Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Last Song Sings

I confess, I'm a Nicholas Sparks fan. I got hooked on his books about a decade ago, and I not only re-read several of them, I once squealed about soon-to-be-releases with my sister and friends.

While I loved his books, I have to admit I didn't like his writing. I cringed when I read my first Sparks novel, Message in a Bottle. And I didn't know a thing about writing back then. The sentences were so awkward and wooden, I noticed it, and I can still remember being embarrassed for this young, new author. I felt the same after reading The Notebook. "This poor guy!" I said. Prose is supposed to sing!

A Walk to Remember rolled around, but by then, I no longer cared—just give me the story! And in one of those wonderful literary moments, after reading page after page after page of backstory, The Rescue finally sucked me in and I found myself standing on the shores of the Chowan River in Edenton, aching for Denise and ready to kick Taylor. When I reached the end, I flipped to the front and started reading again.

Fully immersed in Mr. Sparks' stories, I was glued to A Bend in the Road, Nights in Rodanthe (which I read in a day), The Wedding, The Guardian and True Believer, and though he lost me with At First Sight and Dear John (after reading the prologue, I figured out the end and refused to go on) I continued peeking through new releases, hoping he'd bring back that loving feeling. Two more books came along. I skimmed one and am waiting for the mass market paperback version of the other. Then came The Last Song. The blurb caught my attention, and I bought a hardback copy at Sam's.

I say this not to promote Mr. Sparks' books—that man doesn't need my help to do that—but because there was a progression occurring that I didn't catch until I reached the fifth chapter of The Last Song. After reading the first couple pages, I realized I could tell the difference between the characters in the prose itself. And then it hit me: Mr. Sparks wasn't simply cranking out novels year after year. He was improving his craft.

The distance in his early work, caused by telling, has been replaced with a deeper point of view (think Vulcan Mind Meld: my mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts) thus dropping the reader into the story instead of having them watch it from afar. Instead of beginning with long blocks of backstory, he put us in the midst of action. And those awkward sentences? Gone. In their place, lines crafted to fit the character's personality like a wetsuit fits a diver. This is clearly seen in The Last Song. The writing (narrative as well as dialogue) in Ronnie's chapter is shorter, simpler, more direct, and the tone, spoiled and angry, just like the character, while in Steve's chapter, we see longer, softer, more poetic words and phrases. Thoughts of a man reflecting on his life.

Nicholas Sparks didn't have to do this. He's a bestselling author. Several of his books have been made into movies. His fans are dedicated to him. They stand in line for hours to get a book signed (been there, done that a couple of times) even when they can stop in the bookstore the following day and purchase one of the extra copies he often leaves behind. He can write pure dribble (which some have accused him of doing, but those I know who did so haven't read his novels) and it will sell. He doesn't have to take the time to learn anything, but he chose to. To me, this speaks of a love for the story that goes beyond profit, and those who wish to learn the craft would do well to compare his novels and take notes.

I've already begun.

Though I'm on chapter five—and though I made the mistake of reading the prologue, and like Dear John, I figured out the end—in my opinion, The Last Song sings. And in it, so does Nicholas Sparks.

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