Are You Sabotaging Your Novel? 3 Traps to Avoid

No author deliberately tries to ruin a story, or make it unappealing to publishers. But, I’ve seen writers cling to story or character elements that can derail their success.

3 common traps many first-time authors fall into:

Trap 1: Too much time on backstory.

Backstory: the stuff that happens before your novel begins. It’s understandable! After planning a whole story, and learning your characters inside and out, it’s hard not to divulge everything to your readers as your tale unravels. But, just because you know everything, that doesn’t mean your readers need this info now.

Effective novels reveal backstory in small bites — at exactly the moment most appropriate or dynamic. Think of it on a need-to-know basis.

Try this: Does one of your characters have a particularly important trait or history that you plan to divulge to readers? Ask yourself when in your story revealing this would have the most emotional impact.

Trap 2: Holding onto passages that no longer work.

Stories evolve. Characters evolve. And, your drafts should evolve, too. Just because you had a scene you loved to write in an earlier draft does not mean it necessarily works in a later draft as your story begins to take shape.

Letting go of a scene or passage that you slaved over for days, weeks or even months can be painful, I know.

Try this: If you’re not sure whether to keep something, black it out on your computer. Then, read your draft without it. If it feels like something’s truly missing, keep it. If not, delete it. Who knows — it may end up in your second novel.

Trap #3: Not trusting a professional editor.

This is the biggest mistake I’ve seen first-time authors make. I’ve seen them put more faith in friends’ and family’s opinions that will do nothing to help them succeed.

Remember: A good professional editor not only represents you, but your target audience, the publishers and the market at large. She knows what your novel needs to grip — and hold — a reader’s attention and has your book’s best interests in mind.

A good editor will help you tell the story you want to tell — in the most effective way possible.

Are you an author who’s written yourself into a trap? Tell me about it.

16 comments on “Are You Sabotaging Your Novel? 3 Traps to Avoid

  • Hello Diane: very important three points. I’m a lucky boy who has a terrific editor at Coffeetown Press. She’s saved me so many times I’ve lost count. She lets me run for a whlie then jerks the chain with “are you sure you want to do that?” Of course she’s always right and I’m always wrong. Her name is Catherine Treadgold and she is pure gold.
    Thanks for posting and tweeting these good pieces.

    • Hi Jack,

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation and sharing your experience. I’m so happy to hear that you’ve found what sounds to be a great editor.

      And, thanks for the shout out! Much appreciated. Happy writing!


  • I’ve “written myself into a trap” simply by not planning out my story. It created a lot of work for me in the long run. I suppose I did come across the issues you point out in this post. However, the biggest trap I encountered was that I didn’t realize that I needed structures put in place. I had a complicated story that jumped through time. What I visualized in my head at the beginning of the writing process was so difficult to get on paper, just because my thoughts were all jumbled. It took a lot of coaching and writing classes and revisions to even get to where I am now with my second draft. It’s been a long time coming!

    Thanks for your advice, Diane. This touches on a very personal level with me, as you can see!

    • Hi Mel,

      I hear you. This process can be so long, especially without a helping hand there to help you develop your story to grow from ideas here and there to a coherent work. I’m happy to hear that you’ve gotten to a second draft!

      Thanks for following the blog and for contributing to the conversation.


  • Backstory, now that’s a tough thing to get right. Your advice makes some sense. Loving your content, thanks for tweeting this out.

  • Very clever points. I must say that I was one of those authors who did not trust an editor! I thought it would be more cost effective to turn to my neighbor and close friend, an English professor. I ended up with a book that did not sell at all. It’s been a long journey but I finally found the funds to have a professional editor such as yourself, Diane, and it was eye-opening. I had no idea that xyz things were wrong! Needless to say, it cost me years.

  • Posts like these seem so intimidating to me. I caught this intense fear, thinking “Oh no! I’m going to click on this and realize I’m doing everything wrong!”

    I feel like a 4th fear to put on this list is, ironically, to allow onesself to become swallowed in fear. Fear of rejection, fear of getting published but getting bad reviews, fear of not writing it in the first place. This is my issue. I’m happy to say that this post did NOT make my anxiety worse! LOL. Thank you for this. Enjoyed it.

  • Hi Diane, I’m an author who has been graced with a stand-up editor. One piece of advice I can offer to the “should I keep a passage?” quandary is to step away, then come back to a passage with the goal to take notes. I mark up the side of the page, asking myself the WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE WHY — focusing mainly on the WHY. If the answer does not drive the plot forward in ANY way, I take it out. Or, I enhance it in some way to make it significant. It must be SIGNIFICANT to the overall story.

  • This blog has become such a source of warmth and knowledge for me. I’m one of those authors who have been rejected multiple times — in both non fiction and fiction. Slowly trying to get back into it. The conversations I’ve found here have been quite encouraging.

    Wonderful post, bravo! Many thanks to you and to the fellow writers here.

  • I love this accompanying photo. This is often how I feel when caught up in writer’s block…stuck in a stagnant box where there are no words.

  • I, too, have seen many authors make the mistake of divulging too much information about a character’s backstory. I think it also has to do with the fact that readers today look for a challenge — they don’t want everything delivered to them. They want to hunt for it. They want to be given opportunities to have to dig around and ask questions like “Maybe xyz events happened to him…” etc.

    Great post. Will retweet.

  • For me, I feel that your first two traps also hinge on a shameful theme intersecting throughout my own writing life: Procrastination! I feel that for every passage that I have had to delete (although it is a bit different as I am a non fiction ghostwriter), I knew from the start that something at least had to be tweaked to work, if not be deleted ultimately. Setting up scenes or points, too, presents a minefield of possibilities to procrastinate. It’s all procrastination. I feel like embracing your gut and facing the harsh reality that some of your darlings must die is part of the writing process.

    I do enjoy your blog, by the way. A fishing friend of mine sent it my way and I am so grateful. Happy to see you are on Facebook.

    Walter Smoot

  • Diane, this post has found me at EXACTLY the right time! Lord…I have told myself again and again that this summer would be my time to jumpstart my novel’s revision, but it has been so tough let me tell you. I felt so stuck. I’m now suspecting that I have written a trap for myself. Your quick tip on double checking the validity of passages sounds quite possible and helpful for me. Hooray!!!

    Typing typing away….

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