

Given my current skill set, I should probably be a non-fiction hack, producing the sort of rewritten encyclopedia entries Isaac Asimov wrote in the middle period of his life. I've already got a good sense of the major tropes in the hack nonfiction formula. First there's the title, which should be something like
Magnesium: the Secret History of the Element that Created the Modern World.
Your topic is boring; to make it interesting, relate it to everything else on earth. An important variation of this in the environmental literature is based on using your boring thing to explain human history
The Yellow Turnip of the Patriarchy: How the Domestication of the Rutabaga brought the Downfall of Humanity.
The key to writing that book would be to argue that by domesticated the rutabaga, one takes an unprecedented level of control over one's environment that humanity simply doesn't deserve. The other important tactic I'll need to learn to write hack nonfiction is putting all the explication in direct quotes.
To learn more about the global rutabaga trade, I went to Professor Amelia Kindlybuttocks, handsome woman with a warm smile and a strange green growth on her forehead. "By putting the explication in the mouth of an expert," she explained, "the writer casts himself in the role of a student, thus getting the sympathy of the reader. The expert character cannot be too distracting, though. Otherwise the reader will lose the narrative thread. For instance, what the hell is this thing on my forehead? How does it explain the way rutabagas work as commodities?"
I'm fairly sure I could write thousands of words every day in this vein. The question is, what should I write about?

UPDATE: I completely forgot the best nonfiction hack trope, the Totally Bogus Personal Revealation (TBPR). This is actually a trick used by a popular nature writer I really like, Michael Pollan. Even in his hands, though, this rhetorical move is a sin. It goes something like this:
After leaving Professor Kindlybuttock's office, I drove to Pasta Bende, the world's largest magnesium mining operation. As I looked over the network of conveyer belts delivering precious magnesium to the hungry masses, I realized a profound truth: The nation that controls magnesium controls the world.
But you didn't have this revelation halfway through writing the book, now, did you. In fact, this point was your whole reason for writing the book, and the centerpiece of your book proposal. Of course, it is uncouth in popular nonfiction to simply have a thesis, so you have to have these artificial stories of personal revelations. These stories can get positively pernicious too, for instance when Bjorn Lomborg presents himself as an earnest environmentalist who in the course of writing his book just happened to come to believe in every major talking point put forward by big business.

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