The Choice Writing Notes

From the very first page, I felt as if I were balanced on a knife-edge.  Quite the cliché, but true nonetheless, for the simple reason that I knew that virtually all of the emotional impact of the story would take place in the final third of the novel.

I know what you’re thinking.  That’s always where the reader finds the emotional intensity in my novels, so why was this one so hard?  Why was this so different?

Frankly, there are different sorts of emotional intensity.  If I’m writing a novel in which one of the main characters pass away – Message in a Bottle, for instance, or At First Sight – I know in advance that the death – and the death alone – will be all that’s necessary to evoke emotion.  Usually, in those instances, there’s a “quickening of the pace” combined with a “sense of foreboding,” but even so, the story stays relatively linear (one event leading to the next), and the events are allowed to explain themselves.

The Choice, however, was different.  I knew the final section would resemble – somewhat anyway – the final sections of both The Notebook and Nights in Rodanthe, because this section also included mystery.  In The Notebook, the mystery simple:  who was Noah reading to, and once that was known, would she ever remember him?  In Nights in Rodanthe, the mystery centered around what happened to Paul, and why he and Adrienne were no longer together.

The reality of writing a compelling novel is this:  once the answer to the mystery is known, it’s imperative to end the story relatively quickly.  Without the mystery, there’s no more drama and tension, and it’s drama and tension that keep the story interesting.  In The Choice, the mystery centered around misdirection:  the reader is led to believe that Travis has gone to the hospital because Gabby might leave him, and they each have a choice to make.  In reality, his choice is whether or not to take her off life-support.

Still, while it’s easy to explain what I intended to do – and the rules of literature that always apply – it still doesn’t always make the job easy.  I had to draw out the mystery for approximately 100 manuscript pages (out of 300), while still weaving a compelling story.   

From the very first page then, I knew these challenges were coming.  I knew that structure and pacing would be difficult, I knew that nearly every sentence would have to be crafted just so, and I’d have to carefully select words for ambiguity, while still ratcheting up emotion.  I knew there would be “time shifts” in which both the past and present had to be explained.  I knew “the past” would have to have its own story and tension that builds, as would those sections that discusses “the present.”  I had to make the reader believe that Travis was at the hospital to apologize, while at the same time making it clear (in retrospect) that the reader had it wrong the whole time.  In addition, I had to generate authentic emotional impact in a novel that I knew would end happily.

And most importantly, I also knew this:  that if I couldn’t pull off the final section, the entire novel would crumble and fail on nearly every level.

Thus, I wrote the first two thirds of the novel with a sense of trepidation, simply because I knew the final section would be a doozy, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

And yet, in the end, I was able to pull it off, and in the end, I think The Choice is one of my better novels.  It’s among the novels that I always recommend to new readers.

Dear John Writing Notes

After I was clear on the elements of the story, the writing of Dear John went relatively smoothly, which was exactly the type of novel I needed after completing True Believer and At First Sight.  Those two novels took a lot out of me; I find it difficult to write two novels in a year, and by the time I settled in to begin writing Dear John in early 2006, I can remember sitting at the keyboard before typing the first page and hoping that the story would unfold in exactly the way it should.

There was, of course, some research I had to do prior to the writing.  I had never written a novel in which the main character serves in the military, but I was well aware of the fact that I had to make John Tyree’s experiences as accurate as possible.  I drew heavily from a cousin (Todd) who served in the army.  Like Todd, my character was in the army, had nearly completed his tour when 9/11 happened, and chose to re-enlist (something he really didn’t want to do), for duty’s sake.

I also read a number of non-fiction books written by those in the military and published between 2004 - 2005; from those, I was able to glean the day-to-day life of a soldier, both on base and while in battle.

Like all novelists, there are some “story developments” that I find easy to write, and others I find challenging.  I suppose I’m most comfortable with writing – and describing – the relationship between the two major characters.  In this case, that was John and Savannah, and this novel proceeded quickly, since they met relatively early in the story.  Nor, as in some of my novels, were there “secrets” (that sometimes have to be slowly unfolded and paced correctly throughout the novel, adding an additional layer of complexity to the story).  These were simply two young people who met at the beach and quickly fell in love.

If there was one challenge to the story, it was in the “structure.”  The first half of the novel – actually more than half – covers the couple of weeks that Savannah and John were together and fell in love.  From there, I had to cover the next two years in much less time.  Finally, I had to wrap up the story between John and Savannah and the aftermath.  The breakdown of percentages was roughly this:  Part I-55%, Part II-10%, Part III-35%.  Thus, 90% of the novel covers maybe 3 weeks, while 10% covers two years.

It’s easier said than done to make a story structured this way flow “seamlessly” while trying simultaneously to up the emotional ante as the novel progresses.  It’s a matter of balance, and by the structure, the balance seemed – and initially felt – out of whack.  Thus, Part II was far and away the most challenging to write.  I had to keep the characters in love until they suddenly weren’t; I had to abbreviate vast periods of time to keep the story moving.  And all of it, of course, had to support and develop the emotional intensity that drives Part III.

Fortunately, after much ponderous, internal debate and long periods of simply staring at the computer without having any idea what to do next, I finally had it.  And then I knew I was getting close and Part III flowed nearly as easily as Part I.

At First Sight Writing Notes

I started the novel in the last week of February 2005, and completed the first draft in early June. In between, I went on a three week U.S. book tour, spent another nine days on a book tour in England and Ireland, took my family to Disneyworld for five days, and spent three days in New York. Keep in mind that after each of those trips, it usually takes two or three days to catch up in my office, and it’s important to my wife (and me) that I spend the weekends with my family. While I made a promise to myself after my trip around the world (that I took with my brother Micah and that formed the basis for my memior, Three Weeks With My Brother) that I would slow down, I had to put that promise aside to finish the novel. It was a pressure-packed three months.

Fortunately, as far as the writing went, I had a couple of things going for me. First, I knew the characters and the setting, I knew the character’s voices and the way they talked, I had all the relationships and back-stories worked out and I already had part of the ending completed (all wonderful left-overs from True Believer). Yet, because of my unusually tight deadline, I knew I wouldn’t have time to make mistakes, so I spent the first week writing a detailed, forty-page outline. I wanted to know exactly what was happening chapter by chapter, and within the chapters as well. It did make the writing go much more smoothly.

Strange, but as difficult as True Believer was to write, the writing of At First Sight proceeded relatively smoothly. I worked four to five days a week, putting out 8,000-10,000 words or so. Still, it was difficult to get into a rhythm, since I was forced to travel so much. I would work for two weeks, travel for three weeks, work for a week, travel for a week, work for two weeks, travel for a week. . . work for three days, leave for three days. . . despite the steady progress, I found myself wishing that I could simply strap myself into my chair so I could finish the novel in one fell swoop.

I suppose that this novel would fall into the easy-to-write or relatively easy-to-write category. While I found it difficult to escape the pressure of the ever-encroaching deadline, the novel was completed in about ten weeks (spread out over four months). Still, because I’d taken no break between True Believer and At First Sight, I had more than a couple of days where I threw myself an old-fashioned temper tantrum. I’ll be honest; I don’t like deadlines, even when they’re self-imposed. Still, I was thrilled with the final product.
The editing on the novel was simple: the first draft came in relatively close to the final product. As is typical, we ended up cutting about 15% of the novel. I’m more than happy to cut, since it helps to keep the pages turning, and in the end, it’s the mark of efficient writing. The most challenging part of the editing process was the timeline: the novel covers a ten month period, so I had to note every instance in the novel where I wrote something like, “a week later,” or “as June approached.” Because of the outline, it was easier to make it accurate.

On an, “I betcha didn’t know this!” note: I suppose I should admit that I have a tendency to use some words more than others. I think all writers are this way, since everyone is a creature of habit and usually it’s not a problem as long as you fix them before the final version is published. Since I know what words I tend to overuse (no, I won’t tell you which ones they are), I simply run a computer search for them, then delete them wherever I can. In this book, there were fourteen words I focused on—and wow, I really overused a couple!. I made the necessary deletions, and I’m hopeful that you won’t be able to figure out what the original words were.

Three Weeks with My Brother Writing Notes

Three Weeks with my Brother presented a unique challenge in that it was the first time I’ve worked with a co-writer, let alone with a co-writer of limited experience. Micah, though highly intelligent, is not an author, and the challenge was made even greater by the fact that this book was my first attempt at non-fiction as well. There was also the difficulty in making our individual perceptions uniform. We were both well aware of the fact that memory is not always accurate and that our feelings now (and then) can greatly influence the accuracy of our recollections.

With that in mind, both my brother and I took detailed notes throughout the trip, trying to recreate our dialogues word for word. After returning from our trip, I spent the next few months finishing up The Wedding,during which time, neither one of us looked at these notes. Once The Wedding was completed, I received Micah’s notes and compared them to my own; the end result (the book) was that our conversations were as accurate (if sometimes abbreviated) as I could make them.

As far as the past . . . this was a bit more difficult. We wanted the back story – the memoir – to be as honest as we could make it, but because neither my brother nor I kept a diary growing up, we weren’t able to recreate the every detail of our life. Rather, we chose to focus on those specific details we could still remember vividly, details which served to illustrate a particular period or mood in our life. For instance, when we wrote of our time in Los Angeles, the major stories concerned Blackie the raven (illustrating how we were allowed to wander alone and unsupervised, as well as my growing admiration of my brother), Micah fighting the older girls in the junkyard (illustrating the fact that our mother taught us, from a young age, to solve our own problems), the earthquake (illustrating our faith and love of our parents), and the growing arguments between our parents (showing our fear and the fact that, despite our relatively wild upbringing, we were still little kids).

The obvious question for anyone who reads Three Weeks with my Brother is how much is true? Are the stories we did tell accurate? The answer is simply that the stories are as accurate and true as we could make them. There were many times where my brother and I had different recollections; in these instances, we simply chose not to use those events. We were fortunate in that we had plenty of stories to choose from; ours was not an unmemorable childhood or adolescence. (And yes, by the way, our mother really did let us roam the streets of Los Angeles when we were five; don’t ask me why.).

The second question, and probably the most frequently asked question is really two-fold: How much did Micah write? And how did you work, since one of you lives in California and the other lives in North Carolina? Anyone who’s read my work can probably answer the first part easily: I did most of the writing. Or rather, I did most of the writing in its final book form. I would ask Micah to write about a particular event; he would and I would then edit it, sometimes rather substantially. I would then write a section, send it to Micah, and he would send it back to me, usually unchanged. (I did have a bit more experience, after all). We spoke daily on the phone, we discussed every sentence in the novel, and he told me stories orally as well; these were then written by me to the best of my recollection, at which point I would pass them on to him for his review.

As for the writing; in many ways, this was among the easiest of the books in which I’ve written. I knew, after all, the beginning and the end of our trip around the world. With Micah’s help, I was also able to recreate the memoir fairly easily. The only challenge came in the structure; how to balance both the trip and the memoir in a way that would keep the pages turning. I must say that it wasn’t all easy, however; as we worked on those sections regarding the deaths of my mother and father and my sister, the struggles and worries about Ryan, there were many times when I had to pull away from the computer and I’d find myself sitting alone in my office for an hour, trying to compose myself. Writing, after all, is about honesty, and recreating those feelings for the readers made recreating them for me as well. Writing the book forced me to remember – and re-experience—things I would rather not think about. The end result, however, was a book that both Micah and I are extremely proud to have written.

True Believer Writing Notes

Some novels are hard to write, others are easy. Which was which, you might ask? A Walk to Remember and Nights in Rodanthe were easy; The Guardian, The Rescue, and The Wedding were difficult. Message in a Bottle and The Notebook were somewhere in between. But True Believer . . . my oh my, that was the toughest yet. But there have been plenty of challenging ones. While writing The Rescue, for instance, there was a six week period where I could write nothing at all, for the simple reason that I didn’t know how to wind up the last third of the novel. Still, before the block and after the block, the writing progressed relatively smoothly. With True Believer, every chapter and page was difficult, the whole way through.

The obvious question is why? Why was this particular novel so difficult?

I suppose it came down to the fact that I write love stories. (“Duh!” as Lexie might say.) But in this instance, neither Jeremy nor Lexie wanted to fall in love, let alone fall in love with each other. In every other novel, one—or both—characters felt as if they were missing something in their lives. The characters were wounded in some way and saw the relationship as a way to fill that void. In True Believer, that simply wasn’t the case, so the question became: how do you get two people to fall in love when (1) one isn’t particularly attracted to the other in the first place, (2) they’re “realists” and both understand that whatever happens will be temporary (since they live in different states), something neither person wants (3) they’re both very happy with the lives they currently lead, and (4) neither has any intention of falling in love? Not only that, but I had to make the story interesting and original and universal, not to mention believable….

Ugh ... it’s still painful to think about. It was incredibly difficult to have two people fall in love when they didn’t want to. Typing sentences was like walking through quicksand. I’d write something, decide it was wrong and end up deleting it. In the past, my work usually took the following form: I’d write 2000 words, then begin the next day by editing them before writing another 2000 words. Usually, I’d end up editing out 200-300 words; in True Believer, on the other hand, I’d end up cutting 1,200 out of the 2000 words I’d written the day before. This made for far longer days (9-10 hours, as opposed to 5-6), much slower progress, and each day seemed no less challenging than the last. To be honest, I dreaded the process from beginning to end. Dread or challenge, by the way, has nothing whatsoever to do with my perception of the quality of the work; I think True Believer has the most realistic characters I’ve created to date, the setting is the most vivid, the secondary characters are the most developed, and the back story is second to none. (For your own proof, by the way, quick close your eyes and think of your three favorite novels of mine, then go up to the first paragraph again. Odds are, you like an easy one, a medium one and a hard one. Am I right?)

But the ending. . . okay, I’ll go right upfront and tell you something few people know. The ending of the novel is not what originally I conceived it to be. When I first submitted the novel to my editor, I thought I had a great ending, a fabulous ending, an ending that would knock your socks off, so to speak. My editor had the opposite opinion. I learned that the ending would have to be largely rewritten from scratch, and I’ve learned to trust my editor. (Just so you know: If you like any of my previous novels, you’d trust her too—she’s had a hand in all of them.) By then, it was January—the novel was coming out in April—and not only that, I had another novel coming out in October, one I hadn’t even begun to think about. Needless to say, the pressure was on, and—in what I still consider to be one of my finest creative moments—I had the sudden inspiration to change the ending to True Believer, then take the original ending and expand into the kind of story it deserved by making it a sequel, tentatively titled, At First Sight.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When I look back on that first draft, the ending now seems almost tacked on. More than that, I wanted an original ending to both stories, and those who’ve read True Believer would be hard-pressed to say that it wasn’t different than my previous novels. Thus, the decision to alter the end—and create a sequel from its aftermath served to make this work, when coupled with its sequel, among my most original and complex to date.

Standing alone, I think True Believer is a very good story, and certainly better than any modern love story I’ve read in recent years. (In my opinion, most modern love stories by other authors tend to either glorify adultery or specialize in melodrama, cliches, and lack of believability, or worse, all of the above.) But when coupled with the sequel, At First Sight, True Believer becomes a saga, and in time, I think these two works—when combined—will be regarded as among my best work to date.

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