Edited by DeShawn

For the past eight years, I’ve been deep in the novel-writing trenches. My manuscripts have been requested by publishers like Random House and HarperCollins, and I’ve had agent offers with conditions that would’ve taken my manuscripts in directions I didn’t want to go. I proudly own my mile-high stack of rejections, and I’ve learned a few key lessons on my long, winding, and adventurous journey; lessons I wish I’d known sooner. That’s why I’m kicking off this series, a hodgepodge collection of tips to avoid the lesser-discussed pitfalls of novel writing.

Without further ado, here are the first five.


Photo by Diego Cervo

Is it a sin to break this rule? Nope. I’m sure you can think of a bunch of novels that have well-written, lengthy, first chapters. This tip is just something I’ve personally adopted, and here’s why: the first chapter is the most important chapter of the book. It has one purpose and one purpose only: to entice your audience to keep reading. This means it’s not a place to pile backstory on a reader or force them to watch a character they don’t know relish in a delightful cup of tea…unless the tea is poisoned.

The first chapter is where you snag your readers with a fantastic hook, so why make them wait? Just get to it. Does this character get mowed down by a car? Cool! Make it happen.

By the way, the standard length for a chapter is 3,000 words, so this cuts your word count in half, but definitely not your time. Even short, the first chapter is still the most time-consuming and difficult one to get right. Actually, one could argue that shortening it makes it even harder because of careful wording and editing, but I promise, it’s worth it.


This advice doesn’t apply to scenes where a bank is about to be robbed or someone’s going to end up broke or dead at the end of it. But other than those scenarios, please spare your readers mundane trips to the bank or meetings with financial advisors, etc. For some reason, writers do this―myself included. The same advice applies to details about credit card debt, loans, and other financial details that none of us want to deal with in our own lives.

If your hero is broke, show readers by having him or her run out of cash at the grocery store, or have their credit card rejected while on a date. We’ll get it, and we won’t be falling asleep.


Photo by Blue Planet Studio

Here I am again, talking about money. Even though managing finances is a super important thing that most of us have to manage in real life, it’s just not interesting to read about in a book. 

Here’s an example. In my first novel, Finding Yesterday, Claire gets the boot from her fiancé’s restaurant after she runs out of their wedding. Originally, I had Claire decide to open her own restaurant but come up short financially. This led to a bunch of scenes with Claire at the bank, trying to work things out. I rewrote these chapters a crap-ton of times until I thought of a far more compelling reason for Claire not to start a restaurant. What if money isn’t an issue? What if she’s just deathly afraid to go out on her own? Suddenly, important questions come up: why is Claire so afraid? What happened to Claire to create such an intense fear? How is she going to get past it?

There’s more suspense in what might be psychologically blocking Claire from moving forward than burying readers in the nitty-gritty details of her bank account.


This advice doesn’t apply if you’re writing a murder mystery or a thriller. But, for the rest of us—if you’ve written a novel—you’ve undoubtedly been here: you have a mother, father, uncle, brother, whoever, who has wronged your main character (MC), and it’s just easier if they’re dead. Keeping them alive means the MC has to deal with this character, and that may not be where you want to focus your plot. It also makes it harder for your MC to have secrets, mysteries, and drama if everyone is alive and well. With that said, before you know it, your MC’s whole family is dead and the story scores low on the believability factor.

I can already hear the rebuttals to this one. “What about Grey’s Anatomy? Everyone in that show dies.” Let me make a point within a point. We are not Shonda Rhimes. Let me repeat that. We are not Shonda Rhimes. That said, if we do ever rise to her level, then we can do whatever we want. Until then, please hear what I’m saying: you can’t kill everyone off in your novel.

Photo by Creaturart

I actually came up with a metric for myself (feel free to use it): my MC can have one family member dead and one friend OR one distant family member.


I save the best for last, so I’m glad you’re still reading. For years, I’d write something and be told “Your character can’t do that, it makes them too [FILL IN THE BLANK]…” unlikable, unrelatable, pathetic, etc. So, I kept changing what the character did, but that created more problems than it solved. That’s because I didn’t need to change their actions, I needed to change what motivated their actions. I wish I’d figured this out sooner because I wasted so much flipping time!

Photo by master1305

You can have your characters do anything you want if you give them the right motivation.

For instance, most people discuss the moral dilemma of when it’s okay to kill, like in self-defense, as a vigilante, in war, and so on. But other moral dilemmas aren’t so obvious, and they will take time and discussion to figure out.

Let’s go back to Claire, who’s a runaway bride in the first scene of Finding Yesterday. I think most of us would agree that running out of your wedding is, on its face, a crappy thing to do. However, I needed that to happen because it was critical to the plot. Rather than have Claire not bail on her wedding, I had to focus on what would be an understandable and relatable motive for her to do so. In the end, I had Claire’s fiancé do something small just before the wedding that confirms a fear she denied for so long—that her fiancé loves her but isn’t in love with her. This fear causes her to delay the wedding and confront her fiancé to know once and for all if he’s in love with her. When he can’t give her a straight answer, her fear is confirmed, and readers understand why she has to walk away, even though it’s a crappy situation. We can’t blame someone for not wanting to marry a person who doesn’t love them fully and completely.

There you have it, your first five tips. I’ve got more coming, so keep an eye on the blog and a notebook handy. Now, full disclosure, I’m always on the hunt for tips too, so if you have any that would help me and the members of our AW community, please post them in the comments section!

Terra Weiss

Terra Weiss is a former Director of Awards for Georgia Romance Writers. She has won numerous manuscript awards and is a two-time NYCM Short Story contest finalist. Her work has been published in an TL;DR Press anthology and The Daily Drunk. Find her humorous and heartfelt stories at