Saturday, July 24

Why Nicholas Sparks is my hero

A significant number of literary aficionados out there associate Nicholas Sparks with other writers like Stephen King, Dan Brown, Sidney Sheldon, and Danielle Steel (among others): writers whose works aren't even that great, and have recurring themes in their stories, but made bank, and end up in the bestsellers' list with every new novel. I like reading novels from all the writers above. People call their works 'popular/commercial fiction'; they are as good and delicious as fast food, but not exactly wholesome and nourishing. Personally, I think people are just jealous they're not as successful as these commercial fiction writers. I do admit, each of the superstars I mentioned above have recurring themes: Stephen King writes speculative fiction with a strong horror element; Dan Brown writes conspiracy theories revolving around secret cults; Sidney Sheldon is always about fast-paced thrillers, while Danielle Steel will almost always write about upper class women and their upper class issues. Nicholas Sparks writes love stories. He gets irked whenever people call his works 'Romance'. In life, love and romance usually come hand-in-hand, if not always. But first, let's explore the definitions. According to Oxford Dictionary, Love
  • [mass noun] a strong feeling of affection
  • a strong feeling of affection and sexual attraction for someone
  • affectionate greetings conveyed to someone on one's behalf
  • a formula for ending an affectionate letter.
  • affectionate greetings conveyed to someone on one's behalf
  • a great interest and pleasure in something.
  • [count noun] a person or thing that one loves
  • British informal a friendly form of address.
  • (in tennis, squash, and some other sports) a score of zero; nil
verb [with object]
  • feel deep affection or sexual love for (someone)
  • like or enjoy very much
  • [mass noun] a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love
  • love, especially when sentimental or idealized
  • [count noun] a love affair, especially one that is not very serious or long-lasting
  • [count noun] a book or film dealing with love in a sentimental or idealized way
  • a genre of fiction dealing with love in such a way
  • [mass noun] a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life
  • a medieval tale dealing with a hero of chivalry, of the kind common in the Romance languages
  • a work of fiction depicting a setting and events remote from everyday life, especially one of a kind popular in the 16th and 17th centuries
  • Music a short informal piece
verb [with object]
  • dated try to gain the love of; court
  • informal seek the attention or custom of (someone), especially by the use of flattery
[no object]
  • engage in a love affair
  • another term for romanticize
There's quite a significant amount of overlap, right? Not in literature. They're two different worlds! You can find Romance novels and other works on shelves specifically reserved for this genre. These novels are highly formulaic, and according to Romance Writers of America, the main plot of a romance novel must revolve around the two main protagonists as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship together. A romance novel also must have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. I mentioned this genre is highly formulaic, right? There's a 'secret formula' that most Romance authors abide by, I kid you not. I may be getting this wrong, but after reading quite a number of Romance novels (Mama used to read them, and Kasha too, before she started a family -- I read whatever I can find, and before I started earning my own income, my choices were somewhat limited), I think I have an idea what it is:
  • The story starts off with the heroine, who's not necessarily stunning (people say only male and lesbian authors write about eye candy heroines), but can think on her feet and get herself out of trouble (preferably without help). Almost invariably she has a scarred romantic past, and is looking for a fresh start.
  • Right in the opening, our heroine meets or bumps into the hero, who's almost invariably tall, dark and handsome. Well, he can be blond, but there's something about him that's dark and mysterious (straight male and lesbian authors don't usually amp up the hero's physical beauty). Oh, and the heroine later finds out that he's also hung and is great in bed (and on the kitchen counter, in the closet, at the back of his car, in a cheap motel, and so on). Anyways, when they first meet, the heroine will either:
  1. hate his guts right from the start (almost always the case).
  2. notice him from afar, and keeps stealing glances back at him.
  3. fall in love with him, just like that (makes for a shorter and less exciting plot)
  • So, they cross paths again and again, and slowly they build a romantic relationship. Or the hero does something grand and unexpected that changes the heroine's view about him. Or he saves her life. You get it, something happens that brings them together.
  • They have phenomenal sex (about 1/4 or 1/3 into the novel, sometimes much faster).
  • About halfway through, they discover how great is is they've found each other, all all is going well.
  • Right afterward, something big happens that tears them apart (misunderstanding, discovery of a dark secret, betrayal, kidnapping, death of someone close, return of the ex).
  • A moping-about scene is optional, but encouraged.
  • Something big happens to bring them back together again, culminating to a climax (can also be taken literally).
  • The two protagonists end up together again, discovering they're meant for each other (MFEO), and depending on the author, they can either deliver a sweet, memorable kiss, or a passionate tongue exchange, or a hand-in-hand stroll toward the sunset, or a make-up sex.
  • The End.
Follow this format and you cannot go wrong with Romance. But what about love stories? Why won't you find them in Romance or Women Literature sections? Why are they in general fiction? According to Nicholas Sparks, who dominates the field, you'll never know what will happen with love stories. It can be about the relationship between two teenagers or young adult, between mature adults and old people, between parent and child, between siblings, between friends, even between owner and pet (my own words, not Nicholas Sparks's -- I consider Marley and Me a love story, because it's about love and loyalty between Marley and his human family). There is no formula. Still, having read plenty of his books and watched movie adaptations of his books, there is a recurring theme with Nicholas Sparks's works, as highlighted at Well, in his defense, the characters in the novels aren't necessarily beautiful, be them male or female. But these things are familiar:
  1. Two people who are unlikely to fall in love, do so anyway.
  2. A great obstacle stands between the protagonists, but they persevere and beat the obstacle to stay together.
  3. They always meet the parents (I think Mr. Sparks is old-fashioned that way), who don't necessarily approve of their relationship.
  4. There's another great obstacle, this time unbeatable (death, whether of one or both of the protagonists, or a close family member), but love prevails.
  5. Oh. The stories usually take place in the southern regions of North America (in and around Carolina).
Don't believe me? The Notebook The hero's a local nobody, and the heroine, who comes from a wealthy family, is visiting for the summer. They fall in love, but as her family strongly disapproves (different social classes), they are torn apart. He writes her a letter every day for a whole year, but the heroine's mother intercepts the letters and hides them (doesn't burn them, though). He goes to war, she becomes a nurse, and she assumes he's forgotten about her. She falls in love with another man (though there's no spark), while the hero rebuilds a dilapidated mansion hoping that the heroine will find her way back to him. Along the way, his dad dies. The heroine finds out about the hero and the rebuilt house while she's preparing to get married, and seeks him out. They rekindle their lost love, and she ends up having to make a difficult choice. What makes this story stand out is that the story takes place when they're both old, and the heroine has advanced Alzheimer's. She no longer remembers anything about her past. He tells her the story of their life by reading his notebook, and sometimes she remembers again. They end up dying together on her bed. Beautiful story. A Walk to Remember The heroine is goody-goody and optimistic, while the hero is a trouble-maker. They fall in love anyway. The girl's dad doesn't like the hero, though. It's later revealed that the heroine has leukemia, and is dying soon, but the hero, now a changed man/teen, stays with her till the end. Even 4 years after her death, he still holds a torch out for her. Message in the Bottle The heroine is a burnt-up reporter who discovers love letters in glass bottles washed up on the beach. It's from the hero to his dead wife. The heroine seeks him out, and they manage to fall in love despite the distance between them, but he gets angry and disappointed after finding his letters in her home, and leaves. The heroine later gets a visit from the hero's dad, saying that he hero died at sea while rescuing someone, but had written a letter to his dead wife, saying that he'd found someone to love and would do right by her. Nights in Rodanthe The heroine is on the verge of divorcing her cheating husband. He helps her friend manage a B&B for a few days, where the hero stays while he seeks out the husband of his patient (the patient died during surgery due to anesthetic complications). He's estranged with his son, while she's trying hard to keep her family together, with or without her husband. They end up falling in love, and both of them are changed for the better. The hero goes to South America to rekindle his relationship with his son, and the two protagonists exchange love letters while they're apart. However, the hero dies in a landslide, but the heroine later receives a letter he hadn't managed to send, saying that he was going to start a life with her, and would do right by her. Dear John The hero's a Special Forces Sergeant, on a 2-week break between missions, and the heroine's visiting for Spring Break. He rescues her bag, they end up falling in love, but they're parted because he's got to go back to work. Both of them live off their love letters for over 2 years, but then she decides to break off, and gets engaged with someone else. Frustrated, the hero enlists himself over again, getting himself hurt in the process, but only comes home when he receives news that his autistic father is dying from stroke. Yes, his father dies. He then looks for the heroine, who's already married, not to the jerk of a friend he suspected, but to an old family friend who has an autistic child. The guy has cancer, by the way, and they can't afford an experimental drug treatment. He also tells the hero that the heroine still loves the hero deeply. So the hero sells his dad's coin collection and anonymously donates all the money for the treatment. In the book, the guy lives on, so the hero and heroine aren't reunited (bittersweet ending), but in the movie, the guy dies anyway, and the hero receives a letter from the heroine that makes him come back, and they're reunited. The Last Song This one was written specifically with Mylie Cyrus in mind, for her transition from Hannah Montana. She even chose the heroine's name. She wanted something like A Walk To Remember. So Mr. Sparks was approached to write a screenplay and a novel simultaneously. Anway, the story's about the heroine who's staying with her estranged dad for the summer at South Carolina (her parents divorced some 3 years before). The hero (a local from a rich family) literally crashes into her while playing beach volleyball. She doesn't quite like him at first, but (you guessed it) they fall in love anyway. His parents don't quite agree with his seeing her, but he doesn't agree with his parents about anything. It's later revealed that the heroine's dad has cancer, and that he's dying. The heroine rebuilds her relationship with her dad. Much later she overhears the hero apologizing to her dad about not coming clean about a church fire his best friend caused, and she pushes the hero away. Her father dies, and she finally forgives the hero. They get back together. Wow. I hope I don't get into trouble for summarizing the novels (which are also movies). See the pattern? I won't exactly say Nicholas Sparks is formulaic, but after a while, there's bound to be a pattern. But what I love about his works is that they're accessible, and they revolve around regular people, with regular life issues. He concentrates on the little things that people take for granted. Plus, I'm a sucker for love stories and tear-jerkers. Anyway, for those who don't know about Nicholas Sparks's success story, I don't mind sharing. He worked for a pharmaceutical company (among other jobs), and he had written 2 novels before The Notebook. He readily admits those two will never see the light of day, though. He approached agents and publishers, but they all turned him down. Until Theresa Park, a new literary agent, fresh out of college, found the manuscript among a big slush pile. She loved it, and represented Nicholas Sparks. One day called his home to tell him that she sold the book to Warner Books for a USD1mil advance. Both their lives were changed right there and then. Nicholas Sparks continues to write bestselling novels and makes banks from both the novels and their movie adaptations, and Theresa Park opens her own agency. Nicholas Sparks claims (if somewhat arrogantly) that he doesn't have a contemporary. No one in this particular market comes close. In a way, it's true. Who else keeps on producing similar love stories and gets adaptation offers over and over again? I think this is why he has as many haters as fans. So, why is he my hero? IS it because of the ridiculous amount of money he makes? I know right from the start that it's just a fluke, and I'll never come close to making USD 5000 for a book (if I end up finishing one!). But I love the stories he tell, and the way he tells them. I love the fact that his visions are realized into movies -- the pinnacle of any author's career. Do I want to emulate him? I write tear-jerkers, I write about the little stuff everyday people face. I've received praises from international readers saying exactly that. I have a novel in my head (Adrian & Rina) that's somewhat familiar with Nicholas Sparks's recurring theme, but in my own defense, I came up with the original idea in 2004, long before I started reading Nicholas Sparks's work. I started writing about love and relationship in 1997, though I have to admit they're aren't any good. Now I've started writing speculative fiction (SciFi, Fantasy, and 1 Horror). But I don't think I'll ever be capable of writing a literary piece. I tried once, but I caught myself sounding pretentious. I write in the line of commercial fiction, and I'm OK with it. So back to my own question. I love Nicholas Sparks's works, and I may write love stories along the way. But I wouldn't want people saying that I'm the Malaysian Nicholas Sparks. Chewah. Belum apa-apa nak pikir sampai situ (rough translation: I'm way over my head). But one thing is for sure: I'm now comfortable writing English stories based in Malaysia. I used to think that foreign settings where people actually use English as their first language are the best places for my stories, but my groupmates at WDC keep on reminding me that my local settings are new and exotic to them, and that my works stand out partly because of it. So, as I said, I'm still stuck, and I can't write anything beyond the first few paragraphs, but I'm re-reading whatever I have of Adrian & Rina, and I'm seriously thinking about finishing that darn novel. Whatever it is, my days are quite numbered. I'm applying for my Master's Degree end of this year, and if accepted, I'll be beyond busy for the next 4 years (at least). So, Tita, if you're reading this, get me off my ass and prod me to start writing already! Ahahahaha. Edit: I find these covers/posters interesting:
Oh, and these:

Have a good day!