Robert Williams on Writing a First Novel

Robert Williams is the author of Luke and Jon, an arresting debut about friendship, grief and love, and winner of the National Book Tokens’ NYP Prize.

I was a failed songwriter. It hadn’t been all doom and gloom – there had been highlights along the way. My band recorded with New Order’s very own Peter Hook in a residential studio and we have stories that we aren’t supposed to tell. That was a good week. After the band split I carried on writing and Mark Radcliffe took a shine to my home-studio recorded single, My Town on TV, and played it a couple of times on his Radio 2 evening show and said very nice things about it. This lead to other radio plays and some interest from some parties. But after this brief flurry, after ten minutes of not being the next big thing but noticed at least… nothing (I didn’t help myself by refusing to play live of course but we can gloss over that here). The world didn’t want my songs. After ten years of struggle with the music industry I had no energy or enthusiasm left. I put my guitar in the corner of the room – strings to the wall. It was quite a miserable time and I had no idea what I was going to do next. The only thing I was sure of was that I wasn’t going to write a book. Songs are hard to write and they only last four minutes. Books last for HOURS.

I was working at Waterstone’s Manchester Deansgate at the time and had been for about six or seven years. It was a good place to work, most of the time. On the staff we had artists, actors, plenty of musicians, but more importantly, interesting people who were a bit obsessed with books. And, of course, there were colleagues who were working on short stories and novels too, and from what I could tell, it was hard work. Ideas that had been worked on for months would fizzle out suddenly leaving an author at a loss as to what went wrong. A book that had been worked on for years would be rejected without comment by agents and publishers in a matter of weeks. You could see the heartbreak happening. Why would you put yourself through that?

I don’t know why I started writing a book but I remember when it happened. I’d had a bad day at work and was lying on my bed staring at the back of my guitar in disgust. I got up, turned on my computer and started writing. The first few pages of Luke and Jon, well, they just sort of happened, and I have no idea why or where they came from. It makes answering the ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ question difficult. ‘I thought about nothing much, turned on the computer and started typing’ doesn’t really cut it as an answer, but it’s how it happened for me. I remember trying not to get too excited, trying to just concentrate on the writing, but at the back of my head a voice was screaming, ‘THIS IS WHAT YOU DO NEXT! THIS IS FUN! THIS IS IT!’ After that first evening I was hooked. I wrote on my coffee break, on my lunch break, when I got in from work, at the weekends. I took a week off work and wrote non-stop. Best holiday ever. I didn’t tell anybody, but I’d decided to write a book.

[blog] luke and jon 200A couple of months later I saw a poster in the staff room at work. The poster asked if you had a manuscript you were working on. I did, so I moved closer and read on. National Book Tokens was celebrating its 75th Anniversary and was holding a competition open to anyone in the book trade. You could submit up to ten thousand words, about anything, and the winning manuscript would get £2,000* and a contract with Faber to publish the book. Not a bad prize. I tidied up my manuscript and sent my first ten thousand words off a few days later. I may have kissed the envelope for luck. I really can’t remember.

I carried on working on the manuscript because there was no way I was going to make the shortlist, and that would be depressing, and I might not want to continue with the book after that. Best get as much done as possible before the inevitable rejection. A few weeks later I got a phone call to say I had made it onto the shortlist and the winner would be announced at a ‘do’ in London in October. Great news, I thought, but best keep writing because I couldn’t possibly win and that would be even more depressing after getting so close. When I wasn’t working on the book, I was busy telling people that I wasn’t bothered about winning the competition. I was just happy to have made it onto a shortlist with my first attempt at writing I said. That was a lie. I really wanted to win.

You know when people in Eastenders say, ‘I need a drink’? I’ve never understood that; I’ve never needed a drink. I’ve never needed a drink until an hour before they announced the winner. I went to a little pub off Shaftesbury Avenue and had my drink. I had two. I told myself to relax but I couldn’t. It was either going to be one of the best nights of my life or hugely disappointing. And if I am going to be hugely disappointed I like to do it in private, not in a room full of strangers in a club on Shaftesbury Avenue. All the writers on the shortlist were introduced to each other and were encouraged to go and mingle with the room full of agents and publishers and book industry people. ‘Go and network. This is a real opportunity!’ We networked with each other in the corner. We met two of the judges who had a chat with us before the night really got going. Adele Parks was lovely and friendly and made us all feel welcome. Francis Spufford was kind and calm and a gentleman.

When they announced the winner I was sure I heard my name but I waited until my girlfriend pushed me forward in case my brain had played a cruel trick. I made a terrible, short speech and nearly kicked the microphone stand over as I left the little stage. It wobbled but didn’t quite fall. There was a lot of handshaking to be done then and it was a couple of hours before I could sneak out and ring my mum and dad and tell them. The next morning I did a live radio interview before slowly making my way back up to Manchester where the local paper was waiting to do an interview and take a photo. The photographer wanted me to rest my arm on a pile of books for ‘context’. He got quite impatient as I struggled to select the books on which to lean (it’s not an easy decision to make. Which books from your bookshelf would you lean on and what would your choices say about your perception of yourself? It’s a minefield). His impatience increased when he received a call to say there’d just been a stabbing in Failsworth. He had real work to do and this competition winner was holding him up. The next day I went back to work and the office was covered in balloons and banners and there was more hand-shaking and hugging to be done. But after all the back-slapping it was back to the writing. I was concerned that now I knew my book was going to be published I might find it more difficult to write. I wrote self consciously for about five minutes, deleted it and started again. And this time it was fine. All you have to do is put correct word after correct word until you’ve said everything you think want to and you can hand it in and say ‘I’ve finished.’

* I actually got £3,000 but I’m not sure if it was mistake or not. Don’t tell Faber.


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