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"How to Organize and Write A CYOA" by HatedLove6


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I am not a professional, nor do I have any degrees or certificates in anything except for safe food handling, which has nothing to do with creative writing. The only experience I have is in my story A Smile to Hide which isn't even close to finished. I wrote this because writing writing tutorial helps me get over blocks, and it helps me think outside the box for a few hours.
Normally, when reading books, you read about a protagonist and their adventures, but there are a few books that put you, the reader, and your decisions in the plot making the story completely interactive with the audience. Are you interested in learning more about these interactive stories?

If you are, please continue reading.

If not, push the back button and look for something else.

These interactive books are more often called Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA), but the alternative title is called Pick Your Own Path (PYOP), not to be confused with BYOB (Bring Your Own Beer). In these stories there is a main plot, but the reader is allowed to choose which direction the story goes within a certain set of choices–if something is more important than the other, or if they want to run away, or if their curiosity wills them into an obviously dangerous path–which splits the story in several directions. If you drew the plot path on a poster, you can imagine it resembling a tree or a complex web of some sort, and therein lays the difficulty of these stories: the planning, the details, the transition, and the execution. All of these factors can prove difficult when writing your interactive story.

Let’s start with something easy, something you’re already familiar with, which is the writing itself. With normal stories, they are usually written in past or present tense using first or third person. Technically, you could also do this with interactive stories–write about a fully fleshed character and have the audience play god and dictate the character’s path, but it’s not the usual way of writing them. CYOA is usually written in second person, which is highly unusual in fictional stories, especially long stories; however second person can be used effectively in short fiction, but it’s mostly used in non-fiction articles, essays or tutorials, like what you‘re reading right now.

You could also write the story in present or past tense; however using present tense is usually more effective for creating that urgency when choosing choices, especially if the choices are interrupting a fast-paced scene. There are varying options you could do, but I would stick to the entire CYOA in second person present tense. That may be just me, though, so if something else works for you, that’s great.

I could talk more about second person and present and past tense, but I’ve already gotten into so much detail about it in another one of my guides (“You POVs” in The Mary-Sue Complaints Checklist), but I’ll just summarize the main point I would like to add. In second person stories, ideally you wouldn’t have names, blanks, or parenthesis at all. That means no “___,” “––,” “[Name],” “(Name),” “(ec, hc, hl)” or anything else that has to do with names or physical description. You could get away with using a last name, or a nickname that has a story behind it and that doesn’t contain an obvious shortening of a longer name (Mike for Michael), but that’s it. On the internet, however, and especially if you’re just starting out writing second person stories, using blanks and parenthesis is usually accepted by the audience because they do know that it‘s a hard style to write in (and let‘s face it, you‘re not getting paid to publish your stories on the internet). Naming the reader is rare, and hardly accepted by most, but you are allowed to do so, just give a brief warning in an author note or something and make sure to choose a common and neutral name. Choosing an exotic name not only places too much of an identity on the role, but it also tends to push the readers away. An exception to the “exotic” name is if the setting is in a completely different universe in which every single name is made up, and in which you also made up your readers’ role’s name. In either case, if you have to revert to names, parenthesis or blanks, try your best to keep it at a minimum. It’s hard to avoid it if you are introducing yourself or if you’re being introduced, but the rest of the time, the name, blank and parenthesis situation can be avoided, or skirted around.

Another aspect that should be avoided, especially if you are writing in second person, is physically describing your audience. Lately, there’s this trend that’s been happening with an exclamation point, such as [Trait]!Reader. The “trait” could be something physical, such as being obese, a certain type of personality, having a physical disability, or something as small as the reader wearing glasses. Frankly, you don’t need them, and, dare I say it, I think should be avoided at all costs. The point of reader-inserts or second person stories is to include as many readers as possible, not pick and choose which traits apply, which would be isolating your readers more than including them. I get it, that it’s a “warning” that this certain trait will be involved, but you don’t need a warning for this sort of thing. If you include these “traits,” it’s more than obvious that you have an image for this role, and for some unnecessary reason, this image is important. Why is a pair of glasses important? Is it because you just want a character that’s near-sighted, or is it because there’s a scene in which the love interest says something along the lines of, “Why do you hide your beautiful eyes behind these glasses?” In either case, you don’t need the Glasses!Reader warning. If you still want that corny line, you could just put, “Why do you hide your eyes?” The reader could assume various methods of hiding one’s eyes from glasses, to hair, to hands, and to simply turning away. The glasses aren’t the important part; it’s that the character is hiding their eyes. Obesity? That’s either the character not being fit (but could still be thin), or that they have body image issues, even if there’s nothing physically wrong with them. You can include both obese and thin people in your audience if you just describe what’s going on rather than attach a specific image on the role.

Now what about something like a physical disability, such as being deaf or in a wheelchair? Certainly not all people are deaf or in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t mean you’re excluding the people who aren’t deaf or in a wheelchair. If the role starts off able to hear and walk, that will make the transition easier for those who live that way, but even if the role is born deaf or unable to walk, all you have to do is sufficiently describe this lifestyle. Research about people with the disability, how they live, their quality of life, the difficulties, etc. If you provide enough description, emotion, and prove that you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to include all of your audience, instead of those few people, making your “warning” redundant.

Personality is another matter altogether; however the trait warning is still useless. In “You POVs” there is a section specifically for readers who have complained that no one reader is the same or have the same personality, which is true, but showing a bit of personality in the role isn’t supposed to be isolating. Everyone is a little shy, has a little cynicism, confident, and all the other personalities that you can think of, but the role just highlights them at certain times. Maybe the role is mostly shy, but as long as you describe the reason, and describe how it feels to be shy, I would think it’s no big deal because if you describe enough, it’s still relatable. The role of second-person stories are supposed to find a link that every reader can find relatable, and once you’ve established that link, you can pretty much do anything with the personality.

Moving away from that exclamation trend, there is no need to describe the body type anyway; if the character is embarrassed about his or her shape, simply say so, that compared to other people, he or she feels imperfect in some way. There is no need to describe the color, shape or length of the eyes, skin, lips or hair. Instead of saying “You brushed your long curly red hair, brushed some rouge on your fair cheeks and outlined your bright green eyes,” you could just say, “You brushed your hair, dusted some rouge on your cheeks and outlined your eyes.” Granted, not everyone will have head hair, or long enough hair that it would need actual brushing, but I’m sure nearly everyone understands the feeling of brushing their hair when it was longer. Don’t describe the reader’s clothing unless he or she is making a path-choosing decision. “If you chose the red dress, go here.” “If you chose the T-shirt and khakis, go there.”

Another physical description that is often overlooked is height. The reader’s height and other character’s height. Even if your target reader is a female, females can be tall, even taller than tall guys, so even if you have the other character’s height in mind, there is no way for you to know if your reader is taller or shorter than them. Instead, don’t refer to the reader’s height at all, and if you want to describe other character’s height without getting too technical, compare them with objects or with other people. “His hip lined up with the table’s edge.” “She was half a head taller than him.” “He was tall enough to be able to reach the top of the ten foot iron fence if he jumped.” There are several ways this can be achieved, but I pointed it out because this is often forgotten all about.

Formatting


The formatting of CYOA is pretty simple in itself, but there can be a couple of small complications that may be confusing. There’s the story, and then there’s the choices which enables the reader to read more of the story upon choosing which choice. First, how do you set up the story so there will be choices?

In life, we make choices every day ranging from menial to important, to even life-saving, but we usually only make choices that we see in front of us or can think of, and choose based on what we know. In order to set this up, you have to narrate it in the story before listing down the choices.

“In the back of your mind, you think of your friends from home, Jessica and Markus. Are they mad at you for keeping a secret? Would it be worth it to call them? Markus would probably at least consider why you kept your abilities a secret, but Jessica would most definitely scorn you for keeping a secret, and probably for being psychic. Do you want to face the music now or later?

Then again, it would probably be a good thing to explore the campus grounds so you can get a feel for the new terrain and so you can find a few hiding places in case you need to bolt.




If you decide to explore the school, read your results and then go to Chapter 16.

If you decide to make a phone call to home, read your results and then go to Chapter 17”
(A Smile to Hide, chapter 10).



If you just list the choices with no forethought, your audience won’t know why these choices are there as opposed to other choice that could be made. Taking the time to set up the choices would also lessen any confusion or irritation. Take this, for example:

“You walk into a room.




If you decide to take the door on the left, go here.

If you decide to take the door on the right, go here.”


What’s in the room? Is there a light coming from underneath one of the doors? Are there any sounds behind one of the doors? Use the story aspect to describe the choices so the audience doesn’t have to rely on gut instinct all of the time. It’s fine sometimes, especially if the reader is supposed to make a rushed decision, but definitely not all the time. If you keep doing this, it will feel like being in a carnival playing games–cheap and cheated. You wouldn’t make any decisions without doing at least a little bit of thinking, would you?

“You go to the door on the left and rush in, falling into a pit of spikes.”

“You go to the door on the right, and hear your favorite band playing your favorite song, and join the fun.”

If I had known there was music playing from the door on the right, I would have chosen it, but there weren’t any such details, and I ended up dying in the story. How unfair is that?

I usually ask a question before setting up the chapter/page choices, but you can also stick with a straight-laced description. Either works fine as long as you have enough details, description, or thought.

In physical books, the choices lead to another page number, so there technically aren’t any chapters in CYOA books, but when writing online, we don’t have that luxury, so we have chapters. Sites like Wattpad have “pages” but aren’t accurately numbered–only the pages within the chapters are numbered, but the number starts over every chapter–and even if there’s a website that has a consistent number of characters per page, you would have to publish the story online in order to accurately gage the page number, and then edit the choices; in addition, even if there were multiple sites that have pages, each site would contain different number of characters per page so you would have to keep editing which paths go to which pages. So when it comes to publishing online, stick to chapters, it’s less tedious. Usually the choices occur at the end of a chapter, but, even though it isn’t ideal, you can also have them in the middle of a chapter when publishing online.

“If you decide to join them in order to help Bala from the inside, go to Chapter 15 . . . .

If you decide to help Bala from the outside, continue on with this chapter”
(A Smile to Hide, chapter 10).



Layers


The first page/chapter will always be a layer all on its own, and after that is when the layering becomes complex. Let’s say chapter 1 leads to chapters 2, 3, and then 5. Chapter 2 then leads to chapter 7, 10, and 13; chapter 3 leads to chapter 4, 5, and 6; and chapter 5 leads to 8, 9, and 11. 2, 3 and 5; 7, 10 and 13; 4, 5 and 6; and 8, 9, and 11 would all be layers. Chapter 5 would be a layer for two separate chapters. This layering is vital, especially when you are trying to transition from one path to the next. Every chapter, if you follow the paths correctly should flow from one event to another. It’s one thing if one chapter goes to separate paths, you can easily continue where that one chapter left off for each path, but in the case of chapter 5, you could have multiple chapters going into that one path. You need to find a way to end both of those chapters so you can write chapter 5 in a way that would makes sense if you had read from chapters 1 and 3. Be prepared to edit, add on, and subtract from chapters.

Make sure your audience knows your update plans such as if you decide to update out of order, or if you would like to withhold chapters until all of the chapters in the layer are done. Well, you don’t have to, but it would be nice. There are some of you who would rather finish the entire story before posting online; I applaud you for your discipline (I am way too impatient to do that).

Keep in mind that while having multiple paths practically defines CYOA, not all chapters have to have multiple paths. A couple of chapters can have one path, and the rest can have two or more. Two to four choices per chapter would be best, but if having only one choice or five or more choices seems best for that situation, go for it.

Organization


You have a wide range of ways of organizing and planning out your CYOA, but even if you do plan it out to the smallest details, remember that things can change as you’re writing, and sometimes those little changes can have a drastic effect on your plans. While it’s fine to have the overall plot vaguely planned out, along with a few side-adventures and conflicts, I really wouldn’t plan out every single chapter. I’ve tried to do that with normal non-interactive stories, but my plans never seem to stay the same by the time I finish the story. Maybe plan for one or two layers, but if you don’t want to plan that far ahead, or if you want to plan even farther ahead, that’s up to you. As for ways of keeping your layers and junk organized, there are a few ways that I know of.

The first method is a mind map, also called a brainstorm web, and a mind tree. It’s simple. The big circle is where you start, and then it flows out in different directions with slightly smaller circles and it continues to flow out, connecting and adding more circles until your story is done.

Next resembles a type of test or quiz where you answer a question (usually yes or no) and follow the path to a box, where it asks another question, leading up to another path to another box, and so on. It’ll resemble the first method, but maybe with a little more structure, and perhaps more details. Both of these methods can be done on a piece of paper or a poster board.

A third method, which I find very pretty, is like a time flow line. There’s a horizontal line with chapter numbers on each tick, and then on the top you draw a curved line connecting every chapter that goes forward (1, 2, 3, 5, etc.), and below the horizontal line, you draw a curved line connecting every chapter that goes backward (10, 8, 5, etc.).

While it’s great to have such a decorative visual aide, I prefer my method: having a simple index, and then a more complex index. The simple index lists the chapters and which paths it leads to. The more complex index has the chapter number and title (numbers just confuses me and I usually forget what is in those chapters), a short bullet point list of what happened and what items the reader receives, and all of the chapter choices.

Sure, I could do either of the first three, but with my method, I can keep it neat and detailed in my story journal, which I can take everywhere with me. The piece of paper would be too small to fit so much detail, and who wants to lug around a poster board when you’re on the go? If you have another method that works for you, that’s perfect, just as long as you keep yourself organized.

Other CYOA Tips


We covered how to write second person, the elements in a CYOA and how to keep organized, but there are a few more tips I would like to share:

  • Don’t make the “right” and “wrong” choices obvious. That means don’t guilt trip your audience during the story section, and when narrating the list of choices, don’t put any of your input or what you would choose. No little author notes with your input, and no emoticons or text smilies/frownies. Sure, sometimes the obvious safer choice is the “right” choice, but, what I like to do, is make even the “wrong” choices have information that the “right” choice doesn’t share (not immediately, anyway). That way, even if it is a “wrong” choice or a path that just seems to waste time, it won’t feel that way–the readers get something out of that path.

  • Make use of the copy and paste feature. This is another reason why keeping yourself organized can be a big help because if you review your story and follow the paths, you can tell which sections can be copied and pasted to another chapter, and guess what? If your readers follow the story without cheating, they’ll never know. I do this because information is needed, and your readers may need that information, but if you don’t repeat the information, there is a risk that your reader will never get it because they never choose that path.

  • Don’t stress over word count or page counts. Trust me, I hate really long chapters and really short chapters, but with CYOA, you can’t exactly control it. Sometimes big events happen, and at other times, a single sentence is all the chapter needs.

  • Don’t be afraid to kill off the reader. It’s a consequence of making a wrong decision, and even if they end up killed in the story, or make it impossible for the reader to save themselves or continue with the story (like get locked in a dungeon for the rest of their lives), the reader can always start over and see if they’ll make better decisions the next time around. The only thing is, if you do plan on killing your reader, it might affect your age rating. Death isn’t the big deal, even Goosebumps had ends that involved the character’s death, and it’s if the death will be gory and detailed. That’s up to you. Why have a death scene? It makes the story unpredictable. Most of us think “this will never happen to me” and are surprised to find that it does. Having multiple death scenes doesn’t make the story bad, or “too hard,” it just keeps the readers on their toes. Granted, having a death scene in every layer may be too much, but at least keep an open mind to having at least one. Besides, it’s pretty fun writing them. If you truly love your character/readers, you’ll kill them. Over and over and over. This is the only kind of story that can have several bad endings, and several good ones, so have fun with the death scenes with no guilt.

  • Keep note of the role’s inventory–items that they’ve found and decided to keep. One path may have the key you need to open this specific door, but if the character never found the key, how are they supposed to open it? This is another big difficult aspect when it comes to CYOA.


WWYFF/WWFFY


Another kind of interactive story is called Who Would You Fall For (AKA Who Would Fall For You), but unlike CYOA, this method of story-telling was born on the internet, and no real publishers publish these kinds of stories (sadly). Although CYOA and WWYFF are both typically written in second person, and are considered interactive, WWYFF is much different from CYOA in that instead of dictating which way the plot goes, WWYFF is more interested in what the individual reader’s personality is, and creates romantic situations for that reader by creating “love interests.” There’s already a detailed guide on Lunaescence called How to Write WWYFF by perfect-to-stay and Penguiduck that is full of information, but I’ll summarize what I know.

Multiple Choices


In WWYFF, there are three sections in a story: the story-telling, the multiple choice answers, and the results. The story-telling is just like the story-telling part of CYOA, right down to setting up the multiple choice answers; although you can have more leeway on how you do it. In most, if not all, chapters of WWYFF will contain various sets of multiple choice answers, and the results for those answers. When setting up the story-telling in order to have the readers answer the multiple choices, you could ask a question, make a demand, have another character converse in which the reader chooses a reply, and have the reader choose an action, ad infinitum. Here’s an example:

“His face turns to relief with a subtle smile. ‘That’s good. It can get dangerous if you’re alone here for too long.’ He looks around the cafeteria warily, and then he looks back to you. Genuinely earnest, he asks you, ‘Would you like for me to come with you to the line?’ His speech has a strange high and then low tone as he speaks, making him sound like he‘s from the Middle East, which would explain his skin tone.

A. ‘Sure. Thanks.’

B. I wonder what his nationality is and what he can do? He has to be able to do something in order to be able to attend this school, right?

C. So, does this mean that I can’t tell redneck jokes? ‘That would be great.’

D. What are you? Some sort of gentleman? You nod your head anyway, if only so you can use him as a shield just in case.

E. ‘Yes, please, and thank you.’

F. He seems kind of shy, but I don’t sense any bad vibes coming off of him, so this could be a good thing. ‘I would really like that. Thank you.’

G. ‘Please, lead the way.’

H. ‘Only if you don’t mind me sticking to you.’


He nods with a small smile. ‘My name is Bala. Are you a freshman here? I don‘t think that I recognize you.’

You introduce yourself and say that you’re starting out as a sophomore” (A Smile to Hide, Chapter 10).


These multiple choice answers are set up in the duration of the story, so there’s a pattern of story-telling, the answers, story-telling, answers, and so on until the end of the chapter. That means while each answer in the set of multiple choice should be different because you’re trying to vary the personality, they should be consistent enough to where the next part of the story-telling would make sense. You wouldn’t ask if the reader likes this dress, have an answer say they hate it, and then contradict that answer and say they wore it because they loved it. Some of the time, I make it so whatever the answer is, even if the answers are vastly different, I don’t make it seem to matter as much, especially if all the answers are thoughts instead of dialogue. This way, the reader can still express their opinion, but it won’t have an impact on the story or event.

Results


The results of answering these questions are what most readers of WWYFF look forward to, and why is that? Because all WWYFF is in the romance genre, and every result is connected to a love interest! They don’t have to be written in second-person or in the same tense your story is written in, and they don’t have to continue in a story-telling narration. You can basically put anything you want in them except any important information that has to do with your plot. Keep all of the important information out of the results, and keep all of the romance out of the story part because the results are for building a bond and a relationship with the love interest. Usually the results are a continuation of where the chapter left off (such as if your reader chooses to hang out with one of the interests for some one-on-one, and then the results continue off from that point), but if there is a point in which your reader won’t be hanging out with any of the interests, you can put what they were doing at that time when not with the reader, some trivia about the character, some other information that isn’t important to the story but maybe would be interesting to your audience, etc. You can practically put anything that you want.

In my story, A Smile to hide, which is a CYOA and WWYFF I couldn’t integrate the WWYFF parts because nearly none of the love interests had been introduced in the first eight chapters. Sure, I could have had the multiple choice and results, but what would be the point if the results just said, “You haven’t met this person yet, but be patient.” I could have inserted those random bits of trivia, but what would be the point if I didn’t have a face attached to it yet? In other words, my advice would be that if none of the love interests would be introduced yet, hold off on the multiple choice and results until at least one is introduced. Technically, in A Smile to Hide, one of the love interests was a childhood friend of the reader, but I thought that for eight chapters of you only knowing about him would be a waste of my trivia resources, so even though one of the love interests is known, I still decided to hold off on it.

There are two ways you can connect the answers to the results. The easiest way is choosing one letter and giving it to one of the love interest. The only difficult part of this method is keeping the order of which personality is in which letter. The other method is mixing up the personality multiple choices, and have the results be a string of different letters. For example, if the majority of your answers are A, C, D, C, B, A, then read Result #1. Obviously, even though your answers are more random, and there’ll be a less likely of cheating going on, it can get confusing for readers to write down their answers and compare them to each results’ answers. It’s doable, though.

As for deciding which personality goes with which love interest, that’s all up to you. Some people have the personalities be the same, some go for the complete opposite, some just wing it, and some have some other sort of method for deciding which personality the love interest would be most interested in. Whatever you think is best, go for it.

Cheating, or no cheating aside, the odds are that most people will read all of the results anyway, so while it would be best not to make a big deal of people who do read all of the results, keep in mind of those who remain faithful of their answers. For example, let’s say all of the love interests usually abide by code-names. Even though in one chapter, every one of the love interests tell you their real name within the results it would be best to continue using their code name until there is an opportunity within the story itself in which the love interests’ real name is revealed. This is because for those who don’t read all of the results, the real names of the other love interests would still remain unknown and if you end up switching from code-name to real name within the story, it’ll be confusing.

At the end of every WWYFF there is a CYOA-like aspect in which the story branches off to where the reader goes to their, hopefully, preferred love interest. Some WWYFF just name the ending chapters after the love interest and have the reader choose, or some stick to the multiple choices and have the ending on the mysterious side. There are even some authors who have made the ending even more complicated by calculating every single letter ever chosen within the story, and then create happy and bitter endings for the given love interests. Again, the choice is yours, or you can create your own method.

Other WWYFF Tips


  • Every WWYFF has at least two love interests. If there’s only one, it would just be considered a romance, and there would be no need to have multiple choice answers, let alone a set of results. It would just be a second-person romance story, not a WWYFF. That being said, having too many love interests would also be hazardous to your story. Aside from you having to figure out how to juggle and put enough development and bonds for the reader to experience, the readers also would have to know how to juggle and have to remember whom all of the love interests are. If you feel you can write with ten love interests, go ahead and try it out and see how it works.

  • Don’t make the romance between all of the love interest go the same pace. That means that not all of the love interests would kiss you in the same chapter or confess their feelings at the same time either. Taking your time to develop a bond and romantic interest makes your characters seem more human and real instead of robots with a timer. This is also another reason as to why having too many love interests could make the story even harder for you.

  • While I said to keep the romantic stuff in the results, you can have some of it–like hints of it at least–in the main story. Or hell, maybe a character loving the reader can be part of the plot. It’s up to you, just know your options. Even so, that doesn’t mean that the reader has to acknowledge or react to it. Occasionally, you can ask the readers what they think of it as parts of the multiple choice aspects, but you don’t have to do that either.


Combining CYOA and WWYFF


Once you know how to write both CYOA and WWYFF, you can easily find ways of combining these two interactive genres in your story. You have the main story, the various sets of multiple choices, the different choices in paths, and then the results to the multiple choice (you could switch the last two, but I find this order much easier). All that’s left is to give you more simple tips.

  • Again, make use of the copy and paste feature, even in the results. Because you’re also utilizing the CYOA aspect, you may need to, or want to, repeat certain things in the results, even if it’s those tidbits of trivia about the love interests.

  • Earlier, in the CYOA section, I mentioned that sometimes the choice in paths are in the middle of a chapter instead of the end of it, and if you decide to combine CYOA and WWYFF, this may disrupt the multiple choices for that chapter if your reader has to immediately read the next chapter instead of continuing onwards with that chapter. Be clear and precise when giving your reader instructions on what to do, especially in these complex situations. Here’s an example from Chapter 10 in A Smile to Hide:
    “If you decide to join them in order to help Bala from the inside, go to Chapter 15 and add all of your answers for this chapter there. Don‘t continue this chapter, nor read this chapter‘s results.

    If you decide to help Bala from the outside, continue on with this chapter.”

  • Be clear and precise in your instructions to your reader. Make sure to remind them to read their results before going to the next chapter, tell them if they need to skip something, etc. Whatever instructions you have, write it down clearly.

  • Keep yourself organized, especially when it comes to the romantic stuff. CYOA jumps around, and because you don’t want a lovey-dovey kiss scene before even looking each other in the eye, you need to make sure that no matter which path the reader takes, the order of the romance for each of the love-interests makes sense, and doesn’t feel rushed or cross-wired. This is a similar process to keeping a note on the reader‘s inventory. (Sure there will be some characters who come out as cross-wired and does it all backwards, but that’s just an exception.)


  • Those are all the tips I can think of, but if I think of any more, I’ll be sure to add on to this. If you also have any questions, comments or concerns, I’m always willing to answer with the best of my knowledge.



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