Perry Iles: I don’t want your first drafts

Posted: October 7, 2011 in Friday Guest

In 1976, Steely Dan went into a recording studio to work on a new project. Fifteen months later, they released Aja. They spent long days and nights in the studio, perfectionists Walter Becker and Donald Fagen discarding various drum tracks, bass styles, and putting in grace notes and employing synthesiser players to put three notes in here, two notes in there. Aja is a wonderful record, a late-seventies fusion of jazz, pop, soul and R&B in which everything is controlled, seamless and slick.

A decade later, Nirvana paid $500 for a day’s recording studio time, and came out that same afternoon with Bleach, which they released to some acclaim, and which gave them the necessary foothold towards Nevermind. Bleach was a wonderful record, a sign-of-the-times challenge to stadium rock and bland musical safety in which nothing at all was controlled, feedback and off-key vocals squealed and screamed all over the place and nothing seemed particularly articulate.

What has this got to do with writing?  Bear with me. It seems that success and integrity has little to do with professionalism in the music industry. It seems that way, but it isn’t. Kurt Cobain had to learn how to play guitar, picking along with his Black Sabbath/Black Flag albums, taking influence from Sonic Youth and modifying the roar of punk/metal crossover into something new. Fagen and Becker learned their instruments too, long years in garrets emerging pale and residually stoned in the fresh light of spring to appear fully formed to the public eye.

So why do writers think they’re unique? Why is it that on various writing sites, they pop up and shout: “Here! Look at me! First draft and I’m wonderfully precious and pinkly special!” They aren’t. For a start, they’re using far too many exclamation marks and secondly there’s adverbs in there. So listen: I don’t want your first drafts. I’m not here to waste my time looking at your malformed characters and your unfocussed background and I don’t want to know about the lack of confidence that gives your characters too much backstory, description and setting.

Go away and learn how to do it right, then come back in a few years when you’ve worked at it like Steely Dan worked at Aja or Kurt Cobain learned to play the guitar, and I’ll tell you if you’re any good or not. And the chances are you won’t be. And I’ll know, and the reason why I’ll know is that writers make better readers. When a writer writes a book, the result needs to look effortless. The writer shouldn’t show, because he’s spent the last few years learning how not to. Of course, when you’re a writer reading, the writer always shows – the swan that’s paddling like a bastard under the beautiful surface, the author who’s learned how to do things properly over a twenty year period so he can show up as an overnight success. Vonnegut put it best, in his novel Bluebeard. Bluebeard is the story of a painter, an abstract impressionist who takes gigantic canvases and paints them a single smooth block of colour, then calls them something impenetrable and meaningless like Oyster Blue #176. This kind of work represents the climax of a few decades of hard work in the art world, learning pictorial reality, spending year perfecting Norman Rockwell-type art before painting it over with great blocks of emulsion. This is the perfect metaphor for the writer to adopt. Learn to do it properly before you start all this experimental stuff. Work and work and work, because fellow writers will know when you don’t. Work brings confidence, work brings discipline and work brings practise and practise makes perfect. Then it’s up to the reader to decide whether he likes your stuff or not.

And when you’re confident, and when you mix that confidence with an ability you’ve spent years honing into an individual style, then you’ve got a chance, and enough depth and ability to start acting like an individual. Confidence is a funny thing – a kind of national trait that goes hand-in-hand with economic superiority at national levels. At the moment, the most confident writers are American. Read anything by Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo or James Ellroy and you’ll see what I mean. Three contrasting styles, three confident authors at the top of their game (although they’re all getting on a bit now). What’s Britain got that can stand alongside them? David Mitchell, perhaps. A friend of mine went to college with Mitchell in the 1980s. Mitchell wrote Ghostwritten in the late 1990s. It took him the best part of fifteen years to become an overnight success. McCarthy has been writing since about 1955, sending his first wife out to work so he could write uninterrupted. He spent decades… decades… writing for little reward, honing his style into some bright shiny thing that rings of a level of genius not seen since Shakespeare.

So, for the apprentice writer, go and read Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s very good, until you get to the bit where he says “final draft = first draft minus 10%”. Then you must take the book and throw it at the wall, because this is misleading, disingenuous, shallow, facile bollocks. King is a gifted writer, almost unique in his ability to let his imagination flow out onto paper. But your final draft, after you’ve abandoned several novels, written dozens of short stories, had a roomful of rejection letters, had thousands of people on writing sites being meaninglessly polite to you, your final draft will come in a few years’ time, if you haven’t given up by then. When it comes, writers will read it and tell you what’s wrong with it, because they’ll know. And if you’re a writer who reads, you’ll possess that insight too. The insight that tells you that the feet that are paddling like a bastard beneath the surface are more like the spindly legs of Dali elephants, spanning a vast abyss of time. When you open McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or whatever drives you little red wagon, you’ll finally realise that the thing that’s taken you half a day to read represents years of lonely nights, decades of poverty and solitude that have been put together to fulfil the tenacious quotidian lunacy that goes to make a writer.

***

Perry Iles is an embittered old hack from Scotland who has spent fifteen years trying to be an overnight success. He once wrote a book and sold 23 copies of it. These days he stays at home a lot and throws raw liver at the wall because “it makes me feel better.”

 

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Comments
  1. Son of Incogneato says:

    Bravo! Hurrah! Yes, yes, yes!

    As every man, woman, child and chimpanzee finds their inner creative being and become artists, writers and musicians, we, The Public, are inundated with the sophomoric fruits of their hasty labor. Don’t get me wrong, I am chuffed over the fact that people are generally becoming more creative; in many ways it’s a new age of artistic enlightenment. Nevertheless, like yourself, I personally feel no overpowering need to use what little free time I have slogging through their early outings and crude attempts. Just because you have a PC and manage to upload to Smashwords does not make you an author. And perhaps one of the major reasons that no agent snapped up an offer to represent that manuscript you knocked out in two weeks is because it just wasn’t good enough. Of course when you flog it on Amazon for 0.00 $, you will get readers. 1,000 free downloads and you are now a ‘best-selling’ author.

    NB: The above does not apply to fellow writers who have specifically asked me for feedback and/or help on their early drafts.

    On the other hand, since you use the Music Biz as an analogy; something’s intrinsically wrong with the state of media today. Where are today’s Hendrixs and Beatles of yesterday? Modern music sucks, to use contemporary phrasing. At least most of the stuff that is getting mass-marketed. And a lot of the crap getting published sucks as well. The giga-corps who own media couldn’t care less about artist integrity or solid handwork; no, they just want the money. Period. That’s probably why they call it a business. Some of the best sellers I’ve perused these last couple of years are so appallingly bad that it almost caused internal hemorrhaging in my eyeballs. Logic in a plot? Get’s in the way of page turning excitement. Real characters? Too difficult to understand (and write). And there are typos all over the place. The situation especially me pains when I see, even among my own small circle of friends and acquaintances, excellent writers who can’t find representation because of the ‘marketability’ of their ‘product’. Kurt Vonnegut would probably never made it to the editors table if he had debuted today. What about someone like Thomas Pynchon? Ha-ha! Not in a month of Sundays.

    My point? Being merely a good writer with your craft in place does not necessarily insure that you will come out winning in today’s topsy-turvy publishing world. Writing slop like The Da Vinci Code or the Shopaholic series does.

    Btw – ‘…the tenacious quotidian lunacy that goes to make a writer.’ Classic!

  2. Son of Incogneato says:

    Oops – sorry about the typos; guilty as charged.

  3. Ciaran says:

    Depressing, isn’t it, when you decide to take seriously that latent writing tendency you showed all along and discover you’re nearly fifty and that maybe, by the time you’re seventy-five, you might be good enough for someone else to recognise. Pension, what pension?

  4. Rebecca Emin says:

    A really interesting blog but I mostly want to say thanks for the bio; that made me laugh good and proper.

  5. Perry says:

    Thanks to everyone who read this and replied. Glad the comments were useful/provocative/amusing. Incogneato, you may want to link to Words With Jam (wordswithjam.co.uk) where I write a regular column, the last one of which was about music. Is music worse today? We’re all safely Cowelled, I suppose, but there’s still Sonic Youth and those odd Canadian guys grouped under the Kranky/Constellation label (Godspeed You!Black Emperor, ASMZ, etc). As for writing, I wilt with embarrassment at the number of first drafts I mailed off to agents when I was young and silly. These days it has to be as good as I can get it before I show it to anyone – at which point they help make it better.

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