Times Literary Supplement

The title How Not To Write a Novel suggests abstinence, holding out the promise of fewer Victorian detective stories, child narrators and romances involving old manuscripts. The minatory subtitle of Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark’s book, however–“200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published”–has a different message: publish if you must. Their self-help book for aspiring novelists is chummy in tone but unrelenting in its prescriptions for managing plot, character, style and setting. Specific advice includes “The exclamation mark is the most commonly abused form of punctuation”, “A single well-misplaced ‘erroneous’ or ‘funicular’ can annihilate all threat of publication”, and “generally, any point of view that lasts for less than a page should be cut”. Most enjoyable are the passages from spoof novels illustrating common mistakes. The unappealing “Nunavit” sighed as she saw the ragged band of her fellow Eskimos returning exhausted from another failed walrusing expedition” illustrates the problem of wobbling point of view. “The samurai sheathed his sword and reposed on the rice mat, crossing his legs in the accepted manner” is the sort of sentence that results from skimped historical research, while “Exiting her East Side duplex, Rain Weste paused for a moment and sighed” introduces an off-puttingly wealthy heroine. Newman is a novelist and Mittelmark a former publisher’s editor; their final chapter “How Not To Sell a Novel”, which contains instructions on writing a synopsis and framing a covering letter, ends with the promise of a follow-up book, “How Not To Make a Living Wage”.

6 February 2009