The Sunday Times

The teaching of creative writing just entered a whole new era with the publication of How Not to Write a Novel. Heavens, what a joy this book is.

Its two smart young American authors, having evidently wasted little time pausing to study the existing literature, have a simple aim: to identify 200 “mistakes” commonly made by unpublished fiction writers and to hammer home their points with hilarious section headings and spot-on illustrative examples. Their get-real, tough-love sarcastic tone ought to be grating, but it isn’t. It is extremely funny. “Employing any of the plot mistakes that follow,” they assure readers, “will guarantee that your novel will be only a brief detour in a ream of paper’s journey to the landfill.

Who are these people, you ask. What right have they to pontificate? Sandra Newman’s first novel, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, earned her comparisons with Kurt Vonnegut; Howard Mittelmark is a publishing insider who evidently makes a handsome living from ghostwriting. What qualifies them best for this job, however, is that their combined 30 years’ experience of teaching creative writing and evaluating manuscripts has not yet made them bitter, frustrated or terminally depressed. So while they may be fully aware that (say) many novels are written as “auto-hagiography”, by people who think that a character needs to stand in front of a mirror to remember that her breasts are medium-sized but nice and perky, they are still young enough to think it’s funny.


They organise the book conventionally enough, dealing in turn with plot, character, style, dialogue, and so on. They claim to have written observations rather than rules, but that’s a lie, because the rules are gorgeous. “If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it” is a piece of wisdom that I am already embroidering on a yellow banner to suspend above my desk. “Novels are seldom rejected because the characters are described too well.” “When there is a plan, things cannot go according to it.” “In most novels a pet should have about as high a profile as an armchair.” “Heroes should not masturbate or ogle strangers in the first three chapters.”


The reality is that professional readers of unsolicited manuscripts are looking, first and foremost, for reasons to reject them and get out to lunch. Unfortunately, industry outsiders have trouble accepting the truth of this. Their characterisation may be banal; their book may be a clear exercise in axe-grinding; it may be written in the second person and littered with long words used incorrectly; yet they believe in their hearts that a truly intuitive editor will be irresistibly drawn by some other, more significant quality in the writing (the sheer genius of the person who wrote it, perhaps) to acknowledge its mastery. If such writers can be brought to understand that each of the 200 bad moves identified by Newman and Mittelmark is sufficient on its own to trigger a publisher’s ever-poised fling-it-in-the-bin reflex, then a good deal will have been achieved. “Unpublished novelists understand that there is more to a character than the interesting stuff” sums up beautifully the way many would-be authors refuse to accept their own writerly shortcomings.


This isn’t an attack on bad writing for the sake of a few laughs. Our authors have generally benign objectives; also, they have an astute understanding of what readers need, what they enjoy, what they expect and how easy they are to confuse accidentally. It was in JB Priestley’s essays that I first read the advice to playwrights about not having a gun in the room unless someone is going to use it. The principle applies more widely, of course, to matters other than revolvers in rooms. Newman and Mittelmark helpfully explain how quickly a reader will suspect a love interest where the writer didn’t intend one; or how a reader will chuckle happily, “Oh yes?” when a character declares, “Sure I can defuse one of these. Your cat will be perfectly safe.” The point is, an attentive reader is half writing your book along with you, which means you have to be three good steps ahead of him, not cantering along behind, shouting, “No, really! It’s true! He can defuse one of those!”


The great pleasure of this book is what light work the authors appear to make of it. Generalising may look easy, but it involves considerable intellectual labour – none of which, in this case, is visible in the finished text. Each of the chosen “mistakes” is elegantly nailed, and if I had room to quote every example, I would. Instead, here is a passage from the book about modern youth, seemingly written by someone who has perhaps heard it described, but has never actually seen it: “Because of Ida’s fame as a punk-band singer, people always noticed her, but tonight she was going to the midtown Marriott, the trendiest nightspot in town, and she’d taken extra care with her appearance. When she’d come back from the beauty parlour, Ida had put on her nicest slacks with daring go-go boots. She had decided not to wear a brassiere that night. She had a nice shape, and because of her bad attitude she wasn’t going to hide it.”


The authors have composed all of their examples without spelling errors, bad grammar and so on, but they do tell aspirant writers that, “There are no excuses for using words you yourself don’t know,” and they are stern about spell-checking. Personally, what I will treasure most is their memorable admonishment on overelaborate prose. Writing is not like figure skating, they say. Flashy stuff doesn’t earn you points and it doesn’t make you move up in competition. “Ornate prose is an idiosyncrasy of certain writers rather than a pinnacle all writers are working towards,” they declare. And, you can’t help thinking, how many writers – published and unpublished – are unaware of this?

 –Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 25 January 2009