Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark: How Not To Write A Novel: 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published.

9780141038544h1I am not sure why I wanted to read this book (except that, as so often, I was reeled in by the witty cover – a handgun pointed at a sweet fluffy kitten. It turns out that examples of the masterly or inept handling of Fluffy’s fate feature from time to time). I am not writing a novel, nor do I have an unpublished tear-stained manuscript in a drawer, nor do I think there is a novel deep inside me waiting to get out, in fact I’m certain there isn’t, because I’ve had a good look. But this book has pleasures and insights for the reader, as well as the writer. And as I DO write minutes, committee reports, business cases, powerpoints (shoot me now) and blog posts for Vulpes Libris, I found some of the advice relevant and helpful to me too.

The authors are professional readers of novels, as well as published authors. Mittelmark was worked in publishing and literary agencies, and has been a novelist, ghost-writer and reviewer. Newman is a teacher of creative writing and a journalist, as well as a published novelist. They write in a very lively and witty style, which makes this one of the funniest books of serious intent I have read for a long time.

They illustrate and describe their 200 worst sins of novel writing in an eerily skillful fashion. It must take an awe-inspiring mastery of technique to get each of their examples of ineffective writing exactly right, which they do. I say ineffective writing, not bad writing, as their other piece of genius is to emulate a good writer making a bit of a hash of it, or taking a wrong path, rather than a doomed writer who will never transcend mistakes. Each of the examples is given a catchy name, the better, I suppose, to stick in the memory (such as The Vegan Viking, where a character takes up an implausibly politically correct stance – Bernard Cornwell, please step forward – or The Unruly Zit, an awful warning against mishandling that fashionable gross-out material). Following an example of the particular writing sin, there is a commentary and some advice on how to take avoiding action. Then for each of the sections: plot, character, style including tone, voice and point of view, and special effects, there are shaded boxes with of generalised observations, advice and even some exercises. Finally, there is a section on selling the end product, which I think can be summarised as ‘When All Else Fails, Read The Instructions’. This is where the authors’ experience of the book world tells – they have seen it all: (‘Dear Agent who specified ‘Query Only Letter’: please find enclosed the 500 page manuscript of my novel But I’m More Specialer Than Everyone Else …’).

I smiled at some of the examples with a sense of recognition, and then thought – just a minute, these passages are supposed to be from unpublishable novels. So they do get through, don’t they. It will be fun from now on, when suffering my way through a novel I am not enjoying very much, to see if I can put a name to the particular longueur. For the reader of fiction, on one level, this book can be read as an amusing tour de force of comic writing, specifically, of parody. By illustrating the reverse, it is also full of insight of what it is about a successful novel that draws the reader in and sustains interest to the last page, and I liked that a lot.

Only a writer of novels will be able us to tell if this is a valuable and helpful writers’ manual or not. I really hope that writers will come back here with their own commentary on the book. I’d be interested to know as well if its relentlessly comic tone throughout is encouraging, or dispiriting for writers struggling to pull those creations that have their heart and soul in them into some sort of successful shape.

So for me, as a writer of committee reports, and … oh, you know, stuff for work, I don’t have to worry about my sex scenes being suitably arousing, or my bad guys being plausibly and competently evil, though I do take on board that if I risk a joke in the middle of my risk assessment, it had better be funny. But their single best piece of advice on plot, Know what the chase is, and cut to it’, will from now on be my motto for everything I write. It may or may not enable me to break my bad writing habits.

Paperback: x, 262 pages.  Penguin Books, 2009.  ISBN 9780141038544

12 comments on “Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark: How Not To Write A Novel: 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published.

  1. Rosy T
    March 11, 2009

    From one ‘writer of novels’, Hilary, I can tell you that the book is wincingly close to home. The recogniton factor, as the authors’ examples highlight sin after sin one is all too conscious of having committed oneself, is painful – and salutary. And it certainly is (for all that) an achingly funny read.

    But sometimes I just wanted to say, ‘Noooooo! I do that, and I want to carry on doing it, please.’ (The inclusion of pets is my main ‘bone’ of contention with the book – for the authors a complete no-no, whereas I’m afraid I maintain my contrary stance. What is the point of a novel without a spaniel in it?)

  2. sarah
    March 11, 2009

    It has the most brilliant cover!

  3. Kate Lace
    March 11, 2009

    I just have to get this book. I critique m/s for others as well as writing my own and I am sure this will be the very thing I need to help me! Besides anythign that’s going to make me laugh has to be a winner.

  4. Lisa
    March 11, 2009

    Thanks for this, Hilary. I keep seeing this book everywhere and it looks like good fun. Wince-inducing fun.

    P.S I am 100% with RosyT on the spaniels.

  5. Scobberlotcher
    March 11, 2009

    You had me at “PowerPoints…shoot me now.”

    I agree, that cover is catchy, though I have to wonder what PETA would say. 🙂 Seriously, I’ll have to check it out. It sounds as if it might be a colorful version of that great book Eats Shoots & Leaves.

  6. Jackie
    March 11, 2009

    I always think it’s a mark of extra care when an author includes a pet, it adds humor & emotion to the story.
    When I saw the title in the Coming Up post, I expected something serious, so it’s a surprise to read about how funny it is. This sounds like it would be entertaining, at least from a non-writer’s point of view.
    That is one adorable kitten on the cover. Awww!

  7. CB James
    March 11, 2009

    “Know what the chase is and cut to it” Brilliant.

    I also love “Get to the point and stay there,” which I heard in a play once.

    Sounds like fun book.

  8. Kari
    March 12, 2009

    I expect the problem with including pets in a story is that they will often propel the plot into a bottomless chasm of sentimentality that threatens to suck all the blood out of the piece with the Evil Fangs of Triteness. I’m not saying this always happens, but it can. A story can be all…”Interesting characters…multi-layered thematic structure…suspense…delicious sense of hu–PUPPY! Awwwwwwwwwwww…”

  9. Sam
    March 12, 2009

    I love this book. Have to say i have pets (that are named!) in my current book. I couldn’t possibly shoot them!! I love the cover as well – i think it also represents how i feel when i send out my wee manuscript out to agents – their pistols are all cocked, ready to kill it dead!


  10. Andy
    March 13, 2009

    Since cats are ruthless killers I’d like to think the gunman (or woman) doesn’t stand a chance. Can you not hear the sound of claws being sharpened ready for the kill? And see those cold eyes calculating the distance for the pounce?

    (I’m on the side of cats, by the way – just under no illusions about their assassin-like nature)

    Very good idea for a book, but I’m not brave enough to read it.


  11. notinparis
    March 15, 2009

    I spluttered coffee all over my keyboard when I read the title ‘The Vegan Vampire’. This is definitely going to be one to look out for!

  12. Pingback: The Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell, read by Richard Armitage « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2009 by in Entries by Hilary, Uncategorized and tagged , , .



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