Children’s book writer Alison Reynolds gives an insider’s perspective on creating choose-your-own-adventure stories.
How did you come to write the Ranger in Danger series with Sean Willmore?
Sean and I hadn’t worked together before but I was chosen because our publisher thought we would work well together, I have a sense of fun and Sean has the serious side. I had worked with The Five Mile Press before when I wrote three Ripper Reads (chapter books).
How do you and Sean work together in writing the series?
Sean wants to bring across conservation issues and information about the environment. I’m coming from the writer’s point of view of wanting to make the series as fun and engaging as possible. Sean and I get together and have a brainstorming session, where he presents a setting and says, ‘What would happen if…?’ and I take it from there and create the decide-your-destiny adventure story. There’s lots of back and forth between us as the book is written. Sean reads the manuscripts and checks everything factually.
The books are based on real-life rangers, so a lot of what happens in the books is a real story that Sean has told me—like the leopard down a well in the fourth book. Each book is set in a different continent, and each has a profile of a real-life ranger as well as a glossary and a section with readers’ feedback.
Tell me about the process of writing the Ranger in Danger books.
When I started, I looked on the net for advice on how to write choose-your-own adventures but not much is out there so I learnt by trial and error. It’s very challenging and after a while I have to draw the different story threads on butcher’s paper because it’s too difficult to keep track of all the stories. I don’t like it when all the strands come back to the same place, so I don’t do that. There are 20 different threads and that means I have to make sure each has an ending. I write all the threads at once, which is probably crazy, but it helps me with continuity.
The physical design of the book makes it challenging: the threads have to fit into so-and-so-many pages. Sometimes the manuscript requires radical cutting, and you can’t just change one thing, you have to go right back and follow all the threads to make sure they all still make sense.
I like to get myself trapped in a place I can’t think how to get out of. It’s great! You think you’re stuck and you’ll take the dog for a walk and your mind will come up with the ending. I like to go the way you don’t expect and avoid the way I ‘should’ go. Sean and I made a conscious decision that there would be nothing supernatural in the books. Sometimes it would be handy to have fantasy elements, but we want it to be realistic.
The series is written in second person so that a boy or girl can read it. We were also very careful to make the illustrations gender-neutral. When I was little it was really annoying when the protagonist was a boy and I wanted to be the protagonist. So I work with the illustrator to fix any aspects of the illustration that tend to make the child in the picture look like a boy or a girl.
Each book in the series begins in a different place: in one book the story of the journey starts from an office, another time in a plane, and so on. Variety is something that readers appreciate and which draws them in.
The books are getting more and more light-hearted because I have to keep myself entertained as well. The latest one’s a romp. The villains get wackier every time. Some rangers have read it and one said to me, ‘I’ll have to give it up. I’ve killed myself six times!’
Has the series been as successful as you expected?
The series is selling steadily, which is really pleasing, and I’m so happy that I’ve already earned out my advance. It feels great to say that. The books are now even sold in supermarkets. Some people would say that’s a bad thing but not everyone’s parents take them to bookshops. I think that it means you’re finding a new market rather than taking a market from bookshops.
Any idea how many books there’ll be?
I’m not sure. We’re amazed that we’ve got six out so quickly.
Tell me about the experience of having your first book, The Ghostly Hand, publishing in 1997.
The editors at Macmillan were looking for 3,000-word manuscripts. Mine was 5,000 words so I cut it, because you have to give publishers what they want. It was accepted. Afterwards I got a rejection letter from another publisher. I’d forgotten I’d even sent the manuscript to that publisher so I didn’t care about the rejection because Macmillan had already accepted it.
Do you have any tips for writing for a young audience?
Read books that kids are reading today. Don’t use passive tense; always keep it active. And keep writing. Remember that rejection is to be expected.
What sort of promotional activities have you been involved in for Ranger in Danger?
We had a launch at Werribee Zoo in March for the first two books. In August we had a media-only launch with the Taronga Foundation. It was actually shown on ABC News.
We’ve had signings and readings. At signings, it’s a good idea to get people you know to come up to the author table, so that others aren’t afraid to come up. Then your people can just wander off once you get a general audience.
Another promotional tool that is really effective is bookmarks. You can hand them to people and sometimes they’ll come up and buy a book and I’m not sure that they would do that otherwise. Some publishers say bookmarks work really well. Launches sometimes don’t work as effectively, but it’s a great way to celebrate a book.
We’ve had book reviews and interviews in local papers. That was actually how a few local acquaintances found out I’m a writer. There was also an article in the magazine for Methodist Ladies College, where I went to school, which has a large circulation.
Sean does talks everywhere for the Thin Green Line, a charity which supports the families of rangers who have died on the front line of conservation. Sean’s great because he acts out the Ranger in Danger scenes at talks and really involves the kids.
We have a Facebook page, which has a competition and a fact of the week to keep the page in people’s heads. There is also a Ranger in Danger game on the web that Five Mile created, which is a publicity tool to attract new readers.
With promotion, you can never tell what’s going to help and what’s not going to help. We’ve had really good feedback from kids, so I think everything you do helps.
What have you learned from being a writer?
You have to learn to keep to deadlines and not waft around. As a writer, deadlines are stressful but it doesn’t kill the art. You can get too precious. I was a bit of a wafter for years, but I have learnt that I work best when I’m busy.
The writing community is full of lovely people. I’m lucky with my editor. I’ve been allowed to say I don’t accept all the changes. But you have to have faith in the editor. You get stuff in your head so much that you may not realise you haven’t put it out on the page. It’s an interactive process and the editing process is what makes a good book.
What do you like or not like about being a writer?
I like living in my imagination. I’m doing something that I like.
I have had some hand and arm problems from writing too much, so I have learnt that breaks are important when you’re writing. Also, the height of the chair you’re using has a significant impact. So now my chair is at a special height and no-one’s allowed to change it.
What are you working on at the moment?
A book about mothers, which will be out in time for mother’s day next year . It’s the first book I’ve written that’s not for kids. I have two other books, The Pirate Ship and The Balloon Ride, that just came out with Alicat. I’ve also written four board books that will be out next year .
Of all the books you’ve written, what’s the most memorable?
I always love my last one best.
Alison Reynolds is the author of over 25 books, including the six books that form the Ranger in Danger series published by the Five Mile Press. Ranger in Danger is a children’s decide-your-destiny adventure series about rangers on the front line of conservation around the world. Reynolds has completed a Bachelor of Arts, Masters in Creative Arts and a Certificate in Writing and Editing at the Centre for Adult Education. Read more about her at www.alisonreynolds.com.au.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Alison Reynolds’ in The Australian Writer issue 370 (December 2010–February 2011).