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It Takes a Village to Write a Romance: the surprising rise of collaborative fiction

Read Friday, 11 Mar 2016

What happens when you write a romance novel by committee? In the case of Shannon Curtis and ‘Alice Campion’, the answer is: major publication deals and an avid readership. Danielle Binks explores the rise of collaborative fiction … and wonders whether we might be reading much more of it very soon.

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Little Women author Louisa May Alcott used to despair over readers who wrote to her requesting that Jo March end up with boy-next-door Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence. In an 1868 journal entry, Alcott wrote: ‘Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.’ Thus, she created the deeply unromantic and older character of Professor Bhaer to pair with Jo, spawning over a century of debate and fanfiction, where readers grapple with – and correct – Alcott’s decision.

Skip ahead to 2013 when bestselling American author Charlaine Harris released the final book in her Sookie Stackhouse: Southern Vampire series. Readers, distraught at protagonist Sookie’s romantic fate, responded with threats and backlash. In the end, Harris didn’t tour or promote that final book. She told the Wall Street Journal: ‘I’m very fortunate that people are so invested in the series. At the same time, it can be a source of some anxiety to get emails that say, “If Sookie doesn’t end up with Eric, I’m going to kill myself.”’

This is but a snapshot of how readers – particularly romance readers – can take the matter of fictional hearts very seriously indeed. Two authors, divided by more than a century, chose either to sabotage or retreat from their works when fans’ demands become too much. So, what author would be mad or daring enough to harness that rabid reader enthusiasm and attempt a collaborative work with their fans? 

Australian romance author Shannon Curtis is that mad, daring author who has recently attempted a reader-writer collaboration – a process that saw her obliged to make the romantic hero of her book a dentist. Curtis believes her collaborators’ surprising choice of hero probably came down to a combination of ‘readers never seeing one before, and throwing something into the mix to make me squirm.’ But she put her foot down at the combined suggestion that the dentist also have a fear of oral sex. ‘[That] didn’t make it into the story – I wanted to write a hero that would embrace intimacy with his partner, not run from it!’

Curtis is talking about her never-before-attempted, reader-collaboration book, Tribal Law – a paranormal romance borne out of reader suggestions that has seen Curtis nominated at the upcoming Australian Romance Readers Awards. The collaboration has also made her the first Australian author to sign with prestigious New York-based publisher, Harlequin Nocturne.

‘On the night I had printed forms [that] all attendees had to fill out. The fields included a name for a hero, a heroine, a physical description, a symbol for a character, an occupation, the sub-genre, heat level – even what kind of cover they’d prefer.’

The idea for the collaboration came from a challenge Curtis set for herself. ‘I wanted to do something that would be fun from a reader perspective,’ she says. Back in 2014, she approached the Australian Romance Reader Association (ARRA) with her idea for a short story that would then be edited, made into a digital copy and sold through ARRA – with all royalties feeding back to the volunteer-run organisation.

Better Read Than Dead Bookshop in Sydney offered the floor space for a face-to-face, 90-minute session for readers to offer their input. ‘On the night I had printed forms [that] all attendees had to fill out, says Curtis. The fields included a name for a hero, a heroine, a physical description, a symbol for a character, an occupation, the sub-genre, heat level – even what kind of cover they’d prefer. Then we all read out and discussed our responses.’ Curtis was impressed with the suggestions. ‘It showed that readers really wanted to create characters with interesting backstories, with challenging obstacles, and a desire to work hard for their Happy Ever After.’

What was intended as an experimental short story quickly turned into a 214-page book that had Curtis imagining an entire series. In August 2015 the Romance Writers of Australia Conference was held in Melbourne and Ann Leslie Tuttle – a senior editor at Harlequin – flew in from New York to attend. ‘We had a great chat,’ says Curtis, ‘I mentioned Tribal Law, and how it had all come about, and she asked to read the book on her flight home. It was probably within a fortnight to a month after that I received the good news that Harlequin wanted the series.’ Tribal Law has since become the prequel in a new series called Shadow Breeds. The collaborative idea around Tribal Law was tapping into the strengths of a romance reader community that values critical discussions and lateral thinking, Curtis explains. ‘When we find another person who openly admits they read [romance] too, we tend to really value the opportunity to discuss all the things we love about the characters, the stories, the settings. Romance readers are so avid in their reading.’

Three of the writers who make up ‘Alice Campion’: Denise Tart, Jenny Crocker and Jane Richards

It’s that same community atmosphere that inspired another unique writing collaboration. Last year Random House Books released The Painted Sky, described as a ‘21st-century Thorn Birds. This mystery romance was published under the pseudonym Alice Campion, but was actually written by five Australian women.

‘We pretty much started plotting on that afternoon and since then, haven’t stopped.’

Jenny Crocker, Madeline Oliver, Denise Tart, Jane Richards and Jane St Vincent Welch were a tight-knit, Sydney-based book club, discussing Crime and Punishment one night over vodka when, Richards explains, the discussion turned to what they’d like to read. ‘We pretty much started plotting on that afternoon and since then, haven’t stopped. The key was that we all knew what we wanted to write – a family saga/love story page-turner, that wasn’t annoyingly formulaic.’

Richards – speaking on behalf of all the ‘Alices’ – believes that the timing was ripe for such an ambitious collaboration. ‘People share their experiences of reading more and more. Whether online or thanks to the rise in the popularity of book clubs, criticism has become more accessible and democratic. We brought the same democracy from our shared book club into our writing group and just fell into our groove.’ At first, group members weren’t sure if they should keep the collaboration a secret, but the publisher, Random House, thought the unusual set-up might be a selling point, Richards says. ‘Our publisher suspected today’s eclectic reader would probably find our collaboration interesting and they were right. We’ve been fortunate to have done a lot of touring around Australia and beyond … sharing our experiences and techniques at festivals and literature events.’

Popular Australian book blogger Kat Mayo is one such reader who embraces this novel approach to storytelling. ‘I think you could probably do something similar in crime fiction, a bit like Cluedo!, she suggests, or middle-grade [children’s] fiction, because you could use familiar patterns or templates and crowdsource the elements you need to build a story from that.’

Perhaps we can expect to see more of this kind of thing. Three of the five Alice Campions have harnessed their enthusiasm for collaborative writing and founded an online community called Group Fiction. Meanwhile, aspiring Shannon Curtis collaborators can follow her on Twitter and weigh in the next time she does a call-out for reader input. There was recently a conversation there about golden handcuffs and a shrimp farmer hero – if you have anything to add, you know what to do. 

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.