Book Review – ‘How Not To Write A Novel’

How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark (2008) is that rarity among writing books – a “how to” ( or in this case, how not to) that is genuinely entertaining, genuinely informative, and just plain genuine.

I found the book in one of those odd ways that seems to only happen in bad fiction. I found a couple of quotes from the book (my favourite is ‘…deus ex machina which is French for, “Are you f***ing kidding me?”‘), and they intrigued me enough to buy the book.

The basis of the book is that they are helping people who write long works of fiction to never get published, by helpfully pointing out a variety of things to do to turn of readers, editors, publishers and everyone else in the known universe. By doing it in this way, it makes the points they are trying to make that much clearer.

And it is funny. The excerpts from the “books” they have sprinkled throughout are amusing, but there were too many I found that were like books I’d read. And too many that hit uncomfortably close to home. They start with the plot, then hit character, basic writing styles, more complex styles, world-building, and special bits and pieces.

There are too many things in this book which ring all too true. And yet, what astounds me is that there are more and more books being published where these rules on writing bad novels have resulted in publication deals. What happened – did a bunch of editors and publishers read this book, take it as an exact guide to what readers want, and made sure all the rules of bad writing were present in what they published?

Some of the rules I found here that apply to my writing include: ‘The Waiting Room’ (taking too long to start a story), ‘The Gum On The Mantlepiece’ (something trivial that remains trivial), ‘Zeno’s Manuscript’ (unnecessary details), ‘The Second Argument In The Laundromat’ (scenes repeating)… and that’s just from the section on plot.

But the book arrived at an opportune time. I had just started editing a manuscript for a potential publisher, and was doing so as I read this book. I made so many changes it was incredible. And now I have all of this in mind, the next novel I write (which I will start as soon as TAFE lets me know I can start; I don’t want to get into trouble for doing things too early) will hopefully avoid a few of the pitfalls that it seems my writing falls into.

So, for any aspiring writer – buy this book! Read it! Take note of it! Along with Stephen King’s On Writing, this is now one of the very few ‘how to’ books that actually lets the reader know how to.


I hate rating these things, but I will. 5/5, 10/10 whatever you want. That damn good.

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