What Sweet Valley High taught me about writing..

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If you grew up in the 90’s then you know Jess and Liz Wakefield, the sun soaked beaches of Sweet Valley, you survived slam book fever, sniggered at Chrome Dome and secretly lusted after Winston.. no? Can’t have just been me.. okay I liked Bruce too..

It was a world where boys had broad shoulders and dimpled cheeks but no penis, where girls worried about a zit but no one ever got acne, rather like a Clearasil ad. It introduced me to dorks, geeks, cheerleaders, and hunks,  fiat spiders, gross and geez, sorority pledges and pep rallies, golden lavalieres and halter neck tops, apparently not a medieval torture device used on horses.. . It gave me my first tingly kisses, took me on a wheel spinning trip over the wrong side of the tracks and taught my tummy how to flip.

I never forgot my days at SVH but it’s only recently, during a random conversation with a fellow wannabe, that I realised the legacy it had left me as a writer..

sweetvalleyhigh1. ” Everything about it was terrific – the gently rolling hills, the quaint downtown area and the fantastic white sand beach..”

Sweet Valley pulled no punches. It built the premise right into the title, before you even make your purchase you know it’s gonna be sweet. Where I live they tell you its old, grey, stupid…(Who puts Wally in a place name?) ..occasionally add in a handy direction west, north, probably worried about all those wallies…

For any kid in my rainy side of the world that was a title that was impossible to walk past.

thCA64LOSX2. ..”wicked gleam in the depths of her aquamarine eyes..”

I have blue green eyes. Jess and Liz had blue-green eyes. Theirs were the colour of the Caribbean, mine more closely resemble the north sea; they were tanned, toned and bronze of limb, I am white, jellified and have limbs, but for now and ever more blue-green is the province of the beautiful people. The same thing can be transformed by the words you choose and the choices each writer has made before you will be carried with it. Thus, no character of mine will ever have blue-green eyes, not unless I am feeling particularly ironically perverse

sweetvalleyhigh05allnightlong3. ” Sister and brother stood smiling at each other, enjoying the special bond they shared. Elizabeth’s blonde beauty came from their mother, while Steven’s dark good looks..”

Context is everything. You might think it is never okay to describe your brother as hot, and certainly in an Ian McEwan novel you’d be on the incestuous money.  Nowhere other than in Sweet Valley would this be anything other than creepy..

 

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4. ” Thanks Jess I know you are only trying to help, but you can tell Liz to forget it…I’ll never forgive her for this..”

Never let logic get in the way of plot. There are no precedents in SVH, not when there is circumstantial evidence. This is a series about identical twin girls who have lived in the same town for their entire sixteen years.. twin girls who are worlds apart beneath the skin. Liz the perfect student, sweet, kind, hard working and honest; Jess the scheming cheerleader, the manipulative, selfish, vain popular girl.. and yet in every book when Jess’s wild antics get her in trouble she convinces others she is her twin and everyone believes her.. every time.. Even Liz..

SVH-Book-Cover-sweet-valley-high-6808746-308-5005.  “Liz Wakefield is supposed to good, sweet, kind… do you know what that adds up to, Mom? Boring, boring, boring!”

I think when it comes to who you are reading about, likeable matters. Others disagree, they say relatable, well rounded, realistic.. I waver a lot, what they say makes sense after all, then I remember SVH and the twins..

Likeable in real life may mean he’s a nice guy, pleasant, easy to get along with, but it isn’t quite used in the same way in literature.  I liked Jess and could happily have drop kicked Liz all the way up to rainy Seattle. Likeable simply means I like you, for whatever twisted reason, it has nothing to do with how nice your character is, how much you identify with them ..Jess was rotten to the core, she was spoilt and scheming and beautiful and nothing like me, but I liked her. I wanted her to be a better her, but she was fun and the reason I kept reading..

SVH-Book-Cover-sweet-valley-high-6808597-313-5006. “She slipped on a slinky blue skirt and white seersucker top..”

By the time I got round to reading these books the fashions were already out of date, or seersucker was an American trend that just never caught on over here, but it didn’t matter. Using slinky makes even putting on fluro onsies with rabbit ears sound sexy and also your cellulite-ridden, moustachio-d heroine by default, not that I am saying moustaches were ever a trend even in America. Ms Pascal’s team of hard working ghostwriters may have been considered to have worked without a thesaurus or inbuilt capacity for variation – everything was slinky, lean, silken, golden, dazzling – but the vision of SVH and its perfect residents is still ingrained in my mind as clear as the images on the front covers. Why use a million words when one will paint a million pictures?

SVH-Book-Cover-sweet-valley-high-6808738-308-5007. “Jessica had painted her room the colour of a Hershey chocolate..”

According to SVH painting rooms the colour of poo is a clear sign of psychotic instability and indicator of wanton slaggishness, though mostly I saw it as one more reason why I liked Jess more than Liz with her lily white walls. Small details, even if oft repeated in coma-inducing numbers, can be very revealing. I’d even go as far as to say a story is made in the details. The narrator told me, after all, to hate Jess, they told me she was perfect and awful, but somewhere lost in those details I got hooked; she seemed eager, passionate and fatally unable to see her own flaws… They let the reader make up their own minds..

thCA1EW2TM8. ” Aaron Dallas, the handsome co-captain of the Sweet Valley High soccer team, used to be friendly and likeable.  But suddenly he’s changed..”

Consistency is the hobgoblin of the short series. By the time SVH wrapped up, after over 100 stories, countless spin offs and follow ups, we had seen bitches become sweethearts, heroes fall Jekyll-style and rise like Frankenstein, previous indiscretions overwritten, talents found and lost. Jess goes from dulcet to tone deaf, the goody-two shoes Todd cheats, the bad boy Bruce reforms, then regresses, then reforms.. oh and the twins brother is gay, but only after absolutely no soul searching, questioning or hinting..

So an outstanding series of good writing? …um nah.. but oh I loved them, I love them still and see Mammy, I learnt something. I still want to live there amidst the beaches and bitches.

They have reissued them with a twenty-first century gloss, which somehow sinks to such dire depths of prose that it manages to make the first lot look like fairly decent writing, but they still made me wish I was twelve again. I’m going to release my own Sweet Valley one day.. Just need to find those notes.. mixed in with my primary seven homework most likely..

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