There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it. You’re making something up when you think out a scene. You think, “I need this to happen so some other thing can happen.” There’s an aspect of controlling the material that I don’t think is artful. I think it leads to contrived work, no matter how beautifully written it might be. You can hear the false note in this kind of writing.
This was my main problem when I was just starting out: I was trying to say something. When I began to write, I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic, or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically. I’ve learned, for me at least, it’s a dead road. It’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out.
It’s every eight or nine or 10 days with me when most of the entire writing sessions feels I’m just moving with the character, a strange observer in their chest some way as they go about their business. I think it’s why a lot of writers write, is for that feeling. It’s certainly why I write.
Now, dreaming your way through a story is very useful at first — for the first draft, maybe the first two drafts. But once the revision process begins, you’ve got to change your approach. In the secondary period, you get more rational and logical about what you’ve dreamt. So once I have a beginning, middle, and end, I walk away from it for at least six months and don’t look at it. At least six months. To revise means “to see again” — well, how can you see again when you just looked at it 10 days ago? No. Have two seasons go between you.
A merciless reviser is in a much better position to write a really good book than one who hasn’t got the stomach for it. That may be the distinction between what makes a really good book and a great book.