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.

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