Let your subject find you, and other rules for writers
Everybody has seen those lists of rules that writers sometimes come up with for advising others on how to perform the literary art and craft. Mark Twain famously embedded some real writing advice in his mostly snarky/facetious identification of “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” George Orwell’s offered five rules for writers in “Politics and the English Language.” Elmore Leonard gave us his soon-to-be-famed “10 Rules of Writing” in a 2001 essay written for The New York Times, and then, a few years later, expanded them into a short book titled, appropriately enough, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.
Now novelist Colson Whitehead — mentioned here not long ago because of his New Yorker essay “A Psychotronic Childhood,” which you should go and read immediately after you finish this blog post — has given us his own set of rules, clocking in at the odd number of 11. We bring them to your attention because we think they are, to put it in technical terms, Fairly Awesome.
Here’s our distillation of some of our favorite parts, beginning with a brilliant bit of advice about how to find your subject — or rather let your subject find you — that resonates perfectly with the practice of daemonic creativity. Then go and read the rest, and as you do so, note how much of what Whitehead says applies not only to writers but to creativity in general.
Rule No. 2: Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration. How do you think Capote came to “In Cold Blood”? It was just an ordinary day when he picked up the paper to read his horoscope, and there it was — fate. Whether it’s a harrowing account of a multiple homicide, a botched Everest expedition or a colorful family of singers trying to escape from Austria when the Nazis invade, you can’t force it. Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.
Rule No. 5: Keep a dream diary.
Rule No. 6: What isn’t said is as important as what is said. In many classic short stories, the real action occurs in the silences. Try to keep all the good stuff off the page.
Rule No. 10: Revise, revise, revise. I cannot stress this enough. Revision is when you do what you should have done the first time, but didn’t.
Rule No. 11: There are no rules.
— From Colson Whitehead, “How to Write,” The New York Times, July 26, 2012