Whether you’re a nervous newbie or a seasoned writer wondering why your queries go unanswered, How Not to Write a Novel will be just what you need. Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman give us the view from the other side of the query letter, but instead of a dryly delivered sermon on good writing, they offer up an assortment of hilarious and unreadable examples of what to do if you’d like to remain unpublished.
Writing guides tend to be useful and they’re even interesting upon occasion. Rarely are they ever fun, but this book is actually all of those things. With sections on topics like inappropriate metaphors and overwrought punctuation, it’s the kind of book every writer should have in their arsenal. If you’re like me, you’ll cringe when you see your own missteps in the examples.
The section on writing query letters is gold. It’s concise and gets to the heart of what will kill your chances of snagging an agent or a publisher. Most of it distills the simple reminder that writing for publication is a business, so don’t get so caught up in your cleverness that you forget that. Except they say it funnier than I just did.
The excerpts are definitely the best part of the book. One of my favorites is an example of authors who think they’re too good for the word “said.”
“It’s funny,” he smirked, “now that I look back from safety.”
“Funny?” she interrogated.
“Hilarious!” he expostulated.
“Surely not?” she doubted.
“But how little you know!” he exclaimed.
Yeah, don’t do that.
It was a bit disappointing to find that the central conceit of “We’re here to help keep you unpublished” wasn’t carried throughout the book. The explanations below the examples fall into a more traditional do this/not that style. It doesn’t affect the overall quality, but for the sake of consistency and humor I think they should have stayed true to their premise. While not a book on writing, Ben Stein used the same gimmick consistently (and to even funnier effect) in his book, How to Ruin Your Life.
While the examples are delightfully unreadable, I do think that some of them went on a lot longer than necessary. It felt as though the authors got caught up in amusing themselves and occasionally forgot the audience was there. Which I suppose proves that all writers,whether staring at their first blank page or staring at their third book advance, can use a reminder of what not to do.
Despite these criticisms, I think this is one of the easiest to read, most fun writing guides on the market and it’s well worth the cover price.
A warning: this book may not be for younger writers or those offended by vulgarity. There is a fair amount of profanity in the examples and a graphic section dedicated to sex scenes. Caveat emptor.