5 (+1) Things That Will Kill Your Story: A Novelist’s Not-to-Do List


I’m still in the abyss of editing, adding final chapters, completing pagination, and other similar tasks involved in completing my manuscript for its final publication and distribution. (I got my proof copy, but the pagination is a nightmare, so I need to fix a lot of things. But still – exciting!) It’s nerve-racking. I’ll likely never do a digital pre-order again (which is its own blog post to come later), but what I will do is post updates on my site as to the progress of my projects. Hugh Howey does this, and it works quite well. I like the idea, so I’m pirating it. (Ideas can’t be copyrighted so I’m okay.) 😉

I’ve learned a lot in the editing process of my novel. A lot of people will tell you that your sole goal as an author is to pump out that first draft like you’re pumping water out of a sinking ship and to not care what it sounds like. Just get the story down.

First drafts will always – always – be some matter of word vomit. Your brain is trying to get the ideas out and your poor fingers are trying to keep up. I get that. But do your editing self a favor and slow down just a little bit. By doing so, you can avoid some of the following errors that I’ve noticed myself make time and time again. Fixing these errors will improve your story by leaps and bounds, even if you choose to wait for the editing phase.

So, here are five things that will kill your story and how to fix them (a.k.a. Lessons from the First Draft).

Stop Summarizing 

I’m especially bad at doing this at the beginning of a chapter. So, let’s say my first chapter ends with Johnny and Susie running into a werewolf in the forest. Or, better yet, narrowly escaping a werewolf in the forest. My next chapter should begin with some kind of scene change where they are back at their cabin or something. But what I tend to do is start summarizing everything that happened between the last thing the reader read, and the beginning of the chapter.

Example: “Johnny had found a way out of the forest, and Susie had followed him, both of them looking for the werewolf. Having arrived at the cabin, they’d been relieved to be safe – at least for the time being.” (Insert about three paragraphs of this catch-up.) “Now they were sitting in the cabin, tending to their wounds…”

UGHHHH! It’s horrific. This is a classic telling instead of showing. First of all, if you need to put all that information in there, and you can’t include it at the end of the last chapter without ruining the tension, then expose it during dialogue. Start your chapter:

“Johnny sat on the wooden stool next to the fire, glad to be safe. Or some version of safe. He tended Susie’s wounds in silence, both of them lost in their own world of memory.

“I can’t believe we escaped,” she said….

And then you go from there and have them discuss what happened leading up to the cabin scene.

But let’s be honest. Your readers aren’t stupid. If you open with them in the cabin, they likely have put together that they escaped the werewolf and somehow traveled back to the cabin. You don’t need to hold their hands through that.

“They did this and then they did that” type of writing is boring, boring, yawn. Don’t do it. Let your reader put the pieces together between chapters. That’s why scene changes are there – to build tension and keep them reading. Stop trying to explain everything. That’s why it’s a book and not a short story. They know they’ve got 200 pages to go, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and hang in there.

That Wasn’t a Was, Was It? 

Stop. Saying. Was. In conversational text or dialogue, it’s completely fine, because that’s how people talk. You don’t come in from outside and say “The sky greeted my eyes with an azure hue.” You say “The sky was blue”. When you talk to someone about things that happened in the past, you say was. That’s fine. Don’t worry so much about dialogue, because that’s very character-driven.

However. When you start saying “He was scared.” or “He was angry.” or “He was walking down the street.” or “The comb was laying on the desk.” you start running into trouble.

Why? PASSIVE VOICE! It’s horrible awful. Here’s how to fix it.

  • If the “was” comes before an emotion, show the emotion instead. (“He was scared.” becomes “His hands shook, his heart still pounding with adrenaline. It’s not over yet, he thought.” ) See how much better that is? You’re showing.
  • If the “was” comes before an action, just change it to the past tense of the action. (“He was walking down the street, holding his drink.” becomes “He walked down the street, drink in hand.”)
  • If there’s a “by” with it, change it to active voice. (For example, “He was surrounded by werewolves.” becomes “The werewolves surrounded him, caging him in a prison of timber and pine.”)

Is this simplistic? Yes. But even looking for these three instances of “was” will do wonders for your writing.

The Third Person Trap 

Writing in third person is awkward. Most people don’t walk around talking about themselves in third person, so it’s weird to write that way, even if you’ve been reading third person for years. However, there are some stories (most of them, really) that greatly benefit from the third person POV, so it’s worth learning to do well.

The issue? It’s awkward. (Gee, writing in circles much? I’ve seen that tree before…)

I can’t find an example of this at the moment, so I’ll try to update this later, but I’m continually saying things that make the writing sound awkward because, if said in first person, it would sound stupid.

It could be something like “His broad shoulders sank under the weight of guilt and despair.”

Please tell me the last time you said “My broad shoulders sank under the weight of…” Unless you’re kind of arrogant, you probably don’t walk around describing yourself that way. So don’t let your character do it. If it’s crucial to the story that your character’s shoulders be described as broad, then fine, but have another character point it out. Let it come from something exterior to the character, not within his own mind.

A great way to fix this is to read your text in the first person and see if it still sounds good.

You’re Outta My Head – Get Back In

Another third person blunder is to start taking the reader outside of your character’s head. Just because it’s not in the first person, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be in that character’s head.

This goes back to the “he was scared” or “she was depressed” stuff. If you find yourself getting out of the character’s head, a great way to get back in it is – ready? – a thought. Thoughts originate in the brain, so as soon as you change “He knew there was no escape,” to “There’s no way out of this, he thought, scanning the room.”, you’ve gone back in the character’s head.

Neat Trick: You might not realize it all the time, but when you’re writing your brain is making pictures. Stop and notice what you’re seeing in your head as you write. If you’re looking at the character, rewrite. You should be looking through the character’s eyes.

Slow it Down 

This is where my “not so fast” issue comes in. Sure, it’s great to pound out words. I write an ungodly amount of words a day because they can’t all fit in my head, and I’m a big believer in pushing out as much content as possible. If you haven’t read “Write. Publish. Repeat.” go get it. Now. If nothing else you’ll laugh your butt off, but it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read on self-publishing. These guys write like crazy, and I believe in what they teach.

However, I also think you need to take the time to slow down a bit when you’re writing or you start to skim. Just like a reader skims a book at times, you will start skimming in your writing.

This goes back to seeing the world from your character’s point of view. “He got up, got dressed, and left,” might work if it’s really not essential. But it’s kind of rushing things. I do this a lot, usually when I’m summarizing between-chapter gaps. Get back in your character’s point of view. How did he wake up? What did he think? Did he stand up slowly? What’s he seeing and doing.

I’ve added thousands of words to my drafts just by doing this that enriched my story and never would have happened if I was in a rush. Sit with your characters. Walk with them. Look through their eyes, not at them.

You might be dying to get to that dragon-chasing-through-fires-of-doom scene, but don’t push your readers there with a plow. Lead them there with bread crumbs.


This is an inside joke between me and my fantastic editor Shanan Winters. (Please tell me you’ve checked out her site by now. I’ll wait.) But I’m going to make it a little more outside so you can benefit from it.

This is your +1 tip, and it’s short, but important. Look for repetitive words!

I had a scene in Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book The Magician where I literally said the word “balloon” I think five times…(was it five, Shanan?)..in the span of a paragraph and a half. The scene is still there, but with less helium. It went something like “He walked over to the balloon and touched the balloon. “And why you shouldn’t use it to light this balloon…”. Taking the match to the balloon…”

I kid you not.

Although Shanan can’t give me too much grief about it, because she had an awl that was all along the wall all along so….you know. These things happen to the best of us. 😉

So there you have it. My five plus one things that will kill your story and how to fix them. Eventually I intend to write a non-fiction book about it with allll the things I find in my novel editing that kill a story and how to fix them, but for now, I hope this helped.

PS: I finished the third novellette/novella in The Rogue Portal Prequels, a sideline series of shorter stories that provide context to The Rogue Portal Series, and the first volume (3-story collections) is available for free on Amazon until the 12th. 🙂

Until next time, happy writing!


One Comment Add yours

  1. Tori says:

    Great advice! I definitely summarize way too much (probably because I’m lazy). In the future I’ll try slowing down too.

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