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

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

by Howard Mittelmark, Sandra Newman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061357954
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/01/2008
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 514,992
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)

About 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 Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, which was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. She is also the author of the novel Cake; the memoir, Changeling; How Not to Write a Novel, an irreverent how-to guide with Howard Mittelmark; and The Western Lit Survival Kit. She lives in New York.

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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.

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

What People are Saying About This

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….”

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How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
How Not To Write A Novel, by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, reads like several novels in one, crossed with a late-night comedy show. Short neat sections detail each of its “200 mistakes to avoid” if you want to get published. And short neat, over-the-top examples (from those several pseudo-novels) illustrate the points. Okay, so most aspiring novelists don’t write quite that badly, but the errors are bold and clear, and seeing them, watching them humorously deconstructed and analyzed by the authors, makes it easier for readers to spot the similar errors in their own writing. I certainly plan on using this book with our local writers’ group. And I shall use things I’ve learned from it to help me choose which scenes and characters to delete from my next novel. Disclosure: I found a copy and couldn’t resist buying it.
R-T-Katel More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Apolline on LibraryThing 6 days ago
This is definitely not a self help book who tells you how to do things better. On the contrary it is a book that tells you how to avoid screw ups. Some times it can be difficult to read perfect examples on good writing, and do the same yourself. In this book you get a check list of "what-for-goodness-sake-NOT-to-do" if you want to get published. If your writing is anywhere near the examples in this book, face the hard facts and realize that you will never get published. Please, spare the poor editor and don't send it in. This book is full of humor, examples of hopeless writing and a good portion of irony and sarcasm. It fits for writers with a lot of self insight and also for hobby writers who read it to improve their own writing without the aspiration to get published in the first place (my category). In the passed I have read books I didn't like, without being able to put my finger on why. Now I know!
karyanca on LibraryThing 6 days ago
A laugh-out-load funny read. Even more humorous than the examples of bad writing is how many made me recall the same mistakes in published works.Some errors are obvious when reading a book, but sometimes there is a "not quite right" feeling that is harder to identify. This book will certainly add another layer to my experience of reading novels.
Jim53 on LibraryThing 6 days ago
There are a lot of good tips here, and some excellent humor. I particularly liked the gum on the mantlepiece, a sly reference to Chekhov's gun. The book bogged down in the second half, but is worth reading for the aspiring writer, just to see a different approach from the usual how-to texts.
akblanchard on LibraryThing 6 days ago
This book is not only highly instructive, it¿s hilarious as well. Through brief examples and incisive commentary Mittelmark and Newman explain the mistakes that bog down so many novels. This informative and laugh-out-loud funny book be included in the curriculum of every creative writing program.
meggyweg on LibraryThing 6 days ago
Not only is this the funniest writing advice book I've ever read (the authors must be very gifted writers to write so hilariously badly) but it is also, I think, going to be one of the most useful. As it says in the afterword, if you follow all the advice on what not to do, "You could hold both Harper and Collins hostage without a chance of their employees ever agreeing to print a book on which your name appears. If Mr. Random were desperate to sleep with you, Mr. House would still step in to make sure he did not publish your novel."The authors, both of them very familiar with the publishing industry, go over dozens of common problems in amateur fiction, why they should not be done, and how to do otherwise. All in all, a winner.
TallyDi on LibraryThing 6 days ago
This book is a hoot. It consists of samples of writing guaranteed to make publishers reject manuscripts. Or, make most publishers reject them. A couple of times the bad example reminded me of a book I'd tried to read but put back down.
TheWordJar on LibraryThing 6 days ago
Having trouble writing your novel? Are you drowning in rejection notices from agents and publishers? Maybe the book you should have written is How Not to Write a Novel. Too late now. Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman beat you to it.Endless books and classes tout strategies and exercises to help writers with everything from developing plots to curing writer¿s block. But these authors and instructors don¿t realize it can sometimes be just as useful to know what not to do. Mittelmark and Newman have blessed the writing world with just such a tool. Culling tips from their own experiences as both writer and editor, they offer 200 ¿observations¿ that, if heeded, will guarantee your manuscript never sees the inside of a bookstore (unless you smuggle it in while browsing for real books).No element is left out of How Not to Write a Novel. Plot, character, style, setting, and theme all get the unroyal treatment. Although little attention is paid to how writers can remedy the missteps discussed, the authors graciously offer examples (which they seem to have taken great pleasure in writing) to illustrate their points. These excerpts provide humorous running stories throughout the book, and the reader can only hope the authors have greatly exaggerated any material that might actually have crossed their desks.This book is a must-read for both writers and book editors. Writers may recognize some of their own earnest, yet misguided, attempts at novel writing. Book editors will give a knowing chuckle, while kicking themselves for not writing this book first.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read this book with highlighter in hand, so that you can easily find the "nuggets" when writing your novel. A must read for budding writers.
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Tamicowden More than 1 year ago
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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