So, you wanna know what it’s like to write a choose your own adventure novel? Here’s the short version: it’s fucking hard but really fun. I’m just going to give you a taste of my experience writing my CYOA novel for my Creative Writing undergraduate dissertation from June 2016 – May 2017; yeah guys, it was a commitment. (I would also like it noted that I did this on top of other life commitments such as work and university modules.)
What is a choose-your-own-adventure novel?
Dating way back to 1976 with the publication of Edward Packard’s highly popular CYOA series, CYOA novels are a genre of interactive fiction in which the character controls the narrative by making certain plot decisions. Often set in survivalist situations, the player chooses where they go and what they do within a given set of options i.e. head left along the river or right up to the mountain path. These decisions have direct effects on the events and endings of the novel, with CYOA novels having anywhere between two and thirty endings to explore. The intended audience is mostly at children between five and thirteen, but modern incarnations of this genre are changing this. Video games such as Until Dawn, Detroit: Become Human and Life is Strange owe their formats to this genre.
So why a CYOA novel?
So here’s the thing; I find classic texts such as Pride and Prejudice and The Three Musketeers a chore to get through. I am an intelligent reader who has read many classics, but I do not particularly enjoy reading them. Why? Well, there are two reasons: the language and the characters. Classic texts are eloquent and old-school which means I have to work extra-hard to understand something that I could have been told in less than eight words. Not only this, but I often dislike the characters within these novels. There may be some mistranslation in my struggles, but I feel such a disconnect between them and me. As a modern bisexual feminist, I have a hard time watching these characters make (or not make) the choices dictated by their society. I am aware that these novels took time and skill to write and that we can learn from them, but I also believe that a lot of these so-called classics are over-hyped and over-worshipped in some circles. I have a lot of problems with some of the events in these novels and always wondered what would have happened if they had taken a different approach.
Basically, I had some bones to pick with some characters and wanted to try to make these classics more accessible to people like me; a CYOA novel seemed like the perfect marriage of convenience for these desires.
Mapping out the approach
Once we were officially permitted to begin our dissertations, we were sent a file which contained the rules and guidelines for the assignment. This included the following info:
- wordcount = 7,000 to 8,000 for the creative piece and 2,000 to 3,000 for the rationale
- Suggested goals for every semester and holiday
- Advice to send my work to my supervisor regularly and meet with him at least twice
So that is the very basic groundwork that I had to play with. But which novel should I mess with?
Selecting the right victim
Thinking back on all my years of reading and education, I assessed each classic with one criterion: which one did I have the most problems with? The way I saw it, the more problems I had with a novel’s events or characters, the more opportunity there was for play. Multiple novels came to mind; Wuthering Heights, Tess of the Dubervilles and Frankenstein to name a few. I re-read all of them (or at least their plot summaries) and mapped all the areas that could be changed and played with. It was a tough call, but eventually The Great Gatsby rose to the top because a) it was short b) I had a LOT of issues with it and c) I actually liked the damn thing since if I was gonna spend a year obsessing over a novel I’d better like it beforehand.
Big influences and inspirations
Before I began, there were a few things that inspired me to create this project. Here is the list of excellent things that helped inspire me even in my most mentally blocked moments:
- To Be or Not To Be and Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North
- Life is Strange
- The Wolf Among Us
- The Lizzie Bennett Diaries
These texts inspired my writing, the structure or the ethos behind my dissertation. I owe so much to them for helping me get through months of hard work and come out the other side with an actual working piece.
That sweet research
This was arguably the hardest part; research. As mentioned above, I re-read all these classics, including The Great Gatsby. I also read all the CYOA novels I could find in the library, all of them exclusively for tweens and below, and mapped all of their choices to get a look at the structure. I revisited my influencers to remind myself what I liked about them and studied how those aspects were achieved. I played click and consequence games that involved player choices including dating sims such as Dramatical Murder and My Forged Wedding alongside The Walking Dead. In this process, I discovered a gamebook called Choice of the Pirate, which is a fun story set on the high seas filled with magic, pirates, and treasure. Had an absolute blast reading it and totally recommend.
Then there was the mountain of academic texts on F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. I went through a pile of those that was literally the height of my torso. Since my endgame was to have multiple playable characters (Gatsby, Daisy, Nick, me and Fitzgerald himself specifically) any information I could get a hold of was important. I now know way too much about Fitzgerald and Gatsby. Seriously.
Planning it out
Now that I had all of my information down, I had to come up with some routes. I picked points in the original novel where an event wasn’t explored that I was curious about and started from there. I wanted answers to my questions; how did Gatsby go from the military to bootlegging? What was bootlegging like? What would a date with a young Gatsby have been like? How did Fitzgerald set up his writing space? These are just some of the questions I wanted to explore. I mapped each characters’ route on individual pieces of paper and colour coded them (obviously, I’m not an animal!). I made sure that I could give the player choices with actual consequences and different endings that flowed together nicely. Once this was done and I started writing, I began my regular check-ins with my supervisor.
‘Be patient, old sport.’
As I mentioned, I would have regular conversations with my supervisor regarding my progress and any questions I had. The catch was we could only meet them a certain amount of times. So, at the end of each month, I sent a kind of progress report to my supervisor letting them know what I’d achieved and where I was at each month. We met in person a few times as well so that we could bounce ideas and ask questions about the plot, but mostly stuck to the emails. Sending the monthly reports was my idea as a way to keep myself in check with regular checkpoints to keep me accountable for my progress.
Now I’m not saying I made loads of progress every single month; I had a couple of months where I was so burnt out creatively or mentally that I made almost no progress at all. That was okay, though. I was doing a Creative Writing degree in which I was actively forced to be creative and critical every day on top of this project and I was trying to balance a social life and my physical and mental health as well. From one creative to another, it is perfectly okay to get burnt out and stuck for a bit during the creative process. Believe me. I had multiple breakdowns, panic attacks, and all-nighters during the course of this project. I binge ate many crappy snacks and hit multiple writer’s blocks. But with the help of my friends, supervisor, and inspirations I powered through.
Wrenches in the works
Now, remember how there was also meant to be a rationale with this piece? Yeah, I didn’t either. I was noting the citations of every book or text I used and noting quotes and page numbers, but I was not writing the rationale. In fact, I didn’t even think of the rationale seriously until a month and a half before my deadline. Considering it was only worth 20% of my overall grade, I left it until the last minute – something very unlike me. I figured that my creative piece would pull me through and I could blag the rationale no problem. So, I drafted and edited it a few times without sending it to my supervisor – BIG MISTAKE. I would have received a high first for my dissertation, but my rationale mark dragged it down so I only just got into the first bracket. I know I still got a first (holy shit thank you!) but still, man. I’m a perfectionist.
The Final Countdown
It’s mere days before the final deadline. People are downing shots coffee and Red Bull and pulling all-nighters, having mental breakdowns and practically living in the 24-hour campus library. The night beforehand, most of my class was awake into the early hours perfecting their pieces. I made final adjustments at 3am and printed out the final piece. Finally, after all this time, I could hold the final product in my hands. I triumphantly headed over to where my friends were sitting and show it to them. We swapped pieces, checking that the formatting and page numbers are correct. All was well until my friend turned to me and told me that my page numbers were incorrect and that I forgot to double space everything.
This was a disaster.
Double spacing everything shifted my entire piece, rendering my page numbers useless. Page numbers are essential as they are how my reader navigates their route and if the route is wrong my dissertation won’t work properly. Cue my fifth dissertation meltdown. The friends who weren’t freaking out about their pieces comforted me and helped me change my mistakes or got me tissues. Together, we changed everything and reprinted it, all while reminding me that breathing is important. Now, at last, it was over. I made plans with some other friends to go get our pieces bound in the morning and proceeded to zombie walk back to bed.
At 7:50am sharp, we sat outside the binding room. We checked every 30 seconds that we did indeed have everything that we needed and that the formatting is correct. We reassured each other that we had done everything we can and that it would go well. The lady kindly opened up for us and allows us to choose the colour of our cover pages. I chose purple, my favourite colour. In no time she had bound our pieces and given them back to us. No going back now.
Shaking, we walked together to the faculty office. We waited outside for them to open, our hearts in our throats and our stomachs by our feet. The receptionist took our details and finally, took our babies away.
We’ve done it.
Oh GOD YES.
BUT OH GOD NO.
BUT OH GOD YES.
Walking out of that room didn’t feel real. Over the course of the day, I celebrated with friends, grabbing coffees and talking, hesitant to call ourselves free people. It all felt like a dream. Like I’d wake up and it would be the middle of February. But it didn’t matter. We’d won.
What do you guys think? Would you want to write a CYOA yourself? Would you want to read my one? Hit me up on Twitter @apageoutofchloe or comment below and we can chat about it!