09 May 2010

How Not to Write A Novel

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide
reviewed by Carrie Bailey

If you've been to a club or watched a comedy routine where insulting the audience equals absolute hilarity, then you can cope with this book.  Just realize before hand that this writing manual has only one audience member.    

Writer and editor, Howard Mittelmark, and author Sandra Newman provide no less than 200 common mistakes for the writer serious about being published. "How Not to Write a Novel" exaggerates and dissects unintended and unwanted glimpses into an author's psyche through grave errors of writing.

I'm particularly fond of the sections titled:
"If there must be a cat, do not for the love of god name it..." and "You'll have to go through me: Wherein the fact that a character has senses is paramount." and "'Fuck you!' he said profanely."
But the reason is because I don't make those mistakes.  I've never been tempted to use this formula to name a cat: Mr. + adjective + anatomical feature.  Maybe, I've dallied on sensory input without advancing my plot at times, but I avoid most empty shock value traps. 

The mistakes I do make were all painstakingly detailed by the authors in Part IV: STYLE - Perspective and Voice.  Here their examples made me cringe and not for lack of humor.  Consider for example:

Every Breath You Take: Wherein every passing mood is lovingly detailed:

"I'm getting the mussels verbiage," he said, smiling at me in that way he had.
I smiled back, feeling a little wistful.  "I think I'll get the fracas medallios," I said.  I put down the menu, the wistfulness giving way to gratitude for his presence.
He reached out and took my hand, sending a wave of love through me.  "Still want to go to that hotel? he asked.
I felt a slight tension, perhaps even anxiety...
I want my characters to smile and be happy, is that so bad?  Shouldn't I tell the reader?  Ouch!  They hurt me with this one.  Of course, my writing doesn't resemble the exaggerated passages in this manual, but the theme of this error struck a cord.

Whether the desire to replace the word "said" with the aid of a thesaurus or forgetting characters present in a scene until its end, mistakes happen to every writer for the same reasons.  It's like learning to drive, you can't expect to just hit the gas petal and go.  Within that metaphor, "How Not to Write a Novel" would be the combined effect of many tickets, jerks on their horns, and calls to your insurance all conveyed in one small manual.  If you take that sort of abuse personally, don't buy this book.

Though they offer useful insight on a full range of rejection worthy errors, it's witty cultural references guarantee it's irrelevancy within five years or less.  I would recommend to buy it, use it, but then pass it off to a friend.  Or just reserve it from the library, but don't consider it for an edition to a home library or your writing reference collection.  That is, unless you collect fine works of ridicule and masochism.



  1. That's a good one. I read it and I did recognize some mistakes that I used to make. Ones I don't make anymore.

  2. I definitely would like to take a look at it. A lot of my own noveling errors I've ironed out through copious editing and rewrites.

  3. Hey lady, when you bring over your manuscript, can you bring that book? I'd love to take a look at it. It sounds like a useful, funny read. Hugs!

  4. Alright, that makes this comment section officially the: borrow my copy of "How Not to Write a Novel" sign-up sheet.

    Yes, Lyssa, you first.

  5. Thanks for this review, C.E. and the insightful advice that this guide is 'time-sensitive' in it's relevancy. I can only add that, in the advice given regarding 'Wherein every passing mood is lovingly detailed', the emphasis is that it not be excessive. Poignant moments between characters wherein descriptive action is detailed will be more effective if used sparingly for the greater cause of enriching/advancing the plot. Just as sometimes spending more time on the descriptive at the expense of plot advancement is your style; your unique signature and to be embraced as such.

    As a guide it promotes self-awareness but an instruction manual it is not. Taking the analogy of driving, we, as writers, need to learn the 'rules of the road' but we all drive differently and sometimes, breaking a rule here or there, is not a violation but rather an evolution of creativity as our roads are unique and not shared.

  6. That's an set of excellent points.

    I've often considered it my motto: "No Thru Traffic means Short Cut."

    When I read How Not to Write a Novel, I often noticed that many favored parts of very successful works violate these "rules."

    I think the point is well taken that it promotes self-awareness.