Can you describe your process for writing a novel?
After I decide on a story, the process is relatively straightforward. I write 2,000 words a day, three to four days per week, usually between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sometimes, writing may take three hours, sometimes seven or eight hours. At this pace, I finish a novel in four to five months, and the editing process is usually straightforward. Editing a novel may take an additional two months, but for the vast majority of that time, my agent, editor, or copy editor is doing the markup. Then I weigh in on the editing process by revising the manuscript in accordance with their notes — this process usually involves a few days of work.
You're a prolific writer who has a wealth of story ideas. From where do you draw inspiration for your stories?
From events in my life, from people I know, from articles that I read, or conversations I overhear. The question I always seek to answer first has to do with the primary conflict (what keeps the characters apart). I've learned to keep my mind open to ideas from any source.
Several of your novels have been made into movies. How involved are you in the process of translating a novel to a screenplay, and then into film?
Generally, I'm involved only in the editorial process, once a screenplay draft has been turned in by the screenwriter. I might visit the set once or twice, go to the premiere, and help promote the movie. I have no involvement with casting, budgets, locations, directing, or editing. I've also written screenplays myself, and in those instances, I work with the producers and directors to craft the best screenplay possible. After that, my role reverts to what it usually is.
Since your novels began to make the transition into movies, do you notice that you've begun to write with the eyes of a filmmaker as much as that of a novelist?
No. I'm a novelist at heart. My sole intention is to write the best novel possible. I don't think about the film potential at all.
In what other ways, if any, has your writing process or style changed over the years?
On a technical level, I think I've improved my literary style, and some aspects of writing come easier. My writing schedule has become more structured over the years. With that said, writing well remains difficult. It's easy to write something average or even something good. But writing well is quite challenging.
Your novels are set in small North Carolina towns that figure prominently in the stories. Why have you chosen this bucolic setting for your stories?
There are a few reasons I choose to set my novels in small North Carolina towns. First, it's what I did when I first wrote The Notebook, and I've always believed that readers ought to have some idea of what to expect when they see one of my novels in the store. With that in mind, I've made the decision to adhere to three general truths when it comes to my novels: There will be a love-story element to the story, the novel will be set in eastern North Carolina, and the characters will be likeable. Then, I make each novel unique through differences in voice, perspective, age and personalities of the characters, and of course, plot.
Finally, I think that setting a novel in a small town taps into a sense of nostalgia among readers. People tend to believe life is different in small towns, and frankly, it is different. The pace of life is slower, there's less traffic, and people tend to know their neighbors; each town has its distinct idiosyncrasies and charms.
When you were writing your first novel, did you have any idea — or even a hope — of how wildly popular it would be? Or did you assume the manuscript would sit in a drawer for the rest of your life?
I thought The Notebook had a chance to be very successful, even before writing the first sentence. The story struck me as truly memorable, and I knew the structure would work. And yet, I wasn't sure I would be able to pull off the actual writing of the novel. It's one thing to have a great story, but it's an entirely different thing to commit the proper words to paper.
I was certain, however, that the emotional intensity of The Notebook occurred in the final third of the novel. For that reason, I wrote the final section first, and then I wrote the majority of the story about Noah and Allie's young love. I wrote the prologue last. My thinking went something along these lines: The final third of the novel has to be great, but I don't know if I have the ability do that, so I'll write the last section first. After all, there's no reason to labor over the beginning if I'm not going to be able to pull off the ending.
It took a while and a ton of editing as I wrote (I remember cutting and pasting full paragraphs and tweaking Noah's voice for weeks until the pacing and tone felt exactly right). But once I had it, I knew it.
At the same time, none of those things guaranteed that the novel would be successful, and I was well aware of the business nature of the publishing world. Yet, when I sent my novel off to agents, I confess I was shocked when most of them declined to represent it. Fortunately, I already had interest from Theresa Park, who is still my agent to this day.
In The Notebook, the narrator says that "the romantics would call this a love story, the cynics would call it a tragedy." Could that analysis be applied to all your novels? Is that how you see your novels, as tragic love stories?
Without question. I try to create modern-day versions of the Greek Tragedies. Sophocles and Euripides wrote their plays with the intention that the audience experiences the full range of human emotion, including both love and tragedy. More than that, they wanted to genuinely evoke these emotions without being manipulative. To read those plays is to "experience all the emotions of life." Shakespeare did the same thing with Romeo and Juliet, as did Hemingway with A Farewell to Arms. Modern day examples include Love Story by Erich Segal, The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, and The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans.
Essentially, in this genre, the requirements are these:
- The story must evoke genuine emotional impact across the full range of human emotion without being manipulative.
- The story must be dramatic without being melodramatic.
- The characters, plot, and story elements must be universal (feel "real" to the reader), interesting, and original.
MFAs in creative writing are wildly popular these days, yet you did not choose to pursue formal schooling for your writing. How did you hone your craft when you were first starting out?
Strangely, I didn't do much at all to hone it. I wrote my first novel at 19, a second novel at 22 — neither of which were any good at all. At 25, I co-wrote a book with Billy Mills entitled Wokini. I wrote The Notebook when I was 28. In the years between these sporadic writing efforts, I didn't write at all. I did, however, read an average of 100 books a year and often found myself wondering what made good stories work.
Why then, was The Notebook so much better than my first two novels? I don't know. I will say that it was the first novel that I tried to "write well," as opposed to simply "write." At 28, I was more mature than I was at 19 or 22. I had also absorbed more literature. Still none of those things truly explain the difference.
In all honesty, I'm sometimes at a loss when it comes to explaining when and where I learned to write.
How do you hope to be remembered?
I'd like to be remembered not only for my body of work but also for specific novels. Ideally, I want to be remembered in the same way as Stephen King, who defined and exemplified excellence in the horror genre in the late 20th and early 21st century. I hope to be remembered as an author who defined and exemplified excellence in crafting the modern love story.