Rebecca Stott once wrote that one in four listeners of Radio 4 have started writing a novel, a statistic which, anecdotally speaking, I can attest to. Given the unbelievably large, exponential growth in the numbers of published books, aspiring writers and cherished manuscripts produced every year, it seems equally fitting that a number of ‘How to…’ books would spring up to answer the unyielding and eternal call of market demand.
As its title suggests, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark’s offering in this field has taken a slightly different approach: theirs is not a ‘How to…’ book, but a ‘How not to…’ one. Accordingly, it is its execution which differentiates ‘How not to write a novel: 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published’ from the myriad tomes vying for the attention of budding authors.
It is also what provides a daring, slightly perverse hook — page after page of really, really awful prose, laden with every cliché, plot device and dei from machinis known to man and literary agent, deliberately employed by Newman and Mittelmark to illustrate each piece of advice.
Mercifully, the bad writing never leaks into the rest of the book, and each example, entitled with such Lewis Carroll-esque headings as ‘Wherein the author trips over his own cleverness’, is meticulously demarked with all manner of fonts and black boxes to avoid any risk of text as leaden as “Pausing in their circumambulation of the verdancy, the duo jocularly noted a bi-canine” being mistaken for the authors’ own. Which it sort of is, anyway.
However, as bitingly funny as Newman and Mittelmark are in identifying the tropes of clunky literature — and doing so in so acute a fashion — there is no escaping the fact that after the first hundred times, the formula begins to wear thin.
What’s more, prospective authors would probably be best served steering clear all together, given how crushing it must be to see one’s own shortcomings mocked so robustly, and with such obvious glee.
In fact, confronted with so many literary crimes, the impression one gets is that their perpetrators should be left well alone; not given additional encouragement.
It strikes me that a more apt proverb with which to approach works such as these is not Ms Stott’s, but that other well-known maxim: “Everybody has a novel in them. And that’s exactly where it should stay.”