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How Not to Write a Novel


How Not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author by David Armstrong
Amazon UK

Allison & Busby £9.99

Other titles by David Armstrong:

Night’s Black Agent 1993

Less than Kind 1994

Until Dawn Tomorrow 1996

Thought for the Day 1998

Small Vices 2001

Every week, agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts from would-be authors. Of these, fewer than 1% will make it into print. David Armstrong was one of these, his first crime novel, Night’s Black Agents, was plucked from the slush pile at a major publisher and published to acclaim.

So far, so good. But what rapidly became clear to Armstrong was 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 which have never heard of you and don’t stock your book. All of these will be familiar to any writer who, like David Armstrong, falls into the category euphemistically known as ‘midlist’. The reality is that for every J K Rowling, there are a thousand 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 travel economy.

Witty and biting, 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. Its advice to writers can be summarised as: 'Don't do it.'

Described by Terence Blacker on Radio 4’s Front Row as ‘the best guide out there’, David Armstrong’s wry look at the author’s life is essential reading for any writer trying to get their work published, providing an entertaining warts-and-all view of the realities of life as a mid-list author.

By arrangement with Allison & Busby, WritersServices will be publishing excerpts from How Not to be a Writer in our Magazine over the next few months.


The list of books rejected by publishers is one of the few things in a writer's life to give him real joy. There's hardly a title that hasn't been turned down repeatedly... before going on to sell in millions.

Introduction 2

When you’ve re-drafted and polished and smoothed your manuscript, left it alone for a cooling-off period, re-read it and worked it over again; when your trusted, reliable, non-spiteful, critically-acute friend had read it, and you have absorbed and – possibly – acted upon her comments; when you have done all this, read through The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or The Writer’s Handbook, identify a suitable publisher (or agent), parcel up your manuscript, and send it out.

It’s exactly what I did. And back it came.

Again and again and again.


Most reputable agents submit books to editors that they know personally, and so if you get a bona fide agent to represent you, one thing, at least, is pretty certain: your book will be read by the publisher relatively quickly.

OK, the editor will not necessarily share your agent's apparent belief in the work. It's the old equation - the agent has something to sell; and the editor is the sceptical buyer, a buyer who is being offered any number of books every single day.

So, no matter how glowing the recommendation that your agent sends with the manuscript, the editor is likely to be wary.


One of the pleasures of being a writer, surely, has to be a visit to the bookshop? Like an athlete at the gym, the car salesman on his windy lot, this is, after all, our home from home.

If you're a ‘midlist' writer, though, you're more likely to creep into the store, approach the shelves with dread, and anticipate the worst. You'll rarely be disappointed.

Well over 100,000 novels were published last year in the UK, and it often seems that only 9,999 of them are available in any bookshop that you enter.


But even though most of us can't produce a book in a couple of months, there's a lot to be said for getting the first draft out quickly. It's not at all unusual to be beset with doubts about just what it is you're doing.

If you can get your first draft down in a: few weeks you are much less likely to be overwhelmed by, and give into, these doubts.

Discipline - and inspiration

If you, really are a writer, you'll be like the' person who' plays squash or football because that's what he loves to do. Same with the writing: it's often hard, but it's often great too. It really is; it's about as good as it gets. David Beckham gets paid millions for playing for Manchester United. But if he got nothing at all, l can tell you, he'd still be playing football. Think of it that way. It's the only way to do it.

I write almost every day. Not only do I recognise the need for the discipline of doing it, but frankly, if I'm not writing, I don't feel 'whole'. To put it another way, I might be miserable when I'm doing it, but I'm definitely miserable when I'm not.

How to ... books

There are any number of books on the market that claim to be able to tell you how to write a bestseller. I know quite a few writers, including some who have written bestsellers. They're a mixed bunch, male and female, British and American, tall, and short, gay and hetero, but they have one thing in common: none of them has learned to do what it is they do by reading a book about it.


'No, Groucho is not my real name. I'm breaking it in for a friend.'

Groucho Marx

Martin Amis reckons that if you're going to spend two or three hundred pages with a character, write his name hundreds - possibly thousands - of times, it's a good idea to get something that really fits.

Dickens, according to his biographer, Peter Ackroyd, 'could not write a character until he had a fitting name. And what a legacy of grotesques he left us: Micawber; Fagin; Estelle Haversham; Tulkinghorn; Magwitch, and a hundred other extraordinary names and characters that have become part of the English language itself.

Reading Aloud

'She reads at such a pace, ' she explained; 'and when I asked her where she had learnt to read so quickly, she replied, "On the screens at cinemas. "       

Ronald Firbank

Reading work aloud is absolutely essential. There's something about hearing the words you've written, not merely within the confines of your imagination - in your head - but out in the air. Hearing them in this way helps you to tell whether all sorts of things are working - or not.

Slush Pile

‘The uncomplimentary name given to the vast quantity of unsolicited material continually delivered to publishing offices. '


Gordon Wells

This unpleasant term is one with which you are likely to become familiar. Unfortunately, with the newspapers full of ads asking readers the rhetorical question: 'Do you want to be a writer?' and with the resounding answer to that question apparently being an almost universal, 'Yes, I most certainly do,' until quite recently, publishers were being swamped and simply could not cope with the number of submissions.

Vanity and (Self) Publishing

'From the moment I picked it up, until the moment I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.'


Groucho Marx

A lot of people feel that they have a story to tell. Often, it's the case that, at a certain time of life, they feel a wish to leave a record of the things that they've done and seen. A lot of successful books, of course, spring from exactly this sort of impetus. The question is, does what you have to say, what you have seen and thought and felt, have wider application? Will it be of interest to readers beyond your immediate circle of friends, acquaintances and family?


'Life is a horizontal fall.'

Jean Cocteau

Time is the thing. In publishing - and even more so in non-publishing - time is elastic. They reckon it can take easily five years to get a movie off the ground. Richard Attenborough took twenty years to raise the cash and get Gandhi made, and Martin Scorsese nearly as long to make Gangs of New York.

Books aren't usually this bad, but even for people like me, people writing modest books with modest aims, it's nothing for a book to take two or three years to get published, even after it's been written. If you're lucky.