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How to write a Nicholas Sparks novel

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

First, set the scene: waterside.

Next, choose a random hobby – coin collecting, or stained glass windows, or composing music.  This hobby will help create a narrative arc that will act as a metaphor for deeper emotional storylines.

Now, take an unlikely couple.  At first, they don’t like each other, because they’re just too different.  In the beginning, she acts like she can’t stand him.  But his boyish persistence and charming wit eventually win her over.

Both individuals must be obscenely beautiful.  She has big eyes and long, flowing hair.  He has chiseled abs and a strong jaw.  They fall into a passionate chemistry, and yes, they have sex.  If it’s their first time, it’s usually on a wooden floor – and maybe during a rainstorm.

But wait!  There is trouble afoot – war, or someone is secretly dying, or their parents don’t approve.

They are torn apart – maybe during a rainstorm.

Time passes.

They get back together – maybe during a rainstorm.

The end.  Make millions of dollars.

And now, for a long story

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

When I was a senior in college, I stopped every morning on the way to class at a coffee shop called the Java Bean.  Every day, I ordered the same thing: a 16 oz. cup of coffee with room.  That’s all, nice and simple.  The baristas recognized me, and I always had exact change for my coffee – $1.89.

Until one day.

I walked into the Java Bean, ordered my coffee, and opened my wallet to find $1.39.  I was 50 cents short – but these people knew me.  They knew I would be back tomorrow.  They knew that I always ordered the same thing.  They would take $1.39 for my coffee today, knowing I would be back in the morning with the difference.  Right?

“I only have $1.39,” I explained to the man at the counter.  I waited for him to waive the extra 50 cents, to tell me that the Java Bean loves me, to say, “I’ve gotcha, girl,” and send me on my way with a wink.  I waited.  I waited.

But this man knew no compassion.  He just stared at me.

Finally, he said, “Well, do you have a credit card?”

I was slightly shocked, but cooperatively opened my wallet and handed over my debit card.  I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t going to let me slide on out of there, cup of joe in hand, but whatever.  I didn’t invent coffee.  I didn’t invent money.  I’m just here for the buzz.

“There’s a $10 minimum on credit card purchases,” he said.

Buzz kill.

But never fear!  This man had an idea.  “You’re here every morning – why don’t you get a pre-paid card for your coffee?  If you pay for 10 cups right now, we’ll give you this punch card.  I know you’ll make good use of it.”  Yes, of course you know I’ll make good use of it – I’m here EVERY MORNING and will bring an extra 50 cents tomorrow – why don’t you love me?

“Well, okay,” I found myself saying.  My card was about to be charged $19.15 – $18.90 for 10 cups of coffee, plus a 25 cent credit card fee – all because I used two quarters in a parking meter, but no big deal.

I watched this man swipe my card, and then swipe it again, and then again and again and again – but the machine wasn’t having it.

At this point, there was a line of about 6 people behind me, stomping the ground like horses.  Come to think of it, they were exhaling loudly like horses, too – that exasperated puff of impatience.  My card continued to be no good, and finally, desperate for caffeine and escape, I couldn’t take the pressure.

“I’ll write a check!” I exclaimed.  “My checkbook is in the car.  I’ll be right back.”  I dashed out of the Java Bean, and returned to scribble a check for $19.15.  I handed it over just to have the man remind me, “Since this isn’t a credit card purchase, it’s only $18.90.”

My turn to exhale like a horse.

I tore up the check, and wrote a new one for $18.90.  The moment that I gave it to the coffee man, his dim mental lightbulb flared as he realized that the credit card machine had not been plugged in.

His “Aha!” moment was my “GAH” moment.

He handed me my freshly punched punch card and a paper cup for my coffee.  I walked to the pump pot on the counter to fill my cup and get on with my life, but the coffee pot was empty.

The coffee pot was empty.  I had just paid $18.90 and wasted 9 minutes of my life to discover that the coffee pot was empty.

I lifted the pot and marched it to the man at the counter.  “I’m sorry, but could I get some COFFEE?” I practically bellowed.

Scene?  Officially made.

I found an arm chair in the corner to sit in and stew as a fresh pot of coffee was being brewed.  I watched the clock on the wall, every ticking second matching the time-bomb in my chest.  My face was scrunched.  I was late for class, I was desperate for caffeine, and I was down $18.90.

“Anne,” the man called.  “Anne, come here.”  He had seen my name on my credit card – Anne Parsons – and was now calling me by my given name that I never go by, because if there’s anything that Annie Parsons is not, it is Anne.

“I’m so sorry for the craziness.  Here’s a coupon for the next time you’re in.”

The coupon?  50 cents off my next purchase.

We all need a Sam

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

“It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”

Sam to Mr. Frodo

Portland, Oregon

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

What a place, huh?

Last night, I zig-zagged the downtown streets on foot, taking in the sights and sounds of Stumptown.  Seattle may be my first love – but I have a warm, fuzzy fondness for her hippie kid sister.

Eventually, I wandered into Powell’s Books (how could I not?), and spent way, way too much time browsing the endless aisles.  When I’m in a bookstore, I feel a mixture of buoyant possibility (all of these stories are just waiting to be read), and frantic panic (but there’s not enough tiiiiime!).  If I could, I would hold each story in my hands like a cloud, and wring it out like the rain.

When I returned to the hotel from my walk, the doorman greeted me, “Welcome back, Ms. Parsons.”  And when the elevator doors slid shut, enclosing me in privacy for my ride up to a room with floor-to-ceiling drapes and a king-sized bed, I grinned out loud.

Stop ticking

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

My friend Fred Wilhelm writes great songs.  I talked to him a few months back, and told him that some of my happiest moments of the past year were the times that I heard him play this one:

I mean, seriously?  That is just the coolest.  I hope this isn’t sacrilegious, but when I hear him play this song, it feels like church.  “I’m here today ’cause that brave woman begot me” – I want to shout hallelujah.

I’m thinking about my own family today – how we have our own unique story, one that keeps progressing and morphing with time, for better and for worse, each of us changing and becoming and growing into whoever it is that we are, whoever it is that we were created to be.  We are equal parts comedy and tragedy – and a total gong show, at times.  We are far, far from perfection, but still, “when I’m with ’em, it’s like Thanksgiving.”

Today, my littlest sister Sarah is moving to Haiti. At 22-years old (and more mature than the other three of us kids put together – no offense, Jeremy and Becca, I know you agree), she bought a one-way ticket, and is moving to one of the poorest countries in the world to do a little good.  Those of us who know her know that she will do more than “a little” good, and while we will miss her terribly, can’t put into words how proud we are of her.

If I ever wrote a song about my family, today would be an important line.

“It only ends once – everything before that is just progress.”

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Dear Lost,

In the 36 hours since Sunday night, the internets have been abuzz with talk of you.  Did you end the right way?  Were people’s minds sufficiently blown?  How accurate were our theories?  Was the conclusion good enough?

Mainly: are we satisfied?

Lost, you were my favorite show I’ve ever watched, and gave me something to look forward to for 6 years.  From living in my studio in Seattle, to driving around the country for 3 months, to a tiny apartment on Music Row in Nashville, to a house shared with roommates and so many friends, to this new little life in Denver, you have been, as Daniel Faraday would call it, my constant.

You were an excuse to get together with friends – or, in more recent TV-less, friendless months, a reason to go to the gym on Tuesday nights.  You introduced me to interesting characters who asked interesting questions.  You tied together and orchestrated seemingly unrelated stories – and as exaggerated as it may be, in a small way it kind of makes me think of this.

[Seriously.  If that isn’t a masterpiece, I don’t know what is.  It doesn’t matter how many times I listen to it – I lose it every time.  I think that’s what heaven is going to sound like.]

I will miss the happy confusion you offered, and the absolute delirium I felt when I realized the game had changed (“We have to go back, Kate – we have to go back!”).  I love how you littered the Island with unrealistically good-looking people – women with fantastic cleavage and men with glorious scruff.  Thank you for throwing in polar bears, book clubs, Virgin Mary statues, time-traveling rats, swinging pendulums, smoke monster security systems, The Mamas & The Papas, spinal surgeries, ghosts, submarines, cliff fights (THE PUNCH!), and – loyal to the very end – a dog named Vincent.

People can say whatever they’re going to say – but you were good enough for me. I’ll miss you.

Dharma forever,
Annie

Swifty

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

You can take the girl out of Nashville, but you can’t take the stage-side-at-the-Taylor-Swift-show-and-THIS-IS-SO-AWESOME out of the girl.

Jenn and I had tickets for the uppermost balcony last night, literally behind the stage.  But my most excellent friend Kelli (SHOUT OUT) back in Nashville pulled some strings, and all of a sudden, a man was tapping us on the shoulder and giving us wrist bands and we were… well, we were this close:

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She was bedazzled, to say the least.

This week has been full of some very fun surprises – things I haven’t tried for or asked for or even imagined might happen.  It’s kind of comical, actually.  But surprise is an important element of a good story – and these days, I’m liking mine.

I mean, I wish I knew where this story was headed… but that would ruin the surprise, now, wouldn’t it?

To tell stories

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Kathryn Bigelow is 58-years old?  I seriously thought she was 32.  What a beautiful woman.

Watching the Oscars makes me want to be in show business.  I just want to tell stories for the rest of my life.

I guess that this blog will have to do.

A song I haven’t heard yet

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

When this life, this world, this Whole Thing is all over, and we have the chance to look back on the story that was our life, I honestly believe that we won’t experience it as a narrative, but that we will hear it as a song – the most beautiful, sad, triumphant song ever written, played, or sung.

I may not be able to dream up a story that could convey the simultaneous joy and sorrow that swirl together in this life – it’s too complicated, too nuanced. It’s both dulcet and raucous, soothing and raw; words could never get it just right.

But I do believe that music could.

THAT is why I love music – because our stories cannot adequately be told through words alone.

And all those songs that I have ever started and then abandoned, with no idea for which direction to take them? One day, they’ll come together like puzzle pieces. I will see the picture I can’t see now. I will hear the songs – complete, whole, perfect, and true.

I believe that.

The work that has been started is going to get finished, and the song is going to end with the most beautifully complicated, conquering chord ever (and never) imagined. We will hear notes that have yet to exist to our ears.  Everyone will sing along, instinctively knowing the harmonies and the counterparts.

And most likely, Alison Krauss will sing the descant.

Tell me a story

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Before I begin, let’s all just take a minute to acknowledge the huge thing that happened yesterday.  The thing that made the world feel small – like everyone, no matter what culture, tribe, or tongue, agreed was a big event.  An incident that shook us out of our day-to-day reality, and made us think about what is really important in life.  A happening resulting in headlines, workplace chatter, and blog posts.

ERIN GOT A NEW HAIRCUT!!!!

And she looks fab.  Give her a cat-call, a high-five, and – my own personal favorite display of affection – a quick palm-circle-rub on the back.

In other news, there are a few things that I’ve decided that I “need”: a pair of black heels (how do I not own a pair of black heels?), a soft case for my guitar, and a new [insert the engine part that keeps my car quiet and not shaky] in my Honda.

Instead, you want to know what I’ve been doing with my hard-earned cash?  Donating it to This American Life.  Only twice, but still.  Shouldn’t I be allocating my limited funds some place other than to what could be a FREE podcast?  I feel like I am telling you my secret shame – confessing something I shouldn’t – like how I feign a healthy diet only to shovel cupcake icing into my mouth when no one is watching.

But I can’t help it.  Ira Glass is my geek crush.  He tells me the best stories out of anyone.  And then he asks me to give money (“One dollar – five dollars – whatever you can spare.  What kind of person do you want to be – someone who contributes, or someone who sits back and assumes someone else will take care of it?  Do your part, so we can do ours.”), and I’m like, IRA I WILL DO ANYTHING.

Seriously, though.  What a guy.

ira