Publishing's Queen of the Teen Romance Finds Success With a Formula

Times Staff Writer

The formula was perfect, and it sprang into her brain with such precision, such determination, such confidence that Francine Pascal could do nothing but run to her typewriter and record it:

They are the most perfect twins in the world, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. One is good, one is bad. Cliffhanger endings. Continuing characters.

The action is always carried by the kids. They run their world, which is very appealing.

"That's it," Pascal said. "It was waiting for me. No one was doing it."

But now Pascal is doing it--writing the Wakefield twins into every conceivable teen-age twist and turn--to such an extent that she has become a one-woman publishing industry. Starring blue-eyed, flaxen-haired Elizabeth and Jessica, her Sweet Valley High series now numbers about 12 million books in print. During a single week in January, Pascal's teen romance stories occupied 18 out of 20 places on both B. Dalton's Young Adult best-seller list and Waldenbooks' "Top 20 Titles--1985" for young adults.

An informal survey conducted by 'Teen magazine (circulation 1,016,000) indicated that the Sweet Valley High series was the No. 1 reading choice among its readers.

Pascal's "Caitlin" romance trilogy--featuring the rich, beautiful and spoiled Caitlin Ryan, the major power manipulator at a fictional Virginia boarding school called Highgate--boasts 700,000 copies in print, and a new trio of Caitlin titles will be published monthly beginning in November. In August, Pascal and Bantam, her publisher, will launch yet another teen series, Sweet Valley Twins, focusing on the Wakefield girls at age 12. Cloverdale Press, packager of both the Sweet Valley High and forthcoming Sweet Valley Twins series, reported that 1985 was the most profitable year in its six-year history, a fact Cloverdale president Dan Weiss attributed in large part to the success of its teen series.

It is the series concept, and its accompanying "brand-name identity," that in large part distinguish this current boom in young adult reading material from literary progenitors that date back to the 1940s. First love/young love was the theme, for example, of Betty Cavanna's "Going on Sixteen" (1946), as well as Rosamund Du Jardin's "Practically Seventeen" (1949). In 1956, Beverly Cleary covered much the same territory in "Fifteen."

But in those early years of teen literature, parents and librarians were almost exclusively the purchasers of books read by children and young adults. Now, as a 1984 study by the Book Industry Study Group revealed, more than 70% of the books young adults read are acquired on their own. As a result, publishers, packagers and authors alike have aggressively targeted this youthful book-buying market, customizing advertising, publicity and marketing methods to these young consumers.

Almost exclusively female--"The truth is," Francine Pascal said, "boys read until about age 12, then they go outside and don't come back in until they are about 18"--teen romance readers were shown in a recent Bantam Books survey to be ages 14, 15, and 13 in that order, with more 16-year-olds reading the books than 12-year-olds.

Lest anyone question the magnitude of the teen-literature phenomenon, most readers in the Bantam survey said that they read between six and 10 books a month. While most said they did not limit their reading to teen-romance novels, they said they chose those books in large part to identify with the heroine, but also to be lost in the story, to find help in solving personal problems, to relax and enjoy excitement and to understand more about other people's feelings. Mostly, however, they said they wanted to fantasize about romance and the hope of finding love with a real, live boy.

Not surprisingly, the giant growth pattern of these teen romance books has inspired massive imitation, if not outright cloning. Under its Archway Paperbacks line, for example, Simon & Schuster has announced a new "Out of This World" series. Aimed at young adults aged 11 and older, the series will center on the adventures of Max, a beautiful teen-age alien who has come to earth to learn how to be human. "I've come millions of miles to see you," Max proclaims in a special promotional display. "I'm Max and I'm OUT OF THIS WORLD!"

All of which makes a more realistic--but also ragingly successful--teen writer like Norma Klein turn a pale shade of out-of-this-world purple. "It's like eating junk food," Klein said of this trend toward escapist literature for young adults. "It produces an appetite for more junk food." For publishers and readers alike, Klein argues, that hunger becomes voracious: "All it does is make the few publishers who weren't doing romances have romance lines."

Underlying Morality

In Pascal's own description, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield "don't drink, they don't use drugs, they don't have abortions." By contrast, rather than serious scheduling difficulties with, say, their summer trips to Europe, Klein's youthful characters are likely to have lesbian mothers, drug problems or violent siblings. She blanches, therefore, at what she sees as reinforcement of traditional sex roles in teen romance novels, not to mention an underlying morality that pits good squarely against bad, and where the good, naturally, always triumphs.

"The morality behind these books to me is just hideous," Klein said. "To me the whole thing is going backwards. I entered things in the early '70s thinking things were conservative, never dreaming they would go back."

Defenders of these "teen Harlequins," as the genre has come to be known, respond to critics with a standard "at-least-they're-reading-and-not-watching-TV" line of argument. Pascal points out that "I get many, many letters from children who say, 'I hated to read until I found your Sweet Valley High books.'

'Romance in the Classic Sense'

"There are millions of teen-agers that no one in publishing knew existed," Pascal said, "because they won't read more sophisticated books. There are readers found here who surely would never have read, period. These are not just books about romance. It's romance in the classic sense. It deals with things that happen all the time in life. These are words, and you need more going on in your head to read them. It's a harder thing to do than to sit and watch TV."

But Klein, for one, rejects that notion. "I'd rather they watched TV," she said, "only because I feel that line is used by librarians as an excuse to buy these romances rather than more realistic fiction."

And one 15-year-old reader, high school sophomore Cara Beth Cummins of Clifton, Va., said that she would much rather read John Irving than a Francine Pascal teen romance. Titles like "Perfect Summer," "Lovestruck," "Spring Break" or "Double Love" might be more suited, Cummins said delicately, for her 10-year-old sister.

Said Klein: "I do hope the romance thing will peak."

But in view of Pascal's enormous success, that prospect seems unlikely. Not only do the Wakefield twins seem destined never to graduate from Sweet Valley High, but the pair seem fated to spend a literary eternity enduring book after book of adolescent dilemmas.

"They are frozen in time," Pascal said of her young heroines. "They will never be anything but high-school juniors." She laughed. "I know a good thing when I see it."

Pascal the author is in fact a committee, for the teen books are actually written by an anonymous stable of six or seven writers. Adhering closely to a rambling, stream-of-consciousness outline provided by Pascal, these writers also faithfully follow Pascal's "Bible": the description of characters, place, time and so forth that the author put together after the series was bought by Bantam.

'We Farm Them Out'

"I write the plot and the outline," Pascal explained, "and then we farm them out." The "good writers," Pascal said, "stay close to what they are told to do," churning out an average of one teen title every three months.

But the inspiration, plot and story line still come from Pascal herself. "I say to myself, 'Jessica, the bad twin, feels unloved'--and why shouldn't she, she is so awful? Or, 'The fat girl who wants to be a cheerleader--she loses all the weight and then pays back all the others, never forgetting those who are less fortunate.' "

Pascal also uses devices: Amnesia is a favorite. She offers advice and counsel: "For example, don't ride motorcycles." Long on morality, short on drugs, explicit sex, alcohol or cigarettes, her books are heavy also on such values as love, honor and friendship. After all, as Pascal observes, "these books hit the kids just at their most idealistic moment, just before they slide off into real life."

Protecting her readers from the rigors of adult reality is something Pascal does not take lightly. In fact, she turns downright maternal as she says of her readership, "If all these people are reading these books, it is a great responsibility." With her own mean readership at age 13, "they are not ready in my estimation for things like explicit sex. They are not emotionally developed enough."

Instead, Pascal seeks to give her readers "something to strive for, a challenge," she said. Like their creator, her characters are highly moral. "I'm a great believer in ethics," Pascal said. "Why not?"

Blonde in a beige sort of way, Pascal is dressed today in the very same shade of beige pants, sweater and leg-warmer boots.

She works at home, on a typewriter, in a gigantic apartment in a building designed by Stanford White that sits quite inconspicuously next to a Fluffy Donuts store in central Manhattan. A widow, Pascal has three grown daughters. She is 48, "although I'm not sure what difference it makes."

Though she studied journalism at New York University, Pascal's first true literary love was always fiction. Luckily, she was able to combine the two in her first journalism jobs, writing for True Confessions and Modern Screen. For the latter publication, Pascal's first assignment was a story about Connie Francis's wedding.

Lavish Descriptions

"I made the whole thing up," Pascal said, remembering her lavish descriptions of the bride's father's tears. "I was very lucky Connie Francis had a father and he was at the wedding." As for the extensive and emotional speech she quoted that father as making on that occasion, "I certainly was not there to hear it."

Nonetheless, Pascal worked her way up to writing for magazines like Ladies' Home Journal and Cosmopolitan. Still, she remembered, "it was never what I wanted."

Then Pascal and her late husband, John, got their big break when they were offered the chance to be second-writers on a soap opera, "The Young Marrieds." Second-writers, Pascal explained, are the ones who get a paragraph from the head writer, "something like 'today Agnes tells Bill that she is pregnant and is going to leave him for his brother.' "

The Pascals thrived, staying with the show until it moved to California. "It wasn't hard money," she said. "But the hardest part was having to watch it every day."

Next the two collaborated with her brother, librettist Michael Stewart, to write the book for a Broadway musical, "George M," the story of George M. Cohan. That project was enormously successful. Said Pascal, "I will not go into the plays we did not sell."

Right around the time of the Patty Hearst kidnaping and subsequent trial, Pascal's husband returned to newspaper writing. Just about that time, Pascal was offered a contract to crank out a 30-day, quickie book on that trial. "It was the first time," she said of that book, "that I had ever done real nonfiction."

Then one day in 1977, Pascal woke up "with what I thought was a marvelous idea." Her premise was this: "What if a 13-year-old girl who doesn't get along with her mother goes back in time to when her mother was a child and becomes her mother's best friend?" Pascal wrote it, a book called "Hangin' Out With Cici." With very little effort, the story was adapted into an after-school TV special called "My Mother Was Never a Kid."

'Didn't Even Have an Agent'

To this day, Pascal is not quite sure where the story came from, nor what literary muse chose to plant it in her head. "I just knew it was a good idea," she said. "I didn't even have an agent."

Next, Pascal wrote a sequel, "My First Love and Other Disasters," and then she produced another teen book, "The Hand-Me-Down Kid." Pascal was halfway through the writing of an adult novel, "Save Johanna" (William Morrow & Co.), when the brainstorm for the Sweet Valley High series hit her.

"I had always wanted to write a teen-age soap opera," she said, "but I couldn't sell it." An editor friend suggested Pascal try it in book form. "So I sat down the next day and created Sweet Valley High." She was looking for a subject that would afford the literary license of the kind of environment found in, say, "Dallas." Pascal chose high school, and she chose a fictitious Los Angeles suburb.

From the start, she knew she had struck gold: "I knew it was good," she said, "and I have that teen-age sound in my head."

Back then Pascal was still just one person writing books all by herself. As always, she stuck closely to the regimen that works for her. "I get up," she said, "and at 10 a.m. get to the typewriter. I write four pages. I never write three, I never write five. I don't do rewrites. I put all the pages in a pile next to the typewriter."

Pascal has firm rules while she is writing: Until those four pages are completed, she can leave only for bodily necessities. "But I can stop," she said, "in the middle of a sentence if it happens to be at the end of the fourth page."

According to Pascal's program, "you just let them pile up, those four pages, and before you know it you have a book."

On the other hand, as she has discovered, "If I hurry, it takes me a year to do a book. If I drag my feet, it takes a year. Young adult, or adult, it still takes a year."

Among teen readers, the Wakefield twins and the Sweet Valley series have made Pascal something of a cult figure. She receives hundreds of letters, many seeking advice on everything from their love lives to how to become writers when they grow up. Often when her young fans meet her at autographing sessions, they are stunned to discover that she is easily old enough to be their mother. "One girl told me she thought I would be 16," Pascal said.

A Double Life

Burrowing inside the adolescent and prepubescent psyches of her characters, Pascal does find herself leading a kind of double life: at once a successful, adult professional female, and a 12-year-old. In part to preserve her adult identity, Pascal writes grown-up fiction as well. Of "Save Johanna," for example, she gestured to a portrait of the Wakefield girls and admitted, "I wouldn't even want these children to read it."

Beyond her fertile imagination and her obviously clear memory of the pain of young adulthood, Pascal believes she is equipped with another major advantage in tackling the youth market. "A lot of people don't like teen-agers," she said. "And it shows."

As for her army of imitators, Pascal remains unintimidated. "I don't read them," she said. Still, she is certain they overlook something vital to her own books: "They are missing that very simple ingredient, idealism."

Formula or not, Pascal in no way regards her writing as anything other than work. "It's hard," she said. "It's kind of like a puzzle. I certainly don't dance over to that typewriter every morning."

Is it fun? Pascal thought for a moment, then smiled. "I love the result."

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