Vale, General.

Carrie Fisher died today.

I’ve been able to make my peace with a lot of the deaths this year, but this one? This one fucking hurts. Carrie Fisher was the sort of kick ass woman I always wanted to meet, and the sort of brave human being I hope I can be. As a writer, she kicked a hell of a lot of ass. And maybe one day I’ll actually talk about that without spending 10k fangirling.

But as a human being? Holy hell, all the ass she kicked.

She was honest about her mental illness, rather than hiding it. She did so, so much to try and fight the stigma attached to mental illness. She stepped back when she wasn’t coping, and gave herself permission to treat her illness with compassion and kindness instead of trying to force her way through when she knew it wasn’t really possible. That takes a hell of a lot of courage. Pushing through the stigma and bullshit to maintain a career is damn near miraculous.

It can be really hard to find role models with mental illnesses, because more often than not, the media crucifies them for their ‘quirky behaviour’. When the world scrutinises the hell out of your every act, the easiest way to survive in the public eye is to hide any hint of illness from the world. And no one has the right to begrudge someone making the choice to survive instead of risk their mental health challenging the unfairness. She fought, and that makes her a big damn hero.

She was honest about her aging. When the spank-bank warriors rioted online about an actual human woman daring to age (and, y’know, apparently impact the ability for strangers to jack off to an image of her from decades ago), she gave exactly zero fucks. Seriously, go look at movies and count the older women playing dynamic, action-focused or leadership roles within the story. Go listen to actresses talking about how hard it is to get work after a certain age while men can grey and wrinkle without anyone caring overly much about it. Rocking her grey hair rather than hiding it while doing press? Kind of a big deal, y’all.

And her most iconic role, while mostly remembered for that fucking bikini, is such an amazing role model for girls and women. Leia fights on, even when everyone else runs away. Those heroes who get all the attention? They all ran the hell away. Luke runs away and hides on a freakin’ planet. Han runs away and goes back to smuggling. Chewie runs away with him. But they’re not the only runners. Ben runs away to join the enemy. Leia doesn’t run away. She loses everything, over and over, and she just keeps fucking fighting. She doesn’t wait for the heroes to get their asses back into the fray, she just gets it done without them.

But that’s not all that makes her an amazing role model.

When Rey returns after Han’s death, what does Leia do? This girl is a stranger to her, even if it’s clear Han cares for her at least a little. But Leia offers the girl comfort and company. The pair share their grief while the rest of the world celebrates the overall victory. She doesn’t begrudge the girl’s emotions, doesn’t get jealous or petty, or any of the other territorial shit that allegedly makes for interesting tension in stories around female interactions. She’s maternal, caring. She sees someone in pain, and even though she’s in so much pain herself, she tries to help ease Rey’s grief. Her love was just murdered by her son, and she’s offering support to someone else.

Leia as a General is respected, listened to. She’s not presented as trying to get the menfolk to listen and respect her- they already respect her. She’s proved her worth, and doesn’t need to keep trying to prove it in order to stay in power. She listens to her people, she acknowledges their ideas and their value as part of the team, rather than trying to do it all. And part of her strength is her compassion. She’s not closed off, not bitter and cold like so many other women in leadership roles in fiction. She cares about the safety of her people, even when she knows they’re likely going to die. She knows her people by name, and gives them the respect they’re due

You don’t respect her because she was a princess first? Look at all the fucks she gives.

You think her best days required a stupid bikini? She will choke you on the straps and jam metal and fabric down your throat, and go about her day.

You think she can’t win the war because she has lady bits? Still, not a solitary fuck available to give.

You think she’s too old to get shit done? She will stomp your throat into the dust and then get the hell back to work. Why? Because she’s not a damsel. She’s not a strong female character who falls apart as soon as the hero arrives, or who suddenly loses her ability to do her job because ooh, there’s a cute guy there! She’s focused, she’s driven, she’s passionate, and professional, and she’s capable regardless of what the men around her are doing.

And if you don’t think that means the world to women like me, you’re so, so wrong.

RIP, Carrie.

 

 

Life is Weird, Y’all.

When I was a girl, I was constantly told to smile. Boys don’t like frowning girls! So I smiled, and I obeyed. I didn’t show off my intelligence (boys don’t like that), played housekeeper rather than assassin (boys don’t like girls that seem stronger than they are), and tried not to ask why on earth it was so important that the idiots that pulled hair and sprayed water onto our white shirts should like me. Tried not to ask why some mythical person’s dislike should matter.

As a freelance writer, I’m constantly left with the feeling that the worst thing you can do is be yourself. There’s an idea of professionalism that goes with the territory, and it feels safer to hold to that and bury those unprofessional bits of myself for the duration of a job, and hopefully into perpetuity so that no one ever realises that I’m, well, me. You ask the set questions, you treat it like just another job.

It has an impact. I find myself far too often hesitating, scared to take that final step that might insult or offend, or not suit that pre-approved idea of who I should be. I look at my creative writing projects with a mind of keeping everyone happy, which of course is the death of creativity. I linger in that shadowland of purgatory rather than waging the war I want to. We’re such social creatures, and the quickest way to assert control is to promise isolation. Smile, or the boys won’t like you. Be professional, or no one will want to work with you.

In some places in the world, it’s said that the wild, seasonal winds bring change. And it’s a still day, but I like the imagery, so screw it. There’s a reason the winds of change is a common trope. Life is heading in new, brilliant directions, against the grain of the best laid plans of mice and men.

I got to interview one of my childhood heroes recently. Always a terrifying prospect. How can anyone live up to the image in your head of them? What if they’re mean, what if it destroys your ability to look fondly at those memories you’ve cherished?

The first time I heard DAAS, it was a revelation. I realised that I didn’t have to smile, and I didn’t have to care so much about what other people thought. I could be angry (and gods, was I an angry teenager), and it was okay. I could be crass, or sarcastic, or not suffer fools, and it would be fine. There were other people out there who were angry and sarcastic and who didn’t want to be liked by the people we’re constantly told need to like us.

It stole my breath, that realisation. Those three comedians shaped my personality in a fundamental way. They taught me the value of stepping through that hesitation, of choosing to be me instead of being that cookie-cutter idea of who people might like. I don’t always live up to it, I still hesitate far too often, but there’s power in accepting that the world probably won’t love you, and you’ll survive it.

Once upon a time, I’d have turned down the interview, too scared of pretending I could match wits with a comedy genius. If I’d somehow agreed, I’d have done the standard questions, and hidden away from the risk of making an idiot of myself by deviating from the tried and true. I’d go the professional option because that’s what’s expected. A while back, I talked about trickster energies, and it dawned on me that this was a total trickster moment. I could build a pillow fortress of professionalism around myself and pretend it would protect me from being an anxious little penmonkey. Or I could shrug, and see what happened when I approached it as a game rather than a deeply serious experience.

So I asked questions, but not always the ones he’s used to. I jumped in and asked for information when I didn’t understand something (rather than pretending to be on his level and freaking out researching it later), and I sassed back rather than nodding along. I gave him space to go on tangents, rather than trying to control where the conversation went. I approached the interview as me- flawed, fucked up sense of humour me, not the professional me I spend a lot of time pretending to be- and let it be whatever the hell is became.

I felt that hesitation, of course I did. It’s a scary thought to consider that someone you respect won’t like you as you really, truly are. But you know what? Comedians are really, really good at rolling with deviations from the routine. They kinda thrive on it. That twenty minute span of time ended up going for just shy of an hour, and it was fun.  And instead of a dry, boring Q&A, we had a conversation. It was weird, it was surreal, and yeah, I couldn’t keep up (and why should a non comedian be able to hold her ground against someone who has been rocking the scene since before she was born?)

And here’s the part that still baffles me: he gave me homework. Read ‘The Man In The Ring’ by Teddy Roosevelt. Which, fyi, is this:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

The interview ended with some fatherly advice, which was desperately needed: it’s time to stop idly watching and commenting on other people’s work, and to get my work out there. It’s time to stop waiting, and start dream chasing.

 

The truth is that I’m part way there- I love writing work, I love reading as my job. But, I know I can do more. So when one of the foundational figures of your life tells you to get your shit together and get the novel written (and try stand up comedy, but that’s a story for another day), really? How do you argue against that?

So, yeah. This is me, stepping up and getting shit happening. Wish me luck, and an overabundance of coffee. And if you see me IRL, pester me about the MS, will you?

Vale

When I read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ as a particularly grumpy teen, I didn’t get it. When I read it again on one of the worst days of my prac experience, I finally understood why my high school English teacher loved the story of Scout’s family.
It had been days of verbal abuse, bullying, and drama, and I was already regretting ever considering teaching as a career. The kids were wonderful. My prac teacher had a nasty little habit of terrorising her prac students until they’d quit.
We were ushering the students in for their history class when she dropped her latest bombshell: she’d changed her mind. The lesson I was about to teach was no longer about Ancient Egypt. It was going to be on the Rwandan genocide.
It was my first time teaching the class on my own, and it was my first ever prac. I was terrified. I looked at the notes I’d stayed up late compiling and organising to within an inch of their lives. I looked at the resources I’d painstakingly developed, and the plans I had to make the lesson fun, and realised they were useless. I remember, perfectly, the smug tone to her voice, and the grin that she couldn’t quite hide as she settled the class down, and told them about the lesson. I even remember the way a few of the kids looked worried, and began squirming in their seats, lowering their gaze as though they knew exactly what that tone of voice meant.
I ad-libbed the hell out of the lesson, having never researched or learned much about the genocide, and trying to find engaging ways to talk about the wholesale slaughter of humans that I didn’t know the first thing about. It was painful, and as I struggled to keep calm and get through without crying, my supervising teacher sat grinning in the back of the room. Her voice would ring out, interrupting my efforts, to criticise what I was doing, and how I was going. She joked with the class that I was clearly not cut out for teaching, and maybe McDonald’s had a job opening. My fingers actually creaked with the strain of holding on to the desk in front of me.
She did her damndest to turn a really bad day into a public humiliation, and promptly gave me a brutal dressing-down in the staffroom, complete with flailing theatrics and pantomime like booming voice. Some of the other teachers laughed.
In that moment, what I wanted to do was see if I could hit her hard enough to put a chair through her skull. What I wanted to do was ask what sort of sadistic, worthless fucks see a teenage girl being screamed at by someone in the workplace, and just kick back to watch. What I did was snatch up the nearest book, and go hide for the afternoon. I tried to read the first page of To Kill A Mockingbird about three times before I could stop crying and shaking enough to make sense of the words. And then I read like my life depended on it.
 
That book went from hated to life-changer on the reading list of my life, and Atticus Finch’s poise and dignity was all that kept me from giving up or being a victim in my dealings with that woman. If Atticus could stand up against entrenched racism in the deep South, I could stand up against entrenched stupidity and bullying in a high school for a few more weeks. And dammit, I could, and would, do it without flinching again. 
Harper Lee’s characters taught me a lot about handling my frustrations more gracefully and compassionately, and taught me a hell of a lot about the kinds of bravery in the world. If there’s a book that has changed me for the better, this would be the one.
 
Vale, Harper Lee. Thank you for seeing me through a truly terrible day. 

Smart People Talking: Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham
Image courtesy of Michael’s social media.

Sometimes, life is beautiful, and you get to interview writing heroes, and pick their brains about how they go about creating their fictional worlds. I really, really love those moments.

Michael Robotham was kind enough to let me interview him For Hush Hush Biz while he was in town on his Close Your Eyes book tour, just days before he beat Stephen King and J.K Rowling to the ultimate crime writing award: the Golden Dagger. I was very, very awed.

So without further ado, it’s Robotham time:

 

What drew you to crime writing?

I’m very much an accidental crime writer. When I wrote my first novel, I wrote 117 pages which became the subject of a bidding war at the London Book Fair, and I had no idea it was a crime novel, I had no idea how it ended. I was as surprised as anyone. I knew it was going to be one of those Hitchcock-ian, suspenseful, wrong man, wrong time, wrong place stories, but I didn’t think I was becoming a crime writer. When it came out, I got asked all the time, everywhere I went ‘why crime’, and I guess going back over a long career as a journalist, I could see there were seeds there. The fascination was sort of why things happened. Not so much the what, the when, but why. I was always more interested in the why than anything else.

 

There’s an idea that certain people write certain genres for certain reasons. So, crime writers are all about making things ordered, and horror writers are about working through their fears. Do you think it’s quite as psychological as that?

To me, maybe, I’m probably more on the horror side than the ordered side. It’s often said that one of the great appeals of crime novels are the sense of order that they have, that order is restored: the bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys triumph, and in the real world that doesn’t always happen. People gain comfort from that, and that’s one of the reasons they read crime. I fall more into that area with psychological thrillers, the fact that people like being scared. It’s the reason ghost stories have been told around campfires since we were cave painting.

All my fears, all my nightmares involve my wife and daughters being in jeopardy. Maybe I’ve put fears like that on the page in some way to ward them off. I’ve never tried to analyse it too much, for obvious reasons.

I think they’re more psychological than procedural. Police procedural ones, they very much rely on the layering of clues and putting things in order, and working things out. My books tend to be the sort that make you want to check the doors are locked.

 

Close Your Eyes is a really unsettling book, especially in terms of the menace and threat toward the female characters. Given how often in the media violence against women is being explored, did that influence your writing?

It didn’t, although you’re absolutely right.

The book is dedicated to victims of domestic violence. I felt quite uncomfortable about the fact that in so many of my books, the people in jeopardy tend to be women or teenage girls. Even though we’ve had this terrible, terrible spate, and domestic violence is an absolute scourge, in reality, the group of people most likely to be murdered in this country are young men. And yet, very few crime novels write about the victims as young men.

The only person I’ve ever heard explain that to me was Tess Gerritsen, who is an American crime writer. All her victims are women, as well as her heroes. The heroes are strong women- it’s not as though they’re all just women tripping over tree roots and screaming for help from some man. They’re strong female characters, but the victims tend to be female. And she believes it’s because the majority of readers of crime fiction are women, and that those readers relate more closely when a woman is in danger then when a man is in danger.

She said that the one time in her books where she decided to have a man as the victim, she got feedback from her readers saying ‘we didn’t like that so much. We liked it when we could put ourselves in that position of running and trying to get away. We wanted that.’

I don’t imagine the world is a dangerous place. I know exactly that there are no more child murders now than there were 40 or 50 or 60 years ago. There are no more murders per head of population than there were that long ago. The world is no more dangerous now. The only thing that’s probably more dangerous is riding a bike on the streets ‘cause there’s more cars. In reality, it’s the 24 hour news cycle that has created this fear that we imagine that there are men in vans trying to pull children off every street corner, and that everything’s more dangerous. And it’s not true, but that doesn’t stop us still having fears. All I think I do is I tap into those everyday fears.

Every parent has been in been in the situation that at some point they have lost sight of their child in a busy supermarket or on the street. They’ve turned around, and they’re just not there. And it might only be 30 seconds, but it’s the most terrifying 30 seconds of their life. Or you’ve been in a situation where someone you love or care for has promised to be home at a certain hour and they’re late, and you can’t raise them, and all the gremlins creep in. I just tap into the age old fear.

 

Other than your fears, what inspires your novels?

I’ll never use the word ‘inspire’, because most of them are seeded. I don’t like to think that another crime would inspire me to write, ‘cause no one should be inspired by crime. But they’re all seeded in real life events. Close your Eyes was seeded in a true story from 1995, the murder of a woman called Janet Brown, in a farmhouse in Buckinghamshire. It’s an unsolved murder. She was found lying at the bottom of the stairs, naked, handcuffed. Savagely beaten. It’s never been solved, although really interestingly, the new techniques in DNA mean that they’ve now got a DNA sample, and the police are more confident that they might finally solve that crime after this long.

But that interested me, that case. Because there were so many elements of it that the police couldn’t understand in terms of… nothing was taken, she wasn’t sexually abused. But the way the person broke in and what he did in the house didn’t make any sense. So they called in a psychologist to help them. And the interesting thing the psychologist pointed out was that the mother lived with her teenage daughter. The teenage daughter would normally have been home that night, and the teenage daughter’s car was parked out front next to the mother’s car, but the daughter wasn’t home. So the thing the psychologist posed to the police: did he come for the mother, or did he come for the daughter? That was the question that stuck with me. And that’s when I created the murders in Close Your Eyes. As you know, both mother and daughter die, but they both die in very different ways. One left almost tenderly or reverentially, and the other shockingly violated. But how do you work that out? Because one crime contains such anger, and the other crime contained, it’s not so much love, but there’s something there, tenderness almost. That’s what I was interested in exploring.

 

Quite a few writers have boundaries that they set around what they will or will not write about. Do you have any taboos that you avoid, or are reluctant to explore?

I’ve never harmed a child. Peter Temple and I were once interviewed about if there was a taboo area, and Peter said that, ‘we could boil a baby and eat it with truffles and that would be fine. But heaven help you if you harm a family dog.’ And I did test that theory out in a book called Bleed For Me where the family pet dies horribly. And I’ve never had so much hate mail from readers. Even my own mother, you know. I found it quite perverse, that people would come to me and say, ‘I was enjoying the book up until then.’ So they enjoyed the grooming of the schoolgirl by the teacher, they enjoyed the shocking murder she was blamed for, they enjoyed this, but the dog scene was beyond the pale. I’m an animal lover, but I still thought that was perverse.

As dark as the books are, the violence is always off camera. I’ve never, and I would never, describe a particularly violent rape or a torture scene. I would never describe it. And I know that in a book called Say You’re Sorry, which is about two teenage girls that go missing, and it turns out they’ve been abducted, I know some people thought that I had put this terrible scene in this book. I had them argue with me, and they said, ‘That was a horrendous scene that you wrote.’ And I said, ‘What scene?’ and they said ‘Well, you wrote this.’ I said, ‘No I didn’t. Go back and look at it again.’ I didn’t describe it- in their imagination, they imagined this, but all I described was people’s reactions after the event. And in their mind, they had painted the whole thing in their head. That’s what I will do. It’s like classic Hitchcock, where you never see it. Even in that famous scene in Psycho, the shower scene, you never see the knife going into the person, you just hear music and the curtain. And yet people, their imaginations describe that as one of the most frightening scenes ever put on film, and you see virtually nothing.

 

Do you think that’s the stronger way to go about writing violent scenes?

I think it is. I think there is no greater tool for the writer than the reader’s imagination. That is the greatest tool we have. We are in a sense manipulators. We manipulate your emotions. Hopefully we make you laugh, cry, scare you. Whatever. Sometimes we want you to look at our right hand while our left hand is planting a clue, so that later you go back going, ‘Why didn’t I see that?’ All writing is about manipulating your reader. That’s the great power of the book. That’s why so many famous books struggle to be filmed- because people have this picture already in their head about what the characters look like, and the imagination is the most vibrant technicolour 3D adventure playground that we have.

 

Clearly, you’ve spent a lot of time researching the crime that seeded Close Your Eyes. How do you go about researching, and making your books so realistic?

I was very fortunate to work in the UK many years ago with a guy called Paul Britton. He’s the forensic psychologist that Cracker was based upon.

Paul Britton worked on that Janet Brown case I mentioned, the unsolved case. So my knowledge, a lot of it comes from working closely with him.

I mean, I do walk the streets, to the point where it is so accurate that the lawyers come to me and say, ‘That farm house, where the mother and daughter are murdered, does it exist?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is it where you describe it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Does it look the way you describe it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Someone lives there, and you’ve just put two bodies in their house. You have to change the location.’ So I will have to go back and alter it to make sure I don’t upset someone. But I will try to be as accurate as possible.

The psychology, I try to get right. All the villains I write, there’s a reason that they become the person they become. They’re not just born from nothing. There’s a reason that they become twisted and do certain things. There’s a family background of abuse. In his case, losing his mother, and then the brutal father and all those things that feed into it.

 

That’s one of the things I really love about your books. It’s never just about a diagnosis. Shows like Criminal Minds are all about the label they can give the criminal- ‘Oh, he’s a psychopath. Oh, he’s a sociopath.’ You actually make it real, and it’s scarier because it’s not just a title, it’s a person, and it’s someone any of us could become.

It’s not a science, psychology. It’s not exact, so you can make mistakes. In the end, if someone got murdered in this room now, and a psychologist came in, he could only deal with what he could see. And at times, and the classic was with Paul Britton, when he was working, and he worked on the cases like Fred and Rosemary West, and Jamie Bollinger, and a lot of celebrated cases. If he looked and couldn’t see a psychological print, almost, of the person that did it, he’d just say ‘I can’t help you. There’s not enough information here for me.’

It’s only when he could walk into a crime scene and could see things that tell him something about the person that did it. The way they’ve done something. The way they’ve broken in, the way they’ve tied the knot. Whether they’ve got an organised mind or a disorganised mind. How well they plan for their escape. All of this says something about their level of intelligence, what their level of education would be, what sort of relationships they would have. How quickly they disappeared, so how well they knew the area…

But if you come upon a scene where there’s no clues, the psychologist simply says to the police, ‘I can’t help you. I’d just be guessing.’ That’s why I don’t really watch those shows like Criminal Minds. ‘Cause oftentimes, yeah. And it’s also, the Americans do it differently. They use empirical data. They profile differently to the UK.

The reason Paul Britton has this knowledge is he spent 30 years working with the criminally insane in Broadmoor in secure psychiatric hospitals. He knows their deepest, darkest fantasies. He’s coming from the basis that he knows the way they think. In America, they come from the basis of having 100 years of every detail of every rape and every murder put into a computer, and you can pump the new details of each new crime and almost spit out a profile based on computer modelling as opposed to what Paul Britton does.

 

It sounds like the UK version would be somewhat more accurate.

It depends on the skill of the profiler, and it’s interesting, as it’s shown in this book, where I’ve introduced the character of The Mindhunter, Milo Coleman. A man that thinks he’s a profiler, who thinks he can do what Joe does. That’s the difference between the good profiler and the bad one. I make a point about that. There’s a line very early on where Joe says he can’t understand how some of these psychologists and profilers get excited about it. Joe hates doing this. How can you get excited about a murder? Someone’s dead. He calls them glory hounds.

 

How important is setting in your work?

Not as important as it is for a lot of writers. I think I could have written that same story in another part of England. I could have chosen to set it somewhere else other than Cleveland in North Somerset. So in that sense, the setting, it didn’t dictate where the story was. The story wasn’t dictated by the setting in any way.

I think it’s important to get it right, though, because there are a lot of people reading my books live in that area.

 

It’s common for protagonists in crime and thrillers to have some fatal flaw- it used to be alcoholism for private eyes. You’ve given Joe Parkinson’s, and it’s fantastic to see a character having to learn to live around his illness and not being shown as just a victim. But how hard is it for you to write his character?

I never intended Joe to be in any more than one book. When I gave him early onset Parkinson’s, I did it for two reasons. One was because I wanted this guy with a brilliant mind and a crumbling body. He wasn’t going to be Jack Reacher, or Jason Bourne, Or James Bond. He was going to have to out-think his way. But secondly, because I never thought I would use him again. I never thought he would be in another book. And I didn’t bring him back, really, until Shatter. Oh, he had a little role in Lost. But if I could go back, I would change it. Because he’s got a use-by date. It’s 11 years now since that first book. And he’s 11 years older. That’s 11 years with Parkinson’s. There’s a limit to how long he can go on. And as much as readers love the character, I do say to them, ‘There will come a time, and it’s not far away, where there won’t be any more Joe books.’ But it does mean that I have to do a lot of research into Parkinson’s.

I’m going to reach a time soon where he mentally cannot do what he’s doing. Eventually his mind will start to go. Because it happens with Parkinson’s, the body first, and then the mind. So I can’t keep him going forever.

Self-Care For Writers: Some Tips!

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned my Chuck Wendig love at least once here (probably far more than that). But in case you’re the sort of weird soul who doesn’t follow his blog and throw themselves over there at the hint of new content… there’s new content, of the really good variety.

Self-care is the conversation we always need,  but try to avoid. But if you’re looking to avoid creative burn out for a while longer, Chuck’s got some advice over here: Self-Care For Writers: Some Tips!

Smart People Talking: Isobelle Carmody

Isobelle Carmody2
Isobelle Carmody during her Supanova 2015 signings

Isobelle Carmody is the author behind the Obernewtyn Chronicles, The Legendsong, The Gateway Trilogy, The Legend of Little Fur, and a heap of stand alone novels. Recently, the final piece of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, the Red Queen, was released, closing a near 30 year journey for readers.

Isobelle was a guest at the 2015 Brisbane Supanova convention, and these are some of her words of wisdom from that weekend. During her time on the Impossible Quests panel, alongside Juliet Marillier and Lynette Noni, she was discussing the idea of the quest, the art of writing, and the problems with killing off characters.

Impossible Quests Panel

Practically everyone is a misfit at some point. Everyone has some need to strive towards something. There must be something more.

Quests are important because it’s about the journey from novice to master, or from ignorance to knowledge. The character will grow and change as they travel the story, and it’s important not to set up a perfectly perfect hero or heroine. We all start out imperfect. We can all relate strongly to the misfit character working towards a goal greater than themselves.

It’s hard to relate to perfect characters, because none of us are perfect, and none of us go through life without struggling to achieve our goals and dreams.

Everything that’s written is a quest. Any great book has a quest at its heart. Every great quest has truth at its heart.

Finding Nemo is a quest to reunite with a son. Hamlet is a quest for vengeance and justice. Detectives quest for truth and the restoration of order, most killers are on a specific quest for a specific reason. Romance is the quest for love… every character is on some kind of personal quest. It may not be throwing rings into volcanoes, but they’re still working towards something.

Every novel is a new journey of discovery.

This is true for the reader as well as the writer. In every story, the writer is learning more about themselves, their writing, and the worlds and characters they’ve created. But in stories, readers get to see themselves as a hero, get to explore new worlds and grapple with new ideas about who and what they really are.

I didn’t feel like I do it (writing) right.

Even highly successful, beloved authors have that self doubt. We all seem to believe that there’s some ‘one true way’ to write a story, and if we don’t live up to it, it can make writers feel like they’re not writing right. But the truth is that there actually isn’t only one valid way to write: every writer needs to figure out what works for them and go with that, rather than trying to force themselves to work within a system that destroys their creativity or inspiration.

You don’t have to know where you’re going as long as you know where you’re starting from.

If lots of plotting doesn’t work for you, don’t force yourself to do it. Isobelle’s description of her writing process works well with the night driving analogy: you can’t see much, only what’s lit up with the headlights, so you don’t necessarily know all the details right away.

A quest is towards some kind of perfection. There is no real perfection, so all quests are impossible. It’s striving for the unattainable.

Destroying a ring wont create eternal peace, because there will still be bad people/beings around, cheerfully still being bad. You can’t kill all evil, because there’s evil inherent in everyone. Your perfect partner will never actually be perfect. The ideal their fighting for is always going to be bigger than they can ever truly achieve, but there’s something beautiful, tragic, and heroic in the idea of watching someone bring about massive changes in the name of an impossible goal.

The true quest is something you figure out along the way, parallel to the quest you thought you were going on. Acceptance of imperfection: that’s the quest.

Life doesn’t ever run smoothly. There you are, sailing home from the Trojan War, and then all this stuff happens and you get home to find your house overrun with suitors for your wife’s hand.

It’s the way it goes. There’s an expression ‘the gods laugh when men make plans’, and that’s true for quests, too. Situations evolve, for good or bad, and sometimes you’ll get to the end of the quest and realise you shouldn’t take the magical doohickey from its hiding place because really, it wont end well. The Winter Soldier is a perfect example [SPOILER ALERT]: Steve (Captain America) thinks his quest is to subdue the Winter Soldier, until it turns out that the villain is his childhood friend, Bucky, who has been brainwashed into servitude. [END OF SPOILERS] The quest shifts as the truth of the situation becomes known.

Quests can be external or internal. Learning to live with the differences within you is a worthy quest.

It’s not all destroying rings and terrorising one armed Russian assassins. Sometimes quests are about overcoming internal limitations and beliefs. Look at Dorothy: all that hard work and it turns out that the power was within her all along. Quests don’t have to have a high death count to be valuable, or worthy. Sometimes someone getting up and facing the day is a more epic, heartbreaking quest.

There’s a truth in stories that sometimes requires characters to die. There’s a truth in films and stories, and you know when they get it wrong.

Though ‘kill your darlings’ is a well-known bit of wisdom, a lot of writers still hesitate to actually kill their characters. Or, and I’m looking at Buffy and Supernatural here, they just bring them back to life, over and over, backing away from that decision. If there’s a valid reason for the character to die (shock value and fridging don’t count as valid reasons), then kill characters when the story calls for it.

There are some times where the “I’m dead/not really” trope is useful, but it feels disingenuous when it comes across as the writer toying with reader/viewer emotions, or backing away from a narrative decision.

Character death should feel like a surprise, but inevitable at the same time.

Deaths that make no sense, or that happen out of nowhere for no discernible reason, are annoying. Does a fictional death matter if the reader doesn’t know or care about the character? Do readers feel anything when unnamed red shirt 18 croaks?

Sometimes heroes fail. Sometimes, even though we desperately want them to succeed, they have to sacrifice themselves to make it happen.

And sometimes? Sometimes they stumble, or go left when they need to go right. Sometimes the villain has the upper hand and is smart enough not to monologue about it. Sometimes they’re outmatched, even though it breaks our hearts.

 

When People Smarter Than I am Say Stuff: An Introduction

I’m a bit late in posting about it, of course, but for those who missed it, I was wandering the hallowed cosplay halls of Brisbane’s Supanova recently to write a review. And lament the lack of Deadpool and Winter Soldier merch. And see Nick Frost. And fight the urge to make gleeful pterodactyl noises at a stunningly accurate Winter Soldier cosplayer.

You get the idea.

Cons like Supanova are great for listening to actors talking about their work (Summer Glau is so sweet, seriously, and Mark Sheppard is basically the worlds grumpiest life coach), and it’s fun to buy stuff too, but it’s also a fantastic place to get to sit and chat with real, live writers about writery stuff. And to listen to them as they sit on stages talking about writery stuff.

When you get writers together, or even if you give them a microphone and let them verbally wander for a while, more often than not you get amazing snippets of wisdom that clog your twitter feed (sorry about that) or fill notebooks.

I have a really bad habit of taking huge amounts of notes in talks, even when I’m not reviewing. Strikes me as a little silly to just leave so much wisdom sitting in my notebook when these writers are brilliant and seriously know their stuff. So, instead of simply throwing all the presentations and speakers together into an intellectual-jambalaya style post, I’m going to do a series of posts. It’s not going to be focused just on Supanova, but will (hopefully, depending on time constraints) be an ever-growing collection of writerly wisdom straight from the mouths of some of the most wonderful, creative humans I’ve been lucky enough to see or meet.

And maybe, if you ask really nicely, I’ll even share the writing tips I’ve been collecting from writers from Australia and around the world. Yes, I have little black books of hand written, autographed writer wisdom.

So how is this going to work? Good question, imaginary questioner. My note taking style is to scrawl down quotes, and then when I’m typing them out later, I’ll add in the context so the random piece of wordage actually makes sense. Also? It’s really hard to get whole, long quotes written down when you’re not allowed to record. So you’ll be seeing quotes with a chaser of context and paraphrased ideas.

A quick caveat, though: I’m avoiding talking about workshops as much as possible, though the odd hint or tip may find their way into the mix. Panel conversations and Q and A sessions, sure, but workshops are a repeatable and labour intensive way for writers to make money to support their craft. Because I love seeing writers getting the chance to write, I’m not including workshop conversations in these posts.

Enjoy!