I change endings. It’s what I do. Some of us enjoy the concept of finality, taking comfort in the fact that there are some things we simply cannot change, bathing in the charm of uncertainty, lounging in the pool of the unexpected and the unknown, accepting that some things just are.
I am not one of those people.
Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that as a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. You know the books- the ones where the reader gets to choose the path of the protagonist. There are choices at every significant stop in the road. The reader’s choice can either lead to an outcome that is great, favorable, mediocre, disappointing, or catastrophic.
Don’t remember? Then let me introduce you to Lyla.
Lyla is a writer. She has spent the last 2 years writing a novel and 4 months just writing and rewriting the first chapter. She has spent 6 months workshopping the piece with peers and another 2 getting feedback from friends of friends who act as unbiased readers. Yesterday, she hated her novel. But today, she is excited, happy, and ready: she is finally going to publish her manuscript.
Lyla applies for the Assistant Editor position at a major publishing powerhouse in the hopes that learning the industry and creating connections will make the publication process less daunting.
Lyla decides to self-publish her novel.
Lyla sends 100 unsolicited query letters to agents and publishing houses, attaching a copy of her manuscript to each.
Choose a letter and scroll downward until you see your choice.
Path A’s Adventure:
For the first few weeks, Lyla is in pure bliss at her new job. The Editorial Director of her imprint says her edits are impressive and the team offers multiple compliments about her new organization system of the filing cabinets. A few months in, Lyla asks if she could take a look at the unsolicited manuscripts, and she is directed to an email account with 10,000 unopened manuscripts. She decides to hold off just a bit longer on sending her own manuscript out, believing it will need a few more edits before it can stand out in an avalanche of competition.
Ten years later, Lyla is an Editorial Director herself and a successful editor in the industry. She tells the new intern that she once considered being a writer but then grew up.
When everyone leaves work, Lyla pulls a notepad out of her top drawer and begins the final chapter of her 6th unpublished novel. She promises herself that one day she’ll actually submit this one somewhere.
Path B’s Adventure:
Lyla follows the directions on the self-publishing site. She reads her manuscript once more to find any final errors, loads it to the publishing platform, and blows it a kiss for luck. She sends an email to her family and friends informing them that she is now a published author. She gets a couple “yays” and “proud of you” messages and then hears back from her grandmother. Gran wants to know who published the text. When Lyla tells her she did it herself, her grandmother replies: “That’s a grand idea!” and publishes her own set of poems.
Five months later, Lyla has sold 12 of her books and Gran has sold 17 of her own – to each lady in the weekly workshop at the community center.
Lyla removes her novel from the site and locks her original in her drawer where it will remain until the pages fade yellow.
Path C’s Adventure:
As soon as she mails her letters, Lyla tries to distract herself, certain that she will hear back from at least a quarter of the agents and publishers in just a few weeks. She picks up new hobbies, babysits her nephews, and in a slight bout of weakness, pays a friend to build a website for her in preparation of her imminent publication. With each passing month, Lyla is more disheartened. After four months, all she has received are three letters, all uniform rejections with no indication that her manuscript was even opened.
So, the situation seems pretty dire for good old Lyla. But what about higher education? Surely that must change Lyla’s options a bit. Well, considering her higher education options, her new array of choices might look something like this:
Lyla applies for the Assistant Editor position at a major publishing powerhouse in the hopes that learning the industry and creating connections will make the publication process less daunting. (See Path A)
Lyla decides to self-publish her novel. (See Path B)
Lyla applies for MFA Programs, in the hopes that a higher degree in writing will enable her to acquire an agent with ease.
Path 3’s Adventure:
Lyla applies to both funded and unfunded programs. Since the rate of acceptance in funded programs is less than 1%, Lyla is not too disheartened to be rejected from the top 10. She decides to attend a program in the top 50 that lacks the ability to fund its students. Two years later, Lyla graduates.
With only fleeting interest from agents and 100K in educational debt, it’s back to the original set of options: Path A and Path B.
Certainly, one of these paths could have led to publication and success, but since only 3 out of 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts are published each year, Lyla represents the average person’s odds. Actually, considering that Lyla was talented enough to be accepted to one of the top 50 MFA Programs, her odds are greater than average.
This tale isn’t meant to be cynical, and neither were the Choose Your Own Adventure books.
I remember quite a few peers of mine crying when they chose the wrong path in the CYOA novels. They were frustrated and broken when an option they’d chosen led to failure of a mission, or even more brutally, the end of the protagonist’s tale. They’d sit back and sulk and swear never to touch another novel from the series again. And they shook their heads and closed their ears when I tried to tell them what they were missing.
The idea of Choose Your Own Adventure was never meant to be discouraging. The books weren’t meant to make us hate the concept of choice or turn our backs on free will– or even to make us refuse adventure. The goal wasn’t to make us give up– it was quite the opposite, actually. The concept was a massively simplified preparation for adult life.
Fairy tales and happy endings are easy and comforting, but are they conditioning us to be weak? In all likelihood, your life’s knife won’t cut quite that clean. In these stories they attribute all success and failure to fate, but fate is just a fancy word for helplessness. Fate is just an easy way to avoid the trials and heartbreak of determination. Accepting that you are powerless doesn’t make it true for everyone. It only makes it true for you.
Because ultimately, both in CYOA or in Lyla’s case above, we have choices. That’s about the only certain thing in life; choice is just about the only thing of which we can always be certain. If you don’t like the path you’ve chosen, choose another.
And if you don’t like any of them? Create your own.
Nayia Moysidis is the Founder of Writer’s Bloq, a Literary Collective for talented writers to share, collaborate, and gain exposure for their writing. Moysidis graduated from Columbia’s Creative Writing program in May 2011. During her years at Columbia, she played Division I soccer, explored six continents, and held positions at Film London, VISA, SportsMark, and Simon & Schuster. She has been published in Flaneur Foundry, NOW!HERE, and Forbes. During her semester abroad in Australia, she completed her first novel. Upon her return to the U.S., she experienced the many limitations of the publication process firsthand and decided to create Writer’s Bloq.