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Nicholas Sparks

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Nicholas Sparks

Nobody likes the guy, but somehow Nicholas Sparks has, like, 17 books on the best seller list, several of which have been made into (equally crappy) movies.  Dear John, The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Fucking Bottle.  And the one I am currently reading, The Last Song.  I can handle about ten pages a night before I can't take it anymore.

This is the first Nicholas Sparks novel I've read, but I hope it won't be the last. Because clearly the man is doing something right, published by the biggest houses, with literally millions and millions of readers.  I've just never actually met one (seriously, if you are a fan, please write).

Now the point of my reading Nicholas Sparks' books isn't to enjoy them, per se.  I mean, I'd like to not get so angry while I am reading them, with all his dialogue of she "offered" and he "opined."  I've always been taught it's "said" and the occasional "asked," so his tags really stick out.  And it is hard to read this particular book, The Last Song, because I know it was made into a movie with that goofy-looking Miley Cyrus, and so it's hard not to picture her saying the lines of the girl I am assuming she played, Ronnie.  Still, this is an exercise, a study, an attempt to gleam and cull and interpret; I want to unlock the best seller code.  So where better to start?  It's what James Patterson did, not reading Sparks but dissecting the code, and, fuck, dude doesn't even write his own books anymore.  I am not looking to clone a Sparks' novel, just see the various elements and configurations that makes these novels of his so successful.

Here is what I am have learned in 28 pages (and reading 28 pages in Sparks is like dog years, multiply them by 7, and then add another 4 for the hell of it):

  • Love Story  
          Seems like a no-brainer, but I think a lot of writers, myself certainly included, try to avoid the good ol' fashioned love story.  Because like R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe said in avoiding writing love lyrics (until "Losing My Religion," from 1991's Out of Time): it's trite and been done to death.  I am paraphrasing.  I know that when I was writing my thesis novel, The Lone Palm (as yet unpublished), one of the main things I wanted not to do was have my hero end up with the girl, an end which I confessed to during my defense, and to which one of my panel members, program director Les Standiford, opined, "And it shows."  But people like love stories.  One of the first books I ever read that truly resonated was Stephen King's The Dead Zone, which has a great opening about love lost, and that is what hooked me.  And you can call it saccharine and saturated, but The Notebook had housewives everywhere crying, and I want to make a housewife cry.  Bad.  Next novel's gotta have a love story at its center (he thought to himself ponderously).

  • Good, Clean Christian Values
          This will be tougher, because though I consider myself a Christian, I ain't that kind of Christian.  Not sure what kind of Christian I am.  More of the, "I shouldn't be alive/thank fucking God for giving me a second chance/please don't let me fuck this up/I'm a humble mutherfucking" Christian (we're a smaller sect, admittedly, but we're growing).  My natural inclination is to write about dope fiends and mobsters and whores and thieves, real pillars of the goddamn community.  Earnest dads and preachers trying to build ballfields for orphans?  Not so much.  The best I will be able to do here is try to steer closer to quirky than I do outright subversive. Because, like Idan "the Machine" Levin says: Quirky sells, junkie smells.

  • Types
          Normally, this is supposed to be bad.  I mean, you don't want stock characters, but I don't think Sparks does exactly that.  Still, fiction is character driven, and what he does do is give you troubled people you know, but with troubles that don't threaten you.  Again, I only have 28 pages of one book and 3/4s of a movie (The Notebook) to go on, but the patterns are pretty clear: troubled teen, bratty younger brother, disconnected father, Gena Rowlands with Alzheimer's.  The key is the not threatening part.  This isn't Phillip Marlowe territory.  This is middle America, salt-o'-the-earth folk who believe in God, Country, Family, in some order. I won't say "wholesome" because that's not quite it, and like I said this is only an initial interpretation, but "mainstream" has never seemed more so.

That's all I got so far.  As for the writing itself, it's pretty bad, but that's the little joke about writing that they don't tell you about when you're picking author for a career: you don't necessarily need to "write" all that well.  The story, themes, luck, lots of other shit come before the ability to turn a pretty phrase.  So while it's standard for literary types to dismiss a guy like Sparks for his pedestrian, clunky syntax, it misses the main point: the guy knows how to write a book for mass consumption.  So you can strive to write "your" book, approval be damned, but me?  I want the approval, and for that you need to consider audience, and Nicholas Sparks knows his audience, and he's got them wrapped around his Christian, Middle American, best-selling finger.  

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At July 7, 2011 at 10:14 AM , Blogger troubledwaters said...

If you're going to quote me, do it right (and by that I mean watch your typos):

Quirky sells, junkie smells.


At July 7, 2011 at 10:21 AM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

The hazards of early morning posting... Fixed!

At July 7, 2011 at 12:07 PM , Blogger Sean Craven said...

I'm paying close attention to your work toward conscious, informed commercial writing. At first I kinda recoiled in horror, but you know what? One of my basic rules of writing is not to be afraid to learn from hacks. Hell, there's a lot of pop stuff I enjoy.

You ever take a look at Ken Follett's class on writing bestsellers? He writes pop, but he's a decent writer. If there's a time when I've got the money and he's teaching, I'm gonna be all over that shit.

At July 7, 2011 at 12:26 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Sean, I recoil in horror, as well. But I firmly believe you can learn from just about anything, even in the negative (hell, MOSTLY in the negative). Thanks for the Follet tip. I will definitely check in out. And on that note, have you read Vogler's "The Writer's Journey"? It basically dumbs down Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces," making it much more palatable.

At July 7, 2011 at 12:55 PM , Blogger Sean Craven said...

Yeah, I got it when I was writing scripts, back in the day. I'd already gone deep into Campbell, so I yeah-yeah-yeahed it. But the SF writer Nancy Kress recommended it highly, so I'm trying to find my copy so I can give it another read.


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