Saturday, June 7, 2008

How NOT to Write a Novel--the other one I promised

How NOT to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author by David Armstrong.

The subtitle is more accurate than the main title. Unlike the previously reviewed book of this title, Armstrong doesn't really spend much time telling you about craft, good, bad, or otherwise. Instead, he does two things: first, fills you in on his experiences as a writer, and, second, repeatedly advises you not to write. His refrain is an anti-Nike exhortation: Just Don't Do It.

I had to buy this book after reading one of the more idiotic Amazon reviews ever written (and that is no mild praise). The reviewer gave the book one star, and started with:

I ordered this once, the order got cancelled, and I hurriedly ordered it again, so eager was I to read it based on what I'd heard. What I'd heard was wrong. In addition to rambling on about himself and/or nothing, Armstrong offers only warmed-over advice from other published books on writing. That's right, he's done no original research with any primary sources whatsoever...

What on earth is a "primary source" in this context? Armstrong's "primary source" is his own career as a novelist, and that seems about as primary as you can get. But the reviewer is right in one regard--the book is mostly Armstrong "rambling on about himself." And very instructive rambling it is.

I'll tell you upfront: this book is dead-on depressing. Oh, it has the usual downer statistics and cautions, but Armstrong's candid recounting of his writing career is what really hits home. Five novels (I see a sixth has been published since this book was released). Great reviews. A shortlisting for the CWA Dagger for Best First Novel. A contract with HarperCollins.

But small sales, small print runs, minimal income. Then being dumped by both publisher and agent and starting all over again after four novels...

There's also a fine chronicle of random disappointments and humiliations; and, just to let the reader know it isn't just a black cloud floating over his particular head, he brings up folks from the canon, such as Barbara Pym, and points out that despite critical acclaim for her first half-dozen novels, she was dumped by her publisher and couldn't find another for fourteen long years, and succeeded in finding a new publisher only three years before her death. (Once she found a new publisher, six more novels were published, three of them posthumously. One only hopes that there is an afterlife from which she can look down.)

Most writers who don't get reviews assume the lack of exposure leads to meager sales. This clearly isn't true, and Armstrong is a case in point: good reviews, minor sales. He hints that promotion might be the culprit, but after looking at some of the disastrous zillion-dollar promotions here in the US that result in remainder rates of more than 50%, I'm inclined to doubt that promotion makes all that much difference either. What does? Who knows?

Books about the tribulations of a writer's life usually follow the Pandora's-Box model of keeping lovely little Hope at the bottom of the pantheon of evil, and console the reader with platitudes about how life-enriching writing has been, and how, if the author had it all to do over again, he'd happily tread the same road. Armstrong, to his credit, doesn't trot out this tired old ploy. Instead, he sticks throughout to his invariable advice: Don't Do It.

This is not a cheery book; indeed, it left me quite disheartened. But for those interested in the writing life, it's also a fascinating book.

Meanwhile, I'm going to buy a copy of his first novel, Night's Black Agents. It sounds quite good.


Tim Stretton said...

I think I'll save this one until I get that bit too euphoric about being a writer...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Good to know there's somethng out there to bring you down when you need it, though, right?