- John Gaines
Have you ever wanted to become a writer and brave the strange and confusing world of trying to sell your work to the publishing industry? Do you feel you might need a refresher course in creating a marketable thriller or romance novel? If you are curious about improving your writing technique to make your work more compelling, concise, or appealing to publishers, you may benefit from How Not to Write a Novel, a writing guide from Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman. This guide is a compilation of examples of common writing mistakes that can make novels confusing, boring, or unappealing to read. Humorous and well-organized, this book is both a great educational resource and a good comedic read.
The book is structured into various chapters that explain particular areas where a novel can go wrong, such as “Dialogue,” “Narrative Stance,” and “Character Essentials.” Various mistakes that a writer can make are portrayed through short passages (roughly a paragraph to three paragraphs long in most cases) that provide examples of specific stylistic choices that the writer should avoid. These are intentionally short and comedic in style, using stereotypical character names and broad stylistic flourishes to make the poor writing style obvious to the reader. Occasionally a counter-example will be provided of a specific genre or book that makes the “mistake” but is able to make it work—for example, paranormal romance as a consistent genre is okay, putting paranormal elements into the last chapter of an otherwise realistic novel is not. The specific lessons are so short that they only take about a minute to read, making it easy to focus on the specific problems with the characterization, plot, and writing style of a novel.
Most of the lessons in How Not to Write a Novel are excellent and can be applied to any novel, such as not to write “perfect” characters or to rely on punctuation for emphasis. However, occasionally the writers’ own opinions get in the way of an objective analysis. For example, in one chapter they complain about the overuse of dream sequences, claiming that dream sequences are a dated relic of the early 20th century’s Freud fixation and all novels should only include one dream sequence at most. Given that Inception, one of the most popular films of the 2010s, revolved around dream sequences, this seems to be more a matter of the authors’ personal tastes than a stylistic guideline that can be applied to all writing. Also odd is the decision to criticize people who describe pets or animals in literature, given the many “cat mysteries” written by authors such as Rita Mae Brown and Carole Nelson Douglas. The idea that animal characters in a novel make it “bad writing” or “unmarketable” is somewhat dubious.
In contrast, most of the lessons from How Not to Write a Novel are excellent. Particularly useful to the writer’s brain are lessons such as to avoid “magic economics” where characters’ funds come out of nowhere, situations where characters seem to have no mundane details to their lives such as work, and having last chapters that describe whatever political or symbolic point the author is trying to make with sledgehammer subtlety. The only thing missing are excerpts from real novels that would illustrate these points; it would be interesting to see which novels the authors think portray these problems. Nonetheless, How Not to Write a Novel is an excellent guide for anyone looking to get started in the field of creative writing.