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

( 10 )

Overview

"What do you think of my fiction book writing?" the aspiring novelist extorted.

"Darn," the editor hectored, in turn. "I can not publish your novel! It is full of what we in the business call 'really awful writing.'"

"But how shall I absolve this dilemma? I have already read every tome available on how to write well and get published!" The writer tossed his head about, wildly.

"It might help," opined the blonde editor, helpfully, "to ponder how NOT to write a novel, so you might avoid the very thing!"

Many ...

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

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Overview

"What do you think of my fiction book writing?" the aspiring novelist extorted.

"Darn," the editor hectored, in turn. "I can not publish your novel! It is full of what we in the business call 'really awful writing.'"

"But how shall I absolve this dilemma? I have already read every tome available on how to write well and get published!" The writer tossed his head about, wildly.

"It might help," opined the blonde editor, helpfully, "to ponder how NOT to write a novel, so you might avoid the very thing!"

Many writing books offer sound advice on how to write well. This is not one of those books. On the contrary, this is a collection of terrible, awkward, and laughably unreadable excerpts that will teach you what to avoid—at all costs—if you ever want your novel published.

In How Not to Write a Novel, authors Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman distill their 30 years combined experience in teaching, editing, writing, and reviewing fiction to bring you real advice from the other side of the query letter. Rather than telling you how or what to write, they identify the 200 most common mistakes unconsciously made by writers and teach you to recognize, avoid, and amend them. With hilarious "mis-examples" to demonstrate each manuscript-mangling error, they'll help you troubleshoot your beginnings and endings, bad guys, love interests, style, jokes, perspective, voice, and more. As funny as it is useful, this essential how-NOT-to guide will help you get your manuscript out of the slush pile and into the bookstore.

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Editorial Reviews

The Observer
“[A] hilarious, wickedly observed and deeply useful guide.”
Lynne Truss
“The teaching of creative writing just entered a whole new era with the publication of How Not to Write a Novel. Heavens, what a joy this book is….”
The Independent
“Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark have produced an invaluable guide.”
The Independent
“Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark have produced an invaluable guide.”
Library Journal

Here are two writing guides that, despite divergent themes, both offer informal, conversational texts that prove hard to put down. In their book, novelists Mittelmark (Age of Consent) and Newman (The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done) define and illustrate nearly every way to write a lousy novel, the idea being that if you read these examples (which they themselves devised for the purpose of instruction) you'll avoid the same pitfalls-a surprisingly distinctive approach within the crowded category of novel-writing guides. The authors cover mistakes within each major writing element (plot, characters, style, and setting) and then give brief attention to a few areas truly ripe for trouble: sex scenes, joke telling, postmodernism, and-the final hurdle-selling your novel to a publisher. Each of the 200 mistakes covered is humorously named, given a funny tagline, and then clarified with samples of horrible writing, followed by slightly more serious passages explaining and offering solutions to the problem. This writing how-to should carry a warning: it's the kind of book one reads at the expense of other responsibilities. With a useful index; recommended for most public libraries and for academic collections serving aspiring fiction writers.

Norton (founding director, Santa Fe Writing Inst.; Hawk Flies Above) offers a similarly speedy and approachable read. Only slightly over 100 pages, it gets right to the point about the process of crafting a memoir. Norton's goal is to teach lay writers her own method of writing compassionate and arresting personal memoir. Her instruction focuses on the titular concept of "shimmering images"-memories of blazing detail, manyonly a moment or two in real time, which are imbedded in the mind from childhood forward. Norton first outlines the steps for conjuring these images and capturing them on paper. She then follows with simple instruction for selecting, organizing, and unifying the images. Norton's writing is friendly and refreshingly spare, with most chapters only a few pages long. Though she assures readers perhaps too many times of her years of experience teaching these methods, her book should serve writing novices especially well. Recommended for public libraries.
—Stacey Rae Brownlie

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061357954
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/1/2008
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 279,784
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Writer and editor Howard Mittelmark's book reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hollywood Reporter, Writer's Digest, and other publications. He is the author of the novel Age of Consent.

Sandra Newman is the author of the novels Cake and The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done. Her writing has appeared in Harper's, Granta, and other publications.

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Read an Excerpt

How Not to Write a Novel
200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide

Chapter One

Beginnings and Setups

A manuscript comes screaming across the sky . . .

Many writers kill their plots in their infancy with an ill-conceived premise or an unreadable opening. Try any of the strategies we've collected in our extensive field work, and you too can cut off narrative momentum at the ankles.

The Lost Sock

Where the plot is too slight

"Fools," Thomas Abrams thought, shaking his head as he completed his inspection of the drainage assembly under the worried eyes of Len Stewart. "Foolish, foolish, fools," he muttered. Squirming out from under the catchment basin, he stood up and brushed off the grit that clung to his gray overalls. Then he picked up his clipboard and made a few notes on the form, while Len waited anxiously for the verdict. Thomas didn't mind making him wait.

"Well," he said, as he finished and put the pen away. "Well, well, well."

"What is it?" Len asked, unable to keep a tremor out of his voice.

"When will you people learn that you can't use a B-142 joint-enclosure with a 1811-D nipple cinch?"

"B-but—" Len stammered.

"Or maybe, let me take a wild guess here, just maybe, you confused an 1811-D with an 1811-E?" He paused to let it sink in before delivering the death-blow. " . . . Again."

He left Len speechless and walked away without a look back, chuckling ruefully as he imagined the look on Len's face when he fully realized the implications of his mistake.

Here the main conflict is barely adequate tosustain a Partridge Family episode. Remember that this drama has to carry the reader through 300-odd pages. The central dilemma of a novel should be important enough to change someone's life forever.

Furthermore, it should be something of broad interest. One of the first stumbling blocks a novelist must overcome is the misapprehension that what is of interest to him will necessarily be of interest to anybody else. A novel is never an opportunity to vent about the things that your roommates, friends, or mother cannot bear to listen to one more time. No matter how passionate and just your desire to see the masculine charms of the short man appreciated by the fair sex, or to excoriate landlords who refuse to make plumbing repairs, even when in violation of the specific wording of the lease, which wording he might pretend to be unaware of, but you know better because you have made highlighted copies for him as well as for your roommates, friends, and mother—these are not plots but gripes.

This is not to say that a short man, unlucky in love and living in a house with substandard plumbing, cannot be your hero, but his height and plumbing should be background and texture, sketched in briefly as he heads to the scene of the crime, wondering how the hell anyone could get injuries like that from a leg of mutton.

The Waiting Room

In which the story is too long delayed

Reggie boarded the train at Montauk and found a seat near the dining car. As he sat there, smelling the appalling cheeseburgers from the adjoining carriage, he started thinking about how he had decided to become a doctor. Even as a boy, he had been interested in grotesque diseases. But did that mean he had a vocation? The train jolted, keeping him from falling asleep, and the smell of those cheeseburgers was making him nauseous. It was the same way the sight of blood still made him feel, he realized. Why had he made that decision, so many years ago?

Montauk rushed backward in the windows . . .

(10 pages later:)

The last houses of Montauk were tiny among the sandy grass. They seemed to shine against the backdrop of Reggie's continuing gloom as he considered further the reasons for his current predicament. If only he had done the biology PhD he'd originally wanted, instead of taking the advice of Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank had said to him on that occasion, scratching his hairy neck as was his habit, "Now, Reggie, don't make the mistakes I made when I took that biology PhD in '56 and gave up my chances at . . ."

(10 pages later:)

. . . and to make a long story short, that's how I met your Aunt Katharine. And that's how you got here," Uncle Frank concluded. Reggie would have been nonplussed, he had reflected at the time, had he not learned of his mother's illicit affair with Uncle Frank from Cousin Stu months earlier, when Stu had called to tell him about his golf scholarship to Penn, a scholarship which had only rekindled Reggie's bitterness about his mistaken decision to take premed . . .

Here the writer churns out endless scenes establishing background information with no main story in sight. On page 50, the reader still has no idea why it's important to know about Reggie's true parentage, his medical career, or the geography of Montauk. By page 100, the reader would be having strong suspicions that it isn't important, were a reader ever to make it as far as page 100.

The writer has also created an entire frame scene in which nothing actually happens. Don't forget that from the reader's perspective, the main story line is what is happening to the protagonist now. So whatever Reggie thinks about on the train, the main action is a man sitting and staring out of a window, feeling a little queasy, page after page after page.

Avoid creating scenes merely as places where a character remembers or mulls over background information. The character will have plenty of time to do that in scenes where something actually happens. It would be much more effective, for instance, if Reggie had reservations about his profession in the course of a scene in which he is performing a life-saving operation on his kid brother.

If you find yourself unable to escape a Waiting Room, look honestly at your novel and consider what the first important event is. Everything before that event can probably be cut. If there is important information in that material, how briefly can it be explained? Surprisingly often, twenty pages of text can be replaced by a single paragraph of exposition or interior monologue. If you feel even more drastic measures are called for, see "Radical Surgery for Your Novel," page 11.

How Not to Write a Novel
200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide
. Copyright (c) by Howard Mittelmark . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Introduction     v
Plot     1
Beginnings and Setups     5
Complications and Pacing     21
Endings     41
Character     53
Character Essentials     55
Getting to Know Your Hero     61
Sidekicks and Significant Others     71
Bad Guys     85
Style-The Basics     99
Words and Phrases     101
Sentences and Paragraphs     113
Dialogue     131
Style-Perspective and Voice     153
Narrative Stance     155
Interior Monologue     173
The World of the Bad Novel     187
Setting     191
Research and Historical Background     199
Theme     211
Special Effects and Novelty Acts-Do Not Try this at Home     225
How Not to Sell a Novel     239
Afterword     257
Index     259
About the Authors     263

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First Chapter

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

Chapter One

Beginnings and Setups

A manuscript comes screaming across the sky . . .

Many writers kill their plots in their infancy with an ill-conceived premise or an unreadable opening. Try any of the strategies we've collected in our extensive field work, and you too can cut off narrative momentum at the ankles.

The Lost Sock

Where the plot is too slight

"Fools," Thomas Abrams thought, shaking his head as he completed his inspection of the drainage assembly under the worried eyes of Len Stewart. "Foolish, foolish, fools," he muttered. Squirming out from under the catchment basin, he stood up and brushed off the grit that clung to his gray overalls. Then he picked up his clipboard and made a few notes on the form, while Len waited anxiously for the verdict. Thomas didn't mind making him wait.

"Well," he said, as he finished and put the pen away. "Well, well, well."

"What is it?" Len asked, unable to keep a tremor out of his voice.

"When will you people learn that you can't use a B-142 joint-enclosure with a 1811-D nipple cinch?"

"B-but—" Len stammered.

"Or maybe, let me take a wild guess here, just maybe, you confused an 1811-D with an 1811-E?" He paused to let it sink in before delivering the death-blow. " . . . Again."

He left Len speechless and walked away without a look back, chuckling ruefully as he imagined the look on Len's face when he fully realized the implications of his mistake.

Here the main conflict is barely adequate to sustain a Partridge Family episode. Remember that this drama has to carry the reader through 300-odd pages. The central dilemma of a novel should be important enough to change someone's life forever.

Furthermore, it should be something of broad interest. One of the first stumbling blocks a novelist must overcome is the misapprehension that what is of interest to him will necessarily be of interest to anybody else. A novel is never an opportunity to vent about the things that your roommates, friends, or mother cannot bear to listen to one more time. No matter how passionate and just your desire to see the masculine charms of the short man appreciated by the fair sex, or to excoriate landlords who refuse to make plumbing repairs, even when in violation of the specific wording of the lease, which wording he might pretend to be unaware of, but you know better because you have made highlighted copies for him as well as for your roommates, friends, and mother—these are not plots but gripes.

This is not to say that a short man, unlucky in love and living in a house with substandard plumbing, cannot be your hero, but his height and plumbing should be background and texture, sketched in briefly as he heads to the scene of the crime, wondering how the hell anyone could get injuries like that from a leg of mutton.

The Waiting Room

In which the story is too long delayed

Reggie boarded the train at Montauk and found a seat near the dining car. As he sat there, smelling the appalling cheeseburgers from the adjoining carriage, he started thinking about how he had decided to become a doctor. Even as a boy, he had been interested in grotesque diseases. But did that mean he had a vocation? The train jolted, keeping him from falling asleep, and the smell of those cheeseburgers was making him nauseous. It was the same way the sight of blood still made him feel, he realized. Why had he made that decision, so many years ago?

Montauk rushed backward in the windows . . .

(10 pages later:)

The last houses of Montauk were tiny among the sandy grass. They seemed to shine against the backdrop of Reggie's continuing gloom as he considered further the reasons for his current predicament. If only he had done the biology PhD he'd originally wanted, instead of taking the advice of Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank had said to him on that occasion, scratching his hairy neck as was his habit, "Now, Reggie, don't make the mistakes I made when I took that biology PhD in '56 and gave up my chances at . . ."

(10 pages later:)

. . . and to make a long story short, that's how I met your Aunt Katharine. And that's how you got here," Uncle Frank concluded. Reggie would have been nonplussed, he had reflected at the time, had he not learned of his mother's illicit affair with Uncle Frank from Cousin Stu months earlier, when Stu had called to tell him about his golf scholarship to Penn, a scholarship which had only rekindled Reggie's bitterness about his mistaken decision to take premed . . .

Here the writer churns out endless scenes establishing background information with no main story in sight. On page 50, the reader still has no idea why it's important to know about Reggie's true parentage, his medical career, or the geography of Montauk. By page 100, the reader would be having strong suspicions that it isn't important, were a reader ever to make it as far as page 100.

The writer has also created an entire frame scene in which nothing actually happens. Don't forget that from the reader's perspective, the main story line is what is happening to the protagonist now. So whatever Reggie thinks about on the train, the main action is a man sitting and staring out of a window, feeling a little queasy, page after page after page.

Avoid creating scenes merely as places where a character remembers or mulls over background information. The character will have plenty of time to do that in scenes where something actually happens. It would be much more effective, for instance, if Reggie had reservations about his profession in the course of a scene in which he is performing a life-saving operation on his kid brother.

If you find yourself unable to escape a Waiting Room, look honestly at your novel and consider what the first important event is. Everything before that event can probably be cut. If there is important information in that material, how briefly can it be explained? Surprisingly often, twenty pages of text can be replaced by a single paragraph of exposition or interior monologue. If you feel even more drastic measures are called for, see "Radical Surgery for Your Novel," page 11.

How Not to Write a Novel
200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide
. Copyright © by Howard Mittelmark. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 23, 2012

    Hysterical AND Helpful

    This book is almost literally written the way I talk, and it's refreshing to have a book specifically tell you what NOT to do when writing a novel, as opposed to the myriad of opinions on what you SHOULD do. Extremely helpful and highly enjoyable, and the overall sarcastic tone (especially in regards to the samples of mind-numbingly terrible prose) makes even the most embarrassing writing mistake too silly not to laugh at. Highly recommended read for any budding author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2011

    Hilarious read for those honing their craft!

    This is one of the most enjoyable books on writing that I have read. The book's structure is clear and the advice--cleverly hidden in comedy--is sound. I teach undergraduate students at university so I am constantly searching for writing books that will hold their attention, and this is one of them. That being said, for those who have no sense of humor or gasp when they see four letter words in print, this is probably not for you.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 24, 2010

    An excellent book for writers

    I have many books on writing, but it is rare that I find reading one truly enjoyable. The examples of the problem areas that so often show up in the work of beginning (and sometimes, even experienced) novelists are hysterical. This is a truly palatable dose of medicine.

    This book moves to the top of my "must read" list for aspiring writers. If you are wondering why you manuscript isn't being picked up, the answer is probably in here.

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