How NOT to write a novel (Mittelmark and Newman, 2008)

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How NOT to write a novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (2008)

Score: interesting as a creative writing manual, not so much as generic entertainment.

Mittelmark and Newman have decades of experience working as editors and writers. It seems like one day enough was enough, and they decided to delight the world with two hundred mistakes unpublished writers tend to make a lot and pleaded: ‘stop torturing us with these, please’.

The basic structure of the manual is starting with a side-splitting counter-example of something you can do wrong when writing a novel, then mercilessly criticizing that kind of mistake and sometimes offering advice of some sort. These short chapters are divided in segments dealing with plot, characters, styles and the such. I really like funny story compilations, funny quote compilations and books of this sort in general so I picked this up thinking it was more of a “look at the hideous manuscript this idiot sent” with excerpts from stuff they received for publishing. Another time I didn’t read the blurb. I found it funny and useful at the same time since I want to be a writer, but if you don’t want to be one you probably won’t find it entertaining since it’s very focused towards getting people to not make this mistakes. The examples are so hysterical you might have a good laugh, though.

As far as creative writing manuals go, it’s pretty basic. We have all made some of these mistakes when we started (me thinking back to my time of awful fanfiction in three, two…) and some of these are stuff we tend to fall into from time to time, but once you have read a bit of good literature and gotten on your way to actually becoming a published writer, these will seem a little obvious. Also, it’s clearly stated that these rules are for commercial, mainstream novels. A lot of literary novels break these rules but, clever reader, they always do it for a reason, don’t they? (“But it says you should never include cats and X beloved novel has one and it sold millions!”, you complain. Well, maybe don’t take it so literally? Understand why it worked for that author and what traps they avoided when they included the cat?) Anyhow, it’s always a good idea to walk before running and to be familiar with how to apply the rules before you break them. As with everything criticism-related, follow the golden rule: don’t take it personally. The snarky tone and mocking of unpublishable authors might be hurtful if you do these things and still regard yourself as a good author, but hey, pride is not going to make you a better writer.

Last but not least, the Spanish translation is wonderful. It’s one of those translations that makes you forget the source material was actually in another language. The tone is culturally adapted, idioms are not translated awkwardly or downright literally, the exposition flows seamlessly. Kudos to Daniel Royo.

All in all, a book aimed at a very specific audience but that you can enjoy even if you’re not the target.

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