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Big Books Feature

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Confessions of a Sweet Valley Scribe

Hawk Krall

Big Books Issue 2002

The Mobtown Connection Was H.L. Mencken the Godfather of Hard-Boiled Fiction? | By Tom Chalkley

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Confessions of a Sweet Valley Scribe | By Lizzie Skurnick

No More Heroes Comics: The Latest Medium to Test Fine-Arts Waters | By Christopher Skokna

Everybody Must Get Stoned Mass-Market Paperbacks Lull Our Reviewer Into Submission | By Wendy Ward

Dazzlement, Enchantment, and Trash Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, and the Apotheosis of Pulp Science Fiction | By Mahinder Kingra

Pulp Revisited Hardly anyone starts his or her reading life with Remembrance of Things Past, To the Lighthouse, and...

By Lizzie Skurnick | Posted 9/25/2002

People have only one response to hearing that I write for Sweet Valley, the young-adult book (and, briefly, television) series featuring the adventures of twin golden girls Jessica and Elizabeth. This response crosses all class, race, and age lines (except for the one marking off childless men without sisters); is universally delivered in bright, clipped tones; and is always mistaken.

"That must be really fun!"

These are the same people who have forgotten that, say, detailing someone's Bentley is not the same as owning one. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

An old writing teacher from my college days once remarked in an interview that, in the years before his novel had been made into a cult hit starring Reese Witherspoon, he was obsessed with landing a gig writing Sweet Valley books. As someone with a Sweet Valley gig, I found that both touching and perplexing. I got to write for Sweet Valley for the same reason most people get anything: I knew someone. A friend of mine was leaving a job housed in the same New York offices as Seventeenth Street Productions, the outfit that produces Sweet Valley; coming off an unremunerative three years in Manhattan publishing, I was a perfect replacement. Kieran, in the midst of revamping Sweet Valley High proper into SVH, Senior Year ("It's About Time"), was my over-the-cubicle companion.

Editors rewrite stuff all the time. But sometimes when a particularly loathsome manuscript comes over the transom (the girls are all wearing stirrups, the boys are all saying "fresh"), they pay the person in the next office to rewrite it.

My foray in this department was "Torn Apart" for Sweet Valley by-product LoveStories. (LoveStories are first-love focused and refreshingly free of the banalities of actual high-school experience.) Amber's parents were making her move back to New York City, just when she had gotten used to Wyoming and her hottie horseman. I tore it up, if I may say so myself, and was quickly assigned another LoveStories, then promoted to Sweet Valley, where I wrote for spin-offs Sweet Valley University and London-based Elizabeth ("She's not in Sweet Valley anymore"). After two years, almost 10 books, and a move to Baltimore to get a master's degree at Johns Hopkins, I was hauled up to New York by a fancy editor at a publisher of note to discuss writing a "real" Y.A. (young adult) novel for them, an offer upon which I have inexplicably failed to act as of yet, since I am ostensibly a big old poet and serious writer of fiction. Fresh.

Next people ask how much freedom I have in what I write. Without getting into the loftier question of how much freedom any writer has--unless I'm being annoying--I always answer that everything save the actual writing of the book is done by committee. The plot is decided by meeting; the title gets brainstormed at meetings (I liked Surface Tension, which justly lost to Say It to My Face); and new and old characters spring to life over jelly beans around the office. What the writer gets is a skeletal plot line--anything from a Zen-koan-like list of actions to a Jamesian exegeses detailing each chapter--which he or she (mostly she, as far as I know) then returns, suitably fleshed out, pruned, or padded, to the packager for approval. This is given immediately, and then the author sets about making 4,000 words of summary become 40,000.

Speaking of which, that second figure is not how many dollars the writer gets paid. (Which is why I was perplexed that the aforementioned Sweet Valley-obsessed writer seemed to think--as many do--that Jessica and Elizabeth are the penniless writer's Xanadu, complete with shag carpeting and an entourage.) First of all, for those of you who think this piece serves as some nice free advertising for a certain hack, think again. There are no royalties in the world of Sweet Valley. There is also no author credit. That invariably goes to the ghostly Laurie John (who, according to some girls on Amazon.com, my lone source of public critical analysis, is "losing her touch") and to the creator, Francine Pascal (please don't sue me), who lives it up in Paris off the skin of all of our typing fingers but is also the author of the completely awesome '80s Y.A. masterpiece Hangin' Out With Ceci, so I don't care.

Writing for Sweet Valley does not, as many of my highfalutin academic colleagues seem to think, involve simply dumbing down "normal" writing or being shallow (although that serves as a good illustration of how we actually think of teenage girls). Teenagers are notoriously tough customers, and they can sniff out a snob or a suck-up very quickly: When I started using brand names in Jessica and Elizabeth's bathroom, I was immediately admonished for commercialism on Amazon, and the reader reviews for my most recent book sent me quivering off with my tale between my legs ("This book should never have been written.")

Successful teen writing is about sound, as in sounding right. Neve Campbell changed the rhythm, and Buffy changed it a little more, but it all still depends on evoking that palpable sense of Sweet Valley, of biology class and beach parties in a camp-free environment, one as recognizable as Raymond Chandler's L.A. but sometimes as elusive (again, case in point, "This book was OK but not good").

I've had a lot of fun thinking up places for the Sweet Valley girls to go. When Elizabeth was in England, I wanted to kill the editor for making her a maid in a house in the country--there are only so many times you can mop the stone floor and bring scones to the Earl. I threw Jews, gays, blacks, and feminists into the stories. (My Scotsman, weirdly, didn't make the cut.) Jessica seemed to do best in clubs and on campus, so I restricted myself to one near-fall from a cliff. And there were endless opportunities to introduce my friends' monikers to the world of fiction, tagged on a bitchy professor, a chef, someone's love interest.

Unsurprisingly, whatever conflicts I was having in my life--boyfriends, bitchiness, boredom--made their ways into the books. Surprisingly, this gave the books depth. ("An EMOTIONAL READ!!!!" one reader bellowed on Amazon.) Everything in my life was going wrong? It was time for Jessica to take another look at herself. Boyfriend misbehaving? What the hell was Liz's deal with those fly-by-night guys? It's not hard to see why girls love Jessica and Elizabeth: They are the primer for the privileges and pitfalls of being mean, venomous, and self-involved (Jessica) or studious, neat, and nice (Elizabeth). I always liked it when the girls took an inner journey along with a trip to the mall.

If this were one of my books, I would be tying the themes together, filling in any plot holes. Instead, I will do what everyone wants me to do, which is to say that as far as I know the producers of Sweet Valley still audition writers for the series. The cost of writing for Sweet Valley? Untold late nights and printer cartridges, as well as the respect of everyone at Yaddo. Five stars from kissstargirl on Amazon? Priceless.

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