Down the Rabbit Hole with Julian Mortimer Smith

Julian Mortimer Smith is a writer, resident of Nova Scotia, and a board game enthusiast. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, AE, and Crossed Genres. Julian’s story, “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium,” appeared in the December 2014 issue of UFM, and I’ve since had the opportunity to chat with with him about plotting, character arcs, writing workshops, and a few other choice digressions:

LM: For those unfamiliar with the terms, “architects” are writers who completely plan out their stories before they begin to write them. “Pantsers,” on the other hand, fly by the seat of their pants, making their stories up as they go along. Where do you fall on the architect/pantser spectrum?

JMS: I do a bit of both. I usually start out pantsing, building out from a specific image or character or idea, but eventually hit a point where the story becomes unwieldy, and I have to take a step back and play the architect for the bit. Occasionally, I’ve had one of those great runs where I just sit down and bang out a complete story, carried along by a wave of inspiration — the way I used to imagine writing happened — but I find it’s only really feasible with very short stories. For longer pieces I always end up needing that scaffolding to keep things from falling apart.

LM: I’m pretty much the same, pantsing my way through the first draft and then using it as a foundation to build on. What to keep and what to kill is always a trick part. “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” leaves a number of things to the reader’s imagination, such as the growler behind the curtain, the nature of the fox-like man, and the means by which the narrator extracts the final price. As a writer, how do you decide what to explain and what to obscure?

JMS: One of the things I love about speculative fiction is feeling as though I’m entering a world that’s ripe for play and exploration. Sometimes, the second half of a novel or movie is a process of slow disappointment as all the fantastical elements are explained and all the mysteries resolved. Tying everything up in a nice tidy package can be clever and satisfying, but also makes the world of the story feel smaller, less rich with possibility. My favourite stories are rough-edged — the ones that leave you with more questions than answers. I find that small details, mentioned in passing, are often more compelling than even the strongest plot.

I guess I try to explain enough to give readers a kind of guided tour while leaving as many open doors and windows as possible, so they can get a glimpse of a much larger world beyond.

LM: Your story certainly provided us with a tantalizing glimpse of a world that felt ripe with mystery and narrative potential. Will you ever revisit the world of Mr. Handlesropes and The Aficionados?

JMS: I’m working on a novel set in the same world as the Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium that will climb through some of those doors and window. I have also previously published two stories set in a place called Fumblers Alley [Barb-the-Bomb and Yesterday Boy and The Mugger’s Hymn]. Are all three set in the same world? I’m not sure yet.

LM: In “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium,” we’re presented with a desperate narrator who, until the final scene, appears to be a violent, drug-seeking gambler. As a writer, how do you get a reader to invest in a character like Mr. Magpie?

JMS: The protagonist isn’t very fleshed out in this story. In fact, I never even specify a gender; although, I’ve found many readers assume one way or the other. But right from the start, the character wants something, and that’s an easy (lazy?) way to ensure a certain amount of investment, whatever the motivations for wanting that thing.

LM: Many writers would be loathe to discuss their protagonists in such honest terms, so kudos for that. In collegiate writing workshops, writers are often encouraged to write stories where the protagonist changes in some way. They’re also told: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” When I reread the story to prep for this interview, I remember noting that the narrator was flat (our perception of her/him changes at the end, but s/he doesn’t). It’s one of the things that I really liked about this piece: the protagonist didn’t need an arc. I was totally invested the quest for the phial, drawn in by the intensity of the narrator’s need.

Have you done any writing workshops?

JMS: Yes, I’ve taken some writing workshops. During my undergrad at McGill University I took a creative writing seminar taught by Claire Rothman. Then in the summer of 2012 (about 10 years later) I took a class on writing dark fantasy through the School of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto, taught by Eve Silver. They were very different from each other in tone and structure, but both super useful. Writing classes force you to write and let you talk to writers about writing. Great instruction is the icing on the cake.

LM: What was the best and worst advice you’ve received in a workshop?

JMS: “Write what you know” is probably the worst piece of writing advice in circulation, at least if taken at face value. (Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually received this advice — does anyone give it without giving careful disclaimers alongside? Maybe it’s an urban legend.) Having said that, I think there’s a kernel of good advice there. “Find out as much as possible about your subject, and don’t try to just make it all up” is good advice. The most inventive fantasy worlds often lean heavily on research (like Tolkien).

But for me, the most useful advice has often been tips about staying motivated and working hard rather than craft stuff. The idea that writing just flows out of you on a wave of inspiration is extremely attractive but extremely damaging to productivity. The most useful advice I received didn’t come from a writing class, but from an argument with a musician friend, who claimed that musical talent doesn’t exist, and that the best musicians are just the ones who work hardest at it. At the time I argued with her: “What about this prodigy?! What about that person with perfect pitch?!” Implicit in my reaction was the hope that I might have that kind of natural talent. I didn’t want to give up that possibility, and a part of me still doesn’t. But abandoning that notion has been the most useful thing for my writing.

This attitude also gives you a certain amount of distance from your work. I no longer think of my stories as an expression of my inborn talent. I think about them as things I’ve made. Like meals. If they turn out well, I’m proud of them, and enjoy sharing them with people. If they turn out badly — well, maybe I used a bad recipe, or put in too much salt, or whatever. It’s not a reflection on me. And I think that’s the best way to view advice from craft workshops — as reliable recipes to be followed or tinkered with. If you follow them too slavishly you’ll never really get a good feel for your ingredients. You can ignore them altogether, but don’t be surprised if your dinner turns out gross.

LM: You worked as a collegiate teaching assistant. Was your work related to writing, and if so, how did that experience influence your craft?

JMS: I worked for two years as a TA for a class called “Film & Society,” so it wasn’t a writing class, but it did deal a lot with narrative and form. I spent a lot of time trying to teach students to write (essays) with clarity and precision and avoid the kind of rough edges and open questions that I enjoy in fiction. I think good academic writing makes everything as explicit as possible.

LM: I think you bring up a good point about the stylistic differences between academic and creative writing. Aside from a sense of mystery, what else would you say that good storytelling needs?

JMS: I don’t know that a good story “needs” anything in particular (I’ve read a lot of great stories that violate many of the traditional rules of storytelling), but there are some ingredients that a lot of good stories share: specificity of setting, compelling characters, tension (and resolution of that tension).

What would you say good storytelling needs?

LM: For me, good storytelling requires an awareness that the reader needs a reason to keep turning the pages. Craft elements such as solid prose, creative premises, and deep characterization aren’t enough if I’m not invested. During my first week at Clarion West, instructor Elizabeth Hand talked about the way a compelling painting commands the viewer to look. As a reader/editor for several publications, I reject a fair number of well-written stories because they failed to draw me in. They didn’t command me to look.

JMS: That’s interesting. Do you think it’s more true for short stories than novels?

LM: With short stories, readers are typically looking for something they can finish in a single sitting. Novels have more breathing room; the reader expects to have an extended engagement with the narrative, so if a novel starts off slow, the reader knows that the author still has hundreds of pages to work with. If you’re two pages into a short story, and it hasn’t captured your interest yet, the next story in the publication (or a different book, or the TV, or the clickbait about the top 5 celebrity amputations) starts to compete for your attention. With novels, the reader expects to take breaks, but with short stories, if a reader stops reading voluntarily, there’s a good chance s/he won’t go back.

JMS: What about authors who are “difficult” or “hard to get into” but that you end up loving? One of my favourite fantasy authors is Mervyn Peake. The first book of his Gormenghast series, Titus Groan, famously starts with a long, dense description of the architecture of a castle. It goes on for pages and pages before introducing any of the main characters. It’s a bit of a slog. And yet that series is among my all-time favourite books. Would the book have been better if it had started out as a real page turner? I’m honestly not sure. Maybe it would have been.

LM: Some publications instruct their slush readers to reject a story as soon as it loses their interest. I think that the bottom line is this: don’t bore the reader–but that doesn’t mean that stories need to open with gunfire, mushroom clouds, or whirlwind sex. How a story keeps the reader’s interest doesn’t matter, just so long as it does. Take Nabokov’s Lolita for example: the narrator’s sheer audacity commands the reader’s attention as s/he wonders what Humbert will say or do next.

Since being published by UFM, another of your stories found a home at Crossed Genres. You’re on a roll! Any parting advice for aspiring urban fantasy writers?

JMS: Be patient. Magazines can take months to get back to you, and you might have to shop your story around to a dozen different markets before you hit the right editor, so selling your first story can take literally years. This can be dispiriting, but time and quantity make it easier to deal with.

Any given story sent to any given market has a very small chance of getting published, but if you submit 10 stories to 10 different markets you’ve increased your chances by an order of magnitude. And if those 10 stories get rejected, you can rotate them one market counterclockwise and send them out again.

It’s a bit like gambling, but playing the game is free, so there’s nothing to lose and your expected return is always positive. If you can think about it like this, then simply having stories out there in slush piles will start to feel like real progress.

To read Julian’s other stories set in Fumbler Alley, check out “Cabaret Obscuro,” “Barb-the-Bomb and Yesterday Boy,” and “The Mugger’s Hymn,” or visit his website julianmortimersmith.com.

LiamsquareLiam Meilleur is a submissions editor for Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He attended Clarion West in 2013, has an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he teaches for the English department and serves as an editor for Binghamton Writes and the Harpur Palate literary journal.  You can read about his adventures as a genre writer in the literary world at a Rainy Day in Eden or follow him on Twitter at @illivander.

Down the Rabbit Hole with John Wiswell

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?

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.

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.

To read more of John’s work, check out his blog: The Bathroom Monologues or follow him on twitter at: @Wiswell.

LiamsquareLiam Meilleur is a submissions editor for Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He attended Clarion West in 2013, has an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he teaches for the English department and serves as an editor for Binghamton Writes and the Harpur Palate literary journal.  You can read about his adventures as a genre writer in the literary world at a Rainy Day in Eden or follow him on Twitter at @illivander.