book reviews Creative writing

Read this for Nanowrimo: How Not To Write A Novel

My new reading list is too long for every book I’d like to re-read, but one book of writing tips that I often come back to is How Not To Write A Novel.1

My dog-eared copy of How Not To Write A Novel

If you’re embarking on a Nanowrimo project, now is a good time to dig into a short book that could make a big difference to your writing.

How Not To Write A Novel

Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark don’t tell you how to be a good writer; they just want you not to be a bad writer. It’s an entirely selfish goal: they’re publishing professionals whose daily lives are clouded by manuscripts that aren’t ready to publish. Some of them are beyond editing, and agents remember those authors for all of the wrong reasons. No-one wants to be on that list.

If you’re very precious about your writing, you might think this a sacrilegious take on your right to witter on as your heart desires. I disagree. When I started out in creative writing, How Not To Write A Novel was the first writing guide to set a standard that I knew I could achieve.

It’s a simple promise: take note of these two hundred tips and your writing will not be shit. It still might not be good writing, but you can’t get to good without getting past not being shit. And it takes longer than you’d think to integrate that many tips into everyday writing practice. I’m living proof.

A practical writer’s guide

It’s also aggressively accessible. Seven sections cover plot, character, basic style, perspective and voice, setting (The World of the Bad Novel), sex, jokes and postmodernism (Special effects and novelty acts — do not try this at home), and getting published. Each part is broken into chapters that illustrate common writing mistakes through bite-sized examples and pithy advice.

The examples are entertainingly bad, drawn (we can be sure) from manuscripts the authors and their colleagues have endured. You’ll laugh at many of them, then cringe with them as you see your own mistakes. If you’re not amused, you probably need this book.

Despite the title, there’s a lot of positive guidance, from specific tips on style to general advice. The lessons begin on the first line of page one:

“As a writer you have only one job: to make the reader turn the page.”

from How Not To Write A Novel, page 1

And if you think that’s obvious, you haven’t read The Essex Serpent.

From vomit draft to final draft

There’s no guarantee that How Not To Write A Novel will turn your WIP from a fetid pool of word vomit into a best seller. It’s best read as a companion to didactic novelling guides like Save The Cat Writes A Novel, insightful memoirs like On Writing and the sublime Wonderbook. It’s half the size and a hundred times more enjoyable than Reading Like A Writer.

The original 2009 edition doesn’t delve into self-publishing, though much of the advice on pitching is applicable. I’d love to see a chapter updated to cover bad blurb, unfortunate book formatting and ham-fisted cover art. In fact, I’d love to see a book like this about marketing and promoting a self-published novel. I’ve found few guides which tell you how not to waste your time and money along this part of the journey, and there are many ways to do it.

Good luck to everyone who’s starting their Nanowrimo journey this year. If you’ve got a favourite writing guide to accompany your Nano, let me know in the comments below.

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Looking for more writing tips? Try these posts:

  1. Unfortunately, the authors haven’t kept up this website so it’s not the wonderful resource it could be. ↩︎

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One reply on “Read this for Nanowrimo: How Not To Write A Novel”


  • How much does it cost to write a novel? Education, editors, readers

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