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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My Choose Your Own learnable moment

I had hardly ever tried writing fiction before I got asked to write a book for the Choose Your Own Adventure series in 1992. I learned a big lesson, doing that; and I learned it, not for the last time, from a kid.

I was a freelance writer, then as now, and I had about given up on writing books. My first, a ten-year nonfiction project, had been rejected 75 times, and I’d produced three more manuscripts that no one wanted either. I had a divorce to cope with and a little boy to love and was doing my best just to hold things together when I got a call from Ray Montgomery, the Vermont writer and entrepreneur whose series of innovative, interactive novels for young readers by then had over 130 titles, by Ray and a number of other writers.

As I remember it, Ray said, “I proposed a book about a planet that gets forgotten. That’s all I know. Can you write it? It’s due in a month. We’ll pay you $2,000.”

I had never even read science fiction. But it was the holidays, $2,000 was good money for me, and this would surely be more fun than the nonprofit newsletters and annual reports I was mostly turning out. So I wrote a draft of The Forgotten Planet (Bantam, 2003).

My nephew Chris was up visiting on his holiday break, and I asked if he’d read the draft. He was 12 or 13, a good reader. He said yes, and after he'd finished it I asked, a little nervously, “What did you think?”

“Well, it’s okay, Uncle Doug,” he said, “but you don’t die anywhere.” I said, “Oh, I don’t want you to die.” (Choose books have multiple threads and you have to come up with a number of endings. So I had thought about this.)

He said, “No, you don’t understand. If you don’t die, it’s no fun.”

Well! Over the years I’ve done 10 Choose books (Ray passed away a couple of years ago, but the series is still going through Chooseco, the indie publisher he and his writer wife Shannon created). I’ve had you shot down in a space-fighter battle, killed by pink-dolphin poachers in the Amazon, killed in a shipboard sword fight, shot in the back trying to escape from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters camp at Gettysburg, even dematerialized and injected into a stream of electrons, though I can’t remember in which book that last one happened. (Or why.)

What I learned from Chris is that stories need risk. Something should be at stake. Teachers often talk about stories needing conflict, but I believe that’s too narrow. I think more about tension. What creates it, what deepens it, how is it resolved? Something is at risk, whether it’s the world or one heart. The reader needs to care.

Stories are life, and lives are stories. “If you don’t die ... it’s no fun.”

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