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Destruction Manual

How Not to Write a Novel

By Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
HarperCollins, 2008

 

Entirely too many nincompoops write novels, and every one of them who can be discouraged should be discouraged from foisting yet another one on the long-suffering reading public. The Kite Runner, Beasts of No Nation, The Sari Shop, The Perfect Man, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Infinite Jest, Special Topics in Calamity Physics…the ‘Great New Writers’ section of your bookstore’s shelves groan under the weight of wet and lunging fragments that should never have seen daylight, books so otiose with crappy plotting and appalling dialogue that it would be an insult to isolinear hermeneutics even to quip that they appear to be written by a computer algorithm.

No, only human beings could create stuff so bad, and yet each of these monstrosities was carefully, lovingly shepherded through the cutthroat publishing process by a cadre of true believers who considered – who were deluded enough to consider – their charges as fit successors to Thackeray, Fielding, and Austen.

These books – and many, many others like them (the latest unworthy recipient being Joshua Ferris’ sour piece of incoherent gossip, Then We Came to the End) – are unmitigatedly awful and cannot withstand even ten seconds of considered scrutiny. The only reason they’re here and being lionized at the 92nd St. Y is because the majority of the people who praised them and championed them – in addition to the majority of people who started to read them and stopped a quarter of the way through with an immeasurable sense of self-satisfaction – believed they were good novels, that they weren’t, in fact, incomplete self-indulgent gobbets of egregiously, even insultingly, inept prose.

All of these alleged auteurs (not to mention all their credulous readers) could have benefitted from some good old-fashioned schooling in what’s good and what’s bad. They could have benefitted from the post-midnight phone call of that vaguely unseemly mentor who’s seen guiding the paths of more than one future-great writer in the early years of their talent. They could have benefitted, in other words, from some instruction.

This idea is anathema to the ethos of modern writing workshops, of course. As such workshops have proliferated (twenty years ago, there were three in the country; today, no self-respecting local polytechnic institute is without one), and as more and more young writers have achieved financial success on the basis of luck, biographical earnestness, shameless networking, or some combination thereof, it’s become less and less fashionable to tell aspiring authors that there’s a right way and a wrong way to use English prose, that not all innovations are necessarily good…. That their work stands a statistical chance of being just plain bad.

That’s the problem with the act of writing, after all: since everybody can do it, it’s easy to bridle at the thought that not everybody can do it well. It seems a given, like walking. But just watch how some people walk, the next time you’re on a crowded city street. The hugely overweight unwed mother of three? She’s walking entirely on the very back balls of her heels, thereby ripping up her lower calf muscles and putting even more stress on an already-stressed lower back. The slack-jawed, eyebrow-pierced skater dude? His constant deep shuffling – never actually picking his feet up off the pavement – is deforming the bones of his feet and tearing the hell out of his knees. And that’s walking, an act which has, to say the least, fewer complex variables than even the simplest form of writing. And writing fiction is far from the simplest form of writing – it’s the most complex. It stands to reason, then, that most people might not be able to do it well.

Still, you mustn’t say this within earshot of the “writing” section of any big retail bookstore, because just as the workshops have proliferated, so too have the books whose only purpose is to encourage your inner Tolstoy by first assuming you have an inner Tolstoy, and that expressing him will be essentially easy, certainly requiring nothing in the way of hard or risky work. These were the hopeful souls Patrick White had in mind when he remarked:

I am constantly meeting ladies who say, ‘How lovely it must be to write,’ as though one sat down at the escritoire after breakfast, and it poured out like a succession of bread and butter letters, instead of being dragged out, by tongs, a bloody mess, in the small hours.

Lobbed into this soppy state of affairs like a cherry bomb comes How Not to Write a Novel by longtime writing instructors Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, and its appearance should be met with a weary cheer from every oppressed reader who’s ever slogged through an alleged new masterpiece only to close it with exasperation and think, “Hell, I could do better than that.”

Mittelmark and Newman don’t believe it, and they’ve got a jubilant over-abundance of examples to back themselves up. In their combined careers as writers, teachers, and editors, they’ve seen just about every mistake a would-be published writer can make, and the tone they take throughout their hugely enjoyable book – a tone of pretty much constant snide disdain – will certainly make theirs the only book in the aforementioned writing section that doesn’t play well with others.

They go about their task of anatomizing every stupid writerly error in existence with the gusty joy of people who’ve corrected one too many assignments, and a large part of the reason their humor is so infectious is because you just know the people who need this book the most won’t even think to read it. There’s a joke’s-on-them quality to the whole enterprise that makes it irresistible.

Our authors are perfectly aware of their maverick state; they begin their book by noting immediately all those aforementioned writing-help books in the bookstores, but they signal just as quickly a certain note of doubt as to their efficacy: “… if reading Stephen King on writing really did the trick, we would all by now be writing long, baggy, vernacular novels that got on the bestseller lists” There’s a bit of three-card-monte going on with all these traditional writing books, and they believe they know what it is:

All these many writing books strive to offer distinct, sometimes radically different approaches to writing a novel. But if you locked all their authors in a room and slowly started filling it with water, and the only way they could escape was to reach some consensus on writing, their only hope for survival would be to agree on the things you shouldn’t do….

Hence, this book and its wide variety of writing sins. They begin, as most would-be novels begin, with plot, and all the ways to screw it up. The foremost of these, they maintain, is for an author to be unclear what his plot actually is and therefore slow to get to the point of it. This and other kinds of plot mistakes, they assure us, “will guarantee that your novel will be only a brief detour in a ream of paper’s journey to mulch.”

The sins against plot are many, and the attention lavished on them is justified when you consider that none of the novels nominated for or eventually awarded any of the major literary awards in the Western World for the last two years has even had a plot (this is, naturally, a weakness of books such as How Not to Write a Novel: even a glance at retail bookstore bestseller lists will provide ample proof that one need not avoid making any of these mistakes in order to get published; conversely, legitimately great novels can be found that make all of these mistakes too, but more on that in a bit). Mittelmark and Newman are concentrating on unpublished novels, however, and they begin at the beginning, with “a manuscript comes screaming across the sky…”:

Many writers kill their plots in their infancy with an ill-conceived plot or an unreadable opening. Try any of the strategies we’ve collected in our extensive fieldwork, and you too can cut off narrative momentum at the ankles.

Those strategies include “The Lost Sock” (where the plot is too light), “The Long Runway” (in which a character’s childhood is recounted to no purpose), and “The Deafening Hug,” (the unintended love interest) – one subcategory of the last being “The Lolita”:

Any undue interest in or physical contact with children will set off alarms. If you do not want your reader to think he is reading about a pedophile, dandling of children on knees should be kept to a minimum by fathers, and even more so by uncles. If your character is in any way associated with organized religion, whether he is a bishop, a minister, or a kindly old church caretaker with a twinkle in his eye, he should not even pull a child from a burning building.

When we move on from plot, we don’t move far: plot complications are right around the corner. Perhaps anticipating Larkin’s observation that many novels are composed of “a beginning, a muddle, and an end,” our authors get set to taunt the hopeful just a little more:

So your novel has a rock-solid set-up, and it’s heading toward an amazing, explosive conclusion. Never fear! There’s still plenty of time to squash excitement like a bug. Read on for fascinating lore of “bogging down in the middle.”

The highlights of this lore include “Monogamy” (where your character really doesn’t get out much), “Onanism” (where your character “goes through life without having any meaningful interaction with anyone else in the world”), “The Benign Tumor” (where an apparently meaningful development isn’t), “Mr. Sandman, On Second Thought, Bring Me a Gun” (wherein characters dream), and an entire sub-section on dealing with cell phones (“Forgetting of Phone,” “Loss of Phone,” “Destruction of Phone, by Villain,” “Swallowing of Phone, by Shark”).

The endings of aspiring novels fair no better – in fact worse, since endings are when most authors are at their most tired and careless: the end is in sight, and attention to detail and plausibility seem secondary. Mittelmark and Newman have seen more than their fair share of the absurd tricks unpublished authors use to dig themselves out of the holes they’ve dug, and these, too, are classified under a wide array of snarky headings: “But a Meteor Could Land There, Right?” (in which the author cheats).

Mistakes in the body of the work apply equally well: “‘And One Ring to Bind Them!’ Said the Old Cowpoke” (in which the author switches genres in midstream), “Goodbye, Cruel Reader!” (where an inconvenient character is conveniently disposed of), and “Now with 20 % More Homily!” (where the author tells us what he’s just spent 300 pages telling us).

There follow similar (and unfailingly entertaining) sections on every component of the unpublished novel – character traits (including a list of staple things which in and of themselves won’t guarantee he’ll be likeable, such as that he goes to Burning Man, or that he stopped going to Burning Man “when they went commercial”), sexuality, sidekicks, bad guys (including “A Novel Called It,” where abusive parents are dragged into the picture), style, vocabulary (our authors, ever helpful, provide a handy quiz: “Ask yourself: ‘Do I know this word?’ If the answer is no, then you do not know it”), punctuation, and a host of other things that drive our more insightful critics to distraction, such as “Gibberish for Art’s Sake” (wherein indecipherable lyricism baffles the reader).

Dialogue, that staple of novels good and bad, gets its own chapter, with sub-headings that would please purists like Elmore Leonard, such as “Asseverated the Man,” (when the author thinks he’s too good for the word ‘said’). Everything from narrative stance to historical research to such bugaboos as theme gets its boisterous comeuppance:

Ah, theme! How it inspires! It is the ghost in the machine, the chewy nougat at the center of the pecan log, the cart before the horse. What unpublished author can resist the siren call of the soapbox? Below we show you how to pack your novel with such high density of meaning that it will form a black hole from which no story can ever escape.

Many such themes are covered, such as “Obsession, by Calvin Klein (You Know He’s Jewish, Right?)” (when the author is unaware that his idée fixe is showing), and all are deplored as appalling. But the authors reserve their most pointed (and funniest) scorn for their penultimate chapter, in which a variety of “special effects” are lumped together. Foremost of these is a potential stumbling block so fearsome it has scared off writers from Cervantes to the aforementioned Stephen King: the sex scene. It and tricky things like it elicit a memorable tirade:

When it comes to sex, jokes, and postmodernism, the subjects we are now about to discuss, we must insist that if you can’t do something right, give up. Give up and do something else, because, frankly, a poorly executed sex scene or an unfunny joke is of less value than no sex scene or no joke, and the conventions of postmodernism poorly handled are the quickest route up one’s own ass.

Giving the reader a sex scene that is only half right is like giving her half a kitten. It is not half as cute as a whole kitten; it is a bloody, god-awful mess.

But Mittelmark and Newman don’t reserve their tender ministrations only for the preliminary steps in writing a novel poorly – they also have some constructive criticism for what comes after, if, somehow, their readers have managed to write a publishable novel despite all their taunting (“No, we’re not angry. We’re just disappointed. Disappointed and hurt”). They retain an evil hope that their sorry charges will fumble the ball in the end zone:

We know you’ve worked long and hard to get here, but take a deep breath and go the last few yards. In this final section, you will learn how to insure that no matter how beautifully you write, nobody need ever find out.

Finally, Mittelmark and Nemman have brought us to the end of the gauntlet-line they call a guidebook. Every would-be author who wanders into their bramble-patch has surely committed a generous helping of the mistakes they so happily eviscerate; they have been exposed in the most brutal, jeering fashion, and perhaps some tough lessons have been learned that not all the parental money in the world is likely to pry out of modern writing workshops. Our authors try valiantly to contain their parting bile:

Congratulations! If you have been following along, you should now have progressed from being merely an unpublished novelist to being a novelist who is completely invulnerable to publication. Clad in the armor of incomprehensibility and offensiveness, you can laugh at the threat of publication! You can sleep at night secure in the knowledge that not a single soul you are not related to by blood, marriage, or fraternal bond will ever read your work, let alone publish it.

This is the book’s only rub, as mentioned earlier: this idea that all novels which avoid the pitfalls will assuredly get published, and that all novels that fall into them are destined for oblivion. There’s a taint of snobbery about the whole book, with our authors implying that a direct line runs from writing a technically and even artistically guiltless novel to getting that novel published – maintaining, in other words, that unpublished novels are flawed novels, and conversely that all published novels have been conscientiously vetted of such flaws.

Of course we all know that’s not the case. A baker’s dozen modern literary masterpieces have achieved the laurels of the day by flinging down and dancing upon the rules so mordantly appended here. And likewise we can credit that at least a few unpublished novels remain so because there exist in the world such things as lazy, incompetent editors. The exclusivity of ‘published/non-published’ hints at a quality dividing-line that doesn’t exist in the real world and never has. This is the inherent danger of prescribing rules for something like writing, no matter how cleverly you do so: writers who need rulebooks will never become writers who don’t, and writers confident enough to break the rules have their eyes on loftier prizes than conformity. Carol Shields at her strongest is also Carol Shields at a degree of introspection that would draw a red flag from Mittelmark and Newman. Our caustic rule book inveighs against hordes of underused characters, but Vasily Grossman populates a continent with such and is never less than brilliant while doing so. In the best of his short fiction, George Saunders violates every single rule in How Not to Write a Novel, but because he’s brilliant in the form, it doesn’t matter. This is what happens when the unfairness of talent is added to the picture.

Still, as long as readers keep that in mind, they’ll have no better (though harsher) vaguely unseemly mentors than Mittelmark and Newman, who close their book in the same inimitable tone they opened it:

Vaya con Pollo! Arroz con Dios! We wash our hands of you! Or, as our parents used to say as they sent us off to college, “We are sorry to inform you that your manuscript does not suit our needs at the present time.”


Steve Donoghue led a force from his home in Blois to Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204. With the booty gained from sacking the Byzantine capital, he funded a tremendous library, which he has since increased, and which he refers to for his literary blog Stevereads

One Comment »

  • Karl says:

    People will argue about what is good writing. It would be more interesting to discuss successful writing. In a capitalist society the most successful writer is the one who makes the most money. Everything else is just hot air.

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