We have been standing here by the side of the road for a very long time. Had you been standing here with us, you would have seen the same preventable tragedies occurring over and over.
At sixteen years old I was sent a rejection letter containing the immortal lines ‘That there is a vast reservoir of undiscovered talent out there is a delusion.’ It is a view with which, I suspect, the authors of How Not To Write a Novel would agree. Sandra Newman has taught fiction at numerous American universities: you dread to think how much terrible craft she’s ploughed through, how much clumsy laundry-list exposition, lumbering description, scattered exclamation marks and capitalisations like a Victorian adolescent’s diary…
This book begins with the premise that you cannot tell aspiring writers what to write: you can only tell them what not to write. And so begin 250 pages of hilarious dissections of bad writing. Highlights—and there is a highlight in every paragraph—include ‘Zeno’s Manuscript’ (where everything a character does is lavishly described, from mundanities to bathroom functions); ‘Asseverated the Man’ (where authors use elaborate and contrived forms of dialogue attribution), ‘The Auto-Hagiography’ (where the protagonist is nothing more than an idealised version of the author, tall, handsome and sensitive, and inexplicably attractive to women). Newman and Mittelmark break up the text with fictitious examples featuring absurd plots and recurring characters.
Almost every line manages to combine good practical advice with sometimes laugh-out-loud humour. ‘Irony as a word and a concept’, Newman and Mittelmark write, ‘has been so thoroughly stretched and abused by writers published and unpublished that it is now virtually meaningless, routinely applied to any situation in which one thing bears some relation to another thing.’
And in a culture where aspiring writers are treated like pinkish newborn kittens, their tell-it-like-it-is approach is refreshing. I speak as someone who has committed some—perhaps all—of the deadly sins immunerated in this book, and will probably do so again. How Not to Write a Novel should be ranked alongside Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and King’s On Writing in the novice’s canon.
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. Max Dunbar lives in Manchester and can be contacted on “max dot dunbar at gmail dot com”.
If you’re interested in finding out more about this book before you buy yourself a copy, Sally Zigmond reviewed it very favourably; the book has its own website, which made me laugh; and the authors are interviewed here, on the Penguin website.