A Tome for the Timorous And Tremulous

By Sean Cavanagh — February 05, 2003 3 min read
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It was a dark and stormy night ...

Or should we say a tenebrous and tempestuous one?

Generations of fiction fans have come to recognize the dark and stormy conventions of the mystery novel, reveling in the most determined sleuths’ pursuit of the most loathsome rogues.

Thousands of college-bound teenagers, meanwhile, have coped with a most tempestuous dread: preparing for the SAT test and its long list of troublesome vocabulary words.

This year, the imaginative realm of mystery writing and the all-too-real mystery of test preparation have merged in The Ring of McAllister, a novel published last month through a joint venture between Simon & Schuster and Kaplan Inc., a test-preparation company in New York City.

Intended as a study tool for the SAT I, the 253-page book is sprinkled with more than 1,000 vocabulary words students are likely to encounter on the test, the most widely used college-admissions exam in the country.

Robert Marantz, a former software developer for Kaplan who left the company to start a writing career, penned the work. Mr. Marantz, who lives in Los Angeles, considered several possible genres before settling on a mystery, which he and Kaplan officials believed would keep teenagers transfixed.

The SAT I vocabulary words appear in boldface throughout the text, with a glossary in the back.

“I thought of it as a light entertainment,” said Mr. Marantz, 32. “Something that [wasn’t] a chore to read.”

Test preparation comes in numerous forms, from basic test- prep guides with sample questions to workshops and camps. And Mr. Marantz’s story is just the latest in a line of test-preparation materials that have used the fiction format.

An early literary test-prep entry was Tooth and Nail, a mystery published in 1994 by Harcourt Inc. Last year, Barron’s Educational Series Inc. released Simon’s Saga, a novel described on the back cover as a tale of “adventure, knowledge, romance, ideas, fun, laughter, and 820 essential words on the SAT I.

Spoonful of Sugar

Using fiction to build vocabulary has several advantages, test- preparation experts argue. The approach allows students to learn the meaning of words in the context of a sentence or longer written passage—a skill that makes for easier memorization—and helps test-takers figure out terms they may not be sure of on the SAT. And it keeps the process fun, unlike memorization drills and other drudgery.

“Different people learn in different ways, but the first step [in a test-prep novel] is getting people interested by entertaining them,” said Trent R. Anderson, the vice president for publishing at Kaplan, who is managing the fiction venture for his company. “They can’t be bored.”

Keeping readers captivated was Mr. Marantz’s duty. The Ring of McAllister, his first novel, centers on 17-year-old Will Lassiter, whose life in the town of Red Fork becomes far more intriguing when his neighbor, Dr. Octavio Perez, disappears. From there, the protagonist is lured further into a mystery encompassing the town’s most prominent benefactor, the late Algernon McAllister.

Mr. Marantz had plenty to think about besides plot. Kaplan officials gave him a list of 2,000 words that were likely to appear on the SAT, and he was asked to squeeze between 1,000 and 1,200 of them into the story. The writer pored over the master list from time to time, hoping to absorb it so the words would flow in naturally. In the end, 1,046 of them wound up in the book.

Finding the right narrative style, he said, was tougher than squeezing the words in. (The well-worn “dark and stormy” construction, for instance, does not appear. “Tenebrous” and “tempestuous,” likewise, aren’t among the novel’s boldface words.)

In the end, Mr. Marantz’s foray into test-prep fiction gave him ideas for future works, such as a possible “prequel” to The Ring. “I think I have another SAT or GRE novel in me,” he said.

For his first effort, Mr. Marantz admits that he occasionally succumbed to literary overexuberance. One of his early drafts included the word antepenultimate (third from the end, in case you didn’t know), which he had eagerly inserted—only to see Kaplan officials strike it.

“I just loved that word,” Mr. Marantz said with a laugh.


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