How Not To Write a Novel, By Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

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The Independent Culture

As someone who also assesses manuscripts for a literary consultation firm, I shouldn't really be recommending a book that does my job for me. But Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark have produced an invaluable guide, subtitled "200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published", for those who have set about writing a novel. Which would seem to be about two-thirds of the country.

With the massive growth in full-time university creative writing courses, correspondence courses and casual writers' groups, the old adage that "everyone has a novel in them" has never seemed truer. In the past, people exercised their writing talents, for better or worse, in letters, diaries, essays, pamphlets and even – heavens! – poetry. But today, too many people who, in the past, would have been superb letter writers, say, or remarkable diarists, are encouraged to channel their literary energies into writing novels. The novel is believed to be a form that suits everyone. Alas, as this book shows, that is not the case.

Newman and Mittelmark's premise is amusing in its negativity – "Try any of the strategies we've collected in our extensive field work and you too can cut off narrative momentum at the ankles" – but their intention is serious. With the commercial novel very much in mind, they run through all of the staples – plot, character, theme, style, voice – sharply and concisely, and show just how easy it is to get it horribly wrong.

This book can leave you reeling, though, and spotting horrific mistakes everywhere, even in classics written by the masters. So you may want to leave it a while before you attack that manuscript again.

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