“Most useful conference ever!”


Meet D.E. (Dan) Johnson!

MWW Committee Member Cathy Shouse continues the Q&As with members of this summer’s workshop faculty. Now it’s Midwest Writers turn to brag a bit on the success of D.E. (Dan) Johnson!

DE JohnsonD.E. Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood but had to hit his midlife crisis to get serious about it. His first novel, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. The Detroit Electric Scheme garnered excellent reviews (including being named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the year) and also won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award. (Video of Dan on Jay Leno’s Book Club!)

Motor City Shakedown, the first sequel to The Detroit Electric Scheme, was named one of the Top 5 Crime Novels of 2011 by The House of Crime and Mystery, called “extraordinarily vivid” by The New York Times, and won a 2012 Michigan Notable Book Award. Dan’s third book, Detroit Breakdown, will be published in Fall 2012 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books.

Q. What accomplishment or achievement are you most proud of as an author? What has been the most satisfying?

I guess I’d say getting a second two-book contract has been my biggest accomplishment to date. Receiving a couple of Michigan Notable Book Awards has also been great, but the fact that St. Martin’s believed enough in my potential to commit to two more books makes me very proud.

The most satisfying? Prior to shopping the The Detroit Electric Scheme, I got a letter back from Loren Estleman (Detroit mystery writer) saying he loved the book. I jumped around the living room for about five minutes. (And if you know me, you know how uncharacteristic that is.) It was the moment that I went from trying to believe I had a chance to be published to actually believing it.

Q. Please explain how attending MWW workshop influenced the launch of your career.

My first MWW was in 2006, two months after I left my job to pursue writing. It was, hands-down, the most useful conference I’ve ever gone to. I learned a great deal about writing and about the industry. I went on to become a MWW Fellow in 2008, where Terry Faherty helped me hone the beginning of my first book, which sold four months later. MWW works! (Watch for Terry’s Q&A in the next E-pistle!)

Q. Tell us a little bit about your journey to publication, to include when and what you first began to write, when you began submitting, to when you received your first contract.

I started writing, like most of us, when I was very young. I enjoyed it and was good at it, but by the time I started thinking about a career, I was convinced it wasn’t a practical pursuit. So instead, I got a degree in teaching, which I didn’t want to use, and eventually got into business, where I stayed for 25 years, generally being miserable and always feeling unfulfilled. I tried writing books over the years, but I didn’t know what I was doing. It was just frustrating.

Finally, in 2006 I dove into writing, with the full support of my family. For two years I studied writing and wrote 60-80 hours a week. (I’m known to be a bit obsessive, but I was going to have to get another job after two years. I had motivation.) At the end of those two years, I started querying for an agent. Two months later, I had one. Two months after that, I had a two-book contract. (Don’t throw things at me. There was a lot of being in the right place at the right time.)

Q. What should writers expect from your sessions and what would authors who don’t write your genre benefit from your session as well?

I’ll be working on how to write settings that you can’t escape, writing characters you can’t forget, and when to say “when.”

I write historical mysteries, but the lessons I’ve learned apply to all genres. Whether you write narrative non-fiction, memoir, or fiction, you have to be able to immerse your reader in your story, and there are easy tools to use to accomplish this. The New York Times called my most recent book, Motor City Shakedown, “extraordinarily vivid,” and a large part of that was the setting detail I employed. I can help writers learn how to create a memorable setting.

Nothing’s more important than character. Regardless of genre, your reader has to live and die with your characters in order to have a satisfying read. To do that, your characters have to be real. Not so easy to do, but definitely “learnable.”

Sometimes the most frustrating part of writing is to know when to stop. Every time you look over the work, you find more things to change. You feel like you could go on for an eternity and never really be done. Lie down on the couch and let Dr. Johnson help you move past that doubt and get on with it. The second part of this session addresses when to stop researching and start writing. All it takes is one mistake for the reader to start doubting you. You can’t make that visible error, but you can’t research forever either. I’ll help you work through that.

Q. What is the best advice on writing that you were ever given, and what is something you wish you had known sooner?

Best advice – Put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him. I wish I’d known sooner – a lot sooner – that I had a real chance of making a go at writing novels.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

MWW remains my favorite conference of the year. I’ve gone to a lot of conferences, and NONE COMPARES!

Note: Dan’s Part II Sessions:

  • Settings You Can’t Escape – How do some writers create a setting that’s so real that not only can you see what’s happening, you can also hear, smell, feel, and taste it?
  • When to Say When – When should you stop researching and start writing?

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