Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How Not to Write a Novel (2008)

     I don't know if I have had more laugh out loud moments with a book than with Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman's How Not to Write a Novel (2008).  There is something special when authors can make 'bad writing' much more entertaining than what passes for acceptable fiction these days.  Sure, such prose really only works in small doses – nobody wants to read 180 pages of rapid-fire absurdities, unknowingly self-denying characters, and logical inconsistencies – but because there are so many real mistakes that writers can and do make, Mittelmark and Newman have no problem keeping the examples short and extremely pointed.
     Some of the fun in reading this comes from the liberal recycling of character names from all the fake, flawed fiction.  Melinda may be a waitress who obsesses over her boyfriend not remembering to celebrate the anniversary of their third date or a woman sold into sexual service to a ruthless terrorist.  Maybe it is the same Melinda; that would be an odd mash-up novel. 
     One of my favorite moments – and one that actually could work given a truly gifted author who could give it deep contextual meaning...well, some of it could work – comes from the sub-section "Linearity Shrugged" (p 124)

           Melinda would have never guessed that she would find true love in the arms
          of the ruthless terrorist to whom she had been sold like a hardware fixture 
          by the man she had trusted with all her most intimate papers and 
         documentation.  The beans were still too hot to eat.  In the early 1900s, 
         Tripoli had been a small market town, where goats could be seen not only 
         the streets, but making themselves at home on the Persian rugs of 
         fashionable homes.

I must have laughed for about a minute at the abruptness of "The beans were still too hot to eat."  Not only does it seem to have nothing to do with the establishing sentence, but its curt, very masculine tone stands in complete contrast to the overlong romantic sentence that proceeds it.  Where "The beans were still too hot to eat" could stand as a metaphor – a clumsy sexual one, or a clever one about reigning in one's passions, or something more mature than I can imagine on my own – it reads here as a complete distraction.  But more than that, it conveys more meaningful information to the reader on its face than the one exploring Melinda's journey into being the property of a terrorist or where goats slept in early 20th Century Tripoli.  It takes an insane amount of understanding of the craft to structure a paragraph (and it goes on for some length in the example) that both showcases the mistakes authors and wanna-be authors can and do make.
     Likewise, Mittelmark and Newman have great advice about the dangers of indulging the desire to soften the villain by giving him or her some likable qualities.  First, there is the issue of what the would-be author may consider sympathetic may not play as such with a wider audience.  But more to the point, some villainy is beyond redemption.

          Jack robs and cheats and beats his kids—but still pines for his first love.  
         Adolf introduces Fascism to Germany, spreads war throughout Europe, 
         murders millions in concentration camps—but he's a strict vegetarian and 
         loves his dog.  Tossing in a touching scene with his German shepard 
         Blondie and a dish of lentils won't make Hitler "more balanced."  Hitler's 
         character isn't balanced.  The only way to avoid caricature is the hard 
         way: making the bad guy's insane behavior and motivations believable. 
           (p 87)

Round out characters, of course, but there is no need to falsely "humanize" them.  The elements of character that don't directly relate to motivation should still inform the reader about the experiences that inform that motivation.  Furthermore, note that not everyone loves dogs (some of us harbor an intense fear of them because dogs tend to bite people) and vegetarianism isn't super-popular; see the lack of competing vegetarian chain restaurants as opposed to the massive profits of McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, and KFC.
     There is advice that I just assume real authors know.  Bold print, unusual capitalization ('his Beer was cold and Refreshing') and exclamation points (except when a the dialogue needs to represent a character shouting or screaming) should see little to no use in a novel.  Sure, I liberally abuse italics and bold print on this blog; I don't have an editor to tell me I can't do it.  And it is an overly easy cheat to try to put extra meaning (or note that I'm trying to be sly) with a word or phrase.  Serious writers should do the work.  If you are trying to be sly, then actually write something that conveys that.
     Because Mittelmark and Newman aren't interested in the proper way to write a novel, they can concentrate on the many mistakes that are waiting to be made.  Illustrating the mistakes makes for a much more enjoyable read than a dry treatise on the proper technique for writing a novel.  Indeed, there isn't really a proper technique.  How Not to Write a Novel could have subtitled sections "You are Not [insert author's name here]."  Aspiring, unpublished authors are not Hemingway, Faukner, Roth, Twain, McCarthy, or King.  There is an assumption on behalf of Mittelmark and Newman that the would-be author is aiming for a more commercial than literary product – more Grisham or Collins than Morrison or Mailer – something that I find a little odd.  As much as I enjoy Richard A. Knaak's Dragonrealm books or Michael A. Stackpole's BattleTech novels, I would rather my works be more meaningful; I would like to think I want to write something more than just an interesting yarn. 
     In making the case for remembering where a scene is set – to not ignore other character present entirely, or forget what the scene would otherwise be about if the characters weren't so self-involved and interested in being interesting – Mittelmark and Newman give a passage that draws together several other flaws.  It is also the example that convinced me that this book would work as a movie, though I don't know how large a market there is for a kind of Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) built around literary clichés, grammatical errors, and inconsistent point of view..  Still, I don't know if any film has captured this level of sincere absurdity:
          The meeting began with a few prefatory remarks by the Mayor.  As luck 
          would have it, Jane and Alan found themselves seated next to each other
          at the far end of the conference table.  Jane avoided looking his way.
          Alan took out his pen and began tapping it on the table, something he 
          knew got on Jane's nerves.
          Jane glared at him.  Alan smirked.  She darted her hand out and snatched
          the pen from him.
           Alan glared back, but his look soon softened.
           "I don't want to hear it."
          "Jane, don't you know how sorry I am?"
          "You should have thought of that before you and your cousin—"
          "Second cousin, okay?" Alan interrupted, his tender feelings forgotten.  "It's
          not illegal."
          "Whatever!" she said.  "If she was two months younger, it would be."
          "If you were a little more enthusiastic in bed, instead of bringing up your 
          so-called trauma every time I tough you, maybe you could complain," Alan 
          said, bitter.  "I get it, okay?  Seeing what your father did to Fluffy was 
          horrible.  Well, that was twenty years ago.  Time to get over it."
          Jane shook her head, angry.  "That's what I get for trusting a Neo-Nazi!"
          "Of course!  Blame my politics!"  Alan pounded the table with his fist, 
          nostrils flaring.  "You and your Jew friends would just love patriots like 
          "Shut up, Alan!  Shut up!"  Jane shrieked wildly, grabbing his collar and 
          shaking him.
          When the meeting was over, they filed out with their colleagues, 
          comparing notes on the Carb-Free Detroit! campaign that the Mayor had 
            (p 142-3)
     It should be noted that one can make many of the 'mistakes' outlined and still get published.  A lot of them can go into the same book.  David Heinzmann's A Word to the Wise (2009; commentary on it can be found on this blog) has a stereotypical gay character who seems to exist to show how okay the main character is with homosexuals.  Too much attention is paid to the minutiae of details of clothing.  The main character is supposedly well-rounded because he still thinks about a college football game where he didn't score the winning touchdown (never mind that he is a former FBI agent turned lawyer, and not bad looking to boot) and likes to, he's a natural cook who intuits what makes a good meal.  But Heinzmann has had a long and successful career as a journalist – still does – and that is going to open more doors than perfectly crafted characters.
     I recommend this book not just for the frustrated would-be author, but for anyone who likes to read.  Mittelmark and Newman have an easy, conversational style.  More than that, it is clear that they respect the effort it takes to move a story from imagination to the page.  If the story is nothing more than a retelling of already established clichés and stereotypes, why bother?  And if one is going to bother, at least the easiest of errors can be avoided.

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