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Book Review: How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Neuman

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You’ve finally done it. You’ve created a four-hundred-something page manuscript with it all. Your soon-to-be book has a modern and untapped love theme, it handles contemporary mores in a irreverent and upbeat fashion, it has the unspeakable deed of the month, and it has telekinetic ninjas and zombie dinosaurs in a revisionist historical novel of the Barbary Wars. You may have even been one of those lucky freaks who’ve gotten a response from one of the big six publishers expressing interest in your project with a blank check enclosed. But please. Before you send those quires to potential buyers or doubleclick your way into self-publishing immortality, do one thing for the reading community: read How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Neuman.

So as not to smother your oeuvre, the authors have tailored an approach to writing instruction that just might make a new section pop up in book stores: the “how-not-to” section. Chapter by chapter the authors undergo the oversights of the subject of writing. Nowhere in life will aversion to the theme of a self-help book get you so far. If you have the great American novel in your sights, Howard and Sandra have double-handedly compiled a helpful litany of “ain’ts” comprised of 200 classic examples of what isn’t good writing.

On the subject of character dialogue, the road most traveled for new writers is the one with the most exposition. Here is a bad example from the book:

'The fact is our Cincinnati, Ohio, apartment is adequate for two bachelors, but I feel you should get your own place, now that you are engaged to your blonde girlfriend, Jane, who virtually lives here, as I’ve told you many times before.' 

On the same theme of dialogue, the recycling of the word “said” doesn’t sit well with new writers. But the result of explicitly coordinating all the dialogue with the delivery can be just as echoic as reusing the word “said.” Here’s another bad example from the book:

 ‘Funny?’ she interrogated.‘Hilarious!’ he expostulated. ‘Surely not?’ she doubted. ‘But how little you know!’ he exclaimed. ‘Says you!’ she objected. ‘That’s the last I am willing to say,’ he concluded.

And then later, another problem new writers run into is when the writer “punctuates hysterically.

Suddenly! she spotted Jack, and her heart melted – like a heart that had been frozen, but then was subjected to heat. ‘JACK! It’s ME! I am so glad to see you!’ she said, and ran to him, All her doubts were forgotten.

How Not to Write a Novel not only covers dialogue, but plot, character, and style are all present with their own corresponding faux ideal. There are also sections on setting, theme, research, pacing, and treatment of your villain character that your future readers will more than appreciate. At the end of the book there is a bonus chapter on how not to sell your novel with passages from cover letters that would likely hit the bottom of the wastebasket faster than you could say “William Morris Agency.”

So before you drop that envelope-pushing masterpiece off to publishers that are drooling over you next work and go spend that excessive option check on a pair of diamond-studded sneakers, do the readers and reviewers a solid and pick up How Not to Write a Novel. We’ll thank you later.

How Not to Write a Novel is published by HarperCollins and is now available for purchase. Howard Mittelmark also authored the novel Age of Consent. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Hollywood Reporter. Sandra Newman is the author of novels Cake, and The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done. Her writing also has appeared in Harper’s and Granta.

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About James O'Neil

  • With the rapid rise of self-publishing it seems that this could be a much needed title on the reference shelves of authors to be. Entertaining review, thanks for the excerpts!

  • Great review. I found this book to be one of the most helpful and entertaining writing manuals (or how not-to manuals) on the market today. I recommended it to every writer I know.

  • James

    Thanks for the feedback.

  • This is a good review and I hope to pick this book up so that I won’t make those mistakes!