Written by Dylan Callaghan
If Nicholas Sparks, the mega-successful writer behind Disney’s new Miley Cyrus hanky-yanker The Last Song, was a character in one of his best-selling novels, he’d be an athletically handsome writer from hard scrabble beginnings who’d made millions spinning his woe over a lost love into tales that touched the hearts of women everywhere, while his heart remained broken.
It turns out only the athletically handsome, hard-scrabble-turned-millionaire bits are true… and the part where he’s touched the hearts of millions around the world.
That’s where the similarities end.
The author of The Notebook and A Walk to Remember is a happily married father of five, and a man of nearly military precision, earnest specificity, and mogul drive. He’s more diligent overachiever than lovesick romantic lead. He rises at 5:30 a.m., works out several hours a day, coaches track, and has funded and built a Christian school in his community in North Carolina, all while producing no less than an allotted 2000 words a day. If he had not been catapulted to millionaire status by The Notebook in 1996 – he promised himself he’d be a millionaire before he was 30 and just made the cut off by a few months – the self-taught writer, who studied business finance in college, says he would have been a hedge fund manage.
So if you think your broken heart’s gonna make you millions, ya might wanna try some hard work.
His new screenplay-turned-novel, The Last Song, represents a change in what has been a ritualistic production regime over the last decade and a half. Rather than a novel that became a film, this came from a story idea Sparks pitched to Disney and Miley Cyrus. Instead of another writer adapting his novel to a screenplay, for the first time Sparks not only wrote the script – with co-writer Jeff Van Wie – but he did it before writing the novel.
Photo: © 2010 Touchstone Pictures
Liam Hemsworth and Miley Cyrus in The Last Song.
He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about The Last Song, how he toils laboriously to make each book fresh, and how writing the script first didn’t make the novel any easier.
This must have been a different experience to write the novel after having written a screenplay?
Yes and no. I suppose my biggest disappointment was that after finishing the screenplay, which was about 105 pages or so, I thought writing the novel would be easier. It was not. It was as hard as every novel I’ve ever written.
Not harder or less hard?
Not harder or less hard. All novels I write are exceptionally challenging.
So it’s usually a struggle?
It is very much a struggle.
What is the hardest part for you?
The hardest part for me goes hand in hand with the genre in which I work. In many genres you read these stories because you know what to expect in terms of voice and structure and pacing. Elements of the story might be different, but the structure and voice and pacing tend to be the same. People read a lot of different authors because they like the way these elements are handled.
In my particular genre it’s imperative to vary the voice, the pacing and the structure as well as the story because people read them to be surprised. Every time I sit down to write, it feels like I’m reinventing the wheel. So I’ve had novels I’ve written in first person, I’ve combined first and third person, I’ve written in third person, I’ve written in limited third person omniscient. I have written long novels, short novels, and medium novels. I have written novels with many characters and novels with only a few characters. I have written novels from the point of view of a woman, from a man, from an 80-year-old man, from a 29-year-old divorced female to a soldier to, in this particular case, a 17-year-old girl.
But then as unique as all those variations are, it’s also always the sort of the Nicholas Sparks love story that’s anticipated.
Of course. There is always a love story element in there. It’s always a story in which most of the emotions are covered. It is a story that’s always set in North Carolina, always in a small town, so there are some things that are the same, but the main challenges with writing go down to things like character, voice, structure, pacing, and story. So I have to vary those every time I sit down to write.
Have you ever longed to get out of North Carolina or the love story frame?
Not necessarily, because I have to vary so much, I’m allowed to incorporate elements of other genres in my work. For instance, I can incorporate danger or mystery and that helps keep what I write different and unique.
Did the writing of this particular screenplay teach you anything about writing in general?
Writing the screenplay is easier for me, quite frankly. It’s not as long and once you understand the screenplay structure, it’s simply writing. I attempt to do the same thing [as I do with novels] – I attempt to move the reader to greenlight the movie.
How much are you a structured outliner with your novels?
I don’t outline at all.
So in that sense, the screenplay, with its strict skeletal structure is different, right?
It was. There’s no question it was different. There are different rules that come into play. Narrative in a screenplay, for instance, tends to be much easier because you’re allowed to tell, you don’t have to show because the actor is going to show the emotion. You can write, “She enters the house still angry from her argument with Will.” I can write that in a screenplay, I can’t write that in a novel. I have to write, “She came in the house and slammed the door and windows shook,” or whatever. You have to show it.
At the same time, in novels, it’s an easier flow of dialogue because you can start at the beginning where as with screenplays, you almost start every scene at the end.
You start every scene at the end of the scene?
Of course. In the sense of dialogue and action, because if you try to start them from the beginning of the scene as in a novel, it would take too long to get to the point of that scene. So assumptions are made in screenplays, whereas, in novels, generally you have to work the truth of the backstory into the novel itself.
With your novel writing you don’t outline, you just have it in your head?
With the screenplay you took the same approach?
When you were writing in relative obscurity, you were working in pharmaceutical sales?
You had completed several novels in your spare time and submitted The Notebook to agents but hadn’t heard much back yet, what kind of attitude did you cultivate about the work when you didn’t have success and how much do you feel that had to do with your ultimate success? Does that make sense?
The question makes sense, however, you’re a tiny bit misinformed, which is fine. Let me answer that by saying this – when I wrote The Notebook, I liked the story. I thought that if I did it well, it would be a story that moved people; it would be a story that people would remember for a very long time. I don’t know if I’m any different than any other author who’s working on their novel, but I was very confident that it was a good story. And yet, I was fully aware that it’s a very challenging environment. There are no guarantees in publishing. So I guess you could say that I was confident and that confidence was tinged with lots of hope and a part of me that said, “Well, maybe it’s not going to work.” How’s that?
The first agent that read the manuscript took me on as a client. When I submitted it to publishers on Thursday, it had sold by Monday noon. So it wasn’t necessarily a long and grueling process. But at the same time, even once it sold, there was no guarantee people were going to buy if from the stores. So you have an entire year in which you hope it’s going to work, but you really can never expect it to work.