How Not to Write a Novel

Howard Mittelmark

Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman wrote a unique guide to writing fiction that differs from most other writing books.  Mittelmark and Newman’s How Not to Write a Novel focuses on observations of what not to do, which they say is more effective than giving so-called rules for writing that can sometimes be restrictive to an author’s creativity.  If you avoid what definitely doesn’t work, you give yourself a better chance at publication.  The book is full of laugh-out-loud passages that illustrate the countless mistakes unpublished writers often make.

Mittelmark and Newman classify their 200 classic mistakes into categories such as plot, character, style, dialogue, setting, and even cover letters to publishers.  Mistakes include things like plots that take too long to get started, details that unintentionally mislead the reader, vague descriptions, descriptions that sound like they came right out of a catalogue, conflicts about unimportant things, dialogue in which characters say things they already know just to inform the reader, mundane dialogue exchanges, and so on.

For excerpts from their book, go to their website:

Sandra Newman

Now, I will attempt to write my own passage of fiction that will not be in any danger of publication, and will surely end up in the nearest landfill.  I will attempt to murder any intrigue, thwart any reader interest in any action or character, and mire the story in a quicksand of horrid verbiage.  I will earnestly write a horrible scene for a novel using the techniques the authors recommend.  At the same time, I hope this passage will be so bad it’s funny, in the tradition of Mittelmark and Newman.  Here goes:

Gwendolyn sat on the mahogany chair precisely the way a corpse would not, especially since her heart raced like a ten-speed bicycle that was stuck in the highest speed it could go, probably the tenth speed.  Finally, a young man with freckles that dotted his face like a connect-the-dots puzzle, who wore pleated trousers made of the finest wool blend and cut in a relaxed fit, and a button-down shirt with ornamental hand-stitching along the collar stitched by malnourished children who worked in an overseas sweatshop, sat opposite her. 

“Ted, my darling husband,” Gwendolyn commented.  “You are late on this occasion of our third wedding anniversary.  You are as sensitive as road kill left to rot on the side of a dirt road in summer.” 

“Gwendolyn, my lovely wife,” Ted responded, “I have some very, very bad news to convey to you on this joyous occasion.  It is so wonderful that you are sitting down.” 

“What is it?” she enquired spiritually.  “Are you finally leaving me for that blonde nurse who works at that hospital where you also work as a nurse?” 

“No,” Ted interjected intriguingly.  “It is far, far worse than that.” 

At that moment, a buxom waitress strolled to their table with a perky look on her face.  “Good evening.  My name is Stephanie and I will be your waitress this evening.  Can I start you two off with something from the bar?” 

“I would like a Scotch and soda on the rocks,” Ted announced.  “My wife will have a glass of ice water with a twist of lemon.  Hold the ice.  She is my designated driver for the evening because we both deeply believe in drinking responsibly.” 

“He is so right,” Gwendolyn remarked cheerfully.  “Drinking and driving leads to so many bad things.” 

“I will bring your drinks in a jiffy,” the waitress sang gleefully.  She bounced off, leaving Ted and Gwendolyn alone. 

“What is this very, very bad news, Ted?” Gwendolyn requested mournfully. 

“It’s Jeremy,” Ted intoned listlessly.  “I had to rush him to the doctor.  That’s why I was tardy this evening.” 

“Oh no!” she exclaimed.  “Will he be alright?” 

The waitress suddenly returned.  She plopped down a Scotch and soda in front of Ted, and an ice water with a twist but without the ice in front of Gwendolyn.  “Are you ready to order?” she solicited.

“I am undecided,” Gwendolyn chortled. 

“Would you like to hear our specials?”

“Please,” Ted interrupted. 

The waitress smiled widely, showing off her perfect rows of glistening white teeth, like polished tombstones in a cemetery.  “We have a lovely poached salmon served over a bed of steaming rice pilaf, with a choice of broccoli or cauliflower.  We also have breaded veal served over a generous helping of spaghetti.  Finally, we have country-fried steak served with country gravy, mashed potatoes, apple sauce and green beans.  All our specials are only $8.99 plus tax.” 

“Mmmm,” Gwendolyn mused.  “They all sound so good.  I can’t make up my mind.” 

“I’ll have the veal,” Ted offered. 

“Oooh, good choice.  I’ll have the same.” 

The waitress scribbled the orders on her waitress pad.  “I’ll get your order in right away,” she reported, and skipped off in the direction of the kitchen.

“What about Jeremy?” Gwendolyn questioned sorrowfully. 

“He was coughing so hard, wheezing and struggling to breathe.”

“My poor baby!” Gwendolyn shouted.  “Could the doctor do anything for him?”

“The doctor finally came out with Jeremy in his arms,” Ted related.  “The doctor told me that Jeremy finally coughed up a massive fur ball.  He was purring, curled up in the doctor’s arms.” 

“Thank God,” Gwendolyn related exhaustedly. 

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One Response to How Not to Write a Novel

  1. davidlivermore says:

    Ok, that was funny.

    I just started writing myself, and thankfully don’t see myself doing that. The waitress rambling off the specials. That was classic.

    And, it was a cat. All this time I thought it was a person.

    Bravo on writing… poorly?

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