I hadn’t either until I read The Painted Sky by Alice Campion. Alice Campion is actually five women who belong to a writing group. Together they have crafted a warm and wonderful novel about a Sydney girl, Nina, who inherits a farm in Wandalla from her estranged Uncle. The imminent sale of the property causes her to once again question the long-ago disappearance of her father. She travels to her farm for one last trip to rekindle memories and search for new evidence. What she gets is far more than she bargained for.
Where did her father disappear to? What was the double life he lived? What is the deal with the gold locket? Why is her neighbour, Hilary, so keen to get her hands on Durnham House? These are just a few of the many questions that Nina has to unravel. Add to this her complicated feelings towards her childhood friend, the very-engaged Heath, and you have a story that will keep you flicking the pages till the very end.
I have to admit that I offered to review this book purely out of curiosity. How could five different people breathe coherent life into a story? How could they remain true to their character development and weave us seamlessly into their tale? I thought it might be awkward. I thought it might be clunky. What I hadn’t expected was a rich tapestry of life to spring forth from their pages.
The storyline ducked and weaved, keeping me on my toes the whole way. I fell in love with the countryside and the people, wanting my own Moira and Deborah and Olivia. (I already have my own Heath or I would have wanted him too!) The only criticism I have is that the bad character (I won’t give you any names cause I don’t want to spoil it for you) was too bad. She acted irrationally from the very beginning and I felt her character was a bit irregular. By the end I understood why she behaved as she did, but even then I thought perhaps a bit more subtlety in the development of her antagonism would have made the trip smoother.
I have been lucky enough to be able to ask the authors of The Painted Sky some questions. Keep reading to see their answers.
Lots of tricks! First, our process was that we would come together and spend sometimes a whole weekend plotting out a section of the book in detail and then breaking it up into short ‘scenes’ of two to four pages on average. Then we would have a weekly-to-fortnightly writing cycle. Each of us would have one or two scenes to write in that time and we also would send our work to the others for them to think about. Then we’d meet again to review the work thus far. The original author would read out their section and the others would chime in with suggestions. Usually we would all agree on whether these should be included or not – but occasionally we voted.
The strict rule was that when that scene was re-written in future drafts, the original author could not do it. So through the various drafts of the novel, every scene was re-written by all the authors at some stage. We also had photos of what our characters and landscapes looked like, plans of houses and properties etc. And we had Denise, who was version-control Goddess and knew exactly the sequence of events and backstories, the age of characters, whether those plants grew in that area at that time.
How did you divvy up the workload, and how did you decide who wrote which parts of the book?
Pretty much covered above. There were scenes that everyone wanted to write and scenes no-one wanted to write, but we all took our turn. The first time we wrote a sex scene was hilarious because to be good writing it has to be authentic, so you are exposing yourself quite a bit! In the end, we each anonymously wrote a version of that scene, read all of them and rated them on a chilli scale from one to three chillis for hotness! By the end we were totally blasé about that stuff.
Did you have any arguments during the writing process and if so, what about?
I know it’s hard to believe, but we really didn’t argue. We did have creative differences – there were one or two Hemingway fans who regarded all adjectives and metaphors as the enemy! Often someone would come in with a very fanciful narrative twist (I can’t give you an example without creating a spoiler) that made us choke on our chardonnay but sometimes when we broke it down it actually had the core of a good idea. Our main philosophy was that no idea was a bad idea – that our writing circle was a safe space to float ideas that maybe were not fully thought through. But it was also a place where the will of the group had sway. Feedback on another person’s writing always had to be very specific. If you didn’t like a word or sentence, then you had to come up with an alternative for the group to consider rather than just dissing the other person’s work.
How did you keep your character development consistent throughout the book?
We knew our characters so thoroughly that they were like old friends. We constantly said things like ‘no way Nina would say that!’ or ‘That’s not our Heath’. We hated sending them into dangerous or awful situations because we loved them so much – even Hilary, the baddy of the piece. We did back-stories for all the main characters to fill them out and make their motivations and psychological tics really clear. I must confess that the first draft was awful – and character development was one of the main things it lacked. People are never just one thing. To be interesting, they must be complex humans and not just props in the story.
Why did you decide to write this book as a group?
It was completely unconsidered at the time. It was just – hey, let’s write a book, yeah! But once we started, the upside became evident. Just when one person was flagging, someone else would be being struck by inspiration. Having a deadline was invaluable. It was like having a personal trainer – some days you just did not want to do it, but you had to. And then when you saw the results, it was fantastic!
Three of us have set up a community for group writing at www.groupfiction.net that we hope will grow the idea internationally. Come and check it out. We think there are lots of people like us who have the talent but maybe not the confidence or stamina to write a novel, and they could benefit a lot from our process.
Have any of you published other works?
None of us have written fiction before. Years ago Choice published a guidebook to free and low cost Sydney that I did, but that’s about it for published works. Jane R is a journalist and both Denise and I have done a lot of work as professional communicators. Jane S is a film editor, so she had that visual frame of reference.
Who came up with the original concept for the book and how did it develop from there?
It was a very organic process! Jane S suggested a novel, but it’s impossible to say where the main storyline or characters came from. We dreamed them up together!
What attributes did each of you bring to the group?
Maddy: She’s done lots of writing courses, so she brought technical knowledge.
Jane S: A girl from a cattle property originally, she brought authenticity.
Jane R: Left-field story ideas – intriguing twists and turns.
Denise: Control of the process but also a wonderful cheerleader. She was the only truly indispensible Alice!
Me: Denise calls me ‘mistress of the elegant solution’. I think that means nice prose!