True Believer Writing Notes

Some novels are hard to write, others are easy. Which was which, you might ask? A Walk to Remember and Nights in Rodanthe were easy; The Guardian, The Rescue, and The Wedding were difficult. Message in a Bottle and The Notebook were somewhere in between. But True Believer . . . my oh my, that was the toughest yet. But there have been plenty of challenging ones. While writing The Rescue, for instance, there was a six week period where I could write nothing at all, for the simple reason that I didn’t know how to wind up the last third of the novel. Still, before the block and after the block, the writing progressed relatively smoothly. With True Believer, every chapter and page was difficult, the whole way through.

The obvious question is why? Why was this particular novel so difficult?

I suppose it came down to the fact that I write love stories. (“Duh!” as Lexie might say.) But in this instance, neither Jeremy nor Lexie wanted to fall in love, let alone fall in love with each other. In every other novel, one—or both—characters felt as if they were missing something in their lives. The characters were wounded in some way and saw the relationship as a way to fill that void. In True Believer, that simply wasn’t the case, so the question became: how do you get two people to fall in love when (1) one isn’t particularly attracted to the other in the first place, (2) they’re “realists” and both understand that whatever happens will be temporary (since they live in different states), something neither person wants (3) they’re both very happy with the lives they currently lead, and (4) neither has any intention of falling in love? Not only that, but I had to make the story interesting and original and universal, not to mention believable….

Ugh ... it’s still painful to think about. It was incredibly difficult to have two people fall in love when they didn’t want to. Typing sentences was like walking through quicksand. I’d write something, decide it was wrong and end up deleting it. In the past, my work usually took the following form: I’d write 2000 words, then begin the next day by editing them before writing another 2000 words. Usually, I’d end up editing out 200-300 words; in True Believer, on the other hand, I’d end up cutting 1,200 out of the 2000 words I’d written the day before. This made for far longer days (9-10 hours, as opposed to 5-6), much slower progress, and each day seemed no less challenging than the last. To be honest, I dreaded the process from beginning to end. Dread or challenge, by the way, has nothing whatsoever to do with my perception of the quality of the work; I think True Believer has the most realistic characters I’ve created to date, the setting is the most vivid, the secondary characters are the most developed, and the back story is second to none. (For your own proof, by the way, quick close your eyes and think of your three favorite novels of mine, then go up to the first paragraph again. Odds are, you like an easy one, a medium one and a hard one. Am I right?)

But the ending. . . okay, I’ll go right upfront and tell you something few people know. The ending of the novel is not what originally I conceived it to be. When I first submitted the novel to my editor, I thought I had a great ending, a fabulous ending, an ending that would knock your socks off, so to speak. My editor had the opposite opinion. I learned that the ending would have to be largely rewritten from scratch, and I’ve learned to trust my editor. (Just so you know: If you like any of my previous novels, you’d trust her too—she’s had a hand in all of them.) By then, it was January—the novel was coming out in April—and not only that, I had another novel coming out in October, one I hadn’t even begun to think about. Needless to say, the pressure was on, and—in what I still consider to be one of my finest creative moments—I had the sudden inspiration to change the ending to True Believer, then take the original ending and expand into the kind of story it deserved by making it a sequel, tentatively titled, At First Sight.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When I look back on that first draft, the ending now seems almost tacked on. More than that, I wanted an original ending to both stories, and those who’ve read True Believer would be hard-pressed to say that it wasn’t different than my previous novels. Thus, the decision to alter the end—and create a sequel from its aftermath served to make this work, when coupled with its sequel, among my most original and complex to date.

Standing alone, I think True Believer is a very good story, and certainly better than any modern love story I’ve read in recent years. (In my opinion, most modern love stories by other authors tend to either glorify adultery or specialize in melodrama, cliches, and lack of believability, or worse, all of the above.) But when coupled with the sequel, At First Sight, True Believer becomes a saga, and in time, I think these two works—when combined—will be regarded as among my best work to date.

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.

Nights in Rodanthe Writing Notes

It had been in my mind for some time to write another short love story, a story that harkens back to the poignant emotional intensity of The Notebook. I suppose I’d been thinking about it since I was working on The Rescue, but as much as I tried, the pieces just didn’t seem to come together. In all love stories, there has to be an element that keeps the characters apart in order to create drama, and throughout the course of my career, I’ve tried never to use the same element twice. Thus, it gets progressively harder and harder to write new novels, but in the end, it’s what makes a story memorable. If I don’t have the “conflict,” I don’t have the story, and for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with something new to keep the characters apart.

I also wanted to write a story using characters at mid-life because it’s something I haven’t done (with the exception of The Notebook, in which they’re elderly, not middle-aged). It’s a great age to write about, simply because so many family elements can come into play between the characters. People at that age are being pulled by their children (who are becoming adults) and their parents (who might be in need of additional assistance), both of which create realistic obstacles to new relationships.
Yet, as I said, for a long time, the story didn’t seem to want to come together.

In the meantime, I wrote A Bend in the Road and the first draft of The Guardian. The Guardian was a tremendous challenge for a number of reasons. I won’t go into those here, other than to say that the first editorial letter was the most disheartening letter I’d ever received from my editor. It was obvious that The Guardian would require a great deal of re-writing, but I was tired of working on the story and needed a break from it.

My mind then returned to the story I’d been thinking about, and suddenly everything began to click. Within days, I suddenly knew exactly how to tell the story. I knew the characters, the setting, and especially and most importantly, the “conflict” that would keep the characters apart.

I then had a choice of which novel I wanted to publish first—do I go back to work on The Guardian, or do I write the new story that eventually became Nights in Rodanthe?
Because I had no doubt that I could have either story ready by September, there were a number of business decisions that came into play in making the final decision. I looked at the “pattern” of my novels, and noticed that I tended to follow a long book with a short book, and I thought it best to keep that pattern. The Rescue was long, A Bend in the Road was long, and The Guardian was long, which meant that Nights in Rodanthe would more than likely be short. I thought it would be best to publish a shorter novel in between those three long ones, and that favored writing Nights in Rodanthe.

There was also the fact that although The Guardian is a wonderful and exciting book, it was different in that it had a “dangerous” element to the story. Though I was confident that everyone would enjoy the novel, I didn’t want my readers to think I’d strayed too far from the type of novels that I originally wrote. Many authors do exactly that—stray too far—and lose readers in the long run for doing so. Again, that realization favored the writing of Nights in Rodanthe, which in many ways—characters, settings, structure, etc.—is similar to my original novel, The Notebook. I wanted my original readers to know that I hadn’t forgotten that they were the ones primarily responsible for my success, and I wanted to give them a novel that I knew they would enjoy.

But it was mid-December and the book was due in February. The question then became whether or not I could finish the novel in time. I made the decision to give it a try.
Thankfully, most of the novel came off without a hitch. I worked five days a week, and wrote a couple of thousand words each day. By the end of January, I had completed 75% of the novel but I hit a snag regarding the structure. After coming up with an original idea, structure is always the most difficult part of crafting a love story.

The problem was this: as the story was structured, I knew that Paul and Adrienne separated about three quarters of the way through the novel, but Paul had promised that he’d be back in a year and that they would be together after that. I also knew that I wanted the novel to not be much longer and everything up until the point of their separation was written with that in mind. It was also obvious—from the very beginning of the story—that Paul and Adrienne never got back together. The reason, of course, was because Paul had died (and I knew that from the very beginning), yet because Adrienne was telling the story to her daughter, there’s no doubt that “where is he?” would be one of the first questions Amanda asked.

To sustain the suspense, however, I couldn’t let the reader know what happened for about the first quarter of the novel. The reason I had to keep the suspense that long was simple: once the reader finds out what happens to Paul, the conclusion of the book is anti-climactic. To keep the story moving, I simply couldn’t provide the answer to that question right away. Nor could I simply have ended the story a few pages after he’d left the house, or the novel would fail on a structural level.

Now, pages and page of “stalling” is actually quite hard to do in short novel. As I worked through that final section, one page at a time, I honestly felt as if I were on a “tight-rope.” Could I make it to the other end? I didn’t know, yet I had to, or the novel would be lost. If you glance through those pages, you’ll notice that I covered Adrienne’s opinion about her house, what had happened in the last fourteen years—including aspects of her job and her relationship with her former husband, what had happened in the immediate aftermath of Paul leaving the house in Rodanthe, letters, conversations… and, of course, it all had to flow and seem perfectly natural, so that the suspense continued to build. Let’s just say that it was a whole lot harder to do than it probably seemed to the reader. But in the end, I think it worked and I was pleased how the final section had come out.
The other major problem had to do with how to tell the reader that Paul had died. In a conversation? In a phone call? I made attempts at both of those, but neither seemed to be create the emotional intensity I desired. In the end, I came to the decision to use a letter, as I had in some of my previous novels. While you may think that using a letter from Mark had always been planned, it wasn’t. In fact, I struggled with what to do for a few days, until the obvious came to mind.

The Rescue Writing Notes

The novel’s main character, Denise Holton, was a blend of my wife and myself. Her hopes and fears about her son Kyle are accurately portrayed and drawn from our own experiences. This was my most personal novel, in many ways, and the most challenging to write.

The challenge didn’t stem from the portrayal of Denise’s relationship with Kyle. Instead, it had to do with the pacing and structure of the novel. When I was halfway through the writing of the novel, I was struck with a major case of writer’s block.

The problem had to do with the relationship between Denise and Taylor, and for a long time, I didn’t know how to handle it. In the novel, the progression of their relationship from their first conversation at the corner store to falling in love covered approximately seventy pages. That part was fine. But from there, because of Taylor’s internal conflicts, I had to dissolve the relationship. I understood that part, too. The problem was that I had to dissolve the relationship in roughly the same number of pages as the relationship had taken to build, and to do this even though neither character wanted it to happen and while both of them still loved each other. At the same time, it had to seem perfectly natural and plausible.

It was a tremendous challenge. The buildup and dissolution had to be about the same number of pages because of pacing and its effect on the overall quality of the novel. If the dissolution happened too quickly, the reader would question whether Taylor and Denise had ever been in love or if it was simply an infatuation. Had there been an obvious reason for the dissolution, Taylor’s character would lack coherence and it wouldn’t be consistent with the central crisis in his character, “the inability to commit.” Had either of them wanted it to happen, Taylor’s character wouldn’t make sense.

I remember reaching that point in the novel, my hands hovering over the keyboard, and simply stopping. I figured I’d think about it for a day or so and the answer would come.
But the day turned into a few days, then a week. Then a couple of weeks. Then a month. Then another month. By then, I was getting worried. Nothing I considered would seem to work and I’d thrown out hundreds of ideas.

My agent was the one who finally helped come up with the answer. How we solved the problem was to work backwards in the story. The last step in the dissolution was the break-up, that was obvious. But what was the immediate preceding event that led to it? Taylor hurt Kyle’s feelings in some way, though he hadn’t meant to, and Denise can’t live with that. What did he do? He’d promised to take Kyle to a baseball game for his birthday and didn’t show up. Why didn’t he show up? He swears it was an honest mistake. But Denise knows it’s more than that because? A few days earlier, Taylor didn’t drive her into work either. Why didn’t he do that? Because. . .
We worked it all the way back to the point in the novel where I was stuck, and once I had the general idea of how it was all going to happen, I was able to start writing again. I finished the novel within a few weeks.

On a lighter note, most of the names mentioned in the novel are names of friends of mine in the town where I live. For instance, Taylor McAden comes from the names of the Taylors and the McAdens. Carl, Rhonda, Kim, Ray, Melissa, Bart. . . all names of friends. Denise was named after the producer of Message in a Bottle, and she is also a friend.

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