It’s hard to imagine this was over 20 years ago: I was a freelance writer (then as now), and I was pretty beaten-down. I’d spent 10 years on a nonfiction book, a personal story of travel and conversation in Muslim Asia, that had been rejected 75 times and would never be published. In the many rejection letters I had received, some of which were quite thoughtful, one response had stayed with me. I needed to tell a better story.
This seemed good advice, but what to do with it?
I had also written three newer books — another for adults, two for kids — and all had been rejected. I was earning a living, barely, but I hardly had heart for another big project. Then, waiting for the light to change one Saturday morning with my bicycle at the corner of State and Main streets in Montpelier, I had a conversation.
Another writer I knew was also waiting for the light, and we chatted. Shannon's husband Ray was co-creator of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. This was the early 90s, and the Choose series, which invented interactive storytelling in print, was still in its heyday — and as a result of that morning’s connection, I got asked to write a science-fiction title. Quickly, for $2,000. “All I remember that I told the publisher is that a planet gets forgotten,” said Ray Montgomery, the series creator, who didn’t have time to produce the book.
So I did. I had no experience with sci-fi — didn’t read it, didn’t get it — but $2,000 was good money for me, and it sounded like a lot more fun than turning out another newsletter or annual report. So I drafted a story called The Forgotten Planet. As it happened, my nephew Chris Wilhelm, then a high schooler who had graduated from Choose titles to Tony Hillerman books, had come up for a visit. I asked if he would read and critique my manuscript before I sent it in.
He did. I asked, “What did you think?”
He said, “Well it’s pretty good, Uncle Doug, but you don’t die anywhere.”
“Oh no,” I said. “I wouldn’t want you to die.”
“No, you don’t understand," said Chris. "If you don’t die, it’s no fun.”
This was a critical lesson for me, in how to make a story work. There has to be risk.
Revised from Chris’s advice, The Forgotten Planet was published in 1993, number 133 in the Choose series (which would go on to bring out more than 180 titles). I went on to write more books for the series — eight in all during the 90s, when Bantam was the publisher, then another in 2011, after Ray Montgomery and Shannon Gilligan had won the rights to the series, and were publishing revised and new titles as Chooseco.
In all, my nine Choose books include dozens of choices. In each series title, “you” are a specific character, and every four or five pages you come to a choice point. Option A will lead you to a particular page, somewhere in the book, and option B will take you to another. Every choice has to be hard. And writing these books was a basic training, for me, in writing stories that captured young readers from the beginning (you had to do that; your first choice was coming up fast), and held their attention to the end.
But the main thing I learned from the series experience about writing stories, I think today, came from that conversation with Chris. No matter whether you’re putting together science fiction, a thriller, a romance, a story set in another time and place, or a deeply literary (whatever that is) narrative, something meaningful or engaging has to be at stake. There has to be risk; and one way or another, the reader has to feel that.
People often say the Choose series succeeded — it has sold 250 million copies, according to Ranker.com, and is the fourth best-selling series of all time, behind Harry Potter, Goosebumps, Perry Mason and the Berenstain Bairs — mainly because it gives kids power over the story. I’m sure this is partly, maybe largely true; but there is also the vital element of risk. When “you” are making the choices, and “you” are facing the consequences, you’re invested in the story. All fiction writers want (or, maybe, should want) the reader to become invested in the story.
“Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, famously. “If you don’t die," said my nephew Chris, "it’s no fun.”
Not exactly the same. But something to think about.