Smart People Talking: Isobelle Carmody

If you’ve never been to Comic-Con or Supanova, you may not be aware that even though they’re generally seen as a place to meet movie and TV stars and buy a heap of merch, they’re actually also literary events.

I know. I was shocked, too.

There are writers. And they talk about stuff. And you can buy their books, and go the selfie-with-hero route if that floats your particular boat. But, yes. Writers at Cons are wonderful, and they spend a fair bit of time talking craft and business.

At this year’s Brisbane Oz Comic-Con, Isobelle Carmody absolutely rocked it on stage and off. Isobelle is Aussie writing royalty- a fantasy writer with a knack for visceral imagery and edge of your seat storytelling. While at Oz Comic-Con, Isobelle participated in a panel called ‘Writing as a Day Job’, alongside C.S. Pacat, and Marianne de Pierres. This is me unashamedly pointing out her wisdom from that talk.

For anyone new to this series of posts, for the most part, they’re notes from Cons and events with me frantically explaining the wider context of the teensy snippet I managed to grab. The quoted bits are, unsurprisingly, quotes from the author or creative, the rest is me roughly sketching out the larger conversation that was happening. Most of these events don’t allow recording devices, so these are all the quotes I could scrawl into a notebook in a bizarre blend of text speak, hieroglyphs, and illegible chicken scratch.

You have been warned.


You should always be striving up. You should always be your own worst critic, in a way. If you can see the gap in your ability, you can overcome it.

The people who go into writing thinking that it’s easy and they’ve got nothing whatsoever to learn or improve? More often than not, their writing isn’t actually what you’d call an enjoyable read. Like any skill, there’s always going to be room for improvement. It’s the people who see their weaknesses objectively (not bemoaning their eternal suckitude, but acknowledging there can be improvement) who are able to minimise and challenge those weaknesses. The things we ignore don’t tend to improve.

I only wrote for myself to begin with. I was writing to save my life, to find solace. I was yearning for something, for community and hope and wonder, and people aligned with that striving. There was a truth I was pinning down, and people aligned to it. If you write deeply and truthfully enough, it’ll touch others.

There’s a reason ‘write what you want to read’ is such popular advice. Though there are countless stories of a work of art saving a life or helping someone through a difficult moment, that’s not something you can try to manufacture deliberately.  You can’t write to save someone else’s life, not really, because it’s too much pressure to put on yourself and on your writing. It’s incredibly hard to write characters with a strong moral message without them annoying readers.

It’s not about shoving a moral message down a reader’s throat- it won’t work and they’ll hate you for it. But if you write from a place of vulnerability and honesty, people tend to respond.

If a series lasts long enough, it begins to weave into the lives of readers.

We all have those stories that we wander back to, those characters we adore. Most of us have stories about that defining moment, and the book that shaped it. Stories have power, and the longer a series lasts, the more it becomes a part of our life and our world. An entire generation grew up with Harry Potter, for example, and those stories helped shape a lot of lives. Hermione Granger taught a generation of children that intelligence wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but a trait to be proud of. Severus Snape taught us to look beyond the superficial and remember that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people around us, so never assume that bitter equals evil.

We are shaped by what we read, so give people the best reading material you possibly can.

If you’re bored, you’re gonna bore the reader.

We don’t need to hear about the everyday stuff. We know they brush their teeth and hair and wander off to work or school. We don’t need to watch it happening. Things that don’t push the story forward are typically boring- if it’s not building tension or conflict, if it’s not forcing a character towards a certain path or event- then it’s not necessary. If it’s just setting the scene for ‘Bob went to work and that’s where interesting things happened’, skip it.

Having said that, sometimes there’s a good reason for it to be there. If, say, you’re writing from the POV of a character who focuses on that stuff and it’s included for a damn good reason? Sure. But there needs to be a reason. If it’s just there because you don’t know what else to write, it’s a problem.

It doesn’t get easier. A new book has a new problem.

We like to pretend that every book you write gets easier, because you’ve done it before. But each book brings its own issues- you have to learn new things, and figure out new problems. Each book is a unique set of issues to be resolved, rather than a quick and easy jaunt with a keyboard.

You’ve gotta get from big event or moment to another. People fall down in those transitions. What could be happening while I move from space to space? Even something as simple as hurting an ankle and walking with a limp can help the story. Small issues and details create realism.

The things you include in a story have to serve the story. Otherwise, it’s like listening to a small child tell you about their day- there’s no rhyme or reason to the information you’re getting, and it starts to feel like you’re never getting out of that conversation alive. If a story is made up of key moments with transitions from one to the next, you’ve got to make those transitions work.

‘She caught the bus to work and decided to become a vigilante’ is boring. ‘She caught the bus, and was trapped in a long metal box for an hour with a drunk man who only stopped hitting on her so he could yell about what an uppity bitch she clearly was. She decided to murder him, and everyone like him’ is more realistic (depending on where you live), but also a lot more interesting.

Even though I wasn’t writing an Australian landscape, the voice was Australian.

In the same way that our accents are impacted by where we live, and how long we live there, our writing voice carries hints of geography, too. There are Australianisms and Americanisms (and every-other-country-isms, too) that influence the story being told even if it’s not set in that particular place.

Don’t try and force your voice to be something it’s not in hopes that overseas markets will like you more. Write your story your way, with your voice, and people will respond better than they will to a flat, by-the-numbers read.

Ask yourself: how does the landscape feel to readers?

Your landscape should be a sensory experience. Readers should be able to imagine the places you’re writing about. If they’re seeing nothing more than white space behind the action, or if it feels like a hastily thrown together junkyard of landscape looking stuff, it’s not going to be as enjoyable for them.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve figured out every type of rock or soil or plant on the entire planet (though if that floats your boat, have fun). You don’t need a history of the plants and animals that became extinct in the thousand years leading up to the start of the story, or anything like that. Just a few details that help the reader believe that this landscape could actually exist.

Are you creating a compelling landscape that readers can easily imagine? Does the landscape feel real?

I’m in this character, blundering around in a world I have no idea about.

People approach writing in vastly different ways, and that’s a good thing. C.S. Pacat plans the hell out of her work. Isobelle doesn’t. She doesn’t have it all mapped out, so the journey is as much a surprise to her as it is to the readers.

Whatever works for you. Never feel guilty that you don’t write the way someone else does. You’re not meant to be like them, you’re meant to be you.

All the work you do beneath the eye line happens while you’re living your normal life.

Everyone thinks that quitting your day job and becoming a full time writer makes life easier, but it brings its own problems to the mix. A lot of the time, our brains problem-solve and idea generate while we’re busy doing other stuff, and it’s in those stolen moments of time where we do our best work. Mostly, it’s because we know we have ten minutes to write, and that’s it, so there’s a momentum there to achieve something. Meanwhile, when you have all day to write, it’s a lot easier to get distracted because there’s so much time available it stops feeling quite so desperate.

If you’re working full time as a writer, make sure you’re getting out of the house and away from the writing. Make sure you’re doing stuff outside of writing- you still need a work/life balance. And if writing was your hobby, you’re going to need to find yourself a new hobby. Writing might be a dream job, but it can’t be your whole life, or you’ll burn out. You need that time doing other things to give your brain time to problem solve, and to refresh and find inspiration.


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