How Not to Write a Novel – Review

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To all aspiring novelists out there—to all writers period—I highly recommend reading How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. Between them, these two authors have lots of experience with writing, editing, teaching, and reviewing. They’ve seen a lot of good and bad writing come and go.

Rather than try to explain what makes good writing good, as most writing how-to books do, this book explains instead what makes bad writing bad. Going through the major points of plot, character, and style, it gives detailed examples demonstrating the various traps most new writers fall into, send their precious manuscripts to the trash can—sorry, recycle bin.

Some of the tips you will have seen before, though probably worded somewhat differently, if you’ve ever read anything on writing. And yet, you probably still make these mistakes from time to time, and another reminder wouldn’t hurt. For example: “Fuck You!” He Said Profanely: Where the author uses adverbs to no purpose.

Others will be new, at least they were to me, like: The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special: Where clothing is given too much prominence.

Though written with the novel in mind, the majority of these blunders are not unique to novel writing. The examples are often woefully exaggerated for humour’s sake, but also clearly make their point. As essential as examples of the ‘right thing’ are, examples of the ‘wrong thing’ are valuable too. It’s a lot easier to find mistakes in your writing when you know what the mistakes look like.

Also, the book was simply fun to read. Not a hint of textbookiness to be found. I will warn you, however, unless you are most impeccable writer in existence (in which case, what are you doing on my blog?) it will at times be painful when you see hints of your own writing peeking out from the what‑not‑to-do pile.

Though I’d like to think none of my writing is quite as bad as the comical passages in this book depict, there was lots of ‘yeah, ok, I might do that sometimes.’, and ‘Crap, I’ve definitely done that.’, going through my mind as I came across the traps most applicable to me. I’d list them all, but there are too many (feel free to read any of my writing and I’m sure you’ll find a few on your own).

Here and there, I got to think ‘Phew, I know I’ve never done that.’ Usually when the error described in no way applied to the kind of writing I do, like: Gibberish for Art’s Sake: Wherein indecipherable lyricism baffles the reader. I have been accused of confusing my readers in the past (Dosterra Chapter one), but certainly not with lyricism.

How Not to Write a Novel also includes: The Crepitating Parasol; The Whatchamcallit; and “Yo, Charlemagne, how dost thy big war?”, to name a few more intriguing subtitles that make it impossible not to wonder, ‘What’s that about?’ If you’d like to know, pay a visit to Amazon, or your local Chapters.

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Too much information…or too little?

Perhaps this issue is less relevant in the science fiction realms, where I spend most of my time, than other genres, but it’s still something that requires consideration. The question of accuracy in the details when writing. When to do research, and when to make it up. Or, leave it out all together.

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being irked when reading a book or watching a TV show that gets the facts or details wrong…or just makes you shutter thinking, Come on, seriously? For me there is one in particular that comes up over and over again in just about any show or book that depicts anyone in uniform. Military, cops, fictional freedom-fighting force from another planet, it doesn’t seem to matter.

This major pet peeve of mine is a fictional senior officer of any kind emphasizing their command by saying…you’ve all heard it…”That’s an order!” or worse “That’s an order, soldier!”

Blech!

Every time I hear those words I cringe. It’s like someone scraping the bottom of a dinner plate repeatedly with their steak knife seemingly unaware that they have already successfully sliced the meat. Perhaps it’s because my military experience is Canadian (and Navy/Air Force at that), but never, in four years at military college or in five years of service afterward, do I ever recall hearing anyone say those words (and I was called a lot of things but never soldier)–except maybe in jest. If I did hear such I thing, I would fear the individual who spoke was at high risk of finding shaving cream in their shoes.

That said, it would appear from most of what I’ve read (and watched on television) that most writers are ok with filling the gaps in their knowledge with believable-ish jargon from their imaginations, or copied clichés that they know the majority of us have been brainwashed to accept as whatever they are trying to represent–like a take-no-bullshit officer let’s say. And does it really matter? Obviously I continue to watch these shows and read these books despite the momentary break in the illusion.

As Stephen King says: I want a little bit, but not the whole thing. Don’t confuse me with the facts. I want to know just enough so that I can lie colorfully. Actually, it was one of his characters who said it and I think the character was quoting someone else, but the character was a writer (I’ve noticed a lot of writers like to write protagonists who are also writers. Write what ya know and all that, I suppose). Anyway, this passage brings to the forefront that magic balance between leaving the reader dizzyingly confused and making them grind their teeth with irritation at the writer’s ignorance.

I am still struggling with this one. Though I’m sure I have been, and will be in the future, guilty of the latter, I tend more toward the former–so I’m told–especially when the topic I’m writing about is of particular interest to me. If I’m interested the reader will be too, right? Not necessarily. Take the early chapters of Dosterra for example where I try to combine my understanding of quantum physics with the possibilities my imagination leaps to based on that knowledge, mostly to the confusion of everyone but my husband who loves the geekiest of hard science fiction more than most.

Part of the problem, of course, is that when it comes to these topics ‘I know just enough to be dangerous’, as they say. I do have a fairly strong science background, but when it comes to quantum physics and cosmology (good Sci Fi material) I am mostly self taught. I think I understand what I read as well as the next person, but I don’t always pass the Richard Feynamn litmus test: Could I explain it to a guy standing at the bus stop? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you have a firm grasp on the concept, if the answer is ‘no’…well…maybe keep your thoughts to yourself, or do some more research.

Even when I do pass this test, how much does the reader really care? Usually not as much as they care about the experiences of the characters themselves. The other stuff is mainly there to make the experience feel real. Beyond that the details can get in the way, or simply bore the reader. The danger is, however, if you gloss over the details too much then the reader feels cheated or patronized, and that’s no good either. Confused yet?

My latest food for thought for other aspiring writers out there.

 

Conundrum

I’ve gotten into a reasonable pattern lately of writing just about every day. Sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. Logically this should mean that I’m getting more done and coming closer to reaching my goals. If I’m writing a thousand or two words is a day, I should be pumping out new Dosterra chapters like crazy.

However, what they say is true. The more you are creative, the more creativity flows. That sounds like a good thing too, right?

Here’s the problem: The new ideas are not always relevant to the project my conscious mind considers to be propriety. Result? More stories started and fewer actually getting done. I mentioned a couple of specific goals in a previous post Oh The Power of Indecision. For the few who are actually keeping track, I have clearly failed in my goal to keep up a regular publishing schedule for Dosterra. There are actually three more chapters completed, but they need some editing before being published, and I’m too busy being distracted by other things.

On the bright side, I did meet the other goal of submitting a story to the latest contest given by On The Premises. Winning may be a long shot, but I plan to take them up on the option to have my entry critiqued for $15, and I’m sure I’ll learn something from that. Now, to keep writing–I’m bound to finish something else eventually.

And there you have my writing-journey thought of the day.

Yay! Liebster Award

For favorite blogs with under 200 followers

For favorite burgeoning blogs

A big thanks to Paul Davis for finding your way to my site and nominating me. I really appreciate the support.

 

For those of you, like me, who are hearing about this award for the first time, this is a great way to promote some networking among the blogs that you like, and find some new blogs worth following. Here’s how it works:

1) Thank the person who nominated you and include a link back to their site.

2) Post 11 things about yourself.

3) Answer the 11 questions posed by the person who nominated you.

4) Pay it forward — Choose 11 blogs, with less than 200 followers, to nominate and send them a comment to let them know they’ve been nominated. No tag backs.

5) Come up with 11 questions for your nominees to answer.

Why 11? I have no idea, but I love that it’s not a round number.

Finally, you can put the Liebster crest, or one of the other pics out there, on your page.

So here we go…

 

11 Things About Me:

1) I am Sci Fi geek. My favorites include: Star Trek – all the movies (favorite: First Contact), every series (favorite: Voyager,  need alcohol to watch the original series); Stargate SG1Doctor Who; Torchwood (loved series 1-3, not so much series 4); Eureka (sad to see it go); Warehouse 13; Firefly (Not fair! Fans, you know what I mean–loving Castle though. Way to go, Nathan). In my younger days I watched Sliders, The Outer Limits, and many others.  Yes, more television than books. Though always a reader and sci fi lover, those interests didn’t really merge until later in life. Of course I’ve since read Asimov, Alistair Reynolds, etc, etc.

2) I also read about actual science. Or at least the various theories and hypotheses out there. Big Bang vs Cyclic Universe vs Plasma Cosmology. I find things like quantum physics equal parts cool and confusing. The more I read the more I realize how fuzzy the line is between Science and Fiction–the beauty of writing fiction is that I can blur the line as much as I want to.

3) I’m not big into poetry but I love Robert Service. Not entirely sure why his work stands out to me, maybe just because I remember having an illustrated version of The Cremation of Sam McGee when I was a kid.

4) My favorite children’s book is The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton. I also love Dr. Seuss.

5) Above Star Trek reference aside, when I think of William Shatner I think ‘host of Rescue 911′ (another childhood favorite) before ‘Captain Kirk’.

6) I love music. I play tenor sax, guitar, and piano. I’m no superstar at any of them, but they enrich my life and I’m thankful that my parents put me in piano lessons way back when (even though the lessons themselves didn’t last 😛 ).

7) I tend towards individual sports over team sports. Mostly swimming, skiing, and running. I like being active, but I’m not really competitive–well not in sport. Arguments are another matter.

8) I love rain and snow, but hate driving in them.

9) I like to see the humour in things as much as possible (I’ll admit I’m not always successful). I think humour opens up subjects we may otherwise avoid. And no subject should be avoided. Plus, life is just more fun when you’re laughing. Many people criticize sarcasm for various reasons, but I think it is a wonderful tool and use it often. Being direct is good too, just not as much fun.

10) I like people, but crowds exhaust me.

11) Nothing is more relaxing for me than a hot bath. Especially with a glass of wine within reach.

 

11 Questions from Paul Davis:

1) If you could be a supernatural creature, which would you be?

No specific creature comes to mind, but I’ve always wanted to be telekinetic. Breathing underwater would be cool too.

2) What weapon would you use if you were in a combat oriented novel? Guns, swords, maces, all are welcome.

I’d be all about martial arts/unarmed combat, but might consider adding swords to the mix.

3) What is your favorite genre and why?

Pretty much anything that falls under the sci fi umbrella. Less so pure Fantasy.

4) What genre can you not stand and why?

Can’t say there’s any genre that I can’t stand, but I currently avoid anything with a vampire on the cover. I liked vampire stories when I was younger, so this aversion may pass as the fad dies down.

5) What do you put on a burger? We’re getting close to lunch….

Mmmm…I will never be a vegetarian. At least not by choice. Usually cheese, ketchup, mustard, onion, and pickles.

6) If you had to pick wealth, fame, or love (from a lover, we’ll say you have a very loving family), which one and why?

Love. I like shopping, but don’t love it, so wealth beyond a decent living would be lost on me (not that I’d turn it down mind you). Fame would lead to more of the aforementioned crowds that exhaust me. Though it would be nice for enough people to know about me that I could make that decent living as an author–I’d be willing to put up with a few crowds to that end.

7) Who is the most influential writer to you and why?

Steven Moffat, along with other writers I’ve seen interviewed on Doctor Who Confidential (yes I’m that much of a geek). While watching this behind-the-scenes show I got my first real glimpse at the genesis of a good story (I never studied creative writing in school). The writers talked about where their ideas came from and how a plot evolved, sometimes in a completely different way from what they originally imagined, etc. I realized the way their imaginations worked wasn’t so different from mine. For some reason this was my light-bulb moment: wait a minute, I could do that.  I single out Steven Moffat because I quickly realized that all of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who had been written by him. Then I went on to watch other creations of his (Jekyll, and Sherlock–which reminds me: Mark Gatiss, also awesome) and loved those too. And, no one can craft a good villain like Steven Moffat.

8) You get locked in a friend’s bathroom and have to wait for a locksmith to get you out. You have an hour. What do you do?

Take five minutes to snoop through the medicine cabinet, then lose myself in my own head–hopefully coming up with a good story to write down later.

9) What music do you listen to while writing? Why does that music inspire you?

I don’t listen to music while writing. I’ll end up focusing on the music instead of the writing. I do sometimes listen to a recording of rain sounds, especially if there is other noise in the house that I want to block out.

10) Who is the most supportive person in your life for your writing pursuits?

My husband. He’s amazing.

11) What is one word you write over and over again, and every time it sets off spell check?

Colour, Humour, Neighbour, and any other word that the ‘US English’ spell check thinks should end in ‘or’ instead of ‘our’. I tenaciously stick to the ‘our’ ending anyway because I like the look of it better.

 

11 Nominations for the Liebster Award:

Whether I came across their work elsewhere and traced it back to their blog, or stumbled across them some other way, the blogs below are ones that, right away, made me think ‘Yep, I like it here.’ In no particular order, I nominate:

Marcia Colette

Vinci Writes

Poof Books

Commas, Characters and Crime Scenes

Manuscript Haven

In The Pines

Mail by Sea

Amanda C. Davis

Phenderson Djèlí Clark

Unpublished and Unpaid

A Writers Notepad

 

I pose the following 11 questions to my nominees:

1) What prompted you to start your blog?

2) What was your favorite subject in school?

3) How do you start your day?

4) Do you have any pets?

5) Do you play a musical instrument?

6) Who stands out as someone —teacher/mentor/parent/friend/etc—who had a particularly positive influence on you when you were young?

7) Name something that makes you feel good just by thinking about it.

8) What do you do to relax/unwind?

9) What is your drink of choice? (Whether alcoholic or non).

10) Name three favorite items in your home. Anything, big or small.

11) Name a character—from a book, movie, tv show, wherever—who you strongly identified with.

 

And that’s it. I can’t wait to see how everyone answers. Have fun!