Author Interview: Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

How Not To Write a NovelIn follow up to my recent review of their helpful and hilarious book, How Not To Write a Novel, Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman kindly took time to answer a few interview questions. I was looking forward to their responses, having already become a fan of their humor, as demonstrated by the many mis-examples provided in their manual for aspiring novelists. I briefly considered exploring my own mis-example of ‘how not to conduct an interview’ by asking them probing personal questions, digging up dirt on the secret lives of their pets, and ending with an embarrassing confession or two of my own; but alas, I decided to go with the traditional approach. Fortunately, they managed to spice up the interview with their own brand of wit.

Mittelmark and Newman talk about the necessity of an agent in the publishing process and weigh in on the upcoming presidential election.

Damian: In addition to writing this useful how-not-to guide for aspiring authors, you are both novelists as well. What inspired you to write How NOT To Write a Novel?

HM: I can’t point to anything in particular that inspired it. At the time, Sandy was teaching, I was editing, and we were both working on novels. We were both members of the Writer’s Room, a shared office space for writers, and we were spending a lot of time in the kitchen, drinking coffee and making writer jokes. It occurred to me that a book like this could be done, and we were the ones to do it. Our sensibilities sort of pointed to it, and it was just a matter of time until one of us noticed.

In the proposal for the book, we acknowledge that anyone who had been in publishing long enough, and had been paying attention, could have written this book, because what’s in it are things every editor knows. It just wouldn’t have been as funny.

SN: For me, the thing that inspired me to write HNTWAN was Howard.

Damian: What was the collaboration process like, co-authoring a book together?

HM: To an observer, it would probably look like we’re idling in cafes all day, laughing loudly and annoying people.

What’s actually going on, though, is that we’ll get together to work out the outline of something, and pick sections to do. Then we go off and write a first draft and email what we’ve written to each other. Sometimes something will be right the first time, and then we just sign off on it, and it’s done.

Usually, though, we’ll end up rewriting each other to some extent, and it goes back and forth, with Sandy taking out my material and putting hers back in, and vice versa, with everything changing a little each time, until we either reach a version we both like, or one of us wears the other one down.

Once we get within sight of a final version, we’ll get together again and go over everything. That’s usually when we do the funniest stuff.

SN: Yeah, an interesting thing about the process with this book was that when we originally wrote the proposal (one chapter plus table of contents) the main idea was to put together something that would sell. Once we had money in our pockets, the main idea changed dramatically to “How can I make Howard laugh hard enough to snort Diet Coke out of his nose?” which then set the agenda for the next six months. At this point some of the more baroque humor appeared in the manuscript, and some of the few moments of unmixed joy appeared in our lives.

HM: Right, that too. Except I was trying to make Sandy laugh, not me.

Damian: Your combined experience as writers and editors is extensive. Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction; or do you prefer editing, ghost writing, or teaching?

HM: Writing fiction can be a lot of fun and very satisfying, but it can also be really hard, and if you’re doing it right, you’ll sometimes be reaching into places that you would just as soon avoid. And, of course, there’s the sporadic but crippling self-doubt.

Generally, I’d rather be editing. It’s engaging enough to keep me fully and happily occupied, I get to fiddle with sentences all day, and there’s no risk involved. Editing a book, what it’s going to be is already contained in what it is; it can only be as good as it has the potential to be, and my job is to coax it along until it fulfills its potential. Writing, the possibilities are infinite, and however good what you’ve written is, it could have been better.

Ghostwriting is the worst of both worlds. You have to do actual writing, but to a client’s specs. It pays well, though.

SN: Writing fiction. You get to invent a reality that will do whatever you say. Then other people live in it for a little while and give you bad reviews in major newspapers. There’s no thrill quite like it.

Damian: I would say one thing that sets your writer’s manual apart from others is your humorous approach. Your book and the ‘mis-examples’ you provide are laugh-out-loud funny. (Seriously, I received some strange looks from other people in that coffee house as I guffawed like a hyena while reading your book.) I know people who are outspokenly witty and hilarious in print yet quiet and reserved in person. Is your humor as obvious to those you interact with face-to-face on a regular basis, or do you feel more freedom to express humor through your writing?

SN: I am very funny in person, but Howard isn’t.

HM: She’s lying, which shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but I’m a trusting person. It’s my nature, just like it’s her nature to hurt kittens.

SN: No, Howard always lies, and I always tell the truth. Also, I just remembered that Howard’s the one that’s funny in person, not me.

(I never said that last part. Howard rewrote this whole thing behind my back. It was much funnier before. It also included a fascinating logic problem you can use to test your reasoning ability. Now it’s more crap pandering to the lowest common denominator. –SN)

Damian: I was recently told by an agent that it is better for a writer to have no agent at all than to have a bad agent. For writers who have completed a manuscript and are just beginning the process of submitting for publication, do you have any advice about finding the right agent?

SN: Unless you happen to have insider knowledge of the publishing industry, it can be very frustrating trying to find out which agents are most successful in your genre. You should probably start with a reference book (Guide to Writers’ Agents) and try to learn as much as you can about agents who say they handle books like yours. If you have any reason to suspect that the agent is a “bad agent,” don’t submit to that person. Unless you already know someone at the publishing house, you are probably better off getting an agent (and if no agent wants your book, it’s a fair bet that no publisher will either) though Howard disagrees with me about this, but his schmoozing powers are super-f**king-human.

HM: I’m not sure what you mean by bad agent. If you mean an evil agent, the kind that makes his living taking advantage of writers, you should of course avoid that person. (You can find a list of the worst here.)

But if you mean an incompetent agent, somebody who’s just not that good at his job, I don’t know that it’s the worst thing in the world. For most beginning writers, even an agent who isn’t at the top of his game is going to have more publishing contacts than you do, and really, for the most part, that’s why you want an agent.

An agent’s job is to 1) get your ms. to the right editors, and 2) negotiate the best contract possible. Most of the time, you’re going to get a standard contract, and the agent isn’t going to get you significantly more, because it’s a buyer’s market. There’s always another writer, and there’s an endless supply of novels. If you’ve written something good enough that the publisher is willing to give you better than a standard contract, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting a good agent.

So, pretty much any agent who knows more editors than you do is better than no agent.

That’s how it seems to me, anyway. It’s certainly possible that the agent you spoke to knows something I don’t.

Damian: In the last chapter of your book, you encourage writers to keep their query letter concise. Would you suggest making the query no longer than one page? What information should be included in a query letter?

SN: A query letter can spill over onto a second page, but it should ideally “feel like” a one-page letter. The information agents/editors want is “What is this book?” and possibly “Who is this author?”

In many cases the only necessary answer to the latter question is the same as the answer to the question: “Is this author as mad as a box of frogs?” With possibly a dash of the question: “Is this author at least as smart as a box of frogs?” In these cases, the style of your letter can be answer enough, and there is no need to explain your reasons for writing your book.

However, if your life history is linked to the book, in a way that is likely to be interesting to a publicity department (e.g. you are a former bank robber writing a novel about a bank robber; or a former police detective doing the same) then a brief mention of that fact is a good idea.

“What is this book?” is much more difficult for many authors to answer. They would really rather answer that question by putting the entire manuscript into the agent’s hands. Clearly, that’s not going to work here.

There are two parts of the answer to “What is this book?” The first is in the first paragraph, which goes something like “Blah blah, writing to offer you the chance to represent my novel ‘Splodge of Splodge Country.’ It is the epic tale of a love whose repercussions mark the lives of three generations in one Cape Cod lobsterering family.”

In the second (and possibly third and fourth) paragraph/s, you might write something like “Martha Spishnugget has a problem. The dashing young son and heir of the haughty Splodge lobsterering dynasty returns her love, but he is sworn to marry the…” Only better.

The last paragraph is where you might fit in something about yourself, or mention that the book is the first in a proposed trilogy, or just make a few polite concluding remarks about “Looking forward to hearing from you.”

HM: One page is good.

Damian: What is your own writing process like? Do you set goals and deadlines for yourselves? Do you edit and rewrite as you go along, or do you find that getting caught up in edits mid-story can distract from the momentum of completing an initial draft?

SN: I edit and rewrite as I go along, and then afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever written a paragraph without correcting things as I go along, though this becomes almost unconscious eventually. To me, writing is rewriting; there’s no clear distinction between the process of trying to come up with the best way of saying something, and that of trying to come up with an even better way. Except that re-writing is a little easier, since someone already did some of the work for you. Generally I do not have to set goals or deadlines for myself, since in effect the landlord does it for me.

HM: I actually didn’t know that about Sandy, but I’m essentially the same. I rewrite as I go, and tend to start the next day by rewriting the last day’s work again. Ideally, this creates some momentum into new material, and makes the transition seamless and painless.

I don’t think Sandy’s actually as bad as all that on deadlines; she works pretty steadily. If she doesn’t have something else going on, she’ll go off and write. I tend to wait until the last possible moment; I seldom get anything done until I’m in a state of near-panic.

Except, I should say, the stuff we do together, because if I let Sandy get too far ahead of me, I’m in danger of losing my veto, simply because I won’t have time to write another version if I don’t like something. Also, it’s a lot more fun, and a way to avoid working on the novel.

Damian: What do you read in your spare time? Who are some of your favorite authors?

SN: I only read really pretentious things from olden times that I’m embarrassed to name, and science fiction. Occasionally I read contemporary literary authors, in order to become infuriated by how over-rated they are.

HM: I read pretty widely, and haven’t spent a lot of time in classrooms, so when I’m being pretentious, it goes right over my head. I’ve been enjoying Henry James lately. I love Edith Wharton. (As does Sandy, even if she won’t admit it.) David Foster Wallace. Jonathan Lethem. You know, the usual. Robert Charles Wilson is consistently satisfying. Sandy’s very good. I’m usually pretty happy reading Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Lee Childs, the better writers of that sort of thing, but only if I break them up with something more substantial; otherwise they start to seem empty, and I get bored. When I was younger I went through obsessive Raymond Chandler and P.K. Dick periods. James Wilcox has written some good, severely overlooked, novels.

But this is impossible. Even with all the crap that’s out there, there are more really good writers than anyone has time to read, or even list. Also, I probably read as much non-fiction as fiction. Reading about the history of religion, European history, science for the layperson, it’s all as entertaining as a good novel, and it’s more useful for my own writing.

Damian: I often find myself pondering the topic of creativity. In a past blog post, I asked readers if they practice more than one form of art, exploring multiple venues as a means of expression. Besides writing, do you express yourself via any additional creative outlets?

SN: I once played the piano badly and painted bad oil paintings, but I don’t really have the time to pursue either now — you need to at least have the illusion that you might improve some day, and playing the piano twice a week does not really foster that illusion sufficiently. However, I do think that it’s constructive and interesting for writers to pursue other artistic outlets, purely from a writing point of view (of course they might be equally/more talented at those forms). It is also an invaluable way to avoid your work while imagining that you are “working on it subconsciously,” and I think every writer needs a few of these.

HM: Like almost every American male born after 1955, I play the guitar, badly. I attempted to learn to play the cello a few years ago. I wouldn’t call either of those things creative, the way I do them, though. So, no, not really.

Damian: Do you have any predictions or endorsements for the upcoming U.S. presidential election?

We’re both okay with either of the Democratic candidates. We disagree about how it’s going to turn out, but are looking forward to regime change no matter what form it takes. A traditional election, sure, that’s good. But an invasion from Canada, fine, we’ll take it. A military coup. Alien overlords. Anything. Please.

If you’d like to learn more about the book, view the entertaining How Not To Write a Novel bookfomercial.


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