Landis Wade shares 47 tips about writing fiction that he learned in a writing workshop with Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire series that was adapted into a popular TV series.
By Landis Wade
Many great writers don’t know how to talk about their craft, or worse, they are unwilling to do so. Not so with Craig Johnson, author of the best-selling Western crime novel series featuring protagonist Walt Longmire, which was adapted into the Longmire television series of the same name that ran for six seasons from 2012 to 2017 on A&E and Netflix.
Johnson speaks about his craft unselfishly, with a purpose and in good humor and like the sheriff in his Longmire novels, he will stare down any would-be writer who says the challenge is too great and add the undersheriff’s colorful language to punctuate his point.
Under dark rain-filled clouds that soaked the grounds at Brevard College’s recent Looking Glass Rock Writer’s Conference, Johnson brightened the classroom for 12 fiction writers who wanted to know the secrets to his success. He got right to the point, saying he was going to disclose at least 47 things we needed to know, and then he panned the room, much like Walt Longmire might mentally dissect a group of suspects.
“I believe in mechanics.”
Those who’ve read the Longmire novels know that the words Johnson uses to bring the modern West to life sound anything but mechanical. The description of place is up to literary standards, the dialogue is crisp and direct, and the characters are vivid and believable. And, yet, Johnson said that one of his secrets is in the mechanics, which sounds a bit like cleaning out his horse stalls on a frosty morning in Ucross, WY, population 25. His roll-up-your-sleeves and smell-the-surroundings approach to writing came to life when Johnson shared stories about his life. His mountain climbing adventures and willingness to take risks make him something of a George Plimpton of the West, never reluctant to take on a challenge.
“You have to attack your writing like digging a ditch,” he said. Then again, scratch that last part. One of his tips was to limit the use of dialogue tags. Just dig the damn ditch.
But mechanical doesn’t work well alone. As the Longmire series demonstrates, Johnson creates a cast of characters whose different strengths play off each other in a way that keeps the reader turning the pages. Johnson reminded workshop participants that a writer must do the same, must build on the mechanical foundation by caring about the work and by not listening to those who say it can’t be done. This blend of advice felt as refreshing as watching Robert Taylor guzzle one of those Rainer beers after a long day of chasing bad guys on Netflix.
47 is a prime number, so the number, like Johnson’s workshop, was unique for what could have been an MFA style critique group. Instead of 12 students of different skill sets sitting in a circle attacking each other’s work, Johnson held one-on-one Socratic style sessions with each student after class to challenge them to “write to publish”—not just make 10 pretty pages—and he left the workshops open for his students to pepper him with questions. Like a lawman with a quick trigger, his answers flew fast from his big-barreled mouth. In no particular order, here’s my interpretation of Craig Johnson’s 47 tips to being a better fiction writer:
- Writing starts with the mechanics.
- Write to publish, to get your message into the world.
- Take joy every day in your chance to write.
- Write every day.
- Hunt down new ideas with a passion.
- Cast your characters before you write the first word.
- Base characters on persons or personalities you know well.
- It is essential that each character have their own voice and be believable.
- Readers like characters with a sense of humor.
- Complex characters are the most interesting.
- Place has an effect on character, and character has an effect on place.
- A book with strong characters has a chance to be successful.
- Use creative names for characters that give insight into their personality.
- Always think about dramatic conflict lines for your story.
- Plan out motifs, symbols and plot lines.
- Do your research first.
- … But don’t let your research interfere with your writing.
- Carry a notepad to record ideas.
- Keep a file of real life stories to spark your imagination.
- Slow down and observe the world around you.
- Outline each chapter and scene before you write the first word of prose.
- Use your outline as a roadmap but stay open to opportunities that arise.
- Don’t rewrite as you go.
- Have someone read your work back to you and you will hear the problems.
- Revise like hell so your story is the best it can be before you submit it.
- Your main job is to tell a good story.
- Avoid tropes and clichés.
- Have a distinct beginning, middle and end.
- Epilogues are a nice bonus for the reader.
- Don’t treat the reader like an idiot.
- Write something that other people aren’t writing.
- Find your weaknesses and work on them.
- Read authors in your genre to learn what works.
- Do something the reader doesn’t expect.
- Think broadly about your idea: story line, characters and setting.
- Use supporting characters who know things your protagonist doesn’t.
- Don’t use supporting characters as window dressing.
- What is said about a character is what readers latch onto the most.
- What a character says and does are the other two precepts of dramatic interpretation.
- Find a balance between dialogue and prose.
- Avoid sentences that look too much alike.
- Pacing is not just about speed.
- Allow the reader to get to know the characters so they will care about them.
- Make your writing space your own.
- Read, read, read: “My idea of hell is being stuck somewhere without a book.”
- Don’t run from conflict. Chase conflict down. It’s the lifeblood of what you’re doing.
- Don’t beat yourself up, sit at your desk and write. You deserve to be there.
Like his determined protagonist in the Longmire series, Craig Johnson makes the point that it would be a crime not to work hard every day at what you love to do, and yet, he’s not a lone cowboy, because just like Walt, who has Henry Standing Bear, Ruby, Cady, Vic, Lucian and the Ferg to keep him in line, Craig has his wife Judy to read his work and keep his head from getting too big for his Stetson hat. We got a two-for-one bonus when she joined us in every session. He told us the story of his writing life, and like a good spouse can do, Judy told us the rest of the story. It was a wonderful reminder that while writing can sometimes be a lonely business interrupted by repeated rejection, a writer’s family, friends and fellow writers—like Johnson was to us for a few cloudy days in Western North Carolina—make the joy of writing even sweeter.
Learn more about Craig Johnson's novels at craigallenjohnson.com.
Landis Wade is a trial lawyer and author who starts each day walking Gus and Lori, two rescue dogs named after characters from Larry McMurtry’s classic western, Lonesome Dove. His third book—The Christmas Redemption—recently won the Holiday category of the 12th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards. He won the 2016 North Carolina State Bar short story contest for The Deliberation and received awards in 2017 and 2018 for his non-fiction pieces, The Cape Fear Debacle and First Dance. His essay Fence or Freeway was published recently in The Charlotte Observer and his piece Shelby about his toughest trial appeared in the 2018 Bearing Up anthology by Daniel Boone Footsteps. Landis has a goal not to write like a lawyer. When he doesn’t have a dog leash or a keyboard in his hands, he’s probably holding a fly-rod, a golf club or a cold beverage at a Carolina Panthers or Charlotte Knights game.
Learn more from bestselling authors like Walter Mosley, Jeff VanderMeer and Cassandra Clare at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference, August 10-12, 2018!