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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Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part IV

I didn’t expect to write a Part IV to this series over a year and a half later, but the topic just seemed right to continue.

I had to go through the four manuscripts I’m prepping for print editions, and it was a powerful reminder of how far I’ve come in my development as a writer, even in the last 5–10 years. We should all always endeavour to become better at our craft. If we’re still writing exactly the way we did at earlier stages, and see nothing wrong with that bygone style, something’s very wrong.

As I mentioned in the earlier installments of this series, I definitely would’ve written Little Ragdoll much differently were I only going back from scratch and memory now. It’s much more telly or omniscient, in a number of spots, than my writing has evolved into since.

But I really do feel it ultimately works with the type of story it is, esp. since one of its strongest inspirations is the 19th and early 20th century Five Little Peppers series. It also reads like a 1960s version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I hadn’t yet read when I wrote this book). Hardly books with a modern narrative style.

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At the time I turned my long short story/piece of backstory about Jakob DeJonghe and Rachel Roggenfelder into two full-length novels, I fully intended to query them. I deliberately wrote the first volume as YA, albeit mature upper YA. Hence, the fade to black in the wedding night scene (though they remain technical virgins to avoid creating a potential half-orphan).

Were I writing that book as adult lit that just happens to feature someone who ages from 14–20, I would’ve made it much longer, by at least 50K. I would’ve added a lot more chapters, or made the existing ones much longer and more detailed.

I’d also expand certain wraparound narrative segments into active scenes, just as I would’ve done with many of those kinds of passages in LR. While the estimated 125K is on the short side by my standards, it’s towards the upper limit of traditionally published YA in the modern era. That was as short and sweet as I could make it.

Likewise, the sequel also could’ve been much longer than only 104K. I could’ve easily planned for many more chapters, or made the existing chapters longer. But the focus is on a single young couple and their first true year as husband and wife, not a bunch of competing subplots with my Atlantic City characters.

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Things I never thought I’d admit: My ingrained habit of putting two spaces after a period (except for blog posts), when combined with justified text and Baskerville typeface, can create a number of unsightly, disproportionate gaps. I’ll continue typing the way I was taught, but when it comes time to format a manuscript for print, I’ll do a find/change.

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I don’t regret at all the post-publication polishing and light revising I did of LR early last year. That book truly needed it, and became stronger as a result. But there are many things about the inherent voice and style I can’t change so much time after writing it, without the entire structure collapsing.

Indie authors can do whatever they want with their own work, but there needs to come a time when one steps back and recognises a book is the strongest, most perfect it’ll ever get. What’s more important, going back again and again to revise or rewrite already-published books, or spending that time on writing new books where you no longer make those mistakes?

I learnt from my mistakes, and recognise them when I see them in older books. It doesn’t mean those previous books are inferior or poorly-written because they have, e.g., a lot of adverbs or some telly spots. It just means I wrote them at an earlier stage of my life.

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.

IWSG—Miraculously regained momentum

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group meets the first Wednesday of each month. Participants share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

It’s spring! Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?
In past years, I remember having felt more inspiration and renewal for writing as spring took bloom, though I can’t specifically recall the same experience in recent years.

Due to my shaken confidence in my usual daily wordcounts, I set my April Camp NaNo goal at only 25K. The first 5,200-odd words came from A Dream Deferred (since I had to finish that chapter before switching gears), but everything else came from my alternative history.

I reached my lowball goal on Day 14, validated as soon as Day 20 began, and ended up at just shy of 55K.

This book is written wildly out of order, which I still feel I need to do emotionally, but that strategy also makes it harder to go on a consistent, beginning-to-end emotional journey with these characters. Regularly jumping from Point A to Point D to Point R to Point Z to Point L and back again means I don’t always remember important developments or details.

I finished the last chapter in Part II, and have finished most of Part III. I also did a smidgen of work in Part I, though my primary focus during Camp NaNo was Part III. Once that’s done, I’ll spend May going through from the start, editing, rewriting, and filling in any remaining gaps.

With my rate of progress this past month, I’m confident I can power through Part IV (about 25% done), and then work on these appendices I totally forgot I’d planned.

I also realized part of the reason for my admitted emotional distance (most glaring in Part I) was because I was trying to be too close to third-person limited. That’s just not my natural voice at all, even when a book is unusually (for me) focused on just one or two characters instead of a large ensemble cast.

Thus, I developed some of the secondary characters more, even though this isn’t their story. I also finally figured out what to do with Grand Duchess Anastasiya, who had zero lines in all those words. Her reaction to the traumatic cataclysm is to shut down and barely say more than five words at a time.

Her second-cousin, Prince Roman Petrovich (who survived in real life), has a marvellous effect on her, so much so her uncle, Grand Duke Mikhail (the Regent), realizes what a good marriage match they’d be. Prior, it was just announced they’d married in early 1920.

I do think a more formal voice works for this specific book, but as it stood, it was too emotionally distant. Better to find solutions for it now, instead of going through mental gymnastics to justify it and only belatedly realizing what a snafu that was.

Near the start of April, I changed my desktop picture to feature my protagonist and his sisters. Every time I look at it, I’m held accountable for finishing the damn book already! I have an obligation to the memory of the dead.

Dealing with marriage age in historical fiction

One of many mistakes I was guilty of in the past was, by and large, marrying my historical characters off as teens, and almost always making them within a year of one another’s age. It’s not that there’s zero truth to this, but rather that it’s a widespread popular misconception.

Yes, on average, people (esp. women) did tend to marry far younger than they do today, and it wasn’t after years of dating and cohabiting. People “knew their place,” and as such understood the importance of settling down sooner rather than later, and courting or dating with marriage in mind.

It was also scandalous to cohabit out of wedlock, never mind getting caught having sexual relations or a woman becoming pregnant. Respectable people didn’t indefinitely court or go steady for years before marrying almost as an afterthought.

So what was the historically-accurate marriage age?

The ancient world:

Girls were deemed marriageable (and thus old enough for sexual relations and childbearing) upon menarche, which was probably about 13–14. Boys were old enough when they began growing pubic hair. Because marriage was a private family matter, relatively unregulated by the state, these guidelines weren’t set in stone.

The Roman Empire:

Augustus Caesar issued marriage laws in 18 BCE and 9 CE, declaring betrothal wasn’t valid if the man didn’t marry within two years of it. Girls were to be at least ten upon betrothal, and reached the minimum marriageable age after completing twelve full years.

Some families held off on arranging marriages for a few years, as they waited for greater political, social, or economic status. A more prestigious marriage could thus be arranged.

The Middle Ages:

In the 12th century, jurist Johannes Gratian wrote the authoritative Catholic text Decretrum Gratiani, which set the minimum betrothal age at seven for both sexes, and the lawful age for a girl to consent to marriage and carnal intercourse at twelve. Unusual circumstances rendered marriage valid at younger ages.

Other authorities declared a girl’s physical development, not age, determined marriageability.

A common stereotype about the Middle Ages is that girls routinely married at all of 12 years old, or in their very early teens. While this did happen, particularly among royalty and nobility, it still wasn’t the norm. Most poor and lower-middle-status women married between 18–22, while in some regions, women married in their early to mid-twenties.

In Eastern Europe, it was far more common for girls to be 12–15.

Renaissance:

The average Italian bride was 18, and married a man 10–12 years older. Englishwomen were 21. By the end of the 16th century, women were 25 and men were 27 in England and the Low Countries.

17th century:

Teen marriage was very rare in Northwestern Europe, and the Catholic Church dictated both sexes be at least 21 to marry without parental approval. Brides were most commonly 22, grooms 24. The average age was 24 for brides and 27 for grooms. Elizabethans believed marriage under 16 was dangerous.

18th century:

In Massachusetts, from the 1650s through 1800, average first marriage age for women was 19.5–22.5. Other colonies’ records indicate similar stats. The average marriage age in all colonies, pre-1700, was 19.8. During the early 18th century, it was 21.2, and in the late 18th century, it was 22.7.

In France, Germany, and England, women’s average first marriage age was 25.1 from 1750–99. In England alone, it was 26 for women and 28 for men by the end of the century.

Until the French Revolution, marriage age was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In 1792, it was upped to 13 and 15, respectively. The Napoléonic Code of 1804 raised it to 15 and 18.

19th century:

In France, Germany, and England, women’s average first marriage age was 25.7 from 1800–49. In England alone, it never fell below 22.

Working-class women tended to marry later than upper-class women, and royalty continued marrying in their late teens.

After the U.S. Civil War, women on average married from 22–24, a trend which continued till the 1940s.

Post-WWII:

This is the one era when many women did indeed marry very young. Many were shotgun marriages, but many other couples felt an overwhelming social and cultural pressure to marry and start families as soon as possible. It was what everyone did, and who wanted to be different and attract negative gossip?

By 1950, the average marriage age was 20.5, though many married much younger. Seventeen magazine had ads for china patterns, wedding dresses, and engagement rings, and in the case of shotgun marriages, many brides were underage.