Writing in 2nd-Person POV: Q & A with Authors Anna-Maria Crum and Hilari Bell

This is a follow-up to two previous posts about stories written in second-person point of view (POV). If you want the basics on what second-person POV is or why you might want to try using this writing style, check these out:

Engage Readers: Make Them Part of Your Story
Connect With Readers–Without Breaking the Time Bank


Writing Second-Person POV–“In the Trenches” With Hilari and Anna-Maria!

Today, we’re going to dig a little deeper into how to make second-person POV work–by talking to a pair of authors who are in the midst of writing their own second-person POV project, Hilari Bell and Anna-Maria Crum.

CoGlogoHilari and Anna-Maria are currently going through the submission process with one of the foremost (in my opinion) publisher’s of choose-your-own-adventure stories/games, Choice of Games (COG). They’ve graciously agreed to talk about their experience with this company as well as what it’s been like to work on a project that’s so different in so many ways.

Since these two are so excited about their current project that they finish each others’ sentences, I don’t identify who’s speaking in their replies. They’re definitely well-practiced at working, brainstorming, and creating as a writing team!

How would you describe the writing process for a choose-your-own adventure tale, as compared to your experience writing more traditional first-person or third-person POV narratives?

It’s been really, really fun–and the most serious plotting challenge we’ve had for years. You need to come up with three or four ways for the reader [the story’s main character in a choose-your-own-adventure story] to get through each chapter. You need to think of things that can happen early in the story and pay off later.

You also need to avoid situations where the reader can choose not to act, which means that choices need to be phrased as “Do you do x, y, or z?” rather than simple yes/no scenarios. And none of these choices can be obviously right or wrong–they need to be real choices.

No matter what choices the reader makes, the story needs to be structured so that he or she makes it at least 80% of the way through before reaching a dead end (such as death!) And the final chapter has to have lots of awesome possibilities!

How is the Choice of Games platform different from, say, the first choose-your-own-adventure novel, Edward Packard’s The Cave of Time?

COG stories offer choices so readers can personalize their characters. For instance, you specify your character’s name, gender, and sexual preference. You also pick a background for your character–say, one of these:

  • Farmboy or farm girl
  • Ex-card sharp
  • Ex-merchant clerk

Depending which character you choose, you’ll have different starting characteristics or “stats.”

These stats change during the narrative based on the choices you make. Success at different places in the story depends on your actions in earlier chapters. At the same time, you don’t want any single choice a reader picks to make a future task impossible.

Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by “stats”?

Every story or game has a different set of stats that get tracked. Stats sometimes occur in pairs, where a high score in one means a low score in the other. For example, forthright and subtle might be a pair of stats. A character with a high ability (or stat) for being forthright would have a low score for being subtle.

Stats can also include expendable resources, like magical juice or money. Players can see their stats any time they want, but they don’t necessarily know how a given choice will move your stats up or down.

Some games have “hidden stats.” For example [SPOILER ALERT for the Choice of Dragons book], blasphemy is a hidden stat in Choice of Dragons. If you decide to proclaim yourself a god during the book, bad things happen at the end.

One of the challenges in writing a second-person story is writing something that appeals to different reader types. Is that something you had to think about?

Yes–we have to include different types of choices to appeal to people who enjoy different aspects of the story. Some people read the stories because they like roleplaying; others enjoy logic and strategic puzzles; and others want to experience all the different possibilities a story has to offer. We have to structure the story so it will appeal to all types of players. That’s actually what we loved about it. It was so challenging, and freeing, to consider different possibilities for a character’s actions and motivations because we had to provide for all types of game players.

All types of readers want to feel like their choices matter, like they create a strong thread that pulls them through the story.


Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

This is a great type of project for collaboration because there’s no specific protagonist.

And we’ve had lots of practice brainstorming together as Plot Doctors—which is a business we formed (PlotDoctors.com) to offer story structure advice. There are a lot of good writers out there, who don’t quite get story structure, so (for a fee) we’ll take a detailed synopsis of their story, figure out where the story structure isn’t working, and offer some suggestions on how to make the plot tight and satisfying instead of episodic, meandering and unsatisfying. But all that plotting was great practice for working though a COG outline.

If writers are interested in learning more about writing a choose-your-own-adventure tale, do you have any specific titles to recommend?

Choice of the Star Captain was our favorite. It had a real sense of story, a thread that pulled you through the narrative. It was especially interesting because it presents readers with a genuine ethical dilemma. For all COG stories, there has to be a way to “win” completely, but it took us six to eight play-throughs to figure out the win scenario!

Here’s some more information about Choice of Games and their current writing needs:

At Choice of Games LLC, we’re looking for authors to write more interactive novels and multiple-choice games, in the style of Choice of the Dragon and Choice of Broadsides. Our games are like “choose a path” gamebooks, but longer, deeper, and richer.

We’ve developed a simple programming language called ChoiceScript for designing multiple-choice games. Writing games in ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience.

We’re looking for freelance authors, paid in advance, and we’re also looking for writers to try our self-publishing platform.” –Choice of Games, Looking for Writers

Hbell2 crum_bio (1)
Hilari Bell writes science fiction and fantasy for kids and teens–and she’s really hoping that all the time she “wasted” playing D&D is about to pay off. Anna-Maria Crum has published 19 books in the educational market, illustrated over 50 books, and designed and run LARP murder mysteries. She gets together with Hilari for dog playtime and coffee in the afternoons.

Getting Practical: 3 Ways Writers Can Use Sketchnotes

Based on comments from y’all–not to mention which posts get the most traffic on this blog–I’ve made a cool discovery: Although you seem to appreciate posts on theory, what you REALLY like are posts that dig into specific examples.


 Photos: Jaro LarnosSheltie Boy, State Library of South Aus, & Woodleywonderworks

Practice a Concept–OWN the Concept

Makes sense to me! I don’t really understand a concept until I try it out six ways from Sunday and make it my own, if you know what I mean :).

So I thought I’d try an experiment. On Mondays, I’ll continue to bring you information and tips about writing, creativity, and novel ways to connect with readers. Thursdays, we’ll dive into specifics–specific examples, specific applications, specific challenges, and so on, that have to do with the week’s topic. Starting with (drumroll, please…) sketchnoting!

Sketchnoting is a powerful tool for writers & other creatives–I dare you to give it a try!


Add Sketchnotes to Your Creative Process: 3 Ideas

Idea 1: Use sketchnotes to create a “mind map” of conference sessions, lectures, or other presentations.

How? Simply apply basic sketchnoting principles as described by sketchnoting authority Mike Rohde in the Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking.

Who should try this? Creating this type of sketchnote could be a good fit for you if:

  • You want to start training your brain to think visually and symbolically
  • You want to practice the sketchnoting process without simultaneously trying to generate content
  • You want to share conference or meeting notes with others
  • You want to create a visual reminder of conference, meeting, or other information that you can refer to later

Example: I created this sketchnote…


…to help remind me of the great concepts in Simon Sinek’s inspirational talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” The result is a one-page source of inspiration that I’ll add to my writing binder. It captures the core ideas in a way that will jog my memory when I need to recharge.

Idea 2: Use sketchnotes to create a visual representation of an EXISTING character or character arc.

IMO, it’s easier to organize existing information in a visual format than it is to generate new ideas during the sketchnoting process. That means you’ll probably have an easier time creating a well-organized sketchnote if you  have a clear idea of who your character is before you start.

However, the very process of sketchnoting activates different brain regions than writing text, so it’s likely that this exercise will generate new ideas along the way. If so, run with them! The purpose of sketchnoting isn’t to create beautiful art (see my examples!) but to create a visual representation of thoughts and ideas. Let your creativity come out and play–get messy–and make the process work for you!

Who should try this? You might want to try this exercise if:
  • You want to see the “big picture” for a specific character (or setting, or whatever else you decide to use in this exercise)
  • You have a reasonably clear idea of who your character is–for example, her personality, flaws, strengths and weaknesses, etc.
  • You want to create a one-stop reference to help remind yourself of important character details–such as who he knows, his mannerisms, his physical appearance, information he’s uncovered at various points in the story, etc.
Example: I created this character sketch for one of the secondary characters in my current work-in-progress (WIP)–as a result, condensing 10+ pages of freewriting and notes into a single reference page.

Idea 3: Blend sketchnoting concepts with mind mapping to brainstorm a NEW character, character arc, scene, or an entire plot.

Who should try this? This could be a good fit for you if:
  • You feel comfortable translating words and ideas into simple symbols
  • You trust yourself not to fixate on creating beautiful art at the expense of generating ideas
  • You’re familiar with mind mapping
  • Or you like trying lots of new things at once–bring on sketchnotes, mind mapping, and more!
Example: I wanted to explore the idea that the villain in my WIP is the hero in his own story. What would that look like? How would the traits that make him a villain, from my main character’s point of view, make him a hero from his own? Here’s the result…
Your turn: Do you have some story notes that you want to organize? Or maybe it’s time you finally got around to that online class you’ve been meaning to take…a perfect opportunity to practice your sketchnoting skills! Try out sketchnoting–and be sure to share the results in the comments, below!

Connect With Readers–Without Breaking the (Time) Bank

In my last post, I bombarded you with examples of writing in second person–that bizarre voice where the narrative is about YOU, the reader, as a character in the story. Hopefully, I answered your questions about what second-person voice looks like. I may have even answered the all-important question of WHY you might want to experiment with something as funky as writing in second-person voice voice. That is, that second-person writing pulls readers into your story world, deepens audience engagement, and gives fans a richer, more enjoyable story experience.

Time and Quantum Physics

If you’re like most fiction writers I know, though, you probably have another crucial question: How can you provide your readers with MORE content when you’ve already got two books in the works, kids to pick up, a dog that need to get to the vet, DINNER TO COOK, GROCERIES TO BUY, AND

Get the idea?

If your days go anything like mine do, you’re probably in an ongoing battle with too-much-to-do-itis, but you CAN level-up your readers’ experience without breaking the “time bank.” The key is defining your project before you begin, tailoring it to fit your specific situation. In other words, writing MORE isn’t enough. You need to pick the RIGHT writing project–let’s call it your “value-adding” project, since it increases the value of your primary work–to fit your specific needs and resources.

Read on to learn how!

1. Define Your Specific Audience

The absolute first thing you need to decide is WHO you want to reach with your value-adding writing project. It makes sense, right?

If you want to connect with readers, you first need to define WHO those readers ARE.

You might be writing for your ideal reader, the person you envision reading your books, or whatever your “primary work” is–you know, the one inspiring this value-adding project!

Example: The ideal reader for my middle grade fiction is about twelve years old, smart, a bit geeky, and likes to play strategy games. Does that describe you? No? No worries! That’s because the ideal reader for my blog is NOT the same as the ideal reader for my fiction…which brings up an important point. The ideal reader for your PRIMARY WORK may not be the ideal reader for your VALUE-ADDING project. In other words, you might want to connect with a NEW reader.

Think of it this way. You can create a value-adding project to appeal to the same audience as your primary work, or you can create something that will appeal to a different audience, such as:

  • Your CUSTOMERS–people who might buy your book for someone else

Do you write for children or young adults? Consider writing for parents, grandparents, and others who purchase books for children and young adults. Do you write for a niche audience? Consider writing something that will appeal to the friends and spouses of your ideal reader.

  • Your USERS–people who might use your book in some way other than simply reading or gifting it

Teachers and book club organizers might fit this category. Get creative!

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Engage Readers: Make Them Part of Your Story

The Magic of Writing in Second Person

You probably know what second person voice sounds like. At least, in theory. If you’re writing a story in first person, you might say something like “I sipped my morning latte.” Change that to third person voice, and instead you write, “He sipped his morning latte.” By extension, writing in second person changes the sentence to, “You sipped your morning latte.” It’s not a very common form of writing. Most of us only use it when writing informal nonfiction — like this blog post.

However, as any childhood fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series will tell you, there’s a certain magic in reading fiction written in second person voice. It’s an invitation to the reader: Let’s play pretend…


Photo: Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities

Stories that place the reader in the role of the main character can intensify reader engagement, drawing your audience deeper into the story and blurring the lines between fiction and reality. They give readers a feeling of control, let them feel like they’re participating in story events. In the case of a “choose your own adventure” type tale, the reader influences the story’s outcome.

But, you say, I don’t really want to write a choose-your-own-adventure book.

Don’t stop reading!

Opportunities abound for using this tool to engage and connect with your readers. That’s because modern entertainment has become more and more interactive. A decade ago, second person voice used outside of a choose-your-own-adventure book would have been considered an artistic statement at best and, at worst, simply confusing.

Today’s audiences recognize the invitation posed by a second-person narrative–the author’s invitation to enter the story and play. They’re ready to play along!

This post is the first in a 3-part series. In Part 1 (this post), we’ll take a look at the three most common ways writer use second-person voice. More importantly, we’ll look at how these three different approaches affect your readers’ ability to suspend disbelief and enter into your story world.

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