Paralysed by book of advice for authors

I have just finished reading “How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published” by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. Very funny it was too - but it’s stopped my writing dead in its tracks. Does anyone have any thoughts/encouragement/corroboration on these two points in particular:

Mittelmark and Newman advise not dwelling on your character’s childhood unless it forms part of the plot. I am writing a fictionalised biography of a banker hanged for forgery 200 years ago, and (in my opinion) his strict childhood played a part in him straining against the leash and breaking the rules when he grew up. But it’s not part of the action. What do you think about putting in childhood detail as an explanation for action?

Mittelmark and Newman say to stick to one point of view. I was thinking about telling parts of the story from several consecutive viewpoints (the arresting police officer, the prison warden, the condemned man’s defence lawyer) while filling in the rest with omniscient narrator stuff. Does that sound like a terrible dog’s dinner?

Since I finished the Mittelmark and Newman book, I’ve not dared put finger to keyboard for fear of contravening one (or probably more) of their 200 rules - has anyone else had a similar problem?

Break the rules.

Mittelmark’s and Newman’s is a fun book, and many of its examples are quite entertaining, good for a rapid read and probably written more for amusement than for guidance, though reasonably instructive. But where would novels be if again and again novelists hadn’t done what their predecessors had decided was totally unacceptable?

So - more than one POV. Novelists do it again and again. The key issue is: will your readers easily understand what you’re doing?

Or - lots of backstory. It depends. Sometimes the backstory is the story. Many novels are almost entirely backstory, and none the worse. Some have very little. A key question: what will your readers be expecting? Which genre? Action, financial thriller or historical saga? (But if large amounts of backstory are included, the usual rule - and I think this is a good one - is to trickle it in when necessary and natural, not force-feed it.)

So I wouldn’t let this book baffle your creativity. Even the best books on writing can be “less a code, more of a guide.”

My 2p.


Never take anyone else’s advice on how to write a book. It’s your book you are writing, not their’s.


Hugh, thank you for two extremely pertinent questions - you’ve cut through my dithering to what matters, which is clarity and readability.

And Jenny, if you’re the Jenny Diski who lives in Cambridge, we’re probably only a couple of miles apart as we write. I don’t look at the birds - it’s the clouds for me.

Thanks again for the encouragement - always such a lifeline.

I’ve moved into the attic - now I have birds and clouds.


Any advice which

sounds dangerous. Unless by “stopped” you mean that you stopped typing for a while, and spent more time thinking, which is as important to writing as the typing.

About your character’s childhood. You could write a novel about a young man arriving in, say, London, with great expectations albeit no assurances about the precise source or nature of those expectations. Begin, then, with his arrival in London, and as the story progresses, provide mini-flash-backs to fill in the gaps.

After all, wouldn’t the novel get bogged down if it began in a graveyard where the boy confronts an escaped convict? And why ramble on for page after page about his cruel older sister, or the kind-hearted village blacksmith, or his apparently unrequited crush on the village rich girl?

Yeah, you can leave out the childhood stuff, if you want. But if it’s at all important, or interesting, you might want to leave it in.


Not that I’m a writer of novels, but your post made me think this book is like a self-help book … Why are there so many self-help books. It’s because they don’t work. If someone wrote a self-help book which actually worked, they’d kill their own market for further books!

Oh, and on “only one POV”, you could try reading Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red”. Would perhaps be a salutary experience.



I once read a book about a guy who wrote a self-help book that did actually work - and it resulted in the near complete breakdown of society as we know it. Great gem of a book, but can’t for the life of me think what it was called now… ‘Happiness’ or something like that. I’ll look it up.


I was close: Happiness TM, by Will Ferguson. Totally plausible scenario (assuming someone could write the magic book) and immense fun to read.


OT but distantly relevant: sounds like a good example of Michael B’s “What if…?” advice in your creativity thread, Sarah.


Back in 1999, when I started directing TV-Shows, an experienced director (friend, mentor) once told me:

It took me years to fully comprehend this.
But it has consequences as well: your work gets less compatible to the mainstream.

I’ve read this and it was good fun. I don’t remember them saying not to use multiple viewpoint characters, though, although I think they did recommend that for new novelists it’s probably safer to stick to a single POV. It’s worth remembering that Sandra Newman’s (superb) first novel, The Only Good Thing That Anyone Has Ever Done (I bought her book on writing because I liked that novel so much in fact), used multiple viewpoints. In fact, it starts in first person and then apparently leaps to third person before reverting to first person. There’s also a bit in their about the lead characters childhood. More importantly, substantial chunks of it are written in bullet points - and yet it works. So I doubt they meant “don’t write about childhoods” and “don’t use multiple POVs”; I think the general advice in their “Mistakes” book is just to look through the book after you’ve written your first draft, and use it to weed out any clangers.

In fact, looking through the section on POVs, I can’t see anything about not using multiple; they just warn about not sticking to one POV within a particular section - that is, leaping from one person’s thoughts to another within the same paragraph or section; they just point out that you should indicate a change in POV with a break or whatever.

Likewise, in the part where they warn about “making too much of a character’s childhood”, they sum up the point thus: “Characters can certainly be provided with some history. But the relationship between that history and their behaviour should be more complex than Pavlovian dog psychology. And, generally, unpublished authors are far more intrigued by their characters’ backstory than their readers are.” So all they are really saying is to keep it relevant and don’t hit the reader over the head with a neon sign saying “LOOK WHAT HIS DAD DID TO HIM!!! THIS IS WHY HE’S CORRUPT!!!” etc. Given that you’re writing a fake biography, it would be a little difficult to entirely skip the childhood anyway…

All the best,

If including information on the childhood develops the character, you’re not breaking any rules.

Speaking of rules, every word is supposed to advance plot or develop character. Bloody challenging sometimes, that one.

Thanks to all posters, I think this answered my question on head hopping. Good news: I haven’t broken that rule.

was always under the impression that the idea of every word advancing plot or character was more of a necessary evil in the short story format, or in film scripts, than in novels.

I have always loved the flesh on stories, and would think it a sad day for novel writing if every author followed what I think of as the Da Vinci Code of Conduct.

Of course books must sell, and you can’t have readers falling asleep or losing your plot, but I have never been able to enjoy a book that did not wander down the odd unkempt alley of story telling.

If there’s a perfect balance between plot, and what would be I guess the character of the book itself, then as a reader I could not ask for more.

As has been said above a few times, I think these sorts of books are guides - they let you know the things to be wary of, but if they scare you too much, they’re not doing their job.

They once said we were not meant to fly …

Something important to bear in mind that ANY list of writing "don’t"s are guidelines, rules of thumb, ones that can be broken and broken well, but not easily. When you understand the WHY behind a rule, it lets you break it if you can articulate why it’s better for you to break it than to keep it.

For example, the “avoid multiple POV” thing is due to the difficulty inherent in juggling multiple POVs, making them distinct, and not letting them produce a throng of main characters. Often, muliple POVs will dillute a story, weakening it. Sometimes, though, a particular story requires or is strengthened by having more than one person’s perspective.

The “don’t dwell on your character’s background” is similar. You should probably know that, and knowing details like favorite foods/colors/etc. can add to your story. The “dwell” refers to in your actual WRITING. Don’t have pages expositing the poor narrator’s poor upbringing. Reveal it as it’s pertinent, and when you can, have it demonstrated.

Demonstrating character background is a bit hard to explain, but Maria Snyder does a good job of it in Poison Study. It’s from Yelena’s perspective, and the poor lady has had very bad experience with men. Something happens that she, as narrator, says proves that a particular guy doesn’t like her, when anyone who knows anything about loving relationships knows that it’s actually evidence that he does. Now, the danger with that scene is it’s first person, and if readers knew nothing about why Yelena thought something so incorrect when the scene comes, then we’d be grumbling about how stupid she is. As it is, the reader understands from her occassional flashbacks to her previous, ah, encounters with a guy that her experiences are a lot more outside of the norm than she realizes they are.

It’s the difference between telling the reader “My owner would beat me” and letting the reader see the narrator cower when a guy gets angry. Readers need to know why the narrator cowers, but not by having it beat over our heads. Little things suffice. What the reader doesn’t need is fifteen pages on the intricate details of when, where, how, and why she entered and escaped slavery.

Am I making any sense whatsoever?

Side note: that advice (that you have to know and master the rules so you can bend & ignore them) also applies to grammar. I intentionally mix US and British rules, myself.

Stephen King’s personal suggestion in his book ‘On Writing’ is to not include back-story unless it is absolutely essential as it can kill the flow of the novel. But, I should note that many of his books are copiously filled with it…Dark Tower series, anyone?

King’s advice may be good for a pure action-suspense thriller, but not for a historical novel, where memory, and secrets about the past, are everything. I recommend not dumping out lots of back story in the early chapters. Let the reader get to know the characters first, as they appear.

The time for deeper revelation should come later on, preferably after the plot has taken a strong turn in new directions. King himself does that in The Body, which later became the Rob Reiner film, Stand by Me.

Good point. On that note, be careful with tenses, particularly using ‘Historic Present’. Tense shift can be tricky to spot and correct later in the draft.

My second novel, which I’ve just had an offer for, has alternating chapters each dealing with the protagonist’s past and present. That means that the chapters set in the ‘present’ are not hampered by the retrospective ramblings which hopefully form a story in their own right. This is sustained for half the book until it moves completely into the present. Having said that my first draft was overly heavy with the past until I axed 10K words.

There are no rules, really. It’s all about what’s bearable by the book. I’d write the 1st draft without any worry about the rules (and don’t read any more ‘how to write’ books), knowing that it will be crap. Then put it away for a bit, several weeks if you can bear it.

You’ll then hopefully be able to read it with a fresh eye and the places you get bogged down in are the places to cut.