Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, "the central dilemma of a novel should be important enough to change someone's life forever." But they warn the aspiring writer that there is "only one letter's difference between yarn and yawn." A choice warning: "Words like 'amazing,' or 'unbelievable' can be used to obscure any experience, event or setting."
Other pitfalls await. "The long runway" disappoints through inaction. The "vacation slide show," features a character in an exotic setting, without conflict. After all, "anxiety in the reader...might lead to suspense, which might lead to a book sale--and God forbid, royalties." Egregious errors lie in wait for unwary authors: "the benign tumour," "the second argument in the laundromat," "the underpants gnomes," and "sock puppetry."
Did I mention "the unruly zit" and "Zeno's ipod?"
Readers watch the text for clues, so authors must beware of unintentional misdirection. The "deafening hug," makes them think they're meeting a love interest. Dropped threads also frustrate. Aspiring mystery writers ought not to litter their pages with abandoned red herrings; far better to convert the proverbial "mantelpiece gum into an incarnadine fish."
With the warning "men are from cliche, women are from stereotype," writers are exhorted to create engaging characters, not "bored minimum wage employees." Novels, like small businesses, "cannot afford to carry dead weight...even a close family member." Nobody wants to read about "a tall brown haired man trapped in a badly written novel." Characters also need to stay in the present, lest the child become "father of the digression."
They must also interact with others, and encounter problems. Without suspense, the reader is soon bored by writing flaws dubbed onanism, serial monogamy, and the orgy. "And by the way, I'm an expert marksman" pokes fun at payoffs that are not set up. "When there is a plan," warn the authors, "things cannot go according to it," lest "the reader's plan to finish your book get derailed."
Antagonists are challenging. A villain who is purely evil for no apparent reason doesn't come across, even if he has one redeeming quality, like loving his mother. Neither are villains who suddenly collapse, or those who indulge in "the retirement speech," in which they "improbably recount" all their evil deeds.
To be satisfying, a plot must not be too simple, but neither should it be so intricate as to be "more complex than string theory." The "padded cell" plot is harder to pull off in the age of the mobile phone. In the "credibility arms race," having a character conveniently forget his phone is "a pointy stick," unless the author creates circumstances that make it plausible.
Subplots must be worked out and resolved. Unlike in real life, "in fiction, all problems are just the opening chords to a song." An alcoholic brother, a child with a lost dog, or someone with a broken down car cause readers to worry, and they "expect the author to do something about it."
Of all the ways to kill an editor's interest in your book, bad style is "the literary equivalent of a fast-acting poison," and "a droning or inarticulate voice can put a stop to all reading in a single sentence." The writers caution that "any threat of emotional resonance in a scene can be averted by the application of words like 'dysfunctional' or 'commitment-phobic.'" Vaunting one's vast vocabulary like "the puffer fish" puts editors and readers off too. It's unwise to indulge in the "past oblivious" tense in a novel, and "a large gray elephant is a yawning offence."
Writers are also cautioned against drawing attention to themselves, and against using fiction to rant about their own hobby horses. Those who hope to publish must remember that a novel "has needs of its own, and they are not the same as the author's."
The book also contains advice on dialogue, narrative stance and more. One of the most delightful passages is the Pop Quiz, in which the aspiring writer answers multiple choice questions to finish novel sentences. The scoring identifies the less skillful writer "sure to offend anyone" who belongs to the stereotyped group portrayed, or else "suffering from a bad case of predictability."
A mid range score hits "a reasonable balance for most forms of commercial fiction," but go too far the other way and you're advised to "try to be less creative." In a worst case scenario, "you have confused clever with annoying," and are wrong to believe "all those rejection slips are due to your shocking originality."
With a view to selling the novel, using the techniques of postmodernism is "baldly inimical to the novelist's goal of writing a story the reader can believe in." This charming guide ends by ironically lauding the classic errors authors make in approaching editors through query letters and synopses. Overall, the book was useful, thought-provoking, and great fun to read.