WITH JULIE MOONEY
How would you describe your job as a Writer's Lifeline
JM:: I believe a large part of my job is to help the
writer develop his or her unique voice; to help writers find
out what they have to say. Most often, writers come to me
with a first draft of their novel or screenplay, which is
typically a wonderful concept that has yet to be focused.
A lot of what I do is to help them get their story tightened
down into a workable structure that adds up to something.
I also try to help them develop their characters-- I'm always
on the lookout for nuances in the script or novel that suggests
a new layer for the character, or a point of connection/tension
between characters. I look for the lesson the character needs
to learn. I very seldom make suggestions in the form of additions;
rather, I look for the seeds that are already in the material,
then I encourage the writer to tease these out and germinate
Often times, when I suggest a potential area of development
for a character or storyline, the reaction I get from the
writer is "Of course! Why didn't I come up with that?" Actually,
they did-- or they wouldn't have put it in the script. So,
much of my job is just helping them see, develop, and utilize
the brilliance that is already present in their stories.
WL: What led you to become an editor in the
JM: I've been a story nut my whole life long. I love
them all: movies, novels, stage plays, short stories, you
name it. I've been writing fiction since I was seven. I'd
always wanted to be a writer, but I came from a family where
such pursuits were frowned upon as "impractical."
Initially, I started down a completely different path: I was
going to be an anthropologist, working in the field and teaching
at a university. But the further I got into that, the more
I found myself "haunting" libraries and "lurking" around in
the wings of theaters.
Whenever I got myself into a situation in which I couldn't
be creative, I literally began to get ill- I'd fall into a
depression and become virtually unable to function. I truly
need to be creative in order to stay healthy. In the end,
a story person is what I am, and finally late in my twenties
I got to the point where I couldn't deny that any more.
I've trained myself for this work primarily by devouring stories:
I see tons of movies, and read as many novels as I can. I
also worked for several years as a story analyst for various
production companies, a job which involved breaking down and
analyzing literally thousands of screenplays and novels.
Most of my "formal education" as a story-maker comes from
books that I've read on the subject. I was profoundly influenced
by Chris Vogler's book The Writer's Journey, [click to purchase]
which utilizes Joseph Campbell's A
Hero with a Thousand Faces mythic "Hero's Journey"
in plotting stories. At one point or another, I weigh every
story I work with against this structure.
Interestingly enough, the anthropology background has helped
my writing in all kinds of ways. It taught me researching
and interviewing skills, and it gave me a point of reference
from which to understand human nature.
I think that it's essential for writers, editors, and just
about everybody involved in this kind of work to have some
kind of background(s) in addition to training as a writer
or editor. Film school and university writing programs are
terrific; they can teach you a lot of the pragmatics of the
business and the nuts-and-bolts of the writing process. They
can help you with the "how to say it" part, but they can never,
ever help you with what to say. That has to come from your
own unique life experience.
I think the most important tool for a writer to gain is a
well-developed outlook on life: a worldview, a perspective
worth sharing with others. Ultimately, what's the point of
writing, if you've got nothing to say? The nuts-and-bolts
of technique are easy to learn compared to this. I believe
that more than any other part of our craft, writers and editors
need to be conscious of developing their perspective.
Plus, we have to have a diverse range of experiences that
we can draw upon firsthand to give our stories context. It's
a never-ending process: there's always something new to learn,
another new realm to explore. I think you have to love learning--
learning anything-- in order to really do this. You have to
be ready to step into new worlds, even ones you don't initially
care to visit. You have to be ready to become all different
kinds of people, to experience their perspectives from the
inside. Writers are voracious learners and adventurers.
WL: What have you learned from working with
JM: I've learned that one of the most exciting moments
in the world is when a story really starts to take off. There
comes a moment when a story almost takes on a life of its
own. And often what seems to make this happen is when you
get two or more creative minds working on an idea together.
There's a wonderfully satisfying feeling that comes from bouncing
an idea off someone, and seeing them pick it up and run with
it. It's like in chemistry where you put two catalyzing agents
together and the results are explosive! I've seen this happen
with a number of Lifeline writers. It's the most satisfying
part of what I do.
WL: Specific memorable experiences as WL
I think the most memorable aspect of being a Writer's Lifeline
editor is the friendships I've formed with many of our clients.
So many of the people who find their way to AEI and Writers
Lifeline are phenomenal individuals, whom I've enjoyed immensely,
and from whom I've learned a great deal, on all kinds of subjects.
I still correspond with most of the clients I've worked with,
exchanging Christmas cards, emails, and photos of our kids.
This has been a tremendously rewarding part of the experience
WL: As editor, what is your perspective on
the challenges facing your writer-clients? How have you been
able to assist them in overcoming those challenges? What are
the challenges that an editor can do little about?
JM: There seems to come a time in the evolution of
many stories where input stops being helpful. There comes
a point in which clients start to become resistant to suggestions.
That can be good and bad.
In a good sense, it can be that the writer has gotten to a
point in the evolution of the story where their vision is
so well developed, and they have such a conviction about it,
that another perspective can only dilute it. I know from personal
experience with my own writing that not all opinions are helpful;
some can be detrimental.
But in a negative sense, a writer can often get to a point
where they're unwilling to let go of ideas that aren't working.
There sometimes comes a moment when the writer either has
to be willing to take the story in a new direction, or the
story is doomed to die an unfulfilled death. I've occasionally
gotten to a point where I keep suggesting the same changes
over and over, only to have each new draft coming back little
There's a fine line between being open to change and protecting
your original idea. If you're really sure that your idea is
going to work and your vision is solid, then you ought to
stick with it and see your vision through. You may be right.
But there's a certain temptation to get possessive of our
visions, even when it's clear they're not working. I doubt
that any editor can teach you to recognize the difference.
It's just something that comes with experience.
WL: What sort of writing projects interest
you the most?
JM: I tend to gravitate towards stories that feature
unusual characters: characters with other-than-normal mental/emotional
capacities or physical differences (Shine,
Elephant Man, A Prayer for Owen Meany. I like what stories
like these can reveal about us. I like the way they open up
our definitions of ourselves.
I love a good survival story. I love any story that puts characters
in extreme circumstances and exposes some aspect of human
nature in a new light.
I love Indiana
Jones-style adventures and historical pieces. I want a
story to take me into a different world than the one I inhabit
every day. If it's primarily a character piece, I want a chance
to be inside the head of somebody who is very different from
me. I also love a good "asshole redemption" story, in which
the main character has a major lesson to learn! (Groundhog
Harry Met Sally.)
I'm unashamedly a sci-fi nut. I see science fiction as a laboratory
for trying out ideas. It's a great opportunity to put an idea
into a context and see how it plays out. Sci-fi can also be
wonderful for taking a contemporary social issue and casting
it into a new context, which can yield a fresh perspective.
Occasionally, it can project a current social phenomenon into
the future, with frightening results (Gattaca.)
I'm particularly drawn to stories that feature strong women
and gentle men. I want to see stories that affirm the dignity
of human beings. I don't object to portraying "ugly" parts
of our nature in stories-- I think we ought to do this-- but
it must be very clear what the writer wants the reader/audience
to understand about these things (i.e., could you possibly
miss how the author of Trainspotting
feels about drug use?) The writer's "voice" must come through
to let us know where he or she stands on a given issue.
But regardless of genre, I want to come away from a story
different than I was when I went in. I want the story to teach
me something. I love to come away from a good story with that
"aha!" feeling of having discovered some new truth about life.
Those are the best stories of all.
WL: Do you write yourself? If so, what challenges
do you face in balancing your editorial temperament with your
writing temperament, if any? If not, what sorts of characteristics,
in your opinion, differentiate editors from writers?
JM: Yes, I do write, although to date I haven't written
anything "on spec" that's ready to go out into the world.
I've taken a bit of a detour into writing nonfiction books
for hire, and I write a fair number of nonfiction book proposals
for Writer's Lifeline clients. At the moment I'm busy juggling
my freelance work with raising twin toddlers, so until I've
got a little more free time, my own writing will have to come
along at a snail's pace!
It's a lot easier to help somebody else with their story than
it is to work on my own, because it's extremely difficult
to remain objective about my own work. It's easy to evaluate
a completed work, but writing one from scratch, start to finish,
is like trying to navigate by a map that you're drawing as
you make the journey. I have a lot of respect for anybody
who's completed a piece of writing and put it out there for
others to see. That takes determination and guts.
WL: Any recommendations for new or prospective
JM: I've never heard of any writer who sits down at
the keyboard and says, "I think I'll write a story." There's
always some sort of vision that compels the writer to write.
The stories that do get written are usually the ones that
came from very persistent visions. So if a story idea is bugging
you enough that you actually want to make the commitment to
write it, then don't be too quick to let anyone talk you out
of it. Too many times, I've let somebody convince me not to
write a story idea, only to find that a few months or years
later, that same kind of story was in movie theaters or on
the bestseller list.
Instead of abandoning your vision, work on focusing it. Explore
it as thoroughly as you can. Know what it's truly about.
It's our job as editors to help you make sure that your story
is going to come across to an audience. You may have something
incredibly profound to say, but if an audience can't access
it, then why go to all the trouble? I understand the temptation
to grit your teeth at the thought of making your story "more
commercial"-- you imagine your sensitive character drama being
loaded up with boob shots and car chases! But making a story
commercial can also mean making it accessible enough to your
audience that they will sit through it long enough to get
your message. There is a language to modern-day storytelling,
and audiences go into a movie or novel expecting you to speak
Bottom line: don't abandon your vision, but be flexible enough
to adapt the structure that carries it so that an audience
will be able to get it.
WL: What does an editor read when not on
the job? Or is there not any time for that?
JM: There's no such thing, at this point in my life,
as blocks of time when I can sit down and quietly peruse a
book. That simply never happens. But I am always trying to
read during what I call "scrap time": waiting in lines, cooking
dinner, etc. If I'm doing something that involves not-much-brain
and only one hand, there will probably be a book in the other
I haven't read as much fiction as I've wanted in recent years,
because I can't read fiction with interruptions. I have to
be able to get totally immersed in order to get into fiction.
But I do read a lot of biographies, history books, and books
on social issues. Lately I've taken to reading fairy tales
and collections of short stories like 1001
WL: What sorts of reading would you recommend
to writers? To other editors?
JM: Here's my top three list for all writers/editors:
Chris Vogler's The
Lajos Egri's The
Art of Dramatic Writing
Linda Seeger's Creating
...And for screenwriters:
Syd Field's Screenplay
Lew Hunter's Screenwriting
Cole and Haag's Standard
For sci-fi writers, I recommend:
Analog Editors' Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy
Ochoa and Osier's The
Writer's Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe
If you suffer from writers' block, read either of the following,
and it will never trouble you again. (No guarantee, though,
that it will improve the quality of your writing!) :
Natalie Goldberg's Writing
Down the Bones
Natalie Goldberg's Wild
WL: What are the advantages and disadvantages
JM: The worst disadvantage of freelancing is that the
government takes close to 40% of your income. This makes it
extremely difficult to make a living at freelance work, especially
when you consider that it's never going to be the kind of
job where you can punch a time clock and know exactly how
much money you're going to make in a given week. So if you're
fond of eating regularly or paying the mortgage on time, it's
not something to do as your primary source of income.
However, if you're like me, it's worth everything in the world
to be able to call your time your own. I chafe like crazy
at working 9 to 5. I hate having to take breaks when I don't
want to. When I sit down to work, I can often be at it for
14 hours straight. Conversely, there are days when I struggle
to work for an hour, step away from it for a couple of hours,
and come back fresh. The freedom to do this is a perfect fit
with the way my bizarre brain works.
Plus, years ago I decided to work from home so that I could
be there to raise my kids. Freelancing allows me to fit my
work in around their schedule, so I'm there when they need
me. That's worth everything.
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|James Michael Pratt “The Lost Valentine” New York Times Bestseller and Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Betty White. Set up Pratt’s career for repeated bestsellers.
Ventura - We worked with him to find the "mythic substructure"
of his life adventure culminating in being elected governor
of Minnesota - and built the book, which became a New York
Times bestseller, around the "Labors of Hercules."
Alten - After a few months' work with Writer's Lifeline, he
went from being broke to having a million dollar studio deal,
and a two million dollar book deal to launch his career as
a New York Times bestseller.
Scott Shepherd - He wanted to write it as a screenplay, but
we advised him to do the novel first--and it sold in manuscript
for $1.6 million to New Line Cinema.