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The Romance Writer Who Wasn’t

9 July, 2015


I don’t read many romance novels, but I’m fascinated with Alice Campion’s The Painted Sky, a book that is now famous in Aussie rural romance. Why?

It’s not because of the plot, which follows the usual line. Nina, an artist fed up with her life in the big city, feels compelled to learn more about her past. She decides to visit the small country town she remembers from childhood. As expected, she finds love. But she also solvs some mysteries that affect her and others in that community.

It was a good read, with much going on and a number of well-defined characters. I particularly liked the multiple points of view. The story sticks mainly to Nina’s perspective. When  the POV shifts to other characters, readers get a better sense of their concerns and personalities.

But the main reason this novel is so much in the news here is because of Alice Campion. She not only did not write the novel, she does not exist.

The novel was written by five Sydney women, members of a book group,The BookSluts. For a lark, they decided to dash off a small romance as a group project. Little did they know that the journey from this idea to publication would take over three years.

Working together, they developed the story’s essential romance elements—an evocative location, a strong heroine, events that test her dreams, a great male lead, and good sex scenes.

Now the writers are sharing their experience with others, which is a new take on the way writing groups usually work. They have a how-to e-book and a website——to support group-based writing projects. However, part of this group’s success is the members’ long friendship. Starting a writing project group with strangers or people one doesn’t know well could be disastrous unless there was a strong, caring leader.

When I found that they were speaking at my local library, I went along, curious to know what helped them work collaboratively and what issues arose.

  • One member was designated the ‘keeper’, with the job of tracking the various drafts and updates. With a group writing project, such a role seems crucial.
  • The group first structured the novel as a series of scenes or beats. Each scene was to include the following: 1) the main action, 2) its effect on the developing relationship between the main characters, and 3) other  important information. I imagine this format would have been useful in assessing scenes, splitting up the writing task, and keeping everyone focused on the story arc.
  • The group established a process from first draft to revision:
    1) One member wrote the first draft of a scene, then emailed it to the others to read and evaluate.
    2) When they met, they discussed the scene and agreed on the changes to be made.
    3) Then another member rewrote the scene, in line with the agreed changes.
    This focus on group rather than individual ownership probably helped the group’s success.
  • The sex scenes were completed in a different way. Every member wrote a version and did not put their name on their draft. Group members read the anonymous drafts, then chose which one they preferred. Apparently, reading out their attempts led to some hilarious meetings.
  • As their characters eventually became more real, the writers were able to assess what each character would be likely to do—and not do. Having a strong sense of each character—their passions, hates, concerns, personality, values—must have helped ensure that each character stayed ‘in role’.
  • Issues and problems arose, of course. When this happened, the group tried to reach consensus. When this was not possible, a vote was taken, and the members moved on to the next issue. As one member commented, without the vote, the group could have stalled on some issue and never completed the book.
  • The writers’ trip to western New South Wales, the setting of their story, was crucial to their writing. Being there helped them understand and incorporate elements such as weather, landscape, and issues affecting a small town and its residents.
  • The members came from different backgrounds, which probably meant a useful diversity in terms of writing. Their roles included YA fiction writer, marriage celebrant, documentary editor, education campaign manager,  journalist/editor, and YA fiction writer.


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