[Author Interview] J.S. Menefee | The Professional Ghostwriter’s Handbook
Featured Authors Talk About It
J.S. (Jeremy Menefee)
ATAI: Tell us a little about you.
Jeremy: I’m originally from Virginia, but spent my adolescence in California. I was writing and editing in the tech industry before I graduated high school. I was just lucky and knew some people who knew people. I joined the Marines after I graduated, but got injured (this was before 9/11, by the way) and was forced out with an honorable discharge. I’ve wandered around quite a bit since then, professionally, before coming back to my real love, writing and editing.
I love elephants. I think they’re about the greatest thing ever, and I have little ellies on my writing desk. I’ve also studied permaculture and sustainable agriculture, intensively, for years. I dream about having a homestead, or a cabin in the woods–so long as I can also have WiFi, of course!
In my mid-20s, I adopted a toddler with Cerebral Palsy, which is probably the best thing I ever did. He’ll be 21 this year! He changed my life as much as I did his. I highly recommend adopting, if possible, because you change both your lives forever.
ATAI: How long have you been writing?
Jeremy: Since I was 16. Earlier, really, but that was when I first got paid to do it. My dad was a journalist and a tech writer, so I grew up reading his articles. He figured that if I understood it at nine, then so would his audience. And he always took my suggestions seriously, which was cool. He’d accept a surprising number of suggestions, or explain why he didn’t.
Even the other careers I’ve had–Public Relations and managing a small private security company–mostly involved content writing, press releases, white papers, case studies… and a boatload of copywriting.
I added fiction ghostwriting in early 2015. I stumbled into fiction almost on accident, but I’ve been doing more and more of it ever since. This year, I started writing under my own name, going as J.S. Menefee.
ATAI: What was your most recent release?
Jeremy: My last book is nonfiction and was published in early July. The Professional Ghostwriter’s Handbook came out on Kindle first, then paperback, and now at the Apple bookstore, Kobo, Google Books, and more.
The subtitle says it all: “Launch your own successful writing career by writing books for others.” It would help anyone to start a writing business, but I had to pick a focus. I decided to help aspiring writers to not only earn an income, but also develop their writing skills. I don’t know of anyone else who has written a similar book. It also has all my secret tools and sites, hyperlinked, and it’s probably worth the price just for that.
I think my favorite line from the Handbook is, “Get paid to learn. Learn to write. And write for money—which you can then use to publish your own novels.” It’s the perfect summary of the book.
It was originally going to be published by a small-press publisher, who contacted me and asked me to write a book on ghostwriting, but they went out of business. I decided to self-publish it, instead going through that again.
ATAI: What do you love most about writing?
Jeremy: It’s hard to pick just one thing! The freedom of being able to work where and when I want is probably the top of the list, but I could make an argument for creative freedom–the ability to write what excites me. Or for having no pointy-haired boss to deal with, and no office politics. Those are pretty high on my list, too.
ATAI: What do you find most challenging?
Jeremy: Even though I work from home and make my own schedule, I still have a hard time balancing work and home life. It really takes discipline to avoid writing from the time I wake up until I pass out from exhaustion. Then there’s the opposite challenge–turning off Facebook and the TV so I can get my daily word counts done. The struggle is real!
There’s also the issue of people who don’t consider writing a “real job.” Sure, some people are excited to meet someone who writes for a living, but a lot of people just don’t get it. That can be frustrating, certainly.
A distant third place for Most Challenging Writing Problems is the isolation. I’m a bit of a homebody by nature, and working from home makes it very easy to isolate myself. I think it’s important to have real interaction with real people. Friends and family need some attention, too, after all. Writers have to make time for other people, for their own well-being.
When it comes to drafting novels, my biggest challenge is romance. I don’t write romance novels, but some do have a romantic subplot. I struggle with those scenes, no kidding. I feel silly writing romantic interactions between characters, developing their relationships on a romantic level. I try not to make such things important to the main plot because I know my weaknesses. As a ghostwriter, that’s not always an option, so I have improved a lot, but I still struggle with it.
ATAI: Where do your ideas come from?
Jeremy: I think a lot of writers have more ideas than time. Watching a TV show, it’ll just hit me–what if the characters were on another planet, instead of another town? What if they were fighting over the last foodbar instead of the last cupcake? And what if there were aliens chasing them while that was going on?
I think most of my ideas jump out at me from a simple “What if?” The plot and details come later, but the core of my stories always seems to come from one of those what-if ideas. Usually out of the blue, and usually when I don’t have a pen handy, hehe.
ATAI: What is your writing process?
Jeremy: My process always seems to start out by asking a simple “what if” question. Ha! Big surprise, right? Then I expand on that by just sitting with the what-if in my mind and waiting for the ideas to come. That’s how I decide whether it’s going to be a fantasy story, science fiction, or modern, and if it wants to be a thriller, a mystery, an action story, etc. That’s my premise. Then, I add a plot. By the time I’m done brainstorming that (or “staring off into space,” as my wife calls it), I have a few sentences that also make a good start on the back blurb, later.
I turn those 4-5 sentences into four paragraphs that neatly encapsulate the beginning, early middle, late middle, and climax.
Next, I make a list of the characters I know I’ll need, starting with the main character. Once I have him or her roughed out, I daydream until I have an antagonist concept that will make sense given the main character’s goals and traits, as well as the plotline. I firmly believe a good antagonist isn’t just in the hero’s way–they have a personal trait that makes them the hero’s enemy. Sometimes that’s complicated and indirect, other times it’s as simple as opposing ideologies, but there’s always a personal conflict on top of the plot conflict.
Once I have all the characters roughed out a bit, I often revise the 4-paragraph summary. From there, I either begin writing, or I outline further. It depends on how complicated it will be. (I’ve gotten a quarter way through the story and then decided I needed to outline the rest, so maybe it’s not a perfect system, hehe.)
ATAI: You write fiction and non-fiction, so this is a two-part question. Do your characters ever seem to have a life of their own or an agenda of their own? With non-fiction, has your message ever seemed to take over and go in a direction you didn’t expect?
Jeremy: Characters often have a life of their own. I can’t tell you how many incidental characters decided they wanted to be main characters, too. I think a lot of that comes from leaving some room for development when creating the character writeup; then, while writing, they aren’t shoe-horned into a certain action/reaction and things get interesting. Many of the times I’ve had to revise an outline, it was because of that more often than because of a great plot idea, because I tend to have the series of main events pretty well in mind before I start writing.
With nonfiction, it doesn’t happen as often. I think that’s because it isn’t a purely creative process–there’s a lot of logic and planning ahead of time. Still, the message can take the book in unexpected directions.
For example, the Ghostwriting Handbook was supposed to be a guidebook for taking a ghostwriter to the next level of their career, shortly after they figured out all the basics.
Early on, however, I realized that it would be a more compelling book if I wrote it for people new to writing fiction. It’s how it worked for me, after all–I took a novel ghostwriting job on a lark and discovered a whole new passion. Ghostwriting has absolutely made a huge difference in my fiction skill level, before I ever wrote something with my own name on it.
The message took over, too, when I was ghostwriting a book on AGILE Program Management. It was supposed to be a book on mastering AGILE, but in working with the client, we realized that book really wanted to be an introduction to it, instead. Fortunately, the client agreed and because of that, it was a much stronger final product. You have to listen to where the book wants to go, in nonfiction almost as much as in fiction.
ATAI: What’s your favorite part of your book (or one of your books)?
Jeremy: I’ve already mentioned my favorite part of the ghostwriting book, but in the novel I’m writing (book 1 of the Rephaim: Bloodlines series), there is a scene that takes place in a restaurant that I really love. Restaurant scenes are usually a sign of laziness. I mean, is that really the best place for the scene? Probably not, but it was necessary in context. I turned that scene on its ear and ended up turning a boring monologue into an exciting, character-developing, world building.
There’s a tip for you–if you’re bored, so will your readers be. Go nuts! That crazy idea you have, which starts out with the same attitude as stomping through your brother’s Lego village like Godzilla, might just be an opportunity for some brilliance to shine through. Run with it.
ATAI: What are you working on next?
Jeremy: I’m still doing ghostwriting and freelance writing/editing, so there are always those projects going on. Under my own byline, however, I’ll be working on Rephaim: Bloodlines II and wrapping up the latest R:B short story. I expect to have at least a dozen shorts, 6-7,o0o words each, published before I release the trilogy.
ATAI: Where can people find you online?
Jeremy: My author site is jsmenefee.wordpress.com.
I’m on Facebook at /AuthorJSMenefee, and I’m on Twitter at @AuthorJSMenefee.
I have a newsletter with some member-only giveaways and so on —
ATAI: Thank you for sharing with us and our audience.
Jeremy: Thanks for having me! I appreciate the chance to talk with you. It has been fun, and an honor.
*NOTE: ATAI does not edit the responses of the authors.
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