For a variety of reasons, The Guardian was an exceptionally difficult novel to craft, and looking back, I suppose I should have expected it.
First, there was intense deadline pressure, primarily due to the fact that A Bend in the Road wasn’t completed until nearly April 2001. Usually, I try to start my novels in January, which left me nearly four months behind schedule when I first sat down to write.
In addition, at the time I started, our home life was extremely busy. My wife was pregnant with twins, we had two older sons and a toddler running around the house, and we were also in the process of remodeling our home. By early summer, my wife couldn’t keep up with the kids, and thus, I had to squeeze writing in whenever I could, as opposed to simply sequestering myself in the office for hours at a time. There was a constant struggle to keep the ideas flowing steadily. For a three month period, my schedule was roughly the following: wake at four a.m., write for three hours, feed and entertain the kids until noon, do bills and paperwork while the toddler napped, feed and entertain the kids until eight, and then write again until 1:00 a.m. I slept an average of three hours a night, and I still consider that period as one of the most challenging in my life.
To make matters even more challenging, the novel kept growing longer – with every chapter I wrote, I would realize that yet another, unanticipated chapter, was suddenly necessary, due to the suspense elements in the novel. I’d write the chapter, then realize that because of what I’d written, I would need another character as well, one that I’d have to work in from the beginning. With every new page I wrote, I found myself crafting – and integrating – another page earlier in the novel. The process was exasperating and painfully slow.
What I originally thought would be an 80-90,000 word novel grew until it reached nearly 150,000 words. It’s hard to stay motivated when it seems as if you’re never going to finish.
Finally, the novel was completely different than anything I’d ever read, which greatly complicated my ideas for the structure. While I’ve read hundreds – even thousands – of thrillers, I wanted to build in a quality love story as well. Many thrillers have characters that fall in love in the course of the story, but the love story is always subordinated to the mystery and tension of the mystery itself. I wanted to write a novel with exactly the opposite effect. I wanted to write a love story with thriller elements, not a thriller with characters who fall in love. The difference seems subtle, but incredibly difficult to pull off, because “external” tension (will he hurt her?) is nearly always more interesting than “internal” conflict (will the characters fall in love?). But since I write love stories – and that’s what my readers want to read – I couldn’t allow that to happen.
There are other differences as well between love stories and thrillers; love stories require a slower pace with detailed settings, while thrillers require a fast pace, with limited settings. Love stories are usually written with two major characters, and – at the most – three other minor characters. Thrillers have three major characters, at least two major-minor characters, and a dozen minor characters, with all the lives intertwining. In the end, The Guardian essentially became two books in one; a love story, romantically slow in building, which was gradually replaced by a story with ever-increasing danger, written at an ever increasing pace. I say this in retrospect; at the time I was writing, my thoughts weren ’t nearly that clear.
I finished the novel while on a book tour in Jackson Mississippi, and you can’t imagine how relieved I was. On all my novels, I’d felt a sense of completion, but this was a much stronger. I felt as if I’d finally put the grueling summer behind me, and even better, I was confident as to how my editor would like the story. I sent the manuscript off to my editor with high hopes, and finished my tour in early November. In early December, I received my editors comments.
She liked the idea for the novel, she said, but she thought the story needed a great deal of work. She didn’t like the main male character, the main “dark” character, she didn’t like the pacing, she thought the entire book lacked tension, and that the last third of the novel had to be entirely rewritten from scratch. To my mind, it felt as if she wanted me to redo the entire thing. Crestfallen, I called her on the phone and asked if she liked anything about the novel. My editor paused. “I liked the dog,” she finally said. I hung up the phone, depressed and anxiety ridden. I simply couldn’t imagine facing the manuscript again – it had been such a struggle that I’d come to loathe the writing process. Everything about the writing of the novel had been a miserable experience, and I didn’t have the energy to dive right into it again. I simply couldn’t do it. But I needed a book for the following autumn, and after a week of contemplation, I decided to write another novel instead. I set The Guardian aside and began writing Nights in Rodanthe on December 27th. That novel was a joy to write, and I completed it in April, without so much as a hitch. From there, I returned to The Guardian and began making the substantial changes my editor required. Those changes were slow and tedious. It took me most of the summer and autumn to complete them, and I finally put the bed to rest in January, 2003. It was published two months later. The Guardian taught me a lot about writing. While the book required extensive work, I’ve come to realize that my editor’s suggestions had been correct. I now believe The Guardian is one of the strongest novels I’ve written. It’s complex, original, believable, and enjoyable, and the final product is one in which I’m extremely proud to claim as my own. People have asked if I’m going to write another one like it – many people have come to regard The Guardian as their favorite – and in the future, I probably will. Now that I understand the structure, I could probably do another “Love-story-thriller” fairly easily. Just not yet. I still need to recover first.