In my 25+ years of experience working with first-time authors, I have seen — sadly — too many of them often get in the way of their own success. Of course, no author deliberately sets out to fail, but often beginning writers will cling to story elements that may have sparked their initial writing, but outlive their usefulness as the story begins to take shape.
Here are the top 5 self-sabotaging traps that first-time novelists get into and what to do to avoid them:
Trap #1: Spending too much time “setting up your story”
Many first-time authors make the mistake of supplying too much backstory in the beginning of their novels. It’s understandable; after all that planning and research, it’s hard to not disclose everything you know in an effort to set the scene. But, keep in mind that just because you know everything that went before, doesn’t mean that your readers need to know this information now. Instead, backstory needs to come out at a time that best suits the story.
If you find yourself clinging to too much backstory, try this method:
Ask yourself: Where does the action begin in my story? How can I position the story to open as close to this action as possible? What does the exposition reveal about the character?
Trap #2: Clinging to point-of-view characters that don’t serve your story
Often writes will choose POV characters because they just happen to enjoy writing from that character’s viewpoint. But if that character does not serve to move the plot forward in a compelling way, the story will feel stalled. This not only muddles the plot and gets readers confused, but dilutes the main character’s experience.
Remember, POV is a choice made byyou, the writer. Know why you think your readers need another POV. And know why you’re making the choice.
Ask yourself: Are all my POV characters necessary to tell this story? Can the story be strengthened by eliminating any POV characters – or combining two or more POV characters into one?
Trap #3: Falling in love with description
Who doesn’t love a beautifully written passage, describing a setting with precise detail that makes it fully come alive? But, there’s a big difference between simply describing a setting and using description to tell the story. The latter will pull the reader into your story, will conjure a mood, will reveal character, will heighten emotion or even signal a strong turning point.
On the other hand, description that simply describes – in excruciating detail – what something looks like will bore your readers, causing them to skip over the passage to get to “the good parts.”
Ask yourself: How is my description enhancing the story? Does the description move the story forward, or does it stall it?
Trap #4: Dialog that goes on…and on…and on
Unless your character is purposefully a motor mouth, keep to one or two sentences with each exchange. The key is to really boil down to the conversation’s most important points.
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of this exchange? What is the most crucial piece of information that readers should walk away with?
A simpler conversation is not only more believable, but also helps to keep the pace moving in your novel. By keeping your dialogue tightly focused on its most important points, you’ll find it’s sharper. Readers don’t even need to know every single detail — unless each one directly ties into the rest of the story.
Trap #5: Holding onto scenes that no longer work
Stories evolve. Characters evolve. And your drafts should evolve. Just because you had a scene in an earlier draft, does not mean that it necessarily works in a later draft as your story begins to take shape.
I know how painful it can be to let go of a scene or passage that you slaved over for days, weeks or even months. But remember this: your reader doesn’t know – or care – how many hours you spent trying to get something right, only whether it keeps them engaged with your story.
Try this: If you’re not sure whether to keep a scene or a passage, black it out using the highlight function. Then read back your draft without the scene. If it feels like something’s truly missing, you can simply take off the highlighting. If you don’t miss it, delete it and put it into a new document called: “Material for another story.”
If you avoid these five traps, you can go from being your novel’s worst enemy to its best friend — and your readers will thank you for it.
These tips were adapted from my award-winning book, The Novel-Maker’s Handbook: The No Nonsense Guide to Crafting a Marketable Story.