Bestselling Author Nicholas Sparks Explains the Creative Process

The following is an online-exclusive extended version of the interview that appears in the February 2011 issue of WD.

The career of Nicholas Sparks began with one of the biggest breakout success stories in recent memory: an unheard-of $1 million advance for his 1996 debut novel, The Notebook, when he was just 29. Too often, what follows such stories is a tale of sophomore slumps—but the former pharmaceutical salesman proved to be anything but a one-hit wonder. All 16 of his subsequent books to date—one memoir and 15 novels, including his latest, Safe Haven—have been bestsellers. And just as popular as his books are their many Hollywood adaptations, including Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember and Nights in Rodanthe. In 2010 alone, both the film version of Dear John and his original screenplay The Last Song hit the big screen; the adaptation of The Lucky One is forthcoming in early 2011, and movie rights to Safe Haven—a harrowing story about a domestic violence victim who finds love while on the run from her deranged husband—have already been sold.
Today, the North Carolina husband and father is still consistently delivering what his legions of fans have come to expect: tear-tugging love stories with often bittersweet endings. Here, he discusses writing for his readers, crossing genres, and how he’s still trying to top himself today.

You’ve said that both happy and tragic endings are easy, but bittersweet endings are the toughest to write. What’s the secret to striking that chord?
I guess it falls into—what was it [that’s been] said about pornography, "You know it when you see it?" You know a bittersweet ending when you feel it. … And it’s challenging to pull off.

You’ve been adamant that your books not be pigeonholed into any one genre. Why is it important to you to avoid the labels the industry is so fond of?
I don’t necessarily mind labels—in some ways I think they’re helpful. I just want them to be accurate. And my books are very hard to pigeonhole because they’re not necessarily romance novels, they’re not necessarily family dramas, they’re not necessarily what’s typically regarded as Southern literature—so what are they? So, you say, well, it’s literature—but then that of course offends a bunch of people who think they know what actual literature is for whatever criteria they have. So it’s very difficult to pigeonhole what I write simply because there’s not a lot of other writers doing this kind of work.

Your latest, Safe Haven involves a lot of elements of thriller, and it gives readers insight into the mindset of a very disturbed antagonist. Was there a lot of research that went into that aspect of the story?
No, very little. The key[s] to writing Kevin, the antagonist, were the decisions I made up front when it came to the creation of that character. I don’t like to write novels with a lot of profanity, nor did I want to shock people with an excess of violence. Further, I wanted it to be a subtle degradation over time with Kevin, so that you would feel him gradually losing his mind, so to speak.

So, I made those decisions up front, and the only way that I knew how to do that was to create that character first, which I did. I wrote seven sections of Kevin, and that way his voice was consistent throughout, because it was all written without ever leaving his voice for a moment. There was a repetition to the way he thought, and a paranoia, and by going from one through seven I could make sure that I wasn’t going too fast, or too slow, or not being too repetitive, but repeating just enough. So, once I wrote Kevin, I set him aside, and then I said OK, now let me write myself a love story.

I wrote myself a love story, and then I said, A-ha, 150 pages in, this would be a place to put Section One of Kevin in. So then I put it in, I edited it to make it fit with any changes in the story … [and went] back to the love story.

I think in the end, the seven sections became six, but he was all written in one fell swoop, and to me it worked very well, and I think Kevin is a very scary but believable and human character. And as much as people don’t want to admit it, you kind of feel sorry for the guy, because in his mind he’s perfectly legitimate in his complaints or his worries, and he does love his wife. And yet, he’s just horrible. And that’s also the effect I wanted to do. In creating antagonists, the main challenge that any thriller writer faces is to create a worthy antagonist—to the protagonist, it’s got to be worthy—but that feels fresh and original. So that was the real challenge, in creating Kevin, was to make him very believable and human, and yet that humanness about him makes him even more scary because you think you know someone like this.

So do you take that approach often, writing in the voice of one character at a time?
Sure, I’ve done that before. That I’ve done in previous novels, so that I have some experience with. It’s just that Kevin’s voice was so unique, because if you’re not going to use excess violence or profanity, and yet you’re trying to make him as scary as possible, that’s challenging to do.

Are you conscious of wanting to set a certain example? A lot of your readers are young women, and in this book you deal with some serious issues they could be facing.

No—it has more to do with my grandmother rule. My grandmother’s still alive; she reads me, and if she would get mad at me, then I can’t write it.

How much do you think about your readers as you write?
Not so much as I write, but as I conceive a story, they’re certainly in my mind, because I write stories that I want the readers to enjoy. And I think that is probably one of the main elements of writing that young writers will hopefully take to heart. And that is to write what readers want to read, which isn’t necessarily what you want to write.

On your website, you’re very open with your readers about the process of writing every novel. Why did you decide to take this open-book approach?
Primarily because my books are widely taught in schools. I’m one of the few living authors, I guess, with Cliffs Notes out. So I did it for students, and also because these books are deceptively simple to read. There’s a conscious choice to make them seem deceptively simple, but they’re actually very complex. … You know, you read The Wedding, you think, it’s this really sweet story. But there was a lot of challenge, in interweaving seven story lines simultaneously. And there was a challenge to Safe Haven. Women in peril has been done before—it’s been done very well. So have thrillers. And yet I’ve never read a thriller or a woman in peril where the love story felt real. It’s very challenging to do, because once the external conflict is introduced, it overshadows the internal conflict. And a love story is always internal conflict.    

You’ve modeled certain characters in your books after people in your life. Does drawing inspiration from reality make them easier to render, or more difficult?
It depends. Some characters are easier to write than others, and that just is the nature of who they are in their personalities, I suppose. Steve in The Last Song was exceptionally difficult to write, because he lived his life making decisions that were pretty much the opposite of the decisions that I would have made, and so you have to make them seem logical, in his mind. Other characters are very easy. Landen Carter was easy to write in A Walk to Remember because I’ve been a 17-year-old boy, and he’s kind of a smart aleck, and he can say whatever he wants.

When you come out and say that a character was loosely based on someone you know, do you ever worry about how those people will react?
No, because there are always differences—what they do for a living is probably different, their age is probably different, you know, they’ve never been in any of these exact circumstances—so no, I’ve never gotten into trouble for that.

Your books are known for evoking emotional responses. What advice can you offer writers who are striving to forge those kinds of connections with their readers?
Well, that is a function of the genre in which I work. The purpose of what I write is to move the reader through the entire range of human emotion, so that they feel as if they’ve experienced a mini life between the covers. So, you have to not only move them through the emotions, but you have to genuinely evoke these emotions, which means you can’t manipulate the reader into feeling them. And therein lies the art of writing what I write. I don’t know how I do it—I just do it.

This is where the spark of creativity comes in, and I don’t understand the spark of creativity any more than anyone else. I don’t understand, for instance, how people can write music. I don’t get it. I don’t understand how you can come up with something new after so many songs have been written. I don’t understand—I mean, I don’t get how it’s done. But people do it.

You’ve talked a lot over the years about your experiences working with your editor. What’s the best advice you can offer about the editor/author relationship?
Always remember that the editor wants the best book possible. I think that’s your best advice. Now, no one is infallible, but the editor wants the best book possible. And I work with my editor, not against my editor.

Your books being adapted for the screen is becoming almost part of the natural rhythm of your career—
[Laughing] Yeah, isn’t that funny?

Has that in any way affected your writing process?
Not necessarily. In the end, I’m a novelist, and I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of luck with Hollywood: six films, I’ve got a seventh filming—that’s The Lucky One—Safe Haven should start filming in the spring, and I’m sure I’ll sell my next one, too. So …

Does it become difficult to separate the two?
No, not necessarily—I’ve been fortunate that the films made from my novels have been good ones, and they’ve been successful at the box office, and I think they’ve been faithful to the novels. I couldn’t be any happier. But in my heart, I’m a novelist—that’s primarily what I set out to do, is to write a novel that people will enjoy and remember.

I understand you’re working on some screenplays now. What is it about that medium that appeals to you?
A few things. No. 1, they’re much shorter–only 20,000 words, whereas a novel is about 100,000 words. No. 2, you’re exempt from the most challenging rule in writing novels, which is to show and not tell. In a screenplay, you’re required to tell and then let the actors show, so it’s like you’re pawning off the most difficult feature of writing. No 3., it’s a nice change of pace, because I can write in [other] genres; I’ve written an urban drama, an action-adventure, a horror—so, it’s exciting. It’s different. It’s also excellent training in efficiency, because you have to be very efficient in a screenplay. We’ll see how it goes. I haven’t offered any of them yet.

So far they’ve just been for personal enjoyment?
No, they’re coming—it’s just, it’s all timing. Safe Haven was such a big deal, and I’ve got other things in the works with Hollywood. You can’t do a deal every week; you’ve got to space it out. They can’t miss you if you never go away.

You got you big break early in your career, but publishing is always changing. What have been your biggest learning experiences?
I suppose I’ve learned that writing a novel is never easy. That’s been a learning experience—one I would have rather not had to learn. You know, in all frankness, I was a business/finance major, I worked in business before, I was pretty clear about the whole business end of publishing. And publishing’s not unique. Every industry is changing, and it’s just an inevitable part. That doesn’t change the intrinsic human desire to share in good stories. Human nature changes a lot slower than does the business world. The changes in publishing don’t go to the heart of what we do, which is to tell a good story. There might be different delivery systems for that story, but you still have to have a good story, or people aren’t going to care about it. So, any of the changes that are coming, you just kind of move along with the flow, I suppose. …

I think it’s important to understand that it is an industry in which the publisher has to sell your book, and if they don’t think there’s an audience for your book, you’re probably not going to get it published. I also think it’s important to realize that to get published, you’re not competing against me, or Stephen King, or John Grisham—we have spent years developing audiences that we bring to the table. So, you have to write better than we do, or more originally, or have more original stories, or work in a genre that has a need. I think it’s important to realize that readers are forgiving to a point, in that if you don’t put out your best possible work every time, your audience will begin to fall.

Every writer faces criticism. What do you say to the critics who might call your books "sappy," or, you know—you’ve heard it all before.
I laugh! I think it’s humorous. I find well-reasoned criticism interesting, but very seldom do I get well-reasoned criticism.

Do you read your reviews?
If I happen to see it, if it’s been posted somewhere right up front, sure I’ll read it. But do I look for them? No. I’m always surprised when I read the paperback edition of my novel, because that’s where they start putting all the reviews in, and that’s the first time I generally see them. And I’m always amazed. There’s about 10–15 percent of critics out there who will call this sappy or whatever. You know, 85 percent, they’re very strong reviews. So I guess as far as the review process goes I’ve been very fortunate, but I don’t take it too seriously one way or the other.

With your financial success, surely you could retire at any time. Could you imagine a time when writing isn’t a part of your life?
Sure. Writing is hard. Writing well is hard. Writing under deadline is just misery at its most horrible. So yeah, I can imagine it, but I don’t know what else I’d do, and until I find something else that I really want to do or I’m passionate about doing, I’ll continue to write.

And at the same time, writing has allowed me to pursue other passions. I got to coach high school track and field, I got to build a house, I’ve had the opportunity to start a school, which I’m very actively involved in, support the community in various projects as well. And I’ve been able to do all those things while continuing to write. So, until I feel differently, I suppose I’ll continue—as long as I feel I have stories that are worthy of being written. I have great respect for my readers in that they are working for the money to pay for this novel, and I’m going to give them their money’s worth.

Are you under contract for a book a year right now?
No, I have I think one more book on this contract, and I usually sign three-book contracts. I think that’s a good number; it’s comfortable for me, because I’m not staring out five years into the distance, and it’s comfortable for my publisher, they’re not staring five or six years out into the distance either. Three is good, because I usually sign that and I’m halfway through the first one, and I’m like, "Oh, I’ve only got two left after this." [Laughs.]

So what is it that keeps you writing now? Are you trying to top yourself?
That’s essentially it. It is my goal to one day write a novel that every reader I’ve ever had feels is the best thing I’ve ever written. Which is an impossible goal, I understand that—but, it is my goal nonetheless. I’ll take 90 percent. [Laughs.] Which is tough, because for every reader who has a favorite novelist, they have a particular novel of that novelist that’s their favorite. It’s very tough to dislodge that favorite, especially with the type of stories that I write. So, for instance, if your husband died or your mother or your father died of Alzheimer’s, and The Notebook is [your] favorite novel, it would be very, very tough for me to dislodge that novel. … But nonetheless, that’s what I want to do one day.

You’ve written one sequel and one follow-up novel so far. What would make you decide whether or not to write another sequel?
Characters, reader demand, Hollywood interest. …

So a starting point for you can either be some sort of inspiration or idea, or it can be a demand of the market.
Sure—and that’s just the starting point, you have to realize. Good stories are common. Good and memorable stories are far, far less common. And I try to write good and memorable most of the time, or I do my best to write that, and so it takes time to come up with that story. Until it strikes me as both good and memorable, I won’t write it.

So, inspiration can come from events in your own life, events that you know about, it can come from people that you know, it can come from readers, it can come from anywhere. In the end, though, the story has to be right for it to be written.

Jessica Strawser is the editor of Writer’s Digest.

Looking for more fuel for your writing career? Check out the complete February 2011 issue—filled with craft tips, tricks and techniques to help you become an even better writer.

What to know what plots work best in novels? Consider:
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