Writing Lessons from Nicholas Sparks
My wife and I recently had the privilege of seeing Nicholas Sparks, author of the “Notebook,” and 22 other best sellers. As romance writers, we were anxious to pick up some tips to improve our writing. When I entered the auditorium, I surveyed the audience to see who his fans were. It was a sea of women with a few dutiful husbands tagging along. They were young, old, and in between. Judging by the standing ovation he received when Mr. Sparks walked out onto the stage, they were very devoted (and noisy). As he was interviewed on stage, several things stood out.
- Each book appealed to a different audience. “A Walk to Remember” featured a teenage girl and found most of its fans from young women. “Nights in Rodanthe” was about a middle-aged divorcee and was popular with middle-aged women. In short, his fans related to the books whose protagonist was most like them. Closeness in age was one factor for readers to live vicariously through the heroine.
- Finding your own voice made for a better book. Mr. Sparks was reading books by Steven King when his mother told him to “go write a book,” so he wrote a horror story. His next book was a mystery because he was reading Agatha Christy. According to him, neither one was any good. Thirteen years later, he sat down to write another book. This time, he wrote from his heart without outside influences. That book was “The Notebook,” a bestselling book, made into a movie, and now made into an off-Broadway musical. Readers don’t want a knock-off of another author, they want to hear
you. Find your voice and write from the heart.
- To follow a formula or not to follow, that is the question. He talked about great authors whose plots
follow a certain pattern. They are well-written, and you know what to expect when you pick up a book by that author. Others may stay in the same genre, but that’s all. Everything about the plot will be unexpected. When you pick up a Steven King novel, you have no idea what is going to happen or how. It could be a clown, a car, or kids in a cornfield. You never know. In some ways, the unpredictable nature of his writing worked better in the horror genre. Other genres lend themselves better to a formula than others. For example, the details of the Hardy Boys changed, but the basic plot line remained the same.
- Writing from personal experience is a plus. Most, if not all, of the books by Nicholas Sparks, include elements from his personal experience. Somewhere in the book, the setting will include scenes from North Carolina. It is easier for him to write about a setting that he knows. Seeing a place is not the same as knowing all the nuances that surround it. Those nuances allow the reader to immerse themselves within the setting and experience the story more completely. Personal experience also informs his plots. For example, “Dear John” was about his cousin Tom who left his sweetheart behind when he went off to the military. They never got back together. Their story became the fuel for a novel (and movie). “Message in a Bottle” was about his father when he lost his mother. Again, capturing the emotions of the plot was enhanced by the personal interactions he had with the
real people in his life.
- We can all learn something from other writers to improve our writing. Even if we don’t have the
chance to hear from a world-famous author, we can learn from each other and become better writers as a result.