Tips from author Nicholas Sparks, the King of Love

The Globe and Mail

Nicholas Sparks is the author of The Lucky One, The Notebook and Dear John. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

His life is a storybook. While in university, studying business and finance, he wrote two novels that never got published. In 1994, while working as a travelling salesman of pharmaceuticals, he decided to give writing one more try. Over six months, in his spare time, he wrote The Notebook. A few years later, after an agent pulled the manuscript out of the slush pile, he secured a $1-million (U.S.) advance.

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Nicholas Sparks, a boyish 46 in casual clothes, is now a worldwide phenomenon with more than $80-million in sales of his 18 books, seven of which have been turned into Hollywood movies. His brand is golden: tearjerker romance. For his latest book-turned-movie, The Lucky One, which brought him to a downtown Toronto hotel for media interviews, the promotional material was simply a box featuring the poster of the movie, starring Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling, with a packet of tissues inside.

But his success is not without rules. Herewith, tips from the King of Love on life and writing bestsellers.

Remember love can arrive at the most unexpected moments.

Mr. Sparks met Cathy, his wife of 22 years, and the mother of their five children, when they were both on spring break in Florida during college. He and his friends were staying in a condo that belonged to a roommate’s father. A group of girls called up to them on the balcony. They needed to use a bathroom because the person whose condo they were visiting hadn’t yet arrived. Such is serendipity that love can be sparked from a lack of public washrooms. The girls entered the boys’ condo, peed, and stayed to chat. Wait for that storyline at a theatre near you.

When you fall in love, make a practical calculation.

On the second night, Mr. Sparks told the girl with the bathroom urgency that they would get married. She laughed at him. But he knew. “By then, I had a very strong sense of who she was. It was really a very practical decision. That first night we spent talking to one another. We had so much in common – all the big things in life. And she had such a great sense of humour. And you could just see in her this kindness. And I remember thinking very clearly, ‘You know, you could meet someone equivalent to this one day but it’s unlikely you’ll ever meet someone better.’ ”

Use family and friends as inspiration for characters. And hey, your dog, too.

His sister’s death at 33 inspired A Walk to Remember. His mother’s death fuelled inspiration of Message in a Bottle, a story about love after loss. His wife’s kindness and love of children inform the character of many of his female leads. For The Rescue he drew from his experience with one of his three sons, who has Asperger’s. In The Lucky One, “the main character is very much like my brother for years and years.” And Rex, his German Shepherd, prompted the use of the breed for the protagonist’s dog, Zeus, in The Lucky One. “Rex sat at my feet as I wrote it,” he says.

Act a little huffy when people wonder if there might be other kinds of books to write.

“Writing’s hard,” he begins. “Actually, no. Writing good is easy. It’s a joke. Writing average, even easier.” He shrugs. “Writing something that will be remembered for a long time, something that Hollywood will turn into a film that will be remembered for a long time? For me, it’s a very challenging thing.”

Apply standards to events that will happen in the book.

Whenever Mr. Sparks considers how to bring a romantic couple together, he has three strict criteria. “It has to be interesting enough, original enough, and universal enough,” he explains. If he’s stumped, he’ll test out plot ideas on his wife and friends – even strangers on the street. “In the development of The Last Song, the characters didn’t want to be together, so I needed to look for something that would force them together which had a beginning and an end. I was looking for something that takes places in the summer, in North Carolina ... It took me probably eight weeks to figure out sea turtles.”

Don’t worry when people suggest that you only write about beautiful, white people.

“Yeah,” Mr. Sparks acknowledges as though you’ve just pointed out the sky is blue. He shrugs.

Push back when you’re told you write in the romance genre.

“That’s inaccurate,” he says, his affable countenance with a wrinkle of consternation. “In the romance novel genre, it’s totally different rules and totally different things you have to do. A romance novel is romantic fantasy. It’s not universality. Romance novels must end happily. Cinderella is the root of all romance. You read them because you know exactly what to expect.”

Patiently explain your rules for what you write.

“The structure has to vary… People read them because they don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s” – here, he talks about himself in the third person – “been known to end [stories]tragically [ At First Sight] Or yet sometimes the couple wants to be together but they can’t because she has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember him [ The Notebook] It can be bittersweet.”

Reduce human behaviour to two emotions.

“There are only two major emotions, of which all others derive. You have love and you have fear. When people get angry, it’s coming from fear somewhere… Love meanwhile drives compassion and it drives service and trust.”

Maintain rules about what you won’t write about.

No infidelity. No premarital sex for teens. No excess profanity. No excess graphic sexual scenes. “I will not glamorize darkness in characters,” he adds. “And that comes from a ‘Let’s make the world a better place.’ These are rules your mother taught you, passed down through civilized society.”

Remember the grannies.

“Look, you could say, ‘Those rules I have, they’re my own belief.’ But I also have grandmothers who read my books. My grandmothers don’t want me to write that stuff, so I don’t.”

Never let them see you be complacent or formulaic.

“I can answer that. I can answer that!” he practically squeals, when asked why he continues to write when he has made millions. “When I sit down, it is my goal to write a new book that is better than anything I have ever done... And that means I will probably be writing a long time, because some people will always like The Notebook most of all … I like challenges. And if I’m not challenged, I’m just bored.”

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