Book Review: How Not To Write A Novel by Mittlemark and Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“How NOT To Write A Novel” is a great read for aspiring authors. It’s the reverse approach to many of the popular writing books that claim to be able to tell you how to write that next best seller. As Stephen King so aptly writes in his treatise “On Writing”, most of those writing advice books are complete crap. Writers for the most part can never be sure of the exact elements that make a particular book successful. Sometimes everything just comes together, but more often they do NOT.
So after you’ve read Strunk and White, and King, and maybe a few others, pull out that novel you wrote. You know the one. It’s been sitting on your shelf for half a decade under a pile of rejection letters from agents and editors, and then sit down with this book and a big red pen. Go through your book and check off all the cardinal sins you’ve committed and you’ll understand why you’re not living in a NYC penthouse and going on world book tours.
It’s important to note here that this book is intended for writers of genre fiction. It’s not for journalists, non-fiction writers, biographers, or those awful, pretentious, self-aggrandizing, literary fiction douchebags. If you’re writing literary fiction, then by all means throw out all the rules and head back to your co-op coffee house and sip on your organic, fair-trade, soy latte machiato and moan about the literary wasteland that is the NYT bestseller list.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve written two complete novels (queries and all) and several partials and I found myself guilty of some of the 200 sins in both books. What’s interesting to me is that the first novel committed 6-7 sins, and the second only 2-3. So I must be learning from my mistakes and growing somewhere in the experience.
There are common mistakes that genre fiction writers make that can be avoided if you know what those mistakes look like. The book lays out the 200 mistakes, arranged by category (Plot, character, style, etc.) and gives you a quick, humorous example of the mistake and then explains why you should scratch out the bad passages with indelible ink…and NEVER do that again. The book covers all of the common subjects that writers deal wrestle with: point of view, tense, characterization, structure, language, heroes, villains, sidekicks, pacing, climaxes, and even the process of querying and selling your completed work.
Tons of great examples of why you’re screwing up and shooting yourself in the foot. The examples are usually humorous and make the book a nice read. The authors take great care in the handling of writer’s delicate sensibilities and offer great alternatives. The book is a comprehensive look at genre fiction and even someone who’s written 2-3 novels can learn some of the nifty tricks that more successful authors use to great effect. The end section on writing queries is a fantastic resource for someone who hasn’t studied the art and voodoo that is a successful query.
The book should really be subtitled “168 common mistakes and a couple of dozen examples we stretched, duplicated, or warped to make the book have a nice round number”. Some of their examples are very thin duplications of already presented ideas, and some are just plain opinion based on individual choice. A good example of that is “A Novel Called It – wherein an abusive parent exists.” Clearly you can’t abuse the notion of having characters with bad parents, but you have to admit that bad parenting leads to interesting people. Not always “good” interesting, but interesting nonetheless. And all you have to do is watch the news to know that bad parents DO exist and are fairly common. I don’t write with wicked step-mothers, but it’s an archetype for a reason. And my last complaint is that by the half-way mark, the examples are no longer funny because they’re beating the same too-clever characters/situations to death. Lastly, the examples are TOO LONG. I shouldn’t have to read an entire page of bad writing for you to make your singular point.
I would recommend this book to anyone that writes fiction. It’s a nice resource to put on your shelf alongside some of the classic writer’s tools.