Saturday, April 15, 2017
Review of 'How Not to Write a Novel' by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman
NOTE: I'm digging this older review out of mothballs for today, with a promise to get back to new reviews and commentary next week. TAS
How Not To Write a Novel is certainly one of the most amusing discussions of the art and craft of writing I've encountered--and I have read many books on the topic, devouring them like cotton candy, if not always digesting their best advice. While this book makes for a pleasant diversion, and can serve the purpose of a fairly painless refresher course, I would not recommend it for the rank beginner. There's a little too much snark in the mix--at times, contrary to the advice they themselves offer, the authors seem overly taken with their own cleverness--and the jokes occasionally get in the way of clear explanation. Much of the humor only works insofar as the reader is capable of telling the difference between literary dreck and solid practice from the get-go--something that requires experience in addition to a very active sense of humor.
For those with well-tuned funny bones or a couple Pulitzer prizes under their belts, the book may turn up a few nuggets of insight. It can also be rather discouraging if we recognize some of these pitfalls and bad habits in our own earlier work. Yes, it would be wonderful to live in a world full of brilliant, hard-working writers who never bore us or insult our intelligence, yet, if every aspiring author took every single one of these examples of what not to do to heart, novels would be little more than thoughtless play-by-play; stories reduced to pure action; the show-don't-tell principal taken to its horrifying logical extreme with nothing left of introspection, illumination or personal narrative. One must approach the advice here with a healthy dose of skepticism and a strong sense of self-identity as a writer. No novelist ever became great by being ignorant of the rules; but no great writer ever met at least one rule that wasn't worth breaking for the sake of a truer art.
I would note, too, that a lot of the sort of rotten writing illustrated here still has a way of ending up, with disturbing regularity, in traditionally published, best-selling commercial fiction, as well as far too many poorly conceived, albeit popular, "novelistic" television drama series. Thus, the very premise of the book, that in order to be pubished, one should avoid certain behaviors, is rendered moot. Sure, maybe Dan Brown, E.L. James or the writers of the Revenge TV series would be better, more engaging, more respected authors were they to take some of Mittlemark and Newman's advice, though one doubts they'd be measurably richer, and I don't think they'd be likely to listen in any case.
Among the most useful books on writing-craft, I would strongly recommend these in addition to (or instead of) Mittlemark and Newman:
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guinn
On Writing by Stephen King
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Remmi Browne and Dave King
How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block
Spider Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Writers by Lawrence Block
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
How Not to Write a Novel is recommended more for entertainment than instructional value.