Writing Exercises

Choose Your Own Adventure

One of my favorite writing exercises was born out of a desire to develop the habit of writing each day and my fondness for Choose Your Own Adventure books.

TLDR: Exercise your writing muscles by collaborating with a partner. You write a short segment of a story then come up with 4 or more options for what happens next. Email the segment and options to the partner. They send back their choice, then you write the next section. Repeat.

The exercise is this: Begin by finding someone willing to collaborate with you. Your collaborator’s effort level should be minimal. Mainly they need to consistently read a short section of story and choose, among options you create, what happens next. Their time comittment should be less than 5 minutes per day.

Write at least four options for the opening to a story and email them to your collaborator. When they respond, you write the next section, followed by at least 4 options.

The sections you write can be as long or short as you and the person you’re playing this game with think is reasonable. I like to keep mine short; at least a paragraph, but never much more than 500 words.

Though you can write via snail mail, I enjoy doing this as a once-per-day exercise over email. As a pleasant bonus, it’s a great way to keep in touch with friends or family.

The options at the end of each section can be a challenge to write, but they are also one of the most beneficial parts of the exercise. You MUST give your reader/partner true freedom by providing meaningful decisions and real agency to change the story. The options don’t have to be choices regarding the actions or dialogue of the protagonist, though they can be that too. I will give examples of the story that unfolds from one of these exercises at the bottom of this post.

What muscles does this exercise flex?

First, the creativity muscle gets a lot of exercise. Creating distinct and impactful options for what happens next is difficult, but I think it’s a great skill to develop. Maybe you’re the sort of writer that rigorously plots everything that will happen in your story before writing a word. Even if that’s the case, it’s worth looking at those plot points and considering the impact of what if? What if something different happened at this essential point in the plot? Would that be more dramatic and interesting in the long run?

Second, this exercise forces me to consider the rhythm of the story. Each segment is a response to the choice the reader made so there is an enforced action-response sine wave, rising and falling, that runs through the story.

Thirdly, this exercise improves my writing efficiency. I don’t mean that there is less revision to do. Instead, I mean that more of what I write serves a purpose. When trying to figure out what to write in the next section, I will ask myself, how can this advance the plot? How can this reveal the character? How can this enliven the setting? etc.

Lastly, I feel heaviness when nothing much has happened in the story in the past few days. I don’t want to lose my reader’s interest and my reader is a very specific person who is actively involved in this process rather than the abstract and distant reader who might someday see my published work. I am invested in keeping things interesting in every paragraph that I compose. It’s exhilarating.

Having done this exercise a few different times with family and friends, I have ended up with a few threads of stories that I imagine could be woven into a novel if I had the interest and one completed first draft of a short story that I intend to clean up and publish.

Here is an example of what can come out of this process. I started with a setting in mind but not much else. You will notice that I violate my own rules in places. The rules are more like guidelines. This is the first half of what came out of this particular exercise, minimally edited and not at all revised:

Choice of first line for the story:
A. Merulo could not have cared less about endangered space cows.
B. “Turn off the suppressors,” Merulo demanded. “I want the full experience of Springtime on Saturn.”
C. Merulo stepped out on the causeway in his new body. Time to schmooze some aliens.
D. It was the event of the millennium, a stellar spectacle, and a pivotal moment that would determine the future of humanity in the galaxy.

Merulo could not have cared less about endangered space cows. Five hundred years ago, such a lack of caring, alongside hunting, had rendered the Steller’s Sea Cow extinct on Earth. Now in 2268 humanity had the opportunity to adopt, what some try-hard had dubbed, the Stellar Space Cow.

Merulo was not impressed. Besides the obvious criticism that the creature was not in any way related to a cow or manatee, it looked much more like a ten kilometer wide moth than anything else.

At just this moment, the Space Cow’s chrysalis was crossing Saturn’s orbit and humanity was deciding whether or not to accept the bugger into our backyard or nuke the endangered species from existence.

Merulo had arrived at the orbital platform above Saturn to …

A. …leverage whichever decision was made for his own ends.
B. …convince people to accept the cow.
C. …see the spectacle of the first and largest of Spring storm of Saturn’s 20 Earth-year-long season.
D. …find out what the visiting aliens wanted.

Merulo had arrived at the orbital platform above Saturn to leverage whichever decision was made for his own ends. Merulo emerged from his own chrysalis of sorts, his newly minted body floating to the surface of the milky quickening fluid. His Pattern had just beamed in from distributed nodes strewn across the asteroid belt and boy were his photons tired. Merulo grinned at the old joke, exercising his stiff face muscles in the process.

Within the hour he’d been rinsed, buffed, and was exercising gently in the artificial one-third Earth gravity generated by the station’s spin. Fifteen minutes after that he was dressed in a functional, and stylish-to-some-beings, fitted iridescent onesie quite resembling the Sea Cow’s own carapace. He adjusted his multi-sensory name tag as he stepped out into the main concourse.

A. Emranahzu spoiled the moment inserting her thoughts into his mind, “the vote is a farce. I decide the fate of the chrysalis.”
B. Human and alien conversation mingled beneath a growing cyclone as wide as Earth itself.
C. He put on his best smile and headed out in search of the alien delegation.
D. It was an expensive privilege to be present in the flesh, to have the experience recorded with analog eyeballs and processed with singular body chemistry.

Human and alien conversation mingled above a growing cyclone as wide as Earth itself. It was the beginning of Spring on Saturn, a decade-long season of massive storms. This season’s storms promised to be the largest on record. The designers of the platform could have made the ceiling of the concourse a massive viewscreen, emulating a window to make in look like inward was outward, but they had decided to let the floor reflect the truth that the centripetal force of the platform was flinging them all outward. Only the transparent floor held the humans and aliens from being flung out to space.

Merulo wanted to ignore the flamboyant design decision, but his body reacted viscerally. His stomach seemed to leap. He found his hips sinking low, his stance spreading wide for stability. He forced his legs in, his spine straight. He caught his reflection in a shiny metallic wall and found to his horror, that he was blushing.

My digital body also has autonomic systems, he reminded himself. It’s a privilege to experience the dual phenomena of the first storm of Saturn’s Spring and, either the nuking of the Stellar Sea Cow or the opening of its chyrsalis through the unique vagaries of biological chemistry. Or so he had been told. It did not feel at all like a privilege.

Merulo lifted his chin, rolled back his shoulders. He spotted Xancth a short way across the concourse. This was his opportunity to influence the outcome of the evening and, failing that, anticipate the inevitable for financial gain.

Make two choices here:

Choice Part 1:
A. The alien, Xancth, was, to all appearances, a bubbling cauldron of tar that communicated via scent.
B. The alien, Xancth, was, to all appearances, a squid-like creature that communicated via a signed language involving its dozen tentacles.

Choice Part 2:
1. Xancth was one of the few aliens openly in favor of lifting the speed-of-light restrictions and admitting humanity to the galactic collective.
2. Xancth was a hardcore isolationist. To Xancth, humanity was a violent, childish species no more to be trusted with faster than light travel than one would trust a puppy with a vial of nitroglycerine.

You chose:
B. The alien, Xancth, was, to all appearances, a squid-like creature that communicated via a signed language involving its dozen tentacles.
2. Xancth was a hardcore isolationist. To Xancth, humanity was a violent, childish species no more to be trusted with faster than light travel than one would trust a puppy with a vial of nitroglycerine.

Merulo strode confidently into the midst of the group of carbon-bodied and silicon-bodied humans and aliens engaged in conversation with Xancth. Xancth zerself was, to all appearances, a squid-like creature that communicated via a signed language involving its dozen tentacles. Xancth was also a hardcore supporter of human internment. To Xancth, humanity was a violent, childish species no more to be trusted with faster than light travel than one would trust a puppy with a vial of nitroglycerine.

“Greetings, Xancth. I am Merulo. It is an honor to finally meet you in embodied form.”

Xancth shifted sideways to skewer Merulo with one of its two bi-pupiled eyes. Xancth’s yellow iris looked like an infinity symbol. Xancth waggled its tentacles in greeting. Merulo’s embedded translator conjured the image of an ambiguously gendered human appearing beside Merulo. The conjured individual spoke and emoted in the best translation that the translator could manage and it was very good.

“Ah, Merulo!” The gray-skinned human projection exclaimed with apparent good cheer. “My worthy opponent in debate. I know what brings you to the outer planets of your solar system.”

The gathering around Xancth shifted to bring eyes, ears, noses, and various other sensory instruments to bear.

A. coy and deflecting: I’m here to enjoy the magnificent spectacle of this majestic creature that has come to share our solar system.
B. aggressive: You and your council have no right to imprison me and my people.
C. modest: I’m just one person. I don’t presume to be able to make a difference in solar affairs.
D. holding back: So, what is it that you think brings me out here?

You chose D. holding back: So, what is it that you think brings me out here?

“So, what is it that you think brings me out here?” Merulo asked. He saw a copy of what Xancth observed out of the corner of his eye, a digital conjuration of a squid-like creature gesticulating Merulo’s own words for Xancth’s translation.

A blush of purple rippled across the surface of Xancth’s gray skin, leaving a mottled brown pattern in its wake. The human projection of the translator leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “you’re here to sway the vote in favor safe passage for the Stellar Sea Cow so that you can gain a bargaining chip in your arguments for the freedom of humanity from the tyranny of lightspeed. You’d better act swiftly. It is not only the vote that matters.” The projection gestured at a group of humans over its shoulder, “the militants may decide to destroy the Cow and be done with it regardless of the vote.” Xancth did not have to point out how bad such an action would look to the Council of Peace-Loving Sentients.

Merulo swallowed a lump in his throat and briefly became distracted by the strangeness of bodily reactions. He ignored that thought for the time being, calculations whirring through his mind. He was indeed here to sway the influential persons in attendance. Allowing the Sea Cow safety in the solar system would both demonstrate the willingness of humanity to peacefully share interstellar space and also give us a valuable hostage of sorts, though those two reasons were never both uttered in the same breath. It was the preferred situation for Merulo. More than anything, he wished to be freed to expand his conscious experience beyond the narrow confines of the two-light year influence of Sol’s gravity.

The odds were not in his favor. Arrayed against him were the bitter egos of humans who could not stomach the evidence that we are 1. not a particularly smart, valuable, or otherwise special species. And 2. if there is something special about us it is our general immaturity, poor impulse control, and belligerence. And that was just the voting community.

If any of the various human navies decided to act unilaterally and destroy the endangered sea cow, the vote would be worse than meaningless, it would highlight the divided nature of mankind.

A: Rather than approaching the militants Merulo asks Xancth, “What can we do when we are not a monolith? Does every member of your species agree on anything?”
B: Playing it cool, Merulo responds, “they will do what they will do.”
C: Merulo excuses himself to speak with the militants.
D: Merulo contacts a powerful friend to warn him of the potential for an attack on the Sea Cow if the vote is in favor of safe harbor.

You chose B:

Merulo mentally connected to the interstellarnet and put in a request to sell stocks in hyperspace travel companies and invest in weapons and defense. With that business completed he let out a relieved sigh, “they will do what they will do.”

“That doesn’t bother you,” Xancth asked. It’s tentacles quivered. “Stop, don’t bother answering that.” Then the hologram interpreter turned away from Merulo, though he couldn’t discern what signal Xancth had given that meant he was being dismissed.

“Always a pleasure,” Merulo said snidely, bowing sarcastically low and stepping away from the groupies around Xancth.

The navies would do what they would do, he thought bitterly. The vote to let the Sea Cow live or die would be yay or nay. The market would respond with its jittery hive consciousness as it always did. The Council of Peace-Loving Sentients would keep the human race prisoner for another hundred years and what did he care?

But if Merulo didn’t care, then why was his body acting so strangely. The muscles seemed unable to release. His gut expressed pain. He seized manual control over his breathing at least. He’d forgotten that a human body is not all fun and games.

Fun and games. His eyes flicked across the room, resting briefly on a bar serving liquid intoxicants, a pleasingly shaped human female gazing at the mounting storm on Saturn, and lastly on the squad of navy personnel, their stiff suits bedecked with ludicrous military paraphernalia. Each was alluring in its own way, in order, an escape from the unpleasant vagaries of firing neurons, an exciting diversion unique to flesh, and lastly an opportunity to vent his rising anger.

Instead Merulo let out a heavy sigh. He felt suddenly deflated. Why was he here? He found no answer in his brain and felt an intense loneliness as the separation from his greater digital consciousness stretched away from him.

He had uploaded only a small fraction of his mind to this temporary body out of necessity. It lacked the capacity to hold all that he was.

Fracturing this way was nothing new. A shard of himself, which surely saw itself as an individual by now, was headed at sublight speeds to Alpha Centauri. That fact meant that his greater mind was at least somewhat interested in exploration, so why did he feel no urge to protect the Sea Cow, no desperation to argue further with Xancth and try to convince it that humanity deserved a chance to join the council and explore the stars.

Was it possible that Merulo’s greater consciousness had merely dispatched him in this body to experience some pleasing sensations, which it could download and add to its collection. Merulo felt revulsion at the thought of being used in such a way. He knew intellectually that he was briefly separated from a greater whole, but the feeling of individuality was intense. Every shard became a new entity in the moment of its birth. He was no different. Being used was loathsome even if he was being used by himself.

He resolved to…

A: go to the bar
B: go to the female-bodied human
C: go back to Xancth
D: go to the navy personnel


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s