John Wiswell’s work has been published in Weird Tales, Flash Fiction Online and SF Signal. His short story “Wet” was featured in the first issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine. I recently had the opportunity to pick his brain about craft, the nature of urban fantasy, and participating in top tier workshops.
LM: Worldbuilding is a balancing act between too much and too little detail. In “Wet,” the narrator’s immortality is never explained. Why not?
JW: When we tell our own stories, we typically ignore things that are common to us. The narrator has always been immortal and doesn’t care to explain it any more than I care to explain having brown hair. That they take this undying existence for granted is a theme of the story, and the reason for why they behave with such offhanded altruism. I’m very fond of stories that teach us about characters through what they don’t think is worth explaining; Nabokov’s Pale Fire is probably the ultimate example. In “Wet,” we need to know some of the rules of ghosts, and eventually what this ghost’s trauma is – we need to know it, so it’s what our narrator cares about, pursues and explains.
LM: That’s an excellent point. On that note, your narrator describes a sound by comparing it to GWAR, and he mentions one of their songs by title. Using specific pop culture references can be a risky move: some readers won’t get them. As a writer, what made this one worth it?
JW: GWAR was the first form of sound I could think of that was appropriately ridiculous and otherworldly. Then I couldn’t top it. That’s a terrible reason to exclude part of an audience, but there was a specific quirk to comparing the noise coming out of a little girl to the bombast of GWAR that makes the opening for the people who get it (and I left the stealth note about Satirical Metal for those who don’t). I’m obviously into [pop culture references], conjuring One Direction, snuff film, Twizzlers, pool noodles. I should ask – what did you think of the GWAR appearance?
The bards of the panicking dead
LM: As a long time veteran of the gamer scene (I speak Thac0), I’m no stranger to GWAR, so using them in the story worked for me. The specific song mentioned at the end was one of my favorite touches: a last dollop of sentimental irreverence that so perfectly characterized your narrator.
Many urban fantasies are set in what is ostensibly the current “real world.” Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” series comes to mind, with its frequent nods to specific anime & manga franchises. Do you think pop culture references are almost a necessary evil, especially given the genre’s target audience?
JW: I wouldn’t even call them an evil! I’m attracted to cultural references in fiction, Pop and otherwise, because they’re a natural part of expression in real life. We quote and reference and relive in every conversation, from arguments in the Supreme Courts over textual intent to a Jurassic Park joke during an uneventful car ride. Cultural fluency is one of the big things Urban Fantasy has over invented worlds, because you have to do so much groundwork establish Elvish before you can present the Epic Fantasy equivalent of an Elvis impersonator. In Urban Fantasy, your life experience has done half the world-building work already. The other half is in my hands, to remix those things you might already know about. It can be used to render the familiar in novel ways, or to render the unfamiliar relatable. They’re beautiful access points.
LM: How would you describe your writing process?
JW: You know how Eudora Welty claimed to have written “Where Is The Voice Coming From?” in a white heat? I love writing in a white heat. I’ll jot down a plot skeleton, often just the few key beats I need to get excited, what scenes must happen, and what absolutely must happen in them, but these are all appetizers for myself, to get myself excited about gushing words. “Wet” is so short that I only had a few notes – the ghost had to appear, had to disappear over water, and had to have a second incident of some kind regarding water later (which became the burning building rescue when I got to it). And I knew the ending. I subscribe to the Pixar dogma of knowing an ending so you can build up your payoffs.
Often I’ll keep evanescent things in my head, because either I’ll be so excited that the story starts on a train platform that I’ll remember it, or it can go. I’m a very excitable composer, usually playing music to block out ambient sound. I only wrote “Wet” to silence because it was the middle of the night and nothing else was awake to make noise.
Just saying, John...
LM: Do you use alpha/beta readers?
JW: Absolutely! It’s too easy to get too familiar with my own intentions, to experience the structure I expected. I’m blessed with both some very eager readers, and some very critical writers, who can look at my work from any angle I’m wondering about. “Wet” was actually only gone over by Michelle Ann Fleming (@Makani on Twitter), who talked me into seeing that it was close to done. Typically I’ll have more eyes on a project. Do you use alphas and betas?
LM: Always. My wife first. After her, some come from collegiate workshops, others from online communities (like LitReactor). And, of course, there are the other members of my Clarion West cohort. As a graduate of Viable Paradise, you’ve had some experience with by-audition workshops, too. Can you tell us a little about that?
JW: VP is an intense week-long writing workshop. It’s organized by James MacDonald and Debra Doyle. Everyone lives in the same hotel, eats together, and often winds up writing and sobbing together. You give a writing sample, and like most applicants I went with a novel excerpt, which gets critiqued in a roundtable with two pros and three of your peers. Being a peer, you’re also critiquing people’s work a good deal. Most days are packed with lectures; in addition to MacDonald and Doyle, we had master editors from Tor, Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, as well as Steve Brust, Steven Gould, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch, all of whom put on some lengthy demonstration.
LM: What was the workload like?
JW: You are always going to something while working on something else, which is a bootcamp aspect a lot of emerging writers need. The beautiful thing, at least for my class, lies in how students wound up supporting each other. The staff – Mac, Chris, and Bart in particular for me- are very supportive, and will outright feed you if you’re losing your mind. But throughout, you’d catch a lot of students sharing ideas, helping let off the stress. It’s the best writing group I’ve ever had, and luckily it’s rolled over into sharing critique over e-mail. Our group still calls each other for crits.
It’s an intense week. With my health, I was only able to do half of what I wanted, and always hit bed far before most of my peers. It’s not easy if you have hard medical conditions, though they are very attentive and flexible. Coming away, I knew I was physically incapable of a Clarion-length workshop of any such intensity. But VP is also attractive for people who can’t take the month off for other big workshops. I couldn’t recommend it enough, for the luminaries you can learn from, and the wonderful people you’ll be working with for years after.
LM: Any parting advice for aspiring urban fantasy writers?
JM: My advice is the same for any aspiring authors: write as much as you can, finish everything you can, and be unafraid to write an idea terribly, because you can always write another take on it afterward. The worst thing I did in my career was writing so little for two years until I had the “great” idea. That novel stunk because my writing stagnated in the interim. You get ready by consistent practice, and by finding people at your level or above it to help and work with. Then, a time of writing and critiques later, the ideas you wouldn’t have thought were great start making readers laugh or cry or sleep with a nightlight on. It’s worth all the work.