Writing group Alice Campion discuss their new book, “The Shifting Light”

Well, this is awkward. We’ve invited author Alice Campion for a chat about the newly published novel The Shifting Light – but we absentmindedly only put one chair out and now there are FOUR of them at the window. Oops.

While we grab some extra chairs, allow us to explain. “Alice Campion” is not just one writer, but actually four – a writing group that previously collaborated on their debut novel, The Painted Sky (2015). Those four are Jane Richards, Jane St Vincent Welch, Denise Tart and Jenny Crocker.

So “Alice” – can you tell us briefly about your second novel, The Shifting Light?
“Although The Shifting Light is a sequel to The Painted Sky, it can be read as a standalone novel. The story opens with our protagonist from the first book, Nina Larkin, two years after we left her. She is still living the life she had planned out west, but she has a nagging feeling that something is not quite right.

“Nina stumbles upon a sketch of a man who looks exactly like her father. But how can this be? The drawing was done just weeks before and yet her father, well – no spoilers! – but the drawing just can’t be her father.

“The book looks at what happens when a newcomer enters a community and upsets the status quo. Loyalties are tested, jealousy and insecurities are sparked, uncertainty is everywhere – even around those you think you know best. Who do you trust?”

Ooooh, nice teaser! So did you have your sights set on book two while you were writing The Painted Sky?
“We have a three-book deal with Penguin Random House so we did leave a couple of small questions in The Painted Sky that were not fully answered – just in case. However despite many pleas from readers, we really didn’t want to do a sequel until the right idea came along. Then out of the blue came the idea of this mysterious sketch, and the ripple effects it would have on our characters. We couldn’t resist!”

Ah yes, the seemingly impossible portrait that plays a very key role in setting up the plot of The Shifting Light
“The overriding comment about The Painted Sky was that it was a page-turner (one reader review was from a woman who had to take hers into the loo at work to finish it because she couldn’t put it down!). We really wanted to have a good ‘’hook’’ for a sequel that would compel the reader to turn the page. The sketch idea offered all sorts of possibilities. Was it Jim? If it wasn’t, who was it?

Okay, let’s address the four elephants in the room. (No, we didn’t mean it like that.) It’s hard enough ONE person writing a book – so what does four people writing a book look like? One word at a time? Every fourth chapter? A quarter of the alphabet each?
“We perfected our writing system over the four years it took us to produce The Painted Sky. It all started as a bit of a fun thing that morphed into a more serious project when we realised we might actually have something that was publishable.  Over that period we quickly worked out what worked and what didn’t. We ended up meeting twice a week and would spend one meeting plotting – working out an overarching plan of where we would go from A to B and how we would get there.

“We would then divide the action into scenes, working out what must happen in a given scene, how the characters would change and react because of that action, whose point of view the scene would be written from etc. We would then divide up the scenes, and each take one or two home to write the first draft of those scenes. We would then each send our written scenes to the others by email. When we next met, we would read out, discuss and mark up each other’s scenes and that scene would then go home with another person to rewrite, add the suggested changes etc.

“So initially at least, each scene in the book was written, then rewritten, by each one of us over and over again. We believe this technique helps us create a seamless voice.”

Wow, that’s elaborate, but clearly it does the trick. And now for the missing elephant in the room. Your first book was written by five of you – but this one just four. So, our question for you – where have you hidden the body?
“We didn’t come up with a sequel idea right away, so when we were ready to start a good year had passed since The Painted Sky was published. This meant we would have ONE YEAR – gulp – to write a sequel so that it wouldn’t be published too far apart from the original. It was a big ask and [original fifth collaborator] Maddy Oliver decided it would be too time consuming for her, given the deadline.”

Fair enough. So, how did you settle upon the pseudonym “Alice Campion” anyway? We would have thought something like “Jajama Denijen” was far more obvious…
“We had a couple of bizarre names on the way to ‘becoming Alice’, but basically our publishers suggested we choose an Australian sounding first name, so we picked ‘Alice’ (‘Alice Springs’, ‘A Town Like Alice’ …). They also suggested that with the surname we pick one that started with ‘C’ because generally that’s the row most people’s eyes fall on when they walk into a book store! (Well that’s the theory…)”

Now that’s good to know (and no doubt exciting to hear for aspiring writers with names like Matilda Cooper or Bonza Childs). So now that you’ve written two novels together, what do you think are the benefits of writing as a group?
We have become a bit evangelical about group fiction writing. It just makes sense for commercial genre fiction. Group writing is a constant in screenwriting for TV and film and in comedy writing. But writing fiction solo can be a long, lonely, arduous pursuit. You need to lock yourself away or be able to fit your writing in around work hours. [Collaborative] writing makes sense – a way to get your ideas fleshed out, improved and put on a page, without having to lock yourself away for a year or more.

“The benefits? You will actually get something written. There is no point taking that perfect crime thriller you have nutted out in your head to your grave. The only way to write a novel is to write – and writing as a group can make that happen. It helps you stick to a deadline and deliver. After all, you don’t want to be the one person who doesn’t cough up their 1000 words on a given day. And it’s great having instant feedback and support if you are flagging or stuck. It’s like being in a sporting team – with great ideas and wine! Another benefit? Well, you can harvest a lot of life experience, stories and anecdotes from four or five people rather than one. The fact that multiple pairs of eyes went over and over our words also meant our final drafts were both very clean.”

And are there any disadvantages?
“None, provided you pick the right people to work with. In fact whenever we travel to promote our books in libraries, festivals etc, we are VERY glad we appear as a group. It’s fun being on the road with your mates, and speaking in a library or on stage in a hall is far less intimidating if there are a couple of you – we bounce off each other and have a lot of fun.”

That’s a great point about book touring on the road together – what fun! And before you all hit the road, what advice can you offer to other groups wanting to write a novel together?
“Firstly – if you are intending to write literary fiction, forget it. Group writing, as we see it, is perfect for genre, commercial fiction, e.g. sci-fi, romance, crime. Literary works really rest on an individual view – so we don’t think that would work.

“Secondly, pick your writing cohorts carefully. Can they actually write? Do they love discussing books and reading? Can you trust them to deliver what they say they will? Are they organised? And could you actually work with them without turning that crime novel into a real-life murder! A sense of humour is vital, as is a willingness to put aside ego for the sake of the project. We would ban sulkers, or people who believe they are undiscovered geniuses. A good mantra to take into any group writing project is ‘’this book is not about me, and my amazing ideas and intellect; it’s about producing a great story that people will want to read and talk about’’.

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