Books about how to write vary in usefulness. You’re more likely to get something out of them if you have questions going in (in other words, you’re doing some writing), if you’ve got some idea of your strengths and weaknesses (which you discovered by doing some writing), and if you treat the process laid out as descriptive of one writer’s method rather than prescriptive. There may be one sentence in the entire book that gives you the light bulb needed to finish a chapter that’s been giving you trouble, or it may be that knowing someone else surmounted their obstacles is inspiring news. This is enough to make it a good book even if you don’t take a single piece of advice or do a single writing exercise that it recommends.
I’ve just put back in the library bag How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. For somebody else, or for another stage in my project, it would be a good book. I am not that person or at that stage, though, at the moment.
Mittelmark and Newman declare, I think rightly, that many rules for writing that get bandied about are too obvious or too general to be helpful. “You want to hold the reader’s attention with your writing.” Really?—and now what to do? The authors suggest that what’s more helpful, more easily applicable to your specific project, is to know what not to do. They write up woeful and hilarious sample paragraphs illustrating their 200 ways to go wrong.
Great theory, great beginning, and entertainingly applied; there’s just nothing like good satire. But then I hit the advice about the middle. That’s where I am in the current project, and I didn’t find these points nearly as funny. Because . . . well, maybe I’m doing that. Maybe I need to revisit that bit in the tearoom, and have I made sure to lay ground for Patrick’s meltdown, and what is this tearoom scene for, anyway, and . . . in other words, I stalled out.
Eventually a critical eye has be be cast on one’s project, definitely. And the advice How Not to Write a Novel offers is an excellent mindset to be in while revising. But it’s not helping me forward in this first turn around the park. So as entertaining as snark can be, it’s going back on the shelf for now.