How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

How Not To Write a Novel

Published by the Penguin Group. Click to enlarge.

That partially covered tagline reads: ‘200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published‘. And there’s a gun pointed at that sweet little kitten. Run, kitty!

A gloriously hilarious book that had me in stitches, and cringing painfully at some parts. Twenty years ago in my youth I wrote a novel. I sent it to two or three publishers, it was rejected and I left it at that (although I’ll never forget how amazingly kind one editor was at GMP in his encouragement and he even sent me some books that were published by the company). I shelved that hobby and moved on to other interests.

Now even though it’s been twenty years since I chucked away that manuscript into a drawer, I instantly recognised some of the ‘things not to do’ exactly because I had committed them, and it made me cringe and titter hard reading about these mistakes, more so than the other ones that are just as funny. Now I don’t think I can bear to pick up that novel again, I’d probably embarrass the hell out of myself and never recover. It’s just as well I haven’t read it again for many years. I should burn it, come to think of it. Just kidding.

I barely finished ‘Part 1:Plot‘ before deciding not to continue reading How not to write a novel on public transportation. All that smiling and and laughing to yourself while reading an apparently funny book is fine for a few minutes, but may escalate into making the people around you nervous.

The writers list what they think are the most common mistakes, illustrating the missteps with hilarious examples, and guiding the reader on how to recognise, avoid and amend them. At the end of this post I’ve included the list of contents.

Amidst all the wit and humour and what they call tough love, the writers deftly impart advice on topics that already held some interest to me, but now I wish I could download into my brain, and never delete. I don’t see myself having the time and the interest to try write another novel in the near future or possibly ever again, but if I do, it would not be a bad idea to first memorize every single point the writers brought up. That way hopefully I can focus on the writing and enjoying it in peace and not have the nagging thought that I’m making a fool of myself, uh, again.

On that thought, I’d need to buy it. I borrowed the copy I read from the National Library, but I see it’s listed here at for S$17.36. (first seen via


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Contents: In 255 pages, the book covers the following topics:

Part 1: Plot

  • Chapter 1: Beginnings and Setups
  • Chapter 2: Complications and Pacing
  • Chapter 3: Endings

Part 2: Character

  • Chapter 4: Character Esssentials
  • Chapter 5: Getting to Know Your Hero
  • Chapter 6: Sidekicks and Significant Others
  • Chapter 7:  Bad Guys

Part 3: Style – The Basics

  • Chapter 8: Words and Phrases
  • Chapter 9: Sentences and Paragraphs
  • Chapter 10: Dialogue

Part 4: Style – Perspective and Voice

  • Chapter 11: Narrative Stance
  • Chapter 12: Interior Monologue

Part 5: The World of the Bad Novel

  • Chapter 13: Setting
  • Chapter 14: Research and Historical Background
  • Chapter 15: Theme

Part 6: Special Effects and Novelty Acts – Do Not Try This At Home

Part 7: How Not To Sell A Novel