How to Write a Novel, Explained by a Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
No one taught DBC Pierre how to write, but that didn't stop him from winning the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel. In his new book—and here—he explains how you could do the same.
Before he became a novelist, DBC Pierre had already led a picaresque life. Born in Australia in 1961 to a Nobel Prize winner and a Wellington Bomber-flying war hero who worked in genetics, he grew up in the South Pacific, England, and the US before the family settled in Mexico City. He eventually had to leave Mexico in his twenties after trying to smuggle a high performance sports car into the country.
He spent a decade as a drug fiend, accruing massive debts in Australia before collapsing and nearly dying. He became an actor, most notably playing the role of the taciturn Private Bluey in the TV series Anzacs alongside Paul Hogan. He spent some time in Spain hanging out in a bullfighting community. He has also, apparently, worked as an artist, cartoonist, photographer, and conman.
During the 1990s he wrote his first novel, Vernon God Little, a satirical black comedy about a school shooting in Texas, while living in Balham, South London. At no point did he receive any training in how to write or even any advice from other authors. He says the first novelists he ever met were in the foyer of Faber & Faber after his debut was finished and he'd signed his book deal. Vernon God Little was awarded the £50,000 [$74,000] Man Booker Prize, which went "some way" to clearing the debts he had accrued during his adventurous youth.
His latest book, Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It, is an idiosyncratic but extremely useful book on how to write books, which contains advice on everything from how to develop characters to how much heroin you should take while writing. Here, Pierre condenses some of his main points into a beginner's guide. Print it out, Blu-Tack it to the wall above your computer, and away you go.
If you'd told me, before I started writing, that my first novel would go on to win the Booker Prize and give me a job and change my life, but also told me about all the shit I would have to go through while writing it, then I wouldn't have done it. But luckily it doesn't happen like that. Writing a novel is like swimming away from shore; once you're 50 pages in, you're too far out to swim back, so you have to carry on. Literature has an aura that it's this world full of people who get up at 7 AM and write one thousand words before breakfast, revise before lunch, and then write two thousand more after lunch. And then, six weeks later, they have a novel. I never believed any of the publishing industry bullshit that makes book writing sound like the construction of the Burma Railway. It's not like that. It's uncomfortable in completely unforeseen ways. If you're diving into the sea, you get a good run up and dive some way out. And then, after a while, you have to keep swimming because it becomes just as easy as turning back.
I think literature exists to bridge the gap between how things are supposed to work, and that feeling we all have that they're not fucking working that way at all. In life, a lot of our time—especially a lot of our unconscious time—is spent glossing over and making up for some serious fucking gaps between what we have been told should happen and what actually does happen. That and the gap between what people think they are like and what they are actually like is the stuff of life. Books are specifically about filling and explaining these gaps.
If you want to write a book, then write something down. Write something down and keep doing it, because eventually some of that stuff will keep. This stage of writing is horrible. I hate it. I'm not a master writer and I fucking hate all the stuff I write down at first. But if I just keep on putting it down, something catches, and then there will be a ledge. There will be a glimmer of an idea. And the more angry I am with the idea, the more chance there will be that I'll come out with something that will surprise me. Write something down and, at the first sign of something unexpected, stop. And start the book there. Make that idea the beginning.
Something will make you think that you should write, and I'm banking that this "something" is inside you; a subconscious thing. It's going to trace back to you having been bullied at school or beaten by your parents or having suffered a betrayal. There are things inside us that we can't tell anyone, and it's not polite to bring them up in public. We may never have talked out loud about them to anyone. I reckon these thoughts—that everyone has just through an accumulation of life—will make us sit down to tell a story without us even knowing why. As soon as you get a few pages in, the thing inside of you that needs to be said will start coming to the surface. The characters that appear, the situations that happen, the dynamics that are created, will already be there, whether you've realized it or not. I get this feeling that our own stories aren't always tellable, but they catch a ride, they hitchhike. If we have something to say, it will come out.
I had no plot in mind for Vernon God Little before I started. The plot was triggered by the process. I started writing and liked the voice [of the protagonist], so I stuck with it despite it being an uncomfortable process. After five weeks of feverish writing, I had a 300-page novel. Or, to be more precise, I had what I thought was a novel, but there was no real story in there. Nothing happened. There was just this voice complaining. A couple of the secondary characters were in the book, but there was no high school shooting. All the first draft contained was Vernon complaining about his background and his family. So I took all of the stuff that he complained about and made those things happen to him. And one of the things he had complained about was a shooting at his school. This gave the second draft a very different structure to the first one.
I have an internal jury [who criticize what I write], and they change all the time depending on what the problem with my writing is. Generally speaking, my jury tends to have conservative 1950s American father types sitting on it, and I have to struggle to throw them out. I'm starting to think that the jury is my dark side. It's the jury that tries to hold me back from writing certain things that need to be said. My dark side is actually quite conservative and I have to struggle to throw that jury out.
We're tainted by the shit we're brought up with. I have to put a lot of myself aside in order to be free and honest when I write, and a good way to do that is to have a fucking drink. It's always been in our culture; it works, and there is truth in it after all. So I think the archetype [of the heavy drinking writer] is correct. When I was 15, my parents offered me my first small glass of beer, and it was kind of a special deal, but of course by then I'd already been pissed out of my brain in secret for three years. I was raised in the kind of family where things were really buttoned down, and drinking and drugs have always been a way to escape that. Winston Churchill had to do it. And this is not to say anything bad about non-alcoholic cultures, but in this country all of the nation's heroes had a big slug of something before they made all of their big statements and expressed what they needed to express.
Weed is the best drug for writing. I find so, at least. The tip of a spliff, not even enough to get wasted on, disconnects the mind, and if you sit in a quiet place it will paddle the mind out to somewhere unique and calm. It makes things grow very quickly. It's not good for editing, but it's good for the first draft.
On a first draft, or if you're under pressure, cocaine could probably work, but you'd need constancy so you don't have a break in the supply... and it's expensive. Also, it's panicky and I had some bad experiences with it in my youth. You know, that feeling that you need it to do certain things.
The set-up, the conflict, the resolution... There's no good reason for us not to abandon the traditional three-part story structure, but it is a sure-fire solution. Whether you should use a standard structure depends on how mad the other aspects of the work are, and this kind of structure is an admission that we want someone else to understand the story. We've spent 2,000 years using the three-part structure, and I'm sure our brains have adapted to it. It disconnects the mind from having to think too much, and it's like a railway track for the mind to roll along. So if you're going to write some mad fucking story which is challenging in other ways, such as in language, ideas or subject matter, then it can be good to have a conventional structure at least. But I strongly believe we should move away from the three-part structure, and I firmly believe that we will, but we do need to know where we're starting from first.
Procrastination is the one governing demon of all writing. Even without social media our brains will defeat us completely. I think it was Louis de Bernières who said writing begins when our fear of doing nothing at all outweighs our fear of doing it badly. All I can say is, if you're worried about doing it badly, the night before you write, the last thing before you go to sleep, visualize it going well. I know it sounds a bit mystical, but make a commitment to actually doing a good job before you go to bed. It's frustrating when we give in to procrastination, but that frustration actually adds to the job. Finally you do burst, angrily, onto a page because you fucked away four days doing nothing.
Research is the best form of procrastination. You can spend endless time not writing a story but learning shit. Thankfully, in the 21st century, we can literally be in the middle of a sentence, and stop, and check the fact in 30 seconds, and then get back to the writing. I think if there is a specific landmark or situation, etc. then I will look it up on the internet—but the key is to write about what you already know. Don't start writing about China if you've never been to China. That's ridiculous. It won't have the flavor you need. Write about where you are or somewhere you know well. Then all you have to do is look up little details.
If it's pressure that you need to make you work, then tell all the people you know that you're going to write a novel and tell them when you're going to finish the novel. And then you will have completely fucked yourself. You'll be in a crucible that you can't escape from.
DBC Pierre's Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It will be published by Faber onJuly 7.