Women of letters: (from left) Jane St Vincent Welch, Denise Tart, Jane Richards, Madeline Oliver and Jenny Crocker, collectively known as the author "Alice Campion" Photo: Nic Walker
The first day of a weekend trip to the Blue Mountains. Members of our book club, The BookSluts (We'll Read Anything), are here to discuss Crime and Punishment, but it is hard to immerse yourself in snow-bound poverty when the sun is shining and you've just had a huge lunch.
"Trans-Siberian railway," quips one Russian-hatted friend as she tops up my vodka. "That's where we should be to discuss this book. All that snow."
"If only," says another, yawning.
"I wonder what that would cost? Ten thousand? Each?"
Someone shuts their book a little too loudly.
"A lamington drive?" calls a voice from the couch.
"Or, we could follow Raskolnikov's example and commit murder for cash?" says the lone voice determined to bring the conversation back to Dostoyevsky.
"Or why don't we just write a best seller?" I say, as I feel the vodka start to kick in. "A romance! Don't Mills & Boon pay thousands?" I am joking but as I look around I can almost hear brains clicking into gear.
Paper and pens are produced, more drinks are poured and a plot begins to thicken amid much laughter.
If only we knew then that our joke project would not just provide raucous entertainment over that weekend, but would also keep us occupied for almost four years, land us a book deal with the world's biggest publisher and spark a bidding war in Germany. But more on that later...
"Okay, Slutskys – what will we write? A romance? A thriller? A whodunit?"
"Nah – a Booker Prize winner," says that voice from the couch again. (There's one in every crowd.)
Romance gets the vote as the genre we are most likely to be able to pull off and the one (we have heard) that offers the greatest possibility of making money.
"Romance it is. So, boy meets girl?"
"Well, what would we all like to read about?" The suggestions come flying.
"Bad sex!" Tick.
"An awkward dinner party!" Tick.
"Good sex!" Tick.
"A cat fight!" Tick.
"A party that ends badly! Tick."
"And there has to be a bitch in it – a real bitch."
"So," says one of us, "does anyone know a real bitch?"
Seven hands shoot up. We all take notes furiously.
Now, names. Our bitch character is easy (it seems everyone went to school with one, and she was called one of only three names). Our heroine, too, practically christens herself, as do our major secondary characters.
But our hero stays "he-who-shall-remain-nameless", until one of us has a brainwave.
"Where are we? Blackheath!" And so Mr Heath Blackett is born.
We are on a roll. Soon we have a serviceable plot, five major characters, and a setting. We are in business.
We go to bed dreaming of roubles.
The next day, we plaster butcher's paper on a wall. We proceed to plot a storyline through a series of scenes – a process we estimate will take two to three hours. Seven hours later we have a rough outline. We are then each given sections to write on our return home.
Our novel idea has begun, albeit slowly. It becomes apparent that it's one thing to dream up a story, but quite another to commit those ideas to paper.
Yet commit we do and soon we are meeting fortnightly, then weekly, in lounge rooms and beer gardens to finesse our story; to build up and tear apart our characters; to debate tenses and which words are "too old" for our protagonists and, of course, to come up with a perfect ending.
When we aren't meeting we are writing, snatching sessions between work and family commitments. It is not easy. There is always something to do, deadlines to meet.
We are all women in our early 50s with careers, families, mortgages and little time for writer's block, and it isn't long before two of our number drop out. And if the rest of us knew then that it would take us almost four years to complete the book, we might have, too. But something – perhaps the fact that every person we tell insists we will never finish the book – drives us on.
Our progress seems painstakingly slow. Our meetings are often broken up with calls from partners asking us to remind them where we had got to, teenagers wanting to know where their socks are, or work colleagues hunting one of us to fill in at the last moment. While we are often forced to multitask - plotting the plot while stirring a pot – we manage. After all, as our first female prime minister said (and if memory serves me she sighed heavily as she said it) – if you want a task done, give it to a busy woman.
Over time, the interruptions become less frequent as our families, friends and colleagues begin to realise we are deadly serious about finishing the book. We even manage a five-day research trip, literally to the back of Bourke.
More months go by, then another year. It becomes clear some scenes are easier to write than others – the bad sex scene for instance. In fact, there are so many excruciating suggestions for this scene that the first writer tasked with tackling it puts her hands over her ears, scarred for life after we pepper her with suggestions.
The good sex scenes are more tricky. No-one wants to put their hand up to write the first one. We all fear the same thing - that our efforts will be greeted with laughter, silence, or, worse still, be mistaken for the bad sex scene! In the end we decide to each write a version anonymously. These will be read and a "winner" voted on. This sounds good in theory but of course we all immediately guess who wrote what, so in the end we use a merged version. Such coyness now seems hilarious as we have become used to blithely serving up a sex scene on request (often with tea and biscuits).
Jokey dialogue will leave us in hysterics for days. Even now, I only have to look at a fellow writing slut across a room and mouth the word "manhood" for us both to crack up.
More months, more meetings, more writing and yet more rewriting, and finally our first draft is complete. We are thrilled - until we read it. Writing a formulaic romance is much harder than it seems. We can't seem to sustain the story beyond boy-meets-girl. We beef up the plot, change the ending and add twists. Before we know it, we have also changed genres. Instead of a pure romance, the book morphs into more of a family saga with a dash of mystery.
Another roadblock happens at the end of the third of our four drafts. We know we have a page-turner, but the book has a major flaw. Our hero again. To say this man is one-dimensional is giving him way too much credit. When he speaks in one scene while among his cattle, we begin to imagine readers preferring to hear from the cattle.
Character assassination is called for. We make him smarter, more creative, give him faults. Suddenly he is sexier, funnier. If only real-life transformation could be this easy.
Five women, four drafts and almost four years later, the book is finally complete. We type 'THE END' back where we started, at the cottage in Blackheath, as we pop champagne.
The manuscript is then sent to our dream publishers. Weeks later, the magic words came down the phone line: "I could not put it down."
Suddenly we have a book deal. Since then we have selected a nom de plume – Alice Campion (Alice for an Australian-sounding name, Campion because it sits in a nice place on the shelves) – finished our final edits and popped more champagne when we heard that two German publishing houses were bidding against each other for the rights. Apparently the Germans love a good outback mystery.
For us, it's now truly a novel with the perfect ending.
SO HOW DID WE DO IT?
How did five writers complete a novel that reads like it's written by one author? This is the question we are asked the most. The answer may sound complicated but is actually quite simple.
We came up with a system that involved each of us completing assigned scenes and then emailing them to each other, to read, mark up, and discuss as a group. Here we would debate whether the story was working, and play "spot the discrepancy".
What worked? What didn't? Would character A really use that language? If character B is drinking tea in scene one, how come she is holding a wine glass in scene two?
We then rewrote each other's scenes so that no one scene was written by just one person. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, you are right. It was hard at first. There were occasional silences and debate over what was to be cut and what was to stay, but because no one "owned" a particular scene we were able to get past this. The biggest proof lies in the fact that not one of our readers to date has picked it as a group novel.
And what of Alice's future? She is spreading herself rather thinly at the moment. Two new novels and a How to Write Group Fiction e-book are being written by combinations of the five of us.
What was that about busy women?
Jane Richards is a Fairfax journalist. The Painted Sky by Alice Campion (Random House Australia) is out March 2. It will be released in Germany (Ullstein) later this year. See groupfiction.net.