Message in a Bottle Writing Notes

The novel was written during two periods, spring and summer 1996 and spring of 1997. In between, I went on a major book tour for The Notebook and was largely away from home for months at a time. With so many interviews and signings, I had no time to work on it.

When I was about halfway through with the novel (early spring 1997), my agent suggested that we send what was written, along with a detailed outline for the remaining half of the novel, to my agents in Hollywood for presentation to various studios. My agent suggested we change the title from Letters to Catherine to Message in a Bottle, since my original title sounded too much like a correspondence. They ended up being right. It was sold in that as-yet incomplete form to Warner Brothers, with Denise DiNovi producing. I finished the first draft of the novel in June 1997. The final editing was complete by August 1997, and the novel was released the following spring.

The novel didn’t need much major work with the exception of trimming, and the first draft was fairly close to the final product. The one major issue I dealt with during the editing process was making Catherine, the deceased wife, a more integral part of the novel. In the first draft, she was largely a shadowy figure and my editor felt we needed to “breathe life into her ghost” for the novel to take on a richer meaning. To do that, I added various snippets of their life together in memory form, and worked those into the narrative. These snippets had to tell a story as well, and I decided to add in the fact that Catherine was pregnant when she died, which made Garrett’s grief all that much more understandable. I also added a couple of dreams, to more fully explore their relationship.

A couple of small, yet interesting points: Theresa was named after my agent, Theresa Park, then of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates (she left in 2005 to start her own agency, The Park Literary Group). Catherine is the name of my wife. One of the dates in the letters is the date of my wedding anniversary. Garrett’s name was chosen with care, because Theresa had to be able to find him in a city the size of Wilmington (100,000) based on limited knowledge. The name couldn’t be too common, or too strange. “Garrett” seemed to fit the bill. Deanna was named after a friend who wanted her name in a novel.

The Notebook Writing Notes

I began the novel in July 1994, working in the evenings and one day on the weekends, and the first, rough draft was completed in December. The first draft was approximately 80,000 words, and I began cutting the story down, doing my best to make it as efficient as possible. That took another couple of months. The final version was approximately 47,000 words.

Why did I cut so much? The story itself was a simple one: only two main characters, two principle settings, and the story only covered a few days in their lives. To have kept the book at 80,000 words would have slowed the story to a crawl without making it any more interesting, and I wanted a story where the pages turned quickly.

I’ll give you one example of the cutting, since many people ask about that. Toward the beginning of the novel, Noah mentions a book of poetry he’d carried with him in the war. In the first draft, I’d described an exciting “war” scene, complete with Noah getting caught behind enemy lines, disobeying orders, and heading back to find the book, only to get caught in a fire-fight, etc. It ran four pages, but after reading through the draft, I knew the scene was too long, since it was tangential to the primary story. I first cut the scene to three pages, then two, and finally got it down to a page. Yet, after additional readings, I still thought it was too long. It went from four paragraphs to three, then to two, and I finally got the scene down to a single paragraph. Pretty good cutting, right? After re-reading again, I still thought it was too long. It went from four sentences to three, three to two, then two to one.

The final sentence read, “It (meaning the book of poetry) had once taken a bullet for him.”

Another interesting thing about the novel was the order in which I wrote it. I wrote the final chapter, “Winter for Two” first; I wrote the middle section after that. The last pages I wrote were the first five pages of the novel, the chapter entitled “Miracles.”

I wrote in this way for a couple of reasons: First, I knew I wanted the ending of the story to be poignant and heartfelt, and second, because I didn’t know if I would be able to do that, since my previous novels hadn’t been good enough to publish. If I couldn’t do it, I didn’t want to waste my time writing the rest of the novel, knowing it would collapse at the end. Once I was satisfied with the end, I went back and wrote the bulk of the story. I wrote the first five pages last because I knew those would take a lot of time and had to be perfect to get the attention of an agent right away.

The major challenge in the novel took place toward the end of the novel. At that point, Allie didn’t remember Noah and Noah wouldn’t tell her who he was, because that usually upset her. Because of these two facts, they could talk about neither the past, nor the future, yet their conversations had to lead them to fall in love. And the reader had to feel them falling in love, as it was happening, and it had to be a legitimate feeling, not forced, since evoking genuine empathy is necessary in a love story. It wasn’t easy and required a great deal of thought and effort to get it just right.

On a more trivial note: the names Noah and Allie were chosen because poetry played a large role in the story, and I wanted names that rolled off the tongue.

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