GAME DEV: Phoebe Avison’s great gamebook adventure – Part 1

Write a gamebook, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. While I can attest to the fact that “they” were correct, they were also simultaneously very, very wrong. I did not take into account the sheer enormity of the project, nor the absolute mind-boggling moments, where I thought my brain was going to fry itself.

I am now ankle deep in the second draft of my adventure gamebook that’s aimed at the Middle Grade age bracket — readers aged around eight to twelve. This will be the first book in a series, and I’m aiming to go down the traditional publishing route, which requires landing an agent who will then be my champion to approach publishers.

I’ve chosen to pursue this route because I believe there’s a gap in the market for what I’m offering. In my opinion, my gamebook has commercial legs and will be appealing to the masses. My elevator pitch is: Give Yourself Goosebumps meets Coraline in Key House. I originally pitched it as being set in a haunted house, however, there’s far more to it than that. Sure, there are ghosts and spooky stuff galore, but there’s also a vital plot element that means the mansion you’re exploring is more on the eerie, enchanted side than plain old possessed. I’ll release more about the plot soon, but I want to keep as much as I can under my witch’s hat, so I don’t scare off potential agents and publishers by giving the game away too early.

So let’s rewind back to early 2019. I was a new mum and I’d been rummaging through my old keepsake boxes when I came across my old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. My inner child jumped for joy. I recalled days spent in my grandparents’ garden, nestled in a tent getting lost in The Forest of Doom, and sleepovers where I narrated the tales to my friends in the dead of night. In my little free time, I found myself replaying my original copies and scouring local charity shops for more.

Because, dear reader, in my late teens I made the monstrous mistake of storing my gamebook collection in my parents’ garage, only to discover that damp had destroyed most of it. I could have wept over the pages of my sodden first edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which was actually on loan to me from my uncle — who I must thank profusely for getting me into gamebooks in the first place. I am sorry, Uncle Dave, if you’re reading.

So I got to work on growing my collection again, while also adding tomes from different series such as Lone Wolf, Choose Your Own Adventure and Give Yourself Goosebumps. As I played old favourites and discovered new gems, it dawned on me that perhaps I had the skills and experience to create my own series.

As a degree-qualified writer, with over a thousand published pieces under my belt, I was pretty confident in my writing skills. I’d also been working on a Young Adult, fantasy/sci-fi novel for a number of years by this point, so I figured I’d learned at least a little about writing fiction.

In addition to this, my dad is a kickass graphic designer and illustrator. I’ve got to blow his trumpet, because he’s far too modest to do so himself. So I had an artist on-hand to turn to for cover art, inside art and more. I felt like all the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. It was almost too easy. This should have been a warning sign, because things that appear straight forward, often seldom are.

I initially envisaged myself as the guy from Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Of course I did not want to become him per se (viewers of the interactive film will know why) but instead, I pictured myself hunched over a notebook, scrawling pathways using the branching narrative method like the protagonist. For those unfamiliar, this process involves writing an entry or a brief description of an entry, then planning the choices that arise from this entry like you would a spider diagram.

But no matter how hard I tried, I could not get my head around it. So what did I do? I turned to a YouTube tutorial of course! Some glorious person whose channel is named Felbrigg’s Videos, created a seven-part YouTube playlist entitled: Writing A Gamebook. Within this series I discovered how to create a gamebook from start to finish.

I adjusted some areas of advice to suit my own writing style. In one of the videos, it shows an example of the branching narrative method and how to plan out the different segments of your story. However, only brief descriptions were included within each entry “bubble” and I had an idea that worked better for me.

After completing my first segment of around forty entries, I was mega proud of myself. But I knew I had a long way to go. For reference, hardcore Fighting Fantasy fans will know that the majority of gamebooks within the series have around four hundred entries.

I looked at my huge A3 sheet in bewilderment, realising that I’d likely forget what my short descriptions of entries meant later down the line. From my experience in drafting a “normal” novel, I also knew the process of writing a book did not end once you’d completed the first draft. I knew it would take multiple drafts, BETA read-throughs, ALPHA read-throughs, an editor’s feedback and test playthroughs before it would be ready for release.

With all of this in mind, from the second segment onwards, I decided to write the entries in full sentences. The further along I progressed, the sentences morphed into paragraphs. I was happy with this decision as I knew that my future self would thank me for it. I can confirm that future Phoebe is infinitely grateful to past Phoebe. Because it means that now, with the first draft under my belt, I basically need only to digitalise it by typing it into a word processor and making edits as I go, to complete my second draft. I’d highly recommend this method to anyone writing a gamebook. But of course, I modified a method to suit my own brain, so it may not work for anyone else’s.

It’s worth mentioning that while working on the first segment, I quickly realised I needed a map. I’m a very visual person and I thought it would help me to map out the entire location. As previously mentioned, the first gamebook in my debut series is set in a mansion. Thus, while working on the first segment of the first forty or so entries, I drew myself a crude map. Unfortunately, I did not inherit my father’s artistic flair.

I mapped out every single room in the mansion, making notes to complement the map in a separate notebook. My notes included specific characters and events that occurred within each room. The map is for my eyes only as — without giving too much away — a large part of the plot involves not knowing what you’re about to come up against. It’s very much like the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks in this manner; in that you have no idea where you’re going or what lies ahead. Unless of course you’ve been given a clue.

I would’ve been utterly lost without my map and planning notebook. They were as vital to the first draft as the actual spider diagrams. As I planned out each segment of entries, I would tick off each room on my map as I completed writing their entries. This also gave me a much needed sense of achievement in moments when I thought I’d be writing my gamebook forever. I could look at my map and see how far I’d come, while also counting how many rooms I had left to write up. The feeling of accomplishment when ticking off that final room was incredible!

So that’s where I am now fellow gamebook fan. In the midst of all this, I launched an interactive story subscription-style service over on Patreon called The Walls Have Ears. This is a fun way for folks to help support me on my road to publication, by pledging a monthly amount to receive all sorts of perks — such as voting on how the current interactive story will proceed, to behind the scenes videos of me writing my gamebooks and novels.

If you fancy being the Jaskier to my Geralt and supporting me on social media, you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I am now accepting songs in the form of shanties and ballads. Or any melody will do. Heck, even a tune played on a kazoo will suffice at this point.

This has been the first in a series for Gamebook News chronicling the trials and tribulations of creating my debut gamebook. I hope to see you again for the next one!

Thanks to Phoebe Avison for agreeing to undertake this gamebook development series for GBN – we’re excited to feature her articles, and have every appendage crossed in the hope that her Middle Grade gamebook will be successfully published in the near future.

Featured photo by Edan Cohen on Unsplash

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