Ep 55 Origins of punctuation marks, easy transcribing apps, author gets published at 95! And discover the hit novel written by five people.

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In Episode 55 of So you want to be a writer: Judith Rossell wins an Indie Award! Book 2 of the Mapmaker Chronicles is released, how punctuation marks got their names, 10 tools to keep you writing, first novel published at 95 years old, Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words, Writer in Residence Alice Campion, the one-minute writer, how often you should pitch and more!

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Show Notes

Intriguing Indie win for Judith Rossell!

Book 2 of The Mapmaker Chronicles is here!

Signs and symbols: the names of punctuation marks

10 Tools to Help You Keep Writing

Burnie writer Marjorie Davey publishes first novel at age 95

Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words by John Bemelmans Marciano

Writer in Residence
Alice Campion is the pseudonym for five members of a Sydney book club who challenged themselves to write a ’21st Century Thorn Birds‘. The result is a rural novel, with romance, mystery and suspense.

It’s the work of five members of a Sydney book club – the Book Sluts (because they’ll read anything!) are Denise Tart, Jenny Crocker, Jane St Vincent Welch, Jane Richards and Madeline Oliver.

Today we talk to one-fifth of the group, Jane Richards.

Buy the book!
Random House on Twitter

Web Pick

One Minute Writer

Working Writer’s Tip

How often do you need to pitch?
Answered in the podcast!

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait
@valeriekhoo

Email us
podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Transcript

Valerie          

Thanks for joining us today, Jane.

 

Jane

Thank you, Valerie. I’m very happy to be here.

 

Valerie          

Now, The Painted Sky is by Alice Campion, but obviously your name is not Alice Campion, is it? Can you tell us who Alice Campion is to start off with?

 

Jane

Alice Campion is a pseudonym for five good friends who were in a book club together and through a strange set of circumstances end up writing a book together, which got published.

 

Valerie

Yes, it’s very exciting. There are many book clubs around the country who have now got a certain idea in their heads, I’m sure.

 

For those listeners who haven’t read the book yet, tell us a bit about it.

 

Jane

The book set between two places, Sydney and outback Western New South Wales, in the fictional town of Wandalla, which is sort of very loosely based on Bourke. It’s generally the story about a young woman who seems a bit lost in her life, she’s sort of drifting. She’s the daughter of a man who went missing many years previously. He was quite a famous artist. The book partly involves her search for him.

 

She receives — this is quite early on, so it’s a not a spoiler — she receives a letter from solicitor out in this town saying that she’s inherited a house. And it was the house where her father had lived, which she had visited as a child. She heads out there and that’s when things start to happen.

 

Valerie

You have all been good friends for a long time, how long have you been in the book club?

 

Jane

Well, the book club has been going for about ten years. We’re called the Booksluts, we will read anything.

 

Valerie

The Booksluts?

 

Jane

That’s right. I think actually I maintain that it’s probably the best book club that’s ever been formed, mainly because I love our ethos in that we only read books — we stay away from best-sellers, our main criteria for a book is that one of us has had to have read it and to have loved it. You often get the scenario when we meet, which is usually a pub. One of us will be defending a book or a piece of writing, it doesn’t even have to be a book, it can be a piece of journalism, it can be non-fiction, it could be a child’s story. But, one of us has to defend that book. That, I think, is what makes it interesting, because you can have several people at the end of the night saying, “But, why do you like it? Why do you like it?” It’s a good way to get sort of arguments going and people passionately defending their book.

 

Valerie

That’s a great ethos for a book club. There are many book clubs around the country, indeed around the world, who have these passionate debates, but very few of them then say, “Oh, let’s write a novel together.” How in the world did this idea come about?

 

Jane

Well, it was really just a fluke. What happened was we had gone away for a girls’ weekend away, there were about seven of us, I think, on this particular trip. We went into the blue mountains in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. And, we were there in this book club meeting, and we were supposed to be discussing our book of the month, which was Crime and Punishment, which was a little bit heavier than some of the books that we’ve had prior to that.

 

If I recall, it was quite a warm afternoon. We were sort of sitting out in the back of this house and we were wearing Russian hats and having a bit of vodka — we try to keep with the theme of the book.

 

We were chatting away and then one of us said, “Hmm, wouldn’t it be much more fun to be critiquing this book in Russia?” Then we got to talking about how we could fund the trip to Russia, and then we jokingly said, “Yes, why don’t we try to write a best-seller.”

 

Valerie

That’s a leap.

 

Jane

Yes, we are still pinching ourselves too.

 

From that moment, which it really was just a throwaway sort of thing to do on a weekend. We went and got pens, and butcher’s paper, and we sort of started a very, very basic plot outline of a book that we thought — stupidly thought would bring us in the rubles straightaway.

 

We were sort of looking at producing some sort of throwaway romance novel. But, of course the drawback was is none of us had actually read — we really hadn’t read that genre. We sort of got to it over that weekend, and we started writing and over the course of a couple of these, things changed, our whole genre changed, but we didn’t put down our pens for three and a half years and we actually finished the book.

 

Valerie

I mean just take me back to the background of the other people in the book club. Had any of them had any experience writing, or what did they bring to the table?

 

 

Jane

First off the Booksluts has a changing membership usually between six to nine people, five of us wrote the book. Initially, there were seven that started on the book, but the end five kept going over that period.

 

The five of us, and myself, I’m a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, I’ve been a journalist for 25 years, so I’m no stranger to editing and a good story.

 

Jenny Crocker is a former journalist as well, but she also does marketing campaigns for government departments. She’s now working on, I think, it’s anti-gambling, she’s has a big advertising campaign she’s doing at the moment.

 

Denise Tart is a marriage celebrant, so she’s used to writing great ceremonies and she’s also had a background a bit of performance as well.

 

Maddie Oliver is a sort of freelance book editor, it’s something she’s picked up really since this book was been published, but she has been involved in academia, history/research.

 

Jane St Vincent Welch is a form editor. So, we have got creative backgrounds with some writing there.

 

Valerie

But, writing a fiction or novel is very different to any of those things, isn’t it?

 

Jane

That’s right. As I said, when we started it really wasn’t a serious project. We were just sort of thinking this would be a fun way to sort of while away the weekend.

 

Then after that initial weekend we did meet every couple of weeks there for awhile. We weren’t really taking it seriously. But, then something changed after about, I think, five or six months where we realized that the sort of throw away book that we were intending to write didn’t quite gel with us as readers, we didn’t tend to read that sort of fiction anyway.

 

We sort of started to aim it a bit higher and suddenly the nature of the whole project changed. So, from being a bit of fun it suddenly became something we were really involved in, very keen to finish, we were very sort of carried away by our characters in the story.

 

Our long-suffering families kept saying, “Are you going to finish that?” “Really, are you really going to finish that?” The more people were skeptical, the more we were determined that we would finish. Of course, we didn’t have any serious idea that it would be published, it was something that we were determined to finish and we’re very glad that we did.

 

Valerie

Why this idea and this theme? How did this idea even come about? Did some of you live in the country? Or have absent fathers, or –?

 

 

 

Jane

Well, we always, from the very beginning we wanted to write an outback story while the five of us are from Sydney we do have ties with particularly that region of Western New South Wales. My mother is actually from out in near Bourke. There were sort of tenuous links.

 

Jane St Vincent Welch, she grew up in an isolated property, even though she’s right in the middle of Sydney now it was not always that way. Jennie had grown up in a regional centre and Denise had spent time, as well, as a child in the region.

 

I guess we liked the idea of an outback story. That part of New South Wales was an area where we were a little bit familiar with.

 

We also liked the scenes of the book. We wanted a romantic story, but we also wanted to look at things, I guess, that everyone is intrigued by. I guess the search for self is one theme. As it progressed the story became much more complex.

 

Valerie

You mentioned that when you were defending your own book choices in your book club sometimes you could disagree a lot and wonder, “How in the world could you like this book?” Were there situations where there were arguments and disagreements over where characters were going to go or where the plot was going to go?

 

Jane

Yes, remarkably few in retrospect. But, when there was a disagreement — and we are quite good mates, we’re all quite intense as well when we’re together. First of all what we would do is we’d talk it round and round, and then try and see other people’s points of view.

 

But, the beauty is with five in a group is that we can then vote on which way we’ll go with it and things. I think in the whole process, over about three and a half years, I think we may have only called in the vote two or three times, because I think what happened was because it became such a real group project in that every scene in the book was completely rewritten by each person every one of the five of us had a go at rewriting each scene, so no one particularly owned a certain scene.

 

I think that really helped when Random House, when we found out we had the book published, one of the first things they said to us was they couldn’t believe it was written by five people, because it did have a strong one voice. That’s the thing we passed around the room when we heard that, because that was our big driver, we wanted to make sure that the one voice came through. We did have systems in place to make sure that would happen.

 

Valerie

Let’s talk about some of those systems. Let me take you back first, did you plot the whole thing out and then start writing? Or did you see what happens?

 

Jane

On that very first weekend we did have a few — I remember the first day very clearly, we basically wanted an outback book with a strong romantic theme. That was one. Then we basically thought, “OK, rough plot,” the basic romantic plot came out. I think three or four characters arrived that day and we never got rid of them because they were so good.

 

I think what we did was we sat around and we sort of said, “Well, what do we like reading about?” And then we sort of tallied those up and thought, “Well, that would be great, I would love to read a scene set in an awkward dinner party,” so that went in the book. “I would like to read about really good sex and really bad sex…” that went in the book. At this initial point it was sort of a bit of — as I said it was a bit of a fun project. But, the nubs of what we came up with then is still in the book.

 

We decided as time progressed we would carry that original storyline through, but we would add so much more to it. It didn’t become a standalone romantic Mills & Boon book, it became something much more different.

 

People had this idea that we all sat down together in a room and wrote, which we didn’t. We basically would get together and plot, plot particular scenes, not chapters, but more like scenes, as in ‘A’ meets ‘B,’ ‘B’ falls down a hole… and then one of us would put our hands up to say, “I’ll write that one.” Then we all would go away and then email our written scenes to each other, then we would meet and then we would swap them around to rewrite. And that process went on and on and on.

 

Valerie

Did you do it in a fairly linear fashion, I know you said you only sort of discuss scenes, but were the scenes basically kind of following on from each other, or did you jump around?

 

Jane

We did initially start in that sort of way, only because it was just the way it evolved. But, then of course when the story changed and we needed to make people that were slightly different, or we needed to lift a character or add a character or subtract a character, of course we went back and forward and back.

 

Luckily we’re blessed with Denise, who’s a marriage celebrant, she is a brilliant — we call her the one with OCD, she’s a very organized person, and she became our keeper of the word, the person who would make sure we were all working on the correct version. We would have versions of scenes that we had all worked on. She doesn’t live far from me, occasionally I think I would hear her screaming when she received by email a scene that had been worked on the wrong version, that four other people had worked on separate version to this last version.

 

We ended up having a very strict controlled system of how we wrote this, which was great because we ended up with five pairs of eyes, instead of one on mistakes. And five sets of life experiences we could draw on.

 

Valerie

If you all worked on the same scene, or rewrote the same scene, what happened then? You all met up and had a chat about which scene was the best, or what happened?

 

 

 

Jane

We would be sent away to write a scene, we would bring the scene back to a meeting and the person who wrote that scene would read it out. Then we would make comments, we would make suggestions, then we would think, “Oh, what if that happened instead of that?” Or, “What if this person said this, instead of that…?” And then we would try it a different way.

 

The other four would make suggestions. It sounds excruciating, and it was a little bit initially, but after awhile I think what happened was we suddenly became focused on the book as a whole, and because we were all working on scenes, no one just owned a particular piece of work, so egos tended to drift away. It became more about, “Let’s get this as good as we can get it.”

 

Initially it was quite daunting, turning up, and particularly those who hadn’t written much before, but we did have ways — from the word ‘go’ we thought, “OK, if someone presents something that’s a bit not great, we can’t just say ‘that’s boring,’ or ‘that’s dull,’ we need to come up with a solution.” So our feedback would be more like something like, “Do you think it would be better if instead of saying ‘this’ if you said ‘that’…” With feedback we would always try and offer a suggestion.

 

Valerie

You mentioned that you had systems, particularly systems to get that unified voice, can you tell us a bit about that?

 

Jane

We had, for example, Denise, again, lovely Denise, who is an organized mind, she would have like a timeline with the dates everyone was born in, all of the characters were born in. I swear if I call her up now and said, “What star sign was Moira,” she could tell me. We each had that, we had physical pictures of people
that — famous people that we thought these characters might resemble.

 

When all the scenes went around by email they all had a header at the top with the version, the date it was last worked on, who worked on it, what was going to happen next, what had happened in the last scene. So, it was very — that was quite tightly controlled, because initially it was all over the place, because we would have a character walking from one room to the next with a wine glass and comes out with a tea cup. She’s blonde in one scene and brown hair in the other.

 

Because the plot became more complex too, we really needed to work with a lot of
these — we had a timeline, we had a character sheet, we had maps of the houses that we were dealing with, because with five people we needed to make sure we were literally on the same page.

 

Valerie

Did you know what was going to happen at the end early on, or did you let that unfold as you guys just kept on going?

 

Jane

Well, that’s quite funny because we finished the first draft and it was funny, we thought, “Right, the first draft is finished, we’ll all go away privately, read the draft from beginning to end and we’ll come back.”

 

And, of course, I was reading and I was absolutely horrified, it was just awful. I thought, “Oh god, what do the others think?” And when we came back everyone uniformly said, “This is awful,” because I think we realized immediately what was lacking, the ending was really boring, it lacked a lot of — some twists and turns. Frankly, it was pretty dull. It had the good basis of a story, but it needed a real rocket.

 

We had a major surgery, particularly with our lead male character. I remember saying when I read the first draft, “When he’s on the horse the horse is more interesting.” “When he’s chopping the wood I want to hear from the wood.” Rather boring.

 

We had to shape his character a lot differently. We had to inject some interests of his. And then we put in a lot of twists and turns. And we’re told it’s a page-turner. Thank god we did sit down and really go through that first draft and we just thought, “No, if we’re going to do it we’re going to do it properly. We’ll start again,” basically.

 

Valerie

After you were all horrified at that first draft how long until you had a second draft that you were happy with?

 

Jane

We didn’t really have much of a break. I think we started writing in April 2011, and we finished in about October 2013. So, we didn’t really stop. It’s quite funny, but initially we would meet, I think probably every two or three weeks and then halfway through that period — I think just before the first draft came back we suddenly clicked in and we thought, “No, we’re going to really get this book done.” We would have meet weekly then. We spent a lot of time writing and rewriting, most of the time was rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.

 

It was funny when we were initially were writing the book, because we would meet at each other’s houses or the biergarten or something, and our families would try and track us down, I would often get calls from one of my sons or my husband saying, “Where are you again?” I’d say, “Doing the book.” “Oh yeah, that thing.” And then after that first year it was always — everything changed, even our families’ reactions to what we were doing changed. I would get calls saying, “Leave mom alone, she’s working on the book…” “…the book.”

 

Valerie

The first draft was done by October 2013 —

 

Jane

No, that’s when we finished. I think we did three — four drafts? Yeah, three full drafts, but really four, I think, by the time we poked around with the last draft as well.

 

Valerie

It sounds pretty intense, because you’re meeting every week. Speaking for yourself, obviously, when you had to go away after the meeting and you were allocated whatever scenes you were doing, did you have — I mean you have got a full time job, did you have a writing routine? Did you have a schedule? Did you have some kind of way this slotted into your life?

 

Jane

Well, this is interesting because we’ve talked about that a lot now, because the five of us are very busy women, we’ve all got families and we’ve all got quite demanding jobs. But, I think because it was a group effort, a group thing, it was almost like being in a sporting team I think, in that one of you would be slagging, and just when one of you were slagging someone else has got a boost of energy, you know?

 

I think if you’re given homework, as a word, to finish by a certain period you don’t want to let the team down. You know, you have to get your bit of work done. I think sometimes, it’s like anything I guess, sometimes I come home from work and I think, “Oh really? I’ve got to do that scene.” But, then I think we were all actually were amazed at how much we enjoyed it, because we were looking forward to when we met again how the story had progressed and how these characters had changed.

 

I think the group thing really, really helped us because — well, I know myself and Madelyn and Jennie have all written — we’ve got works of fiction in our drawers. I think Maddie has got one completed novel. But, I think working in the group really spurred you to put pen to paper, you know? It was a great way to instill discipline. And the only way to write is to write. You know? It’s very easy to find ways to avoid writing. I’ve been a journalist for many years, so I know all of them.

 

I think group writing is a really interesting way to get something on paper.

 

Valerie

Did you continue with the book club during this time?

 

Jane

It did fall off for a while there. I mean as I mentioned there are more people in the Booksluts than just the five of us. They met. But, the meetings — well, I dropped out completely for a few months there and so did Denise. But, it’s back up and running again. It’s all fine. But, I think it just became a very heavy workload.

 

Valerie

What happened then? You’ve done your four or five drafts or whatever, what did you think? Did you think, “Oh, what do we do with it now?” “Who are we going to send it to?”

 

Jane

I think one of the interesting things when you’re writing, as a lot of your listeners would know, it becomes hard to judge when enough is enough. We could really have just kept writing. We could still be there now doing that. I probably would be tearing my hair out and not a happy person. But, I think we reached a point where we were very happy with the book. We gave ourselves a weekend deadline that, “It looks like we’ll finish it here,” and that’s what we aimed for. It was a weekend when we went away again to the same place where we had the notorious Russian idea initially.

 

Valerie

With more vodka this time?

 

 

 

Jane

Yes. We had a bottle of champagne that we weren’t allowed to open until we typed ‘the end.’

 

But, yes, it was hard sort of letting go, frankly. We wanted to sort of put a rough date on when we wanted to finish. By then we had done the last draft and we reread it and then we tidied it up again and check for literals again, and then we thought, “No, it’s ready.” We kind of looked at each other thought, “Well, what do we do with it now?” We thought, “Oh, look…” we couldn’t quite believe that we had finished it anyway. We thought, “Why not send it to the world’s biggest publisher? Why not just do that?”

 

Valerie

Why not?

 

Jane

So we did. And, yes, amazingly they picked it up.

 

Valerie

Did you have a contact there? People always love to know how you get in the door. Can you tell us your how you get in the door story?

 

Jane

Well, I did sort of have a contact, but as it turns out my contact was a woman I worked with many years previously in a newspaper who was working at Random House. She was in non-fiction. I did mention, “I’ve written this book,” and she said, “Send it in,” she couldn’t read it, but she said, “Look, I’ll just mention it to the fiction people, it doesn’t mean that they will read it.” And, I have heard since then that’s usually the kiss of death of a lot of publishers.

 

But, anyway, we did send it in and two weeks later I was at work and I got an email saying they couldn’t put it down and they were very interested.

 

Valerie

How did you feel?

 

Jane

Well, it was very funny. I was at work and in quite busy in the newsroom and I was talking to a reporter next to me at the time and I had my screen open and I saw this Random House email drop into my inbox, and I was sort of looking at it and I thought, “Oh god, what does it mean?” And I looked in the subject line and it said, “Good News…” so I just said, “Yeah, right, whatever…” you know, “I don’t care.” Turned around, pulled it up and it said, “I read your book, I couldn’t put it down, read it over the weekend and we would like to try and publish it.”

 

Of course I immediately thought the other four was having a joke with me or… then I ran out to the balcony at work and quickly rang the first other ‘Alice’ that I could find, and it was Denise, and she actually was driving at the time. She was driving down the Pacific Highway and I still remember the scream, it was one long scream.

 

Valerie

Wow. That’s exciting!

 

Are the five of you now planning on writing a sequel, or more books together?

 

Jane

Well, we’re really tossing up like a sequel or prequel and since the book has only actually been out for three weeks now, but lots of people have asked us about that, which I was — yeah, we were a bit surprised about.

 

But, the five of us are working on two new books, three of us are writing one and two of us are writing the other one.

 

Valerie

Are you serious?

 

Jane

They’re very different stories, they’re not related to The Painted Sky. But, no, we’re very keen to keep going. Random House has expressed some interest in looking at them. So, yeah, we’ll see how we go with that. But, no, we’re very keen.

 

Valerie

You’re very keen to write a sequel or prequel, what would you do differently with the five of you now, since you’ve been through the experience?

 

Jane

To tell you the truth it’s all been such a fantastic ride, I don’t think I’d change anything. If anything, I’m totally — we are all amazed at how smoothly the process went, and we’re just blown away by the way the book has been received. It’s selling quite well, apparently. We get a lot of people who know that area and think that we have captured it. We did actually travel out to Bourke, to do a bit of research on the book. And thank god we did because we had a lot of things wrong before we went out there.

 

I don’t think I would change anything, really. I think… we’re still speaking to each other, which is good.

 

Valerie

I’m curious to know why the three of you decided to write one book and two of you decided to write another book, because it’s kind of like, you know, George and Ringo saying that they were going to go off —

 

Jane

Oh, god. A Beatles analogy, oh my god.

 

I guess it was sort of an organic thing, really. The three of us, one of us had a particular idea for a book and the other two thought, “Love that idea,” so that’s initially how the three started. The other two were not so keen on that idea. But, also, I think it’s a timing thing too, some of us prefer to work more slowly. I mean these two books may not, you know, be published yet, we don’t know. But, we’re pretty — I think the two groups of us are very keen to see Alice’s name to continue.

 

I think we’ve got a good real sense of what Alice sounds like as a writer, her style. I hope a second book will be published, but both of these books are not sequels or prequels, that’s still hanging out in the air. We may eventually do one, but at the moment that’s not in the cards.

 

Valerie

Why the name ‘Alice Campion’?

 

Jane

Ah, yes. Well, the name thing is quite funny because initially when we first started writing the book we were trying to come up with a name for the five of us and we thought initially we would make an anagram of the word Booksluts… so we came up with this name Beth Cloostus and we decided that she was this Dutch writer… so we would often when we would go out to restaurants or whatever, we would always book under the Beth Cloostus. But, of course, it didn’t really sound like a great name for an author.

 

Then we thought, when we were sending in the manuscript to Random House we thought, “We better come up with a better name.” So, again, we didn’t want to lose the Booksluts link, so we thought, “How else can we get this across?” So, we thought of a last name ‘Hussy’ that sounded like a name, but it’s another word for a slut. The first name, we thought, “Maybe we can find a word that means book in another language that also sounds like a woman’s name.” We came up with a Belarusian word for book, which was ‘kiera’ [assumed spelling]. So our name was Kiera Hussy [assumed spelling]. That was our original author name. But, Random House put us straight there and sort of said, “No, something that’s a bit easier to remember would be good.”

 

In the end they sort of said to us, “Why don’t you come with a name that’s sort of a woman’s name that sounds Australian, but also is an easy to spell name, it’s easy to remember?” That was for the first name, for the second name they wanted a name — well, actually they suggested a name starting with ‘C’ is always good, because the idea goes that when you go into a bookstore your eyes gravitate towards “Cs,” or your line of sight. I don’t know how true that is. But, we’re very happy about it because we’re right next to Peter Carey.

 

Valerie

Well, long may Alice reign. The book is wonderful. It’s such an innovative, creative process behind it.

 

Thank you so much for your time today, Jane.

 

Jane

Great. With the writing we have started a group fiction website and writing community, to sort of foster and encourage group writing.

 

Valerie

Wonderful, that’s exciting. I can’t wait to try it myself. I’m not sure how successful I will be, but thank you so much for your advice.

 

Jane

Thank you.

 


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