An Interview with Nicholas Sparks
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, 3 to 4 days per week, usually between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sometimes, writing might take three hours, sometimes seven or eight hours. At this pace, I finish a novel in 4 to 5 months and the editing process is usually straightforward. It might take an additional 2 months to edit a novel, 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 which usually involves a few days of work.
As you go through the writing portion of your process, do you veer from your original idea at all? If so, by how much? Can you give an example of when you did this?
Because I have only the general outline of the story (everything I know about it could be summed up in a couple of pages) the characters often develop traits that I hadn't expected (one might love to cook, for example). For the most part, however, the main plot remains intact. The only exception to this was the ending of A Walk to Remember. I had written the entire novel with the thought that Jamie would die, but when I reached the final chapters of the novel, I realized I didn't have the heart to actually put those words on the page. Instead, I chose to leave the ending vague and open to interpretation, and I believe the novel was better for it.
What's a typical day like after you start the 2,000-word-per-day writing portion of your process?
I live a fairly structured life when writing a novel; otherwise, the novel wouldn't get written at all. I often joke that I have barely enough time in my day to do everything I need to do, even before writing a single word.
My day starts at 5:30 a.m. In the early morning hours, I exercise, take the dog out for a run and training, visit with the kids before school, read the paper, have breakfast, answer e?mails, and shower. I'm in the office by 10:00 a.m., which is when I begin writing. At 3:30pm, I head out to coach the track team at the local high school. In the evening, I have dinner, answer the mail, and catch up in the office. After that, it's family time.
On days I don't write, I'm usually in meetings, doing interviews, editing, traveling, pondering the next section of the novel I'm working on, or spending time with the family.
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. We tend to believe life is different in small towns, and frankly, it is different. The pace of life is slower, there's little traffic, people tend to know their neighbors; each town has its distinct idiosyncrasies and charms.
What general themes, ideas, or impressions do you hope readers take away from your novels?
Themes vary from novel to novel, but most deal with different aspects of love: everlasting love, first love, second chances at love, love and mystery, love and danger, and so on.
Themes provide the unwritten subtext of the novel. The subtext — what the author endeavors to show without explanation — gives the novel deeper meaning. It is also what generally separates good novels from great ones.
Ideally, I try to write a novel that will be remembered forever. It's a lofty goal, but what's life without goals?
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.
Which novelists and writers have substantially influenced your writing?
Stephen King, Ethan Canin, and Robert James Waller. I admire Stephen King for never losing sight of the fact that novels should be, above all, interesting stories. Then Ethan Canin, since I've always admired his literary style. Finally, Robert James Waller, for helping me understand the ins and outs of the modern love story.