A Writing Masterclass
Know your characters
I’d never been quite so involved with the characters as I was in One Day. I don’t want to sound mystical or pretentious about it because it was the same approach I used in my other books — a combination of real people, my own experiences and characters from books and films. But they did seem to spring to life pretty fully formed, to the point where I knew how they would react in any situation, the records they’d listen to, their eating habits and their family relationships.
Use your experiences
I had reached forty and just begun a family life when I started writing One Day, and inevitably friendships mean a different thing; there’s a kind of falling away in terms of that intense social life. But throughout my twenties and thirties friendships were the most essential part of my life. I wanted to write about the crazy midnight phone calls, the terrible mistakes you make, this great affection, nostalgia, rage and love.
It was a tribute to that time of my life.
Don’t repeat yourself
Even if you are not writing autobiographically you still draw from your own experiences. Dickens was always writing novels that followed a young man through his poverty-stricken youth because that was his story. I have written books based in the ’80s and ’90s and the older I get the less interesting that’s going to become. But neither do I think it is particularly interesting to write about middle-aged writers or a baby snaps book. So you’re torn between constantly drawing from the same well and finding new material around you. I’ve got a little checklist of things I don’t feel I can write about, at least not next time, because I don’t want to produce the same book again.
Don’t be obscure
I was talking to a writer who said you mustn’t get too obscure; you must come back to what’s important in your own life and hope it makes sense to everyone else. As soon as you start writing about the experiences of an astronaut you can’t make that connection.
Have a clear structure…
I admire writers who write beautiful lyrical prose. Descriptional writing, the bits in between the action, is not something I feel confident about. Script writing, which I have done a lot of, is often about filling in boxes: this conversation happened, then we move here and this happens and we reveal that this has happened. So that was how I approached this book; I didn’t write a word of dialogue until I knew where they were going to be each year and also what happened off screen.
…But be prepared to improvise
Lots of things changed from my original plan — Dexter was at one point going to be a journalist on a Nineties lads’ mag but he seemed to be too flaky for that sort of a job. And things changed towards the end. I think in the original book they had a family, but that seemed to open up a whole other world that I didn’t feel was appropriate.
Avoid “brick phone” moments
There is often a tendency when you write about the past to overdo it, which is why the Seventies is always flares, chopper bikes and side-burns.
I did do a certain amount of research, reading old magazines and newspapers, listening to music from each of the years and watching old YouTube clips. London during the Nineties had a very distinctive flavour — the way chips were served, the way you could suddenly see the kitchen in all the restaurants… You’ve got to remember those details and pin them down, but without having too many “brick phone” or “ooh, look it’s an iPod” moments because it gets a little heavy-handed. I didn’t want to do a stylised version of the Nineties so I cut a lot of it. There is a little bit of it still, maybe even too much.
I never improvise an ending. I always knew what would happen to Emma and Dexter. I knew that there was a danger in this case that it could be too melancholic and that you’d therefore need some kind of joy in it. I’d also thought a lot about books, films and plays that experimented with time. Betrayal does this brilliant thing of telling the story of a love affair backwards. And there is this French film called 5×2 which does the same thing, so the rush of romance is at the end and therefore has a kind of bittersweet feel to it. There is also a musical by Stephen Sondheim that does a similar thing. So I knew of all of these ways of stopping the book from slipping into feeling like a long, slow journey towards an abyss.
Turn off the Internet
I can’t work at home because I find I would rather be doing anything except what I’m meant to be doing. So I work in a beautiful library, the London Library in St James’s. It is a very boring thing to say but I also find the Internet to be a real problem. I don’t do Facebook or Twitter but as soon as you have a moment’s gap in your concentration you find yourself clicking on something. I need to find this mythical place that doesn’t have any kind of Wi-Fi signal or any kind of distraction. But then again, I think writers are always saying things like, ‘I need to have this particular notebook’ or ‘if only I had this special pencil’ and I think you can get too hung up on that. I’ve written listening to loud music and in noisy houses; other things I have done away from home in complete silence, because that felt more appropriate. I don’t have any hard or fast rules. I would love to be one of those writers who sits up all night and writes until four am, swims across the lake and works in the evening, has a glass of wine and gets up the next day and does it again. Writers especially are so prone to thinking that sort of thing is the answer; the bare white wall or the shed at the bottom of the garden. We all envy each other’s working practices.
Start your next book immediately
I don’t feel like I’m living in a kind of terrible shadow. But it is a bit like when an actor leaves a soap opera and they worry about whether they can get another role. I slightly worry about taking on another voice, because the characters in One Day were so distinctive. I have been so lucky with this book as it has bought me a bit of time. But a small part of me wishes that I had started writing the next one while they were preparing to publish One Day, which is what most writers would do, because then you
have a focus.