The Observer

Your novel. Four hundred pages of excitement, passion and sly social comment, currently languishing in your sock drawer. You poured into it everything you had; your immediate family loved it; your friends couldn’t put it down.

So why won’t anyone publish it? Is it a) because the literary world is a members-only clique dedicated to keeping out new talent; b) because publishers and agents are chronically lazy and simply couldn’t be bothered to read to the amazing ending, which is the entire point of the story; or c) because it’s a load of pony from start to finish.

You know the answer as well as I do, but you won’t be told. You have read manuals about how to write novels, you may even have attended a writer’s group. Still, like Belshazzar at the feast, you understood not the writing on the wall. Well, here it is again, in bigger letters. To find out exactly how your work has been weighed in the balance and found wanting, read How Not to Write a Novel, in which Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark list all the essential components of the classic stinker.

It will have a ludicrous plot, of course, or none. It will have characters who are unbelievable or extremely tiresome, or both. It will be studded with clichés and riddled with the author’s prejudices. Newman and Mittelmark make up typical examples of dreadful prose, often so accurately that even the vainest are likely to recognise their own howlers and lapses of taste.

Everyone acquainted with the slush pile, the technical term for the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to publishers and agents, knows that atrocious novels are depressingly alike. “We have been standing here by the side of the road for a very long time,” say the authors. “Had you been standing here with us, you would have seen the same preventable tragedies occurring over and over.”

The tone is maliciously gleeful, and the authors have slightly too much fun with their spoof “examples”, but it is all wrapped around some very sound advice for the wannabe novelist. “We will at this point remind you that the purpose of writing is communication… the reader should be able to discover what it is you are saying without having to call and ask you in person.”

They identify one of the classic faults of the unpublishable effort, which they call “The Benign Tumor… Where an apparently meaningful development isn’t.” This is the extra plot that can be excised painlessly, without harming the host organism. I am reminded of a gloomy murder story I once came across, whose author had obviously read Louis de Bernières in the middle, and suddenly parachuted in a load of merry peasants who had nothing to do with anything. “Know what the chase is, and cut to it” should be the framed motto on every novelist’s desk.

Facing up to the fact that you have written an unpublishable novel (yes, of course I’ve written at least one myself – most writers start their careers with more bad novels in their drawers than socks) is such a painful experience that it drives many into deep denial. This is your presentation to the world of your naked ego. You think they are admiring your hair, and all the time they are laughing at your bare bum. The great QD Leavis shrivelled it into one chilling sentence: “A bad novel is ultimately seen to fail not because of its method but owing to a fatal inferiority of the author’s make-up.” If that hasn’t crushed your literary aspirations into a compact little cube, here’s Henry James: “No good novel ever proceeded from a superficial mind.”

Newman and Mittelmark add to this one piece of advice so priceless that it is worth all the others put together: “The more good writing you read, the better a writer you might become.”

All good writers are brilliant readers. If you can’t be bothered to trawl through the canon, because James and Dickens and Nabokov and all those guys are too difficult, you really should consider taking up another hobby. If you’re still burning to publish a novel, however, you could start your reading list with this hilarious, wickedly observed and deeply useful guide.

1 February 2009