William Coles Interview
Posted on 17 October 2007. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to journalist and novelist William Coles, author of the Well-Tempered Clavier – published by Legend Press on 27th October 2007.
Tell us something about your background.
The Well-Tempered Clavier is Eton’s first love story, and is an evocative, tempestuous, passionate novel with classical tragic undertones. It is named after Bach’s famous collection, the music that brings the characters together, and each chapter is named after a relevant prelude.
I'm been a journalist since 1988 - and my first day in papers was, according to the Chinese, the most auspicious day of the entire century, August 8 - 8.8.88. Unfortunately though, I did not happen to start my traineeship in Beijing, but in Cirencester on the Wilts and Glos Standard. My very first story was a woman calling up to tell us that her girl was eight that day - all the eights together. I was not impressed. The news editor heard the conversation deteriorate and snatched the phone out of my hand. The story made the front page. Such was my introduction to journalism.
I spent six years on provicincial papers before joining The Sun, where I lucked out to become their New York Correspondent, as well as Political Correspondent and Royal Reporter.
Since 2001 I've been freelancing up in Edinburgh; occasionally I still teach journalists the dark arts of tabloid hackery.
I started writing books six years ago - and at the time had imagined that it would be a doddle. This was not the case. I know that many writers have waited longer than me to get their first book off the ground, but it certainly felt like a long time before I'd finally written something that was half-printable. But that is because novel-writing is a quite different skill to journalism.
As a freelance, I write for quite a number of papers - and each of them has their own house-style.
Eventually, you get used to writing in these different styles. And then one day I had this amazing revelation, when I realised that I could write convincingly in quite a number of different voices.
Have you ever learned or followed the ‘rules’ about writing?
Before I embarked on this book-writing venture, I ate up over a score of different books on how to write bestsellers, how to write dialogue, and how to structure a piece of fiction.
And then I just immersed myself.
My first book was probably the most complicated piece of writing that I have ever attempted: Eight different characters, all of them with equal weight. It was an absolute monster of a book, over 150,000 words, as I tried to interweave all their different stories.
Now it may be that I am a fantastically slow learner, but it was only three years after I'd finished this stinking turkey of a novel that I began to appreciate its many flaws.
And that, regrettably, is how I've learned the few things that I know about book-writing: Through my own mistakes. It would have been wonderful if I could just have read a few books, taken on board all the fabulous points they had to make, and then constructed my own book.
But that was not how it worked for me.
Do you write in a genre? If so, why, and what are the problems/joys specific to it?
I've tried writing in a number of genres: Horror; thriller; picaresque black comedy; and self-help (amongst others). But the one where I truly found my "voice", if that's not too pretentious, is the novel that's finally made it into print - and that, of all things, is a love story.
Many of my friends find it utterly bizarre, especially as I cut my teeth as a Red Top reporter. But I have always been a total sucker for romance.
One of the things that I quickly learned about the romantic genre is that gags can kill it. I love jokes and comedy - but if you're trying to write a book that's meant to tug at the heart-strings, then jokes kill the story stone dead. So this romance may have a few light quips in the dialogue, but the general tenor is dead straight.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I have loads of them. I read the books of Stephen Fry; or Philip Pullman, or Eoin Colfer, and I think, "That is truly brilliant." C.S.Forester, David Lodge, George MacDonald Fraser, Robert Harris, Bernard Cornwell. I dip into all sorts of fiction, am constantly ferreting through www.Abebooks.com for out-of-print books . But two authors who I think are right out of the top drawer are the children's writer Geraldine McCaughrean and Robert Twigger. Twigger is not especially mainstream, but he has a huge cult following. I devour every word that he writes.
If you had to choose a desert island book, which one would it be?
A Christmas Carol. Everyone knows the story, and has seen umpteen versions of the film. But the book itself is quite lovely. It didn't make Dickens a penny though - in fact it cost him quite a lot. And he was also highly enraged by the number of writers who ripped it off; some were even adding in bizarre new scenes.
The original manuscript is in America's Pierpont Morgan Library; you can get a copy for a tenner - and there it all is, in the great man's hand, corrections and all. It's the sort of story that you can only dream of writing.
How did you get your first agent/ commission/publication?
I'd finished my first book in about 2002, and sent it off to at least a score of agents - and got turned down flat. And not surprising too, because it was atrocious. But there was one agent up in Edinburgh where I live, Jenny Brown. She'd just started out, and was collecting a stable of authors. I think I must have worn her down, because even though my second book was also a dud, she eventually took me on. And the third book was a dud ... and the fourth ... and ... believe you me, there is a quite considerable back-catalogue of stuff that is yearning to get into print.
Do you show your work-in-progress to anyone? Who, and how does this work?
I generally show the first ten or 20,000 words to my agent (I have now, bizarrely, acquired three. Very long story), just so that they can give it the thumbs-up - but I don't generally like to have anyone else look at my writing until the thing has been properly knocked into shape. I don't even like to talk about ongoing pieces of fiction until the very last word is down on paper. It's almost as if by talking about it, the subject loses some of its initial rawness and power. But as for having anyone looking at an actual project, midway through, I'd hate it. Manuscripts definitely need editors and criticism - but that comes at the end, when the whole thing is done and dusted, not midway when you're still trying to churn the thing out. Unlike journalism, I find that novels are rather delicate flowers. They're such big projects, and you need to be so up-for-it, that the very last thing you need is somebody coming along halfway through and saying, "Naah - doesn't work for me."
How many books/attempts at a book did you make before selling your first?
Six. Six damnable books, which worked out at about 1 1/2 a year. A couple of them are eminently recyclable, and only need some minor tweaking. But I'm afraid that the first three are probably holed beneath the waterline. They might just be salvageable as the premises are not too bad. But they all need some really heavy-duty work on them. I don't know if I've got the stomach for it.
What's the worst thing about writing?
I don't know about the "worst thing" - it's all part of the process. I love writing and if you're a writer then you know it's going to be a slog. But ... oh yes! I know! Editing! This is not my forte. Going through draft after draft and tweaking and fiddling, until I haven't got a damn clue whether the first draft was better than the tenth. That's why I adore writing for newspapers. You write your whole story in four hours flat, read through it once, send it, and bingo - it's in the next day's paper. Books have the gestation period of an elephant. I'm not especially good, as they say, at "killing my little darlings".
And the best?
Sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, you get these really serendipitous moments, when you get an idea that just fits perfectly; or you might write a paragraph which, when you look back, makes you think, "Not too shabby". Gives you a warm glow in the evening, when you think that, for once, you've had not too bad a day at the pit-face.
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