Writerly Things: Swoopers vs. Bashers and on Binge Writing
In Conan O'Brien's recent interview with historical novelist Erik Larson, he talks about writing styles and the process Larson goes through when he writes. Larson, like many serious authors, states that he abides by a page-a-day rule (41:00 minute mark) in which he only writes one page a day, seven days a week.
Larson claims this allows him to keep writing the next day as he can fill in what needs to happen next and he never experiences writers block because he always knows right where to pick up. It's a technique I've heard a lot of writers utilize, including Earnest Hemingway.
Larson goes on to say (around the 43:00 minute mark) that "The worst thing a writer can do is...write for ten hours...binge writing is the worst thing."
This is where I part ways with Larson and those who feel that binge writing is a bad technique. All it signifies to me is a different process that may work for a different type of writer. Different people have different thinking processes, and for me binge writing works phenomenally well.
The page-a-day rule is fine too. I tend to slow down to around five to ten pages a day when I'm writing non-fiction, such as my book The Swedish Fish, Deflating the Scuba Diver and Working the Rabbit's Foot: Answering Christian Apologetics. When I wrote The Swedish Fish I had to get in about ten pages a day. The reason is because with non-fiction you have to cover a certain amount of material that you can't just leave as an incomplete thought. It's more technical, so you know what you have to write toward.
Whereas when it comes to fiction the writer is more free to write at the speed of thought. And I think this is where the dangers of binge writing, as Larson seems to think, comes into play. Fast and loose writing is often disorganized and not well edited.
But I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. It's just a different writing style.
Kurt Vonnegut once observed there are two types of writers. He mentioned:
Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”
Because my writing preference is to binge write, i.e. sit down for 10 hours and crank out page after page and chapter after chapter, I frequently go back and painstakingly fix everything that doesn't seem to work. I suppose this would place me into Vonnegut's definition of what he calls a swooper. A writer who just throws alphabet soup at the wall to see what will stick and then goes over it painstakingly, fixing everything that doesn't work.
I prefer writing in this way because in the editing process I often get fresh ideas or, other times, decide to try things differently than I wouldn't have the first time around. With this style of writing I always find there is more I can expand on as I add details, or trim unnecessary bits, or fill in visual information, or tweak dialog.
This style of writing, the swooper style, feels to me a lot like playing with LEGO building blocks, where you begin by setting out to build an airplane, the airplane you envision in your mind, but then you are having so much fun with the building blocks that you just keep adding to it. Pretty soon you end up with a spaceship with laser guns, quadruple FTL drives, and detachable lifeboats, etc. & etc., and suddenly you've created something bigger and better than you set out to do.
Granted, an argument could be made that a meticulous writer would never encounter such a problem, since they would have avoided it by being paying extra close attention to all the details. But I'm not so sure. Writers are, after all, only human. Mistakes are bound to be made.
Now, with a more meticulous writer we might say they are prone to make less mistakes because of the tight controls they set on their writing, but for me personally, mistakes are where the spontaneity happens. A lot of my own writing mistakes, as dreadful as they seemed at the time, have forced me to find innovative or imaginative ways to fix them and this has led to unexpected story elements -- sometimes compelling me to go an entirely different way with a character or a subplot.
So, the higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way method of writing is perfectly suited for my needs as a writer. And that's the thing I want to stress. When it comes to writing, it's best to do what works for you.
The second style of writer, according to Vonnegut, are the bashers who write one sentence at a time and painstakingly make sure everything is just right before they move on to the next bit of writing.
I know that Mark Twain was a serious basher. It seems that, according to the above interview, Erik Larson is one too. I can see how this take it easy, be thorough, keep it lean style of writing can be appealing.
But if I'm being honest, this style just doesn't work for me (personally) because my brain cannot be satisfied with just one page. Writing just one page for me would be a lot like forcing yourself to eat just one french fry from a tasty order of fries. Sure, it can be done, but who'd want to do it?
When my brain gets spooled up it wants to paint a white canvas in words until it's all filled in, because this is where I find my imagination really kicks in and begins to take over, this is where all the fun is.
That doesn't mean that I think bashers lack imagination when they write. But it certainly is much more constrained. I'd rather let lose than cull back, but that's just a personal preference. As long as you have an output, as long as you keep on writing, then you're a writer. The rest is just a matter of taste.
Although, I think it goes without saying, outside factors can play a big role in what kind of writer you become as well. Let's not forget that our environments help to make us who we are -- not only as people -- but as writers too.
You see, another reason I tend to be a swooper and a binge writer is because my free time is highly limited. Some days there just aren't enough hours in the day to place aside a solid block of time to sit down and write. And if I was going by the page-a-day rule, and I missed a few days of writing due to outside events or circumstances, well, then I think you can see how I would be extremely difficult to ever get anything done.
As Larson explains in the above interview, he is accustomed to rising early (around 4 AM) to get his writing in. Setting away some time to write is sound advice, advice I try to follow (and advice I think every writer serious about writing should try to follow), but some days it's just not possible. Larson mentions that he developed the regiment when he had toddlers, because nothing gets done during the day when you have rugrats to worry about. This is very true. As a father of two young ones myself, I can relate.
Of course, this is one of the main reasons I am forced to binge write. My schedule largely revolves around my family's schedule. And between having a full time job outside of my writing chores and devoting time to my family, writing gets often gets pushed to the back of my priorities. I wish it didn't have to be that way. But it is, so I write when I can find the time -- and that means I have to get as much done as humanly possible in that amount of time -- so I binge write. I don't really stop to worry about where it's all coming from or whether or not my muse we be there the next day, because I'm too busy writing. After all, I don't know when I'll get another chance to write freely -- so I make the best of it.
My dream, of course, is to make a living wage writing full time. Who wouldn't love to be able to do that? But writing full time and making a living wage on your writing alone is relatively a recent development as recent as the printing press at any rate. And then, even with a printing press, and a certain amount of popularity, there was no absolute guarantee you could make a living off of writing. Think back to Edgar Allan Poe who struggled horribly to make his bread and butter on writing alone even as he was extremely popular as a writer. Think about H.P. Lovecraft who lived in borderline poverty his whole life because he tried to survive off the meager income he could make writing, then died penniless. Think of all the countless writers, both past and present, who continue to struggle to make ends meet off their income as a writer. The truth is, unless you are J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, or someone lucky enough to land a big juicy book contract, odds are you'll need a second job just to stay a float. And there's nothing wrong with that.
If anybody slams writers who have to have a full time job in addition to their writing and might insinuate nasty things -- like they're not real writers because they can't eek out a living by their writing alone -- then I have no time for such narrow minded people.
First of all, these people don't know the history of the medium, which in my book makes them little more than an imbecile. But more than that, as a writer who writes full time, works full time, and raises a family full time, I don't have the luxury of time to worry about what people think about how I should or shouldn't be as a writer. All I can do is share what works for me personally, and most of these lessons are learned through trial an error.
Regardless of what anyone says, there is no set model or template any writer must adhere to in order to be a proper writer. Writing, like painting, is an art form. And there are different techniques, different ways of doing it, different strokes for different folks, but there is no one correct way of doing it except to just do it.
If you write, and that's what you love to do, then you're a writer. It doesn't matter if you're a page-a-day writer or a binge writer, a swooper or a basher, if you write -- and you've completed your writing projects, published them, whether you are self published or published via a publisher, then you are a writer. After all, you wrote something. And in my book, that makes you a writer.
By day I am an educator and a cultural ambassador. By night I entertain notions of being a literary master. In reality I am just a family man and ordinary guy who works hard and loves writing just about as much as I love my family. Just about.