Review: “How Not to Write a Novel,” Mittelmark and Newman

Pros: Useful AND funny as hell!
Cons: A little inconsistency
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman give us a handy guide: How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide. The points it makes are dead-on, although with that many topics it shouldn’t be surprising that I disagreed with at least parts of several items. I also agreed with most of them, like tense changes (which is my biggest problem when I write reviews). They have entertaining names for the problems they bring up, such as “The Long Runway,” in which they point out that in most books that include recounting a character’s childhood, it’s to no helpful purpose. They include the idea that you should be writing plots, not gripes. (As a reviewer, I tend to ditch novels that turn out to be thinly-veiled rants.)

It’s been a while since I last reviewed a writing book; I forgot how interesting they can be. The only thing that bugged me a bit in this one is the fact that some entries adhere to the book’s hilarious premise: i.e., encouraging the reader to use these types of bad writing in order to deliberately not get published. Unfortunately, some of the entries go back to ‘normal’, explaining what the writer should not do. It’s mildly confusing.

Know what the chase is, and cut to it.”

The “Benign Tumor” is a portion that can be cut out of the novel without harming the book as a whole. They point out that it’s primarily a problem of first drafts, but I’d say it’s also a problem of a decent handful of self-published works too. I’ve read books that would be much better if the author had cut out the first 10-30 percent of the book.

The sample texts are made up by the authors and are one of my favorite parts of the book. They range from sly humor to utter hilarity.

They fully admit that these are ‘observations’ and not rules. And in some specific cases they talk about writers that made something work for them that really won’t work for most other authors, and explain why. There are sections on characterization (bad guys, sidekicks, ‘too good to be true’ protagonists, likable heroes), plotting, pacing, endings, dialogue, exposition, rendering foreign accents (holy hell there are some authors who need to read that section), style, interior monologues, and so on.

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

This is a delightful, fun book that left me laughing out loud. It also did a great job of firming up my notions of how these things don’t work, which I expect will make me a better reviewer.

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