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A couple weeks ago I posted an article about Nicholas Sparks, author of 17 bestselling books like The Notebook and Message in a Bottle. Every single book by Sparks has been a bestseller. I don’t know of any other author who can say that, so… love him or hate him, I asked why you feel Nicholas Sparks has been so successful.

You had a lot to say.

Now it’s my turn.

If you missed the original article (and everyone’s comments)
click here to check it out: Nicholas Sparks Literary Agent.

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Nicholas Sparks’ Reviews

Many of the opinions I’ve gotten about Nicholas Sparks so far have been passionate (negative and positive). They’re very similar to reviews posted by readers on websites like Amazon. Here’s how they rate The Notebook: 5 star reviews (1,159), 4 star (270), 3 star (102), 2 star (95), and 1 star (202).

Now, before I tell you what I think…

I should say that the only book I’ve read by Nicholas Sparks is The Notebook. I also watched the movie. As a reminder, I first read it as an up and coming literary agent. I wanted to figure out what Nicholas Sparks was doing in his books that was so unique.

nicholas-sparks-the-notebook

If you haven’t read The Notebook or seen the movie (or if it’s been a while), here’s an abridged summary from Publishers Weekly:

In 1932, two North Carolina teenagers from opposite sides of the tracks fall in love. Spending one idyllic summer together in the small town of New Bern, Noah Calhoun and Allie Nelson do not meet again for 14 years. Noah has returned from WWII to restore the house of his dreams, having inherited a large sum of money. Allie, programmed by family and the “caste system of the South” to marry an ambitious, prosperous man, has become engaged to powerful attorney Lon Hammond. When she reads a newspaper story about Noah’s restoration project, she shows up on his porch step, re-entering his life for two days. Will Allie leave Lon for Noah? What renders Sparks’ sentimental story somewhat distinctive are two chapters, which take place in a nursing home in the ’90s, that frame the central story. The first sets the stage for the reading of the eponymous notebook, while the later one takes the characters into the land beyond happily ever after, a future rarely examined in books of this nature. Early on, Noah claims that theirs may be either a tragedy or a love story, depending on the perspective. Ultimately, the judgment is up to readers – be they cynics or romantics. For the latter, this will be a weeper.”

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Negative Reviews

Although I think Nicholas Sparks is brilliant, I’m not comparing him to Faulkner, Kafka, or Shakespeare. In fact, I understand (to some degree) where Sparks’ critics are coming from when they say things like:

  • Nicholas Sparks is a Hallmark card writer
  • I’ve stepped in rain puddles deeper than Nicholas Sparks’ characters
  • Filled with clichés and stereotypes
  • He repeats himself throughout the book
  • Written with the characterization skills of a drunk monkey
  • The writing is laughable, though Mr. Sparks looks good on the jacket photo
  • The story seems to be made of sticky sweet syrup – reading the book virtually gave me a toothache
  • Want to be a writer, but think you have no talent? Read Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. It will inspire you to pick up a pencil and write a new bestseller

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about why Nicholas Sparks is a master… in spite of his shortcomings. You have to admit that any author who writes 17 consecutive bestsellers must be doing something right.

Don’t you???

nicholas-sparks-skeptic

So, what is Nicholas Sparks’ secret sauce?

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What Nicholas Sparks Can Teach You

Here are the three things I feel Nicholas Sparks does incredibly well… specific to The Notebook (although most – if not all – of these comments probably apply to his other books as well):

  • Sparks understands how to create a high-concept or bestselling premise and “hook” that grabs your attention. He also makes sure his stories are “suspenseful” from start to finish. In other words, he continuously creates curiosity and raises new questions for the reader… before the old questions are answered. He also constructs powerful endings and his stories are “visual” so they’re easily adapted for feature film.
  • Sparks’ stories and writing style are mainstream and accessible. Instead of writing “smaller” and more traditional Harlequin romances, Sparks carefully crafts his books to have crossover appeal (including male readers). His protagonist in The Notebook is likable, a common man with common thoughts and character that anyone can respect and relate to. The language and sentence structure that Sparks uses is simple as well – clear and accessible. Sparks also explores universal themes that are important to most people, like the desire for love; being true to yourself; and struggling with personal values about sex, relationships, and money.
  • Sparks makes people feel emotion and his stories are filled with hope. Although The Notebook has a sad ending, it’s main message is one of hope, faith, and possibility. It’s about the human heart’s ability to create “magic” in life… where the impossible becomes possible.

Yes, Nicholas Sparks is something of a Hallmark card writer (a bit cheesy). So, if you want to call him names… that’s okay.

nicholas-sparks-cheesy

Check out what this frustrated author posted on Amazon:

“What escapes a lot of enthusiasts for The Notebook is that the author is essentially telling the poor drudges over at Iowa Writer’s to forget their MFA’s; if you want to be a successful (as opposed to great or even good) writer, get your MBA-marketing.”

I disagree.

The genius of Nicholas Sparks isn’t his marketing savvy. It’s his obsession with writing a story that lots of people can understand and relate to. That’s called good storytelling. Now, does good storytelling help sell books?

Absolutely.

But I never met an author
that didn’t want more readers.

nicholas-sparks-lonely-writer

In fact, you’re probably one of them.

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My Advice

Focus more on the fundamentals…

Simple substance is more important than style. If your story sucks isn’t good, nothing else matters. Be clear before you try to be clever. Focus more on connecting with your readers instead of trying to impress them with $20 words or complex sentences that are so long-winded and convoluted that your reader gets confused (like this one).

Bash me (and St. Nick) if you want. Just remember that Sparks has nearly 80 million copies in print worldwide, in over 45 languages, including over 50 million copies in the United States alone. There must be something we can learn from him.

Don’t you think???

– Mark

Mark Malatesta
Your “Undercover” Agent
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