There are a lot of books on how to write novels. Countless titles of tips and tricks adorn the shelves of local bookstores. Yet, the single most useful book I’ve ever read didn’t tell me how to write a novel, it told me how not to write one.
How NOT to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman provides readers with 200 missteps in novel writing and how to avoid them. Both authors are also editors, combining their years of experience to show readers the most common problems they’ve noticed in manuscripts. They go through each example, detailing why it doesn’t work, and offer a few suggestions on how to fix the problem.
Also, the book is hilarious.
Each misstep is marked by a piece of sample writing, supposedly based on submissions the authors actually received during their time as editors. These samples are groan-worthy, overly ridiculous, and extremely fun to read aloud in your most over-dramatic voice. The amount of snark in the commentary is also incredibly fun. This is one self-help writing book you’ll actually want to re-read.
The advice offered is solid. The authors cover everything: plot, characters, narrative voice, dialogue, world-building, even a few novelties like sex scenes and humour. While they ask you to avoid most everything they show, they do acknowledge that these missteps do work in some genres. And while you may see best-sellers that do everything this book says they shouldn’t, well, Mittelmark and Newman couldn’t have possibly predicted Fifty Shades of Grey, could they?
Now, you may flip through this book and think that the authors are pointing out the obvious. Of course this is bad writing. Of course you shouldn’t do that. How is this book going to help you if you know all of this?
Well, if you’ve ever read fanfiction, you’d know that some people do actually think this is good writing. How NOT to Write a Novel asks you to step back and examine your own work for these flaws. I did, and found I was responsible for taking too long to get into the plot, delving pointlessly into a character’s childhood, and having long trains of exposition with little action.
I’m still guilty of the last one, occasionally.
But I’ve learned more from this book than I have from any other self-help writing books to date. I recommend it to everyone who’s really serious about writing a novel. It’s insightful, hilarious, and you’ll probably catch yourself reading it for entertainment as well as education.