The Novel That’s a Craft Book in Disguise

Relatability and functionality go hand-in-hand turning Careful! Or You’ll End Up In My Novel into a covert craft book. This novel, by Martin Porro, explores the various avenues writers tend to go down while maintaining the reader’s interest in a large array of characters. It’s the perfect “How-To-Write-For-Beginners” while also maintaining a premise that is compelling enough for experienced writers. From being an avid reader, to studying hardcore craft, to loving character development, all of the characters involved have a specific passion that draws them to writing and opens the reader’s mind to ideas they may not have otherwise considered–especially with the use of the main character’s ignorance of writing craft. 

Porro’s protagonist is Brian, a teen full of ideas but unable to verbalize them on the page (every writer’s nightmare) which leads him to joining his aunt (Christine)’s writing workshop. As a character, Brian highlights the struggles of writers in their early-writing days when they first attempt to put the pen to paper. He’s a teen with a clear-cut idea of everything he wants to happen in his world but an inability to get that out on the page. He also has never read a book in his life so he knows nothing about how books are typically written genre-wise or elsewhere. A sentiment many writers may relate to: that feeling of intense confusion when bringing the pen to paper. His ignorance of the craft leads to other characters offering him (what should otherwise be “obvious” to skilled writers) craft advice. This leads to name-dropping specific techniques or taboos that even the reader might not be aware of. For example, passive voice as explained by one of the workshop characters:

It’s sentences like, ‘Not much is known by scientists about the dinosaurs.’ ‘It was alleged by the committee that the dean was incompetent.’ ‘That capitalism failed is no longer doubted by anyone.’ Writing gurus will tell you it causes the subject to “receive the action of the verb” (86).

However, with most of the characters, the advice doesn’t just stop after the explanation. The character goes on to explain cases where sometimes the advice isn’t correct. In this case the one offering the advice here (Paul) goes on to complain about how his examples didn’t contain any action verbs from the start, explaining that the believed common understanding of “passive voice” contains a misunderstanding from the start. Frequently within the novel the technical advice has its criticisms and either the character bringing up the advice, or other members of the workshop, will point out said flaws, leaving the reader with a well-rounded explanation and a sticky note that says, “Feel free to do what you want!”

Though Brian is ignorant, his personality begets stubbornness when it comes to valuable feedback. Porro reminds the readers (who are writers themselves) that sometimes what people are saying is worth listening to no matter how perfect one’s piece is to them. Matt (Brian’s ghostwriter) becomes so frustrated with Brian’s refusal to work with him that he says: “Look, dude. You don’t read books, so you don’t know what’s good or not. I’m telling you, the books that get remembered and become classics are the ones that speak of the human condition…” (36). Brian is consumed by the world that he created, he ignores the likeability of his characters and refuses to accept the advice of his aunt and his ghostwriter. As Matt’s line suggests, even the most mystical of fantasy involves some aspect of the human condition. If it’s not something the reader can personally pull from, then why even bother reading? Brian’s naivety, although rather extreme, reminds new writers as well as experienced writers that even if the dream you’re trying to achieve on the page isn’t working out, mixing it up is not a bad thing. Trying something new with one’s work may end up being what helps it get to the finish line.

Matt serves as a foil to Brian; Porro uses him to showcase an entirely different viewpoint on what “good writing” might look like. He is very focused on the human condition, as mentioned earlier, to the point where he considers genres like fantasy to be “bad writing.” This gets him into discussions with his workshopping peers that accurately depict both sides of the argument, giving the reader multiple perspectives on how diverse writing practices can be. Michelle, one of the workshopping peers, voices advice to Matt that is accessible to not only the “good writing” conversation, but also to the reader who may wish to become a better writer. She says, “‘Talking Head Avoidance Devices,’ or THADs for short. Things your characters can do to keep the scene alive while they’re talking, like getting a bee into a jar, performing surgery, cleaning a swimming pool… the possibilities are endless” (48). However, Matt is still firm in his stance and replies to her by saying “Dialogue is the best way for characters to show their personalities without ‘telling’. Hamlet doesn’t have a single line of description about him, but people have been writing about his personality for centuries” (48). Michelle, who takes a similar stance to Brian that actions should showcase the characters, directly opposes Matt’s view that the dialogue is the crucial piece to the puzzle. Neither character is necessarily wrong in their opinions. This emphasizes Porro’s own skill as a writer for being able to fully envelop each argument without revealing bias towards one side or the other. Matt, although technically the more skilled writer as opposed to Brian, still has his stubborn streaks juxtaposing two sides of the same coin.

Whether someone is a new writer or an old one, something in Careful! Or You’ll End Up In My Novel will resonate with the reader. Everyone has experienced the stress, like Brian, of not knowing how to get the words molded on the page into the ideal that’s in the mind. But, writers also experience an attachment to personal preference, like Matt, and have a set way of what they tend to think is “good” or “bad” writing. Due to the varying character’s perspectives, Careful! Or You’ll End Up In My Novel can become just as useful as a standardized craft book while holding the enjoyment of reading a novel. It’s definitely worth the read! You can buy the book directly from the small press Thurston Howl Publications to best support the author.

Cat Reed

(they/them) Just a self-published author trying to get stories out into the world.