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.

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A novel of tedium and infodump in Medieval France

I was excited to find this among the $3 books at a used bookstore. My parents bought me the second book years ago, for my birthday or Chanukah, but I’d never read it. Sadly, I yet again had the exact opposite reaction from the crowd re: a very popular recent hist-fic.

Why might that be this time?

1. Ms. Anton gets an A+ for research, a D for storytelling. It’s a bunch of ideas and historical facts patched together. The narrative plods along tediously, with no compelling, well-developed characters or strong prose to compensate.

2. Showing off her research. Ms. Anton dumps in detailed information that has nothing to do with the purported main story, like Medieval French politics, parchment-making, wine-making, and Rashi’s mother’s diary.

3. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue conveying said details. Enough said.

4. Head-hopping deluxe! When we’re in too many heads, too close together, for not enough time each, we’re ultimately in no one’s head, and can’t care about the characters. The trick to handling an ensemble cast is to weave the POVs, just as a great figure skating program weaves the elements in and out instead of clustering them.

5. By the time an actual plot finally emerged (over 200 pages in), I was long past caring about anyone. At least in A Farewell to Arms, I felt bad for the baby for about two seconds!

6. The sex scenes are like Medieval Jewish porn fantasies! I also call BS on Rashi giving fairly graphic sex advice to his own daughters and son-in-law and giving the latter intimate details about his sex life! And enough already with the unrealistic trope of virgins having a mind-blowingly awesome first time!

7. I call BS on men waiting outside the mikvah for their wives and gossiping about who went there! Taharat hamishpacha, family purity, is an extremely private mitzvah, which even many women didn’t discuss with other women till a few decades ago. You’re not supposed to know who went there, esp. if she’s your sister, mother, or rabbi’s daughter! A brother also wouldn’t oversee his own sister’s immersions!

8. Was it really common for women to regularly come to synagogue, not just for holidays and the Sabbath, in the 11th century?

9. The word “gender” is anachronistically used in place of “sex” six times, including twice in dialogue. People in the 11th century DID NOT use that word in that way, EVER! It only became a euphemism for “sex” in the late 20th century, thanks in large part to the vile Dr. John Money and his grotesque experiment with poor David Reimer. The freaking Victorians weren’t afraid to say “sex” when referring to being male or female!

10. Either someone confused the dating, or Ms. Anton SORASed her characters. The timeline says Joheved was born in 1059, yet she’s twelve when the story opens in 1069. Miriam’s birth year is given as 1062, yet she’s nine when the story opens. Joheved’s husband Meir is depicted as four years older, yet he was born circa 1060.

11. Speaking of, I had no sense of these girls growing up. I know there was no concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages, but I never had a feeling for how old they were at any given time, or of going on a coming-of-age journey with them. It felt more like SORASing.

12. Zero character development. Enough said.

13. I call BS on the premarital kissing and making out! Traditional Orthodox couples aren’t even allowed to be alone without a chaperone or hold hands before marriage.

14. Every time a conflict appears, it’s quickly resolved, like when Rashi catches Joheved and Meir making out before they’re married.

15. The blurb makes it sound like the story is about Meir’s disapproval of Joheved’s Talmud study, but he’s totally cool with it after his initial shock. It was extremely unusual for Jewish women (and even most men) to be so educated in this era, yet we never gauge any long-lasting reactions to this from anyone!

16. The depictions of births and midwifery aren’t accurate, as a reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads explained in detail.

17. Constantly interrupting the narrative to define or explain things!

Rashi and his daughters (who really did study Talmud and pray with tefillin) deserved so much better. I’m told the second book depicts Miriam’s husband Benjamin as openly gay, and the community anachronistically accepts this.

When a book’s contents and description are mismatched

Seeing as how I ran out of time to put together an original blog post yet again, this is a book review I wrote for my old Angelfire site, probably in 2003. It’s edited down from 900-some words.

3 stars

I expected more from this book, and was rather disappointed it didn’t delve more deeply into anything. The way it changed names and events was also annoying. It’s one thing to change names, but I dislike composite characters. That doesn’t give us a real picture of these people. So we have people like Jered, who goes from raving anti-Semite to loving leader of his church’s tolerance movement overnight, and Willow, who flits from religion to religion without any real, deep attachments to any of them.

Some of the events actually happened in her third and fourth years of divinity school, but she had them taking place in her first two years to give intellectual background. Why not just write about all four years from start to finish instead of making everything a composite?!

The author is an intermarried writer living in the San Francisco area when the book begins, but she wants to learn more about her native Judaism for material in an article or book. How does she solve this quandary? She enrolls in Vanderbilt Divinity School in Tennessee! Why would you uproot your family and spend so much money on a non-Jewish divinity school to try to return to your roots?

Mrs. Orsborn wants to be in a shul for Rosh Hashanah, and there are a number to pick from. She’s standing at the door of an Orthodox shul, ready to go in, but walks away and goes to a Reform shul when she remembers a bad experience in another Orthodox shul.

You can’t give up because of ONE isolated experience! She could’ve had a beautiful, spiritual experience, but with the mindset that it’d be terrible simply because it was Orthodox and behind a mechitza, maybe it would’ve been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mrs. Orsborn winds up at a fairly new Reform congregation without a permanent building. She also is ready to walk away from that one because it was so crowded and unfamiliar. The High Holy Days experience isn’t representative, since many people are only there then, and the topics of the sermons will be different.

She comes to like this new shul, however, and it’s very dear to her because it split off from the larger Reform shul in the area after the rabbi gave a speech denouncing intermarriage. A lot of intermarried families left to form their own community after that. Tell me how much sense it makes to settle on one shul when you’ve never given any of the others test drives. That was not an informed decision.

Her whole spiritual struggle was nothing more than deciding whether or not to join a fairly standard American Reform shul! If she really missed the atmosphere at Shabbos Shul so much, she should’ve tried to form her own group, not gotten upset the only area shul she ever set foot in wasn’t similar enough to her old shul.

This book was really disappointing. There are better, more compelling accounts of people’s return to their native faiths, not just accounts of waffling over whether or not to join a typical house of worship.

The invisible editor

Like clockwork, yet again I’ve been bitterly disappointed by a bestselling hist-fic published in the U.S. within the last ten years. So many times I’m left wondering if I read the same book everyone else raved about!

This book was written about in the local newspaper I used to work for, either because the author has some kind of connection to that area, or she were doing an author event locally. From the description, it sounded just like the type of book I love, and I couldn’t wait to check it out.

Wrong!

Let me count the ways in which this bloated book fails:

1. So many things were overdescribed, in such overwrought prose! It was like reading an Anna Godbersen book, only without the halfway decent storylines and characters. Nobody freaking cares about the minute details of everyone’s clothes, architecture, pastries, staircases, watches, or opera sets!

2. Million-dollar thesaurus words. I wish I’d kept a list, because she uses so many of them! I know not everyone has the same vocab, but I can’t think of anyone whose everyday language (in either speech or writing) includes words like “mullioned” and “panchromium”!

3. Showing off her research. I personally like when street names are included, since it helps to more fully evoke the setting and create a sense of the city as a character. But I don’t need to know the name of every freaking street or landmark during a walk or drive in Paris!

5. Showing off her language knowledge. I’m all for using foreign language for flavor, but not obnoxiously using it out of context and to show off! So many times, she uses French or Hungarian for no apparent reason. She doesn’t even have a glossary, which I always build for my books with non-Anglophone characters. And what’s with using the Hungarian word gimnázium? “Gymnasium” is the standard English word for continental European secondary schools!

6. Falsely marketed as a sweeping saga about three brothers in France, Italy, and Hungary in the years leading up and during WWII. It quickly becomes obvious this is only about one of the brothers and his insipid love story with an older woman. There should’ve been no shame in marketing this as a very long historical romance!

7. Third-person limited was a mistake in a book with so many characters. I would’ve loved to follow a lot of these other people more than the Mary Sue protagonist!

8. Ms. Orringer doesn’t know how to write a convincing male protagonist! While I’d like to think I’m pretty good at writing characters of the opposite sex, I know I’ll never be 100% accurate. I only have firsthand knowledge of being female, as tomboyish as I’ve always been. Andras reads like a woman’s idealized perfect man.

9. How many 22-year-old university freshmen not only fall passionately in love with women nine years older, but are dying to marry them and have babies with them? Let alone if that woman has a teenage daughter, and this is the guy’s first-ever relationship!

10. As someone who deliberately writes at saga length myself, I’ve developed a strong sense of when length is justified by the story vs. when it’s an overwritten hot mess. The latter is true in this book.

11. One-dimensional characters. Enough said.

12. Historical anachronisms and inaccuracies galore. E.g., blaming the wrong country for the entire cast having to leave Paris and return to Hungary over visa issues; everyone’s amazingly accepting attitude towards Polaner’s gayness; mistitling Bertolt Brecht’s famous play Mother Courage and Her Children as “The Mother.”

13. Overwrought prose, constantly telling the reader what to think and how to react.

14. At least 95% is telling and summarizing! “This happened. Then that happened. Over the summer, Name did this. Then Name did that. Tell tell telling telly telling lots of telling! During the winter, these things happened. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue. Flashback with even more telling. Did I mention, I can’t write an active scene to save my life?”

I’m shocked multiple editors and advance readers were credited. This book shows absolutely zero evidence of any editing. Ms. Orringer won lots of awards for a short story collection, and got many fellowships to research and write a novel. Clearly, no one had the guts to tell her the painful truth.

Newbie novelists deserve honesty and guidance, not mindless praise and carte blanche based on previous triumphs.

An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.