literary management
The Writers Lifeline

writers lifeline WL: How would you describe your job as a Writer's Lifeline editor?

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 them.

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 first place?

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 WL clients?

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 editor?

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 for me.

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 changed.

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, Forrest Gump, The 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 Day, When 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 WL clients?

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 that language.

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 hand.

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 Arabian Nights.

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 Writer's Journey
Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing
Linda Seeger's Creating Unforgettable Characters
...And for screenwriters:

Syd Field's Screenplay
Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434
Cole and Haag's Standard Screenplay Formats

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 Mind

WL: What are the advantages and disadvantages of freelancing?

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.
$150 Quick Report
Click Here for More Info
literary managementJames 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.
literary managementJesse 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."
literary managementSteve 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.
literary managementJohn 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.