Sunday, 12 April 2009

Guest Review: How Not To Write A Novel

My thanks to Max Dunbar for this review.


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

We have been standing here by the side of the road for a very long time. Had you been standing here with us, you would have seen the same preventable tragedies occurring over and over.

At sixteen years old I was sent a rejection letter containing the immortal lines ‘That there is a vast reservoir of undiscovered talent out there is a delusion.’ It is a view with which, I suspect, the authors of How Not To Write a Novel would agree. Sandra Newman has taught fiction at numerous American universities: you dread to think how much terrible craft she’s ploughed through, how much clumsy laundry-list exposition, lumbering description, scattered exclamation marks and capitalisations like a Victorian adolescent’s diary…

This book begins with the premise that you cannot tell aspiring writers what to write: you can only tell them what not to write. And so begin 250 pages of hilarious dissections of bad writing. Highlights—and there is a highlight in every paragraph—include ‘Zeno’s Manuscript’ (where everything a character does is lavishly described, from mundanities to bathroom functions); ‘Asseverated the Man’ (where authors use elaborate and contrived forms of dialogue attribution), ‘The Auto-Hagiography’ (where the protagonist is nothing more than an idealised version of the author, tall, handsome and sensitive, and inexplicably attractive to women). Newman and Mittelmark break up the text with fictitious examples featuring absurd plots and recurring characters.

Almost every line manages to combine good practical advice with sometimes laugh-out-loud humour. ‘Irony as a word and a concept’, Newman and Mittelmark write, ‘has been so thoroughly stretched and abused by writers published and unpublished that it is now virtually meaningless, routinely applied to any situation in which one thing bears some relation to another thing.’

And in a culture where aspiring writers are treated like pinkish newborn kittens, their tell-it-like-it-is approach is refreshing. I speak as someone who has committed some—perhaps all—of the deadly sins immunerated in this book, and will probably do so again. How Not to Write a Novel should be ranked alongside Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and King’s On Writing in the novice’s canon.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. Max Dunbar lives in Manchester and can be contacted on "max dot dunbar at gmail dot com".

If you're interested in finding out more about this book before you buy yourself a copy, Sally Zigmond reviewed it very favourably; the book has its own website, which made me laugh; and the authors are interviewed here, on the Penguin website.

10 comments:

Samantha Tonge said...

I love this book. Although my wip does have pets. And their profile is higher than an armchair. Plus they do have names. My excuse is that it's set on farmland in Ancient Egypt:)

Great book and easy to dip in and out of.

DanielB said...

How interesting! Not encountered this one yet, although I regularly refer students to the David Armstrong book of the same title:
http://www.twbooks.co.uk/authors/darmstrong.html

Jane Smith said...

Dan, I have the Armstrong book too: this one is quite a lot different. I shall have to try to find it: I know it's somewhere. Meanwhile, do you fancy writing a quick review of the Armstrong one for me? It's not like you don't know what you're doing with this writing thing...!

BuffySquirrel said...

Kittens?

wealhtheow said...

This sounds like a wonderful book! As it happens my mum hadn't got me anything yet for my birthday (which was last month) -- ta-da! Insta-gift!

Cathie said...

This is such a funny book. I embarrassed myself badly in a cafe by having an acute attack of the giggles. My sense is that it is best appreciated by those who have an in depth understanding of all 200 mistakes that are so often made in the pursuit of publication. Me? I'm on about no 197.

catdownunder said...

Purrrrrrrrr!

Jean said...

This is now on my 'must buy' list.

Jane Smith said...

Good grief, that Mr Blythe is good. He's just sent me a review of the David Armstrong book he referred to yesterday. It'll appear here in a week or two. Thank you, Dan!

DanielB said...

You're welcome!

I'm amused (but surprised) that the kitty-at-gunpoint was allowed to stand. The Beautiful South got into trouble for this album cover
http://www.btemmedia.co.uk/bsonline/welcome_lrg.jpg
and there are some "fluffy alternative" ones out there:
http://www.xmission.com/%7Edking/images/welc1.jpg