Sweet Valley High Ghostwriters
February 26, 2013 11:14 AM   Subscribe

In an essay in the Kenyon Review, former Sweet Valley High ghostwriter Amy Boesky, now an Associate Professor of English at Boston College, writes about her experience ghostwriting, how she got started, why she kept ghostwriting while also pursuing her Ph.D., and why she eventually stopped. Interviews with other Sweet Valley ghostwriters are here, here, and here.
posted by Area Man (28 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can see how getting stoned might be a requisite for writing Sweet Valley stories.
posted by Melismata at 11:25 AM on February 26, 2013


Oh gawd. I remember those books. Awful, but at the time, strangely compelling.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 11:27 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Was it the money?

Come on. Yes, it was the money. And it's a close-ended, finite, formulaic task unlike much work in the humanities. It's the literary equivalent of installing Ikea kitchen cabinetry. Like all repetitive work, it's an interesting task to master the rhythms of the work but once you attain mastery... there's nothing there. So you quit.
posted by GuyZero at 11:35 AM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


So after reading all of these, we're all agreed that never-seen, always-apparently-in-her-chateau-in-France "Francine Pascal" doesn't exist, right?

*Googles... is disappointed*
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:37 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Looking forward to reading this, these books were super popular during one of my library stints. At the time I was an English major, and while the Great American Novel (or at least a decent short story) was always a dream, I wondered what a gig like this be like and how much it paid. Even better, to think up something like this myself and eventually farm out the writing and watch the merchandising money pour in.

The whole business of ghost writing and the production of these endless series of young people's books is fascinating to me. The Stratemeyer Syndicate of course, and I wanted to recommend this book Ghost of the Hardy Boys but it's a little pricey on Amazon. It's a great read, the author is a little snarky and cynical about the whole thing.
posted by marxchivist at 11:41 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does it mention how much they paid? I always wondered that.
posted by The Whelk at 11:44 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


So after reading all of these, we're all agreed that never-seen, always-apparently-in-her-chateau-in-France "Francine Pascal" doesn't exist, right?

She did a brief interview once with Ira Glass in this episode of This American Life. It was about the importance of the prom in teen plots. (I knew that off the top of my head. Something is wrong with me.)
posted by Area Man at 11:46 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Stratemeyer Syndicate of course...

If you ever enjoyed the Hardy Boys, you will probably love the hilarious Brixton Brothers series. Actually, you'll probably love it either way but a lot of the jokes will make a lot more sense if you know the Hardy Boys. Especially the one where the villain is a ghostwriter in a sea cave...
posted by DU at 11:47 AM on February 26, 2013


Guyzero, it definitely wasn't the money, at least not in the sense that she needed the money to make ends meet. Getting a PhD at Harvard is a fully funded gig, and she also mentions that she was a resident tutor (free room and board for being an R.A.) and a fellowships tutor too (which pays $5-10k p.a. in addition). And the fact that she got the job at a dinner party suggests that she wasn't remitting her grad student stipend to support her parents back in the old country, either.
posted by sy at 11:50 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I lived on these books as a pre-teen/teenager. Although they're literary trash, they represent a genre that is really important for pre-teens. They transport you to another world -- a fantasy world where you can escape reality for a while, escape your problems (no matter how big or small), make believe, open up your imagination. It's what I loved as a youth. It was those kind of stories that opened up my imagination and made it okay to run with it. Same for the reader as for the ghostwriter, apparently. I miss the ease of escaping into a story, honestly. Now that I have a more "sophisticated" sense of literature, I can't read literary trash without giving myself a headache. But I miss it -- I miss just letting my imagination go, forgetting my cares, and taking a leap out of the real world for a while. Oh, nostalgia.
posted by DoubleLune at 11:50 AM on February 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


Reading these when I was 8 gave me so many unrealistic expectations of what middle school and high school would be like. That I would walk onto campus on the first day of school in my carefully picked out outfit and the shy, bookish boys would instantly fall in love with me . . . Oh god I'm so excited to read these articles.

On preview: what DoubleLune said.
posted by book 'em dano at 11:55 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


She did a brief interview once with Ira Glass in this episode of This American Life. It was about the importance of the prom in teen plots. (I knew that off the top of my head. Something is wrong with me.)


Better the way that you are wrong than the way I am wrong, which is to have heard that episode and completely forgotten it until you mentioned it.

I skim-read more of the SVH series than I ever would have admitted when I worked the desk at the one-room library in my hometown. (I was not only trying-hard-to-occasionally-seem-hetero-normative-male but more embarassingly, far too late into my teens)

There's enough real professional librarians on Metafilter that I feel like I shouldn't admit this, but I was often asked by parents if a book was 'appropriate' for their daughters (never their sons) and even though I recognized the SVH series for the 'kinda trash' that it was, I always said 'yes.' Which meant I could recommend other books to the same girls and they'd read them. Fifteen year old me got a thrill out of it, and describing it now, 38 year old me does a bit too.

And speaking of ghostwriting, Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her is a great read too.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:08 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Guyzero, it definitely wasn't the money, at least not in the sense that she needed the money to make ends meet.

Even rich people like getting more money. Yes, she wasn't broke, but the stereotypical image of a humanities grad student is not a life of luxury and excess.
posted by GuyZero at 12:09 PM on February 26, 2013


Amazing. I love Kenyon for publishing this, even if I hated going there.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:14 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I had no contact with her."

"I didn't speak directly with Francine, but she created the outline for each book."

"I never met her."

"Nope, I never met her."

"When she said goodnight to me at the end of the evening, she suggested I try writing for the series."

I read the links in reverse order, and I was starting to doubt that Francine actually existed.
posted by Monday at 12:17 PM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


This still happens with some frequency in YA and children's publishing. Not always with the titles you'd imagine--series like Warriors, sure, but books by Paper Lantern Lit, too, which look nearly indistinguishable from other YA and MG titles.

Does it mention how much they paid? I always wondered that.

If you're wondering about it because you'd like to get in on it, from what I've heard this sort of work for hire usually pays a few thousand per book, flat rate with no royalties. You can get pretty screwed over by packagers (see: the sad case of LJ Smith being kicked off her own series) and deadlines tend to come fast and furiously. But if you get good at it, more and more opportunities usually come along. One consistent problem I've heard with those who do WFH like this is that they run out of time and energy to work on their own stuff.

So I'd guess that in the 90s SVH writers were getting a couple hundred bucks for the work. Which is still the going rate if you're working for James Frey, from what I've heard.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:36 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


But I miss it -- I miss just letting my imagination go, forgetting my cares, and taking a leap out of the real world for a while. Oh, nostalgia.

This is precisely why I, an adult, read Doctor Who novels.
posted by jbickers at 1:25 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sweet Valley High set its fables of “same and different” in a 1980s world of new wealth and upward mobility, latching on to an innovative publishing reality: create a mass-market paperback series for young female readers, keep the price point low enough that it could be absorbed by a middle-class allowance, and use the books themselves to advertise each other by “seeding” the plots of each subsequent book in the final chapters.

That is a very succinct description; you can almost hear the money clanking as it rolls in. It sounds about as hard as running a used car lot in a military base town. And this series started before the Harry Potter phenomenon, I think. I can't imagine what the expectations of infinite profits are like now in YA publishing.
posted by thelonius at 2:28 PM on February 26, 2013


thelonius, I'm a YA author, so I'm happy to answer any questions I reasonably can, though I'm not entirely sure what you're asking.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:30 PM on February 26, 2013


I'm not really asking anything......thanks, though. I was sort of speculating as to what the effect of the mass success of the Potter books has been. Did it change the culture of the YA publishers, do they have big expectations that they need to find the next blockbuster, or that kind of thing?
posted by thelonius at 2:33 PM on February 26, 2013


One would hope that they are still interested in publishing books that are going to find a niche with some young people, make some money, but not necessarily be the next Hunger Games.
posted by thelonius at 2:34 PM on February 26, 2013


There's definitely a culture of seeking out blockbusters. If you have a subscription to publisher's marketplace (I canceled mine), you can see how advances have gotten bigger and bigger--lots of six figure deals, even some seven figure deals, which would have been unheard of before Harry Potter and Twilight. Smaller titles sometimes get lost. But at the same time, it's caused positive changes too: hardback releases are more common than the cheap paperback volumes of the days of 90s yore. And wordcounts are way up since the SVH days. There was a time when it was okay for a YA novel to be below 50,000 words. Now the word counts rival those in adult fiction, which gives an author a chance to tell a much more complex, nuanced story. Series are still big, but they're also bigger books. Some publishers still try to push them out fairly rapidly--say, a six month release schedule--though nothing like the monthly schedule of the SVH books, as far as I know. It's just really an entirely different world than it was then.

Generally, the midlist definitely still exists, though it's shrunk considerably.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:02 PM on February 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Pascal published Hangin out with Cici, its sequels and several adult novels under her own name.
posted by brujita at 4:04 PM on February 26, 2013


I'm imagining that Pascal's house in Southern France is next to and dwarfs Christopher Tolkein's house.
posted by Area Man at 4:42 PM on February 26, 2013


I think I've only ever read one Sweet Valley High book but that one was actually pretty good. It was about a girl who knew sign language because her parents were deaf, but she had this weird idea that it was shameful because her friends' home lives were different from her. So when a deaf student transfers into her class, she doesn't tell anyone that knows how to help - even when the girl is having a lot of trouble.

Seems like a silly thing to worry about - like anyone is going to shame you for knowing sign language - but that's middle school, I guess. Anyway, I wonder whether Amy Boesky wrote that one. There was a surprising amount of psychology in it - a character who doesn't do the right thing because she doesn't want to stand out - for something that's supposed to be fluff.
posted by subdee at 6:37 PM on February 26, 2013


I'm imagining that Pascal's house in Southern France is next to and dwarfs Christopher Tolkein's house.

Please! It hobbits his house.

Personally I imagine that the two houses look exactly alike, and every morning the two authors go out front and look at their houses side by side, marvelling at how alike they are, from their cornflower-blue roof tiles to their long, golden curtains, even though the lives lived within them are so different. Then Christopher Tolkien tries to persuade Francine Pascal to go on a double-date with him and Gisèle Halimi at le Burger Dairi.
posted by No-sword at 10:33 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


And this series started before the Harry Potter phenomenon, I think.

SVH started in '83, and the Twins series was still being published when I was eleven in 1993/4. The original books are familiar to me from jumble sales and car boots, along with the Sweet Dreams teen romances (I had one about a girl called Jenny who wanted to be a cosmetics mogul, and 'made' her own lipsticks by melting down old ones in the microwave and mixing them.) The original books looked pretty dated by the time I was old enough for YA - they were repackaged when a series came to TV in '96 - and given that we can't drive at 16 (and lessons aren't had at school) and wear uniforms to school, I'm not sure whether it was just that bit too difficult to relate to to be popular - at my school Goosebumps and The Babysitters Club were more popular.

The 'perfect size six' is a weird one. For UK publication, the authors did not bother to amend this to reflect that sizing in the UK is different - something which most teenagers would not know. So instead of the characters being a UK size 10 as intended, they were read as being a UK size 6 ie. an American size two. Pretty small. (A similar thing happened with Size 12 is Not Fat/Size 14 Is Not Fat Either - I would see the former in the library and think 'but yes, of course a size 12 [US size 8] isn't fat....?')
posted by mippy at 6:45 AM on February 27, 2013


Also, I loved Hangin' Out With Cici.
posted by mippy at 6:45 AM on February 27, 2013


« Older Not really a funyun, either   |   Foo Fighters were not involved Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments