The Guardian Writing Notes

For a variety of reasons, The Guardian was an exceptionally difficult novel to craft, and looking back, I suppose I should have expected it.

First, there was intense deadline pressure, primarily due to the fact that A Bend in the Road wasn’t completed until nearly April 2001. Usually, I try to start my novels in January, which left me nearly four months behind schedule when I first sat down to write.

In addition, at the time I started, our home life was extremely busy. My wife was pregnant with twins, we had two older sons and a toddler running around the house, and we were also in the process of remodeling our home. By early summer, my wife couldn’t keep up with the kids, and thus, I had to squeeze writing in whenever I could, as opposed to simply sequestering myself in the office for hours at a time.  There was a constant struggle to keep the ideas flowing steadily. For a three month period, my schedule was roughly the following: wake at four a.m., write for three hours, feed and entertain the kids until noon, do bills and paperwork while the toddler napped, feed and entertain the kids until eight, and then write again until 1:00 a.m. I slept an average of three hours a night, and I still consider that period as one of the most challenging in my life.

To make matters even more challenging, the novel kept growing longer – with every chapter I wrote, I would realize that yet another, unanticipated chapter, was suddenly necessary, due to the suspense elements in the novel. I’d write the chapter, then realize that because of what I’d written, I would need another character as well, one that I’d have to work in from the beginning. With every new page I wrote, I found myself crafting – and integrating – another page earlier in the novel. The process was exasperating and painfully slow.

What I originally thought would be an 80-90,000 word novel grew until it reached nearly 150,000 words. It’s hard to stay motivated when it seems as if you’re never going to finish.

Finally, the novel was completely different than anything I’d ever read, which greatly complicated my ideas for the structure. While I’ve read hundreds – even thousands – of thrillers, I wanted to build in a quality love story as well. Many thrillers have characters that fall in love in the course of the story, but the love story is always subordinated to the mystery and tension of the mystery itself. I wanted to write a novel with exactly the opposite effect. I wanted to write a love story with thriller elements, not a thriller with characters who fall in love. The difference seems subtle, but incredibly difficult to pull off, because “external” tension (will he hurt her?) is nearly always more interesting than “internal” conflict (will the characters fall in love?). But since I write love stories – and that’s what my readers want to read – I couldn’t allow that to happen.

There are other differences as well between love stories and thrillers; love stories require a slower pace with detailed settings, while thrillers require a fast pace, with limited settings. Love stories are usually written with two major characters, and – at the most – three other minor characters. Thrillers have three major characters, at least two major-minor characters, and a dozen minor characters, with all the lives intertwining. In the end, The Guardian essentially became two books in one; a love story, romantically slow in building, which was gradually replaced by a story with ever-increasing danger, written at an ever increasing pace. I say this in retrospect; at the time I was writing, my thoughts weren ’t nearly that clear.

I finished the novel while on a book tour in Jackson Mississippi, and you can’t imagine how relieved I was. On all my novels, I’d felt a sense of completion, but this was a much stronger. I felt as if I’d finally put the grueling summer behind me, and even better, I was confident as to how my editor would like the story. I sent the manuscript off to my editor with high hopes, and finished my tour in early November. In early December, I received my editors comments.

She liked the idea for the novel, she said, but she thought the story needed a great deal of work. She didn’t like the main male character, the main “dark” character, she didn’t like the pacing, she thought the entire book lacked tension, and that the last third of the novel had to be entirely rewritten from scratch. To my mind, it felt as if she wanted me to redo the entire thing. Crestfallen, I called her on the phone and asked if she liked anything about the novel. My editor paused. “I liked the dog,” she finally said. I hung up the phone, depressed and anxiety ridden. I simply couldn’t imagine facing the manuscript again – it had been such a struggle that I’d come to loathe the writing process. Everything about the writing of the novel had been a miserable experience, and I didn’t have the energy to dive right into it again. I simply couldn’t do it. But I needed a book for the following autumn, and after a week of contemplation, I decided to write another novel instead. I set The Guardian aside and began writing Nights in Rodanthe on December 27th. That novel was a joy to write, and I completed it in April, without so much as a hitch. From there, I returned to The Guardian and began making the substantial changes my editor required. Those changes were slow and tedious. It took me most of the summer and autumn to complete them, and I finally put the bed to rest in January, 2003. It was published two months later. The Guardian taught me a lot about writing. While the book required extensive work, I’ve come to realize that my editor’s suggestions had been correct. I now believe The Guardian is one of the strongest novels I’ve written. It’s complex, original, believable, and enjoyable, and the final product is one in which I’m extremely proud to claim as my own. People have asked if I’m going to write another one like it – many people have come to regard The Guardian as their favorite – and in the future, I probably will. Now that I understand the structure, I could probably do another “Love-story-thriller” fairly easily. Just not yet. I still need to recover first.

The Wedding Writing Notes

The Wedding, while written relatively quickly, was exceptionally challenging when it came to the structure. There were, in essence, seven different levels of the story occurring simultaneously, and the difficulty arose in trying to blend them seamlessly together in such a way as to never confuse the reader. Two of the levels are obvious. The first concerns Wilson and how he courts Jane while preparing for the wedding – i.e. the “love story.” The second level concerns the preparation for the wedding itself. These first two primary levels were easy to conceive and write; it was the other five sub-levels that presented problems. Those were as follows:

First, the reader needed to understand what brought Wilson and Jane to this sad point in their marriage; i.e. the reader needed to feel the thirty years of “innocent neglect” as Wilson termed it. I needed to describe various significant events that had occurred over the course of their marriage or the story wouldn’t make sense.

Second, problems in a thirty-year marriage can’t realistically be fixed in a single week; thus, another level had to do with changes Wilson had been making since their last anniversary. The reader needed to see Wilson making honest efforts at improving his marriage for at least a year. In this way, Jane – and the reader—would realize Wilson was serious about changing.

Third, if the reader only knew Wilson’s faults over the period of their marriage, they might wonder why Jane had fallen in love with him in the first place. Thus, another level dealt with how Wilson and Jane had originally met and fallen in love.

From there, I had to run parallels from that original “courting” story to the week spent in preparation for the wedding. This helps to flesh out the novel by creating a sense of déjà vu, and help build dramatic tension.

Finally, since the novel was a follow-up to The Notebook, Noah had to have a story as well, one that paralleled The Notebook; i.e. unconditional love, and the magic of seeing their love last through anything.

In essence then, there were seven levels in the novel:

  Level 1—Wilson courting Jane over the course of a week
  Level 2 – Preparations for the wedding
  Level 3 – How Wilson and Jane originally courted.
  Level 4 – Description of their 30 year marriage and Wilson’s “innocent neglect.”
  Level 5 – Wilson’s attempts to improve the marriage in the past year
  Level 6 – Parallels between original courting and new courting.
  Level 7 – Noah’s story

Anytime there are seven different levels in a short novel, complexity becomes an issue. Yet, the novel was made even more complex by the fact that each of the levels had to be told in a linear fashion and flow together as a single story. By that, I mean, each level had to have it’s own beginning, middle and end, and each level had to fit into the overall story in an appropriate way. Getting the balance just right was especially challenging, because I didn’t want the reader to notice the distinctness of these levels, but rather wanted them to read the novel as a whole.

Another difficulty arose from the fact that because Wilson and Jane had been married for thirty years, I couldn’t let the reader “learn” about Wilson and Jane through dialogue. Jane couldn’t, for instance, ask Wilson whether he had any siblings, or what his hobbies were. People married for thirty years often speak in short-hand; thus, I had to find a way to let the reader get to understand the characters without “get-to-know you” dialogue, and I had to structure the remaining “short-hand” dialogue in a way that it felt as if the reader was in the room “listening in” and still understanding exactly what was happening.

Still, despite the challenges, the writing proceeded relatively smoothly; there were only two rough spots. Halfway through the book, I realized that the story of Wilson and Jane’s original courting wasn’t linear; rather, it was a jumbled set of memories. Originally, I’d written the story of their first meeting and their first date, talked about their marriage, went back to the first kiss they’d ever shared, jumped forward to having children, went back to the marriage proposal, went backward again to Wilson’s final year in law school, then jumped forward again to half-way through their marriage. Each of those scenes had originally been intricately woven into the novel, and I had to remove them, reorder them, then change them to “fit” the scenes going on around them. That, my friends, is the beauty of fiction. I’m allowed to make things “fit.” Still, it wasn’t exactly easy to do.

The second challenge was coming up with something wonderfully romantic that Wilson could do for Jane on their “date.” It had to be big enough for readers to believe it had been the “anniversary gift’ he’d been planning for a year, but also had to fit within the events of the story. Believe it or not, simply thinking up that evening took nearly two weeks.

Once the novel was completed, editing was minor. It took less than a week to complete the editing process.

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