Danny Wallace writes a novel

The trials of penning a work of fiction

...I am sure there will be people who will read the novel I have written and say, “No, you don’t know how to write a novel, do you?”, but the truth is,there doesn’t seem to be a way to do it. It seems to write a novel, you just sit down, and you keep writing that novel until that novel is written. And that is the big secret.

Another big secret is that nothing funny ever happens when you are writing a novel. I am sure there will be people who will read the novel I have written and say, “No, it really comes across that nothing funny at all happened while you were writing your novel,” but the truth is, you just sit there. Staring. Tapping away. Sometimes getting up and finding an apple, or scrabbling about in a bin for that idea you scribbled down on the back of a taxi receipt, or making yet another cup of tea, or listening to a three-way debate about Britain’s best jams on local radio just so you can hear another voice.

And one more big secret is that, at times, it can all be a bit painful. I am sure there will be people who will read the novel I have written and say, “Yes, there are times where it seems that your novel is a bit painful,” but the truth is, it’s a long process of thinking and re-thinking and re-re-thinking things and then doing your best not to mess it all up.

But once it’s done? Oh, God, it seems like it was the easiest thing in the world.

THE BEGINNING

Here’s how I wrote mine: I had a beginning. A moment. An idea I knew could last. A boy light on hope would be walking down a street. He would see a girl. She would need his help, and he would help her, and in that instant the boy would be filled with hope in the way that boys sometimes are when they meet a girl they like… this could be something! Maybe we’ll go for a drink! And then we’ll agree that we should line our stomachs and have dinner! And then maybe one for the road! And she’ll say she likes a certain band and I’ll say I love that band! And then maybe by Tuesday we’ll be living in the country manufacturing our own line of specialist cheeses and reading romantic self-penned poetry to one another as we lean against our Aga, that we’ve charmingly named Chloe, which our new friends who are all actors and writers will think is just darling.

And all that would be gone as quickly as it arrived… because she would have to go. An entire imaginary relationship escaping like a bubble in a breeze. And our hero would be bereft of hope once again, kicking himself for even letting himself think.And then he’d look down. And in his hands would be something of hers. A disposable camera.So what does he do? Develop the film? Not develop the film?He develops the film. And he looks at her photos. And there’s something rather odd about one of the photos in particular…

And from there, I knew Charlotte Street would essentially become a heartwarming everyday tale of boy stalks girl. So that was the beginning. All I had to do now was get to the end. And that would be easy! So easy!

“Why the hell am I writing a novel?” I would say to my wife, my hands gripping her arm, my eyes desperate, my nerves shaken. “Is this life, my life, not fraught and hard enough?”

“It’s not that fraught and hard,” she’d say. “All you’ve done today is watch Loose Women.”

“No, it’s not that fraught and hard, no,” I’d reply.

“But still. Shakespeare didn’t have to watch Loose Women, did he?”

And then I’d make a face like I’d made a brilliant point and go back upstairs.

This kind of writing can be hard. It can be slow and painful. You spend a lot of time staring at the screen or agonising that the choices you make now won’t be the choices you wish you’d made by the end. Self-doubt creeps in. Is this even interesting? Does anybody care? Am I just wasting people’s time?

And then there’s the plotting. Working out what — if anything — your characters mean to each other. Trying to think about what they’ve been through, and how that’s made them who they are, and what should happen to keep them that way or change them somehow.

And — crucially — who the hell are they anyway? And again — why is anyone bothered? That’s probably the worst bit.

But slowly, slowly, it started to become easier. I began to get to know the people I was writing about. Because that’s the weirdest thing. Who the hell are they? They’re just some names, at first. Just people in my head. People I vaguely sort of almost knew, like the cousin of an old friend from school you met at a wedding you weren’t supposed to be at.

Here is the first line I wrote:“Hello. My name is Jason Priestley.”

Uh oh. I’ve called him Jason Priestley. Now that’s his name. The same name as the man who played wild child Brandon Walsh on Beverly Hills 90210. I bet he hates that. And that was the first thing I knew about him. And the more I thought about him, and about his friends, and his ex, and his ex’s new man, the more they became real. Until one day, in the kitchen again, I realised: I know who they are! And that was when it all came together, meaning I could start to add the tiny things — the little subtleties and differences and details — that turned them from characters into people. But I watched an awful lot of Carol McGiffin before I got there.

AFTER LOOSE WOMEN

The novel begins, as you might expect from its title, on a street in central London called Charlotte Street. It’s posh there, and fancy, and a part of London that fools you into thinking all life is glitzy. But it also takes place around Caledonian Road to the north, with its chicken-bone pavements and cut-price cafés and men in doorways smoking fags with their tops off. There are streets like it in every city in the world.

I decided that it was here that Britain’s Jason Priestley lived — above a video games shop, next to that place everyone thought was a brothel but wasn’t. And I’d walk around these streets and these places and I’d imagine these people living their lives in this real London until it just became natural.

I sat in cafés and I sat in pubs. I bought the Polish beers and the foreign Cokes I thought the characters might buy. I took a ton of pictures of tiny details and soon-to-be-forgotten moments — people chatting outside shops, weird men in alleyways, blokes in football tops standing outside pubs — and flicked through them as I wrote.

And then, one day — I’d done it. I’d written my way to the end. That’s a good day. Not because you’ve finished. But because you’ve told the story. These fictional people — your characters — become your friends, somehow.

And you always want to know what happens to your friends. So Charlotte Street comes out today, and it’s a nerve wracking time. I hope if you read it, you like it. But early signs are good. Working Title has bought the film rights and in the next few months, 15 countries around the world will publish their own Charlotte Streets. Mackenzie Crook’s just finished recording the audiobook, and the first copies of it are being listened to as you read this.

So soon, I’ll start thinking about what’s next. And I’ll forget about the first three secrets of writing a novel. I’ll only remember the day I finished. And then I’ll make a cup of tea, switch off Loose Women, and start all over again.

Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace is out now, priced £12.99 (Ebury)

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