#5 How Not To Write A Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid At All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published

Happy Monday morning and welcome to my countdown of My Top 5 How To Write Books Books.

A note before we begin:

As I outlined in my previous post I have spent the last decade reading books about how to write books instead of writing one, which I only did in the last six months. (Confused?) I’ve read a lot of them. An estimated ninety-five percent of these books were useful for nothing more than hinting to the cute guy in Waterstones who I once saw reading On Writing that I was a writer too, or providing a space for the dust in my bedroom to land on. The purpose of these posts is to tell you which ones I found useful in the hope that they might prove useful for you too.

You’ll notice some obvious omissions. I haven’t included On Writing by Stephen King or Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande because everyone already knows about those; they’ve been recommended at 4 out of every 5 writing workshops ever held. (Okay, so I made that stat up.) You won’t find From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake – the only book that promises to tell you everything you need to know to get your novel published and then actually delivers it – because to avail of its oodles of great advice, you first need a novel. You won’t find The Artists Way or The Right to Write – both by Julia Cameron – because although in my decade of Doing Everything But Writing I would have resorted to witch-craft if it meant I could produce a thousand coherent words, I’m just practical these days. I know they work for other people and that’s fine, but the only thing spiritual about my writing is that sometimes I celebrate having done it with vodka. Last but not least, there will be no How To Write A Novel: The Paint by Numbers Method type books on here – the kind that provide you with an IdentiKit method of ‘creating’ characters – because I think if you want to write a book you should, at the very least, have a blurry idea for one and one that already has people in it.

And so we come to my Top 5 Countdown.

In fifth place is my ‘Can You Write?’ Litmus test, How Not To Write A Novel: 200 Mistakes To Avoid At All Costs If You Ever Want To Get Published by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark.

How Not to Write a Novel does exactly what it says on the tin: it lists 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs should you ever want to get published, or have your writing elevated to a level above that of a 14-year-old’s English homework.

These include things like:

The Underpants Gnomes* in which crucial steps are omitted

Last Tango in Santa’s Village where the love interest is a sexual zero

Hello, I Must Be Going wherein time in the novel is badly handled

– ‘Hello! I am the Mommy!’ where characters announce things they shouldn’t

The Shaper Image Catalogue where tech-porn, shoe-porn, etc. halts the narrative

and 195 other shockingly common mistakes.

It also offers hilarious examples of these mistakes and pearls of wisdom such as how to get rid of save-the-day cell phones in thrillers (Swallowing of Phone, by shark), why the fact that your hero ‘stopped going to Burning Man when they went commercial’ isn’t reason enough for readers to love him, why you should never name your novel’s cats using two or more words starting with the same letter (e.g. Prickly Paws) and my favourite, the ‘Do I Know This Word?’ test:

“Ask yourself, ‘Do I know this word?’ If the answer is no, then you do not know it.”

Besides making me laugh until I cried, this book convinced me that I could actually write.


Let me explain.

I believe that every time someone, somewhere, utters the phrase, ‘I think I’m going to write a novel’ a magical lever should depress somewhere in the bowels of Amazon’s warehouse that sends a copy of this book winging its way to them, because if you can write, you wouldn’t dare dream of making at least 170 of the mistakes listed. You just couldn’t. If you’ve read as much as you should have before attempting to achieve your published writer dreams, they’d be obvious.

I mean, really. How many of you think it’s okay to change point of view within a paragraph? Or to tell your readers what a character looks like by standing them in front of a mirror and congratulating themselves – in their own head – on their ‘perfectly-shaped breasts’? Or to insert that old chestnut, deus ex machina (which the authors say is French for, ‘Are you f-king kidding me?’), such as a meteorite which obliterates your entire cast just before you explain what the devil has been going on for 300 pages?

And people – clearly – are making all these mistakes. One of the reviews I read on Amazon went something like this: ‘I loved this book, but after reading it I’m not sure I could ever try to write anything again. There’s so much to think about! LOL!!’

Yes, there is a lot to think about it, isn’t there, Miss LOL?

(You can’t see me, but I’m rolling my eyes right now.)

But besides being fantastically funny and making you feel more confident (or not!) in your abilities as a writer, this book serves a third purpose: it’ll make you happy.

We all know the statistics: less than 1% of 1% of 1% (etc.) of all books written get published. Agents’ desks are buckling under the weight of unsolicited manuscripts. But if the rest of them are regularly Grabbing the Mike (i.e. where the point of view temporarily strays) we don’t have as much to worry about, now do we?

Click to buy from Amazon.co.uk:

How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published

Read a review:

By Kate Saunders of The Guardian

Visit the official How Not To Write A Novel website:


Join me tomorrow for No. 4 in My Top 5 How To Write Books Books!

*The Underpants Gnomes is a South Park reference. In an episode called – shockingly – Gnomes, missing underpants lead to the discovery of the Underpants Gnomes who reveal their not completely thought-out business plan:

1. Collect underpants

2. ???

3. Profit!

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7 thoughts on “#5 How Not To Write A Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid At All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published

  1. FlossieT says:

    My favourite (or least favourite, depending on your point of view) Grabbing the Mike incident has to be Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, which includes a paragraph of truly shocking messed-up pronouns and tussles of perspective. It reads like a late decision to change the overall POV in the book was very, very badly edited, and it ruined the book for me (I was already struggling, but after that it had no chance). So if even Booker-shortlisted books can do it…

  2. catherineryanhoward says:

    I think a few of the mistakes are things that occur regularly, for whatever reason, in prize-winning/bestselling/etc. books and then occasionally there comes a book which breaks all ‘the rules’ but is still amazing. (Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris comes to mind.) I think that’s kind of the problem as those of us unpublished plucking away at our first novel think, ‘Well if so-and-so can do it, so I can I.’ Although having said that, a straying POV would probably be the mildest form of the affliction Newman & Mittelmark describe… most of the mistakes are so bad they’re funny! 🙂

  3. Rebecca Brown says:

    I’ve picked this book up and put it down a hundred times, and you’ve just convinced me to actually buy it next time. Anything that can make me laugh, and feel happier and more confident has to be worth its weight in gold. And I love the picture of you reading the Amazon review and rolling your eyes. So much to think about, writing a novel? Really? I never realised!

    You should be on commission!

  4. catherineryanhoward says:

    Rebecca you HAVE to read this book. (And the other four I’ll be telling you about each day for the rest of the week…!) It honestly did make me laugh until I cried (although I always cry when I laugh – thanks a LOT, Mum) and it’ll make you feel all talented and superior inside. (In a nice way, of course.) And could you do me a favour? Could you buy it from Amazon on the link above? Because that way I actually DO get commission! 😉

  5. Lissa says:

    OMG – I totally bought this book when I arrived in England and decided to get serious about my writing. The sales girl in the bookstore looked delighted and asked if I was writing anything – very embarrassed at her enthusiasm, I answered that I was. And I have to add, the book didn’t help me at all. It’s an awesome book, but I basically read it to reinforce that I was already doing everything right.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It didn’t help me either – but that’s exactly why I love it! There’s all these books telling you all these fanciful things about plot, character, etc. and then you read this and think, “I wouldn’t DREAM of doing these things – I must be doing something right!”

      And it’s so, so funny. I just re-read it every now and then to laugh at the examples. 🙂

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