“I wrote 300 pages in five weeks,” says novelist DBC Pierre, who made his debut with Vernon God Little, a Booker Prize winner, and delivers writing guidance in his contemporary work Release the Bats.
I enjoyed his gutsy and wildly perceptive advice which perhaps appeals to a ‘pantser’ style of writing rather than a ‘plotter’ but the quotable gems will stick with me. Wisdom with a 21st century twist and language to match.
“A few pages into writing and find yourself drowning, as I did.” DBC Pierre.
“When I started to write,” says self-confessed bad boy DBC Pierre in The Guardian interview, “I wasn’t particularly well-read, but I found two things critical. Together they can turn a pile of thoughts into a novel, in case you’re at a loose end next weekend, or are in prison. They’re also helpful if you’ve swum a few pages into writing and find yourself drowning, as I did.”
“The first might seem stupid but I actually found it the main hitch in getting words down and ‘letting rip’, ‘sticking with it’, and all that noble stuff we’re supposed to do. ‘The responsibility of awful writing’ was Hemingway’s twist on his own phrase ‘the awful responsibility of writing’. As the man who also said ‘first drafts are shit’, he pointed to a truth: if the key to finishing a novel is sticking with it, then the main challenge is to face writing crap.”
“All I liked after writing the first page of Vernon God Little was the voice. It had things to say about everything. I could feel it wanting to say them. But I went on to write 300 pages that didn’t make a book. I wrote them in five weeks, in a fever, without looking back. And at the end, I still liked the voice – but it hadn’t really said anything. Or rather, it had said plenty but nothing else had really happened. I soon found advantages to having done it that way.”
“Even writing 50 pages of crap gives a sense of achievement.” DBC Pierre.
“For one thing, I would usually find it hard to move on to page two if I didn’t like page one. I bet you could wallpaper the planet with books that never got to page two. And it’s a circular trap, in that some of the energy you need to forge ahead and push your page count up is generated by forging ahead and pushing your page count up. Even crap gives a sense of achievement when you get to 10, 20, 50 pages of it. When you don’t get past page one, you lose the spur. After that, the thing spirals into bad feeling and dies while you check email.”
“Half the problem is the expectation that we’ll see finished writing at once, more or less in its place. But I wouldn’t have written what I wrote if I’d thought about structure and form at the time. Obviously, if we’re writing about a boy going to the river, we make him go to the river. I don’t mean write without an idea – just that better ideas will come later. They attract each other and grow. We write crap in the meantime. It can work like a compost.”
“If you watch a dieter breaking their diet, you’ll see that they gobble things before they can stop themselves, before the internal arguments, before the shame. Guiltily and fast: that’s how to approach a first draft. A free writer is not something you are, but a place you can go. To start that climb: speed. Don’t look down. Keep a note of your page or word count, watch it grow like an investment. Amp yourself up. When we do things this way, a phenomenon comes to bear that justifies our approach: art. Some of what we write will crystallise for reasons we can’t explain, and the story comes into a life of its own.”
“If the job gets boring, loosen up…throw in a new character.” DBC Pierre.
“Eventually, take that feverish pile, bravely or drunk, and read it back. Get over the cringing and find a glimmer, see what sentence or idea intrigues or excites you. Start from there and build out. If the job gets boring, loosen up, take a tangent, throw in a new character. In this process, the work begins to show itself. We show ourselves. When gems have grown into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, look again. Find the part that works best and lift the rest up to it. This is how it climbs, by following what pleases us most.”
“We can’t compete with Shakespeare or Hemingway, nor should we try. Our particular feeling is all we can bring to this party, and our whole job should be to wrestle it into a story that works for us alone. After that we can dress it for others to read. A different job entirely. Save that for a strong coffee on a Monday.”
One of three different interviews by Chris Wiegand, Dave Simpson and Homa Khaleeli. Wed 22 Feb 2017 06.00 AEDT “Culture” The Guardian newspaper.
Heading : So You Want To Be An Artist? Then Let The Pros Show You How It’s Done.
You can also read my book review of Breakfast With The Borgias by DBC Pierre.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward