Fiction Express: Co-Writing With Thousands of Children

Posted filed under Experience.
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When I read Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, I always flipped to the end to see which route through the story allowed me to escape violent death, and made my choices accordingly. This obviously messed with any sense of narrative coherence or forward progress. It also meant that, my choices never had consequences, not really. So when I came to write interactive fiction, I was glad to do it on a platform that wouldn’t allow massive cheats like me to game the system – and so distance themselves from the story.

Enter Fiction Express For Schools. This publishing start-up is one of those very simple ideas that you can’t believe someone hasn’t done before. The company offers serialized, interactive stories to its subscribers ­– primarily junior schools, mostly in England, but also available to English-speaking schools around the world.

chapter vote

Chapter vote and a winning cover designed as part of the logo designing competition.

The readers interact by voting online for the path they’d like the story to take, as well as via the Fiction Express Blog, and through competitions that also help shape the story.

I started writing for them last year, and it’s not like any writing experience I’ve ever had before. Faster, scarier – because you’re handing over a large degree of narrative control to a bunch of tiny strangers – but also much less wracked with self-doubt. When there’s no time to agonize, there’s no agony.

Here’s how it works. Each week, for five weeks, you write a chapter, giving a few possible paths for the story to go down next. For example, you might ask “Does the heroine go into the dark cave, or explore the mountains above”, though usually it’s a choice with more at stake, morally speaking, than that. The readers then vote online, and whichever path gets the most votes, wins. Basically, it’s Choose Your Own Adventure meets The X-Factor.

The “live” element of it means the reader is forced to wait for the next installment. I can’t help feeling this is part of the pleasure for the readers, allowing anticipation to build. There’s something frustratingly enjoyable about being denied instant gratification when you’re used to it – with books or videogames, say, that you can pick up or put down whenever you like.

The writer’s in the same position as the reader – until the votes come in on a Tuesday, after the chapter going up on the Friday – you have to wait to find out what’s going to happen next out of the options you’ve provided. Sometimes those options are life or death.

One thing that really surprised me was how kind the children were in the choices they made. Perhaps I’m cynical, but I’d expected them to want to put the characters in peril, to make their lives hard, to make them, well, suffer. But actually, they often made the choice that seemed (at least in the short term) to protect the character and get them out of trouble.

This often turned out to be the most interesting narrative choice, as it usually meant taking the quick fix out of trouble that brought even more problems down on the character’s head in the long run.

Of course, while the readers vote for where the story will go next, it’s still within a structured context. Having run a lot of writing workshops with kids, I know that if you give completely free rein their stories can spiral into beautiful but baffling chaos, introducing new characters and changing location with the dizzying pace of a Bollywood set piece. With Fiction Express, the writer is the readers’ puppet,  while retaining enough control to give the story shape and drive it forwards.

Planning a piece of writing like this involves a lot of diagrams, a lot of “If X then Y” plot thinking. Necessarily it means a lot of roads not taken, too; a whole host of ghost paths that you never got to write, and the readers never got to read. There’s also an element of seat-of-the-pants improvisation of course – sometimes, a new idea emerges from the choices the readers have made, which leads the story to a whole new place you never envisaged.

As well as the voting, the readers interact directly with the author, via the Fiction Express blog.  Alongside the stories, I blogged here, as do all the Fiction Express authors. I’d write about what was happening in the story, I’d ask questions, I’d post doodles and “what ifs”. The readers came to the blog to ask questions, discuss the story – saying what they liked, what they just didn’t get, what made them angry – and post their own ideas for stories.

blog screenshot

 

Often, in class, they’d write their own versions of the paths not taken. But they also helped to shape the story in ways other than voting. For example, while I was writing my second Fiction Express story, we ran a competition to design a school emblem for the main character’s school. This was then folded back into the story, as part of the last chapter. Different Fiction Express writers interact in different ways, but I think what the kids really enjoy about it is the opportunity to get one on one attention from the author, and to feel part of the process. To feel like they’re in the inner circle, I suppose.

The business side of things:

For an annual subscription of £199 + VAT, a school gets 12 interactive e-books as well as comprehensive weekly teacher resources to help them guide discussions about the stories and do spin-off classroom work such as creative writing, art and comprehension exercises. Each book is written “live”, so no cheating is possible for the readers. They make a choice, and they’re stuck with it, though pupils often write the paths not taken as stories of their own. Over 350 schools are signed up, which means thousands of pupils reading the same stories at the same time around the country and abroad. This publishing start-up was the brainchild of CEO Paul Humphrey, who previously founded, and still runs, book packager Discovery Books. Laura Durman is the managing editor of the project. The authors are all professional, published authors.

The stories I wrote for Fiction Express were The School for Supervillains in spring 2012 and Revenge of the Supervillains, spring 2013, about a girl called Mandrake DeVille, whose parents were supervillains. The perils she faced included killer robots, sociopathic adults, clone armies and a best-friend-turned-arch-nemesis.

I also write non-fiction, fairytale retellings and creative writing books for kids for Usborne and run story-writing workshops for festivals and schools.

My blog:

http://loustow.wordpress.com/

My webcomic, Deus ex Suburbia:

http://godsnextdoor.wordpress.com/

@louiestowell

Represented by Anna Power at Johnson and Alcock.


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