Once I have a draft, the hard part starts. That’s revision. I spend something like 10 percent of my writing time drafting original text and 90 percent revising. That means being sure that I vary my sentence types and lengths. I study each paragraph and look for ways to cut and trim. And so on. That’s fiction craftsmanship, an entirely different subject I wrote about here some time ago.
So it’s probably fair to say that I use the right half of my brain—my intuition, my creativity—to come up with stories and characters, and the left side—my intelligence—to clean up the results.
Let me talk about how that process worked out for my four currently published novels.
My first book, Friendly Casualties, is a collection of short stories and a novella. The stories all came from my time in Vietnam. So did the novella. It tells of a woman diplomat working in the embassy in Saigon and her affair with an army captain assigned to the delta in the southern quadrant. The electrifying moment in my mind that led to the story was a memory of a time in Vietnam when I had to withhold threat information because the source was so sensitive. I solved the problem by telling the man threatened where not to go and what not to do.
The three major characters in the novella streamed from my unconscious, and I thought about what they would do faced with the dilemma I had. That led to the story I told in the novella.
My book No-Accounts resulted from the years I spent taking care of AIDS patients. The arresting scene that started it was my memory of one of my patients holding my hand and thanking me just before he died. I was so deeply moved by that moment that it turned into a book.
The two principal characters in No-Accounts presented themselves to me when I put myself into a meditative state. Peter, the young gay man with AIDS, had essentially wasted his life having a good time as one of the stars in the gay bar scene. He was bright and capable, but instead of using his talent for the good of others or even to create a career, he frittered away his time until he came down with AIDS. The straight man, Martin who cares for him is a failure. His is in a dead-end job, his wife has left him, and his daughter refuses to see him.
The story in the novel is about how these two men help each other to contribute to the good of others as death approaches. I watched them interact in my imagination, then wrote down what I saw.