We all have writers we admire. But how many actually inspire you? How many do you want to emulate? How many entice you to read every book they write and leave you wishing you wrote them?
For me, there are only two. One is a non-fiction writer, the other, fiction. I will limit my remarks to the novelist here. Nicholas Sparks is my favorite contemporary fiction author for several reasons. He writes in the genre I desire to write. I’m intrigued by the way he develops his plot, weaves in six subplots, climbs into the head of his characters, layers in meaning that helps the reader better understand life and relationships, and how he can catch you looking with his curve ball endings.
While his critics call his tales “sappy,” his throngs consider him a master storyteller of poignant love stories with unpredictable bittersweet endings.
If you’re not familiar with him, you are with his work. His breakthrough novel was The Notebook. It debuted in 1996 and earned him a $1 million advance. He was 29. He followed up with 16 novels and a memoir, most became bestsellers. He has over 50 million copies of his books in print. Six novels have been adapted to the big screen—so far.
His website offers encouragement and advice to writers, his novels are taught in schools, and he continually gives back to his community. Nice guy. By reading him and studying his work, I have learned a few things about this craft we call writing. Here are just three.
1) Parlay your pain into inspiration. Sparks’ career could have been derailed by family tragedy. His mother died in a horseback riding accident at 47. His father died in a car accident at 54 and his sister died at 33 of cancer. Yet, after the grieving process, when he had enough emotional distance, he parlayed his pain into inspiration. His novel, A Walk to Remember, in part, grew out of his sister’s experience. He is a testimony to the fact that life’s most painful experiences are sometimes best understood by courageously writing through them.
2) A bittersweet ending is better than a happy ending. If you have read Message in a Bottle, Dear John or Safe Haven, you’ll see that a complex, bittersweet ending with the inevitable Sparks’ twist is more rewarding than a happy ending—and much more compelling. Truth is stranger than fiction, except with Sparks. He skillfully puts truth and fiction on a level playing field so you can say goodbye to the predictable ending. Who says you have to feel better at the end?
3) Stretch yourself. Don’t be afraid to take risks with your writing or your audience. Nicholas Sparks seems to own the love story today—at least the “let’s-make-it-into-a-movie-tearjerker.” It would be so easy for him to get comfortable. Yet, in Safe Haven, a story about a woman in peril and on the run from an overbearing alcoholic husband, Sparks takes some risks. He tackles the complexity of domestic violence (a subject his readers may not be comfortable with) while weaving in a budding love story amid the lurking threat of danger. This novel, like The Guardian before it, was a departure for him. Yet, it’s a story he wanted to tell and he told it brilliantly. Another bestseller? Of course.
The next time you read a Sparks’ novel, or any novel, analyze it. Read with a critical eye. Try to identify at least one thing you learned from the author or the work that will make you a better writer.
Your Turn: Who is your favorite contemporary author? Why?
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- The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks (caughtbetweenthepages.wordpress.com)