How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

Posted by Mrs Giggles on April 25, 2009 in 5 Oogies, Book Reviews, Nonfiction / 0 Comments

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How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

Penguin, £9.99, ISBN 978-0-141-03854-4
Writing, 2009

There is no “I” in Book Deal.

Why was I reading a book that is supposedly written for other authors out there, you ask? No, I’m not secretly working on a big romantic masterpiece featuring a were-skunk and a hermaphrodite psychic vampire. What happened was I happened to be telling an online friend that I could use something really funny to read, but without too many clichés of a romantic comedy, and she suggested this book. She insisted that I would love it even if I was not an author. She also promised that she would name the nymphomaniac demon queen in her next book after me if I turned out to be unhappy with this book. Fair enough. I ordered this book from Amazon UK and, when it arrived, gave a skeptical “Hmmph!” as I sat down and began reading.

When every POV in the room is given equal time, you no longer have a novel; you have a focus group.

Oh my god, I have never laughed so much and so hard. From the first page to the last, I was cackling like an incontinent hyena when I wasn’t giggling and even slapping my palm against the hand rest of my sofa like a complete loon.

Overuse of the exclamation mark makes them dwindle in significance until finally they carry no more urgency than a period – but one that graphically pokes you in the eye as you reach the end of each sentence.

How Not to Write a Novel is a humorous how-not-to book, the concept being that this book will show you how to not get published – ever. We are talking about genre books, by the way, and these authors also cover the bad writing in the romance genre with the same derision that they give bad writing in other genres, heh.

In a movie, when Scarlett Johansson appears, and the male lead instantly falls for her, we see why. In a novel, we see the same typeface we’ve been seeing all along. The most impassioned, eloquent description of Angelina Jolie naked will not have the impact of five seconds of poorly shot video; and while millions of years of evolution might have programmed us to respond to size, it is not font size. Worse, without such instinctive responses, we are all too likely to resent characters – even of the opposite sex – for being ideally gorgeous. This doesn’t mean your love interests shouldn’t be good-looking, only that they must also have a lovable quality. At the very least, they should have a quality.

Remember: blonde, brunette, and redhead are not personality types.

This book is a treasure trove as, using many just too hilarious snippets of bad writing that the authors have deliberately composed for this book, the authors offer plenty of cautionary tales on what happens when authors fall into common traps of writing. These traps are divided into five main sections: Plot, Character, Style (Basic), Style (Perspective and Voice), and Setting. The last two sections comprise “special effects” (sex scenes and bad humor) and querying pitfalls.

And the authors do it with style too, leaving me to clutch at my aching sides as I try to contain my laughter. I’m sure the neighbors must have thought that I was possessed or something. In a way, this is also a great vicarious exercise for me as I read about bad POV switches, poor pacing, bad world building, bad prose, bad sex scenes, and poor characterization efforts. By laughing, I am also releasing some of the bad humors pent up in me from reading unsatisfying or just plain annoying books in the past few weeks.

I’m not an author so I can’t vouch for the usefulness of this book when it comes to the craft. But if you are an author or you are aspiring to be one, perhaps you want to try this short test to gauge for yourself how much you may or may not need this book. I have taken five of the hilarious snippets from this book, one from each five main sections I mentioned above, and you figure out what is the main flaw in each snippet. I’ve picked a few that I feel are the trickiest of the lot, so who knows, this may not be that easy a test.

The past eight hours had been the greatest martyrdom Jack had ever endured. He was barely able to lift the crippled Synthya to rescue her from the now deadly office. As Jack carried her out to safety, groaning at the strain on his already injured back, suddenly Dr Nefaro, the renegade ergonomics expert, stood in front of them, wielding his army-issue .68 Grump automatic pistol.
Don’t panic, Jack told himself. All you need to do is to get in a blow to his wrist. That will make him drop the gun, and you can duck, slipping Synthya to the ground unharmed, and knock him out with the butt.

“Going somewhere?” sneered Nefaro. He leered at Synthya, lecherously and salaciously.

“Yeah, we’re going home, and then we’re going to get married,” said Jack breezily.

“I don’t know how you’re going to do that – when you’re dead!”

Jack sprang into action. Dealing Doctor Nefaro a blow on the wrist, he made him drop the gun. Jack then ducked, slipping Synthya to the ground unharmed, grabbed the gun, and clubbed Nefaro on the head, dropping him to his knees. Soon Nefaro was stretched out unconscious on the ground.

“That will teach you to design chairs that place undue pressure on the lower lumbar structure!” Jack cried in victory.

Ready for the answer?

The author let the reader know in advance what was going to happen, in this case, what would occur when Jack pounced on Dr Nefaro. This ruined the climatic moment of the scene.

The phone rang and Melissa ran to get it. It was her best friend, Jonquil.

“Hey, Monster-Mel,” Jonquil greeted her old friend.

“Oh, Jonkey,” Melinda cried delightedly. “I haven’t heard from you in two days!”

“I know, it’s unusual for us to go so long without talking,” said Jonquil. “You’re the kind of person who really likes a lot of intimacy.”

“Yes, but it shows me I’ve been withdrawn lately.”

“Oh, but you’ll get back your stride. I know you’ve been down in the mouth about this job. Maybe what you need is a Jonkey Junket.”

Melinda thought of how many times Jonquil had boosted her spirits with one of these junkets. Melinda had always been the quiet, sometimes awkward one of the pair, while Jonquil was the outgoing party girl. Jonquil would take her to the top of the Empire State Building; or to eat at their favorite Italian restaurant ever, Gotti’s; or sometimes they would just get a chick-flick on DVD and eat Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream in front of the television set. What would she have done all these years without Jonquil?

I’ve seen this one many times in romances from Kimani. Want to know the answer?

The author had introduced, in a really artificial manner, a friend character that served no purpose other than to show off the main character’s personality. And notice how Melinda drifted off halfway in the conversation with Jonquil to reminisce about their friendship?

His father was IRA and his mother was Quebecois, and they had relinquished their mortal coils in the internecine conflagration that ended their conjoined separatist movement, IRA-Q. The appellation he was given by his progenitors was Ray O’Vaque (“Like the battery,” he’d elucidate, with an adamantine stare that proscribed any mirth). In his years of incarceration, however, he had earned the sobriquet “Uncle Milty” for his piscine amatory habits.

He had been emancipated from the penitentiary for three weeks, and now his restless peregrinations had conveyed him to this liminal place, seeking compurgation in the permafrost of the hyperborean tundra, which was an apt analogue of the permafrost in his heart. He insinuated himself into the caravansary with nugatory expectations, which were confirmed by the exiguous provisions for comfort. But then the bartender looked up from laving the begrimed bar, his eyes growing luminous as he ejaculated, “Milt!”

I bet you know the answer to this one.

The authors have this to say: “Words that draw attention to themselves by their rarity draw attention away from the story you are telling and remind the reader of the writer and his thesaurus. In a worst-case scenario, a game of ping-pong develops between the writer’s thesaurus and the reader’s dictionary.” Bwahaha, but so true.

I kept my secret all through law school, and nobody suspected a thing. I was hired by a top law firm, and was three years from making partner. I would shake the very timbers of the monolithic structure of American jurisprudence when I revealed what nobody suspected.

I remained true to my beliefs while I worked within the system, and I worked harder than anyone else to allay any suspicions that my hidden principles might arouse. I worked more billable hours than any attorney at the firm. Ha! The fools! Soon, they would all know, and then they would realize how thoroughly I undermined everything they believed about the system.

I shivered with anticipation behind my oak desk, the door to my corner office shut just as the door to my true purpose was shut. On the day they made me partner, I announced the truth for all to hear. That I, Archie Teuthis, was… an anarchist!

For me, this one is a pretty tough one because it feels wrong, but I can’t put it down in words why it feels wrong to me. Here is what the authors have to say:

The author used a single tense for every event, in this case resulting in the confusing blurring of events that were ongoing, events that had happened in the past, and events that would happen in the future.

“How do you do, sir?” said the dowager imperiously, allowing her hand to be kissed by Sebastian Skeaping, insurance agent to the rich. Butlers clustered by the door, looking immaculate in their white gloves and top hats. Just then, a delivery boy pushed his way through the crowd, presenting the dowager’s daughter, the heiress, with a diamond tiara.

“Ooh! C’est from the Marquis de London!” the girl squealed in excitement, and then slapped the delivery boy for daring to look at her. Then she thought better of it and made plans to run off with him because she was of an age to want adventures among the rabble. Her daydream was interrupted by Skeaping, who insinuated himself to her side. “Mademoiselle,” he said smoothly, “Shouldn’t you have that covered against theft? The Cat Burglar had been spotted recently prowling the Penthouses of Manhattan Island.”

Good grief. Here’s what the authors have to say:

If you have only ever seen a duke on television, everything your fictional duke does, says, wears, or thinks becomes an opportunity to demonstrate that you have never met a duke. If you have never served time in prison, chances are that your prison will feel more like your workplace with a greater emphasis on group showers than it will an actual prison. The most effective kinds of research into social settings are either time spent in those settings or immersion in what historians call primary sources – books, accounts, and documents generated by members of that group. 

Okay, here are three more snippets. No answers are given – you are on your own. Have fun!

Bonus Snippet 1

The meeting began with a few prefatory remarks by the Mayor. As luck would have it, Jane and Alan found themselves seated next to each other at the far end of the conference table. Jane studiously avoided looking his way.

Alan took out his pen and began tapping it on the table, something he knew got on Jane’s nerves.

Jane glared at him. Alan smirked. She darted her hand out and snatched the pane from him.

Alan glared back, but his look soon softened.


“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Jane, don’t you know how sorry I am?”

“You should have thought of that before you and your cousin – ”

“Second cousin, okay?” Alan interrupted, his tender feelings forgotten. “It’s not illegal.”

“Whatever!” she said. “If she was two months younger, it would be.”

“If you were a little more enthusiastic in bed, instead of bringing up your so-called trauma every time I touch you, maybe you could complain,” Alan said, bitter. “I get it, okay? Seeing what your father did to Fluffy was horrible. Well, that was twenty years ago. Time to get over it.”

Jane shook her head, angry. “That’s what I get for trusting a neo-Nazi!”

“Of course! Blame my politics!” Alan pounded the table with his fist, nostrils flaring. “You and your Jew friends would just love patriots like me – ”

“Shut up, Alan! Shut up!” Jane shrieked wildly, grabbing his collar and shaking him.

When the meeting was over, they filed out with their colleagues, comparing notes on the Carb-Free Detroit! campaign that the Mayor had detailed.

Bonus Snippet 2

Herbert Hoovíer was the crème de la menthe of fashion reporters. He had spent six years honing his journalistic nose as a foreign correspondent first, and was pretty tough company to get past. Normally he wouldn’t trust anyone with his back tied, and always made sure that he looked before he took a leap of fate. But he had met his match made in heaven in Vera Wang, the fashionable designer.

She was as pretty as he pictured, with a body so great you could bounce her hindquarters off it. She was the apples and oranges of his eye. Herbert, or Herb, tried not to give in to his urgent, but she was a piece of no resistance, and his masculine whiles were no match for her cat’s meow.

When she opened the door for their second date, she looked great, stunning him.

“Your place or mine?” she queried.

“Touché,” he returned, begging her question.

Bonus Snippet 3

“Señor, es surprising that mad squid disease, she jump the species barrier so easy,” said Pedro, the janitor, who was studying systems biology at night school. “I was astonished. You are contento, that I am staying here while you review los samples?”

“Sí,” said Alan, politely using his few words of Spanish.

Pedro blushed. “Meester,” he said, “You are all right, or as we say in my country, homosexuales.”

“Bok choy!” cried Fred Cho, evil mastermind of the mad squid outbreak, as he burst into the room, waving his .38 Wabash. “Kimchi bok bok!” Spluttering with rage at the scuppering of his bio-plot, he had lapsed into imprecations in his mother tongue.

Pedro pointed a finger at him angrily. “Hijo de puta! Hold the tongue!”

Buy the book, people.

BUY THIS BOOK Amazon US | Amazon UK

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Cantankerous muffin who loves boys that sparkle, unicorns, money, chocolates, and fantastical stories.

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