When I teach at writers conferences, I often teach from lists—
- 8 Things a Reader Expects from a Novel
- 4 Elements of the All-Important First Chapter
- 3 Powerful Plot Structures
Lists make for precise communication in a writers conference setting and conferees love it; so much so, many conference directors require printed listening sheets from their faculty which are assembled into an impressive three-ring binder and handed to every conferee at registration.
The problem with writers conferences is that aspiring novelists are given the impression that if they faithfully follow every step on workshop lists they’ll get published, and that bestselling novelists are those who have mastered these lists.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is why I begin my novel workshops with a quote from novelist Somerset Maugham —
“There are three rules for writing a novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Which begs the question: Can any good come from conference notebooks, plot outlines, and books on writing fiction?
O my, yes.
It is from instruction that we are exposed to the basics of writing fiction. Lists help fledgling novelists bring order to the myriad bits of dialogue and setting and character traits and scenes and plot points that are swirling around in their heads.
However, creating order out of chaos is but a first step toward creating art and, make no mistake, writing a novel is an art form, not a fill-in-the-blank exercise. To become a novelist, you must go beyond the lists.
Years ago, when I was getting started, Linda Holland, my first editor, offered a piece of advice that has been invaluable to me. She said, “Jack, trust your instincts.”
It’s one of the best pieces of advice I can offer another writer.
Study your craft. Review the lists. Become as familiar with plot outlines as a chess master is with opening gambits. But when it comes to telling your story—trust your instincts.