TEXT review

A witty checklist

review by Gail E Pittaway


Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark
How not to write a novel: 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published
Penguin London 2009
ISBN-13: 9780141038544
Pb 272pp AUD26.95


Hysteria, it could be argued, marks a line between hilarity and desperation. This book has moments that provoke hysterical laughter – not only for the would-be novelist, who might realise somewhat  shame-faced that she has contravened a now obvious code of practice for publication - but also for the teacher of creative writing for whom most of these acts of commission in writing are an almost weekly torture. Here at last is a witty checklist of those crimes against style we all struggle with, from meandering and meaningless plots or characters, to poorly focused point of view.

Mittelmark and Newman between them bring a great deal of experience of editing, teaching and writing fiction, as well as essays and criticism in an impressive list of publications from the New York Times to Granta. Mittlemark is the author of the novel, “the Age of Consent”, and Edwards was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, with “The only good thing ever done” and awaits publication of her memoir, “Folk Tales of the rich” from Random House later this year. There is also a How Not to Write a Novel website which gives updates on the varied uses of the book in colleges and universities as well as links and chat lines for readers to post example of poor style that they come across.

The two writers present their ideas in an accessible and amusing way by subverting the “How to” genre with their “How Not To” conceit. In the introduction the authors assure us, “employing any of the plot mistakes that follow will guarantee that your novel will be only a brief detour in a ream of paper’s journey to mulch.”

The book is slight in size- covering only 200 mistakes after all, at around 260 pages- but it is punchy and clever enough to divert and inform scholarly readers as much as it is sure to improve the content of many a manuscript for a more popular and commercial market with brisk gems such as; “There is never a need to tell your reader that something is ironic…If it is they will notice.”

Each section deals with the maltreatment of each element such as plot, character, setting, theme, style and voice. This is reassuringly predictable. However, within each section are spurious scenarios and tawdry exemplars of this language abuse in emboldened text; in the plot chapter, for example, describing such non sequiturs as “The Vatican Side Show (travelogue disguised as a novel) and “Words Fail Me” (exemplified by the coma- inducing introduction: “Now that he had finally reached Paris, Chip understood why it was called the City of Lights. It was the lights.”) While the authors must have had fun devising these examples, they are powerful models of what not write and alarmingly familiar to the teacher of writing.

Other categories in the worst plot traditions are Monogamy ( there is only one plot line and the characters, including minor characters, react and respond to it alone), Serial Monogamy ( where the author presents complications only to solve them immediately- thereby killing suspense) and Onanism  (where a single character goes through a series of events with no contact with anyone else).

Of particular interest to scholarly writers are chapters on postmodern writing, endings, character, sexuality, style and research. “Gibberish for art’s sake” is particularly recognizable; “where indecipherable lyricism baffles the reader”.  We are reminded that as writing is a form of communication, writers should try to communicate with their readers, not mystify them.

Each chapter is followed with shaded boxes with summaries and pointers, “The road to the trash heap is paved with good intentions”.  Some of the shaded sections even have pop quizzes or multi choice tests. With a full index of the 200 mistakes in alphabetical order,  “How not to write a novel “is a gift for any teacher of writing, as the advice, exemplars and summaries will be invaluable material for discussion and diversion.  As well, any lover of writing or language study will find it an entertaining and easy read.



Gail Pittaway is a senior lecturer in Writing, Drama and Storytelling at the School of Media Arts, Waikato Institute of Technology, Hamilton. She is the theatre critic for the Waikato Times and regularly reviews new writing on Radio New Zealand, National.


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Vol 14 No 2 October 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb