Book Review: How Not to Write a Novel
I’ve read a number of how to write books with varying degrees of success. Some offer valuable techniques to practice, and others just list off a bunch of facts that don’t apply to you. Even Stephen King’s book, On Writing, is entertaining more for its stories than its writing suggestions. How Not to Write a Novel represents an interesting new take on the writing guide because it doesn’t get bogged down with suggestions about how you should write a novel, but rather, how you shouldn’t.
I’m not an editor, and my experience as a reader for the school magazine in college is pretty limited. Despite this, however, I have seen many of the missteps this book depicts first hand. Whether it’s through peer editing, personal writings, or even published novels, I’ve seen classic missteps like the villain who explains his whole plot to the heroes. The sex scene that is too squeamish to depict itself. Or the historical character with dialect that’s more fitting to a modern day teenager. The more I read, the more I see these mistakes and it helps to reinforce everything the authors of this book are saying. I can already think of a handful of people whom I’d like to hand this book and tell them to memorize it. The examples that accompany each misstep are also represented with a fresh amount of humor that keeps the reader interested, while helping to stick the lesson in your memory.
Before I go into the downsides of this book, I want to say that it is a wonderful tool. So many books focus on how to do things right and the problem with that method is that each author has a different writing style. Where one might tell you to add more side characters, another might tell you to reduce them. This can create a frustrating contradiction for budding writers. The value of this book is that it tells you a consensus of what not to do based on what publishers look for; surefire ways that will get your novel rejected. While you can sometimes get away with a few of these mistakes, knowing that they are potential road blocks can help immensely when heading towards publication.
The largest flaw I found with this book was that many of its “do-nots” were mistakes I had found in published works. I’ve read novels where the author injects himself into the fiction to mixed results. I’ve read stories where the description reads like a checklist and drags on for pages. I’ve read books that took so many missteps that I couldn’t even finish reading it, and yet it was a bestseller. So while I agree with what this particular book is trying to say, it invalidates some of the lessons because clearly many successful authors are getting away with it. It’s a little disheartening because I fully believe that these mistakes should be avoided. I’m not even an editor and I’m already rolling my eyes at fiction that makes these rookie mistakes.
In my own little world I would make this required reading for all authors before they try to get published, but in reality I suspect very few will read it. I only found out about it by chance at the library where I work. And for those beginning authors that do find out about this book, I suspect they’ll treat it the same way they do many of this books suggestions: they’ll think that they are some how immune to making mistakes and are certain that what they are doing is right. Early authors have that tendency. (I know because I am one). And even though the book would advise me not to say that (because I’m injecting my own opinion too openly into what I’m writing) I’m going to say it anyway. Why? Because this review isn't a novel and it needed to be said. Climb off your high horses and start editing.
5 out of 5