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Author Heather McElhatton displays the diagram of her debut novel on a scrap of linoleum at a restaurant near her home in Minneapolis. The diagram resulted in her book “Pretty Little Mistakes,” which allows readers to choose various plot lines that result in more than 150 different endings.
AP photo by Dawn Villella
Author Heather McElhatton displays the diagram of her debut novel on a scrap of linoleum at a restaurant near her home in Minneapolis. The diagram resulted in her book “Pretty Little Mistakes,” which allows readers to choose various plot lines that result in more than 150 different endings.

‘Pretty Little Mistakes’ lets you decide plot

By Jeff Baenen
Associated Press Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — When her first novel was rejected by publishers after six long years of writing, Heather McElhatton sat down and tried to figure out where “the train jumped the tracks.” She began diagramming her life’s choices on a discarded 6-by-10 hunk of linoleum.

“I wasn’t laying out the skeleton of a book or the structure of a book. I was literally drinking a giant bottle of wine and trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong and what I should have done,” McElhatton recalls.

But the result was “Pretty Little Mistakes,” her hit debut book. Billed as a “do-over novel,” it allows readers to choose which plot lines to follow to one of more than 150 endings. Already in its seventh printing since being published in May, “Pretty Little Mistakes” has 50,000 copies in print.

McElhatton (it rhymes with “tackle Latin,” she says) starts “Pretty Little Mistakes” on the last day of high school — “the last time I remember being where I was supposed to be.”

From there, the reader can decide to go traveling (as McElhatton did in real life) or go to college. From there, you (the novel is written in second person) keep choosing the next step — open a hummingbird sanctuary or open an orchid farm — until you wind up in a happy or a bad ending.

‘Do-over mode’

McElhatton, 37, who has worked as a producer for Minnesota Public Radio and Public Radio International, says her book is “all the roads I didn’t take.”

“And it was a great book to write, because it helped me chase down a lot of those demons and figure out that I’m actually probably exactly where I should be,” she adds.

For McElhatton, dashing off “Pretty Little Mistakes” in 11 months helped her deal with the loss of her dream to become a novelist. She says she gave the book to her agent “like I was handing her a sack of used Kleenex. Like, ‘I’m really sorry about this. But I guess I’ll give you this. It’s all I’ve been working on.’ ”

But unlike her experience with the rejected manuscript, an admittedly purple novel set on the island of Sapelo off the coast of Georgia, McElhatton says she had four major offers for “Pretty Little Mistakes” in four days.

“I didn’t really have time to make it pretty,” McElhatton says of “Pretty Little Mistakes.” The book was “like ‘Alien’ coming out of my chest, and I just had to get it down.”

An obvious influence on McElhatton was the “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books, a series she knew and loved. The series offered a template — go to Page 5 if you go on the pirate ship, go to Page 10 if you open the door — that lent itself to telling 156 stories at once.

“I wish I could tell you like I had this amazing idea, but it just sort of all happened. It was like I went into a coma and woke up with a book,” says McElhatton, a woman with a full smile and red hair as brassy as her personality.

Escapism

Executive editor Alison Callahan, McElhatton’s editor at HarperCollins, says “Pretty Little Mistakes” allows readers to indulge in escapism.

“Because we all wonder, you know, what if I didn’t go to college right out of high school? What if I traveled instead?” Callahan said. “It sort of lets you play out these sort of `what-ifs’ that everyone has tucked away in the back of their head somewhere.”

McElhatton has a two-book deal with HarperCollins, with “Million Little Mistakes” — the sequel to “Pretty Little Mistakes” — coming out next spring. Using the same structure as “Pretty Little Mistakes,” which Callahan hopes HarperCollins can turn into a franchise, “Million Little Mistakes” lets the reader decide what to do after winning $22 million in a lottery.

Popping out of the “do-over” mode, she spent the summer writing a counterpoint to “The Average American Male” — Chad Kultgen’s fictional look at how a man thinks — focusing on what women think.

In “Pretty Little Mistakes,” the plot threads weave and reconnect, McElhatton says, and “sometimes you meet the same person no matter what you do.” A single thread can be read in about 10 or 15 minutes, she says.

“So the idea is that, like on the subway or on a coffee break or while the kids are down for two minutes, you can read a thread really quickly. Or you can do it all day long. You read through a thread, you get to your ending, you go back to the beginning, and you say, ‘I’m not going to marry that bastard next time.’ So you get a do-over,” McElhatton says.

Good and bad endings

The good and bad endings are split 50-50, McElhatton says. Some of the horrid deaths in “Pretty Little Mistakes” include being pecked to death by ducks in London or having a shard from an exploding lava lamp pierce your heart — deaths that McElhatton says come from the news.

McElhatton says she makes a point never to automatically reward good behavior in her book.

“Just like life — it’s just all sort of a crapshoot,” she says.

And she hopes her book helps readers lighten up on themselves for the decisions they have made in their lives.

“It’s not your fault if things don’t work out, and in the end, they’re all pretty little mistakes.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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