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Book Review: How NOT To Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

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In addition to being a useful how-not-to manual for any aspiring novelist, How NOT To Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them — A Misstep-By-Misstep Guide also happens to be a hilarious read.  Experienced editors and writers Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman provide tremendously awkward examples of mistakes that are sure to make any editor toss a manuscript submission straight into the garbage.

The Introduction begins:

Unpublished authors often cite the case of John Kennedy Toole, who, unable to find a publisher for his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, took his own life.  Thereafter, his mother relentlessly championed the book, which was eventually published to great acclaim and earned him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Yes, we say, that is a strategy, but it is a strategy that demands a remarkable level of commitment from the author's mother, and an even greater commitment from the author.  And, of course, it puts a crimp in the book tour.

Every writer begins with a first draft to get the story and ideas onto paper.  It takes a talented writer to then go through and rewrite the story to become something intriguing and worthwhile to the reader.  This can be a painful process for a writer, who no doubt spent countless hours devising all those scenes, characters, and plot details.  Sometimes the writer is so close to the subject that it is difficult to be objective about the writing that he or she committed to the page with such personal effort and devotion.

Regarding plot-lines, Mittelmark and Newman advise in the first chapter:

A great many plot problems that show up in unpublished manuscripts can be resolved with a single strategy.  Know what the chase is, and cut to it.

They go on to offer similar such helpful advice about characterization, style, and other components of novel writing.  The observations they provide are simple and straight-forward, yet enlightening.  Some of the side-splitting examples of pitfalls include:

  • Now with 20% More Homily!  (Where the author tells us what he's just spent 300 pages telling us)
  • Jimbo Knows Me Better Than I Know Myself  (Wherein a friend character is introduced to no purpose)
  • Ya Hadda Be There  (Wherein the author thinks you know what he means)
  • Sock Puppetry  (When all characters speak in the voice of the surrounding prose)
  • Swann Song  (Wherein a character ignores the scene that is occurring to reminisce about one that is not)

Mittelmark and Newman wrap up How NOT To Write a Novel with advice about the query process.  Creating a compelling novel can be a monumental accomplishment, and effectively pitching it to a potential editor requires a bit of business savvy.  Having seen hundreds of unpublished novels pass across their desks over the years, Newman and Mittelmark offer a wealth of information about the type of material that ends up in the recycling bin, as well as the types of query letters and synopses that would deter an editor from giving the novel serious consideration before the first page is read.

This primer will help a writer to recognize some of the things that should be removed from a manuscript, as well as areas that should be further developed, before submitting it to an editor for review.  A writer who follows their sage advice will certainly avoid some embarrassing mistakes and may even succeed in selling that first novel.  At the very least, laughter is sure to erupt more than once during the reading of this book.

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About Lisa Damian

  • It sounds like an excellent read, somewhat reminiscent of Anne Lamott’s great book “Bird By Bird,” which gives great advice to writers in a hilarious way.