The Last Song Writing Notes

I’m not even sure where to begin with this:  the screenplay or the novel.

I suppose I should start with the screenplay, since that’s where a lot of the elements were worked out.  Between tours (I had three that fall – one for the film Nights in Rodanthe, a U.S. book tour, and a European book tour), I wrote the screenplay, and I suppose most people would like to know whether writing a screenplay is harder than writing a novel.

Not a chance.  Screenplays are easy to write, once you know the rules.  The rules can be found in any screenwriting book and they provide the structure of the film.  After that, the writing is exceedingly easy, if only because you’re allowed to “tell.” In novels, you have to “show.”  Big difference there.  In a script, you write:  “Jim is still angry at his boss as he enters his apartment.”  In a novel, on the other hand, you have to write something like, “The neighbors could hear cursing him through the thin walls of their apartments, but Jim had never cared what those losers thought of him.  All he could think about was the way his boss had talked to him.  As if he were an idiot.  A moron.  An imbecile.  It took everything Jim had not to smash his fist into the man’s nose, and for a long moment, he’d actually seen himself doing it.  As he sat there listening to his piece of crap boss with his ridiculous comb-over droning on and on about deadlines and quotas, he imagined himself balling his hands into a fist and leaping across the desk; he could see his boss’s eyes widen in shock and fright, and as he delivered the blow, he could almost feel the crunch of bone as the nose began gushing blood.  Slamming his door, he needed a drink.  No, screw that.  What he needed was a bottle . . .”

Granted, that wasn’t necessarily very good, but you get the point.  Never once did I say “Jim was angry.”   Showing is ALWAYS harder than telling.  And in a screenplay, telling is all – for space reasons – that you’re really allowed to do.

I finished the first draft of the screenplay in December, and did the first rewrite later that month.  In January, once the director was hired, I did another rewrite.  Both rewrites took about a day or two – I didn’t find them difficult, and with that, my role as a screenwriter was largely concluded.

By then, of course, I’d started on the novel.  As I’d done with The Lucky One, I chose to write the story in limited third-person perspective, and though I’d done it before, it was a bit more difficult in this particular novel than it had been in The Lucky One.  A lot of things were more difficult in fact, and no character more so than Ronnie.  Ronnie, at the beginning of the novel (and film) is angry, moody and sometimes rude – and yet, I had to make her likable at exactly the same time.  No easy task there.  At the same time (and unlike the film), I knew I had to develop Steve (Ronnie’s father) on a much deeper level.  While the novel is centered around Ronnie and Will (both teenagers), I wanted to have a story in which adults could relate.  I wanted Steve to develop into his own character (not simply a supporting character, as in the film), and I wanted to bring an element of faith into the novel.   Thus, Steve needed his own journey, his own compelling back-story, so to speak, and while in the end it served to make the novel richer and more fulfilling, it was occasionally challenging on any number of levels.

Adding to the difficulties was the sheer breath and scope of the novel.   There are a multitude of characters and a multitude of events:  in the end, the novel ended up 20% longer than anything I’ve ever written before.  Still, it reads quickly, and in the end, I think it will be a novel that readers will remember for a long time after the final page is turned.

The Lucky One Writing Notes

Once the research on Logan Thibault’s military experiences, the writing proceeded relatively smoothly.  Aside from Logan’s recollections, it was for the most part a “linear” story and those are always a bit easier to write.

Still, as with all my novels, I wanted to do something different—not only with the story or the structure or the characters (as I always try to vary) but literally with the “voice” in the novel.  I’ve written in first person and third-person omniscient, but with this novel, I wanted to try writing in limited third-person omniscient.

It was something I’d never done before, but something I’d always wanted to try.  It allows the reader to feel an almost “first person” closeness with the character, while still allowing for all the characters to participate.

To do this, each chapter was told through the perspective of a single character.  For example, in chapters labeled “Thibault,” only Thibault’s thoughts are included.  Anything another character does is seen through his perspective, one that Thibault must only assume.  If he’s talking to Beth, he can intuit what she’s thinking, but the reader is never allowed to know for sure.  Until, of course, the next chapter arrives (perhaps labeled “Beth”) where she might reflect on what she’d actually been thinking.
It’s a powerful form of writing when used effectively, but the challenge is to make each character’s voice distinct enough to be immediately recognizable.  In other words, the reader should be able to “know” who’s talking, even if the chapter hadn’t been labeled at all.

There was a learning curve associated with this.  It made the development of the relationship between Thibault and Beth a bit more difficult (since it was only through one person’s eyes at any given time), but on the other hand, it made the characters themselves a bit easier to craft.  And some voices were more difficult than others.  Keith Clayton’s voice, for instance, was ridiculously easy to write.  Logan – because he was reticent – was a bit more difficult.  Beth was somewhere in between.

Then, of course, there’s the challenge of keeping the story “linear.”  That’s a bit tougher to do when writing with this form of literary voice.
Still, it was fun to do.  The writing was slow and difficult at times, easier and quicker at others.  In terms of difficulty, it was probably in the easiest third of the novels I’ve written (The Guardian will ALWAYS remain at the top of the difficulty scale – see notes on The Guardian as to the reason why) but because it was longer than the three previous novels I’d written (At First Sight, Dear John, and The Choice), it seemed to take longer than normal, at least until the end of the novel.  I think it took around five months to write the first 280 pages; the last 70 pages, however, were written in three days.  The action packed ending of the novel literally wrote itself, and by that point in time, I couldn’t have been any happier about it.

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.

At First Sight Writing Notes

I started the novel in the last week of February 2005, and completed the first draft in early June. In between, I went on a three week U.S. book tour, spent another nine days on a book tour in England and Ireland, took my family to Disneyworld for five days, and spent three days in New York. Keep in mind that after each of those trips, it usually takes two or three days to catch up in my office, and it’s important to my wife (and me) that I spend the weekends with my family. While I made a promise to myself after my trip around the world (that I took with my brother Micah and that formed the basis for my memior, Three Weeks With My Brother) that I would slow down, I had to put that promise aside to finish the novel. It was a pressure-packed three months.

Fortunately, as far as the writing went, I had a couple of things going for me. First, I knew the characters and the setting, I knew the character’s voices and the way they talked, I had all the relationships and back-stories worked out and I already had part of the ending completed (all wonderful left-overs from True Believer). Yet, because of my unusually tight deadline, I knew I wouldn’t have time to make mistakes, so I spent the first week writing a detailed, forty-page outline. I wanted to know exactly what was happening chapter by chapter, and within the chapters as well. It did make the writing go much more smoothly.

Strange, but as difficult as True Believer was to write, the writing of At First Sight proceeded relatively smoothly. I worked four to five days a week, putting out 8,000-10,000 words or so. Still, it was difficult to get into a rhythm, since I was forced to travel so much. I would work for two weeks, travel for three weeks, work for a week, travel for a week, work for two weeks, travel for a week. . . work for three days, leave for three days. . . despite the steady progress, I found myself wishing that I could simply strap myself into my chair so I could finish the novel in one fell swoop.

I suppose that this novel would fall into the easy-to-write or relatively easy-to-write category. While I found it difficult to escape the pressure of the ever-encroaching deadline, the novel was completed in about ten weeks (spread out over four months). Still, because I’d taken no break between True Believer and At First Sight, I had more than a couple of days where I threw myself an old-fashioned temper tantrum. I’ll be honest; I don’t like deadlines, even when they’re self-imposed. Still, I was thrilled with the final product.
The editing on the novel was simple: the first draft came in relatively close to the final product. As is typical, we ended up cutting about 15% of the novel. I’m more than happy to cut, since it helps to keep the pages turning, and in the end, it’s the mark of efficient writing. The most challenging part of the editing process was the timeline: the novel covers a ten month period, so I had to note every instance in the novel where I wrote something like, “a week later,” or “as June approached.” Because of the outline, it was easier to make it accurate.

On an, “I betcha didn’t know this!” note: I suppose I should admit that I have a tendency to use some words more than others. I think all writers are this way, since everyone is a creature of habit and usually it’s not a problem as long as you fix them before the final version is published. Since I know what words I tend to overuse (no, I won’t tell you which ones they are), I simply run a computer search for them, then delete them wherever I can. In this book, there were fourteen words I focused on—and wow, I really overused a couple!. I made the necessary deletions, and I’m hopeful that you won’t be able to figure out what the original words were.

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