Choosing Your Own Adventures

One of my favorite parts of writing happens when I’m not writing. You know, those moments during the day when you’re thinking about, maybe even dreaming about, the story or the characters in your work in progress. I love brainstorming, whether it’s my own book or someone else’s work, because there’s a sense of play to it; you aren’t committing anything to paper yet, so it doesn’t take much work. (It also may not feel like work, so you might worry you’re just procrastinating, but trust me, it’s useful.) You can feel free to be as goofy or wild as you want–you’re just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. And it’s cool because you’re working on your book anywhere and everywhere: in the shower, walking your dog, on line at the bank, riding the train, reading other books, watching TV, in meetings at work. A little part of my brain never stops thinking about my novel.

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I can’t speak to every writer’s experience, but this is how my imagination works. The more I think about the story, the more ideas I have. Often, my subconscious mind makes connections that needed days, weeks, or months to develop. Initially, I avoided outlining because I wanted to give myself as much of that flexibility as possible to discover the story and let it develop organically, but I’ve since realized that outlining can also get you thinking about the whole thing much earlier, and there’s nothing limiting about it–it’s just one path, and you can take the story in different directions any time a better idea presents itself. I like research for the same reason; all that reading feeds me more ideas and opens up new possibilities.

So this book I’m working on… It started with a lot of brainstorming and outlining, then I started drafting it and inevitably veered off from the outline a bit. I got some great notes from my editors, and I just completed the first major revision—a few hours ago. As I tried to re-imagine the plot and characters and come up with a better ending, the whole process reminded me of something very old, something from my childhood: Choose Your Own Adventure.

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You’ve probably seen a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book at some point, or one of the many similar series borrowing the concept. They’re basically stories that present many decisions for the reader, allowing you to have some control over the story. “If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4. If you decide to wait, turn to page 5.” There are usually only a few “good” endings and many bad, boring, or mediocre ones. When I read them as a kid, I always wanted to make sure I had taken every choice, explored every path, seen every ending. And I realized recently that all those CYOA books had been training me from early on to be a creative writer.

The way I plot out a book is really similar to how these books are set up. At each major plot point, I have to decide what the characters are going to do next, and what impact that will have on the story farther down the line. I’m constantly coming up with various scenarios and playing them out, discarding them, picking up another thread, trying something else. Working with Scrivener makes it even easier, and more fluid, because I can rewrite a scene several different ways, then revert to a previous version if none of them fit. I can move the scene or cut it entirely. I’m trying to see every path, and test every ending—all in search of the one “good” ending for the book. Of course, it’s preferable if I don’t have to actually write every alternative first.

20140324_224453It’s probably no wonder that I like stories about parallel universes so much. In some ways, each draft of my book is an alternate version of itself. (Sometimes I can’t even keep them straight anymore. Was that in the final draft, or did I cut it?) Fun fact: In the original ending of Fair Coin, Ephraim stops Nate from using the coin to facilitate a shooting spree at their high school. What?! Yeah. It was super dark, and very wrong for the book, and I knew it while I was writing it. (On the other hand, it was also my first novel, so.) But I often have to take some of those wrong turns and try out the “bad” endings — sometimes just to get to the end — before I can figure out what the real ending is supposed to be. Making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad writer, it just means you have to turn to a new page and try again. Revision is like getting to erase those unsuccessful outcomes and make a better decision.

Did you read Choose Your Own Adventure? Which was your favorite? And how do you plot out your endings?

The End

           

14 Responses to Choosing Your Own Adventures

  1. Robyn Campbell Mar 25 2014 at 8:46 am #

    What a great post. I was fiddle faddling in my mind for the past week. (The more I think about it, the more ideas I have.) 🙂 It was about my novel. While I was doing that, I was finishing a picture book. And starting another. I never read the choose your adventure books but I will now. I was ONLY into horse books. Ha. Thanks for a fantastic post. 🙂

    • Eugene Mar 25 2014 at 9:54 pm #

      Thanks, Robyn! Working on multiple projects at the same time is great, because you can always be productive while giving the other project time to percolate in your brain 🙂

  2. Paul (@princejvstin) Mar 25 2014 at 9:23 am #

    I read a *lot* of CYOA books.

    Cave of Time was the beginning and a strong one. I also particularly liked UFO 54-40, which had an ending you couldn’t get to by following the choices. You had to “Cheat” to get to it.

    Hyperspace, too, with its weird metastory, was also fun.

    • Eugene Mar 25 2014 at 9:55 pm #

      I read every single one at my library, and I used to like some of the other series too. Twisted Path or something? I also have an old Supergirl CYOA-style book, but I couldn’t find it in time to photograph it for my post.

  3. Susan Dennard
    Susan Dennard Mar 25 2014 at 6:24 pm #

    “Making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad writer, it just means you have to turn to a new page and try again.”–> THIS. This. I have to keep telling myself that right now, so thank you for it, Eugene!!! Great post and perfectly timed for moi…

    • Eugene Mar 25 2014 at 9:57 pm #

      Thanks, Sooz! Having just finished a revision, I was partially trying to convince myself 🙂 And I definitely had your last post on “Crafting an Ending that Sings” in mind!

  4. Cheyenne Mar 25 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    My sisters and I had a MAMMOTH CYOA collection! I even collected the younger series as well (The Green Slime, what a concept 😉 I think my favourites were The Mystery of Chimney Rock, The Throne of Zeus, and Mystery of the Secret Room. You’ve made me go all nostalgic! And I loved the D&D and Which Way/Secret Door books as well. 🙂 What a job writing those must’ve been, eh? You never had to settle on just ONE ending. I think those kinds of books need to come back in to fashion. It would certainly help with my uncertainty at times :}

    Fantastic post. I try to think of my endings first, but inevitably they change as the story organically unfolds, despite all my best intentions with outlining in advance. I never thought of looking at it like a CYOA, and therefore not being quite so hard on myself when one draft doesn’t quite work for me. Love this idea! Thanks for sharing.

    • Eugene Mar 25 2014 at 10:01 pm #

      I completely agree that there’s a great market for these today. Lerner Books was publishing a series called Twisted Journeys, and Edward Packard, creator CYOA, brought them to iOS with an app called U-Ventures. I think phones and tablets and web pages really lend themselves to interactive storytelling like this. I would love to write a CYOA-style book one day; I’m sure it presents unique writing challenges!

  5. jeffo Mar 26 2014 at 6:57 am #

    When I saw ‘The End’ I half expected to have a separate, different ending, CYOA style!

    I agree with you, I love that process of thinking about my stories. I don’t outline, but quite often I think in terms of ‘what’s the next logical thing that will happen because of what just happened?’ It’s a sort of mental outlining, I guess. The tough part sometimes is remembering the great things I thought about when I next sit down to write!

    • E.C. Myers Mar 26 2014 at 4:52 pm #

      I actually wanted to write the whole blog post CYOA-style, but that presented logistical problems (especially on four hours of sleep) and I was short on time. 🙂

      The challenge for me is coming up with a logical plot progression based on reality, the characters, and what they would do in those circumstances, but without making it predictable.

      I also used to worry about forgetting great plot ideas, which is why I carry a notebook and pen everywhere. Now I figure if it’s a great idea, either I won’t forget it, or it will come back to me. Sometimes I come up with a great idea while writing, and when I check my notes later, I discover I had thought about it before, written it down, forgotten it, then remembered it as if it were a new idea!

  6. Tara Dairman Mar 26 2014 at 10:42 am #

    I didn’t read a ton of CYOA as a kid, but I definitely read a few and really liked them. Then, recently, I mentioned CYOA to the middle-grade students in my writing class…and they had never heard of the concept. I couldn’t believe it! It seems like an essential part of childhood. I think I’m going to have to get them a few to try. 🙂

    Anyway, great post tying that concept in with brainstorming and creative writing. I can’t tell you how many times in revisions I’ve switched a character’s reaction or a scene’s outcome to exactly the opposite of how it was in the first draft, and opened up fantastic new possibilities for the story.

    • E.C. Myers Mar 26 2014 at 4:54 pm #

      Interesting! I wonder if CYOA would be a good way to get reluctant readers interested in books. They’re also mostly non-gendered, except for a lot of the drawings :-/ They really feel like a rite of passage to me.

  7. Alexa S. Mar 28 2014 at 1:12 am #

    I love that you mentioned “choose your own adventure” in the context of writing! It’s definitely prime training to think through different possible scenarios, and try to see what the outcome will be — a practice that I do when I’m thinking about my stories.

  8. Traci Krites Mar 29 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    Revision is just another way to clear up mistakes, I like that.

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