My Sparkian Identity Crisis

Since last August when I really dove headfirst into writing fiction, I’ve sort of immersed myself in learning ways I can possibly do it better. I’ve read books by authors on writing from just about every angle that exists. I’ve been attending community writing classes, and I even managed a way to sit in on a Novel genre class at the local university.

I’ve learned some really great stuff. And I’ve even had chances to get chapters of my novel critiqued, edited and then revised. Because of this, parts of my story are now very close to publishable. Awesome.
But I’ve learned one giant lesson in the process. There is such a thing as too much advice.
A few nights ago I experienced what I’m going to refer to as a Sparkian identity crisis. And by Sparkian, I mean that I was in such a desperate and confused state about my writing (because of information overload) that I resigned myself to becoming a writer like Nicholas Sparks.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with him (where have you been living?) he’s a very famous romance novelist. He’s written something like 16 novels in the past 20 years, five of which have been made into major motion pictures- including The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, Dear John, and etc…

As much appreciation as I have for the guy and all his success, I truly cannot stomach his novels. Time and again, I pick up one of his books and find myself wanting to toss it across the room before I get to page 2. The characters feel bland and flat. The dialogue often seems pointless. I can’t make myself care about what happens to them after reading the first chapter, the second…the twentieth.

When I read his books I sorta feel like a walking corpse.

So why would I ever try to identify with an author I don’t respect?  Well, I didn’t really know at this point and so I’m going to keep telling the earlier part of my little story. Read: You’ll have to keep reading if you want to find out.

So- fully engaged for the first time in years in writing fiction, and wanting to make full use of the classes I’ve been taking, over the past few weeks, I’ve been revising the first two chapters of a story I’ve had in my head for seven years. Part of this meant that I had to sit quietly while a class full of writing majors critiqued my writing. Twice. Crazy stuff.

It’s been a really eye-opening experience. I truly recognized the weaknesses I have as a novice writer. For example, my characters say each others names too much. Cheesy. And from a third person perspective I tend to sort of overstate emotions. A quote from the novel class:
“Ok, we get it already. She’s sad.”
Oh, well.. yeah. I can see that now. Oops.
To be fair, many valuable things have come out of all this advice. My revisions are a much clearer picture of my story than what I started with.  I’ve learned a lot about what I do well, and well…what I need to do less of.
But at the same time the whole process has been one giant emotional roller coaster. I’m in a sort of shell-shocked state about my current book in particular, and I sort of flinch whenever I hear anyone talking about characterization or plot devices because it makes me go into a sort of auto-analyze mode about my book.
So last week, Natalie and I went to a community writing class. It’s taught by a published author, and honestly he’s full of great information. It’s been a great resource. But after the craziness of analyzing and revising my story for two months, I was a little on edge. I should have known better than to try to soak in even more writing advice.
Ironically, the class was about conflict. Near the end of the class, the instructor starts explaining a simple rule for writing conflict into scenes throughout a book.  He says to keep the reader interested, you use a certain tactic. He uses The Hunger Games as an example.  “At the end each scene, your main character should end up in a slightly worse position than when the scene started.”
Well friends, that one sentence pretty much negates the premise and format of the entire first half of my story.
So after the class I’m driving home, listening to All American Rejects full blast and trying to pretend I’m not bothered by it. I get home and watch Parenthood, finish some flat Spumante, tuck the kids in, and lie in bed thinking that I am really inept to write the story that seems to have chosen me to write it.
And then, for reasons I  didn’t really understand, I got out of bed and started searching my bookshelves for anything that resembled a Nicholas Sparks novel. I sort of knew there wasn’t one- I  donated (or burned) them all years ago.
 The next morning, I dropped my youngest off at preschool and headed over to the library. I stood outside waiting for the librarian to open the doors. Once inside, I checked out the first Nick Sparks novel I found on the shelf. And then I spent the next hour reading the damn Lucky One.

In reading the first paragraph, I remembered why I have a hard time reading any Sparks novel past chapter 3. (Ok, in the next few sentences I’m going to be blunt. This is only my opinion. If you love Nick Sparks and enjoy his stories, please don’t think this means we can’t be friends.)

The dude tries to be funny and is just not. He uses too many dashes and commas and extremely long sentences. His characters seem generic and kinda soulless. In this book, he tries to characterize an annoying dispatch lady (throw-away character) by saying that she eats doughnuts all day and “she probably weighed over 300 pounds.”

 Please Nick. Either make a genuine effort or simply spare us these pointless, generalized details.
 But mostly, I just can’t give a flying leap whether his characters never come back from the war or marry the wrong person or die of a terminal illness. They all seem like generic cardboard cutouts of the people they represent. And whether I have plot devices that leave my characters in progressively more desperate circumstances or not, I just can’t believe that it’s o.k. to write like that. At least, it’s not ok for me.
So then why am I reading his book now?  Self sabotage? The writer’s version of drinking something horrible and regretting it the next day? Possibly.  Trying to find other authors who don’t end every chapter with a more desperate hook?  Probably. Trying to convince myself that I don’t write like Nicholas Sparks? Yep.
Now. Let’s back up for a second. Would it be so bad if I did write like the Sparkster?
 His stories are about love and life and fate.  That’s what I write. The man is wildly successful. He’s published a ton of books, five of which have been made into movies. He’s a freakin’ famous author. That’s what I want.
And hey, there are always going to be critics. If I were rich and famous like him, it really wouldn’t matter that some people thought my writing was shallow.
But…I would care.  If my characters aren’t believable, if my story is predictable and formulized and cliché, I honestly would rather not write anything at all. I really want people NOT to feel like walking corpses when they read my book.
 I don’t write because I think it will make me rich and famous one day. (Though admittedly, that would be a nice perk.) I write because I want to connect with people, to make them feel and love my characters like they are them.  I want my stories to reach out, into people’s hearts and make them say: “Yes. This makes sense to me. I feel this. Someone out there understands.”
Well, there you go. I just solved my own problem.
Bottom line: I’m writing this story. And while there is a lot of valuable advice out there about how I can do it better, there is a limit to how much of it I should ingest. (Ironically this is something my writers group has been telling me all along. But I’m a little dense, a little stubborn and I like to try to learn things the hard way.)
 I’m the author. I know what’s best for my story. I know there are readers out there like myself who want a little more out of a book than a melodramatic plot or a sappy love story. This book is for me, and for them. When it comes down to it, I need to do what’s in my heart.
Sparkian Identity Crisis averted. It’s time to move on.
Until Next Time,