Sunday, 26 April 2009

Guest Review: How Not To Write A Novel, by David Armstrong

My thanks to Daniel Blythe for this review.

How Not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Mid-list Author, by David Armstrong.

"For every JK Rowling there are 1000 David Armstrongs", explains the blurb to this quirky and curmudgeonly addition to the groaning shelves of the How-To genre. I always made a point of never buying one of these by anyone who hadn't had a novel published — and there are plenty of those blind theorisers out there, believe you me. Would you purchase How To Cook by a Delia wannabe who didn't know her way around a kitchen? Or Learn To Drive by someone with no valid licence? Of course not. Thankfully, Mr Armstrong establishes his credentials with a small but solid canon of crime novels, placing him solidly in what used to be called the 'mid-list'.

A loose A-Z follows, covering such matters as Agents, Discipline, Ideas, Quotations and the Xylophone. If you suspect that the latter is a jokey entry designed to address the problem of covering the letter X, you'd be right. Armstrong's style is dry (ironic-dry, not dusty-dry), chatty, personal and engagingly cynical — at every turn he urges his readers not to become novelists, which I find terribly amusing (not to mention very good advice).

This is far from being just a nuts-and-bolts book — it's a worm's-eye view of the industry, a salutary tale of how a talented writer can be left adrift on the choppy seas of publishing with his editor and agent sailing off in a big yacht. But it's also packed full of useful nuggets, gained from his years of experience — and complemented by the experiences of others. This is certainly one writing manual which won't try to convince you that you can have a bestseller and get rich and famous overnight. Armstrong tells you — from bitter experience — all about the indifference of reviewers, the importance of luck and the trap of the vanity press. He covers tips on dialogue and doing your research. He even dares to question the sacred mantra of 'kill your darlings'. But most of all, he keeps a sense of perspective — which makes this book essential not just for the zealous neophyte, but also for the jaded professional of some years' standing.

And always remember - it's a miserable business. Don't do it.

Daniel Blythe hasn't provided me with a biography to include here, probably because I forgot to ask him for one: but he appears to have written a few books (if you want to appear keen you could even buy a couple); according to my eight-year-old son, who is deeply cynical and notoriously difficult to impress unless you make a fool of yourself, have your own sonic screwdriver, and give away sweeties, he does really good school visits; and he has his own website, too.


Jane Smith said...

Dan, thank you for writing this review for me: I love this book in a painful, oh-god-it-can't-really-be-that-bad sort of way, and I do hope that more people buy it and take note before they decide to go and become writers.

Daniel Blythe said...

A pleasure - it's one of a select few How To books I have actually found to be "use or ornament", as my mother-in-law says.

catdownunder said...

His crime yarns make good holiday reading.
Will this book stop me making muddy paw tracks across your blog?

none said...

Way too late for me to decide not to be a writer, unfortunately. I blame the parents.