Journalism student branches into different writing genres
Caleb Johnson writes stories with mature themes, like how technology will change the future of the free world. He also writes stories about poop-eating raccoons in 1956 gaining creative thinking ability after seeing a dead body.
The third-year journalism student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha is used to writing fact-based stories for school and hopes to do so as a career, but in his free time, the words on his pages can be stranger than fiction. Johnson writes novels, movie scripts and short stories about almost anything
Some are about deep, thought provoking issues that keep him awake at night. Others are science fiction or horror stories strange enough to make him question where his mind has wandered.
He said he’s lost track of how many different projects he’s started, but he estimates he’s at least partially finished more than 25 works. The key is to get the words on the page as soon as idea strikes.
“If you have a good idea, you’re totally going to forget about it if you don’t jot it down,” Johnson said.
Night is the best time for brainstorming and writing. He will either write in bed or step out of his room to his desk in his basement, lit only by a lamp.
“It works best when it’s quietest,” he said.
What will come out of Johnson’s head and onto the screen of his MacBook Air is anyone’s guess. He writes in several different genres, including historical fiction, superheroes, and science fiction. As a fan of Star Wars and comic books, he admits monsters have a lot of influence on what he writes.
But no matter how bizarre the subject matter is, Johnson said he usually tells the story from characters who are coming of age. It offers a natural opportunity see them grow as the plot progresses
Johnson ties very different elements together. For example, one of his favorite works centers on a high school boy from California forced to relocate to western Nebraska because of his dad’s job. While dealing with the struggles of school, sports and girls in a new environment, he stumbles onto the secret of a monster living underground nearby, a secret his dad’s company is trying to cover up. It’s a meeting of government conspiracies, science fiction, and growing up.
Then there’s a movie script of a story about middle school boys at summer camp who find themselves caught up in a quest for the lost fortune of a publisher who has hidden a treasure map in the boys’ favorite comic book. Johnson sets this tale in the early 2000s and draws on his own experiences from that time in his life to bring his characters to like.
Johnson hasn’t tried to get anything published yet, mostly because he said he has a hard time finding the right ending for his works. He feels like his most recent project, a futuristic novel about a celebrity-run world with no trustworthy news media, is his best chance. When he finishes that, he said he will “100 percent” explore publishing it.
This story deals with how technology could erase people’s desire for objective reporting and make them fall prey to the whims of corporations and celebrities. It’s his only work that ties in to his career path. It also mixes with his dim view of the future.
“That one is more like a true story,” Johnson said of the nihilist plot. “In college it’s more how I’ve felt. It feels kind of inevitable.”
He sees a lot of is future self in the protagonist, who is a grumpy old journalist wishing the world would go back to how it used to be. The atmosphere he’s created in this story is one he fears could become a reality.
“I want to fight the good fight but no one cares,” he said. “Everyone only cares about publicity. Since it’s from my perspective more than anything, I feel like I know the character, so I know what he’d do more. But it’s a much more cynical me, a very dark me. This character sees the world crumble and fights a fight that’s hopeless.”
His biggest challenge in writing any story is in making each plot element and development of his characters add up to his pre-determined conclusion.
“I see big picture, but in getting to the story’s big picture, you have to write a lot of really good small stories,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of small stories within books. There’s a lot of supporting characters that have to get play.”
But at the end of the day, few of Johnson’s stories are rooted in such heavy material. Let’s go back to the poop-eating raccoon story,one he wrote for his sister, Faith, for Halloween to scare her. Faith has a fear of raccoons.
Her reaction to the tale of Rocky the Raccoon who discovers he has creative ability after seeing the grotesque remains of a dead human body, didn’t quite have the effect Johnson wanted it to have on his sister.
“It’s not scary,” Faith said. “It’s just gross.”
That reaction has driven home to Johnson that he might not have a future writing for an audience, at least not with all of his genres. But even if no one reads what he puts on the page, he still sees writing as an exercise in his creativity to get what’s in his mind into writing.
“It really just depends on my mood. It depends on what I’m feeling,” he said.