by Timothy Pike
Author and editor Michael Mohr has crisscrossed the country more than a few times, including once in his twenties when he hitchhiked all the way across. “It was thrilling, terrifying, and very telling,” he says. “It taught me about America, and about myself.”
Currently, Michael lives and works in New York City, where the editing business he built from the ground up is flourishing. But it’s the west coast that holds all of his old haunts—including Ojai, California, the small town near Ventura where he grew up, and San Francisco State University, where he got his college degree.
As a novelist, you’d first work with an editor like Michael in the early stages of the writing process, as your story is taking shape. “I specialize in the developmental edit,” he explains. “This means I look at a novel or memoir on the structural level. Plot, structure, voice, characters, dialogue, scene creation, tension and conflict, et cetera.”
Like most editors, Michael has his preferences when it comes to the book genres he likes to work with. “My favorite genre I’d say is probably memoir,” Michael tells me. “For fiction I’d say suspense or thriller or literary novels.”
But for Michael, the story must reflect real life. “I don’t like science fiction or fantasy or magical realism,” he says. “I have nothing against these genres, I just feel less excited about books that aren’t seeking to discuss or mirror our real lives. Science fiction can do that very same thing, but I just don’t personally get moved by those fictionalized worlds as much as I do realistic worlds.”
For all his talent helping authors sculpt their novels—and making sure they’re writing stories that will actually sell—Michael’s life goals didn’t always include being an editor.
“I am first and foremost a writer,” he says. “I got my degree in writing. One of my stories, ‘American Freaks,’ which was published in Concho River Review, was also nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.”
“Be teachable,” Michael advises new writers. “Trust the fact that the editor knows best and will lead you down the right path.”
So how does one go from being a writer, albeit a talented and accomplished one, to running a thriving editing business and working with some of the biggest names out there? Turns out it’s quite a story.
“While at San Francisco State, I met a literary agent who I ended up interning for,” Michael recounts. “She had formerly been an acquisitions editor with a publishing house. She loved my writing, and noticed that I had a sharp eye for detail when it came to the manuscripts she was acquiring. Soon, she was asking me for notes on her acquired books, and then she was training me in the art of the developmental edit. I worked on quite a few of the books she took on, many of which were later published.”
Meeting that agent was fortuitous, not only because of the experience Michael gained, but also because of what his colleague pushed him to do next. “She was the one who suggested that I start my own editing business,” he says. “I did, and in 2013 I edited my first solo manuscript.”
Michael’s client list boasts many well-known authors, including Christian Picciolini, an anti-hate activist whose efforts to pull radicalized young men out of hate groups are chronicled in Breaking Hate on MSNBC.
But the decision to strike out on his own didn’t mean he had a sudden flood of clients. “It was very hard to get clients right out of the gate,” he says about the period of time just after he left the agency. “I started by establishing a website, and then doing a weekly blog post about interning at the agency, about my own writing, and about my new, fledgling editing business.”
Even once the clients did start to trickle in, Michael admits that it didn’t always go as planned. “I made mistakes along the way,” he says, “especially with those first few clients, but I also charged very little in the beginning. That’s how I learned, how I cut my teeth.”
“The agency allowed me to see the industry from the inside,” he continues, “allowed me to work directly with agents and authors, and helped me truly understand the difference between strong writing and weak writing.” Starting out as a writer himself probably helped, too.
“Eventually, I became a stronger, more confident editor,” Michael says. “I started to advertise my editing in magazines. I began more frequently going to writers’ conferences. Later, I started teaching at conferences and attending as a staff editor.”
Today, Michael’s editing business is on firm footing, and his client list boasts many well-known authors. Among these is Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who became an anti-hate activist, and whose efforts to pull radicalized young men out of hate groups are chronicled in the MSNBC docu-series Breaking Hate.
“I worked with Christian for a year editing his memoir, White American Youth,” Michael says. “We just finished working on his second book.”
As much as Michael loves repeat business and working with seasoned authors, he’s happy to take on writers who are just starting out as well.
For those writers, Michael has several helpful pieces of advice. “Be teachable,” he gives as the first. “Meaning, trust the fact that the editor, who’s seen many writers trying to do similar things as you, knows best and will lead you down the right path.”
“Get out of your own way,” he says, explaining that he’s had too many writers try to tell him what to do, or what should be happening at each stage. “Trust the process. My job is to edit. My goal is to see you succeed. Your job is to write.”
“Be patient,” he adds. “Agents—and readers, by the way—can practically smell rushed, lazy writing. So sit back, strap yourself in, and take your time. Do it right. Put in the work. That is the key word: work. Anything worthwhile in life takes time and effort. Writing a meaningful book is no different.”
Given all of his success, I asked Michael about his plans for the future.
“Of course I’d like to get one of my novels published with a ‘Big Five’ publisher,” he says. “I have always wanted to go through the so-called ‘front door’ of major publishing. I believe in myself. I’ve had New York Times–bestselling authors read my work and love it. I’ve had many agents read my work and love it. I’ll get there.”
But the boldest of his goals didn’t surprise me at all.
“Conquer the world?” he says without missing a beat.
“Kidding,” he adds. “Sort of.”
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