How not to write a novel

August 4, 2017

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How Not To Write a Novel, by Newman and Middlemark, [Book review]

In a last-minute search for a birthday present recently, I was browsing for a book at the Simply Books No 1 emporium. As I did so, my eye was caught by an instruction manual entitled How Not to Write a Novel, (HNTWAN), by Sandra Newman and Howard Middlemark.

I added it to my shopping trolley. This proved to be a sound investment. As they say in many a blurb, I read it long into the evening, as the battles for tennis supremacy at Wimbledon passed me unheeded across the room. The book promises to supply 200 ways your book will fail to get published. In a mischievous and at times snigger-producing way they do just that. Page after page I found examples of why I should stick to self-publishing. I extract some which I underlined for future reference. You may wish the use what follows as check-list.

“What works for me”

The belief that what interests you interests everyone. A passion for an obscure chess club may not sustain interest of itself. The universals of passion, unfulfilled dreams, treachery, a quest may be there, but there is still need of an engaging plot. A central dilemma is needed for connecting the pawn pushing to those wider themes.

“The slow build-up”

Bit like the start to this blog post (oops). This is where the opening pages could be left out with no damage to the story:

‘Reggie boarded the train at Montauk, found a seat… read a newspaper…

(10 pages later) As the train pulled out of Montauk …

(10 pages later) …and that was how I met your Aunt Katherine.’

“The false clue”

A vivid detail which has no further relevance. Aka The gum on the mantlepiece, cleaned up later, leaving readers puzzled unless they learn the gum was quickly cleaned up by a fastidious character in the book

“Plot polygamy”

In which plot line after plot line tumble across the pages in confusing fashion…

“Not avoiding the rule of three”

As a public speaker, I believe utterly in the rule of three. Telling what you intend to say, saying it, summarizing what you said. For novelists, or humble thriller writers, the rule of three is a non no. (Aka:where the set up reveals or weakens the payoff.)

“The second fight in the Laundromat”

Damn. I have an exciting fire which breaks out in chapter ten, and now I would like to write another in the climactic scene in chapter fifty two.

“Santa’s too sexy for his beard”

In which she a protagonist sees through the ‘best friend or nice neighbour’ . The authors give this the thumbs down. ‘[S]he must be attractive on some level, not just safe. We get enough of that.in real life.’

“Confessional from the super-villain”

Compulsive and implausible spilling the beans In the interests of plot closure by the super-villain.

“Vocabulary flauting”

Speaks for itself, often in irritating fashion. (‘Nobody likes a show-off’)

“Cliches”

‘Cliches become cliches for a reason.’

“Lists”

Don’t use lists  A well-respected novelist argued the opposite and I guess ‘use lists with caution and awareness’ might be a refinement to this principle. Lists are for description not as an inventory.

“Time management”

Useful extended treatment. How you can cheat on linear time in writing fiction, but not if it jars in the reader’s mind.

“Relentless accounts of natural functions”

Too common, and obvious (when pointed out). Even crude characters do not belch and fart every time they appear.

“Dialogue”

Advice worth the price of the book. It takes practice or an innate gift to write like you you think your characters people speak, (or even harder to write in the way readers accept as the way the characters ought to speak).

“The dangers of elegant variation”

For example, when the author goes to stupid lengths to avoid using ‘he said’.

“Style and lack of it”

Rich set of thought-provoking suggestions. Virtues and dangers of the narrative voice, reported internal monologue, multiple points of view, and more.

“Sex, jokes and post-modern flourishes”

If you can’t write any of these well, stop fouling up your chances of successful publishing. Your best is not good enough. The crushingly bad examples of how not to write sex scenes are particularly funny, but you will have to read the book to enjoy the humour of the accidently botched lubricious.

“Marketing No Nos”

More deadly humour here on how not write to publishers.

For me this was a five-star read. I found the book seriously funny, and seriously thought-provoking. So did earlier reviewers.