I was recently blessed with an opportunity to spend the evening with Mike Garrett—a publishing industry veteran who served as Stephen King’s first editor! By the way, that’s not some spurious claim that Mike throws around along with every other editor who worked with King early in his career. No, it’s actually King himself who credits Mike as being his first editor and publisher in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Mike spent more than 30 years in the publishing industry and has edited quite a few more NYT bestselling authors. He has taught many classes and workshops on writing, editing, and publishing. Mike believes that tons of extremely talented writers never get published because publishers and agents put up too many roadblocks for new writers. He shared how we can best overcome those roadblocks and get on the road to publishing success.
I’ve compiled the most interesting insights he shared and organized them into two sections: 1) General Writing and Publishing Advice 2) Fiction Writing Advice. Enjoy!
General Writing and Publishing Advice
1. Writing = Art
Publishing = Business
There are two cabinet makers in a town. Both produce nice cabinets, but they have different approaches. One approaches cabinet making as an art. His cabinets are beautiful, but he only builds them the way he wants to build them. Every now and then, someone comes by his shop, finds something they like, and makes a purchase. The other cabinet maker sells a lot more cabinets. His approach is to go out into the neighborhoods and ask people what they want. He’ll take measurements, get your preferences for colors and styles, and make exactly what fits your needs and desires. He has a booming business. Neither approach is wrong, but one is much more lucrative. Writers basically have the same choice. We can approach writing purely as an art form—a medium that exists only for us to express our souls—or we can approach it more like a business. There’s still plenty of creativity in the second option, but it has more constraints.
2. The average reader is not going to evaluate your writing skills. They’re just looking for a good story.
3. There are no rules for bestselling authors. Once they’re established, they can do whatever they want, so don’t try to mimic them. Publishers expect specific things from new writers. Find out what they want and deliver it to them.
4. Too many talented writers have too much pride and ego wrapped up in their work. This causes them to pay less attention to the needs of readers.
5. Your audience is not made up of your writing peers. Lots of people get involved in critique groups. These can be unhealthy, especially if people begin to critique each other to death. Writers evaluate writing much differently than the average reader. You’re probably better off with a single editor or writing friend critiquing your work.
6. Bestselling authors were born with talent, but not skill or knowledge. They all have to learn the business.
7. Rejection happens to everyone, and it is always tough.
8. Write what you love to read.
9. Fit into a niche that’s already there. You can’t expect publishers to carve out a new niche for you.
10. If you focus on why you’re writing and who you’re writing for—and approach it as a business—you can succeed.
Fiction Writing Advice
1) Don’t give your main character’s backstory all at once. The formula for a successful novel = interesting main character + interesting conflict + conflict resolution. To have an interesting character, they must have an interesting backstory. But their backstory must be worked into the main story. You can’t just state it all at once in the beginning of the novel. That has the same effect on readers as when you’re having a conversation with someone, and they talk for ten minutes straight without pausing or letting you respond. It needs to be broken up. You don’t get to know someone in real life by hearing their life story all at once. Instead, time passes. Scenes change. You learn more about them the more time you spend with them.
2) Let your novel unfold like a good movie. Think about how great movies play out. There is rarely a narrator giving you the story. Instead, scenes appear. Things happen. The story unfolds through each scene. Write your novel the same way.
3) Every character in your book needs to have a reason to be there. If there’s no good reason for a character’s existence, delete them.
4) Your main character should not be perfect, but they should be likable.
5) Novels are about people. Planets, explosions, wars, space; these are all just settings for readers to get to know the people in your story.
6) A great novel will leave readers thinking about the characters after the book is over. Readers will even feel like they miss the characters.
7) The most important trait of any writer is empathy. You have to be able to feel and to know what other people feel. You need empathy for your characters, your readers, and even your publisher. You need to understand what they need and want.
8) Let your hometown be the setting of your first novel.
9) Readers should be able to visualize every scene. A very well-written novel will play like a movie in the mind of a reader.
10) James Patterson’s fans are going to read his book all the way through because they expect him to deliver the goods at some point. But new (and unestablished) authors have to work very hard to keep the reader interested, especially in the beginning of the book. It’s way too easy to put down a book and forget about it.
Mike still works as a freelance editor. You can find out more about his editing services at his website: ManuscriptCritique.com
Mike is also releasing a new novel in February of 2019. It is called Innocence Denied and can be pre-ordered on Amazon here.
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