Relax and get back to work

<strong>How NOT to Write a Novel</strong>

Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

<em>Penguin, 272

In the winter of 1993, I moved to New York City. Everywhere I went I encountered, on the subway, the sides of buses and street corners, advertisements for something called the “Gotham Writers’ Workshop”. The profusion of these sickly yellow ads smacked of desperation, like the handwritten cards for NA meetings and 1-800-Fantasy girls stuck inside phone booths. But I was curious, in the same way that I was curious about drag queens and the Chelsea Hotel. One Thursday I found myself in a church hall on the Upper West Side.

“Hi. My name’s Mike.” A young man in blue jeans jogged into the room. “I want to go around the group and for everyone to say their name and a word for today.” Hard-luck stories from accountants and cab drivers moved closer until, at last, it was my turn. “Hi. My name’s Jemima and my word for today is apartment. I’m looking for one,” I mumbled. My neighbour’s hand slapped mine. “I’m Val. I’m a realtor. Take my card. I can find you a studio, honey, for a real good price.”

The Gotham Writers’ Workshop was not, as it turned out, a creative experience; it was a place for people who wanted to “share”. It might have been called How Not to Write a Novel, a name it would have shared with the latest creative writing self-help book to reach our shores. In it, the American authors and creative writing teachers Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark have compiled a list of what not to do if you want to avoid ending up on a publisher’s slush pile. Full of useful tips disguised as gags, it reads like a script by the American comedian and writer Larry David. If David’s cult series Curb Your Enthusiasm (in which he plays a fictional version of himself) had run an episode on how not to write a novel, the voice-over would surely have started like this: “Think of [me] as your onboard navigation system, a friendly voice to turn to whenever you look up, lost and afraid, and think, ‘How the fuck did I end up here?’”

This is the question that writers ask themselves every day. Margaret Atwood, in her book on the practice of writing Negotiating With the Dead, addresses it as “darkness, and a desire to illuminate it”. Any analysis of creativity involves working backwards. There is a long tradition of writers reflecting on their own activity. Ignore it. This, anyway, is the advice of Newman and Mittelmark, who argue that if you want to write a novel, you should not get bogged down in the struggle to understand the process. Aim instead for a pro­cess of elimination: what not to do. After all, “If reading Stephen King on writing really did the trick, we would all be on the bestseller lists.”

They have a point. If it were that simple to learn from example, there would be no place for the creative writing courses flourishing in universities across the country. Nor would there be any call for a book like How NOT to Write a Novel, with its chapter on “lousy” endings, “known as the folie adieu, which is French for ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’”. It’s the kind of exasperated comment you might get from a New York cab driver when you attempt to pay a $5 fare with a $100 bill – or from your creative writing tutor when you read out an excerpt from your short story about the supernatural dog at your Thursday-night workshop.

OK, so I’m joking about the workshop, but given that the book is promoted as the distillation of “30 years of teaching and editing”, it is difficult not to surmise that the authors are a little fed up with some of the stuff they have to read. Hence their decision to structure their guide around a conventional elements-of-fiction framework: plot, beginnings and set-ups, words and phrases, narrative stance, and settings using less typical examples such as “The Unruly Zit”, “when the author has read too much Bukowski”. These headings are followed by examples of bad writing scripted by the authors. “Melinda would never have guessed that she would find true love in the arms of a ruthless terrorist. The beans were too hot to eat” illustrates “Linearity Shrugged”.

Read as a work of fiction, How NOT to Write a Novel is like an old-fashioned campus novel, in which the ideals of knowledge are eclipsed by the transgressions of the staff. Creative writing, academia’s newest recruit, is fair game. This being a How not to . . . book, the help it dispenses is hijacked by anti-intellectual satire. For the best piece of advice, skip to page 246: “Relax, take a deep breath, and get back to work.”

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload