Friday, April 8, 2011

The Snow Was Not Supposed To Be Literal

I am writing this from the school library at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. Just came from talking to Professor Bean’s Science Fiction Lit. class, which was very fun for me and, to my knowledge, did not bore any of the students quite to death. We talked about what is Sci-Fi, why is Sci-Fi, is it or is it not dead, why Twilight is one of the creepiest stories ever written if interpreted in Sci-Fi tradition rather than romance (it’s also atheistic if viewed that way), that kind of thing. Thanks to Professor Bean for the invitation and to the students, most of whom at least feigned interest and several of whom actually participated a lot. I hope I left them with plenty of questions and very few answers, in which case I will have done the genre well.

Now I have a little down time before talking to a fiction writing class. In this down time I will work, which makes it feel like something other than down time.

As for the title of this post, it was slushing most of the way from Salt Lake to Ephraim this morning. Slushing, for those who don’t know, is when the sky is trying to rain and snow at the same time but managing neither very well, only an unholy mix of the two. I am glad to be inside and warm and surrounded by books. The cookies and chips in the cafe right across from me are not nearly so welcome.

Proposed: That the healthiness of food from this day forward be in direct and equal proportion to its tastiness. Seconded, anyone?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Late LTUE Report

For those of you who don't know, LTUE is a yearly speculative fiction conference at BYU. For my money, it's the best of the year. Here's the blog posting I wrote about it two weeks ago. If you write or read fantasy, sci-fi, or horror and you're in the Salt Lake/Provo area, you really need to block off time for this every February. Really. Here's the post:

This year’s LTUE proved to be it’s regular awesome self, despite some changes of venue and such. I’m writing this after having a day or so to recover. These things take it out of me. It’s the sitting, I’ve decided. Sitting there and listening to other people talk is exhausting, even when the talk is interesting. Me talking is easy. If I could be on every panel, chattering my way through the days, they’d be a breeze. I suspect people might discover how insufferable I really am, though, so maybe a little listening fatigue is warranted.

Anyway, here’s the rundown of my experience at LTUE 2011.

My first panel Thursday was on poetic (I would have said creative) license vs. authorial obligation. The panel was moderated by Robin Weeks, whom I had not met previously and, turns out, is both very nice and talented at wrangling talkative writers. The others on the panel were Julie Wright (a common sister on my panels of LTUEs of yesteryore) and Eric Swedin, a longtime friend I’ve wanted to pontificate with in public for a long time. It was a successful panel, I’m pretty sure, and very enjoyable as Robin did a fine job and Julie, Eric, and I are all good friends who shared the time well.

I don’t recall much of what was said specifically on this panel, but I figure I may as well give some advice on the issues I address at the conference, so here is something I did say about this issue: both the writer and the reader possess power in their relationship, and it is important to understand which powers each possess. The writer has the power to set the rules of the story experience—however, the reader has the power to hold the writer accountable for obeying the rules she has previously set. Thus, if you want a world where men get pregnant, that’s your right as an author. But it is then the reader’s right to judge whether that rule is established in a reasonable way, and to hold you to that rule throughout the story, even if you really want to break it. Writers initiate the rules of a story, but readers enforce them.

Next came a panel on writing strong female characters. I confess that I like it when I’m the only guy on these X chromosome-dominated panels. I like attractive surroundings, and guys are funky looking. Anyway, for this fifty minutes I had the privilege of rubbing elbows with Jessica Day George, Sheila Neilson, Aleta Clegg (who served admirably as moderator), and Bree Despain. They were most hospitable about my whole being a dude thing, and were so polite they didn’t even point out my complete physiologic lack of qualifications to serve on this panel. Perhaps that means some of the stuff I said wasn’t utter idiocy after all. I did try to tame my rampant masculinity for the occasion.

Here’s a thought on writing gender which, by chance, has nothing to do with writing gender: Every great character, male and female, is an individual. Do not write gender by thinking of men and women as types. Gender is an influence on a character, not a determiner. Remember what F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “Begin with an individual, and you will find you have created a type. Begin with a type, and you will find you have created—nothing.”

Finally—and I do mean finally, as I served on the Thursday 8:00 panel, the last panel of the night for only the heartiest of guests—came the panel of streamlining fiction. My fellows on this nocturnal sojourn were Berin Stephens, my companion from the Dragon Codices Rebecca Shelley, and Michaelbrent Collings (who served as moderator). Yes, his name is Michaelbrent, and it turns out he is the son of my friend, Michael. This was one of the most fun panels ever, largely because Michaelbrent and I have similar approaches toward writing and teaching. We bounced around ideas and had a whale of a time for being out passed our bedtimes (in the figurative conference context).

The idea I will leave you with on streamlining is kind of a summary of half of the panel: Cutting may be the most powerful tool in streamlining your fiction, but it is not the only one, and sometimes not the best for a specific situation. Streamlined doesn’t just mean shorter, it also means stronger, smoother, and higher functioning. You can streamline your fiction by cutting what isn’t powerful—the imprecise, the repetitive, the irrelevant—or by making what’s there potent—use strong nouns and verbs, active voice, and layered meaning of both the literal and figurative, for example.

Friday saw my final panel of the conference, which was on how not to talk down to your YA audience. I was moderator, which is kind of fun but also requires restraint as you’ve got to let everyone else talk. That wasn’t too hard because of the others on the panel with me: James Dashner, good friend, guest of honor, and wicked impersonator of a Jane Austen character; Stacy Whitman, my initial editor of GDC; Frank Cole, who I’ve known since before he published; and Michaelbrent again, which was awesome, as he is a new entry on my world’s coolest people list. It was a fantastic panel to be on, and, I hope, proved helpful for those in attendance.

This panel deserves two particulars shared. First, some advice on the subject: To succeed with a YA audience, understand that teenagers see the world differently from adults for a number of reasons, and so the things they do—even the foolish ones—make sense to them in the moment. They don’t have years of experience, so of course breaking up is the end of the world: they’ve never done it before. Of course they care what other people think about them: they aren’t sure who they are themselves. Of course they take stupid risks: their brains are perfectly able to assess risk at a near adult level, but they aren’t built to personalize the risk. The teenage brain is constructed to think “that can’t happen to me” to encourage exploration and adventure beyond the protection of parents. So when writing about teenagers, remember that the way they approach life is different, but not inferior. It makes sense when seen through their eyes.

And then I have to relate the single greatest moment of the conference, and perhaps in the history of LTUE: one of the panelists on this panel admitted, right there in public and everything, that the first pet name for said person’s significant other was Poo Nugget. I won’t say who it was, but you can be sure it wasn’t Stacy calling her first beau Poo Nugget. To see the faces of women in the audience when that came out was just priceless. Imagine humor packed to bursting onto one bullet train, and horror packed likewise on another, and then setting both trains screaming right into each other on a single track. The explosion created by this is the closest analogy I can muster to what I saw on women’s faces as they assimilated the thought of being addressed by the romantic nom de guerre of Poo Nugget.

And just for the record, I must admit that James did a fine job on his keynote address—perhaps excepting one distraction when a baby made sounds and he thought it was someone in the crowd making cooing noises, which really creeped him out. Well done James, and please forgive me for dredging up all the nasty feelings associated with your beloved Falcons.

Saw lots of old friends, met some new ones, and had a right good time, first to last. A number of people who know what they’re talking about swear LTUE is the best speculative fiction conference in the world. I’m not an expert at the best conferences across the globe, but I will say it is my favorite conference of the year, every year. It’s the first I attended and is still the best. For any writer or fan of literature, even outside the speculative genres, you should decide to attend next year. Don’t consider it. Don’t investigate the possibility. Don’t hope it will somehow happen. Go.

And I’ll see you there.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Introduction: Clint Johnson

This blog has been up for a while, so I suppose someone should get something up and onto it. I can't possibly write something worse than nothing, can I? I hope not, as my subject today shall be myself.

Every blog needs an identity, an ethos and expression of central purpose. Maybe this blog will end up being a diagnostic dialectic: I will write stuff that makes no sense, and others will come and restore your faith in logic and reason by making up for what I've done. So let me start off with a little about myself so you know who to blame; then---hopefully---others from the blog will introduce themselves so you can attribute all the good sense you find her properly. It sure ain't going to come from me.

So let the game begin! Come out, come out, where ever you are, other bloggers, near and far!

About Clint Johnson...

I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. You see, I’m not quite certain who I am (and this understanding keeps changing), and so I anticipate great difficulty in telling you. Besides, whoever reads that born/raised/school/work/live/gym/intended burial plot stuff? Well, if you’re here, maybe you. Okay, I’ll do my best. But be warned that I am not an interesting subject (not even to myself). In compensation for this, I have used a little creative license. Not lied; oh, certainly not. Everything you read here is perfectly true—it merely isn’t always factual. And, in certain circumstances, its truth may reside in persons, places, and concepts other than myself. But everything is true in some way, shape, form, instance, and time, and for the present this is my truth.

I write novels. It’s hard to be definitive beyond that because there aren’t many more consistent characteristics of my writing. I write for adults, teens, and children in any genre that strikes my fancy, though I mostly write fantasy and historical fiction. (I suspect my consistent devotion to fantasy in particular stems from the liberating inconsistencies it allows me as a storyteller.) In the past I’ve written and published everything from academic essays and journalistic articles to short stories and commentaries on writing and literature. I’ve also worked as an academic editor as well as a professional technical writer and freelance editor of fiction. Now I’m completely devoted to my novels, where I write about Olympic penkrationists suffering marital trouble, and obsessive-compulsive robber barons committed to mental asylums at the turn of the twentieth century, and redneck fairies, and demonic angels patronizing towns in puritan America, and cows falling on dragons, stuff like that.

Born and raised in Utah, I still live in the Salt Lake area. In addition to my writing, I work at Salt Lake Community College tutoring writing, predominantly in one-on-one sessions with students. As I work at an open-enrollment college, I’ve met with every make and manner of student imaginable, including many non-native English speakers at different levels of language acquisition and students with disabilities, significant health problems like cancer, and other tremendous challenges. The range of different writers I’ve worked and interacted with in my roughly 4,200 sessions has been invaluable to my own progress as a writer and teacher of writing.

Other things that may be of interest: I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the LDS or Mormon Church. If this is irrelevant to you, well and good; if this is relevant to you, I hope it is in a positive way. It is positively relevant to me, which is all that matters. I also belong to the following organizations: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The League of Utah Writers (I’m a member of their Oquirrh chapter), and the Utah Children's Writers and Illustrators.

Things I am: First and foremost, an aficionado of great story; an avid reader; a sports fan, especially of basketball; a former basketball coach, both of boys and girls; possessed of an unhealthy curiosity; engaged; fixated upon semantics; a registered independent—which in Utah makes you an imaginary person; a bit over six foot; a bit over two-hundred pounds; prone to searching out the merit of silliness; favorably disposed toward most women, who tend to be admirable and attractive; blond and currently not bearded; a fan of Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Neil Gaiman; born on Halloween in 1980; and a respecter of stories that say something and invite the reader to agree or dispute.

Things I am not: A pet lover; A pet hater; a reality TV (or reality in general) fan; social; fixated upon linguistics; a republican; a democrat; fashionable; owner of a karaoke machine; tolerant of commercials; a cell phone owner; favorably disposed toward most men, who tend to be boorish and funky looking; brunette and leggy, though you may dispute the latter if you insist; a fan of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Phillip Roth, and Marguerite Duras; spawned on Halloween in 1580; and a respecter of stories that say nothing and pretend the reader isn’t there.

And while I do not believe in astrology, I really wish I did because it would explain why this horoscope describes me EXACTLY—especially that Scorpios “sometimes possess penetrating eyes which make their shyer companions feel naked and defenseless before them.” How true.