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.

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