Mohr, Michael

Michael Mohr is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in the following: Freedom Fiction Journal; Full of Crow; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; Aaduna; MacGuffin; Gothic City Press; Alfie Dog Press; Milvia Street; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, The Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary agency] blog; the San Francisco Writers Conference Newsletter and MASH. His writing/editing website and weekly blog is

The New Toy

Michael Mohr

(Featured, Summer 2017)

I walk outside. I’m at my house on Laurel Street, in Ventura, California, an hour north of Los Angeles. The year is 1986. I’m eight years old. 

Up the street, at the bottom of the Sampson’s driveway—where my best friend Craig lives—I stop, stare up at their big craftsman home, the towering brick chimney, the concrete path leading to the blood-red door. Craig and I had grown up together: building forts, skateboarding, watching Top Gun.

Craig’s father is a cardiologist. He’s a hunter. The man loves guns. Sometimes he flies to Alaska to kill feral animals. The walls of their living room are filled with hollowed-out wild boar heads, marble eyes staring vacantly at you.

I reach the back door.

The knob is cold to the touch.

I twist the knob all the way to the right, push the door open, enter the house. I’m in the kitchen. I see the back of Craig’s head, his curly dark hair. Hearing the noise, he flips around. A sinister smile is plastered on his face.

His blue eyes you can nearly see through, his favorite yellow sweater, he says, “Want to see my new toy?”

This is where my heart skips up a notch; the breaths come out fast, shallow. Something is wrong. That’s when I look down, see the thing in his hand: Big, shiny, silver. It’s clear the moment I spot it that it’s a gun. Not like the others he’s shown before, his father’s hunting rifles. This is a handgun. His small palm is gripping it so hard his knuckles are ghost-white.

“Craig,” I stammer.

“Stand back by the door,” he says.

“Craig,” I repeat. My voice sounds timid.

“I said,” he says, lifting his arm, pointing the gun directly at me, “Stand back by the door.”

My heart does this thing where it starts machine-gun firing. I lift my hands in some pathetic type of defense, as if this could hold off the ensuing bullets.

Craig takes a step toward me. I take a step back. He forward, me back. We do this dangerous dance until my spine is against the door. He’s about five feet away. The house is silent, though the internal noises of my body, screaming in my ears, are like a tornado.

Craig closes the gap between us. His thin, freckled arm is held taut like a twig, the gun aimed right between my dark deer eyes. His eyes, however, are reminiscent of some Tiger Shark’s, lifeless. It’s as if he’s mentally descended into the depths of some chasm in the deepest part of the ocean.

The gun is an inch from my head. He uses his thumb to unhook the safety and then he cocks the hammer back.

“Open your mouth,” Craig says. His arm is trembling.

“Craig,” I say, not certain I’d said it out loud or just in my head. My stomach lurches; my legs are unsteady beneath me. No sudden movements.

“Shut up,” he says, his voice catching on a jagged line. “Open. Your. Mouth.”

I open my mouth, as if Mr. Saunders, my dentist, is going to shove his latex-gloved hand, slick with my saliva, down into it.

Craig inserts the barrel of the gun halfway into my mouth. It rests on my lower teeth. Thick, heavy steel. It is cold, like the doorknob. I breathe slowly. His finger gets into position, wrapped around the trigger. The finger is shaking.

“What in the hell?” His father’s deep voice punctures the pregnant, tense moment.

In one swift move, Craig removes his finger from the trigger and lowers the gun. He slams the safety on and hides the gun behind his back.

Then there’s his father, hairy arms at his waist, wearing his starched-white doctor’s uniform, a silver stethoscope hanging around his neck. His black beard is trimmed. Those old, serious blue eyes, stoic, Craig’s eyes but more seasoned; more deadly.

“What’s going on here?” he repeats, arms at his waist like wings.

Craig mutters, “Nothing.”

“Michael?” his father says, his voice echoing in my head. “Are you okay?”

It takes a moment for me to register reality, come back into my skin. I nod. “Yes, Mr. Sampson. Everything is fine.”

“What do you have there, son?” his father asks, noticing Craig is hiding something.

Craig glances at me, scared, and says, again, “Nothing.”

His father takes two massive steps across the linoleum floor. He’s at Craig like lightning. His father’s muscled, hairy arm reaches around and snatches the gun. He holds it like some talisman, some crown jewel. At first he ogles his son, seeming angry.

“What are you doing with my Beretta M9, son?”

Craig swallows, says nothing. I want to run or scream or cry. The walls seem to be closing in on me, breathing. The windows might shatter.

His father stares down at the gun for a moment and then lifts it, slowly, pointing it at Craig. The barrel of the gun is inches from Craig’s face.

There are a few nail-biting seconds—seconds which seem to last forever—wherein the Beretta M9 is aimed at Craig and I feel both anxiously redeemed and brutally terrified.

His father grins.

“Open your mouth, son,” his father says. Craig peeks at me. His eyes are marble like the hollowed-out boar heads on the living room walls. “I saw everything.”

“Dad,” Craig says. “Please.” He is teetering on the edge of weeping. I can hear it in his voice.

“Shut the hell up and do what you’re told,” his father says.

Craig opens his mouth. Tears begin zigzagging down his cheeks.

That’s when the backdoor swings open in one fast motion. His father has just enough time to shove the gun into his white doctor’s coat pocket. It’s Craig’s mother.

“What’s happening here?” she says, with a tone of suspicion.

His father eyes first me, then Craig. A non-verbal agreement.

Smiling, his father says, “Nothing, honey.”

A stillness, a silence, pervades. Then she says, “Good. Come help me with the groceries. I can’t get it all by myself.”

The three of us file out the backdoor, in the direction of the car. 

The Top Ten . . . 

Issues Encountered with My Book Editing Clients

Michael Mohr

1.      Impatience: I’d say 85 percent of the clients I work with desire to do one quick edit and then be done. I always remind them that writing a novel or memoir is a serious decision and it requires diligence, craft, and time. It is not uncommon to work with a dedicated writer for 1-2 years before attempting to publish or acquire an agent.

2.      Ignorance related to the book industryDo your research. Know what path you’d like to take. Do you want to self-publish? Get a vanity publisher? Small-medium press? Would you like to try the traditional path, aka, attempt to snag a literary agent?

3.      Getting defensive about commentaryAlways remember that this is your manuscript. Not mine. I am here to help. Take what works and leave the rest. I am always open to answering questions. One positive about hiring a book editor is that, as the author you’ve lost objectivity. You need a second set of objective, professional eyes to see what is working and what isn’t.

4.      Hearsay about the industry or writing process: Many clients come my way—usually via word of mouth—and sometimes they come with assumptions which are false. Since 2000, the internet has made blogs and self publishing and submitting to agents much, much easier. Too easy in my opinion. There is a massive influx of materials; literary “white noise.” Along with this chaos comes many claims of “how to write,” “how to submit,” “how to get edited,” etc. How do you trust anyone? Trust your gut. Get a second opinion. Ask a published writer friend, etc. Question the price of editing. Do internet research but don’t rely solely on that.

5.      Using outliers as examples for, say, writing a 150,000 word YA novelYes, some authors who are famous, and some who are published but not famous, have broken all kinds of accepted “rules,” including word count, etc. Those are the exceptions. For the most part, for debut authors, keep it within the general box. Later, you can break established norms.

6.      Wanting editing to be done in a few days: It depends on the length of your novel or memoir but, for the most part, it will take me usually anywhere between 1-3 weeks to complete a book edit, sometimes longer, and possibly up to six weeks, though that is less likely, unless I am very busy and/or the MS is extraordinarily long. I do this full time, for a living, so I have other projects. Book editing is a craft, like writing.

7.      Getting frustrated by a lot of commentary and a long editorial letter: Same thing as the above point. Writing a book-length project is hard. It requires a lot of effort and talent. So does the editing side. And the revision side. Revision is incredibly important and necessary in book writing. I have written six books and edited dozens. Writing is rewriting, as they say. Don’t be daunted by a 10-page, single-spaced editorial letter and 10,000 added words a la my commentary on your MS (rather common); instead, jump in and start editing!

8.      Believing that your first, second, or third draft [of your book] is ready to go: Certainly I will work with your fresh novel or memoir if I feel we’re a good fit and I think there’s a clear path to completion and landing with a publication-ready work. But I would prefer books which have been worked on and vetted for a few years, which have been rewritten and tightened and tinkered with, etc. I can come in, we can do a few steady revisions, and then we can try to get your baby out there into the world!

9.      Attempting to write the latest [genre or otherwise] trendsWrite what’s in your heart and head. Speak your literary truth. Go for it! Industry trends change every few months or year/two so you might as well write what’s inside of you anyway! Chasing trends will rarely (if ever) be satisfying on a deep, core level.

10.  Being afraid to dig down deep, emotionally, in your prose: Dig deep! Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo, to say what’s on your mind, even (especially!) if it’s unconventional or apart from the socially accepted “contract.” We need divergent voices. Marginalized voices. All voices.