The author has been writing novels for eighteen years, but he’s been getting a lot of attention because his new book, The Underground Railroad, was inducted into Oprah’s coveted Book Club. The book is about the escape from slavery to freedom in the antebellum south, but it also has fantastical elements—a literal underground railroad that exposes the protagonist to different worlds at each station.
5 Writing Tips from Colson Whitehead
Recently I shared my notes from a talk with Jonathan Frazen. People seemed to like that, so I’m doing it again!
Here are five writing tips I wrote down from the author talk with Colson Whitehead:
1. You have a unique spin to bring to any topic.
A better writer than you has written about basically every topic. Your job is to put your own individual spin on it.
That’s what Colson figured out when he picked up a novel by Toni Morrison and immediately concluded (rightly or wrongly) that he could never do that. Rather than get overwhelmed, he accepted that others had written about slavery and written about it well.
All he could do was bring his unique perspective to the topic.
2. You don’t have to write every day to produce a novel!
Inevitably, Colson was asked about his process during the author talk.
He said he knows the beginning and he knows the end, and he outlines the rest. His writing goal (post-children) is typically to finish eight pages a week (pretty doable!).
3. Characterization starts with real life.
Colson turns to real life to help him with characterization. He thinks about people he knows and views them with empathy.
Then, as he starts developing the fictional character, he is guided by “what makes them tick.”
4. Voice in historical fiction requires research.
Voice is always difficult, but even more so when you’re writing historical fiction. In order to accurately capture the way slaves and others spoke in the early 1800s, Colson read through interviews with former slaves.
He seemed struck by the simplicity of their language, which was used to describe such horrific acts. That simplicity dictated the voice of the characters in Underground in a way that was different from his other novels.
I later read an interview he gave with Vulture in which he noted that “when you try to make a simile or a metaphor out of the nouns of 1850s, simplicity and clarity make more sense.”
5. Don’t be afraid to change genres!
I’m a contemporary fiction kind of girl and know Colson Whitehead from his novel Sag Harbor—a semi-autobiographical story about black boys with beach houses in the Hamptons. Others know him from Zone One, a story about a zombie apocalypse. Others, like Oprah, learned about Colson for the first time with Underground.
Colson doesn’t care that many people who love one of his books may not be interested in his others. He basically said that writers should write what they want to write. They should be free to constantly challenge themselves (and to forget about potential branding issues).
That’s a message I don’t hear often, and it was kind of liberating.
Do What Works for You
I like to attend author talks to glean wisdom from other established writers. I take notes on their best writing tips and consider how I can integrate their experience into my own writing process.
That said, you don’t have to use all these tips, of course. Find the system that works for you. Figure out what helps you write, and do that!
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? Let me know in the comments.