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Writing on Instinct: Nicholas Sparks

"I can't explain it, but I know if a scene is right or wrong. I know it. It's a visual thing—it's how the words look on the page, it's how the sentences sound.

For a writer once dubbed "sexiest author" by People magazine, Nicholas Sparks approaches his craft with immeasurable intensity and precision. The 36-year-old's career got off to a quick start when he received $1 million for his first book, The Notebook (Warner Books). Released in 1996, the book spent 56 weeks on the The New York Times best-seller hardcover list and another 54 weeks on the paperback best-seller list. The books that followed, including such hits as Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember, proved that the author's deft ability to tug at heartstrings wasn't a one-time affair.

Now, with the release of his sixth novel, Nights in Rodanthe (Warner), Sparks is once again exploring the mysterious ways of the heart in a book he sees as one of his finest. "I will say that of the five novels that have been out, my career probably could have only been launched on The Notebook or the one that's coming out now, The Nights of Rodanthe.

"The others are wonderful books; I'm very proud of them—they're great for what they intended to do. But, as far as launching a career ... an author's lucky if [he] can get one in [his] career. Two is fabulous. Three is ... well, it's tough."

Nights actually took the place of a book tentatively titled The Guardian as Sparks' sixth release. In a move the author refers to as "primarily a business/career management" decision, The Guardian isn't likely to see store shelves until 2003.

"There's a difference between writing a good novel or two good novels, and novel after novel that continues to build your audience," he says. "There's a big difference, and as the publishing industry has become more business oriented, it's very important to realize that.

"And then you have to realize that my first book spent two years on the best-seller list, and I had to outsell it. That's easier said than done, believe it or not."

It's this keen attention to the business side of writing that has enabled Sparks to become the success he is today. Even his approach to the writing process has been dictated as much by passion as by business sensibility. The Notebook, for instance, was written out of order because Sparks believed that if he couldn't write a compelling ending that would generate strong "word of mouth"—which in turn would generate strong sales—then there was no point in writing the story at all.

"Good word of mouth gives a novel the potential to become a success. Yet, I had no idea whether I could do that," he says. "I was married, I had a job [selling pharmaceuticals], I had two kids, groceries to buy, I had stuff going on in my life.

"It was really just, 'OK, I don't really know if I can do this, but I don't want to wait six months and then fail. I want to fail in the first two months.'"

Of course, Sparks did not fail. Instead, he turned a simple story of love everlasting into a blockbuster and essentially sealed his literary career. With the success of The Notebook, Sparks also was free to fully devote himself to the craft—he quit his pharmaceutical job while writing Message in a Bottle. He also began to hone his approach to telling the perfect love story. That's love—not romance. There's a distinction, and it's one Sparks is careful to explain: "In romance novels, the general theme is the taming of a man. I write dramatic fiction and love stories, so my novels are about internal conflicts, and to make internal conflicts interesting to the readers, it can't be the same thing every time."

Given the importance of internal conflicts in Sparks' work, theme is the first hurdle he faces with each new project. And it is theme that dictates the entire course of a story, down to the last plot twist.

"My first theme was everlasting love," he says. "And, if it's everlasting, obviously that says certain things about the story—the characters can't be 12. It had to have lasted for a long time. In Message in a Bottle, the theme was love after grief, which means you have to have someone die. In the third book [A Walk to Remember], it was first love, so, again, you pick those themes, and those themes really help you come up with a new and original internal conflict."

Once the theme is chosen and the corresponding internal conflicts are set in motion, Sparks begins work on the first draft, which he says "generally comes in about 90 percent right." He does, however, rely on outlines whenever a story's difficult structure deems it necessary, as was the case with his fifth novel, A Bend in the Road.

"The structure was very hard because that story was told in first person and in third person," he says. "The first person was in one time period and the third person story was in another time period—12 years later. Both stories had to move forward and then two thirds of the way through the book, the stories had to merge.

"So, you had to make some decisions: Which voice do you use, first or third? And all of it had to flow so easily that the reader didn't even recognize that it was happening. Very, very complex!"

Despite his quick rise to fame and impressive string of best sellers, Sparks still relies on perhaps the most primitive and treasured of all writing skills: instinct.

Spotlight Question

Why do you think men have been more successful at writing love stories than women? First off, it is without a doubt one of the hardest genres to succeed in, period—for men or women—because when you try to combine an original story and an intriguing story that hasn't been told before, and all you're using is internal universal conflict, it's tough. External conflict is much easier: a monster in the woods, a young boy learning magic, a serial killer on the loose. If the bad guy's looking through the window with a knife, how are you going to stop turning the pages? But mine is, "Will Garret get over his deceased wife and allow himself to love again?" Try ending that on a cliffhanger!

"I can't explain it," he says, "but I know if a scene is right or wrong. I know it. It's a visual thing—it's how the words look on the page, it's how the sentences sound. It's all that. But, if it's wrong, which happens very frequently throughout every novel, that doesn't mean that I know what will make it right. All it means is I know it's wrong, and I have to do it over."

Sometimes, however, a story just can't be redeemed. Sparks discovered this the hard way in 1998 with his failed novel The Best Man. Two hundred pages into the book, he stopped.

"It was wrong, and I gradually came to the conclusion that it was unfixable," he says. "So, if you've got something that's unfixable, you've got two choices: You can either beat your head against the wall and try to do the impossible or you can set it aside, put it away, chalk it up to experience and try to write a different novel."

Such resilience is an essential attribute for any writer's success. As for other qualities new writers should embrace, Sparks recommends the three hallmark habits of all great writers: read, research, write.

"Most of the people who write to me and say they want to be writers want to skip the reading and research," he says. "But, you have to read a lot to learn how writing is done. And research, well, you have to understand not only the principles behind a good story, but the principles behind how the business of publishing works, and how to manage not only a novel, but a career."

This article appeared in the October 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.

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