How to write a book in the style of Beatrice Sparks

It’s been too long since I wrote a post ripping the late fraud “Dr.” Beatrice Sparks a new one. So, let’s do that!

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care if someone wrote books I didn’t click with. One person’s lousy writing is another’s treasure. But in the case of “Dr.” Sparks, this isn’t just about bad writing or books that aren’t my style at all. Since more than a few people, esp. in her target audience, believe these are true stories, she was dangerous and unethical in addition to a fraud.

Some of her books are marginally better than others. They’re not all pure horse dung. But with the obvious exception of the 25 real entries from Alden Barrett in Jay’s Journal, they all read like the work of an over the hill, extremely conservative and religious person pretending to be a teen.

We now know Sparks lied about her training, education, credentials, experience, etc. People who know what’s what also understand she was the true authors of all those books, and what she did to the poor Barrett family.

I have NO problem with either a real-life or fictional teen being religious, frequently praying, having a close-knit relationship with her or his mother, trying to live a G-rated life, being conservative, etc.

What I DO have an issue with is how Sparks injected this into each and every one of her books, making her characters clones of herself. The way her characters express these things is so unrealistic, ridiculous, over the top, identical.

How to write in the style of “Dr.” Sparks:

1. Always give the time of day at the start of each entry, and every time you return to an entry later in the day.

2. Everyone loves RANDOM CAPS! In fact, readers have even more love for ENTIRE SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS, or, better, yet, COMPLETE PARAGRAPHS IN ALL CAPS!

3. We all love random italics too!

4. The best of both worlds is RANDOM CAPS IN ITALICS!

5. Who doesn’t love excessive exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

6. PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER REGULARLY FOR EVEN BETTER, MORE INTENSE WRITING!!!!!!!!!!

7. Repeat words thrice for emphasis; e.g., “We’ve heard he’s loud loud loud” and “My mom is soooo very wonderful. I love love love her.”

8. Randomly use advanced, fancy-sounding words while pretending you have no idea where you heard them. Even better if you use distinctively Mormon concepts and terminology while feigning ignorance about their meanings.

9. At the same time, talk like a preschool kid, with beyond-babyish language. Who wouldn’t believe a 15-year-old ex-gangbanger would say “Goobly-goop-poop”?!

10. Make up baby words and sprinkle in lots of connected nonsense syllables even a doo-wop song would reject, like kit-kit-kit-kat-kat-doodle.

11. Oversimplify complex issues, and solve them in record time.

12. Use the stock line, “Ooh, I’m sooo glad my dear, sweet, precious Mom is MY dear, sweet, precious Mom!”

13. Engage in hardcore, fetishistic maternal worship, where all things Mommykins and mothers are pure, holy, angelic, never negative.

14. Make sure your character comes from a broken home, and depict divorced families as the worst moral crisis ever, bound to lead to all manner of social ills and sins.

15. Trawl through psychology textbooks and after school specials for “serious” lines to sprinkle in, like a mean girl quickly admitting she only acts like an aloof snob who doesn’t want friends because she’s insecure and afraid of rejection.

16. Pack in as many problems as possible, no matter how disconnected.

17. Make your characters mentally much younger; e.g., a 14-year-old who sounds like a 3-year-old.

18. Your characters are never drawn into drug use, premarital sex, pregnancy, gangs, cults, etc., through their own actions. It’s always the fault of bad friends tricking, abusing, exploiting them.

19. Everything is always Magickally alright again after your narrator tearfully confides in Mommykins, who’s amazingly loving, forgiving, accepting, an angel on Earth.

20. Use lines no teen ever would utter, like, “Wowee! Now I know what hormones are!”

21. Immediately apologize for cursing; thinking negative, unappreciative thoughts; or saying less than worshipful things about parents. E.g., “Ew, Mom! You are such a gross bitch!” (Five minutes later.) “ZOMG! How dare I curse at my dear, sweet, precious Mommykins in the pages of my own journal! I’m worse than Hitler! I might as well kill myself now!”

22. Jump into relationships at lightning-speed, and act like you’ve already got a serious, eternal pair-bond with a total stranger.

Beatrice Sparks, I hate you. May you continue to be exposed as the vile fraud you were. Teens learn best by honest examples delivered respectfully, not by being lied to, preached at, scared, and emotionally manipulated.

Don’t write what you can’t understand, respect, appreciate, or like

I’m planning a series on how to write about body modification, to start in May, but then I realised one of my points of discussion could be expanded into a full post, beyond just body modification.

One should never write about a topic one lacks any real respect, understanding, passion, or even basic interest for. To use my starting example, if you truly believe the majority of body modifications are sinful, mutilation, disgusting, stupid, etc., you have no business including them in your story. The same goes if you’re convinced those of us with mods, or who like mods but personally don’t have a lot, are just mindlessly following a trend, rebelling for the sake of rebelling, trying to be edgy or cool, depressed, mentally ill, or will automatically regret the mods at some arbitrary age.

It’s one thing to have a character espousing views you don’t necessarily share. I have characters who, e.g., have said some very Sinophobic, racist, anti-Catholic, sexist, or anti-Semitic things. If this character is just misinformed, a typical product of a certain time and place, or a straight-up bigot, that’ll show through. Normal readers won’t assume that means the writer holds those hateful views too.

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However, when you’re imbuing a story so strongly with your own beliefs, that’ll show through too, and will alienate many readers. This is one of the numerous reasons why I can’t stand the late fraud “Dr.” Beatrice Sparks’s books. I have no problem with the facts that she was extremely conservative and very strong in her Mormon beliefs. Those were her genuine beliefs, and we all have to live our own truths.

What I dislike is how she overwhelmed all her books with these beliefs, projecting them onto every single character, pretending these were their beliefs. I’d have more respect for her if she’d at least been honest about her authorship, seriously toned down the obnoxious preachiness and unrealistic depictions of modern teens, and made these characters Mormon. Then at least it wouldn’t seem like some over the hill psychiatrist pretending to write in teens’ voices and having non-Mormon characters using such obviously Mormon-only language and concepts so often.

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If you lack basic knowledge about what you’re writing about, you either aren’t the right person to be writing that story or character, or it’s not the right time yet to write this book. I’ve been there and done that, and now cringe at how certain characters come across. I’d never intended any offense or inaccuracy, but when I barely knew anything about observant Judaism, Sparky just came across as some shrill, overreactive PITA with a serious chip on her shoulder about other religions. She also did things a member of the Conservative movement, let alone an unmarried girl, wouldn’t have done in the 1940s, like covering her hair. I’m really embarrassed at this and many other examples of poorly-researched characters and storylines, since I’m not a bigot or ignoramus at all!

Maybe this is unreasonable and holier than thou, but it kind of annoys me when I see people writing about subjects they don’t seem to have a longtime passion for. As a Russophile of over 20 years, for example, I doubt every single writer who chooses Russia as a setting, particularly a historical setting, has that kind of passion for the language, people, culture, literature, art, and history. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t have a drop of Russian blood, but I’m a Russophile down to the very core of my soul. So I can kind of tell if someone chose that setting just because s/he thought it would be interesting, only has a passing interest, or thinks it might be trendy.

On that same note, you never want to make your story look like a huge pile of fanwank. Don’t show off all your research or passion for the subject. Make it a natural part of the book, instead of some comprehensive history lesson or swoonfest. And don’t just ram it in there for its own sake, like using a novel set in the 1960s as an excuse to name-drop as many bands and songs as possible, or using a novel set in the 1990s to waltz down memory lane.

Top Ten Tuesday—Books I Almost Put Down But Didn’t

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Ten Books I Almost Put Down But Didn’t. I’m going to cheat a little and include some books I did put down but then came back to later, instead of only books I almost quit reading but finished anyway during the same general time period.

1. The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse. Regular readers may recall Hermann Hesse is my next-fave writer, and that I’ve been crazy about him since I discovered Demian among my father’s old books, during the Summer of ’94, when I was fourteen. But this particular book, which won him the Nobel Prize, was so difficult to slog through.

I was reading it when my family moved back to Pennsylvania in August ’96, and since our things were in boxes in my maternal grandparents’ house for almost a year, it was a great excuse to stop reading. When I finally went back to it around 2004, I kept the bookmark in that same spot, as a reminder of how my life was disrupted so badly when we left New York. That’s a very special bookmark too—I left it in a library book about Tad Lincoln, and when I checked it out again some years later, it was still there.

If you’re just getting into Hesse, I’d definitely recommend NOT starting with this book! It was his only book I found boring and a chore to get through, instead of a delight that flew by. It’s also proof that some writers excel at shorter novels but aren’t so good at longer books. However, the poems and the “Three Lives” stories after the main text are awesome.

2.  Out of This Furnace, by Thomas Bell. I read some of this novel for my eighth grade social-studies report on my Slovakian roots. I had a real chip on my shoulder about my parents making me write about the Slovakian side of my family, instead of German, Italian, Dutch, or British. Now I’m glad they wouldn’t let me go with an ethnicity a lot of my classmates would’ve written about, so I could stand out from the crowd. I loved this book when I finally went back to it years later, and was actually moved to tears at a few points. I’m so glad my ancestors took our family out of that furnace so we could have a better life, and that no one’s ever called me a dumb Hunky.

3. The Song of RolandNot easy getting through this Medieval French epic poem. At no point did I ever cheer for Roland and his buddies. The severe “my religion is better than yours” and Islamophobia turned my stomach, particularly when the conquerors murder and force-convert Jews and Muslims, and tear down synagogues and mosques. I have the same revulsion when I hear co-religionists talking about “the goyim” and using euphemisms for Jesus, Mary, Santa Claus, Christmas, and Krishna to avoid saying the names of “idols.” How dare you disrespect someone else’s religion!

4. Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Leonidovich Pasternak. I actually didn’t finish this till after my Modern Russian Lit class had ended. It was just a bad translation, coupled with the fact that Boris Leonidovich was much more experienced with poetry and translations than novels. This was his first and only novel, and it shows. (Oh, and the film adaptation sucks.)

5. Trinity, by Leon Uris. This was no fault of Mr. Uris (whom I’ve always liked, in spite of his shortcomings as a writer), but because I started it way too soon after finishing War and Peace. I just couldn’t get into it at first, since I was still coming down from that intense reading experience of the last 19 days. I needed more of a breather.

6. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. An older translation coupled with constantly having to look down at footnotes to see who all these people and concepts were. When I went back to it, I stopped interrupting my reading with footnotes and just enjoyed the poetry and story. It flew by from there on out.

7. Pretty much anything by the late fraud Beatrice Sparks. I’ve pretty much only read her crap to take one for the team and be able to compellingly warn people away from her propagandistic garbage. She wasn’t a good writer either, coupled with the fact that she blatantly lied about these being “real teen journals.”

8. Coming Home: A Woman’s Story Of Conversion To Judaism, by Linda Shires. Reading this book was like watching paint dry. Easily the dullest, slowest-moving, most off-topic conversion memoir I’ve ever read.

9. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. Another boring, slow-moving book which was like watching paint dry. Hemingway is easily one of the most overrated writers I’ve ever encountered. I’ve enjoyed his short stories, but that beyond-Spartan writing style doesn’t work when stretched out to an entire novel.

10. The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. I just recently got back into this, after abandoning it quite some years ago. It just wasn’t the right time for me to read it, but now it is. Mr. Wouk will be 99 on May 27th; may he live and be well!

Her second fraud

I was so naïve once. I had no idea for many years that Jay’s Journal is like 75% the work of the late fraud “Dr.” Beatrice Sparks, nor that she also was the sole or primary author of other frauds including Go Ask Alice and It Happened to Nancy. Who the hell was this old crank’s agent or editor? Who even gave her a publishing deal or writing contract?

This book is notable for being the only known, verified instance of having originally come from a real teen’s journal. The young man who wrote about 25 of the entries included in the published product was named Alden Barrett. He did keep a journal, he did suffer from depression and personal problems, and he did take his own life in 1971. After his suicide, his parents gave his journal to Sparks, in the sadly mistaken belief that she’d be able to help other troubled teens as she’d done with her first fraud, Go Ask Alice.

The result was a book that only contained about 25 entries written by Alden, identified as “Jay.” The Barrett family were horrified at how many liberties this crank had taken with his journal. She invented a bizarre Satanic theme and included material she’d culled from meeting with real teens who were involved in cults. Other stuff she just made up out of her own twisted mind.

While Satanism isn’t one of the world religions I’ve looked into in much depth, from what superficial basics I do know, it isn’t anything like what’s depicted here. Only cults that have nothing to do with real, official Satanism do things like ritually kill cats, drink cows’ blood, shred voodoo dolls, and drink mixtures of drugs and animal blood.

Apparently Sparks didn’t do such a stellar job of changing identifying information, and the community in American Fork, Utah quickly figured out just who this book was written by and where it was set. They were so disturbed by the alleged Satanism that the family had to leave town and the parents eventually divorced. Alden’s gravestone was desecrated several times, and once it was stolen and then returned facing the opposite direction. All because they trusted the wrong person, not realizing she’d use Alden’s journal as propaganda for her self-righteous agenda.

The entries from the real Alden naturally feel a lot more authentic than the fraudulent ones. They read like they were written by a real teen, since they were. In hindsight, after finding out the real, sad story, I realized that he does go from genius honors student and active community member to druggie, disturbed Satanist far too quickly. No one switches personalities that quickly, even if drugs are involved.

Sparks’s version of events:

Jay/Alden starts out as a brilliant honours student, a genius-level IQ, a devoted church-goer, active in the debate team, working well in his father’s store, and very tight with his two lifelong best friends. But he falls under the influence of an addicted girlfriend and is soon putting drugs in the prescriptions in his dad’s drugstore, as well as stealing to feed her habit. He knows it’s very dangerous and might hurt innocent people, but he likes her so much he doesn’t seem to care longterm.

After he’s caught, he’s shipped off to some kind of reform school, where he falls under the influence of a man who secretly teaches him about auras, projection, crystals, all sorts of occult and paranormal things. Jay/Alden has been brought up a devoted church-goer, and questions the veracity of some of these things, but starts thinking that maybe they’re not so bogus after all. (Later it comes out that this mentor raped a 10-year-old boy in a broom closet.)

After he comes home, he recruits his two best friends. Then he falls under the influence of people heavily into the occult. Soon they’re making voodoo dolls of their enemies and getting great results. Jay is freaked out, but gets even deeper and more excited when he and his friends start sacrificing animals and drinking their blood.

He and his new girlfriend are married in a Satanic ceremony involving slain cats, before things get really really freaky in an initiation ceremony. They all go up to a cabin and are made to drink a concoction of drugs and animal blood, and levitate outside their bodies, doing things they didn’t want to do but have no control over.

Soon after this, Jay and his friends get possessed by the Devil, evil scary things start happening, and a demonic spirit comes to Jay’s house and talks to him, later jumping into the family cat. Really freaky spooky stuff. My hair was standing on end while I was reading this.

Jay feels it’s all heading out of control. He decides to try to come clean and confess to his parents, and to talk to his pastor. But it’s too late. His next entry says he doesn’t want any part of the things living people have and enjoy, and he kills himself.

There’s a special place in Hell for people like Beatrice Sparks. What she did was just vile, using a real young man’s journal and twisting it into a story of a Satanic cult just to continue her holier than thou crusade.

Treacherous Love, Treacherous Writing

Beatrice Sparks’s book about a teen girl who gets into an inappropriate relationship with her teacher is her horrible usual writing style, but I must admit it did somewhat pick up and get better towards the end. And the back matter did have some good resources for teens who might be in creepy relationships like Jennie’s. Everything else sucked as badly as usual.

At least in some of her other books, Sparks’s authorship isn’t so obvious right from the very start. This book was only marginally better than the horrific Annie’s Baby, and that’s only because it finally starting getting relatively interesting and dramatic towards the end (in spite of a too-perfect conclusion). Until the last 20 pages or so, it was pretty difficult to slog through.

It has the exact same writing style as all of her other books:

A protagonist who thinks, writes, talks, acts absolutely nothing like a modern American teen, with the maturity level of a five-year-old

Characters who are clichés and stereotypes from some over the top morality play or after school special

Ridiculous, childish language

Obnoxious moral preachiness

Apologizing for cursing, thinking negative or unappreciative thoughts, or criticising one’s parents in one’s own journal

And of course, Sparks’s specialty, frequently WRITING IN ALL CAPS, OFTEN FOR SEVERAL LINES IN A ROW, excessive italics, and excessive exclamation points!!!!! It’s so difficult to read something like that. Not only is it annoying and childish, but it also really distracts from the story.

Jennie’s parents have a weird relationship; one moment they’re fighting a lot, the next they’re trying to reconcile and work things out, and then her dad finally leaves. Her mom turns to pills to deal with the pain, and Jennie clings to her two best friends, Bridget and Marcie. Marcie started out as a snob she and Bridget hated, till the oh-so-unrealistic scene when Marcie asks to eat lunch with them and immediately admits she only acts snobby and like she doesn’t want or need friends because she’s afraid no one would want her as a friend otherwise.

Jennie is upset that Bridget gets a boyfriend, Brad, and starts hanging out with him instead of her. Brad eventually dumps Bridget, and the three girls, in a typically unbelievable and ridiculous storyline, start doing weed (wearing only underwear and shower caps, for fear they might smell of drugs) until they’re caught by Marcie’s father the general. Sparks really managed to pack a lot of her pet crusades into this book—drugs, religion, teen relationships, broken homes, alcoholism, the works! She even snuck in a ridiculous anti-feminist comment, when Jennie comments on a teacher who wants to go by Ms. instead of Miss, and how all of the kids “wonder if she’s a…you know.” Since when do modern American teens consider it suspicious or wrong for a woman to go by Ms.? This isn’t the Fifties!

Jennie feels close to her new sub in math, Mr. Johnstone, really quickly, and sees nothing creepy or inappropriate by how he singles her out for increasing amounts of attention. She almost immediately is declaring he’s perfect and that they have something special together (another Sparks trope). It’s never said exactly how old he is, but I’d assume he’s at least 10 years older than Jennie.

Jennie lets him get weirder and weirder, even to the point where he’s taking pedophilic pictures of her looking like a little girl and asking her to marry him on her 15th birthday. She only comes back to her senses when she discovers, by accident, what’s really been going on.

Seriously, I really don’t think any real teen girl would be that dumb, not even one from a dysfunctional family. Of course, everything starts to get back to normal when Jennie finally confides in her dear sweet Mommy, whom she’s so glad is her precious Mom (yet another stock line!), and they both start praying and going to church.

Sparks really let a clue of her authorship slip when she had Jennie say she feels like she’s been kicked out of the celestial circle, a term she’s heard but doesn’t know the meaning of. What are the odds she would’ve actually heard that term anywhere unless she’s supposed to be Mormon? I only recognize all this Mormon language in Sparks’s books because I’ve studied world religions!

Jennie is by far one of Sparks’s most annoying, childish, ridiculous, and loathsome creations. I really wanted to slap her for being so stupid, overly emotional, and juvenile. Sparks had no clue how modern teens really write, talk, act, and think. She also didn’t realize you can impart important lessons like don’t do drugs, be wary of excessive, increasingly intimate attention from a teacher, don’t have unprotected sex, etc., without lying to and preaching at young people to try to scare them straight.

The only things she was really good at were creating victims and preaching.