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.