Monday, October 30, 2006

Swoopers and plodders

Some years ago, I was reading a collection of essays by Kurt Vonnegut (probably my favorite author) and I came across one about writers and writing.

He divided writers into two groups: swoopers (who write very quickly, often in chunks) and plodders (who write very slowly, pondering over phrasing with each new sentence). He said he was a plodder. He also said that most good writers are plodders.

Which kind of hurt my feelings, because I am a swooper. I tend to write off the top of my head, and then edit later (which I suppose is why these blog postings, which don't get the "edit later" portion of the process, are sometimes rambling, boring or disjointed).

I certainly do not hold Mr. Vonnegut responsible for the fact that I haven't written a lot in the last ten years. But ever since I read that essay, I have worried that perhaps my mind isn't focused enough to write compelling fiction. That I lack the depth and clarity a plodder requires to create his art. I have an awful lot of respect for Vonnegut, and if he says something is true about novel-writing, it's hard not to take him at his word.

Not long ago, pretty early in the development stage of the novel I'm writing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I sat down and wrote a chunk in a mere couple of hours which turned out to be roughly 2,500 words long. I did some math and realized that I had written the section, and done an initial pass at editing it, with an average speed of about 20 words a minute. Which seemed altogether too fast to produce anything good. I thought of Truman Capote's (not totally unfair) critique of Jack Kerouac: "That's not writing, it's typing."

To my surprise, though, the writing was decent. There were elements and moments I hadn't known were going to be in the section at all, which had sprung up complete in my mind and poured onto the page as if by themselves. I had consolidated some of my planned characters for the section and produced something tighter and more focused than my original planned piece would have been.

I suppose my writing style is part of the reason I signed up to participate in NaNoWriMo to begin with. Only a swooper would think it possible to meet the goal of 50,000 words written in a single month.

And of course, there isn't only one way to create art of any kind. The process is bound to be different for everybody.

I have discovered some plodder elements within me. Over the last month or so, even though I'm not writing it, my plot and characters have never strayed too far from my mind. I have refined plot points, added possible sections, even changed the overall tone of the book somewhat in my mind. Which I guess is sort of pre-plodding.

I take longer when the piece is already on a page and I reread it to make changes. That's when I can get stuck for an hour on a single paragraph. I don't want to create the impression that I think writing is easy, or that it isn't important to craft a sentence.

NaNoWriMo starts in 2 days, and I've been thinking about it a lot lately. I like what I know about the book I'm going to write. There are some nice ideas, some good characters.

But it's gonna be a pretty tough month, even for a swooper.


Unknown said...

If you're a 'swooper', I think I'm an 'incher'.

Unknown said...

I imagine that as swoopy or ploddy as your inherent tendencies may be, what skills from each that may be neccessary (the swoopers' bursts of inspiration, the plodders' dogged persistance at honing their craft) can be learned or at least developed. Once honed into your own style, you can then be known as a swoodder or a pluwooper. Or something entirely of your own creation.

RhodesyDurant said...

I suspect that if Kurt Vonnegut had been a swooper, he'd have said that swoopers create the best writing.

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