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How Not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Mid-list Author (edition 2003)

by David Armstrong

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342329,500 (3.44)1
Member:nessreader
Title:How Not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Mid-list Author
Authors:David Armstrong
Info:Allison & Busby (2003), Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:about writing, acerbic, wannabe funny, crime, badly written, books about books-writing-publishing, author is irritating git

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How Not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Mid-List Author by David Armstrong

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The subtitle of this book, Confessions of a Midlist Author, is more accurate than its main title. Whilst Armstrong's book is written conversationally and light-heartedly, and contains some good advice and insight into what being a writer really means for 90% of writers, I found it to be a rather dispiriting and wearying endeavour.

First of all, it is little concerned with the act of writing: very early on Armstrong makes the distinction between writing and publishing. Book publishing comes across as a rather decrepit industry, with supply massively outweighing demand and publishers therefore feeling uninclined to even read unsolicited manuscripts, let alone publish them, nor even promote the ones they do publish. Many writers, Armstrong tells us, earn a third of the minimum wage from their novels. Getting published is evidently a different skill from writing well, and often as depressingly reliant on background and 'who you know' as the more conventional and immobile careers writers are often trying to escape from.

This alone would be a disconcerting picture for Armstrong to paint, but the fact that he does not really seek to express the joys of writing (fiction-writing is presented as an addiction rather than artistic inspiration or craft) means the book is heavily weighted towards the depressive side of the vocation. The whole business, he asserts, is "the stuff of misery and humiliation" (pg. 207) and looks "a bit vainglorious and aspiring to success in it can look rather foolish" (pg. 238). Considering many writers are insular people and write to reconcile their dissatisfaction with other things in their lives, this view, whilst perhaps accurate and certainly candid, is not the whole story and presenting it as such is unhelpful. Almost every short chapter ends with an imploration not to 'do it', usually an explicit 'don't write that book'. It's beaten into you so repeatedly that you, the reader, the bibliophile, begins to hate books.

Indeed, whilst I admired the candidness I grew to dislike the author, which is never a pleasant experience. As other reviewers have noted, he plugs his own books a lot and whilst that is justified in that this is a memoir of his own experiences in the industry, it is perhaps misguided to be so repetitive. I know off-by-heart now that his Night's Black Angels was nominated for the CWA John Creasey Best First Crime Novel Award and that another was praised in a review as "unequivocally excellent", because Armstrong misses no opportunity to tell us. But rather than encouraging me to read these books, I began to develop an aversion to them. No doubt because he is venting some long-held home-truths about the publishing industry, Armstrong's voice becomes less humorous and more passive-aggressive; he can't help but let some of his frustration bleed through. The jocularity proves if not skin-deep then at least a bit hollow.

I should point out that I was entertained for the most part and, as I say, the book contains some good insight and advice even if it's not always what we want to hear. But my aversion to the book came not from having any dreams of writing shattered but from Armstrong's one-sided approach. There's little about the goodness in writing; it's treated like an addiction and Armstrong a survivor who has emerged on the other side 'clean'. But Armstrong's lack of success (relatively speaking, for getting his books published is impressive even if he never 'broke through' in the way he wanted) can also be put down to the fact that, to put it bluntly, he seems unoriginal. He admits his base motives: "the obsessive wish to be read" and "wanting to be seen, heard and liked" (pg. 208). He tells us how at the time he was working on his first novel, he was also sending comedy skits to TV shows and comedians (pg. 152), a fact that struck me as unintentionally tragic and depressing. He tried to write crime fiction, that most overpopulated and vanilla of genres, and never seemed to have any real message that he wanted to get out there. He might have become accomplished at plot and setting and character, but lacked the thing to set him apart. He didn't really appear to offer anything, as a crime writer, that hundreds of others weren't doing. Emphasising the importance of luck in 'making it' (pg. 151) was a welcome analysis in this regard, but Armstrong seemed to be seeking approval and acclaim rather than making a lasting piece of fiction. He wanted to make money rather than make waves.

And that's fine; I have no problem with that. But that urge to write he speaks of could have been satisfied in him by success in other areas of his life, and perhaps (hopefully) has been. It's quite different from the writer who wants to change or influence the world. Both are ego-driven, but there is a distinction. I only make the distinction here because it's important to note that Armstrong's views, whilst applicable and useful to budding writers, are not the whole story. Writing generic crime fiction is not likely to result in a successful and sustainable writing career. It doesn't mean writing can't result in a successful and sustainable career. Reading Armstrong's book is useful – perhaps essential – in removing many of the fantasies and false assumptions you might have about the life of a writer. But you shouldn't allow it to completely shatter those dreams with its blunt force, only use it to inform your views. Treat it as advice and it could be very beneficial, even if only as a devil's advocate. I suppose the lesson I gained from How Not to Write a Novel – and, to give him credit, I don't think this is unintentional on the author's part – is that it's fine to walk the path as long as you know there are monsters waiting along it. And by all means read how-to-write books, as long as you know that to be a writer you don't necessarily have to do a damn thing they say. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Mar 2, 2017 |
How to outsell your own not very successful novels with a 'how to' book.

A book that claims to be the antidote to How to... books. In fact it is really a memoir of the author who has published four novels and achieved, by his own measure, mediocre success. As a quick and slightly humourous read it is worth five out of ten. The author comes across as conceited, dressing up his anger and arrogance in fake modesty and self-deprecation. Reviews on Amazon warned me of the continous plugging of his other titles and I was ready to buy one half way through this short book. Then I started to develop a certain dislike for the author. He makes some good points worth remembering but goes on to describe obvious mistakes he has made and still seems unconscious of. Amazon reviews of his novels are sparse. Ironically this title, which shows his various inadequacies, will probably be Armstrong's best seller. ( )
  Ruby_Barnes | Aug 25, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Armstrongprimary authorall editionscalculated
Armstrong, Davidmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0749006803, Paperback)

Every week, agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts from would-be authors. Of these, less than one percent will make it into print. David Armstrong was one of the lucky ones -- his first crime novel plucked from the slush pile and published to acclaim. But it rapidly became clear to Armstrong that being a published novelist is not always as glamorous as it seems from the outside. There are the depressing, ill-attended readings, the bitchy writers conventions, and the bookshops that have never heard of you and don't stock your book. All of these will be familiar to any writer who, like Armstrong, falls into the category euphemistically known in publishing as mid-list . The reality is that for every J K Rowling there are 1,000 David Armstrongs; for every writer who is put up in a five-star hotel and flies first class courtesy of their publisher there are 1,000 who sleep on friends floors during book tours and dine at highway service stations... Witty, acerbic and wise, "How Not To Write A Novel" lifts the lid on publishing. From agents to editors, publicists to sales reps, it explains the publishing process - and how to survive it - from the point of view of a non-bestselling writer. A unique book, it is essential reading for anyone who dreams of getting their novel published - and for anyone curious about the inside workings of the publishing game.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:34 -0400)

"Every week, agents and publishers in this country receive hundreds of manuscripts from would-be authors. Of these, fewer than one per cent will make it into print. David Armstrong was one of the one per-centers, his first crime novel plucked from the slush pile at a major publisher and published to acclaim." "So far, so good. But it rapidly became clear to Armstrong that being a published novelist is not always as glamorous as it seems from the outside. There are the depressing, ill-attended readings, the bitchy writers' conventions, the bookshops who have never heard of you and don't stock your book. All of these will be familiar to any writer who, like Armstrong, falls into the category euphemistically known in publishing as 'midlist'. The reality is that for every JK Rowling, there are 1,000 David Armstrongs; for every writer who is put up in a five-star hotel and flies first class courtesy of their publisher, there are 1,000 who sleep on friends' floors during book tours and dine at motorway service stations..." "How Not To Write a Novel lifts the lid on publishing. From agents to editors, publicists to sales reps, it explains the publishing process - and how to survive it - from the point of view of a non-bestselling writer. A unique book, it is essential reading for anyone who dreams of getting their novel published - and for anyone curious about the inside workings of the publishing game."… (more)

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